Friday, December 08, 2017

At The Atlantic: Bryan Caplan's entry in the "kids today! Amirite?" sweepstakes

At The Atlantic, Bryan Caplan says "The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone." (

But just when you think he might have a point--there are indeed many kinds of work for which traditional college isn't needed where people will make way more than college professors, for example--he joins the chorus, usually led by the minions of wealth at the Wall Street Journal, about kids these days.

He has a minor point with this:
"The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them."

If we can swallow "useless subjects"--I can't--it's still somewhat true that the traits are important, yet so is the place where you learn to think.

But here's what he concludes:
Kids these days don't like to learn: "Indeed, today’s college students are less willing than those of previous generations to do the bare minimum of showing up for class and temporarily learning whatever’s on the test. . . .  Fifty years ago, college was a full-time job. The typical student spent 40 hours a week in class or studying. Effort has since collapsed across the board. “Full time” college students now average 27 hours of academic work a week—including just 14 hours spent studying.
What are students doing with their extra free time? Having fun.
 Aaaaannnnd--there it is. Kids these days. Having fun. I don't know what his students are doing at George Mason University, but mine are working. They're holding down jobs and trying to get through with a minimum of debt because they don't have a trust fund.

His argument is basically twofold, but wholly conservative.

1. People in Certain Classes of Society ought to know their place and become worker drones if they can't properly appreciate, with suitable leisure, Great Thoughts.

2. Things were better in the old days, when everyone was intellectual.

This tells me (1) his political perspective about social class and (2) that he has no idea that students have been excoriated for "having fun" for literally millennia.

As I wrote in a little screed of my own against this kind of article in 2013
First of all, I think this is the same article they run every month under a different title and by-line. It goes something like this:

When I was at beautiful Ivy or Oxbridge back in the olden days, I had an extremely famous professor (this time: Frank Kermode) who inspired me with the timeless truths of the humanities curriculum. 
Alas, there were few such professors then, and there are none today. That pesky GI bill opened education to the masses, and now students want grades instead of reading literature for timeless truths. Literature has been sullied by the grade-grubbing paws of these students. Where is the pure love of literature of yesteryear?  
Now, I have a certain sympathy for the author's love of literature because I obviously think it's important, too, and what he says about the thrill of books--yes, I get that.

But is the best way to get students to have this relationship to books, where the books help them to experience their lives in different ways, to avoid teaching the humanities?

I'm imagining students, taking 15 credit hours, working 20 hours a week at Mickey D's. What happens if you toss them a copy of The Odyssey or Henry IV, Part I, and say, "Here, kid, this will change your life. Read it in your spare time"?
This is the "kids these days" argument 2.0, and I'm still not buying it. 

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