Thursday, July 30, 2020

Review: Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education

Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher EducationCracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education by Jason Brennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jason Brennan and Philip Magness present a clear and very readable critique of higher education. Having followed their work online for a while, there wasn’t a lot new to me. However, these are important criticisms with which many may not be familiar (or they are not familiar with the research that backs up the criticisms). The main lesson of the book is that the main problems of academia are not caused by bad people but by out of whack incentives for faculty, administrators, and students. The problems they focus on are: universities make lots of claims about supposed benefits that they don’t actually deliver on; student evaluations are an invalid and harmful way of evaluating teaching effectiveness; grades and GPAs are too inconsistent to be meaningful; general education requirements don’t work and are just ways for departments to get students (and money); and universities produce too many PhDs and do so primarily for their (and the professors) own standing and reputation; and lastly, students learn very little but cheat a lot. For each of these, there are incentives for otherwise well-meaning individuals to act in ways that make higher education worse.

None of this is good. As an academic, I have direct experience with pretty much each of these and their criticisms certainly fit with that experience. Unfortunately, the authors don’t have solutions: they end by saying that the only way to fix higher education is to change the incentives, but no one (including themselves) have the incentive to make the changes. (Maybe COVID will disrupt higher education enough to change some of those – so long as I don’t lose my job!)

I think Bryan Caplan’s critique of education { The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money} is a better overall book about the problems of education; but Brennan and Magness do look more closely at factors that Caplan doesn’t take on. So these go well together.

View all my reviews