Postmodern Conservative

Conservative Diversity on Higher Education

So I’m back in Floyd County for a few hours before driving in the direction of Louisiana for the Walker Percy festival.

The Bradley Symposium was really enjoyable for me (and that is the standard by which I judge most things).  Thanks so much to Yuval Levin and Bradley for including me on such an expert and eloquent panel.

 It turns out that Mitch Daniels is really a classy university president, and he’s for controlling costs, using “hybrid” classes as appropriate, maintaining the rigor associated with Purdue’s tradition of excellence in the STEM majors, cultivating the co-curricular activities that develop the character of Purdue men (Purdue is one of those rare institutions that’s mostly men) and women, and thinking of ways to make sure that every Purdue graduate achieves the literacy that comes from having to take courses in history, literature, and and so forth. President Daniels is really proud of the students flourishing under the traditional and somewhat distinctive academic mission of his institution. And his goal is to make Purdue’s form of excellence both better and cheaper. He didn’t bash his faculty at all, except to say that they’re suspicious of agendas for change.

Andrew Kelly really has the facts down when it comes to some of the core problems in higher education and deployed quite capably minimalist PowerPoint. Here’s one big issue: Those who say that the problem is that too many people are going to college these days don’t understand our situation. Given the low or at least wildly uneven quality of secondary education, employers expect potential employees to have displayed their competence at some institution of higher education. The scandal of escalating costs, student-loan debt, and all that is basically that people are stuck with paying sometimes a lot for what they, not so long ago, could have gotten for free. My own view remains that, rather than borrowing big, young people should start at community college. As I’ve said before, the community college is the most democratic and a rather noble feature of the singular American system of higher education. Andrew made the telling point that a hugely disproportionate amount of student debt is held by students who really got ripped off by bad yet still expensive colleges.

Alex Tabarrok — one of the leading lights in George Mason’s famously libertarian economics program – touted online education as a way of having a million people or more take the same course. Studies show that students don’t fare worse online than they do stuck in boring lecture halls, and that the screen more reliably responds to student learning needs than can a person lecturing. It’s even true, Alex thinks, that a artificially intelligent tutor can be more sensitive to a student’s learning “issue” than can a tutor who’s merely a real person with natural intelligence. That AI tutor – the robot — can draw from a lot more experience, after all. One challenge Alex sees American colleges and universities having to face is no more students coming over from Asia to attend our colleges and paying full tuition. They will stay home and imbibe American technical wisdom online. He got most excited when he noted that the online revolution makes it possible for libertarian professors such as himself and collaborator Tyler Cowen to write the textbook for millions, and those who control the screen and the texts might end up being more effectively transformational than even those who control the government. One of my points was that the world (I hope) might belong to those educated with a high enough level of literacy to appreciate the difference between a real book and a textbook. And the less higher education relies on the latter, the better. All in all, a slight downside of Alex’s utopian vision is that it will require very few human professors. Still, Alex did qualify his enthusiasm with his respect for the facts. He did admit that studies now show that graduates with philosophy majors fare exceptionally on the job and in life, and that philosophy can’t be taught effectively online. He added emphatically in affirmation of a point I made that a major in business is pretty useless.

I’ll say something about what I said later. For now, you can read this, which overlaps some with the Bradley “prepared remarks.” I’m told most folks walked away with an appreciation of the diversity in conservative criticisms of higher education today. My contribution was mostly: Our most urgent need is faculty who are respected and worthy of respect.

I wish I could have stayed around to see our JIM CEASER get one of the huge Bradley prizes.  No one has deserved it more.  There’s a professor worthy of your deepest respect.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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