I Love The Economist But When It Comes to Higher Ed They Don’t Know What They’re Talking About

by Gordon Haber

Last week The Economist ran a special section on higher ed. (Speaking of capitalism, I was late getting to the report because I was busy with this.) It’s surprisingly self-contradictory for a magazine that prides itself on its clarity of thought. Here are just a few things the report gets wrong:

1. It blames the teachers

According to the Economist, the big problem “lies in getting value for money on the teaching side. Tests suggest that many students do not learn enough these days. They work less than they used to. The average performance of America’s graduates, compared with those of other countries, is low and slipping.”

  • If the students are working less and performing badly after graduation how is that the fault of the “teaching side?” Maybe because the teachers dole out the work? But most college teachers, being adjuncts, have little influence on student workload.
  • As I’ve said before (I really only have about 3 ideas) that by the time most American students get to college they have already been irreparably harmed in terms of their intellectual development. The Economist sniffs that with American universities costing so much, you’d think that they’d be able to bring college students up to scratch. This attitude makes sense if you’re talking about, say, improving the reliability of your toaster oven. It does not make sense when discussing a college first-year who doesn’t know how to learn.
  • For a report that criticizes American higher education due to its poor performance on tests, it spends a lot of time saying again and again how there aren’t really any good tests to measure education level.

2. It assumes that education is a product like any other

The Economist takes an entirely instrumental view of education, discussing it in terms of “return on investment” or the advantage of a college with a “big global brand.” Yes, okay, I believe that trade is good and that one reason America is not a complete disaster is the relative transparency and ease of doing business. But if you think of an education only as a way to raise the purchaser’s standard of living (or ROI) how could you possibly be surprised that American students don’t know anything? If the only incentive is the degree than what incentive is there to actually acquire (or provide) a real education? And by the way, what is a real education ? How come when everyone talks about fixing higher ed they talk about tuition, as of lowering it will solve everything? How come we’re not talking about the generations of semi-literate, credulous hedonists?

3. It supports turning universities into “global brands”

The Economist is sanguine about the expansion of “brands” like NYU into places like Abu Dhabi, saying that “there are worse ways to use surplus wealth.” Take 2 seconds and google “Abu Dhabi human rights” and wonder how the president of NYU sleeps at night.

4. It supports MOOCs

The Economist of course believes that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a great alternative to actual teachers in an actual classroom, selectively quoting the dubious research of corporate shills. Actually I believe that MOOCs have enormous potential for remote or non-traditional learners, but it seems pretty  obvious that universities are drooling over MOOCs because they can charge a lot of money without having to put teachers and students together in a classroom.

Looking again at the above, I think that #2 is really what’s behind all the bullshit. The question is not how to make higher ed cheaper and more efficient. (To do that you’d just have to fire 95% of the administrators.) The question is how best to educate and then, within reason, to spend accordingly.