If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You Teach At An Elite College?


The title of this post, a riff on G.A. Cohen’s If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?is one way Jonny Thakkar (Swarthmore) described to me the question at the heart of his recent essay, “Elite Education,” in The Point.

An outdoor “classroom” at Swarthmore

In it, he writes:

In an ideal society, I have suggested, there would be no elite colleges, or at least not in their current form. There might well be highly selective institutions devoted to fostering intellectual excellence, just as there might well be highly selective institutions devoted to fostering musical or sporting excellence. But an ideal society would be a just society, and a just society would manifest equal concern for each of its young adults; and although equal concern would not require an exactly equal distribution of resources, departures from equal distribution would have to be justified. If a college like Swarthmore wanted to bring this about, it could in principle work toward self-abolition, perhaps via intermediary steps like tripling the number of students or founding a sister college in nearby Chester. But America will not be just any time soon; even its public education system devotes vastly greater resources to well-off children than to those from poorer backgrounds. There would therefore be reasonable conservative grounds for Swarthmore’s officers and trustees to refuse to kill off the exquisitely rare fish of its rigorous liberal arts education just in order to sprinkle a little water on America’s arid turf. As an individual faculty member you have no power over such matters in any case: you either play the hand you’re dealt or you quit. If you do stay, then you have to acknowledge that the sociological function of elite colleges in non-ideal America will always be to produce an unfairly privileged elite. The only question is what it means to do this well.

One characteristic of a desirable elite, it seems to me, is that its members be self-aware. Each needs to recognize that they are the recipient of a golden ticket, not so they can engage in pointless rituals of self-denunciation but so they can reckon with the question of which responsibilities follow from the privilege that has been unfairly bestowed upon them. What is needed, as conservatives such as Helen Andrews and Ross Douthat have rightly argued, is something like the old ethos of noblesse oblige, according to which a golden ticket comes with the unavoidable obligation to make what Christopher Lasch called “a direct and personal contribution to the public good.” The difficulty is knowing how to teach with this in mind, given that career decisions are generally considered private…

If one function of a college like Swarthmore should be to create a good elite, another should be to give young people a taste for the life of the mind understood as an end in itself. Oxford remains for me an open wound, yet it was through one-on-one tutorials on Wittgenstein and Heidegger with a Socratic professor who never told me exactly what he thought that I came to see who I was and what I cared about. In a better world such opportunities would be distributed more widely, so leftist faculty like myself might be tempted to see today’s elite colleges as prefiguring the emancipation that such a world would bring. The problem, though, is that intellectual activity is like music and sport, in that excellence and enjoyment are at least partly correlated and excellence is fostered by the emulation and competition that arises when talented people are thrown together in close quarters. Because today’s elite colleges attract and concentrate talent from across the globe, spending vast amounts of money to ensure low faculty-student ratios, they are almost certainly better able to provide this service than the large state colleges that would exist if resources were distributed more fairly. They make possible a form of human achievement, in other words, that could probably never be replicated on a universal scale.

The political conscience of egalitarians who teach at elite colleges will therefore always be troubled. 

If Thakkar is mostly interested in the relationship between elite institutions and justice in the broader society, Agnes Callard (Chicago), in her essay in the same issue, focuses on the goods of higher education and the point of universities and colleges:

First, they are not for perpetuating the ruling or elite class. Second, they are not for achieving social justice. Doubtless they do perpetuate the ruling class; many institutions do this. And probably they could do more to bring about social justice. But those things are not what they are for. Third, universities are not for making money—though they do call for careful financial stewardship. Fourth, they are not for producing better citizens. Fifth, they are not for producing happier human beings… A university is a place where people help each other access the highest intellectual goods…

There’s nothing in your DNA that makes you a philosopher, nor is there some regimen you can run through to transform yourself into one. The closest we have come to devising a system for attuning a person to the intellectual life is to surround her with others aiming at the same thing for as long as the relevant parties can continue to afford it, and hope for the best.

Discussion welcome.

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Brian Weatherson
24 days ago

I’m pleased to learn from Jonny Thakkar’s piece that countries like Australia, which have nothing but big state universities, do not have the same form of human achievement as more enlightened countries like America.

I hadn’t actually observed this, but I guess that lack of attention to detail is a product of my inferior education at one of these big state schools.Report

Of course?*
Of course?*
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
24 days ago

I would have thought it is a default assumption that different education models produce different forms of human achievement. But I don’t see anywhere the (further?) assumption of a universal/all-things-considered ordering, in which the SLAC model is ‘better’ and the big state university system ‘worse’. And only certain kinds of arguments are going to depend on that ordering to justify being a part of an institution that enacts the SLAC model.Report

Last edited 24 days ago by Of course?*
Alexandre Leskanich
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
24 days ago

It’s an unthinking, patronising sort of arrogance – members of a self-appointed intellectual ‘elite’ find it inconceivable that they might have discovered exactly the same sort of ‘services’/’goods’ had they attended a university hardly anyone has heard of. But of course, such places couldn’t foster ‘elite’ understanding since they’re filled with less ‘talented’ people.Report

Jonny Thakkar
Jonny Thakkar
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
24 days ago

Thanks for the charitable reading, Brian! I confess to not being very familiar with Australia’s university system – would I be wrong in thinking that the Group of Eight represents an elite? From what I can see it looks as though those eight universities receive more research funding than others and I would presume that leads to a concentration of talent. Is that wrong? In any case, I don’t think the big state universities that Australia has at present would be the same as the big state universities that would exist if educational resources were spread evenly across members of a given cohort (including those who want to pursue vocational or technical education).Report

James Bondarchuk
James Bondarchuk
Reply to  Jonny Thakkar
23 days ago

From Wikipedia: “The Good Universities Guide places the Clayton, Caulfield, Parkville and Peninsula campuses of Monash in the category of universities which are most difficult to gain admission to in Australia, with each campus receiving an Entry Standards mark of 5/5. Monash has the highest demand for places among high school graduates of any university in Victoria. In 2009, one in four applicants put Monash as their first preference. This equates to more than 15,000 first preferences from Victorian high school leavers. Of the top 5% of high school graduates in Victoria, more choose Monash than any other institution. In 2010, almost half of the top 5% of high school leavers chose to attend Monash – the highest of any Victorian university by quite some margin. In 2009, among students with a ‘perfect’ ENTER score of 99.95 (i.e. students in the top 0.05% of high school applicants), 63 made an application for Monash. Times Higher Education ranked Monash University 18th in the world in 2021 Impact Rankings.”Report

Ant Eagle
Reply to  James Bondarchuk
23 days ago

The Go8s collectively enrol more than 200,000 undergraduates (Monash alone has 55,000); given that Australia has fewer than 2 million people in the 18–22 age range, more than 1 in 10 of the whole college-age population is currently enrolled at one of these universities – while some courses are selective, these are mass institutions (some of which used to be elite when the funding system was different in the 1960s). Couple that with Australia’s income-contingent loan system and the fact of centralised Government price setting for courses and programs, and there aren’t conditions for a viable elite institution. (The Go8 get substantially more research funding, but that is tied to grants or postgraduate scholarships; none of that is available to subsidise undergraduate education.)Report

Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Ant Eagle
23 days ago

Another relevant stat for this. In Victoria, you need to be in the top 20% of high school students to get into a core campus of a Go8 school. I think the other states are broadly similar. That’s not perfect egalitarianism, not by a long shot. But imagine how much better a society America would be if there was no distinction between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile in terms of what higher education institutions they could access.

And as Ant says, the difference between the Go8 and the rest isn’t due to undergraduate funding levels. Nor, I think, is it the quality of the teaching inside and outside the Go8. It’s really a matter of social prestige. That’s obviously a huge thing, and Australia would be a better place if degrees from Macquarie, Deakin, QUT, etc opened as many doors as degrees from Monash etc. So an egalitarian shouldn’t rest with what Australia has in higher education.

But we do know what a fairer higher education funding system than America has could look like. And we know that it doesn’t prevent the development of intellectual goods. America would be better if the higher education system in more states looked like it does in Washington, Minnesota and other places that also manage to produce vibrant intellectual cultures while having big state universities be the center of higher education.Report

Jonny Thakkar
Jonny Thakkar
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
22 days ago

Thanks for the clarification, Brian. Did you actually read the essay, though? If so you will have seen that I actually agree with you that a system like the Australian one would be preferable to the American one all things considered. It’s definitely better from the point of view of social justice and I think there are other social goals that it satisfies better as well. My point is just that there would be something to regret in the transition away from the American status quo towards such a system, in particular for the faculty fortunate enough to currently teach at elite colleges. And hence that such faculty are bound to have troubled political consciences.

Our real disagreement seems to be over whether there would be anything to regret in the transition. I imagine you would agree with me that individual faculty would have something to regret, since they currently benefit from huge resources and the pleasures of teaching in small groups and so watching individual students grow (and perhaps even contributing to the process) in a way that’s at least harder to do in larger groups. So then the disagreement must be about my claim that concentration of talent (both among faculty and among students) will generally lead to greater individual development (for both groups). Your own case couldn’t disprove such a claim, since we’re talking about a general tendency rather than a universal law. (For what it’s worth, having taught at the University of British Columbia I have absolutely no doubt that extraordinary intellectual development and achievement is possible at large state institutions like the ones you describe in Australia.) Clearly it’s hard to prove the claim that concentration of talent (both among faculty and among students) will generally lead to greater individual development (for both groups), but it seems plausible to me. That is an armchair claim, I concede. But would you deny it as far as music or dance or soccer is concerned? And would you deny that the current Australian system has something to recommend it relative to a fully egalitarian system, at least in respect of promoting intellectual development and achievement?Report

Alexandre Leskanich
24 days ago

I’ve always assumed that ‘elite’ was simply the compliment the arrogant pay to themselves. In any case, and oddly for an argument about self-described ‘elite’ education, these essays don’t bother interrogating the term ‘elite’ and what exactly it is supposed to mean, beyond some vague allusion to academic excellence supposedly unavailable elsewhere. But academic excellence – whether through students, teachers, research – can be found in every university, whether or not it is considered ‘elite’.Report

J. Bogart
24 days ago

A university is a place where people help each other access the highest intellectual goods”. At the University of Chicago there are Schools of Law, Business, Medicine, and a host of departments focused on such topics as chemical engineering, theater, etc. They look like they are aiming at teaching sets of skills. Certainly law schools aim at teaching skills. Or are skills ‘highest intellectual goods’? Report

Jason Brennan
24 days ago

Many egalitarians try to rationalize that the demands of egalitarian justice make few or no demands on them personally. This allows them to feel good about themselves for believing the right stuff while acting like self-serving, status-seeking, egoists. (See, e.g., Ronald Dworkin’s extravagant lifestyle.)

None of these rationalizations work, as Chris and I show here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10892-020-09342-2

If you are an egalitarian, you should for the sake of consistency/integrity give away most of your excess income and wealth, and most of your income and wealth is probably in excess.Report

Ian
Ian
24 days ago

What should an egalitarian professor do when working at an elite univeristy?

The same thing any egalitarian who is living in an unjust society should do: advocate for more equality, lift up voices and interests of the oppressed, etc.

Nothing is gained by an egalitarian giving up their positions of privilege so that someone who is not an egalitarian can have more power. Elite universities aren’t going to disappear because you refuse a job at them.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  Ian
24 days ago

You should try to destroy your institution, because it is a clear and major instrument of class division. Making, say, Harvard open to more people doesn’t help if it still means that Harvard grads have elite status, and if such status is still used to divide access to good jobs and positions.Report

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Jason Brennan
23 days ago

And how are they going to destroy their institution?Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Ian
23 days ago

Let the English department have power and wait.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Jason Brennan
22 days ago

To Jason Brennan:
Why did you use Harvard as an example here instead of Georgetown, which is also an elite institution and is, if I’m not mistaken, the place where you teach? Is it because you might have felt a bit uncomfortable suggesting, even half in jest, that every professor at Georgetown who considers himself, herself or themself an egalitarian should try to “destroy” Georgetown so that it no longer operates as “a clear and major instrument of class division”?Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
22 days ago

Because Harvard is significantly more prestigious than Georgetown.

But, yes, egalitarians should be trying to radically reduce government and private funding of higher education and trying to reduce its function as a gate as much as possible. If you are not doing that, you are either A) a hypocrite or B) very misinformed about the empirics of higher education.

I’m not an egalitarian, however, I also am against creating negative-sum or zero-sum institutions and norms, so I’m not sure what this requires of me personally.Report

Louis Cooper
Louis Cooper
Reply to  Jason Brennan
21 days ago

Couple of things being missed here, I think. Universities don’t only reproduce class hierarchies. They also produce research that in some cases supports legislative and other measures that tend to reduce inequality. Take for possible instance recent legislation on reform of criminal justice and incarceration. It’s hard to disentangle this empirically when, in significant part because of global economic forces beyond the control of universities, the level of inequality in the society has been rising so dramatically over the last 40 or so years.

Second, elite colleges and universities don’t only produce the next cohort of Wall St execs, but also — to some extent — the next cohort of union organizers, public-interest lawyers, political activists and others whose careers (using that term broadly) end up working against inequality.

So the conclusion that egalitarians should want to radically reduce private and govt funding of higher ed is perhaps not so clear-cut. I could see arguments both ways.Report

Jason Brennan
24 days ago

While academia is filled with people who posit egalitarian ideals, it is not an egalitarian place. In behavior, academia may be the most right-wing institution in the US, even more than the military or the police. (Think of how open the military and police are to accepting and promoting common people. Now think of how open the good colleges and universities are.) Higher ed serves a very right-wing function, namely, to reinforce class hierarchy. Academia is highly hierarchical; everything and everyone gets ranked, and everyone is acutely aware of such rankings. Finally, while nearly all academics pay lip service to left-wing ideals, their actual behavior is predominantly selfish. In short, academics simultaneously promote egalitarianism philosophy and inegalitarian outcomes. Status, not education, is the sine qua non and the essential product it sells; if it stopped providing this, it would quickly go out of business. Higher education strongly contributes to income inequality, especially in the United States.
 
People often use moral language to disguise their pursuit of self-interest. Academics in general are trained to use moral language in a sophisticated way. Perhaps we should regard academic egalitarianism as cheap altruism. If I say I’m an egalitarian, I come across as nice and caring, even though I haven’t thereby done anything to help others or sacrificed my self-interest to help the poor. On the contrary, many egalitarians go out of their way to explain why their egalitarian commitments do not require them to donate their excess income to others.
 Report

Alexandre Leskanich
Reply to  Jason Brennan
24 days ago

Spot on.Report

Evan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
24 days ago

Why and how do you think academia is so hierarchal and right-wing in the first place?Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  Evan
23 days ago

Because it sells differential status.

We know it sells status because

  1. Most students learn very little and forgot almost everything they know
  2. Most students do not develop their hard or soft skills and whatever development they get fades
  3. Almost everything you learn in college you can learn for free, either by doing free online stuff from MIT or Berkeley or by simply sitting in classes without registering
  4. When you survey people about whether they’d rather have the learning or the credentials, they pretty much all say the credentials
  5. In fact there is a massive wage premium despite the lack of learning.
  6. Sociological stuff about who marries whom, how degrees from fancy colleges open doors, etc.

The story that makes sense of this is that colleges sell status, not education. The education is more about hoop-jumping to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Creating differential status is a right-wing behavior.Report

Evan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
22 days ago

Number 4 is strange to me. How can one have credentials in X without being competent or knowledgeable about X? Some of these questions don’t let the respondents reflect on reality. In reality, I’m pretty sure these same people still want their doctors to know what they’re doing and not be a fraud who happens to have a “credential” or title.

A better question to ask is: “Would you rather choose to learn or have a credential (which requires you to be competent and knowledgable)?”Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Evan
22 days ago

Would you rather A) have a Harvard degree but learn nothing or B) learning twice as much as people usually learn at Harvard but have no degree? People pick A.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Jason Brennan
22 days ago

I’ve run this experiment with my students, Jason, and it’s not *that* clear cut. Some students pick B; I ask them why; they say that if they get the credential but not the learning, then, when they get the job the Harvard degree gives, they’d be discovered (for their lack of understanding? For their lack of the kind of traits that get you into Harvard to begin with?) and fired.

That said, all the ones who think this is an easy choice pick the credential, not the learning.Report

Evan
Reply to  Robert Gressis
21 days ago

I guess the lesson from the survey is that most people aren’t very rational or reflective about the negative consequences of *perceived* competence. Maybe Glaucon was a bit off track when he suggested that it’s better to be perceived to be just and not actually be just.Report

Evan
Reply to  Evan
21 days ago

But to be fair to Glaucon, he suggested that the most extremely unjust person will always get away with it and never get caught. But such people are a rare minority.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jason Brennan
22 days ago

A slightly more nuanced version might be: (A’) a Harvard degree but learn nothing, (B’) learning twice as much as people usually learn at Harvard but have a degree from somewhere much less prestigious than Harvard. (Not having a degree at all has very strong signalling implications.)

B’ is probably better than A’ if you’re trying to get into grad school in philosophy (which, sure, is scarcely typical of job processes!)Report

FluxSurface
FluxSurface
Reply to  David Wallace
21 days ago

I’m just nitpicking, but I feel A’ is not possible. I imagining graduating from Harvard would require a basic minimum set of skills, so it would be impossible to get a Harvard degree and “learn nothing”, at the very least you would know how to game the system, which is a skill in itself. Given that most Harvard students end up graduating and do jobs unrelated to their university degree anyhow, I imagine this must be an important skill then.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  FluxSurface
21 days ago

It’s probably not possible, and I don’t think it’s what happens in reality either. Even Caplan admits that students at least learn a fair bit about what they major in. And I think that Caplan also thinks that the top 10% of students (from a purely academic point of view) — and most Harvard students are probably in the top 10% of students — learn significantly more than other students from a schooling environment.

That said, I think we’re imagining that there was some clerical error or something, and you just learned that you have a Harvard degree even though you spent the last four years in a coma.Report

John
John
Reply to  Jason Brennan
21 days ago

People pick A because they are afraid of the threat of being poor forever, not because they don’t value learning.Report

snow.leopard
snow.leopard
Reply to  Jason Brennan
24 days ago

I think elite academic institutions may not be egalitarian, but state schools try to make higher education affordable for the majority. There are options out there. And there are talented and caring teachers who want to see their students find success rather than only being in it for selfish reasons.

If higher-ed only serves a hierarchical function as you describe, where rankings pervade the mind. I believe there are just as many if not more eager students who enter these institutions to learn, to make lasting relationships, and to develop the skills necessary to be independent. And they come out richer for it. I grew up around students whose parents were uneducated, blue-collar workers. And from attending state schools, they have found status and financial prosperity that their parents never dreamed possible.

What do you think would be an alternative Jason? If the game of higher ed. is only for the elite, then wouldn’t one rather have individuals who promote egalitarian views? As Ian mentioned above, nothing is being gained by an egalitarian giving up their position to be taken by another elite who is not as charitable. Or, as Thakker’s article describes, as a person who went to an elite school reflecting on being mindful of one’s unfair elite status and privilege to cultivate a more compassioned view to better society.

I’m sure plenty of altruistic academics make a difference and contribute to their community in the form of donations or time; not everyone documents and shares everything they do. Genuine generosity happens behind the scenes. Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  snow.leopard
23 days ago

The bummer is that the more a state school tries to serve the underprivileged, often the more harm they end up doing. College has a positive ROI only if you graduate, and underprivileged people tend not to graduate. If you attend for a few years and pay a bunch of money but don’t graduate, you get a negative ROI. Many schools that serve the underprivileged end up being failure factories that load students with debt but without degrees. You may have heard that students with more debt tend to default less than students with less debt. The reason is that the people with more debt usually graduated and make more money, while the people with less debt didn’t but now have extra debt without any wage premium.

(“College shouldn’t be about money!,” the privileged person said, and the walls of his chamber echoed his voice back.)Report

Nick Laskowski
Nick Laskowski
Reply to  Jason Brennan
22 days ago

The bummer is that the more a state school tries to serve the underprivileged, often the more harm they end up doing. College has a positive ROI only if you graduate, and underprivileged people tend not to graduate.

I don’t think it’s especially helpful to make generic statements like this when there are signifiant exceptions to them. Take my enormous state school, Cal State Long Beach. Part of its mission is to serve the underprivileged. Look at the 2020 graduation rates among various demographics below. In 2020, there is a 72% six-year graduation rate with the latino population and 62% with the black population.

“Exceptions like this prove the rule”, you might say. And sure, there are plenty of state schools failing to live up to their mission. But exceptions like CSULB show that there are ways of setting up state schools to serve the underprivileged effectively. It wasn’t always this way at CSULB. Serious effort has been made to bolster these numbers. It’s working. Egalitarians (at some state schools!) need not fret.

https://www.csulb.edu/office-of-the-president/equity-change-report/access-timely-graduation-for-diverse-studentsReport

John
John
Reply to  Jason Brennan
23 days ago

Given the difference between who murders, incarcerates, and otherwise harasses poor and working class people, the claim that higher ed is more right wing than the police seems utterly insane to me and not made in good faith. “Representation” is not the only or even the most important dimension of class. (The military might be a better comparison, but also, the us military does similar things to less developed countries all over the world.) I would also note that many (or at least some) poor and working class people value higher ed (1) for the intellectual goods it offers (people actually want to learn, believe it or not) and (2) the opportunity to stop living hand to mouth.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  John
23 days ago

Academia most excludes poor and working class people, but that’s not my concern. Rather, what academia does is create and perpetuate a class system in which access to high-status jobs is gate-kept by getting a college degree. The very high-status jobs require, most of the time, a degree from an elite school. These schools then go out of their way to ensure that the gatekeeping persists and the exclusivity remains. The upper middle class and upper class culture also reinforces this gate keeping to ensure the the lowly people stay out.

If college generally educated people and gave them more skills, this might not be so bad. But empirically speaking it does not. See the review of the evidence in Caplan’s The Case Against Education. Rather, most investment in higher education has negative social returns. Rather than making people smarter, better, or more skilled, it sorts people into groups, increasing the economic gains to the people in the top group while decreasing gains to those in the bottom group. From an egalitarian POV, it’s a nightmare. The evidence is rather overwhelming, too, but most egalitarians will ignore it or rationalize it away because it hurts their feelings.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Jason Brennan
22 days ago

Jason, why do you think the high-status jobs require a degree from an elite school? The data that Caplan has brought to the table seems to be pretty well known at this point (at least, it is in the tech sector). Is it that the high-status employers are looking for an excuse to hire people of their same class? Or is it that they believe that the more high-status your school, the more you have learned? Or is it that they accept the signaling model, but think that merely being able to get in and complete a top university education means that you’re conscientious, conformist, and intelligent?

Another way of putting my question is: how could we set things up so that there wasn’t gatekeeping of some form or other? (And maybe the fault lies just as much with the high-status employers as it does with the high-status universities.)Report

John
John
Reply to  Jason Brennan
21 days ago

Agreed that academia sorts people in this way and in general that one of its primary social functions is to produce the architecture of class. But if your politics centers capitalism as the most fundamental principle of social organization by which essential human goods, like education, are produced and consumed in our society (as, fwiw, mine does), then this is not news. The tragedy is that capitalism captures education like everything else. Any serious deliberation about how to remedy the situation would have to start by distinguishing education as a human good from education as it exists under capitalism. I took Thakkar’s piece to be trying to articulate something about education, the human good, and its relationship to education the social institution in fact mediated by capitalist modes of production (and so inherently part of the architecture of class).

I haven’t read Caplan’s book and am not familiar with the evidence. I’m starting from a place of extreme skepticism and frankly don’t understand how you could be in academia and believe this! (What are you doing then?) It also cuts against my own experience as a student and teacher. I think students learn things. Maybe not things that social scientists are good at measuring. Or I’m wrong and should find a new job. I guess I’ll have to read the book.Report

Opinionated
Opinionated
Reply to  Jason Brennan
21 days ago

We should take care not to mix up academia, whose sole purpose is the production of research (and the training of researchers), with universities, which house academia but serve many other purposes.Report

Evan
Reply to  Opinionated
21 days ago

I agree. Philosophers of education distinguish between education and schooling.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  John
22 days ago

I think if you gave academics the power to murder and incarcerate, many of them would use it. I mean, they already use the power to harass.Report

John
John
Reply to  Robert Gressis
21 days ago

Sure, and in fact higher ed is part of the power structure that maintains the carceral state. K-12 as well. Many parts of society cooperate to enable a complex system of disappearing people. It’s still unhelpful to make misleading but provocative claims about which institutions are responsible for which part of maintaining the carceral state. The police primarily inflict violence (the kind that kills and maims) and have a pretty direct role in running prisons, whereas higher ed has a different role in maintaining the status-system Jason B describes, and I would add the race-system: education is generally one of the major life-alternatives to going to prison and to living in poverty. If academics are right-wing because society generally is, that would make sense. But what was said was deceptive and counter-productive.Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  John
21 days ago

Yes, the plight of the poor and underprivileged is due to those policemen and women making 50k/year, not, you know, structures of inequality perpetuated by those who wish to stay in power.

It’s very convenient to think so, I admit—I can take to the streets, outraged, yell “F* you racist pigs!” at the working-class (often minority) cops who make half what I make, go back in time to teach my afternoon class to future hedge-fund managers at an ivy-league institution, feeling satisfied that I have done my part to make the world a better place.

I’m not a Marxist, but we need better Marxists. Where’d you all go?Report

Evan
Reply to  Prof L
21 days ago

Prof L: You wrote: “ Yes, the plight of the poor and underprivileged is due to those policemen and women making 50k/year, not, you know, structures of inequality perpetuated by those who wish to stay in power.”

I think this is a misunderstanding of John’s argument. He stated that the police often enacts *physical* violence onto poor people. I don’t think he was claiming that the police institution directly contributes to the *economic* hardships of the poor.Report

John
John
Reply to  Prof L
21 days ago

What Evan said is right (thanks). When you are evicted it’s the police who show up to physically remove you; it’s the police who disperse tent-encampments; the victims of police brutality are overwhelmingly poor; and jails, prisons, and detention centers are physical places where people are physically abused. That shouldn’t be obscured. But it’s also more complicated, and the police do play an important role in inflicting economic harm. Police have a historical role in union-busting (despite their own unions winning incredible protections and generous salaries/benefits for public employees); court and police fines and fees directly maintain class divisions (this was a major finding of the investigation of the Ferguson police department, which essentially self-funded through arbitrary fines and fees of a majority black and largely poor/working class community); and “crime” is itself a socioeconomic phenomenon, as has been documented in more ways than I can coherently express in a short comment. Also, this comment is incredible to me because of the ways that police budgets drain resources that could otherwise benefit poor and working class people. Money goes to arming police with military gear instead of building affordable housing etc.Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  John
20 days ago

This is like saying “It’s the checkout clerks at Arby’s who sell me overpriced trash” … I mean, in a sense, most directly, but give me a break …

I have family who some of you may have cursed at, shouted at, spit at, just for doing their jobs. But as for police budgets taking up precious resources … maybe budgets could be improved. But it’s under-policing that plagues the most distressingly violent and impoverished neighborhoods, not over-policing, and under-policing is now endemic and we’re seeing crime skyrocket in those very neighborhoods. Police are reluctant to initiate any interactions, thanks to all the hate and abuse they have each personally received and continue to receive, and many have retired or simply quit, and it’s not easy to hire good replacements, and there’s budget cuts, etc., so more people are being murdered. It’s the police who come and calm down your violent or mentally ill family member. Or when shots are fired in your neighborhood. It’s the police who come and put themselves at risk in whatever situation you happen to be in, whenever you call them. The police serve as a lifeline for people on the edge. Things could be improved and nothing is an excuse for bad behavior—police need to be held accountable when they abuse the trust that is placed in them. But seriously, spend some time around some actual police officers on the job, and then tell me they are a “right wing” institution. What nonsense. One can pick and choose any policy or law—police take away guns so they are a left wing institution! Etc. Police enforce laws and policies, and so their enforcement of those laws and policies will take on whatever political orientation informs those laws and policies.Report

Prabhpal Singh
Prabhpal Singh
Reply to  Prof L
20 days ago

I nominate this comment for the bootlicking hall of fame.Report

Maimonides
Maimonides
Reply to  Prabhpal Singh
18 days ago

@Prabhpal Singh: The fact that more police in an area leads to less violent crime in that area is one of the most well-attested findings in the social scientific study of violent crime. But don’t let that stand in the way of a good “bootlicker” accusation.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Jason Brennan
23 days ago

I agree if “academia” is qualified with “in the US”. Of course, the same thing will apply to academia elsewhere to some degree in some places. But in other places it just doesn’t seem to apply.

For example, take Australia. All the universities are public and all receive some base level of funding (although some are more successful at attracting additional research funds than others). Furthermore, university is affordable for all Australians. First because the government heavily subsidizes all local students, and second because all local students qualify for a scheme where the remaining fees they owe are payed via a levy on their income that only kicks in when it passes a certain threshold (this means that a low wage worker would never have to pay back their fees). Most Australians who want to go to university will get that opportunity. Even those who have terrible high school exam marks have many opportunities to enter university after a few years in the work force as a mature age student. Finally, the strong prestige bias that is fundamental to US higher education is not present in Australia. Of course, the Australian universities can be ranked for how prestigious they are, and having a higher ranked university on your CV will slightly improve it. But the effect is minimal. For example, take the eight universities in the greater Sydney region. The difference between having the highest ranked one and having the lowest ranked one on your CV is not much when it comes to your employment prospects. Even in a more prestige orientated field like law, a high performing student from the lowest ranked law school will have better employment prospects than a mediocre student from the highest ranked law school. So Australian universities don’t “reinforce class hierarchy” the way US universities do. They are by no means perfect, and there are various inegalitarian elements in them (such as wealthy families having the option of paying full fees without government subsidy in order to let their children get into programs that they are a couple of points below the cutoff for). But overall, they are egalitarian institutions that give those from the working class and lower middle class significant opportunities to advance themselves through higher education.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  JTD
23 days ago

Sorry, but no. In Australia, universities still have the function not of increasing learning or skills, but of gatekeeping higher status jobs and positions. Same with pretty much every other country for pretty much every major. Colleges increase the wages and status of some, while driving the wages and status of others downward.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Jason Brennan
22 days ago

I’m not convinced by the Caplan thesis (among other things, I have concerns with the quality and interpretation of the empirical work he cites). But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Caplan is correct. To go from his thesis to your claim that universities in this country or that country make their societies less egalitarian than they would otherwise be you must make assumptions about what those societies would be like if there were no universities. But without universities the means by which people are allocated higher paying and lower paying jobs might be even worse from an egalitarian perspective. It might be based on connections, family reputation, high school prestige, or bribes. At least in countries with university systems that offer significant opportunities to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds it may be that the university system is more egalitarian than any of the likely alternatives that would arise in its place for allocating jobs to people. In other words, assuming that Caplan’s thesis is correct, universities may be the best of several bad systems that could realistically be realized in our less than ideal world.Report

Pasquale
24 days ago

Because “elite” is foundational to chain of certifiable authority. Whatever “education” is must first be understood as efficient within a larger process predicated upon the unquestioning acceptance of certificated authority.Report

Timmy J
24 days ago

I see something similar among those who claim to care about teaching. I’ve taught across the gamut of US institutions—selective liberal arts colleges, nonselective liberal arts colleges, selective state schools, nonselective state schools, night schools, community colleges, etc. In my experience, it’s in those places where teaching requires the *least* effort that people spend the most time going on and on about how much they care about education. This has always rubbed me the wrong way. If you care so damned much about educating people why not go put your apparently amazing insights into teaching to work educating people who will actually benefit from excellent instruction, instead of spending all your time working with people who have so mastered the basic tools of academic learning that they get the same from your lectures as they’d get from just reading the book on their own?

It’s mostly just posturing from what I can tell. Folks at these places don’t actually care about teaching. They care about feeling like they’ve taught. They’re junkies for that endorphin rush you get when it’s clear that someone understood something cool because of something you said. And, as junkies do, they seek out places where it’s easy to score. Nevermind that those aren’t the places where their apparently vaunted excellence (which, by the way, comes from having thought about teaching about as much as a second-year undergrad in a teaching program has thought about it, and the excellence of which isn’t backed up by *any* sort of evidence at all) at teaching actually does anything that matters for anyone.

What? No, I’m not bitter, you’re bitter.Report

Evan
23 days ago

Healthy and friendly competition is fine in academia. Aristotle wasn’t against it per se. It can actually stimulate intellectual improvement. But the reality is, modern day academia is very competitive and not usually in the friendly and camaraderie manner Aristotle had in mind. Students are competing against their peers for that internship, job interview, placement, etc. People tend to keep things to themselves if it’s to their advantage. If you’re ignorant, then it’s tough luck I suppose.

Empirically, universities have many aims. Some of them are pragmatic and some are idealistic; some are written and some are unwritten; some are academic and some are economic. The image of the university as *just* engaging with the “life of the mind” is an ideal type. One that goes back to Aristotle. But it’s understandable since such an education could only be afforded to people who didn’t have to do manual labor or have other jobs to survive. Slaves did that for them. The wealthy had more leisure and could spend their time doing philosophy without worrying about securing a job. After all, if I were wealthy, I’d do philosophy on a fancy hotel balcony next to the ocean with the breeze and warm evening sun hitting my skin while drinking a glass of champagne without a worry in the world.

So long as people need to work to survive and so long as our world and society require non-academic pursuits, universities will always have some economic/employment aims even if they’re to supplement the academic ones.

My position on this issue is a middle way: a balance between the instrumental and non-instrumental aims and functions of the university. For those of us who want to pursue a life committed to deep thought and thinking while simultaneously trying to survive, grief and then compromise may be required for this life. Philosophical thinking and reflection may occur after we get off of work.

To be fair to Callard, the “highest intellectual goods” she described could include both theoretical and practical knowledge. But if this is true, I wonder how she would reconcile this aim and function with the competitiveness of students in universities. We have to ask: How can “people help each other access the highest intellectual goods” when the current culture of universities involves lots of hostile competition amongst and between the student body?Report

Last edited 23 days ago by Evan
Egan
23 days ago

Many large public universities are very academically elite yet open to non-elite populations. Many UCLA and Berkeley students make their way into those universities as transfers from 2 year CCs. This is a well known way for people to get the benefits of an elite educational degree.Report

Alexandre Leskanich
Reply to  Egan
23 days ago

The mythology of elitism remains the mythology of self-serving status-seekers.Report

Salient
23 days ago

Ladies and gentlemen, what we’ve seen speaks for itself. Elite colleges have apparently been taken over, ‘conquered’ if you will, by a master race of egalitarians. It’s difficult to tell from this vantage point whether they will consume our captive institutions or merely indoctrinate them. One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; they will soon be here.

And I, for one, welcome our egalitarian overlords. I’d like to remind them as a trusted educator, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their Platonic caves.Report

Jason Brennan
Reply to  Salient
23 days ago

This would be a delightful criticism if only there weren’t lots of surveys showing that, yes, indeed, they have been. As for indoctrination, no, colleges generally don’t succeed in indoctrinating students, though a few professors try hard.

Philosophers like to do everything from the armchair but some of us actually read empirical work too!Report

Salient
Reply to  Jason Brennan
23 days ago

Apologies, didn’t mean for my comment to be taken seriously, it was an attempt at humor in reference to the insect overlords meme from The SimpsonsReport

Joseph Rachiele
23 days ago

You aren’t going to abolish Swarthmore nor can you donate the endowment to those who need it more. So who should an egalitarian use their positions if they are thinkng about margin about effects?

A commonly proposed solution is to vastly increase the number of qualified disadvantaged students these schools admit, since these students seem to benefit the most from this education. I was puzzled why this idea was dismissed so quickly. One reason, that the US is so unjust the benefits would be small in the grand scheme of things, is just a failure to think about marginal effects. Then it is asseted that increasing the student body would destroy the rigorous education at Swarthmore. I don’t think this is true. You can increase the number of faculty slowly over time and spend less on other things. But also, many of us at Amherst College thought the main benefit of attending was *peer* education that happened outside the clasroomt not small class sizes, which I am not totally sold on.Report

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Joseph Rachiele
23 days ago

“You aren’t going to abolish Swarthmore nor can you donate the endowment to those who need it more.” You might be right about the first part of that statement but as far as the second goes we can very well tax the dickens out of Swarthmore’s +2,000,000,000 endowment (and the endowments of other elite schools) and use the money collected to improve education for those at less elite schools. We can also set up the taxes in such a way that the Swarthmores of the world have some incentive to use the endowment to serve man and not man to serve the endowment. We overlook the fact that allowing Swarthmore and similar schools to amass huge endowments by preferential tax policies is in effect subsidizing the wealthy and privileged through tax policy. I mean we do it elsewhere– Mitt Romney and Donald Trump pay a lower tax rate than I do– but I generally don’t hear academics just taking that policy as a given or worse taking it to be sacred and untouchable. And I think the idea of increasing the number of underprivileged students is dismissed so quickly because it really wouldn’t have much effect in the grand scheme of things. Swarthmore has what about 1,700 undergraduates? Even if we make it the case that half the student body is “underprivileged” (however you define that word) that 850 is much smaller than even most relatively small community colleges. The whole proposal is kind of like proposing more lottery tickets as a solution to systematic poverty. If you want real change the numbers just tell you that you’d be better off taking some of billions from the Swarthmores for the CC’s and non-competitive state schools where the overwhelming majority of students from non-elite backgrounds go. Report

Joseph Rachiele
Reply to  Sam Duncan
23 days ago

The proposal wasn’t to keep the enrollment numbers fixed and do a bit more SES-based affirmative action. The proposal was to triple the enrollment at very selective institutions over time, supposing most of those that admit below 20% of applicants are able. That’s quite different. Though if you’re a Professor at Swarthmore you would take the actions you can locally to acheive this goal by affecting the institution where your voice and those of your peers can determine who the President is. The overall effect of this accorss institutions on mobility, if these students were more disadvantaged than the current student body, would be nothing to thumb your nose at. And it would have many other benefits as well. It would alleviate the arms race to get into these schools.

But it’s not necessarily in the schools interest, as their increasing exclusivity as helped increase their prestige.

I’m not sure about the prospects for abolishing these institutions in their current form though taxes, given the composition of Congress. I’m not even sure it’s the optimal tax base to raise funding for public schools.Report

Jonny Thakkar
Jonny Thakkar
Reply to  Joseph Rachiele
22 days ago

Just to be clear, Joseph, I was not trying to dismiss the thought that tripling the enrolment at such institutions could be one step in the right direction. In fact, I suggested it! My point was (a) that the trustees of such an institution would have some conservative reasons not to do that (which is not to deny that those reasons might be outweighed by other considerations) and (b) that in any case individual faculty members (who are my main focus in the piece) do not have the power to make such a change, so that from an individual point of view the options are to play the hand you’re dealt or to quit. I’m quite open to the thought that the most morally admirable thing to do would be to quit, even if I myself am no saint. But I would disagree with you that individual faculty members can make a difference in this regard with our “voice”, even in combination with others – decisions of this kind are simply not taken by the faculty.Report

Joseph Rachiele
Reply to  Jonny Thakkar
18 days ago

Thanks for the reply Professor Thakkar! By “dismiss” I just meant “not give serious consideration to,” but thanks for elaborating your thinking.

I don’t think you should be so pessimistic about what the faculty can acheive! To lay my cards on the table, I was a student at Amherst College when the faculty advocated for us to choose a President who campaigned on increasing the enrollment by admitting more disadvantaged students. And that’s exactly what he did when he was selected. Now it may seem like only a drop in the ocean of injustice to admit 20% more students. (I can’t recall the precise figure, but the idea was to admit 25% more students from mostly disadvantaged backgrounds.) But I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. The financial aid is so much more generous for these students than at public universities that it is a real achievement.

Anyway, that’s just a start. I agree institutional forces will prevent a short-term tripling, but that seems like a worthy long term goal. And I think the expected value of influencing the direction of the college is likely much higher than influencing tax policy.Report

non-elite college professor
23 days ago

But is Swarthmore really elite?
 
That’s a joke. (And hopefully a harmless one: I live in the Philly area, and I do think Swarthmore counts as elite according to the everyday usage of the term “elite college.”)
 
On a more serious note, suppose that we determine the net worth of everyone, including children, in the USA. I’m not sure how to do this, but presumably it could be done. It would be complicated not only because businesses, homes, and other owned items can sometimes be hard to put an accurate monetary value on, but also because adults must care for their children. You might have an adult couple with $500 k in net worth but only one child, whereas another adult couple might have $500 k in net worth but six children. In such a case, we might say that the net worth for the couple with one child must be divided by three such that each of the three family members has a net worth of 1/3 of $500 k, whereas the net worth for the couple with six children must be divided by eight such that each of the eight family members has a net worth of 1/8 of $500 k. I’m making this up as I go along, and people better at this kind of thing could fix the details. But I take it that you get my point that we would need to adjust net worth in ways that accounts for differences in the number of children had by adults.
 
Now suppose we decide to find an adequate quality-of-life net worth amount at which we will place everyone in the USA, including children. I do not know what amount we would choose here, but for the sake of argument, suppose that we settle on some amount. Call this amount “the adequate net worth amount.” Now suppose that we take money and property away from everyone above the adequate net worth amount until they arrive at the adequate net worth amount. And suppose we give money and property to everyone below the adequate net worth amount until they reach the adequate net worth amount. (Would there be any money left over after this process? I guess that would depend on how much money we collectively have at the start of this process, on how many people we are dealing with, and on what amount we settle on for the adequate net worth amount. In any case, if there is any money left over, we could have the government keep it in holding in some way.)
 
If we were to go through with this process, it would be a way of wiping the slate clean from generations and generations of wealth build-up for some families. And it would also be a way of financially helping families that did not build up wealth across generations. Also, though I am here talking about the USA, this could presumably be done for any nation that allows for individual ownership of money or property.
 
No doubt this process, if it were to occur, would strike many as being morally wrong (i.e., as being a case of unfairly stealing from the haves to give to the have-nots). But, regardless of whether this process would be right or wrong (or just or unjust), what would be right or wrong (or just or unjust) going forward? Given that this process would provide a starting point of equality in net worth for people, would it be right, from this point onward, to allow net worth inequalities to occur, perhaps even significant net worth inequalities – say, because allowing for this would help us in providing incentives and disincentives that are worth providing? Would it be right, from this point onward, to allow intergenerational wealth to build up for families (again, say, for reasons having to do with incentives and disincentives)? What do people think? (One complication: Though we could provide a starting point of equality in net worth by taking away from the haves and giving to the have-nots, it would not really be possible to equalize past educational experiences. For instance, those who went to Harvard in the past cannot have a large amount of their knowledge and many of their past experiences from their Harvard days taken away from them and given to those who never finished high school. I guess we could engage in science fiction and imagine a machine that erases knowledge and past experiences from people’s minds in such a way as to contribute to the equalization of everyone in these respects. But now I am starting to lose a grip on what I am even imagining….)
 
To be clear, my knowledge of the egalitarianism literature is slim to none. I had to read Rawls in grad school, but I don’t remember it well. And, in any case, that was a long time ago. I am asking these questions not because I am trying to make a point, but rather to explore the issue.Report

John
22 days ago

Jason Brennan has nailed the issue. If you’re a TT/track faculty member at a ‘good school’ flexing your egalitarian ideals and teaching Singer on poverty and famine with a twinkle in your eye, you have some ‘splainin to do.

When I realized that universities sell status rather than education my entire worldview changed, and it wasn’t pretty or easy. But I felt I had no choice but to look the nasty beast in the eye, lest I become another preening academic pretending I’m not motivated primarily by status.Report

RealityCheck
22 days ago

Why should egalitarians at elite colleges loose sleep over not being moral saints?

And which is funnier: The beautiful souls at these places who do loose sleep over that and think writing about that will help or those who act like it is some big shock that academics espouse egalitarian ideals but enact prudent market rewarded social norms instead of saintly egalitarian ideals?Report

John
Reply to  RealityCheck
22 days ago

Okay, I’ll bite. But it’s going to sound terse because I’m short of time:

  1. ‘Moral saints’ is a strawman. No reasonable person is saying the academic elite should Mother Theresa themselves.
  2. The very rub of this discussion, that which gives it some heft, is whether and how egalitarian ideals are consistent with ‘enacting prudent market-rewarded social norms’ in the academic status game. So you’re helping yourself to the very point in contention.

If you buy that, then I see two ways to respond to (2). You can either Brennan it, and take one’s ‘enacting prudent market-oriented norms’ in higher-ed to be a reductio of that same person’s professed egalitarianism. Or one can unBrennan it, hanging on to the egalitarianism while conceding that one’s actions in higher-ed, not to mention the incentive structure and institutional arrangement, belie these ideals.

Either option can be defended, I think. But let’s not make the mistake of pretending there is no tension here. For our students cringe and mock us when they see us soap-boxing egalitarianism while at the same time defending our tenure status because, say, refining tense logic to accommodate indexical reference anomalies is a real hot-button issue that’ll put us in the crosshairs of the powerbrokers.

Pro-tip: if you’re tenured, you’re not fighting power. You are it, as defined by your demographic status of being one of the most privileged and securely employed workers in the entire modern economy.Report

William Peden
William Peden
Reply to  RealityCheck
20 days ago

I think that the standards of sacrifice required for moral sanctity should be at least somewhat higher than not teaching at an elite institution. We don’t have to go as far as martyrdom to ask for more moral conviction from would-be saints.Report

FluxSurface
FluxSurface
21 days ago

Though, I generally follow the arguments, I’m not a philosopher by any means. So, I have a few questions.

  1. I’m not entirely sure why being a hypocrite is a bad thing. We’re all hypocrites about something or the other. If you are a consequentialist, then you will have to wonder what damage your current hypocritical position does. I’m not fully sure how having egalitarian professors in a non-egalitarian university perpetuates it, if the said professors at least made an effort in pushing themselves towards reducing it.
  2. The calculus of removing oneself from an elite university and moving to a lesser pedigreed one is not fully clear. How does this help the cause of egalitarianism? Education is not the only field of egalitarianism. Given that most philosophy PhDs will not be able to continue in academia, it would make sense instead to have pipelines that can get such talented people jobs at smaller universities. I’m not sure why my proposition should be worse than the former.
  3. It might be true that elite universities can do more with the talent they accrue through inequality and inequality-perpetuating methods. But why must that matter? A lot of the quality-of-life increasing advancements today have not solely been made by elite universities. Take for example, the Pfizer covid vaccine, which was created in part by a person who had to leave academia because she couldn’t get tenure. It is not entirely clear to me how in the current research university scheme, reducing inequality will reduce such achievements, when elitist unequal universities as such are very well capable of it already.
  4. Again, I feel there is sort of an inescapable is-ought problem here. Must we always do something? For example, without making an effort into compiling an exhaustive list of all that could be done, must we in our zeal to do something pick the earliest option at our disposal?

Sorry if these questions seem silly.Report

Kevin Powell
20 days ago

If I could recommend a book to Callard it would be Richard Kraut’s Against Absolute Goodness. In that passage she claims that “the highest intellectual goods” are not (as such) good for achieving social justice, not good for producing better citizens–they’re not even good for the happiness of those who achieve them (Aristotle and Plato were wrong)! They’re just, well, good. And it’s this very odd notion of goodness that colleges and universities are supposed to care about, not the ways in which an education can be good because of the positive contribution it makes to other people’s lives, including the student and other people writ large. Kraut persuasively argues, and I agree, that that species of goodness does not exist and so isn’t the source of any kind of practical reason; that work is done by what’s good because beneficial. Callard’s remarks suggest that this isn’t just an esoteric discussion in value-theory–it actually matters for questions of practical concern.Report

Last edited 20 days ago by Kevin Powell