What went wrong with American universities?

As someone from Central Europe for whom tertiary education was almost free, I have always been baffled about the costs of US colleges. I got to know several graduates from the US who had teaching jobs in Austria but couldn’t stay, because they had to look for “proper” jobs to pay back their student loans. College is just too expensive and ineffective — very much like the US healthcare system.

In How academia became corrupt a medium blogger Theo compares American colleges to the mediaeval Catholic Church in their development: an innovative and noble institution that eroded to a scandal-ridden rigid organisation. The writer argues that there were several factors that led to this corruption and that can also be found in US universities nowadays:

Three things allowed the Catholic Church to become corrupt: they were immune from criticism, they had unlimited money, and everyone had to play ball with them. And I’m afraid that all 3 of those conditions apply to the American university system today.

  • Commercialization

I think Theo’s comparison with the Catholic Church is more than just a metaphor or analogy, it reflects at least partially the very same social processes:

I am not an economist, but basic economic theory tells me that US universities that have high competition should be cheaper and more effective than state-run European universities. The opposite seems to be true. Could it actually be that competition drives the costs upwards?

Universities have two jobs: producing science and providing some form of income for the people who attend college. The latter has become disproportionately more important over the past decades. College education is associated with power, status, and income much more than it used to be. In the past colleges attracted truth-seekers much more than money-seekers. The term “Ivy League” is much more associated with top jobs rather than top research. In evolutionary psychology an Ivy League education is very much like the peacock tail: high investment in something that is hardly useful for survival but attractive in mating, or similar to Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption.

When universities started they tended to attract truth-seekers most of all. I have argued that these kinds of people are mostly of the “rational temperament” or evolutionary hunter-(gatherer) types, who often don’t care too much about status, money, and power.

When universities became more associated with money and status they started to attract farmer and herder types who are more interested in safe careers and status than the truth. In brief, universities have become like corporations when they used to be like start-ups.

If universities cater to these kinds of students then it should be clear that the costs will go up rather than down. They will vie to offer the most prestigious lecturers and luxurious accommodation, which will drive costs upwards, naturally. In a way, US universities are similar to Apple’s iPhone in this respect. Economic theory would predict that iPhones become cheaper with increasing competition. What actually happened was that iPhone prices continued to rise as they had the highest status among smartphones. Apple reacted with a cheaper version of the iPhone in order to compete with low-cost producers, but this was really just to milk the cash cow in the lower segment, which was really secondary for Apple and never attracted many customers.

Any customer can easily opt out of Apple’s ecosystem if they are willing to do without the status. I own a two-hundred-dollar Chinese smartphone that does its job perfectly well.

Opting out of college is much harder, though. While finishing high school was enough to get a decent job a few decades ago, nowadays it’s a university education. Andrew Marr wrote in one of his books that great journalists had three qualifications in the 1980s: they were great at writing, they were high-school dropouts and they were alcoholics. Nowadays you need a college education. It doesn’t always select the best people for a job, but the people who are best at following tasks and orders.

Opting out of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages was simply not a possibility. That changed when the Reformation came along. Ivy League graduates are certainly some of the most successful people out there. They are only trumped by… well, by college dropouts: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Paige, Bill Gates, and the like. Yes, the most successful people aren’t people who finish college, but some of those who drop out. The brightest minds are aware that there is something better they can do with their time than write papers they are bored with until they finally get their diplomas. Unfortunately, such opt-out possibilities are fewer for people who don’t have technologically gifted minds. But there are and I hope there will be more in the future. Theo is aware of that when he writes:

Also, people who do science outside of academia can now publish their work online — without having to go through a journal. Today, Rudyard Lynch makes videos about history and geopolitics on his YouTube channel Whatifalthist. They’re not the most intellectually rigorous videos, but they contain some really interesting ideas that will likely move the discipline of history forward. This is striking because Rudyard Lynch is 21 years old. And he dropped out of college after one semester.

A lot has gone wrong with universities. They have become a place for selection rather than formation and they aren’t even particularly good at that as they foster plutocracy rather than meritocracy. As far as the science is concerned, I am convinced that increasing input will come from people outside academia, like Rudyard Lynch. People who still have big ideas. Big ideas aren’t what makes people successful in academia. Some of the best scientists in history never went to university. Galileo Galilei, astronomer, engineer, mathematician and physicist dropped out of college. Michael Faraday, the chemist and physicist, received little formal education and knew little of higher mathematics, such as calculus; he was one of the most influential scientists in history.

Many people will be familiar with philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn or Karl Popper. Few people will be familiar with Paul Karl Feyerabend who proposed scientific anarchism, which the Internet has enabled more than anything else before in history. An age in which you get teen scientists who do not have to publish in peer-reviewed journals in order to get attention. The very same teens would probably be quite frustrated with colleges, with having to write papers on topics they aren’t interested in, with the bureaucracy and the formality of it all.

Don’t get me wrong, I value education, I mostly loved my time in college. I could mostly choose the classes I was interested in and I mostly didn’t have to worry about money. But I am worried about my children’s future. While I saw college education as a personal gain, the way I see it nowadays is mostly as a loss, a loss of money and time for most people. Those who can afford to opt out would be stupid not to.

For more on the hunter-gatherer neurotribe check out my :

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0836LW5QV

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on October 26, 2022.

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