Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Losing the Old Ways of Being


I caught an old film on television, Million Dollar Baby (not the recent Clint Eastwood movie of the same name), in which a rich British lady, played by the wonderful May Robson, gives a million dollars to a young American stranger she grows fond of during a sojourn in New York. The girl enjoys the wealth for a while but it starts to cause problems. Eventually she gives it all away and takes off with her musician boyfriend. They plan to marry and live on what he earns on the road, $75 a week. The boyfriend is played by Ronald Reagan. Isn’t that just perfect?

The British lady takes in the lesson that Americans don’t want gifts and giveaways but prefer the chance to make their own way. Now she knows what America is “all about.” “Where else could it happen that a couple of youngsters like that would refuse to take money simply because they hadn’t earned it?” she concludes. “Where they don’t want to live on Easy Street unless they build their own home? Ah, there they go, bless their hearts. You know, it’s youngsters like that that make you have faith in the future.”

I did say it was an old film, didn’t I? Yes, from 1941. But I’ll bet there are many Americans like that still around. The direction of the country goes against them, however. For example, there are many low- and modest-earning Americans who have nevertheless been managing life on their own, but who are now compelled to take a government subsidy in order to afford mandated medical insurance they do not even want. The healthcare subsidy is worse than other forms of government aid, including student loans. Whether you like government aid for higher education or not, loans do at least theoretically presuppose eventual self-sufficiency; they do have to be repaid and are for a limited period of time. The healthcare subsidy is a straight-out handout and can go on indefinitely, turning formerly independent people into government dependents. More and more the old ways of being are being destroyed.

Introducing: ‘Secular Safe Zones’ on Campus


The latest innovation from our nation’s liberal secularist campuses? Secular Safe Zones!

Because, you know, our campuses are so hostile to secularism (cough, cough).

Samantha Watkins reports for The College Fix on a national effort to “create safe spaces” for students who don’t believe in God. “We’re taking a page right out of (the LGBT) playbook,” a spokesman for the effort says.

I guess these folks forgot about the dominance of the secular left on our campuses.

Creating a safe place for atheists on our nation’s college campuses is about as necessary as creating a safe place for beer drinking in a bar.

Click here for the full story.



Protecting the Rights of Accused Students


North Carolina recently enacted a law that ensures students who are accused of violations of law and school codes of conduct the right to legal counsel if they choose. That, however, has not put an end to disputes over procedures involving students who have been accused of wrongdoing, and in today’sPope Center piece, Jesse Saffron writes about a contentious trustees meeting at UNC–Wilmington where some trustees argued that students still are not adequately protected.

How UNC Schools ‘Earn’ Their Money


North Carolina has a complex funding formula that determines how much money each of the 16 schools in the UNC system receives. Jenna Ashley Robinson examines the formula in Friday’s Pope Center piece and finds that it creates some perverse incentives.

Brown U. Students Can’t Handle Free Speech


On Tuesday, student protesters at Brown University shouted down a lecture from New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Kelly spent thirty minutes trying to give his speech; during that time students disrupted the event with “loud shouting, persistent interruption, and coordinated chants [which] made it impossible for the lecture to take place,” according to the university. Finally, university officials canceled the talk.

The Kelly lecture is the latest in what looks like a growing free-speech challenge on campus: university leaders that profess to value free speech but then allow student protesters to disrupt controversial speakers.

That’s what happened here. Brown’s president said all the right things:

“The actions that led to the closing of this afternoon’s lecture prevented any exchange of ideas and deprived the campus and the Providence community of an opportunity to hear and discuss important social issues,” said Christina H. Paxson, Brown’s president, in the statement. “The conduct of disruptive members of the audience is indefensible and an affront both to civil democratic society and to the university’s core values of dialogue and the free exchange of views.”

But mourning isn’t enough. University officials need to take swift action when a protest disrupts a campus speaker, or they risk granting a “heckler’s veto” to any large and angry student group.

Tags: Free Speech , Brown University


Never Forget: Colleges Teach Critical Thinking!


At least, that is what we hear all the time from college officials. Unfortunately, events often conspire to show that it’s just blather, such as the recent protest at Brown where New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly was booed off the stage and his speech called off.

Is part of “critical thinking” learning that anyone you consider “divisive” should be prevented from speaking? Will any faculty or administrators at Brown turn this into a teachable moment on the need for civility and respect for those with whom you disagree?

Rotten to the Core?


Most colleges and universities have “general education” requirements that compel students to choose among an array of course offerings in various categories. (A tiny number of schools still have a core curriculum of courses that all students take.) The problem with general education at many colleges and universities is that the range of choice has become ridiculous, allowing students to complete their “general education” with a host of narrow, trendy, sometimes politicized courses that professors like teaching. In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Jane Shaw writes about a new study written by Jay Schalin and Jenna Robinson on the general-education requirements at the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill. Their finding is that the university has fallen into the “smorgasbord” approach and ought to substantially narrow the number of courses that satisfy “gen ed” requirements.

Prager U: Is Evil Rational


Time to put your thinking caps on (does anyone actually own a thinking cap?).  In the newest Prager University course, Dennis Prager ponders whether we can depend on reason alone to make a better world?

Happy Learning.



How Should We Accredit MOOCs?


In addition to being costly, ineffective, and occasionally corrupt, our current college accreditation system is also slow to adapt to technological innovation.

Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs, now provide anyone with an internet connection the opportunity to take high-level college courses online with little to no cost. But, due to lack of either will or creativity, accreditors have yet to develop a system for acknowledging the learning of those students who successfully complete courses of study through MOOCs.

At Inside Higher Ed, David Bergeron and Steven Klinsky argue for establishing a new “Modern States Accrediting Agency” that would ensure the quality and reputation of the innovative courses, make the credits transferable into the traditional system and which would be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an approved accreditor in order to qualify students for federal student aid.

This is an interesting proposal, and a wider diversity of organizations ensuring educational quality is certainly a good thing. Furthermore, since MOOCs are so low-cost, the perverse incentives created by the connection between accreditation and federal student aid would be minimized.

Of course, it would be even better if the Department of Education got out of the business of recognizing accreditors and instead made the agencies prove their worth in the marketplace. As former Boston University president John Westling has said, accrediting agencies ought to be “accredited by their customers.”

MOOCs vs. Bricks-and-Mortar


In my latest Forbes piece, I look at the vigorous debate over the extent to which online courses will replace face-to-face (that is, traditional) college courses. Last week, the Foundation for Economic Education released a debate on that between Michael Gibson of the Thiel Foundation and Professor Peter Boettke of George Mason University. Jane Shaw commented on it here and I offer my own views. In short, I think Gibson’s view will prove to be closer to the truth.

‘Engaging Diversity’


Illinois Wesleyan University has a new “pre-orientation” program designed specifically for white students called “Engaging Diversity.” Incoming students arrive at school three days early to spend their time in such activities as “exploring diversity and social identities,” taking a “Privilege Walk” with minority students, and attending lectures such as “Diversity and College Admissions: Myths and Facts.”

The good news is that it is not mandatory.

Clearing the Air


North Carolina has been having a tendentious debate over “STEM” subjects versus “liberal arts” eduation. This started last winter when Governor Pat McCrory made some not-too-well-thought-out comments that University funding shouldn’t be based on the “butts in seats, but how many of those butts can get jobs.”

His words gave an opening for university faculty members to claim that the new governor (Republican) was opposed to liberal arts. (Actually, he made something of a swipe at gender studies, not exactly traditional liberal arts.) One UNC-Chapel Hill professor said huffily that the governor “was not elected to decide what has intellectual value and what does not.”

Anyway, this practical-vs.-intellectual theme continues. It led a UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate to ask a loaded question of a UNC Board of Governors member. She noted that an employer survey indicated that employers value communications skills over technical ones: “Considering how the Board of Governor seems to prefer teaching STEM majors, or technical skills, how do you feel about these statistics?”

She happened to contact a BOG member who knew a thing or two about surveys, business, and logic. His reply was published by the Pope Center.

How Low Can a College Sink?


In this Minding the Campus essay, Hamilton College history professor Robert Paquette writes about the amazing degree of politicization at Hamilton. It’s not just that the race/class/gender grievance industry is flourishing — great expenses with no educational benefit to the students — but that the tiniest bit of dissent from a student provokes a furious reaction from the school’s Righteous Ones.

Students Unskeptical of Sustainability


Yesterday was national Campus Sustainability Day. How did you celebrate? NAS president Peter Wood visited The New School’s Student Sustainability Festival. There he met Gnarls the narwhal (The New School’s mascot – apparently in environmental peril) and heard students and Bill McKibben, founder of, rehearse reasons for universities divesting their endowments from oil companies. Dr. Wood wrote:

McKibben’s video talk provided one fascinating final chord.  He told the students that he knows and they should know too that college and university divestment won’t hurt the energy companies at all financially.  Instead, the goal of the movement is to hurt the energy companies “politically.”  More precisely, McKibben said, “It’s not because The New School selling its stock will bankrupt Exxon. It won’t. It’s because it’s a part of the process of politically bankrupting them. We’re removing their ability to influence.”  He looked down the generational road and conjured a future in which energy companies would no longer be able to sway public opinion because today’s generation had cut off all of their moral authority.  

It was in its way a breathtakingly cynical declaration that only a charismatic leader like McKibben could dare.  In effect, he said the ostensible purpose of all this organizing — getting universities to divest — is just a ruse.  What he is really after is the hearts and minds of students, whom he would like to transform into zealous proponents of his own peculiar doctrine that combines unsubstantiated and often outlandish scientific claims with apocalyptic prophecies. 

More than 80 other colleges and universities celebrated Campus Sustainability Day or Week (McKibben said it needs to become “week, month, year, decade, century”). My colleague Rachelle DeJong notes how some other campuses commemorated the occasion: trash-habit tracking, labyrinths of recycled materials, solar-oven demonstrations, spiritual-sustainability devotionals.

Higher education is increasingly viewed by activists as the laboratory for sustainability practices. As McKibben told The New School students, “If universities don’t take this seriously, how can we expect anybody else to?” 

Students at The New School event did take sustainability seriously — or at least they showed up and calmly agreed with one another. Dr. Wood concluded:

These anemic young women and men seemed devoid of any trace of skepticism toward the just-so stories and scientific howlers that were being served up.  They blandly believed the revealed doctrines of McKibbenism in particular and sustainability in general and were ready to fan out and summon other students to the True Faith. 

Tags: Bill McKibben , The New School , sustainability , Environmentalism , divestment

A Debate Over the Future


Michael Gibson of the Thiel Foundation and Peter Boettke of George Mason debate the future of higher education in the Freeman’s Arena section. Gibson argues that a crack-up of higher education is on its way; Boettke says no.

Readers have the opportunity to vote, and I’ll vote for Gibson’s position, but Boettke has the more interesting argument, in my view.

Boettke says that while online education will bring change, it won’t fundamentally change the process of teaching. After all, ever since universities started, there have been challenges to the traditional student-teacher relationship. The printing press, for example, made education possible on one’s own. Yet classes and exchanges between teachers and students continue. He says:

The first thing I want to stress is that any institution that has persisted as long as the traditional college and university must have some efficiency properties that are perhaps hidden from the view of even the most astute observer.

A good economist’s point. And, alluding to the enormous benefits from many of his teachers, Boettke says:

Students will continue to need the guidance of master teachers to learn that which they are unprepared to learn at the moment they most need to learn it. Once we know it, we often think we could have learned it on our own.

Also true. I love that.

So what’s wrong with his argument? Nothing, but the Socratic relationship that Boettke refers to is not what most students experience in college, or, apparently, even want. Higher education has become at best a process of training, which can be done more easily through hybrid classes, videos, self-pacing, adaptive technologies — you name it. So I vote for Gibson’s “Schumpeterian creative destruction.”

Making it Easy to Save for College


I just learned about the existence of a company, Gift of College, that makes it easy for people to save for college. For many Americans, adding to college savings for children and grandchildren was not very easy. Discovering that was the entrepreneurial insight behind this company.

Unlike a famous, recently launched site, this one actually functions.

Our Most Recent Bubbles—Housing and College


In my latest Forbes piece, I compare the housing bubble with the college bubble. The big similarity, I argue, is the way government meddling ruined long-established standards and practices that rewarded sensible and virtuous behaviors that were needed by those who strove for home ownership and college education, and replaced them with entitlement mentalities.

Has the College Athletics Cartel Met Its Match?


In today’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Jesse Saffron writes about the O’Bannon case and other challenges to the NCAA (i.e., the college-athletics cartel).

Under the status quo, the sports tail often tends to wag the educational dog, but whether that problem would be lessened or heightened by permitting monetary compensation for players is an open question.

Good Observations on Obama’s College-Rating Plan


Back on October 16, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece by Mitchell Reiss, the president of a small college, in which he explained why he was not enthusiastic about the Obama administration’s ideas on rating colleges and then linking federal student-aid money to those ratings. In today’s paper, we have some good reply letters and I copy the best among them below. Mr. Bortone is absolutely right that whatever the specifics of the plan, colleges will focus on finding ways to game the system, to the detriment of actual education for students.

In regard to Mitchell B. Reiss’s “Federal Ratings for Colleges? Sounds Like Trouble” (op-ed, Oct. 16): I agree with his negative stance on the Higher Education Act. Many public schools have already endured a system similar to the one the act aims to implement for colleges and universities. In Florida, public high schools were rated and allocated funding based on graduation rates and state achievement-exam scores, which resulted in the entire focus of the school being put on passing students who could not read, write or compute simple arithmetic. Teachers were hammered by administration members and regulators to enforce basic F-CAT preparation in classrooms, even in advanced placement courses. The results were terrible and tremendous amounts of time were wasted. I feel I was cheated out of the education I should have received simply because the school’s sole purpose was to “win” even more state funding based on the same qualifications proposed in the Higher Education Act. Personally, I believe the Higher Education Act will corrupt even the most prestigious universities by taking the focus off the student and redirecting it to a uniformed standard that is unrealistic.

Alexander J. Bortone

Pensacola, Fla.

Prager U: God and Suffering


“All good people are appalled at the suffering of the innocent . . . [But] unjust suffering is a problem only because we have a sense of what is just and unjust. Where does this sense come from?”

In the newest Prager University course, Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, has a compelling and surprising answer.




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