There’s a good debate in the WSJ on whether or not to abolish tenure for college professors.

I come down mostly on the side of the anti-tenure person.  In my view, the system of tenure is good intentions gone wrong. The person arguing for tenure writes: “Tenure doesn’t guarantee that every faculty member is courageous, but it protects those who are.”  No, it doesn’t.  His logic is flawed.  Faculty members who have tenure have the opportunity to be courageous and challenge the system if they see fit, but that doesn’t mean that it is granted to faculty members who do that.  In fact, there is an inherent reason not to give tenure to rebellious faculty.

Sure, a person seeking to do radical research or something might play “within the system” long enough to get tenure, and then start working on their crazy, status-quo challenging ideas.  And Mitt Romney might grow a beard, wear a tie-dyed shirt and change the National Anthem to “Purple Haze” if he gets elected, but it’s not likely.  The care and scrutiny which goes into making the tenure decision only defeats the supposed benefits of academic freedom and “risk-taking” it was meant to encourage.

Besides the fact that tenure doesn’t actually solve the problem it is supposed to solve, there is also the problem of the incentives.  Obviously, there is a degree of comfort that comes with tenure that carries the potential to lessen, rather than heighten, the vigor with which the professors pursue their work.  This of course will not be true of all individuals; only some, but still it remains a  flawed incentive structure.

Lefty Parent has a good post on liberals who homeschool. It’s a response to an article in Slate by Dana Goldstein, which argues against the practice.

Personally, I believe people should be free to homeschool their children if they so choose. Despite Goldstein’s claim that homeschooling is “illiberal”, this is by circumstance only, and need not always be true. If you are a liberal, ask yourself: would you rather your children be educated by you or by, for instance, the employees of the Texas School Board–the body that two years ago made changes to its curriculum

[A]imed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution

as the New York Times put it.

Conservatives like Rick Santorum say they oppose public education. Maybe, but I’ll bet anything what he really means is “I oppose the people who are currently in charge of public education, because they are liberals.” A lot of the Conservatives I know don’t want to abolish the public schools; they want to take them over and use them to teach their own beliefs. For that reason alone, it’s worth reserving the right to homeschool.

I sometimes feel sorry for politicians like Mitt Romney or John Kerry who are accused of “flip-flopping”. After all, if you receive new information, or simply think a little longer, it may be that you have no choice but to change your assessment. And sometimes, you don’t always make it clear what brought about the change, so it seems rather abrupt.

If I were a politician, I would probably be getting roasted in the press for the apparent contradiction between my statement on the afternoon of December 27th, 2011:

“There is no mystical force that makes [college students] stupider if the team wins; it’s just that they lack the discipline to prioritize effectively.”

And my statement on the evening of September 17, 2011:

“[M]ajor programs, such as football and basketball, provide revenue for the University to spend on other things related to academic pursuits… however, I believe that in this instance the matter of ideals plays a role…  If a university raises money for itself through football, then by football it is defined. What it does with its money is secondary.

 This may not seem terribly important. But in my opinion, it indicates a shift in attitude which may be unhealthy, a focus upon sport at the expense of scholarship.”

These seem to be pretty obviously opposites. Clearly, in at least one instance, I am quite wrong. But I am still going to try to weasel out of it.

My opinions have altered somewhat since the statement from September, although I still feel a bit uneasy about major collegiate athletics programs. Upon further review, my ruling on the field must be qualified. Sports are only a threat to the universities’ purported aim of higher learning if the students themselves are not dedicated.

In my past post on the subject I made it sound like it was all the fault of the greedy upper-management at universities turning the institutions of higher learning into “football factories”. While this does occur, I should have noted that it is not as if the universities are going and making money off of football and basketball and nobody can do a thing about it. On the contrary, it is only so profitable because it is so popular, both with students and the general public.

So, while you could say that the universities are wrong to tempt their students into shirking their studies to watch sports and enthusiastically support their team, you also must allow that if most students had enough self-discipline to study and not watch sports, there would be no problem with academics taking a backseat to sports. Nobody is making students watch sports–they may be encouraging them to, yes, but not making them.

And just to be clear, I want to stress that I am not advocating for students to commit themselves entirely to studying for classes and doing nothing else. I can’t say it enough; I enjoy watching college sports myself. If students dedicated themselves only to studying they would by no means be better off. I am only saying that if they lack the proper discipline to know what must get priority, it will be a problem. Sports are one distraction which the university itself provides to the students, but if there were no sports, I’m sure these students would find something else.

Freddie deBoer and Matthew Yglesias offer contrasting viewpoints on the business model of universities. DeBoer states that:

“[T]he purpose of the university has never been solely, or even primarily, or even largely to deliver information, that this is not why they are funded, and that this is not why students attend them.”

Well, I think he’s right. But given that, what is their purpose? As best I can tell, it is to offer people a way to prove they have information. The degree which a university sells you is a certificate that verifies the nature and extent of the information you possess. (Yes, this is a way of looking at it which ignores sentimental and intangible effects, but I’m just thinking about the business model here.)

So what this makes me wonder is:

  1. Is there anything that competes against them already? 
  2. Is there any alternative way of providing the same service more cheaply? 
  3. Are there other “goods”  like academic degrees?

That question has been asked much recently, and articles like this one by Taylor Branch (via Andrew Sullivan) are gaining more and more prominence.

The arguments on both sides are all obvious and familiar: Pro: “they are being exploited by the universities, which make millions off their play”, “they are risking injury”, and so on. Con: “they are paid in that they get a free education”, “money would lead to corruption and a betrayal of the idea of ‘amateurism'” etc. The above article goes through all this in detail, particularly focusing on the last argument.

Personally, while I love watching collegiate sports, I do think it is a very bad sign for society that educational institutions are dedicating so many resources to them. And although I think it is true that, as things stand now, players deserve compensation for their efforts purely as a matter of fairness, I also think it is an ominous sign that matters have come so far as that.

I should also say that, if players were paid, then college athletics would be simply a pro sports league that doubled as an academic institution and thus one hampered in competing with professional organizations dedicated entirely to sport.

I would feel much better if major athletes played professionally immediately after leaving high school and bypassed college altogether. Then college athletics would be reduced back to their rightful status as something students do for amusement in their spare time.

I know that some will object that major programs, such as football and basketball, provide revenue for the University to spend on other things related to academic pursuits. I concede that this is true, however, I believe that in this instance the matter of ideals plays a role.

It’s well and good to claim the money will be used for some academic pursuit. But the universities are now using major athletic competitions as to raise funds to enable them to pursue other things. And just as people in an economy such as ours are defined by their income-earning activities, so too are institutions. If a university raises money for itself through football, then by football it is defined. What it does with its money is secondary.

This may not seem terribly important. But in my opinion, it indicates a shift in attitude which may be unhealthy, a focus upon sport at the expense of scholarship. (It is quite an irony that the means by which most of these athletes come to the university is called a “scholarship”.) The focus of the university administrators’ minds, even if not their money, is upon sport.

I repeat: I love sports. But I do not see a need, when highly successful professional sports leagues already exist, for colleges to interfere in the market.

However, this is just my opinion. It may be wrong, and regardless the existing system won’t go away. So, as matters stand now, I favor paying college athletes.

Mike Huckabee will not be running for President. Instead, he is apparently going to devote some of his time to selling videos such as this to educate children about American history:

All I can say is that, when I was a lad, it would have been my natural instinct to rebel against any message conveyed in such an obvious fashion as that. Certainly, every children’s program I watched that had a message made me viscerally want to contradict it. (Most of the messages, incidentally, were what the Conservatives would likely call Politically Correct, Liberal messages.)

In general, I suspect kids aren’t quite as malleable as people think, and more than ready to resist ham-fisted techniques, regardless of the message. I suspect that such efforts as the one you see above will be counterproductive.

But, as the title suggests, these seem like such poor efforts that I almost wonder if it’s a joke…

I try to write well. No doubt I fail a good deal of the time, as I’m sure anyone who searches this blog will be able to prove, but I do try.

I used to think that things like spelling and grammar were measures of intelligence, but now I don’t believe that is necessarily true. There are intelligent people whom I could easily see writing sentences kind of like this: “i could of don with more newance in the caracterization of the protaganist.”  (Note: this is a made-up example. I’ve never actually seen this particular sentence.)

These kinds of sentences I find fascinating, because they show that there are people who are thinking intelligent thoughts, but who are not capable of translating them into words in the agreed upon way.

In some sense, this is not that big a problem. After all, thinking hard thoughts is the tough part. Writing them down is something you can learn easily enough if you want. And to some extent, I suppose, there is a trade-off involved. If you want to spend time thinking deeply about important issues, you probably will have to spend less time learning what order the symbols go in to write them down.

And yet… well, I worry sometimes about the extent to which writing skills seem to have degraded these days.

P.S. I know that somewhere in this post, I have made at least one grammatical or orthographic/typographic error, perhaps even in this postscript. I can’t find it, but I know it’s there. I know this because anytime you write something bemoaning poor writing, you are guaranteed to have such an error. So, I know that I have it coming. I can accept that.

Concerning politics, it is often said that “reasonable people can disagree”.


After all, when it comes to most political issues, it would seem that one side must be right and the other must be wrong, since they appear to believe the exact opposite things on all issues. Presumably, therefore, reasonable people will all be able to figure out what the correct policy is, leaving only unreasonable people to oppose them.

The answer to this, however, is that most people are not (and maybe nobody is) totally sure what the best policy is in most cases. Often, two opposing policies may have different pros and cons and it may not be clear which (to borrow a term from economics) maximizes societal welfare.

However, because this sort of thing is very hard for the average person to understand–no one really has time after a hard day’s work, to examine political nuances–this sort of thing is up to experts to discuss. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to discuss them, so their explanations must be succinct.

(This, in turn, leads to simplifying the issue into terms which make political polarization virtually inevitable, i.e. “It’s impossible to explain all the details–all you really need to know is that [whoever] is bad.”)

It’s not that people are stupid–it’s just that you need an advanced degree in economics to understand whether the Fed ought to print money in a recession or not. And if you go and get that degree, you won’t be able to get the necessary degree in climatology to understand climate change. Add in all the other issues we face and, well, nobody has the time for all that.

This means that we must rely on experts in these fields to make policy recommendations, but this inherently makes people who are not experts in any of these fields feel annoyed, especially if the experts are (or even appear to be) wrong at any time.

This sort of thing, of course, leads to populism and anti-“elitism”. It’s understandable, really–who would want to feel they were being controlled by a bunch of (mostly well-to-do) people who appear (to the layman) not to know what they are doing half the time?

Now, we seemingly have a solution to this problem ready-made in the form of the internet. Unfortunately, so far, it doesn’t seem to be working. Most people don’t seem to use the internet for the purpose of gaining access to more knowledge on many of these difficult subjects.

Two questions:

  1. Is my assessment correct?
  2. If so, what could be done about this problem? 

So, in case you haven’t heard, they’re planning to release a new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that replaces the “N-word” with the word “slave”.

The reason for this is that apparently some teachers and schools won’t teach the novel because of the controversial and difficult nature of discussing this word with students. So, this edition is proposed as an alternative to not teaching the book at all.

To an extent, this is sound logic. After all, exposing people to the story (minus a few details) is better than if they couldn’t read the thing at all. On the other hand, is anyone really capable of preventing people from reading Huckleberry Finn (or any out-of-copyright work) these days? It’s on Wikisource.

Besides, students are notoriously bad at following what teachers tell them. Therefore, I would guess that the best way to get students to read the book is to expressly forbid them from reading it, or at least emphasize its taboo content.

In my experience, the people who want to read and understand literature will go and do so on their own. Those who do not, meanwhile, will not learn even if forced to. I’d say the easiest thing is to write down the name of the book and the author and then tell everyone they shouldn’t read it because it is offensive. This way, only people who don’t mind the risk of being offended will bother to read it. Those who do mind can read some inoffensive book.

Then, when test time comes, the teacher can offer the students a choice of which book to write about.

National Review praises Sarah Palin:

“During an episode of her reality show, the once (and future?) candidate cooked up a mess of hot s’mores and a side of even hotter politics, declaring: ‘This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert.’

Palin was being over-generous in her paraphrase. What Mrs. Obama in fact said was considerably more worrisome: ‘We can’t just leave it up the parents’…. If her vision leaves any room for limitation on government interference in family affairs, it is impossible to detect it. Palin… later expanded on her views: ‘Instead of a government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions for us, according to some politician’s — or politician’s wife’s — priorities, just leave us alone, get off our back, and allow us, as individuals, to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions.'”

National Review and Palin appear to have not realized that if your kids are in school, then they will be fed by the school. You can maybe send a lunch in with them, but some children–not that I suppose NR really cares about this–come from families who are too poor to do so. (Besides which, if the lunch is paid for by taxes, most people will probably wish to take advantage of it.) Therefore, unless you are actually opposed to the concept of school lunches, you must ask: do you want the school to feed them healthy food or unhealthy food?

If they were Libertarians, they might make the argument that we ought to abolish school lunches–and, for that matter, government schools–altogether. But they won’t make this argument here, because to do so makes them look, frankly, like unfeeling jerks to many people. So, they take the easy way out: griping about the system without actually putting forward an alternative system which might address the alleged problems.

(I should mention: although I am not a Libertarian, I was one in the past. And, perhaps out of a sentimental sympathy for some of their beliefs, I feel a need to make it clear that the Republicans of today are not really Libertarians; they just act like it sometimes to get what they want. This is not to say the Libertarians are right–which I obviously don’t believe–but rather in the interest of clarity in discourse.)

But I digress.

Now, if a parent wants to have this degree of control over their children, then they should not send the children to school. But, since many parents cannot (or in some cases, will not) actually educate, feed and care for their own children all day every day, they do send them off to school. And that carries with it certain costs and benefits. But essentially, what the National Review crowd wants is all the benefits of parental control with none of the costs.

But then, as they ought to know, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.