Economics of Higher Education: Sophism versus Virtue

17 February 2008 at 4:35 pm 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

Donald R. Stabile’s new book Economics, Competition And Academia: An Intellectual History of Sophism versus Virtue (Elgar, 2007) contrasts the customer-oriented, for-profit model of education (which Stabile calls “sophism”) with the patronage-supported, non-market model (“virtue”). Stabile reminds us that the notion of higher education as a commercial enterprise was invented not by the University of Phoenix, but by the ancient Greeks. The Sophists believed in teaching practical subjects that students wanted to know, while Plato and Aristotle, wealthy aristocrats whose schools didn’t depend on student fees, favored the teaching of timeless truths independent of student demand. Reviewer Donald Frey thinks Stabile’s framework lacks precision; still, the book sounds like an interesting read.

Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture, which traces the history of patronage (and, its modern-day equivalent, state funding) and market-based approaches in art, music, and literature, is worth consulting in this context. And don’t miss Paul Cantor’s lectures on commerce and culture, which you can listen to here.

The Stabile dust-jacket blurb is below the fold.

Donald Stabile places current concerns over the commercialization of academia in a historical context by describing the long-standing question of the extent to which market economics can and should be applied to higher education. The debate between Plato and Aristotle on one side and sophists on the other provides a foundation for the modern debate of endowment versus tuition models.

The author tackles the intellectual discourse over the mission of higher education and the effect markets and competition might have on it. The discussion encompasses the ideas on higher education of leading economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, Jeremy Benthan, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, Thorstein Veblen and John K. Galbraith and identifies them as supporters of either sophism or virtue. Included, too, are the thoughts of educators and policymakers influenced by free market ideas, such as Benjamin Rush, Francis Wayland and Charles W. Eliot, as well as those opposed to them. In addition, the author explores the development of collegiate business schools in the US and how they were justified on the basis of virtue. The book concludes with a section on for-profit colleges and their relationship to sophism.

This fascinating study of the centuries-old intellectual debate over the mission of academia will appeal to all those involved with higher education. Historians of economic thought will find the influence of economic ideas on this debate of great interest.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Institutions.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe Champion  |  17 February 2008 at 10:06 pm

    It sounds as though the issues have been over-simplified. It is reminiscent of a local writer who claims that the dreaded neo-liberals are conspiring to subvert the civilising function of the universities in favour of narrow commercially oriented studies. He starts with the Kantian model of the universities as his frame of reference.

    For Kant the “higher” function was to serve the interests of the government and the “lower” function was to look after the interests and development of the particular sciences (essentially all fields of scholarship). For Kant the “lower” function was all-important as a domain of free play of ideas and criticism where the state had no business to interfere, in contrast with the “service” faculties which have to be useful in immediate and practical ways.

    In those simple times the higher faculties were theology, law and medicine while the lower was philosophy, bearing in mind that everything under the sun came under the heading of philosophy. Similary “science” did not have a narrow or techncal meaning but simply meant a disciplined and systematic approach to a topic, whatever it might be.

    He seems to think that governments are increasingly acting under the influence of the subversive, neo-liberal view to displace and devalue education in the humanities, just because that kind of education is low in the scale of values of neoliberalism.

    The whole book is a worry, not just that chapter, which is the focus of this review.

  • 2. Donald A. Coffin  |  18 February 2008 at 12:05 pm

    One of the things I’ve contended for some time is that the “university,” in its more-or-less modern sense (i.e., beginning in the middle ages in Italy), has always been a vocational/professional training institution. Early on, the professions were law, the clergy, and (maybe) medicine. What’s happened over time is that we’ve adopted a progressively more expansive concept of the professions for which we are educating people.

    I’d say that the sophists have won decisively, although a lot of higher education rhetoric remains Socratic/Platonic/Aristotelian. But the sophists have won. And it’s a good thing.

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