Many of my readers may know that the single-event that most changed my intellectual development, and my outlook on the world, was when someone who was once very close to me abrogated everything I thought I once understood about the point of the academy, the pursuit of inquiry and the seeking of a better world. It was when a world famous labor economist, who wrote an entire labor economics textbook that included a chapter on why the minimum wage was not a good way to help the poor (empirically and theoretically) and that there were even other labor market policies that were clearly superior (again both empirically and theoretically) came out and led a major group of signatories in support of the minimum wage hikes during Bush’s second term. Asked whether everything he taught me was wrong, I was told that no, not everything I was taught was wrong, but rather it is the symbolism of publicly supporting the minimum wage that matters.
Let me be as clear as I possibly can. When you hear the term “symbol” invoked as a reason for why a particular behavior was chosen, you have left the domain of reason and entered the realm of tossing virgins into volcanoes. This may sound harsh, but invoking symbolism should have one removed from any serious consideration as a fellow reasoning human being. Why? Because there is a reason for everything. A cause and an effect. Those things may not be obvious, they may be too complex to follow, but that does not mean that they do not exist. When someone says that they did something because the symbolism is important, it is an intimidation strategy intended to shut off any and all rational discussion.
Why did you waste $11,500 on a solar powered picnic table that is probably doing environmental harm? Symbolism. Never mind whether it makes any sense on any grounds. When you invoke symbolism, it makes it out of bounds to discuss any cost and any benefit – none of that matters when we are just making symbols. Of course, lost on the unreasoning is that by appealing to symbolism for any particular activity merely pushes the question down one more level. Why is THIS particular thing the best way to demonstrate the symbol that you care so much about? Crickets.
I cannot possibly imagine any other institution where symbolism is more regularly invoked than in higher education. This is not harmless. This is not just a reason why college costs so much, but it is a reason why the very foundation of why higher education is supposed to be about is eroding. Think about why many of the organizations on campus exist. I am sure I’ll be lambasted for naming any of them, but let your imagination run wild. We have an office of the perfect baloney sandwich, offices for the establishment of fair treatment of skateboarders, offices for the development of inspirational window treatment design, and so on. And not only do these offices exist, but we have a very thick bureaucracy built to support them. Inquire one day about why we must support these endeavors on college campuses, and keep asking questions and it will not be long before you hear what amounts to an admission that symbolism is the reason to institutionalize the importance of baloney sandwiches. Look, I am every bit a part of the building of yummy baloney sandwiches, the irony is not lost on me. In any case, imagine what happens when your university finds itself in financial trouble. Imagine the sorts of things that we’d do in order to save money. And ask yourself what is more likely: that a statistics class be outsourced to a graduate student, or an office of unicycle affairs be eliminated? In case the answer is not obvious, go look at the big departments of ANY major university and see how they are already staffing their courses. And the reason for this sort of a decision is that we can be pretty sure that a grad student knows his statistics and we can imagine that having him or her teach students reasonably well: we have some way of evaluating the tradeoff. But when the reason we have an office of unicycle affairs is because “this is the message we want to send to people” then no such calculus, regardless of how crude, is in the offing. Thus we find the appalling trend in higher education that at the same time that almost every administrator is begging for funds, decrying the “crisis” in state funding for higher education, worrying about global US competitiveness, etc. that these ancillary symbols proliferate. And it is appalling particularly when you come to the realization that the entire higher education establishment is conditioned to accept that “this is what good higher education institutions do.” Couple this with the fact that even if we took a reasoned approach to whether we have an office of unicycle appreciation, that measuring “success” or any crude measure of “output” is so elusive that we end up talking about inputs and effort as signs of success rather than achieving any real goals. Thus, when asked if the office of unicycle appreciation is doing its job, or is worth its weight, we end up pointing to the fact that “all students get to see unicycles, and they would not have been able to see them without coming to our school,” or that “we put on 10 unicycle appreciation events this year as compared to 8 last year.”
The debased currency of unreason continues to make its way into circulation. We’ll explore some additional illustrations soon.