Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

My Question re: Stern, McCluskey, and Ponnuru


Maybe I’m missing something, but what exactly is this conflict about?  Can’t we advocate both for effective instructional practices and improvement through competition?  Some of us may focus more on one or the other, but these two reform strategies seem to be nicely complementary.  Until someone explains how these two approaches are mutually exclusive, I don’t understand what is being achieved by this debate.  We can like both brownies and ice cream — and they are particularly good together.

School Choice, Ramesh Ponnuru & Me


I appreciate the fact that, unlike most of my other critics, Ramesh Ponnuru actually seems to have read my City Journal article carefully and understands that I was not in any way abandoning the moral argument for offering vouchers to disadvantaged kids stuck in lousy inner-city school districts. Still, let me respond to some of the points he raised in his recent post. Perhaps I could convince him to be more pro than contra Stern.

First, I think Ponnuru shouldn’t accept Jay Greene’s argument that the reason the ed schools are so uniformly awful (despite having all the characteristics of a market system) is that they are responding to the “preferences of our monopolistic public school system.” Neither Greene nor Ponnuru produce any facts to back up that claim. That’s because the facts all point in exactly the opposite direction — that is, ed schools tend to maintain their ideological loyalty to progressive education doctrines (such as whole-language instruction and social-justice teaching) even when the “monopoly” public schools finally seem to want something more sensible. For example, California’s public-education authorities shifted back to phonics in the mid 90s, but the state’s ed schools continued to ignore phonics in their elementary-education courses. Similarly, Massachusetts’s curriculum and pedagogical reforms of the past two decades have been opposed by the ed schools, and with the election of Governor Deval Patrick they are now working to overthrow the reforms. Ideas matter in education as in all other areas of our public life. There is an ideological hegemony in the ed schools that will not be overcome by some miraculous market transformation. I would think that conservatives understand the power of bad ideas and the need to combat the ed schools’ bad instructional ideas with better ideas.

Second, Ponnuru ignores the empirical reality of the Catholic schools’ crisis and the impact this recent development has on any realistic hopes for expansion of voucher programs. In Washington, D.C., Catholic schools are closing despite enrolling students with fairly generous tuition vouchers. I bemoan this. I pray that this seemingly inexorable decline of inner-city Catholic schools might be reversed. But it seems to me that any realistic school-reform plan must take the new demographic and financial realities in the Catholic sector into account. Nor do I think that there is any warrant for Ponnuru’s belief that (absent enough Catholic schools) inner-city voucher plans will still likely stimulate the startup of a significant number of new private schools. I concede that he might be right on this and I might be wrong. But during the many years it might take to decide this question, shouldn’t conservatives and school-choice reformers be joining the fight to challenge the progressive education hegemony in the public schools that presently educate 50 million American children? After all, most of those children will be future voters. Do we really want to abandon them to the ideologies of Paolo Freire, Jonathan Kozol, and Bill Ayers while we wait for market utopia?


re: A Conservative Conference at Harvard


I spoke there last year — what an impressive group of students! Do go if you are in the area.

Call Girl Disrespectful


Paul Thomas, director of “Call Girl Confidential,” spoke and screened a hardcore film focused on fantasy rape and bondage at Yale last week, according to the New York Post. A student, Colin Adamo, had the temerity to call the film disrespectful to women, to which Thomas, notes the Yale Daily News, “insinuated that he was a prude.”

This kind of accusation — of prudery, puritanism, etc. — is of course the stock retort these days when anyone challenges the easy circulation of sicko, violent S&M porn on many college campuses. And such rhetoric has largely succeeded. The porn merchants and their academic allies have embarrassed and paralyzed most critics into silence.

Never fear, Yale. Respect for women? Human dignity? The potential danger to students of violent porn? What in the world glorifying the likes of fantasy rape has to do with higher education? Such “bourgeois” considerations would be met with a gaping yawn and yet more derision. Serious moral debate, especially on sexual issues, is near dead on campuses.

A Conservative Conference at Harvard


Yes, you read that correctly. This weekend the school’s Conservative Women’s Caucus will host their third annual Conservative Women’s Conference. If you’re a student in the Boston area, consider checking it out.


Michelle Obama’s College Thesis Inaccessible


Steve Sailer points out that Princeton has rendered Michelle Obama’s thesis “Restricted until November 5, 2008.” He has some excerpts from someone who accessed it earlier, though.

Apparently Hillary’s thesis was restricted through the whole Clinton presidency, so if Obama is elected, I wonder if they’ll keep the wall up.

UPDATE: Another interesting story on Hillary’s thesis and the decision not to release it here.

Sol Stern and Vouchers


Over on the Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru has had a few comments about school vouchers lately. When he says that Sol Stern is strongest when making school-choice supporters “confront political realities,” he’s absolutely right. Getting the widespread, robust choice we need to get market forces working is a big challenge and will take some very heavy lifting.

Despite the formidable obstacles, we have had some success: In 1989 there were no charter schools, Milwaukee didn’t yet have its groundbreaking voucher program, and tax credits were few and tiny. Today, in contrast, more than 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter-school laws and there are choice programs in 13 states and the nation’s capital. Moreover, while ripping choice, Stern pretty much ignores the huge political obstacles confronting the standards-based reforms he now champions.

As leading “instructivists” such as Diane Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch have themselves made clear, the progressives they blame for the demise of the American curriculum got their way by consolidating government power over education, and they will almost certainly maintain their death grip because teachers and administrators — not the parents who long resisted progressive reforms — are by far the most powerful political forces in education. That’s why Stern can point to only one state, Massachusetts, as having had truly noteworthy success with standards-based reforms, and why right now even that success is in jeopardy.

So in light of political reality, which strategy seems more likely to achieve lasting, successful reform? Trying to oust forever the dictators in the current, special-interest-dominated system, or changing the system to let all schools — and curricula — compete?

I’d say the latter.

Just Say ‘No’ to Preferences


In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, I argue that state colleges and universities ought to drop legacy preferences for the same reason they should drop all other preferences.

Even if it’s true that legacy preferences can marginally increase alumni donations, that’s of little consequence compared to the principle that governmental institutions should, to the greatest extent possible, treat all citizens equally.

The Feds’ University Tax Policies: Their Limits and Beyond


Richard Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability & Productivity, is the best in the business when it comes to market-based reform of higher education. Witness his latest disquisition, “Federal Tax Policy Regarding Universities: Endowments and Beyond,” to be downloaded here.

Vedder argues persuasively that forcing an endowment-spending rule on Harvard would heat up “the academic arms race,” that is, motivate “Harvard wannabes” — the “Slippery Rock colleges of the world” — to waste more on non-academic amenities.

And he zeroes in on the fiscal consequences of the favorable tax treatment of campuses, concluding that their wealth has shot up faster than the general growth of population, income and wealth, and (more explosively) that there is ample reason “for the government to impose conditions on institutions accepting tax-exempt funds.”

Yet Vedder prudently recognizes the limitations of altering such policies and implicitly acknowledges that market-based solutions are not enough to reverse higher education’s profound decay. So he repeatedly returns to how “the underlying theoretical premises justifying massive government subsidies are flawed” and warns against exaggerating the impact of changes in endowment or taxation policies.

Although Vedder’s main focus is the debilitating nature of the non-profit character of universities and their excessive reliance on third-party payments, he never loses sight of the academy’s high purpose of “advancing instruction or the frontiers of knowledge.” Nor does he neglect the practical means by which this end can be advanced, namely, by far better “measuring” academic outcomes.

Another tour de force, Dr. Vedder.

Hilarious and Obscure Academic Conferences? Send them here.


So, sometimes, when I need a good laugh, I will sit down and behold the winsome earnestness of Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech; but when I’m feeling the need for something at which to laugh, not cynically, but just as a by-product of my amusement’s bubbling-forth, I will turn to…that’s right, announcements for Hilarious & Obscure Academic Conferences.

This week, it’s the annual symposium for the Cambridge University Centre for Gender Studies:

Gender history has been at the cutting edge of historical inquiry for the past 25 years, and this is an opportune moment to revisit some of the founding ideas of the discipline, and to ask how recent research has shaped and transformed the history of gender. … What might a transnational history of gender look like? What has been the impact of postcolonial thought and queer theory on the history of gender?

So, in other words, it’s the usual stuff that leaves one wishing that before challenging paternalizing forms of discourse, gender historians would challenge their use of such cliché and meaningless phrases as “cutting edge of historical inquiry.”

Then, further down the e-mail, where the panels are listed, there was this:

2-3.30 Sexualities

Harry Cocks, Nottingham Univeristy

Rebecca Flemming, University of Cambridge

Wow. I think that pretty much solidifies Gender Studies’ reputation as a self-effacing institution, no?

Anyways, should any of you, dear readers, have something as precious as that, send it this way to [email protected], because clearly it deserves to be shared.

Please also send the hilariously obscure: for instance, as a Montanan I was struck to find in London recently a lecture on “Bear Hunting Today: Sport, Nature, and Identity in Late Nineteenth-Century Montana.” It just goes to show people will pay academics to do anything.

Another Degree Mania Article


Today’s New York Times has an article full of hand-wringing over the possibility that the “higher education gap” (that is, the fact that blacks and Hispanics seem to be falling farther behind whites and Asians in earning college degrees) might slow economic mobility for the former groups.

The mistake here is the common one of believing that just getting education credentials is vital to upward mobility. They’re neither necessary nor sufficient. Some blacks and Hispanics without higher-ed credentials do better than whites with them.

If you’re really interesting in helping people (let’s stop talking about groups) who are currently poor, stop fretting about enrolling a few more in college. Instead, worry about the ineffective basic education they so often get in public schools and clearing away governmental obstacles to business and employment opportunities for them. The way cities stifle new business enterprises with needless regulations is extremely detrimental to residents who’d like to begin businesses.

Thomas Sowell points out that for black Americans, economic progress was much more rapid in the 1950s — when hardly any went to college, but when there were far fewer anti-entrepreneurial regulations– than in the following decades when many more earned college degrees.

Liberal Education



The Woessners have peered into the psyche of conservative undergraduates to find out why so few of them want to earn Ph.D.’s and become professors. Their paper on the topic, “Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates,” is available online and will be published as part of a book published in August by the American Enterprise Institute.

The Woessners found that liberal students have values and interests that point them to careers in academe, while most conservative students do not.

“The personal priorities of those on the left,” the Woessners conclude, “are more compatible with pursuing a Ph.D.”

Racial vs. Legacy Preferences


Reason has a great piece arguing that anti-racial preferences activists should also take up the cause against legacies — giving preference to children of alumni. The strongest point regards public universities; I hadn’t even been aware there was such a thing as a public-university legacy admission, and they should end immediately. These institutions belong to the taxpayers, and there’s no reason to give a special leg up to the children of college graduates.

This kind of thinking is dangerous, though:

Private schools, of course, should be free to admit whomever they want, and it is therefore tempting to ignore their use of legacies. But there are few genuinely private schools in America anymore, thanks to the enormous amount of federal funding they accept.

This basically gives the government the ability to buy property rights. It offers your college: Want some free taxpayer money? Of course, any good business takes free money. Then, guess what?  You’re a “de facto” public enterprise, and the government can do whatever it wants to you. And libertarian publications run articles about how that’s just fine.

Defending Smith College on Engineering


About a week ago I wrote a pretty sarcastic post about the Smith College engineering program — a Chronicle of Higher Education piece made it sound as though the institution was downplaying core engineering proficiency in order to graduate enough women (it’s an all-female college). Specifically, it said the curriculum “emphasizes context, ethics, and communication as much as formulas and equations.” A reader argued that these are in fact important facets to engineering, so the college might just be exploiting a more female-friendly niche, not creating bad engineers.

Peter Bogucki, an associate undergraduate dean at Princeton’s engineering school, wrote me today, and he has direct experience with Smith engineering students — some come to Princeton as visiting students in their junior years. Bogucki makes a different defense, namely that the program isn’t quite as radical as the impression I’d taken from the article:

They’re very well prepared and are able to take the really tough Princeton junior-year engineering courses without a problem. So for all the institutional rhetoric about taking a different approach, their academic content is equal to other top engineering programs, since you can’t repeal the second law of thermodynamics, and the level of rigor is very high. Engineering isn’t the same as science, and you can’t be a good engineer unless you understand the economic, political, historical, and ethical context of what you’re trying to do, as well as being able to communicate the wisdom of your design to a broader audience.

Ability, Class, and College Graduation


Paul Krugman references an interesting study in his latest column:

[T]he National Center for Education Statistics, which tracked a group of students who were in eighth grade in 1988. The study found, roughly speaking, that in modern America parental status trumps ability: students who did very well on a standardized test but came from low-status families were slightly less likely to get through college than students who tested poorly but had well-off parents.

The thing is, the book The Bell Curve did a similar thing, with a huge data set (the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth), for a variety of social indicators. It found overwhelmingly the opposite — someone at, say, the 75th percentile of IQ, from a family at the 25th percentile of income, is better off than someone who is not as bright, but comes from a higher-earning family. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book in front of me, so I’m not sure if they did this for college graduation specifically. Does anyone know if they did, or if a study besides the one Krugman cites did? If so, e-mail me at rverbruggen [die spammers] nationalreview [seriously] com.

Update: Can’t find anything definitive, but here’s an abstract of a 1982 paper that used the NLSY. It says, “The results indicate . . . substantial differences by SES [socioeconomic status]. The academic characteristics, however, are by far the strongest predictors of degree completion. Moreover, when the academic characteristics are included in the analysis, the effect of SES is somewhat reduced.”

Dorm Residence as Stick, not Carrot


Shock, shock, cried student “partiers.”

It’s “back to the ‘hood’” for many low-income students, predicted one undergraduate direly.

“Overly punitive and counterproductive,” pronounced professors.

Braving such resistance, reports the New York Times, administrators at the Old Westbury campus of the State University of New York recently began to enforce a 1994 “dorm-reward” policy, i.e., students whose grade point average falls below 2.0 will no longer be allowed to reside in the dormitory.

This long-overdue implementation of the 2.0 rule is a relatively small step toward raising academic standards at the campus, which has a history of racial tension, low entrance requirements, and other problems. Enforcing the rule will do nothing to shed light on the educational value added for students while at Old Westbury, the rigor of the campus’s curriculum, the corrosive effect of grade inflation, and the sometimes ineffective and costly remediation administered to many students in an effort to compensate for the solid K-12 preparation of which they were cruelly deprived. And, of course, Old Westbury is not alone in failing to address these larger academic factors, which need to be examined forthrightly nationwide.

Yet even intimations of accountability matter. The campus’s administrators should be commended for trying to stimulate higher academic performance and reminding students that they are not somehow dispensed from hewing to academic standards. To allow students to be lulled by a false sense of achievement is a sure path, for many, “back to the ‘hood.’”

Hirsch on Knowledge


Here’s a short op-ed in the Washington Post by E. D. Hirsch. It reiterates a point Hirsch has made about the the K-8 curriculum, emphasizing a concept he calls Core Knowledge. Reading comprehension, he says, isn’t just a matter of decoding words into meanings. It requires a background knowledge, some acquaintance with the content of the text being read: “Knowing something of the topic you’re reading about is the most important variable in comprehension.”

And so, pedagogies that focus solely on abstract mental skills such as critical thinking and, by choice or by practicality, downplay content knowledge, disable students from improving their scores. We need all students to acquire a core knowledge, and if the curriclum continues to fracture into bits and pieces of history, literature, civics, etc., don’t expect much improvement.

Princeton Considers a Gap-Year


Princeton hits upon an idea that many Europeans already practice in large, louche numbers: the ‘Gap Year’ between one’s secondary and higher education. Many of the Europeans fritter it away in Thailand and India, getting smashed with other continentals and doing unspeakable things. In Princeton’s case, a formal program that may ultimately encompass one-tenth of matriculating students is being articulated — it’s abroad, it’s subsidized. 

One interesting thing about this proposal is the difference in the way the New York Times and Daily Princetonian cover it. While both make mention that this would be a “a year of social service work,” that string of words in the lede of the NYT is the only place in the article that mentions it, and the piece then goes on to conflate that with study-abroad. 

Service abroad and study abroad are not even close to the same idea. I remember this becoming very clear when I was on a study-abroad program in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There, you had the study-abroad students, who were speaking decent Swahili and who could give you a brief history of East Africa in colonial times three months after arriving, and then you had the “study-abroad” students. These were people who were a nominal presence on the campus — often sponsored through an American university — but just couldn’t be bothered to enroll in a language or history class because they were too busy organizing a book drive, serving soup, distributing mosquito nets, or doing something else that could have easily and more efficiently been done by a local who, incidentally, needs the job and is not having his parents actually pay to have their child pawned into this type of horizons-expanding service. (Inevitably, African students were incredulous at being told these white people had paid $7,000 to show up, work their unexceptional skills, and then feel good about themselves.)

Understanding a foreign culture — I mean, really understanding it — is hard and important work, and one does not accrue this understanding by hanging about and occasionally installing water pumps in a village before going for drinks with your soon-to-be college friends. In a world where all people take seriously ideas of an often radically different nature, where two people in America and Africa are not even starting off on the same epistemological foundations, the best thing anyone can do abroad is to spend a considered year abroad where a student learns the language intensively, with about 20 hours in the classroom per week, and then supplements this with historical reading and whatever he chooses to do in his free time — preferably just roaming around the market, taking in the scene, and using the language practically. If that spare part happens to be service work, then great — but why should that be an entire year’s primary orientation?

For a country where few people know a foreign language passably, wouldn’t it be much better to have college-bound Americans focus on that, rather than something as oblique as service?

University Scientists, Networking, and Gender


Kind of an interesting study, but I’m not sure what to make of the results:

For the first time, scholars have used the tool of social-network analysis to examine how a large, national sample of female and male scientists interact with professional colleagues and how this affects their careers. . . .

For example, women and men both formed networks of approximately equal size of professional collaborators and confidantes, the study showed. But women were less likely than men to receive introductions from members of their networks to potential research collaborators . . . They also found that women’s networks were more likely to contain people at other campuses and with greater seniority.

As a result, [female] scientists may be missing out on chatting informally and regularly with colleagues around the water cooler at their home institutions, ties that can be critical to establishing a research career, the authors said. These research partnerships are becoming ever more important as science increasingly becomes interdisciplinary and carried out by teams. Women might be disadvantaged in the tenure process because collaborations are also a way of establishing one’s credentials among colleagues within a department.

(I eliminated the use of “women” as an adjective because I hate that.)

It seems to me that these researchers started out with the idea that networking hurts women in science, and then twisted their analysis to fit that idea. If women are more likely to have friends with seniority, isn’t that a rather big advantage, even if those friends are at other institutions? Also, if it had turned out that men had more contacts at other campuses, wouldn’t the researchers have called that a net advantage — you can use a geographically dispersed network to get published in journals based at different colleges, gain access to specialized equipment your own university doesn’t have, etc.?

Even Sex Week’s Organizers Find it Tasteless


All people have their bounds of tastelessness, some farther out there than others. And the organizers of Yale’s Sex Week apparently found theirs the other day when an invited speaker, the pornographer Paul Thomas, screened a film that included scenes of “fantasy rape, bondage and piercing.”

The screening was interrupted before the film ended, although one organizer tells Yale Daily News that there was a “sense of revelry” in the audience at the images, and that the crowd was “mostly supportive of the film.” What kind of student is going to these things?

As I mentioned when Sex Week had only just begun, it tends to be a prurient chain of events glossed over by a self-righteous notion that serious issues are being discussed—a charming mélange, really, of the frivolousness and arrogance of the Ivy League. And true to form, Sex Week’s director, Joe Citarella, defended the abortive screening “because it gave people the opportunity to speak out against violent pornography and the effect it can have on the public’s conception of women.” You see, it was all just a big learning experience!


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