Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Demise of the Academy

My Trotskyist friends are big on material conditions. By this they mean the underlying forces influencing any social change or social movement. For Marxists, such material causes are inevitably economic. Famously, they interpret everything through a class conflict lens, and will often refer to the historical relationship of forces, or the contradictions inherent in capitalism.

So a lot of this is gibberish, but the underlying idea is true. Important social phenomena are indeed caused by important changes in the material facts of life. These, of course, need not only be economic, but can also be biological and sexual. They can even be psychological--economists have long recognized the importance of expectations in causing economic events.

So what’s causing the demise of the academy? It’s not just that professors are a bunch of pointy-headed nitwits--though that is certainly true. And it’s not just the hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go agenda, though that definitely hasn’t helped any. No--the reasons ultimately are economic and sexual. The other phenomena are a symptom of the academy’s dysfunction, not a cause.

Three key causes of academic decline are ultimately technological in origin--automation, disintermediation, and democratization.

The first item refers to disruptive pedagogy. This includes on-line learning, such as MOOCs, computer-aided instruction, such as Rosetta Stone, and computerized instructional aids, such as automated grading. The net result of all these technologies is to make higher education cheaper. It partially overcomes Baumol’s disease by increasing the productivity of the faculty.

But unlike all the hype, none of these technologies threaten higher education at its core. At some level, education depends on person-to-person interactions. While new technologies will eliminate a lot of professors’ jobs, there’s no way they’ll become completely obsolete.

It will, however, change what professors teach. We may distinguish between articulated knowledge and tacit knowledge. Articulated knowledge is the stuff you can put in words. It shows up in textbooks, on Wikipedia, and in on-line courses. Mathematics is the ultimate in articulated knowledge--everything can be reduced to words, numbers and symbols. Some form of computerized instruction will soon replace almost all mathematics professors. To a lesser degree the same is true in many STEM disciplines.

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is stuff that can’t be put into words. Pronouncing Chinese nouns is a good example--the only way you’ll learn that is by imitation. Descriptions such as put your tongue on the top of your mouth simply won’t get you very far. Learning Chinese fluently ultimately requires that you spend time in China imitating native speakers.

A lot of what you learn in college is tacit knowledge, especially in the arts and humanities. There will always be jobs for human professors in those fields. So the hype around pedagogical technologies is, in my opinion, somewhat exaggerated.

The second way technology threatens college life is through disintermediation. Disintermediation means that it will no longer be one-stop shopping anymore. The college as a single location where students buy everything from their calculus class to their gym memberships will disappear. Rather, each of those items will be purchased a la carte from whatever provider offers the best value. Calculus, for example, will be delivered on-line from The Calculus Company. (That’s a company I’d like to found--it would teach nothing but calculus in all it’s variations for students at all levels.) Housing and athletics will be run by similarly specialist companies. The college will be reduced to housing those classes that are best taught in person.

The third term--democratization--destroys the university’s monopoly on scholarship. The Internet makes information available to anybody. It allows people without credentials (horrors!) to do valuable work in whatever discipline they want. This blog comments on Louis Proyect’s blog--he is a good example. The man is a good historian, despite having neither the credential nor the academic rank. He can do this because he no longer needs access to a physical library. Most of the sources available to “professional” historians are now available to anybody at a very modest cost.

Much of the dispute about climate change isn’t really about the climate. It’s more about who has authority to speak on behalf of “science”. Blogs such as Skeptical Science stoutly defend the professoriate--if you don’t have a tenured position at an official university, you have no standing to say anything about science. On the other side, bloggers like Stephen McIntyre weigh in aggressively, even without credentials.

The credentialists will ultimately lose this argument, and with them so will the academy. With scholarship so easily dispersed to the four winds, both students and taxpayers are becoming increasingly reluctant to pay for it to happen on college campuses. Outside of the most elite institutions, the research mission of colleges and universities will disappear. Scholarship in fields such as literature, history, and philosophy will become avocations, curated by public intellectuals (such as Mr. Proyect) who establish themselves as experts.

The college will be hollowed out, teaching only courses that require capital investment, such as chemistry labs.

So I think most higher education institutions will disappear, though that process may take decades. (After all, the Post Office is still around.) The material conditions for its demise are in place, and nothing our academic friends do will change that fact.

Still, they’re doing a really good job of hastening the inevitable. Our professor friends are engaging in remarkably stupid activities.

The prime example is the crusade against sexual harassment. The claim is that female college students are sexually assaulted way in excess of the regular populations. (1 in 5 is the obviously bogus statistic floating around.) To remedy this “tragedy”, illiberal rules and laws are being implemented, all of which are almost certainly unconstitutional. The most egregious is the new law in California (summarized as “yes means yes”) which makes it impossible for men to defend themselves against a sexual assault charge, as even defenders of the law admit.

It all began with a Dear Colleague letter from the federal Department of Education, “suggesting” that campuses should use a preponderance of the evidence standard in adjudicating sexual disputes. This means that men are tried and convicted (in a civil sense) of heinous crimes without due process.

So I support these new sexual assault laws. I oppose the academy in all its nefarious forms, and anything that destroys its credibility is something to be celebrated. Men will be even less likely to attend college than before. (And when they leave, so will the women.) Those that do are more likely to be filing lawsuits against their campuses, assisting them in bankruptcy. My campus is spending a fortune in policing--we have more cops per square foot than any city in America. And all for the sake of defending us against (mostly) non-existent crimes.

The professoriate is trying to help the Democratic Party with its war against women meme. Instead, they’re simply hastening their own doom.

Down with the academy!

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