The value of education

I know I owe David Bruggeman a response and I’m slowly working on it.  Until I sort through my thoughts, I’ll highlight a recent WSJ piece on the growing trend of “pricing” university professors.  Driven by budgetary pressures and poor test scores, universities are facing more pressure to prove that money on them is well spent.  Texas has taken the lead on this, and Texas A&M allegedly determined a profit-and-loss statement for all its faculty using students taught, tuition generated, and research grants.

I’m of two minds on this trend.  On one hand, inefficiencies in academia should be rooted out and external pressure is probably the only way to make that happen.  On the other hand, it is a bit disconcerting to see education characterized in such crudely utilitarian terms.  There are inherent, diffuse benefits to education that cannot be captured in simplistic cost-benefit analyses.  Economic growth isn’t everything.  And while more focus on the practical is needed, it can go too far.

I’m also bothered that “colleges typically earn points for pushing students to take science, engineering and math.”  This approach exempts science from the critical self-examination that it so desperately needs (does society really benefit by producing more physicists?) while unnecessarily devaluing the humanities.  Along those lines, this Martha Nussbaum book has been on my reading list for a while (h/t The Eduwonk).

I’ll close with a sad admission by an A&M history professor (emphasis added):

“Taxpayers of the state of Texas,” Mr. Peacock says, should decide whether “they should be spending two years paying the salary of an English professor so he can write a book of poetry simply to add to the prestige of the university or the body of literature out there.”When the choice is put that bluntly, Chester Dunning, a history professor at Texas A&M, wonders if he’d pass muster. Mr. Dunning teaches two classes a semester and has won several teaching awards. His salary of about $90,000 a year also covers the time he spends researching Russian literature and history. His most recent book argues that Alexander Pushkin’s drama “Boris Godunov” was a comedy, not a tragedy.

Mr. Dunning says his scholarly work animates his teaching and inspires his students. “But if you want me to explain why a grocery clerk in Texas should pay taxes for me to write those books, I can’t give you an answer,” he says.

His eyes sweep his cramped office, lined with books. Then Mr. Dunning finds his answer. “We’ve only got 5,000 years of recorded human history,” he says, “and I think we need every precious bit of it.”

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