Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Only Place Where The Feds Should Spend More On Higher Education

The federal government has no constitutional authority to spend money on higher education, to give or lend students money for it, to direct how colleges will function, or anything else. By far the best course of action would be for Congress to dismantle the Department of Education and repeal all U.S. statutes pertaining to education.

But since that is not going to happen in the foreseeable future, it is worth considering how the feds might do less harm or even improve higher education. The latter is not quite a null set.

In 2008, Congress passed and President Bush signed Public Law 315. It added a section to the Higher Education Act authorizing American History for Freedom grants. The relevant language in Sec. 805 authorizes the Secretary of Education to approve grants “to establish or strengthen postsecondary academic programs or centers that promote and impart knowledge of (1) traditional American history; (2) the history and nature of, and threats to, free institutions; or (3) the history and achievements of Western civilization.”

In short, the Education Department could spend money to expand intellectual diversity in American higher education—a worthwhile goal.

Here’s the background on the American History for Freedom (AHF) program.

In 2002, the National Association of Scholars developed the idea that federal grants could be used to help offset the heavy progressive/statist tilt found in most of our colleges and universities, by jump-starting a movement to restore intellectual pluralism. A bill to bring this concept to reality was drafted and found support in the House and Senate. When Congress finally got around to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act in 2008, it was included.

The promising idea of using federal money to seed college programs that would educate students on the American Founding, our constitutional history, Western civilization and its institutions, and so forth was, however, sidelined by the election of Barack Obama. AHF’s supporters knew that Obama’s Education Department would not make good use of funds for the purposes they envisioned and therefore never sought any appropriation to cover Section 805. That remains the case to this day.

But now circumstances have changed. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would no doubt sympathize with the goals of AHF and make beneficial grants if the funds were appropriated for them.

If Congress were to appropriate a fairly small (by the standards of Uncle Sam, anyway) amount such as $100 million, that money would have a huge impact as it was used to catalyze new programs and expand existing ones.

In this piece, NAS president Peter Wood likens AHF to the old Radio Free Europe program, arguing that our campuses need something similar—Radio Free America on campus. The Left, Wood explains, gained control over our colleges beginning with the advent of politically-charged “studies” programs in the 1960s, specifically black studies, women’s studies and environmental studies. “Each had its own agenda but those agendas overlapped in their disdain for America and in their rejection of the university as a place reserved for open-minded inquiry,” he writes.

From those outposts of politicized study, determined “progressives” spread outward to the point where departments free of ideology are the exception. In most humanities and social science departments, students now, as Wood puts it “marinate in the story that they are hapless victims of hateful oppressors.”

To be sure, there are islands of serious academic study where the conclusions don’t have to perfectly align with leftist theory. For example, at Texas Tech, there is the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. UCLA hosts the Center for the Liberal Arts and Free Institutions. At Wake Forest, Professor James Otteson has managed to launch his Eudaimonia Institute – despite furious opposition from faculty leftists who can’t stand the fact that funds from the Koch Foundation are involved. (You can read more about that in this Martin Center article by Professor Robert Whaples.)

The problem is that the number of courses and programs that view America and the world through classically liberal lenses is tiny in comparison with the number that employ Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and so on. At many schools, non-leftist teaching and scholarship has almost no presence.

That is not just a problem for students, who might never encounter a professor who is skeptical about, say, minimum wage laws, the claims of the “sustainability” crowd, or the idea that America is shot through with institutional racism. It’s also a problem for the faculty. When scholars never encounter intellectual pushback within their departments, a rigidity sets in that prevents them from contemplating ideas outside their comfort zone. That is the case, for instance, in social psychology, as Professor Richard Redding argued in this piece.

Dozens of new programs could be seeded with AHF grants—programs that would at least somewhat restore intellectual balance on our campuses and improve the chances that students will learn something about the values and institutions that made the U.S. successful.


Too many kids go to college

Lubos Motl

Six years ago, an Intelligence Squared Debate took place in Chicago (see 100 minutes above). Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an aide to Donald Trump now, teamed up with Charles Murray, a researcher of IQ. They defeated Vivek Wadhwa and Henry Bienen after they argued that too many kids go to college.

It was a decent debate and Thiel and Murray obviously made more sense. It has become almost automatic – and I would say, it's a part of the political correctness – to assume that everyone may go to college, everyone should go to college, and the college experience will be a positive thing for everybody.

It just isn't so and can't be so. Only a fraction of the kids of that age may be considered "material for college". They are sufficiently smart and they are sufficiently disciplined, patient etc. to actually suffer through the activities that the college involves.

The defenders of the "college for everybody" have argued that there is a clear correlation between the degrees and lifetime salaries etc. I don't doubt it. But it's because

the people who are really unable to do a well-paid job or study a college end up in the group outside the college, anyway;

and because some companies or other employers prefer to employ a person with a degree even if he or she is exactly as good as a candidate without a college!

The strategy described in the second point is still rational because of the first point: the employer gets a near-certainty to eliminate the candidates who are really unable to even try a college, those who couldn't be accepted to one etc.

But those things could be obvious, anyway, and neither point indicates that the college actually brings something positive. Wouldn't it be better if everyone got the degree immediately after he's accepted to the college, or after one year that he survived? The reason why it could be "enough" is that the information about the school that gave the degree is more useful for the employer because they may figure out what kind of a person he was. We know what characteristics are common among those who are accepted to Harvard.

As Charles Murray said, if you only know that someone has a bachelor degree, you literally know nothing about the person. Almost everyone can have the bachelor degree – especially the easy degrees that are abundant outside STEM. There are lots of crazy bachelor degrees – often spread by pseudo-departments of pseudo-women's and pseudo-African pseudo-studies that were created purely in order to allow a college degree to those who don't belong to a college.

The average IQ and related characteristics of a recipient of a bachelor degree doesn't significantly differ from the average IQ in the population. And Murray said that the selection of employees that "requires a BA" is a self-fulfilling prophesy. You're labeled dumb or lazy without a BA. And that's why the kids who aren't lazy go to schools even though they normally consider the learning process at the school worthless (and it often is worthless for them) – they're there purely for the certification that they're not dumb or lazy!

This bubble of education has diluted the value of the degree – the basic university degrees don't really mean much today. But the excess of students has also lowered the quality of the education in the legitimate departments. They also receive a higher number of students which means that their average readiness had to go down and the best students – who would be there even if there were no education bubble – often have to wait for the slower, "bonus ones".

And perhaps more importantly, a big segment should be inserted here to discuss the evil of "colleges as the indoctrination centers" with their extreme left-wing atmosphere, speech codes, snowflakes in safe spaces, and so on. A priori, this political distortion of the Academia seems like an independent question from the education bubble. But they're not really independent. Many of these safe spaces and speech codes etc. were introduced partly or largely as tools to defend lots of the students who really shouldn't be students at all.

I think that somewhere in the debate, Peter Thiel was asked whether it's consistent for him to oppose kids' going to college while he has spent lots of time in colleges. Well, fake modesty has become a "must", too. But believe it or not, Peter Thiel is an example of a man (or boy) who would naturally belong to a college in any system. He is of the right type.

It's not just about the intelligence. It's about the curiosity, patience, and intellectual discipline, among other things. But there are lots of people who are (sometimes extremely) skillful at many things and who could create and lead huge new companies who are simply not the Academic types in the same sense as Peter Thiel. And those are the folks for whom Thiel's $100,000 scholarship paid for "avoiding any university" was created for.

Around 1:07:50, Peter Thiel was explaining that people are diverse and he was immediately attacked by one of the "education for everybody" guys – and his applauding soulmates in the audience – who claimed that everyone is the same as Peter Thiel in the pre-college age. Please, give me a break with this stunning politically correct, egalitarian garbage. If you compare the people and teenagers etc. according to many trivial criteria, even e.g. how many books or non-fiction books they have read, you will get vastly different results – by orders of magnitude – because people are just different from each other.

It's been months when I watched the whole 2011 IQ2 debate last time so I don't remember everything. But I suspect that much of the discussion was also about the gap between the things that are being taught, and the things that are useful in the later life (and demanded by the employers or industries), and so on.

The final monologues have made it clear that the "education for everybody" side just wanted to mindlessly push the "college for everyone" and not watch any consequences or whether things are beneficial at least in the zeroth approximation. Peter Thiel pointed out that there was no accountability and the bubble deflates when people start to think independently. Murray said that a system that would be optimized would be very different from the current one. Students would study because of the stuff they learn, not because of the piece of paper, and many types of folks would spend much.

Before the debate, 39% voted "too many kids in college", 40% opposed. This tiny edge reversed after the debate, to 47%-to-46%, so Peter Thiel and Charles Murray apparently did an infinitesimal piece of work to persuade the audience that there is an education bubble.


We have to move away from the worship of university entry as the only path to success in life

In education I worry there is too much competition. Students compete from the days of the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy right through selective school and scholarship exams, the Higher School Certificate, and their courses at university.

Academics at university compete for tenure-track jobs, for grants and for papers in high-impact journals.

Universities compete with each other globally, and even compete against the vocational education and training sector here.

Competition drives us to be better. Life is competitive, and I enjoy the striving and fulfilment that comes from healthy competition. I, more than most perhaps, have engaged with metrics as a university manager and I never tire of the data and statistics.

But even I worry when the competition becomes too intense. I worry for the mental health of students and the futures of our staff. I worry when everyone dreams of being president — top dog — and when every university wants to be Harvard.

I worry about what I call the witch’s hat type of competition, where everyone is converging on the same goal and competition intensifies as one ascends. There isn’t much room at the top of a witch’s hat.

Globalisation is driving the same dreams and uniformity is taking over from diversity. I worry that people increasingly will be lured into a futile race up the witch’s hat. Most people are bound to fail.

I envisage another type of competition, the ice cream cone view of life. Here individuals spread out as they climb to achieve their goals. There is room at the top in an ice cream cone because everyone is doing something different. One person aims to be the best mathematician, one the best plumber, another the best ballet dancer.

Some universities want to be like Harvard but others want to be small teaching communities with a focus on values.

One doesn’t need to get to the top to reach fulfilment. Ice cream trickles down to the various ridges that cover the cone. Eventually some melts and nourishes those who are still at the bottom. In an inclusive society one climbs up the inside of the cone.

So what magic will invert the witch’s hat to make an ice cream cone? Many of the elements are already in place. In addition to academically selective high schools, we also have high schools that concentrate on sports, or the performing arts, technology, or ostensibly even on agriculture. We might think about establishing more science, technology, engineering and maths senior high schools, and perhaps arts and humanities high schools, too.

We have to move away from the worship of university entry as the only path to success in life. The university sector, the vocational education and training sector, and the government must work together to sort out how to help students find their way into the system that suits them best.

Existing mechanisms that encourage diversification of the university sector could be strength­ened further. Funds should be allocated to reward true excellence in teaching as well as true excellence in research, so institutions make choices rather than everyone aiming for the same thing.

We have systems for measuring research excellence and for rating the student experience, but perhaps because we know these systems will never be perfect we lack the confidence to attach significant funding to them.

What about those young academics who are trapped in the race up the slippery slope of the witch’s hat, completing PhDs and aiming for fellowships and grants, or struggling to survive on casual or sessional teaching?

Some of these might thrive in educational-focused roles where they could concentrate on building a career through teaching without having to compete for the fixed pool of research grants. Others might benefit from focusing intensely on research supported by Australia’s fellowship systems.

Some might move to high schools or into the vocational sector, if these parts of our education system were better supported.

Most of all we must not lose our nerve when other countries post on their Facebook pages that they are having fun.

While globalisation has many benefits the uniformity of thinking is a risk. We should remain confident that we can find many different ways of being happy and prosperous.


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