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Conservatives vs. Libertarians on What Ails Higher Education: The Case of the Universty of Virginia

So this astute and classy article by James Patterson explains why so many conservatives wrongly took the side of the Board of Visitors against University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan on the matter of her removal and reinstatement.

Someone might say, though, that the conservatives who support the Board aren’t really conservatives. They’re more properly called libertarians, who are associated with places like the Pope Center and parts of the Wall Street Journal

The libertarian critique of higher education these days is all about productivity. College costs way too much mainly because faculty work way too little. The tenured faculty at the University of Virginia are an entrenched interest quite comparable to a public-sector union. They want to teach what they want, and they want to be overpaid for it. They don’t care whether what they teach is actually useful for students in acquiring good jobs. They don’t care much if students are learning much of anything at all. So the faculty—and the kind of administrators who win popularity by catering to faculty—are the main cause of the higher-education bubble. The product isn’t worth anything like what students now pay for it, and the government facilitates what amounts to close to a fraud by allowing innocent young people to borrow huge amounts of money for shoddy goods. A conscientious Board acts resolutely to cut costs before the bubble bursts. That means requiring the university’s president to side with its visionary innnovations and against the recalcitrant and irresponsible faculty. 

So libertarian reformers are all about doing what the UVA Board wanted to do: Eliminate “loss leader”—under-enrolled and very costly—programs such as German and Classics. And take advantage of economies of scale by offering lots of courses “online.” That way hundreds or thousands of students can be enrolled in a single course, and all kinds of innovative delivery ideas are being developed that are far superior to the traditional lecture. Making recalcitrant professors teach online is a promising way to get them to earn their bloated salaries. It’s also a promising way of employing many more adjunct faculty in various undisclosed locations and reducing radically the need for and even the point of tenured faculty. All in all, online delivery is obviously a fine way of driving down educational costs. 

Libertarian reformers usually pretty much buy into the education for productivity model. The liberal arts are defensible if they develop marketable skills. They’re worthless if they’ve devolved into little more than self-indulgent ideological posturing by tenured radicals. They remain suspect if they’re understood to be all about educating the soul or developing character or even for cultivating a learned taste for art, music, philosophy and so forth that would ennoble the leisure that a free and prosperous country makes available to so many of us. They also remain suspect when defended as the best possible remedy for alleviating the anxiety that seems to plague sophisticated and affluent Americans more than it does comparable people in other countries. And nobody these days is even trying to argue (except for those who teach Tocqueville’s Democracy in America) that the point of liberal education is to teach young people to think highly enough of themselves to resist being determined by the impersonal imperatives of technology and fashion and random or completely unguided self-determination. 

One way of making this point: Hobbies, for libertarians, are nice and all that (think, for example, of the foodie Tyler Cowen), but acquiring them isn’t worth huge price tag of college these days. Some libertarian professors are okay with “civic education” or “civic literacy,” but what they really mean is bolstering political support for our free political institutions and free economy. 

Conservative professors, meanwhile, are more about conserving what remains of liberal education, including Greek and Latin and the Socratic model of face-to-face conversation in and out of the classroom that’s the point of the residential college. More about them soon. But for now it is easy to see why the conservatives, such as James Ceaser, sided with the very politically liberal president against the libertarian Board. Anyone who’s read both Karl Marx and Edmund Burke knows they largely agree on what’s lost with reducing education—which maybe should begin with wonder at the unbought gift of the goodness of life—to service to the imperatives of productivity. 

I, for one, see lots of promise in online education. But not so much in the arts and sciences at Mr. Jefferson’s university.


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