In Defence of L’Ancien Regime

12 September 2010 at 6:45 am 10 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

It is sometimes instructive to reflect on the massive changes that the University has undergone since the Second World War. On the negative side, the advent of the mass university has very likely led to a dumbing down of the curriculum in many disciplines and a fall in the requirements for entry. It has paved the way for a powerful bureaucratic caste, and the “bureaucrat-professor” who is in the academic industry because of his specialized management skill, and not because of his wish to engage in scholarly pursuits and the training of the most intelligent persons in a given society. On the benefit side, many more people can now share in science and general learning, very likely contributing to economic growth.

As the universities are broadly speaking financed by the taxpayer, politicians and their henchmen in the ministeries of education, science, technology, etc. happily undertake to steer the universities. Thus, inspired by as-yet-largely-unvalidated claims of a general shift in the “mode of knowledge production,” university bureaucrats, managers, and politicians are calling for increased “inter-disciplinarity” and “relevance,” notably in the form of mobilizing multiple disciplines in the context of concrete problem-solving in “business” (the so-called “Mode II”). In the context of business schools, it seems almost de rigeur in certain quarters to deem business schools largely “irrelevant” (meanwhile, business happily employs the products of business schools, paying MBA and other graduates hefty salaries, presumably motivated by the high usefulness, indeed, “relevance,” of these graduates).

Contrast all this with universities not so many decades back. There are not many who stand up on behalf of l’ancien regime of universities. But here are two who do, one implicitly and the other one (much) more explicitly.

The first contribution is by UCLA emeritus econ professor William R Allen, “A Life among the Econ, Particularly at UCLA.” Allen describes the evolution of the economics department of UCLA, particularly in the less-than-two decades (beginning of 1960s to mid-1970s) where Armen Alchian dominated the department. What largely made the department successful was the insistence on the rigorous application of fundamentally simple, yet fundamental, price theory to problems of fundamental societal relevance. (He indicates that this orientation has now disappeared).  The paper is, among many other things, a strong argument that “relevance” is nothing new and certainly does not presuppose interdisciplinarity.

The other paper is by University of Stuttgart math professor Klaus W. Roggenkamp, “The Humboldtian Ideas and Today’s Universities.” The paper is a wholesale denunciation of the modern university with its egalitarianism and low standards. It is completely uncompromising and hard core in its defence of the elitist university totally dedicated to basic research. And the paper ends by pointing out the extremely relevant uses of “clearly inapplicable” fundamental research in pure mathematics. A necessary antidote and a delightful read!

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Education, Institutions, Papers.

Cities and the Fetters of Nations Get Ready for the Slow-Conversation Movement

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rafe  |  12 September 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Regarding the plus side of university expansion – giving access for many people to post-school education – more credit needs to be given to the other kinds of adult eduation that are available for academic subjects and also for every other interest that you can think of, some of these have declined or disappeared like the old “mechanics institutes” and self-help education sytems for workers and trade unionists.

    On that theme, many people think that mass primary education had to wait for the state to provide but that ignores the networks of “penny schools” in Britain and many state of the US. For a great private education site:

  • 2. Rafe  |  12 September 2010 at 6:47 pm

    On the theme of ancient, the very best modern writer on education and cultural studies Jacques Barzun reaches 103 in November. He has studied the decline of education at close range, starting with the “state of the nation” in 1945, followed up in 1983 with a mournful preface to the revised edition of “Teacher in America”.
    In 1968 he published “The American University” and he just had time to add a note to the introduction while students were setting parts of the campus on fire.

  • 3. Rafe  |  12 September 2010 at 6:53 pm

    The start of the 1983 Preface of Teacher in America.

    To those who follow the news about education, the present state of American schools and colleges must seem vastly different from that described in this book. Thirty-five years have passed, true; but the normal drift of things will not account for the great chasm. The once proud and efficient public-school system of the United States, especially its unique free high school for all—has turned into a wasteland where violence and vice share the time with ignorance and idleness, besides serving as battleground for vested interests, social, political, and economic. The new product of that debased system, the functional illiterate, is numbered in millions, while various forms of deceit have become accented as inevitable—”social promotion” or for those who fail the “minimum competency” test; and most lately, “bilingual education,” by which the rudiments are supposedly taught in over ninety languages other than English. The old plan and purpose of teaching the young what they truly need to know survives only in the private sector, itself hard-pressed and shrinking in size.

    Meantime, colleges and universities have undergone a comparable devastation. The great postwar rush to college for a share in upward mobility and professional success was soon encouraged and enlarged by public money under the G.I. bills and the National Defense Education Act. Under this pressure higher education changed in quality and tone. The flood of students caused many once modest local colleges and deplorable teachers’ colleges to suddenly dub themselves universities and attempt what they were not fit for. State university systems threw out branches in cities already well provided with private, municipal, or denominational institutions; and new creations—junior colleges and community colleges—entered the competition for the student moneys and other grants coming out of the public purse. The purpose and manner of higher education were left behind.

    True, some of the novelties were beneficial. The junior and community colleges, with their self-regarding concern for good teaching, often awakened talent in students overlooked in the scramble for admission to better known places. But at all institutions, old and new, the increase in numbers requiring expansion— wholesale building, increase of staff, proliferation of courses, complex administration, year-round instruction —brought on a state of mind unsuited to teaching and learning. In their place, the bustle became a processing and a being processed.

  • 4. Richard Ebeling  |  13 September 2010 at 11:11 am

    I have been teaching economics, now, at the college or university level for more than 35 years. (Oh, is that scary!)

    I recently was going through a box of my old lecture notes that date back to the 1980s.

    It reinforced my self-impression that over the years I had become “softer” in what I presented in class and what I demanded from students in terms of reading in preparation for exams.

    As the years and decades have gone by, I have observed that, increment by increment, each new class of freshmen have been (in general and on average) less well trained by their high school experience for entering higher education.

    Their skills in almost everything — reading, writing, history, cultural literacy (as E.D. Hirsch called it), math, science, logical thinking — have radically degenerated.

    I cannot assume that they know anything. Part of college and university undergraduate education, therefore, is a form of “remedial education” for them to catch up with what they, in principle, should have learned before coming to college or university.

    They are “products of their environment,” which high school education has become non-education, and too many of them with parents who, themselves, were products of the same educational decline, at an earlier point, and thus not often motivating enough to get their sons and daughters to learn better how to learn.

    And, as Nicolai emphasizes, colleges and universities have become playgrounds of political correctness, ideological agendas, and panderers for government subsidies and grants and scholarships to accept students on bases too often having nothing to do with merit or ability.

    And, if I may add, the internet has not helped, in spite of all the uses and advantages of this new and valuable technology. It has helped to foster young minds who look for quick “cut and paste” answers or bits of information, with no understanding or training in the discipline and cultivating of the mind to read serious articles or full books; and to do so with degrees of focus and patience to think about ideas.

    A very sorry state of education in our own time.

    Richard Ebeling

  • 5. Donald A. Coffin  |  13 September 2010 at 3:52 pm

    For an argument that part of the problem is an *excessive* emphasis on research (as opposed to teaching), here’s what The Economist has to say:

  • 6. Donald A. Coffin  |  13 September 2010 at 7:37 pm

    I want to ask a question, which I mean seriously, not flippantly. Given the arguments presented by Allen and Roggenkamp (as quoted here, and as presented more fully at the links), how do we suppose they would have reacted to the two most significant expansions of higher education in the US–the passage of the Morrill Act (creating land-grant universities , in 1862) and the passage of the act creating the GI Bill in the immediate post-WWII years? If we think their reactions would be more supportive of those expansions, what in their arguments would suggest that conclusion?

  • 7. David Hoopes  |  14 September 2010 at 11:03 am

    The article in “The Economist” states that universities are fat and bloated. The Cal State School where I teach has had its budget reduced year after year since I’ve been here. And having been on the university budget committee there is not a lot of fat here. SMU’s college of business was not terribly “bloated” either. Perhaps there’s a glitch in my selection mechanism so that I’m finding the few lean (starved) institutions. Is everyone else at a fat and happy school?

  • 8. Donald A. Coffin  |  14 September 2010 at 12:34 pm

    As is so often the case, what articles like the one in the Economist mean by higher education is Harvard (and its near kin), So, you see, Cal State (and the Indiana University campus at which I teach) really *aren’t* part of the part of higher education that matters.

  • 9. FC  |  14 September 2010 at 6:10 pm

    My favorite index is the ratio of new degree programs to new sports teams.

  • 10. Rafe  |  17 September 2010 at 5:56 pm

    On the topic of mechanics institutes from comment 1, Terency Kealey reported that private industry in Britain set up 700 Mechanics’ Institutes between 1820 and 1840 to provide technical training. At the start of the 20th century the Pennsylvania coal industry was funding school education for blacks (who got bad service in the public schools) to improve the quality of their workforce. By 1891 when public education in Britain became free and compulsory all children were attending penny schools and the families who were too poor to pay received help from private charities. Public education did not improve the extent of education but it rapidly contracted the private sector. Kealey’s book “The Economic Laws of Scientific Research” is a treat, ironically it was culled (as new) from the Sydney Uni Science Library and it sold for $4 at the Book Fair. The message to university researchers is to get your hand out of the taxpayers pocket, if you can’t get an industrialist to fund your work, then get a real job and do your research for fun:)

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