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  • RERUN–An Academic Bubble?

    Posted by David Foster on August 14th, 2012 (All posts by )

    (Originally posted 5/2/2003. Nine years have passed since the original post, and I think we can safely remove the question mark from the phrase “An Academic bubble?”)

    Over at Critical Mass, there’s recently been much discussion of Brooklyn College. This is the institution at which English professor Frederick Lang was removed from the classroom–evidently in large part due to his hard-nosed grading policies and his unpopular habit of writing honest comments on student papers.

    The devaluation of standards in academia has been going on for a long time. Eric, a commenter at Critical Mass, reports on a conversation that took place at SUNY–Stony Brook when he was a professor there. Faculty members were discussing the math final grades:

    “What should the minimum D be?”

    “180 out of 420.”

    “No, we’d fail too many people.”

    They eventually decided on 140 out of 420. At this point, Eric asked:

    “Bernie, would you trust someone who got 140 out of 420 to do your taxes?”

    “Eric, that’s not the point.”

    “Would you trust him to be your doctor?”

    “Eric, that’s not the point.”

    “Would you trust him to build a bridge for you?”

    “Eric, that’s not the point.”

    So what is the point?

    Of course, we all know what the point really is. The point is for students to obtain a piece of paper–a diploma–which is viewed as a passport to economic success. Increasingly, the perceived value of this diploma is decoupled from any knowledge or accomplishment that it actually represents. It is valued for the circular reason that–it is valued.

    This situation is reminiscent of other pieces of paper–stock certificates in certain dot.com companies. At the height of the boom, people were acquiring these certificates without much consideration of the current or potential business results of the companies they represented. (“I don’t know what it does,” said one investor of a stock, “but I know it’s moving.”) The hope was simply that a popular stock would become more popular and hence increase in price–that is, these certificates were valued because they were valued.

    A bubble is not infinitely sustainable. In the market, stocks will eventually collapse if there are no earnings to support their price levels. And, in academia, degrees will not be valued indefinitely unless they represent genuine knowledge and accomplishment. The collapse may not be as immediately dramatic as a market collapse–but it seems inevitable that it will eventually happen.

    8/14/2012: Glenn Reynolds recently published a book titled The Higher Education Bubble. It’s available via Kindle for $1.99, which I believe is a temporary price…I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve downloaded it, and will be reading it soon.

     

    4 Responses to “RERUN–An Academic Bubble?”

    1. chuck Says:

      Heh, I remember almost the exact same conversation except that the final cutoff was 40 out of 200. It was my introduction to college grading.

    2. Bill Waddell Says:

      “This situation is reminiscent of other pieces of paper–stock certificates in certain dot.com companies. At the height of the boom, people were acquiring these certificates without much consideration of the current or potential business results of the companies they represented. (“I don’t know what it does,” said one investor of a stock, “but I know it’s moving.”) The hope was simply that a popular stock would become more popular and hence increase in price–that is, these certificates were valued because they were valued.”

      You mean, like, shares of Facebook?

    3. Ginny Says:

      It is the old story of those entrusted with something beautiful and valuable who no longer even understand its beauty & value. Cynically, they trash the rooms and don’t fix the plumbing. They are tawdry businessmen who somehow get the rights to a valued trademark and then turn out shoddy furniture; for a short time their life is easy – low cost furniture, high profit sales. Some grabbed what they could – an easy tenured life, a classroom they could dominate with half-baked ideas, long sabbaticals. And so the beautiful house in which they live falls down around them or the shoddy furniture is linked to the old trademark and its value dissipates. And the great works are taken from the library and sold for a pittance on Amazon because no one reads them any more. That education may not be worth much. But it was once. And it will be again.

    4. David Foster Says:

      Ginny…good analogy with the trademark analogy. One difference is that when someone is devaluing a trademark to sell a shoddy physical object, the lowered quality soon becomes obvious–the chair breaks or is just plain ugly, the car won’t start in cold weather, etc etc—and the devaluation of the trademark happens fairly quickly. WIth education, though, the time delays between quality reduction and the *perception* of quality reduction are longer…many years or even decades…so the trademark-devaluers can coast on the reputation built by others for much longer.

      Also see Stuart Schneiderman: The Religion of Education

      http://stuartschneiderman.blogspot.com/2011/11/religion-of-education.html