Tyler Cowen has an excellent column for Bloomberg today about what his fantasy university would look like. It would be radically different from any existing university today, and it has some very strong ideas that conservatives should be interested in.
As an economist, Cowen is primarily interested in the incentives that actors face within systems. Using that approach, he proposes realigning incentives to focus on actually educating students (I told you it was radical).
“I would start with what I expect students to know,” Cowen writes. “They should be able to write very well, have a basic understanding of economics and public policy, and a decent working knowledge of statistical reasoning.” You might think that’s a perfectly natural place to start, but our current education system consistently produces adults who don’t know how to write, don’t know many basic facts about our political system, and can’t explain what a margin of error is for an opinion poll, let alone make a reasoned inference based on it.
Students regularly learn nothing because they know they only need to demonstrate proficiency in something for an exam. That means you can cram the night before and regurgitate everything your teacher said in class, then forget it all once you leave the classroom. Regurgitation wouldn’t work in Cowen’s university, however, because teachers wouldn’t write or grade their students’ exams. Since they don’t know who will be writing or grading the exam, “students would have to acquire a genuine general knowledge base, not just memorize what is supposed to be on the exam,” he writes.
There would be no tenure for professors, and they would be paid based on how many students take their classes. That would encourage professors to teach interesting information in a way that’s engaging for students. Additionally, “none of the instructors would be required to have any undergraduate or advanced degrees,” Cowen writes. The qualifications would be completely student-focused, with students essentially deciding what works and what doesn’t.
Cowen believes in treating students like human beings who have desires and want to achieve them, instead of like animals that need to be herded. Don’t let the slackers and partiers fool you: By and large, students want to develop skills and knowledge in school. Even if they don’t want to read Socratic dialogues, they at least want to be prepared for a career in a field that’s interesting to them. Our current education system does not serve them well.
The instinct to fight the Left’s indoctrination campaigns is right and proper. But our education system has been inculcating students in secular progressive nonsense for a century (it actually might be a good thing that students don’t retain most of it). Preserving the status quo is better than drifting further left, but it’s still not a victory. Conservatives need to look beyond the current issues of critical race theory or leftist gender ideology and see the bigger picture: Incentives are aligned in such a way that educating students is not the primary goal of educational institutions. It should be no surprise, then, that many students are poorly educated.
Education is an area in which the “liberals” want to keep the status quo and the “conservatives” want to reform. Proposals like Cowen’s are way outside the box, but he’s framing the issue the right way and moving in the right direction.