Is Higher Education A Moral Mess? This Book Explains Why

Published May 3, 2019

Higher education is So Hot Right Now. On Facebook and Twitter students and families around the world are celebrating their admission into and decisions to attend the schools of their choice. Elizabeth Warren has rolled out a plan to forgive student debt, and she and other presidential hopefuls are arguing that students should be able to pursue higher education wholly on the taxpayers’ dimes.

But what we taxpayers get in return? What will students get once they’re there, and importantly, how does their experience square with what they are promised in the recruiting literature?

Enter the latest book to join the discussion about higher ed: Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education. It joins The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (which I discuss here) and The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan (which I discuss here) to create an informal trilogy of informed critiques of the educational-administrative complex.

A lot of the stories we tell ourselves about trends in and the effects of higher education, Brennan and Magness argue, are inconsistent with the data. A lot of academic advertising, for example, is “immoral bull****” because the apparent transformation that happens at most schools is likely driven not by the “transformative experiences” promised in recruiting brochures and on websites but by selection effects and the maturation that takes place between ages 18 and 22.

To put it another way, a graduate from Prestigious College is quite impressive. She has changed a lot between when she arrived on campus and when she graduated. It’s a mistake to think that the apparent transformation represents the treatment effect of her time at Prestigious, however. Perhaps the kinds of students who go to Prestigious would be successful and impressive 22-year-olds no matter where they went. Perhaps the difference between the Prestigious student as a freshman and the Prestigious student as a graduate reflects not the effect of a Prestigious education as such but the fact that people grow and mature a lot in early adulthood. Identifying the effect of a Prestigious education is devilishly difficult, and Brennan and Magness argue that institutions should be much more transparent and much more honest about exactly what they are selling.

If one were to condense the book to a tweet, it would read “people respond to incentives, even in academia.” Brennan and Magness argue that a lot of decisions about core curriculum, course requirements, and so on are explained by faculty members protecting their turf and working to advance their own interests rather than lofty considerations about the real nature of a liberal education. Here I think they could have improved their argument by granting charitable and altruistic motives. They will lose a lot of readers who will be insulted by the insinuation that they are working to advance their own material interests when they propose that a new course of study be required. I think there’s a better explanation. Even if we assume that every faculty member is a perfect altruist, we all have different ideas about what constitutes a complete liberal education. After all, we have dedicated our lives to deep-dive teaching and research in fields like English, history, economics, and so on. Even perfect altruists who disagree about what matters will work to secure resources for the things that they think are important. You can assume that people have the most beautiful and admirable motives, and even these most beautiful and admirable motives will produce a moral mess when the incentives demand it.

Brennan and Magness offer eleven tightly-argued chapters exploring the conventions and conventional wisdom of higher education. Teaching evaluations, they argue, are such unreliable guides to teaching quality that it is in their opinion unethical to use them in tenure and promotion decisions. Higher education is not being “adjunctified.” Humanities departments’ campus footprints are actually growing, not shrinking, and the big problem with the humanities job market is not “neoliberalism” or “corporatization” or the ever-so-damnable “neoliberal corporatization”–supernatural, evidence-free non-explanations they call “poltergeists”–but consistent overproduction of PhDs in the humanities relative to job openings. The number of jobs in the humanities is growing, but the number of PhDs in the humanities is growing even faster.

Importantly, to the extent that higher education is a moral mess, it is notbecause higher education is populated by bad and immoral people (though they are certainly not in short supply in higher ed, just as they are not in short supply in politics, business, religion, and every other human endeavor). Rather, higher education is a moral mess because people face messy incentives.

[Originally Published at Forbes]