All posts filed under: Education

Notes From an Academic Paper Mill

One evening last fall, my de facto supervisor e-mailed me an audio file consisting of a three-minute conversation between a college sophomore from Saudi Arabia and his English professor in New York. The student had just surreptitiously recorded this chat using his cell phone; he had approached the professor hoping for specifics on how to improve the first draft of an analysis of Sylvia Plath’s work he’d submitted the previous week. His side of the conversation was notable for how painfully little English he knew despite having ostensibly completed a three-page assignment in that language. From 1,500 miles away, I set to work on a second draft using this new information. I was careful to stick to the grading rubric and minimize grammar errors while still writing in a sufficiently unrefined manner to convincingly imitate a Riyadh native who’d come to the U.S. a year earlier to get a university degree. Within an hour or two, I had e-mailed the new draft—stripped of Microsoft Word metadata to conceal the identity of the document’s real creator—to …

My Dissertation Disaster

“This is your chance to write in depth about what interests you,” said my lecturers as I prepared to embark upon my History dissertation. I had just finished studying the Russian intelligentsia’s epistolary networks of the nineteenth century, and had enjoyed it so much that I had often found myself deep-diving into the Soviet literature of the twentieth century, too. In my thesis I wanted to marry this newfound twentieth century interest to my longstanding fascination with totalitarianism. Whenever the concept of totalitarianism had come up in classes, it had intrigued me, but during my three years at university I hadn’t had an opportunity to study it in any depth. I was enthralled by what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “the long blank page of Russian history” during the 1930s and 1940s, and I wanted to find out more about the institutionalization of literature in the USSR. My dissertation provided me with the chance to do so. But a little over a year later, I found myself turning in a paper entitled: “What Can the Relationship Between Soviet …

The Tragedy of Australian Education

In April, the Australian government finally published its airy and platitudinous report and review of the country’s schools. Popularly known as ‘Gonski 2.0’ after David Gonski, the businessman who chaired the review panel and who had chaired a previous review of school funding, it provided little evidence to support its proposals, despite evidence being a key requirement in the terms of reference. The report states that Australia must ditch its ‘industrial model’ of school education, the sort of cliché you would expect to hear in the most derivative education conference speech. Instead, each young person must “emerge from schooling as a creative, connected, and engaged learner with a growth mindset” (see here for a double meta-analyses of growth mindset interventions which shows that they have virtually no effect). The details of how to achieve this are vague, but the panel is clear on one key point: rigid, age-based curriculum content must be blown apart in favor of progressing students individually through a set of skills such as literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, and self-management. Despite its managerial …

What’s Wrong with the American Academy

A colleague of mine in the economics department once said, “when the price of bullshit is zero, demand is inelastic.” A corollary of this principle is that when the price of bullshit is zero, the supply of bullshit is infinite, especially when there are tangible gains for bullshitters.  Last year, I was a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona, which was in the process of starting a new interdisciplinary department (The Department of Political Economy). About a decade ago, the department chair got a grant from the Koch Foundation, which has donated to several universities around the United States. Because Charles Koch has a libertarian bent—he advocates drug legalization, criminal justice reform, and low taxes, among other things—a number of ‘progressive’ and socialist groups have gone after people who receive grants from the Koch foundation.  My point here is not to make a political statement. I don’t have especially strong feelings about Charles Koch, who I disagree with on some issues, and agree with on others. Instead, I want to use my case to illustrate what’s wrong with the …

Bryan Caplan’s ‘The Case Against Education’ — A Review

A review of The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan. Princeton University Press (January 2018) 416 pages.  Almost no issue unifies commentators across the political spectrum as support for education, though their motivations strongly differ. For the left, affordable education is a great leveler for disadvantaged groups and also a force for cosmopolitanism. For the right, it represents an equality of opportunity that can substitute for a generous welfare state. But almost everyone seems to believe that more people with high-quality education means better and more productive workers.  Among the exceptions are a minority of economists studying education. Beginning with Nobel Prize winners Kenneth Arrow and Michael Spence in the 1970s, these economists proposed that people with more years of education earn more not merely because of the skills and knowledge they accumulated during their time in school (“human capital”) but largely as a function of the information their degree signals to employers. The Case Against Education  by George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan is the most thorough …

Silence Around Test Scores Serves the Privileged

Right-wing podcaster Stefan Molyneux recently advised his teenage fans that they should append their IQ scores to job applications. This idea was widely and deservedly ridiculed on Twitter. It’s a serious faux pas to include test scores of any kind — IQ especially, but also SAT or graduate admissions tests like LSAT, MCAT or GMAT — on a resume.  Including test scores will cause many employers to draw negative assumptions about an applicant, and thus reduce the applicant’s chances of being hired, regardless of how good the scores are. But why is there such a taboo against sharing scores, that including them on a resume would cause an employer to draw negative inferences about an applicant’s character? Why is it considered extreme and risible to suggest that a job candidate with a high IQ or a high SAT score should treat that as a qualification? And who benefits from this norm of keeping this data secret? Proxies for aptitude While it is bad advice for a job applicant to share test scores with an employer, nearly every …

Postmodern Theory Returns to Continental Europe

The infusion of much of the social science and humanities scholarship in the Anglosphere by egalitarian social justice concerns is a much-discussed phenomenon. Less often noticed is an important distinction between overtly activist disciplines such as gender and postcolonial studies, on the one hand, and disciplines that are not intrinsically militant such as education, sociology, and literature, on the other, where intellectual uniformity has nevertheless allowed for the construction of an increasingly biased, insular, and empirically dubious body of scholarship. This scholarship draws heavily from the ideas of French poststructuralism and ‘continental’ European philosophy more broadly. However, it has gained a larger influence in the United States and other anglophone countries than on the continent. It has been hypothesised that this success has been due to the unique political context of post-war America, or that the then-new poststructuralist framework developed by a handful of French writers faced much less competition because Marxism was less entrenched in American academia than in Europe. Faculty in continental Europe already overwhelming lean left in the social sciences and humanities, …

A Liberal’s Case for Conservatives in History Departments

I am a liberal historian, and in my four years as a Ph.D student in history, I have found that my conversations with conservative peers have often been most productive in challenging my biases. This benefit may be rare within the discipline. According to research cited in Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn’s book Passing on the Right, only around 4-8 percent of professional historians are registered Republicans.1 This experience suggests that the liberal-to-leftist makeup of the discipline significantly influences the questions historians ask, the answers that we privilege, and the ways we teach and engage with the public. We devote our lives to certain subjects largely because we believe they have great moral weight and relevance, but we often overlook how our political tilt shapes what we see as important. We also possess the human tendency to gravitate toward answers that fit our preconceptions. These observations raise an important question: What does the discipline of history miss by not having conservative historians in the room? To explore this question, I conducted interviews with eight conservative …

‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking and Spirituality by Any One Name

At a conference in British Columbia this month, a self-described “Indigeneer”—the word being a portmanteau of “Indigenous” and “engineer”—described the ways in which traditional Indigenous knowledge could be productively injected into contemporary science curricula. “All too often, Western science will make a so-called discovery after years of research really confirming what elders have been telling us for decades, for tens of thousands of years in some cases,” one of the conference hosts told the CBC. “The idea of bringing traditional ways of knowing together with empirical data and science is important.” Such conferences are part of a larger trend in Canada. From the University of Calgary to The University of Saskatchewan to Acadia University in New Brunswick, Canadian deans are pledging to infuse their curricula with a doctrine often described as “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” (IWK), which teaches that Indigenous peoples arrive at their understanding of the world in a unique way. The idea has been around in some form for many years. In a research paper prepared for the Canadian government in 2002, for instance, …

Postmodernism and the Decline of the Liberal Arts

The ‘liberal arts’ were so named for their orientation towards free thought, and the foundational claim that they existed to enrich the lives of free people. They are, in other words, dependent on the open-mindedness of individuals wishing to develop their knowledge and understanding by exploring thousands of years of history and literature produced by human civilisation. Despite this, universities in recent years have seen a rapid decline in the reputation and value of liberal arts degrees. Whereas once an education in literature and philosophy was highly revered in academia, setting the world at its students’ feet, today a liberal arts education is widely regarded as a useless endeavour for aimless students, which offers no clear path for the future. This development can, in large part, be laid at the feet of the ever-increasing influence of postmodernism, a superficially attractive philosophy often used to promulgate political and cultural ideas. Courses that have embraced a postmodern viewpoint tend to harshly ostracise any conflicting perspective, thereby eroding the intellectual freedom upon which the liberal arts had hitherto …