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State Education: Plans of Aft and Gley

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The recent crack-up of the UN-pushed climate change models is, I am sure, going to prompt yet another spate of back-to-basics navel-gazing. The realization that one single, and rather cheaply-done, experiment has cast real doubt upon years of munificently-financed climatology research will probably cause the "re-evaluation process" to get rolling again. Only this time, higher education will be the focus.

To this end, I submit one of those high-school multiple-choice decision memos for your inspection. In order to play, you need to go through the following four models of higher education and try to pick one that will encourage the most scholarship, unless you think I’m pulling a trick and decide to abstain. Here they are:

The Elitist Model

This one is relatively easy to describe because our present educational system got implemented through elbowing it out a long time ago. The elitist model assumes that some people are inherently fit for scholarship, and the rest aren’t. Since only a small minority of citizens are going to wind up in scholarship anyhow, elitist models of higher education see no inherent difficulty in limiting the pool of qualified candidates to a small minority.

The most august kind of elitism is elitism by birth and/or social position. The ultimate justification for this system is the principle of specialization. Only certain kinds of people are fit for scholarship; bringing the rest in would simply waste their time and (perhaps others’) money. Since only a small minority of citizens will become professional scholars of any worth anyway, the restriction on entrant numbers to a small minority shouldn’t matter all that much.

The most creative justification of the arbitrary-disqualification element of such a system came from an eighteenth-century Prussian, Justus Möser. He argued that the arbitrary imposition of qualifications for scholarly positions will be good for the masses, because each member of the disqualified part of the citizenry can content him- or herself with the thought, "okay, so it’s unfair, but it doesn’t say anything about my own abilities. I just wasn’t born to be a scholar." (Ludwig von Mises discusses this argument in Section 1, subsection 4 of The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality.) Building on this justification, it could be argued that arbitrary criteria for admission will inculcate a sense of guilt and/or shame in the favored classes, which will impel them to work hard in order to justify their privileges to the rest of the citizenry.

Of course, the arbitrariness of the qualifications, with respect to scholarly merit, is precisely the drawback of the elitist model. This drawback does not exist for the second model of higher education.

The Hard-Democratic Model

The hard-democratic model of higher education uses a rigorous selection process too, but substitutes measures of individual accomplishment for collectivistic admission criteria. In contradistinction to the elitist model, anyone, no matter how modest their social rank or socio-economic status, can reach the top in the hard-democratic system — provided that the successful person in question gets top-notch grades and produces top-notch work.

One advantage to the hard-democratic model is that it provides a plausible way to achieve excellence in scholarship, in a democratic polity. To do so, all that is required is to ramp up the requirements for getting in. Grade cutoffs can be raised; entrance exams can be added; work pressures can be piled up to weed out the lackadaisical. In addition, character screenings can be added, too: if a science student "fudges" the data while in the lab, he or she can be expelled for cause. The same thing goes for cheating of any kind. Professors who "creatively adapt" someone else’s work can be sacked for cause. It can be argued that the character component is even more democratic than the performance component, because there is no such thing as a "character quotient" but there is such a thing as an intelligence quotient. Interestingly enough, rote memorization, as a performance metric, doesn’t favor the high-I.Q. type that much either. Nor does cold-decking a student for non-sequitur-ridden thinking.

Another general advantage of the hard-democratic model is that it doesn’t mandate excellence. If excellence in scholarship is not wanted, then the criteria can be relaxed a little. The issues that dominate scholarship at the top level are rarefied, after all; a more pragmatic age tends to see them as being of little use.

This model, though seemingly ideal for a democratic society, has one drawback, which is more well known now than it was forty years ago. The hard-democratic model relies upon merit criteria that may very well be too narrow, thus opening up the possibility of a third option.

The Soft-Democratic Model

The soft-democratic model of higher education discards rigor for the sake of pluralism. Multiple points of view are encouraged; optimization criteria are discarded as being too narrow-minded. Instead of output-based selection criteria, input-based criteria are used: credentials. You put in the time, and don’t goof off, you qualify.

The obvious disadvantage of this kind of system — tenured mediocrity — is dealt with by reliance upon the marketplace of ideas, and by "strength in numbers." It matters little if one scholar is a screw-up, as long as he or she has a needed knack that can contribute to the progress of the field. A more rigorous, but more narrow-minded, colleague can correct the errors of the former. The latter type of scholar derives a benefit from being inspired by the former. Thus, the soft-democratic model relies upon the principle of specialization, too — intra-group specialization.

If the whole field seems ridden by screw-ups, then a shift to critical thinking can set the ship of scholarship aright. In addition, many scholars with bad habits can set themselves aright through normal maturation. A screw-up will grow out of it.

The advantage of such a system is that it never drives away potential, whereas a more rigorous system might. Also, it brings the most scholars into the field. The disadvantage, of course, is credentialism becoming a substitute for competence.

The Regimentation Model

This last model differs profoundly from the first three, and is the most alien to us. All of the others rely upon initiative: the elitist model uses class pride; the hard-democratic model uses pride in individual accomplishment; the soft-democratic model uses career incentives. The regimentation model, on the other hand, uses punishment.

In this model, classes are run like a boot camp. Laxity in paying attention, and in homework, is met with a swift penalty, such as being yelled at, or "punishment drill," or going without break time. It’s hard to see an advantage in this kind of higher-education model, as it can only produce good epigones. The regimentation model is only considerable when epigonery is prized, and mistakes of any kind are anathema. Needless to say, the regimentation model is the most foreign to a free society, let alone a democratic society.

What should be clear about all of these models is that they have both strengths and drawbacks. It is impossible to prove, without smuggling in value judgments, which system of these four is the best one. None of them are objectively ideal.

Interestingly enough, though, all of them can be corrupted by the substitution of State financing for private (or self-)financing — all of them. Here’s how:

  1. The elitist model can become a gravy train for a privileged class, thanks to the influx of tax dollars. This result goes by the name of a "Family Compact" in my home land of Canada.
  2. The hard-democratic model is put at risk by "the few and the proud" making up a small pressure group. Thus, although the hard-democratic model seems to be better than the elitist model, it is more vulnerable to shifts in the political wind due to its successes not being born to any shade of impressive and therefore influential purple.
  3. The soft-democratic model does have the advantage of a relatively large class of beneficiaries, which makes it less politically brittle than the hard-democratic model, but the credentialist nature of it does tend towards sinecure.
  4. The regimentation model, dominated as it is by obedience, is easy for the State to corrupt into pseudo-scholarship.

And, of course, all of them will be bent out of shape by the fact that the State pays the piper, and thus calls the tune. The marketplace of ideas, like the marketplace period, exists to serve the consumer. When the consumer is the State, then the demand by the State, for a certain kind of scholarship, will call forth a corresponding supply.

It also introduces a corresponding disincentive as well. Governments do not like being embarrassed, after all, and can not only de-fund any obstreperous scholar, but can also go after any would-be private patron too, through changes in the laws. A private patron cannot go after the State; he or she can only plead to the State.

The American academy, as of now, is dominated by a largely soft-democratic model, with a residue of the hard-democratic model that used to be predominant when State financing was in its earlier stages. Present-day climatology has been developed in a contemporaneous soft-democratic milieu, with lavish State funding included; it is in conformance to this model that it lost its head for so many years. I note, in closing, that climatology has required the services of a Viscount to regain its bearings. Should there be any navel-gazing as a result of the breakdown of the "generally" accepted climate-change models, I humbly suggest the inclusion of this fact into any such effort.

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