Where are the start-ups in the Liberal Arts?

Yesterday, George Mason University economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen announced MRU, a modular course design platform that they’ll be using to offer free and potentially paid courses in economics, online. I’ve learned a lot from their blog since I started reading during the run-up to the financial crisis, and I plan to at least look in on their first course on Developmental Economics. It’s not a massive open online course (MOOC for short), but it’s set up to enable them to produce MOOCs. Experiments in the MOOC future look increasingly promising. But where are the startup and experiments in radical de-digitization?

If you’re a college professor in the humanities, it’s hard not to see the recent flurry of for-profit and online education start-ups as a repudiation of your model for pedagogy. Even as the evidence accumulates that students are most likely to increase their critical thinking skills during an education that focuses on close reading, analytic writing, and high expectations, we see an increasing number of resources devoted to lecturing, a model for which the internet is only slightly better-suited than the VCR was.

At the same time, many in the humanities, myself included, have worried that what drives tuition is primarily administrative rent-seeking. We look at our salaries and at the salaries of the deans, and notice that we’ve been doing more work for less pay over the last few decades even while tuition skyrockets. Meanwhile, newly-minted PhDs flood the workforce looking for jobs. So why then do we continue to work for institutions that have been steering astray? It makes sense to talk about the oppression of the poor and poorly connected, but in what sense are the folks who literally dispense cultural capital capable of being oppressed by their labor conditions?

Oversupply of teachers and undersupply of institutional support for the right kind of teaching: looks like a recipe for a start-up!

The most fertile period for the development of new colleges in the US was the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, when the 24 colonial colleges that existed before Independence were joined by more than 600 more. Many did not survive, but this was a period of intense educational experimentation and innovation. The land-grant universities aggregated and centralized much of this process. but colleges and universities were still being formed at a rapid clip: there are more than 4000 today. Yet how many new institutions are devoted to the liberal arts? The practices I associate with liberal arts teaching tend to be cultivated on old ivy-covered campuses rather than shiny new startups. Though many schools are called “liberal arts” they do not all make a full-time practice of that pedagogy. Perhaps the problem is demand: one of the oldest colleges, St. John’s, existed before the civil war, and today it adds just 250 new freshmen every year to its Great Books program. Shimer College in Chicago has 111 students total! But I think there’s room for growth (given the evidence and such a small base.)

For all the “massive” promise of MOOCs, they involve considerable capital and startup costs. Yet the teaching profession requires little more than books, paper, pens, and (maybe) trashcans. With folks embracing their own farming, canning, paper-making, and butchering, there ought to be some unmet demand for pedagogical nostalgia of the old schools: discussions under stoa, peripatetic dialogues, and sitting around a table puzzling out the meaning of a text. Maybe the next time one of these would-be online education innovators goes bust, we should give it a shot.

Foucault on Education and Human Capital

From Foucault’s Collège de France lecture on March 14th, 1979 (in what the publisher has misnamed The Birth of Biopolitics despite the fact that that year’s lectures basically spelled the end of Foucault’s work on biopolitics and focused on the limitation of state control over the market):

What does it mean to form human capital, and so to form these kinds of abilities-machines which will produce income, which will be remunerated by income? It means, of course, making what are called educational investments. In truth, we have not had to wait for the neo-liberals to measure some of the effects of these educational investments, whether this involves school instruction strictly speaking, or professional training, and so on, But the neo-liberals lay stress on the fact that what should be called educational investment is much broader than simple schooling or professional training and that many more elements than these enter into the formation of human capital? What constitutes this investment that forms an abilities-machine? Experimentally, on the basis of observations, we know it is constituted by, for example, the time parents devote to their children outside of simple educational activities strictly speaking. We know that the number of hours a mother spends with her child, even when it is still in the cradle, will be very important for the formation of an abilities-machine, or for the formation of a human capital, and that the child will be much more adaptive if in fact its parents or its mother spend more rather than less time with him or her. This means that it must be possible to analyze the simple time parents spend feeding their children, or giving them affection as investment which can form human capital. Time spent, care given, as well as the parents’ education because we know quite precisely that for an equal time spent with their children, more educated parents will form a higher human capital than parents with less education-in short, the set of cultural stimuli received by the child, will all contribute to the formation of those elements that can make up a human capital.

The echos of Heidegger on standing-reserve are quite strong here, but I also think we see one problem with my attempt to resolve the teleological paradox in education yesterday.

What happens to care and affection when they are analyzed in terms of their human capital-formative effects? This is the other reason that humanities advocates decry the instrumentalism of education: the fear that things like art and history which have previously stood as pure teloi [telê?] will subsequently become mere means to an end. We have to be very careful if we are to keep the instrumentally-reflective stage from infecting or polluting the genuineness of the commitments and relationships that we learn on reflection are best-suited to achieving our guiding or ultimate ends.

And perhaps, too, being “very careful” will not prevent instrumentality from colonizing the life-world. The “helicopter parent” has simply taken the neo-liberal realization about care-as-investment to heart, and is “saving up” for the future.

The Teleological Paradox in Utilitarianism and Education

In my brief response to Community College Dean a few weeks back, I said something that I think is pretty obvious, but that is often ignored:

humanities advocates spend so much time fighting the instrumental approach to education [because] you’ve got to pretend like time doesn’t matter, or else the education won’t work.

Consider the classic paradox of hedonism articulated by Henry Sedgwick: across a whole range of domains, you cannot maximize utility if you take the maximization of pleasure as the motivation for engaging in activities that tend to be pleasurable. Your motivation matters. Even a hedonist has to have projects, and those projects are only reward to her if she takes them on for their own sake and ignores the utility she will gain.

For instance: being in love increases your utility, but if you approach a potential partner with an offer of mutual hedonism, he will rightly suspect that you are not seeking long-lasting love. “I really want to have a relationship with you, not because I think you’re awesome, but because I think it will make me happy and this seems like a good way to do it” is no way to fall in love; the potential partner will rightly say, “That’s weird, I don’t want to be loved selfishly, I want to be loved for myself.” You might think that you are then lying to your partner when you claim to love him for himself, but in fact we are impressively good at catching such lies. We have to really take that “for-himselfness” of loving seriously, to the extent that we’d even be miserable if our lover dies, in order to garner the hedonistic benefits of loving. The rational hedonist courts just this sacrifice.

You might also go to church to increase utility, but folks would think you were crazy if you went to church and said, “Hi! I’m here not because I have faith in the particular doctrines of this institution, but because I’ve been told that belonging to a community of religious inquiry will increase my utility.” Worse, like a bad Pascalian wager, you’d lose your Sabbath and you wouldn’t get the (mundane) benefits! So it is that the rational hedonist, motivated only by happiness, even courts irrationality!

Now, there’s a similar problem for education: if we instrumentalize education by treating it like a set of skills and practices, or even worse, as the acquisition of discrete knowledge, then the real benefits (especially of college education) will be lost. The real benefits of education are soft skills that are hard to “acquire” in that discrete sense. Habits of mind that enable analytic writing, close reading, critical thinking and problem solving skills cannot be learned unless the student takes a long detour through irrelevant material. So there’s a similar teleological or motivational problem to the one facing the hedonist: you have to read the Classics for their own sake in order to become a better advertising executive, even though reading the Classics isn’t directly relevant to advertising. Following Sedgwick, , T. M. Scanlon calls this the “teleological paradox” in a long footnote to What We Owe to Each Other, which can be described thus:

though the telos in question may depend on factors within an agent’s control, that does not mean that it is rational for the agent to target it and make it in that sense a matter of active demand.

In many areas, you must do things that are only instrumentally-related to your goal in order to accomplish your goal. The risk, however, is that this process of divergence from the goal might actually become counter-productive or self-deceptive: how will we know if the instrumental means supplants the true goal entirely?

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. In metaethics, there is a response to the teleological paradox and the problem of self-deception: R. M Hare’s “two-stage” or “two-level” utilitarianism. In the first stage, our ordinary lives, we take on ordinary justifications for our projects. But every so often we reflect on the value of particular methods and motivations, and during this reflective second-stage we tweak them from the perspective of the overarching goal. Maybe we only do this at the level of institutions or laws. So, instead of saying “You should have a family because it will bring you pleasure,” we normally just advocate family life for the normal, intuitive reasons that preserve love and loyalty as ultimate ends. But at the level of policy, we still ask questions like, “Should we incentivize large or small households?” or “Should we give tax breaks for children or not?” That second stage allows us to take on the utilitarian perspective for the purposes of improving our projects. So the teleological problem dissolves, so long as we’re able to willfully blind ourselves to our ultimate motivations: we get to be utilitarians some of the time, but when it matters we can be fathers and mothers, lovers and church-goers, citizens and consumers, etc.  Virtue and deontology are then sublimated under a utilitarian perspective, called to bear when they’re best suited to some basically utilitarian goal.

The same solution works for education. In the classroom, the library, and the lab, we can embrace wasteful irrelevance, detours into difficulty, and the rigors of basic research. Then later, at the level of syllabus-construction, course-design, academic policy, project funding, or tenure-line evaluations, we can ask: “What are the instrumental educational goals that we’re trying to accomplish? What is the best (most efficient, most effective) method for achieving those goals?” Yet because we are not fundamentally committed to any particular major or method of instruction, we can also ask: “How many Classics majors do we really need? Can we get the same benefits from Philosophy or Anthropology?” The close, careful reading of abstruse literature, abstract and irrelevant mathematical work, or the cultivation of the jargonistic language of High Theory all become tools, but tools we take up as if they are ends in themselves.

The key to this process is that at the administrative or policy level we have to seriously believe that these projects matter: we have to actually commit ourselves to the claim that studying the Classics (or Philosophy or Anthropology) is more useful than studying Accounting, even if what we want are more accountants! That may seem odd or self-deceptive, but the evidence suggests we have no other choice: when we study the data and look at the Collegiate Learning Assessment, we end up concluding that the most useful education is the one that focuses on the least useful work.

So, even though we’re pure instrumentalists at the policy level, as instrumentalists, we become committed to the rejection of instrumental approaches. Not always, not if better evidence comes along, but for the time being, given our current knowledge, etc. We become instrumentally non-instrumental. When we are in front of the classroom or when we are advising students about majors, we should discourage an instrumental relationship to education. And that means that we have to discourage instrumentalism when we are deciding which programs to fund, too.

Administrative Bloat?

Confessions of a Community College Dean takes on one of my cherished beliefs, that “Administrative Bloat” drives skyrocketing tuition:

Never mind that this assertion has been empirically discredited, or that the “supervisory” ranks in colleges have shrunk even faster than the full-time faculty ranks.  The only actual growth has been in IT, services for students with disabilities, and financial aid.  Firebrands are invited to explain which of those they’d cut.

Notably, Community College Dean depends on “empirical discreditation” that only goes back to 2001, which ignores the beginning of the bloat during the 90s and takes advantage of the increases in enrollment from the significant “mini-baby boom” during the 00s. His perspective is at least partly biased by his specific experiences at community college, because in most universities the bloat has been particularly top-heavy:


CCD notes Baumol’s cost disease, which I covered in my “23 Things about Capitalism” post, but concludes:

Long-term, I’m convinced that the only way to break the spiral is to break free of time-bound measures.  The credit hour must die.

I’m generally sympathetic, but CCD is a dad, so I wonder if he’d advocate the same pursuit of efficiency for parenting or other care work. You can see why humanities advocates spend so much time fighting the instrumental approach to education. It’s practically a teleological paradox: you’ve got to pretend like time doesn’t matter, or else the education won’t work.

Academically Adrift’s Methodological Shipwreck

On Tuesday we had a university-wide faculty meeting on revising the general education requirements at Morgan State, and predictably President Wilson held up a copy of Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift and made some comments about how we had to do better while horribly mangling the actual findings of the book. Though there’s a lot going on in the text, which the group blog In Socrates Wake took up early last year, there are also serious methodological issues to consider before using it as a guide.

Let me start with the good news. Arum and Roksa’s conclusions are a triumph for the liberal arts: the only classes that guarantee an increase in “critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication” are classes that have at least forty pages of weekly reading, twenty pages of writing per semester, and high expectations from the professor. As a result, students with majors outside of the traditional liberal arts and sciences did not appear to be developing these skills. It also helps a lot for a student to start with high abilities in those areas, which is perhaps a problem when you’re dealing with poorly prepared students like 65% of Morgan’s first-year class.

As much as I love the conclusions of this text, there are a number of important methodological concerns that academics and administrators ought to consider before adopting policies on the basis of the book. Alexander Astin explains the statistical problem in his Chronicle piece “In ‘Academically Adrift,’ Data Don’t Back Up Sweeping Claim” and there are many other critical reviews in this pdf from the journal College Composition and Communication. Let me see if I can summarize the issues.

Arum and Roksa depended on a voluntary standardized test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which they administered in the first and fourth semesters of undergraduates’ education.  Right off the bat, then, we know that this is not a test of a full college education, but rather of the general education supplied during the first two years.

But even then, the methodological problems are threeefold. First, the authors use a 95% confidence interval, which allows us to say that there is only a 5% chance that the students identified as increasing in ability didn’t actually do so. But by controlling for “false positives” so stringently, we’ve left the door open to “false negatives.”In other words, the data analysis does not justify the “Adrift” claim that students who fall outside of that group haven’t increased in ability. We can be sure that reading and writing intensive courses work; we can’t be sure that other things don’t work.  This is simply a flaw in the way that the authors present their findings.

Second, and perhaps more dangerously, this test is not very reliable for testing the increased performance (i.e. the difference between two tests taken years apart) of individual students. As researchers for the CLA’s maker, the Council for Aid to Education, themselves note:

The CLA focuses on the institution (rather than the student) as the unit of analysis. Its goal is to provide a summative assessment of the value added by the school’s instructional and other programs (taken as a whole) with respect to certain important learning outcomes. […C]orrelations are about 0.35 higher (and explain three times as much variance) when the college rather than the student is used as the unit of analysis. This huge increase stems from the much higher reliability of the school level scores.

This raises substantial questions about the value of data that takes the student as the unit of analysis, and thus uses the weakest data available. Sometimes we have to admit that we do not have the data to say anything at all with certainty, even when we wish we could and even when our own experience suggests a tempting explanation.

Third, Arum and Roksa ran more than a thousand different statistical tests looking for correlations, but “with a confidence level of .05, for every 1,000 tests run odds are that 50 are false positives.” That means that even my cherished findings in favor of the liberal arts could simply be a mistake.

It’s one thing to say that their results are overly demanding, but another entirely to suggest that the very solid foundation they offer could equally well be based on statistical happenstance, overly keen researchers desperate to find any fit at all, and an over-reliance on faulty data.

We have to be honest with ourselves about the limits of certainty within educational assessements. I still believe that high expectations, high reading loads, and a lot of writing are the key to teaching students to become critical and complex reasoners. But I have to admit that the evidence for my position thus far is not as reliable as I wish it were: the practice of critical thinking and complex reasoning depends on just such acknowledgments.