Well, Something's Wrong!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing almost entirely in the passive voice for Inside Higher Ed, Peter Katopes argues against what he calls "the business model" -- which is to say, a caricature of capitalism -- as a means of restoring (bringing?) accountability to higher education.

Almost predictably, he starts off sarcastically damning "the business model" for imposing the tyranny of the lowest common denominator on academia:

The business model is imposed, for example, when otherwise worthy academic programs are eliminated based on low enrollment alone since they couldn't possibly be academically valuable if they don't attract throngs; when professors are evaluated more on their popularity with students than on their teaching abilities ... or when institutions shun teaching high-risk students who might require more time and attention to graduate.

However, the business model, which prizes "customer satisfaction" or "efficiency" above all else, has led in higher education to an imbalance in the relation between student and institution, has led to a culture of entitlement and instant gratification, and has causal ties to the current fiscal crisis.
Set aside the sarcasm and lack of imagination of that first independent clause for a moment.

(I and about fifty other students are paying good money to take a class over the Internet that might never have been offered in the first place at an ordinary institution of higher learning. And then there's the matter of teacher evaluations. Who's to say that in a truly capitalistic system that this would be left entirely up to students? Would not the earning potential of a school's graduates, among other things, offer some sort of reality check?)

And let's also set aside the fact that government subsidies and loan programs are distorting the educational marketplace by artificially increasing demand for higher education, including bringing many people into our colleges who really have no business being there. There is an issue that Katopes is bringing up here. It is a legitimate issue, but he brings it up for illegitimate reasons.

That issue is the fitness of the customers of higher education -- increasingly infantilized students and their parents -- to judge what they are getting for their money. Katopes minces no words when he addresses this concern, but he is using this concern to insist that freedom in education would be a bad thing.
... Driven by the desire to satisfy external agencies regarding "accountability," many colleges for some 30 years have effectively altered the relationship between student and institution by defining students as "consumers" who are asked to evaluate instruction in much the same way as banks ask their depositors to rate their services. Driven by the student "revolutions" of the 1960s, colleges have effectively placed the responsibility for determining the quality of instruction and curriculum in the control of those -- the students -- who are least competent to judge. This is not to say that students should have no input regarding the instruction they receive, but is rather a criticism of student evaluation instruments that often are poorly constructed and which often hold faculty hostage to student opinion. ...


While it is true that 18-year olds have been awarded certain rights and privileges -- the vote, for instance -- which an earlier era restricted, American society has a very ambiguous understanding of what adulthood is. The extension of childhood well into a person's 20s has been a growing and generally accepted trend. The identification of "helicopter parents," that is, parents of college-age children who hover neurotically over their offspring even as they "send" them off to college, is becoming the bane of many college administrations. [bold added]
There is more than a faint whiff of plausibility to the idea that a business that caters to the whims of children and their doting parents -- who were (?) once children themselves -- might end up delivering inferior goods.

But is that the fault of capitalism, or does the cause lie deeper than that? Katopes helpfully provides a quick glimpse at the answer for those who learned how to read and comprehend, perhaps despite the enthusiasms of "progressive" education that the state educational monopoly has entrenched for several generations:
In the first 18-22 years of life, huge numbers of American citizens spend anywhere from 6 to 10 hours a day in some sort of school environment.
Public education is about as far from operating on a "business model" as one can get. So why, Dr. Katopes, if "the business model" is wrong, would someone, at nearly twenty years of age, be "least competent to judge" the product he is purchasing? Why would his parents? Might it be that the mission of progressive education, to "socialize" children -- or, as Ayn Rand once put it, to "breed ... helplessness and resignation" -- is being accomplished?

One cannot misapply a few trappings of capitalism -- like customer surveys -- to a largely socialist educational system and then point to capitalism as the culprit for its many ills. And one cannot expect a system based on individuals accurately gaging their own self-interest to function particularly well when they have had the whole idea of self systematically attacked by their own education. It is education -- the ideas and the method of thinking that children are being taught -- that needs fixing first. Capitalism will emerge and hasten the process of improvement once that has been accomplished.

As I once mentioned, commenting on a blog post about cheating, I realized even in high school what the purpose of an education was well enough that I did not find cheating "tempting" at all. Indeed, I even signed up for a whole slate of classes I was told would be "tough." To have picked a college based on how much like a cruise liner life there would have been would have struck me as particularly ludicrous. (In fact, I tended to look askance at places with reputations as "party schools".)

But then, my parents had not gone to college, and I was fortunate enough to be sent to private schools, where the development of my cognitive skills -- not "socialization" -- was the goal. My family and I, being from a "backward" state, had largely missed out on "progressive" education. Perhaps that's why I am not convinced that "the business model" is "wrong".

-- CAV


Phoroneus said...

What's so startling is that Mr. Katopes oversteps a connection in his own writing that an Objectivist can see instantly (or he oversteps it due to his animus against "the business model"). The two statements in question being "...or when institutions shun teaching high-risk students who might require more time and attention to graduate." and "...has led to a culture of entitlement and instant gratification" The latter is clearly a cause of the former, that is when students recieve constant doting in school they come to believe they are entitled to it.

I was a victim of this myself before Rand knocked some sense into me.

It is hard for me to understand how actually "earning grades" leads to "sense of entitlement" in his head.

Gus Van Horn said...

Often, but not in cases where students have legitimate learning disabilities.

But even in such cases, how would such students be served best? By throwing them into a normal (i.e., non-specialized) school, where they'd get less attention and slow down everyone else -- or a specialized school geared towards their needs?

Jim May said...

But is that the fault of capitalism, or does the cause lie deeper than that?

Or, to put it more explicitly: when someone makes a stupid choice, what is the root problem?

a) his stupidity, or
b) his freedom to choose?

Gus Van Horn said...


Mike said...

I've long since given up on public education. If I have my druthers, my daughter won't darken the door of a public school, no matter the cost. I plan to send her to the Catholic schools that forged me. Say what you will about Catholicism (and I know you always do! hehe), you have to concede that they run fantastic schools for the cost. And they teach arcane knowledge like math, writing, geography, science, and literature. I think if I can steer her around the guilt traps, she'll manage just fine. I have years yet to prepare her.

Gus Van Horn said...

I went to Catholic schools and, if my choice was that or almost any public school I can imagine, would not hesitate to send my own children to one under most circumstances.