I recently posted Ron Trowbridge’s rebuttal to another of my posts, “Is the Academy Really Reformable? ,” which dealt with Mitchell Langbert’s provocative blog at Democracy Project (full text here ).
Langbert has now posted a “Sur-Rebuttal” (also at Democracy Project), which I reproduce in the interest of advancing this strategic debate:
The problem for libertarians and conservatives is not just that universities are dysfunctional, rife with quackery and do their jobs poorly. Universities depend heavily on state subsidies. Even if universities were functioning properly, libertarians and many conservatives should find it difficult to justify subsidies. For if institutions are functioning well, Americans should be willing to pay for them privately, much as they pay for weddings and plastic surgery. What makes education different?
The obvious answer is that educational institutions engage in producing values, such as reflection and higher learning, that the market does not reward. But this is no longer true. To take a recent example, the nonsensical dispositional assessment techniques advocated by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education , suggest that the goals of teacher education have become largely political rather than educational in nature. The NCATE accreditation standards advocate diversity and political correctness but not education. Yet, Congress has made it clear that tax exemptions for educational institutions are not directed at organizations that exist for primarily political purposes, which universities have increasingly become.
State subsidies come in many forms, to include direct budget allocations to public university systems and, as well, grants to private universities such as through New York’s Bundy aid; the tax exemption on educational foundation trust funds that favor the most elite institutions (since they have the largest trust funds) which is probably among the larger welfare-for-the-rich schemes in American society; and grants for research, such as the unending cancer research grants that reinforce failed academic hierarchies and dismiss innovative hypotheses, as suggested in Clifton Leaf’s and Doris Burke’s article in Fortune two years ago on Why We’re Losing the Cancer War . All of these would have to end before many conservatives and most libertarians would feel comfortable with the current approach to higher education.
Hence, the libertarian (and often the conservative) solution is indeed to do nothing. That is what laissez faire means. It is only because of the massive subsidies to higher education (really transfers from poor to rich, as all working Americans are forced to subsidize the “education” of the upper third) that there is nearly so much higher education as there is. To eliminate such subsidies is the libertarian solution to the surfeit of higher education fraud that dominates the liberal arts and social sciences.
Dr. Trowbridge’s comment that the “pathologies of higher education may not rub off on students” begs the question: why is the United States taxpayer spending hundreds of billions of dollars in order to rest assured that what they are paying for will not “rub off” on the students? It is not just that much of what goes on in the social sciences is nonsense and quackery; or that our education schools are junk; or that English literature has become an exercise in crackpot economics and sociology; but rather that hardworking Americans are required to subsidize this scam.
Hence, my argument to do nothing is in fact an argument to do something really big. To end state subsidies to higher education is a massive undertaking that would require tremendous political resources to overcome the education lobby, its co-lobbies and its lackies. Such an undertaking is far more relevant and a far greater challenge than reforming education. Hence, it is not an argument for good men to do nothing, but rather for good men not to waste their time chasing windmills. I have tried a few, and have found that you cannot catch up.
Moreover, academic institutions are not reformable from outside. This is because of the nature of hiring and academic governance, which inhibits the kind of organizational change that businesses have undergone. Entire fields are dominated by junk ideology, and even those that aren’t are inevitably dominated by cliques and clubhouses that require initiation through doctoral program cronies. This is true in every field, and no outsider can change it. Therefore it is a waste of time to try.