Saturday, October 1, 2011

Perceptions of Academia

My op-ed on research and teaching in the Globe and Mail got far more positive comments than my previous op-eds on Afghanistan.  Not a huge surprise given how controversial the latter is.  But it was kind of fun to observe the comment threads on the former, as it appears that there is a Godwin's law specific to academic discussions.

Godwin's law is the observation that any internet discussion that goes on long enough will eventually invoke comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis.  Well, on any discussion about universities, it seems that the conversation eventually must end up in one of two places: that we profs are really in the business of indoctrinating our students; or that universities are really about money/profit.  Each raises a variety of interesting questions.

Indoctrination?  What are we forcing students to learn/follow/believe?  This usually refers to left-wing folks inflicting their views on the students who then become hippies.  I am pretty sure this refers to pieces of the social sciences more than anything else: political science, economics, history, sociology and the like.  It is not clear how the rest of the university is in indoctrination business--chemistry, math, biology, engineering, etc.  Given that it is the latter that tends to wag the university dog (they bring in more money, fame, prestige, etc), it is not clear how this indoctrination machine works.  Another big problem with this set of beliefs is that we apparently suck at this.  Yes, educated people are, on average, less conservative than folks with fewer degrees, but there are plenty of folks in North America who have both college degrees and conservative views.  So, the indoctrination machine apparently sucks.

To the second, profit-making machines?  Um, whuck (a 30 Rock term compressing WTF)?  Yes, tuition has been going up (although hearing Canadians complain about this makes me giggle given how low tuition is in Canada, compared to the US), but whose pockets are being lined?  Yes, university presidents are getting paid more than in the past, but the wage distribution in academia hardly compares with the skewness of wages in the rest of the economy.  Who are the stockholders in this view of profit-seeking universities?  Who owns the shares?  Again, I do whine about there being more administration and administrators, but universities are spending most of their money on salaries/benefits of professors and staffers.  That is where most of the money goes.  Do professors make a good wage?  Yes, but, again, does not compare to the rest of the economy for folks with lots of degrees. 

Some of the comments seem as if they did not read the op-ed that they are criticizing.  Not surprising, but what the conversation there suggests is: confirmation bias.  That we tend to observe the stuff that confirms are pre-existing beliefs and ignore what does not.  Which would also explain the very kind emails I got from some profs around Canada, complimenting me on the post, and the nice facebook comments as well. 

I am so aware of the dangers of confirmation bias that my intro to IR course is very much not about indoctrination (except for convincing the convinced that the Bush administration made big mistakes in its foreign policy, like firing the Iraq army in 2003).  My goal in that class is to introduce a variety of theories about international relations and some tools to figure out for oneself which ones are more persuasive.  That is, I am trying to foster lots of different beliefs so that down the road students do not cram reality into the one box in their head via confirmation bias but have choices about how to view things.

If trying to get folks to see multiple perspectives is indoctrination, well, then I am guilty.  But then we have stretched the concept of indoctrination so far that it loses all meaning.

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