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Mark Thoma points us to a Krugman column that basically says the Republicans are trashing American values by questioning the value of higher education. In fact he explicitly makes the argument that Republicans want people to NOT go to college because that will keep lots of Americans ignorance, and therefore keep mobility low and therefore keep the rich Republicans in a position of power and privilege.

It’s really emblematic of the current level of discourse that pervades not just the press but right here on campus. Because implicit in the piece (read it), or perhaps explicit, is the unquestioned truth that:

(1) College is good for everyone at all margins. If this were not what the author was actually saying, then it would at least be reasonable to suggest that reasonable people disagree about how important college is for increasing worker productivity, how much of the gains to college come from it playing a signaling role or a sorting role, that not all current low-income people want or should have to buy the entire “bundle” of college (after all, should we provide public subsidies to colleges just so they can support student groups who stage classroom sit ins? Does that help low-income potential students move up the mobility latter? Become better citizens? And reasonable people, even Republicans, can be concerned about just how much of what happens on college campuses is necessary for students to obtain the skills that are important for future success. And yes, there are all kinds of peer-effects of the current system that are important that are hard to replicate elsewhere, and yes there are important non-classroom lessons for all students to learn. And reasonable people could argue that the college campus is a place where ideas that are hostile to the tradition of Western Civilization or not merely present but are what the university is all about. So it’s nice that the author can simply say that opposing public subsidies for colleges (again, no discussion of the necessary externality here, if merely capital constrains then loans to students are appropriate not grants to colleges) means that you want the entire populace to be dumb and ignorant.

I am not a Republican. I think college is oversold. I think we spend too much on college. I think a lot of what happens here on campus is superfluous to a good education. I think some bad education happens here (maybe I am guilty or promoting that too!). But none of this means I am promoting ignorance. We can do college better. We can generate knowledge and skills in far more ways than sending everyone into a traditional university. I wished I were more creative and had the ability to do just that. But to suggest that opposing more government involvement in higher education makes one a promoter of ignorance is, well, I just don’t know what to call it.

So, readers, I ask you, I really am tired of the stupid back and forths, and character assassinations and the needs to write rants. But what should my reaction to this sort of a thing be. As I’ve said before, Krugman has lots and lots and lots of very good things to teach us about economics. But what is being discussed above is simply fodder for food fighting, name calling, and a hell of a lot of time wasting. But those sorts of things win the day. People tell me to watch my tone. They do. Yet the most prominent intellectuals get the airtime and influence by doing precisely the opposite. And when they do use an uncharitable tone, it tends not to be on things that they can objectively be observed to be correct about.

(2) The second point that is implicit is that “we” are just stingy. In fact the author cites again the crumbling infrastructure canard. And he cites the fact that state support for higher education is shrinking in relative terms. Fine. Remember the big fact. The government in the US at all levels spends more than any other COUNTRY does in their entire economies. Over $6 trillion. And reasonable people can make the argument that already the US welfare state is comparable to Europe’s. Now, one reason the author would support single-payer health insurance (not care mind you, I’ve never seen Krugman say the government should hire doctors, at least directly) is that he believes this truly would reduce the fiscal pressures of Medicaid and Medicare and increase tax revenues though a healthier workforce, and that this change would allow us to dedicate more dollars to education. That is perfectly reasonable. But nothing of the sort is even implied in the post. One reason states have gotten “stingy” with higher education is that prisons and Medicaid (and public employee unions) have destroyed state budgets. Check out NASBO for more information. Another reason is that states CAN reduce direct support for higher education because students CAN deal with it as can universities. We can disagree about how well various schools can deal with it, or whether de facto privatizations of public universities can ensure access, but to not discuss any of this, even with a one sentence recognition of it is, well, I don’t know what to say. Krugman has already slammed people I know for their interest in folks taking a more charitable tone, so I am not even asking for that.

What is one to make of all of this? What tone am I to take? I, for not thinking higher education is the greatest thing since sliced bread, have been dismissed by Krugman as a heathen who wants poor people to remain stupid. At the same time, I can be (have been?) convinced that a better organized government involvement in the health care system (in ways that make it both more coercive and less coercive at the same time) have a good possibility of producing good outcomes, and I have been persuaded by some of Krugman’s arguments here. So how to proceed in this sort of a climate? For example, I was asked the other day by a reporter who was reporting on the incident on my campus earlier this week about “which side are you on?” And I was totally taken aback, because the reason I am/was apoplectic about it was that this is precisely the wrong question to ask, and WHY the entire thing was a disaster for almost everyone involved. I am not sure she understood.

7 Responses to “You Know, That Tone …”

  1. chuck martel says:

    There are nuances in the consideration of the educational process and what it means to the individuals involved and society as a whole. From the standpoint of the individual, however, it shouldn’t really be just about the acquisition of knowledge or developing the thought processes necessary for success in a particular field. What it should be about is maintaining and expanding options. When a person is born, he possesses a truly vast number of options that decreases as time goes by. There’s no reason that a five-day old baby can’t become a fighter pilot or an investment banker or an NHL hockey player. At some point, it may be discovered that that individual doesn’t have much skating talent. Hockey career is no longer an option. Later it seems that he has a touch of vertigo occasionally, forget the F-16 cockpit. Other options remain or can be developed. The kid can learn a second language and make himself a more valuable person. He can refrain from drinking and driving and maintain a clean criminal record. Positives like that keep options open. And the more options an individual has, the better his chance at whatever he considers success. The person with few options, who has painted himself into a knowledge/lifestyle corner, is less able to adapt to changing circumstances and less able to take advantage of new opportunities. A real education should be all about retaining, recognizing and exploiting options..

  2. Student says:

    It’s hard to say what you should do. It may be true that name calling gets the airtime and influence now, but I’m still hopeful that can be changed.

    The worst thing for me would be to see you resort to that in order to hopefully increase your influence. You should appreciate the impact your insightful, thought provoking, and frequent (very, very frequent) posts have on your readers. There are few other places I can go to submit myself to the challenging thought experiments I find here. Regardless of the topic or length of your posts, there is something substantial for me to consider and analyze. I suspect this is the case for most of your readers. We can hope that in time the value of the discussion you put forth here is realized and more academics, policy makers, and voters are drawn away from the (mostly) worthless fodder you despise. Perhaps you will be able to engage in an intelligent debate on some matter without the fear or necessity of the name calling you’ve done well with keeping away from.

    I wish a had a real answer, but this is the best I have for now.

  3. Harry says:

    Well said, Chuck.

    Krugman’s comment at a time when Republican governors (e.g. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania) have deigned to close the money faucet to higher education, asking Penn State and the many state teachers colleges to do more with less.

    Predictably, there is great resistance from every quarter of the academy, including a big part of the expense pie, the professors, who know they are vulnerable. They get paid a lot for a part-time job where many do not have to work very hard, and bristle at the slightest suggestion that they deliver more output, which is teaching more tuition-paying students. They are the Zebras. and the Republicans are the lions.

    To be sure, there are other ripe places to cut. Without doing the project, it would be wrong to speculate where, but the first place I would look is in administrative costs — anyone who is not a worker bee between the President and the professor. (Assuming the President is the top.)

  4. Harry says:

    One thing I do not understand is why, after all the effort over many years, our basic education efforts have yielded fewer literate people than we had when my parents went to grade school, forget about higher education. I went to school with a few slow kids, but even they made themselves able to read, add and subtract, multiply and divide, enough to get skills to live on their own as an adult.

    Yet today we have a crisis in education, countless people reaching the age of majority unable to read, which, as Chuck said above, limits their options to become anything.

    I do not think it is the job of the President of the United States or the federal government to solve this problem. If Republicans took Paul Krugman’s advice, and shoveled more money into the public education furnace, instead of being anti-intellectual bigots, they will not solve this problem.

    I, as Swami, confess I do not hold the key, but WC appears to be on the right track.

    Plus my support for Senate Bill 137: give everybody a free degree from the university of their choice, excluding Rochester and colleges. No medical degrees. No free pilot licenses. Now, that would save a ton of money, and would save both students and professors a lot of time. Most importantly, the Bill is gender-neutral.

  5. Brent says:

    I’d just be happy if they could teach everybody “a lot” is two words…

  6. Rod says:

    When my son was applying to colleges, there was an abundance of money to be had at private colleges and universities based primarily on need. Here’s the way it worked —

    First, the colleges all expected a family to exhaust all of their financial resources before they would give out a dime in scholarship aid. Especially, any funds saved for college had to be spent first.

    Once that had been done,, however, the colleges all opened their pocketbooks and cooked up a “package” of financial aid that consisted of loans, Pell Grants and state-subsidized student loans (if the college was in PA). At the same time, nearly all of these colleges proclaimed that they had endowments that would make it possible for “no student would not have the funds to go to College X.

    Also, it helped a lot if your kid was a good swimmer, lacrosse player or football player, even though Division III colleges had taken an oath not to give out athletic scholarships.

    Note that a constituent of the financial aid package was federal and state aid. The college was all too happy to get those dollars, even though it left a lot of students on the hook for $20 grand in college loans. That alone shows how government aid drives up tuition rates.

    Anyway, one of the first things we were told at admissions interviews was that the cost to us would be roughly what the tuition might be at Penn State or another state college. Penn State offers few scholarships to anybody: some academic merit scholarships and the rest athletic scholarships. My nephew was a good enough soccer goalie to get a free ride plus books and extras.

    Penn State, on the other hand, did not size up your pocketbook and force you into what amounted to be a socialist scheme to get the big bucks from wealthy parents but to go easy on the poorer students. If you’re saving for college for your kids, maybe parking that money in an offshore account would not be a bad idea.

  7. Harry says:

    Regarding your question implied in you headline, of course it is always important to pay attention to tone. The wrong tone will not convince.

    That said, there is a general responsibility on the other side of any conversation to be receptive, and forgive whoever is writing for errors in diction. If anything, WC makes frequent concessions to those who disagree so his argument might continue, and I am not just sucking up here to get an attaboy from WC, or Steve Landsburg. Complainig about politically incorrect statements is intellectual Small Ball.

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