Teaching is emotionally rewarding only if your students want to learn

Saturday, March 20th, 2021

Government money has played a role in the decline of quality in academia, Arnold Kling argues:

Programs like the GI bill and student loan programs have swelled the ranks of college students. Programs like the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities have dumped huge amounts of money into higher education. The net effect has been harmful.

The conventional wisdom, which comes from college professors, is the exact opposite. They argue that we should be putting more young people through higher education than we do. That funding for research produces great positive externalities and we should do more of it. The same with funding for the humanities.

Average returns to higher education have gone up. But some of this has been due to government-engineered regulations that require firms to be bureaucratized for compliance purposes. Both the regulators and the corporate bureaucrats have college degrees.

More important, at the margin, we are sending people to college who do not belong there. This is demonstrated by low graduation rates as well as a significant number of graduates working at jobs that do not use anything they learned in college. Credentialism is out of control. Somebody could learn to be a physical therapist as an apprentice, but instead many states require a Ph.D for new PT’s.

The expansion of higher education increased the demand for professors. In the 1960s and 1970s, graduate schools cranked up the volume of post-graduate degrees. The results were excessive, in two senses. A lot of mediocre intellects acquired advanced degrees. And a lot of people with advanced degrees could not obtain full-time academic positions.

Expansion also lowered the quality of classrooms at all but the very top colleges. Teaching is emotionally rewarding only if your students want to learn. But most of the students that we send to college these days are not highly motivated learners. Below the top tier in higher education (the best 150 colleges, plus or minus), a typical class has poorly motivated students in a class taught by disappointed professors.

If W. Bentley MacLeod and Miguel Urquiola are correct that the U.S. already had the leading research universities before World War II, then the postwar government programs were not necessarily responsible for the growth of research. Instead, it is plausible that government money bureaucratized and homogenized research. Of course, now that government provides so much of the funding for research, professors are loathe to bite the hand that feeds them.


  1. Kirk says:

    Academia and scholarship are all well and good, but they’re not the be all and end all of human learning.

    The problem we’ve really got going with academia here in the US is the disconnect between “reality as it is” and what we’re teaching the people in the schools. The sad fact is that most of the people doing the teaching these days are people who would be (or, actually were…) failures in the real world doing the jobs they’re teaching people to do.

    The first time I encountered this unpleasant fact was as an experimental test subject for my mother’s education degree; the professor teaching child psychology and development at the University of Colorado Boulder was a life-long bachelor with no kids–But, boy howdy, did he know how to raise kids!

    Not. As a kid, you spent ten minutes with that guy and around his little “labs”, you wanted to get the hell away from the creepy bastard as quickly as possible. I later looked up some of his material, and went over my mom’s class notes after finding them in storage during my teenage years, and I’m here to tell you, that was one weird dude with some very weird ideas.

    And, think about that for a second: He never raised kids for himself, but he was teaching people all about how the minds of children developed and worked. It’s like “Yeah, I’m an expert on this, but I’ve never done it…”.

    That sort of thing permeates much of our educational system. You have primary grade teachers trying to teach children how to read and write, but they’re unable to produce coherent English paragraphs of their own, and the patent illiteracy of their work products viewed in email and other such things is incredibly clear. If the average parent had a view into the intra-school traffic of your average school district, they’d probably attain sudden clarity as to exactly why Johnny can’t read: It’s because the teachers are ignoramuses.

    We were talking yesterday about the American problem with producing decent and effective governance; this is an aspect of it. The root issue is that in America, smart ambitious people don’t go into things like teaching or public service. Those professions are filled, instead, with the dregs. We get what we deserve, because of the status, pay, and attention we pay to these crucial jobs. You want good teachers? Then, you’d better select them carefully, train them even more carefully, and pay them a decent salary. What we’re doing ain’t working, folks.

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    “Yeah, I’m an expert on this, but I’ve never done it…”.

    Sounds like the Neocons and war/diplomacy. It’s a civilization-wide disease.

  3. The White King says:

    Every HR department is staffed by people who cannot do accounting, cannot do programming, cannot do law, cannot do graphics design, cannot do anything useful or productive, yet presume to dictate the choice of personnel for all these fields.

    As for teachers: they would be paid more if they did better. As it stands, trying to shift more money to the existing teaching class is rewarding appalling failure. They need to be fired as a class and something different put in their place. Perhaps with better selection and incentives preventing the inflation and denaturing that happened to education in the past 150 years – but whatever it is, it needs to be in place and demonstrating its value and virtues first, before any talk of feeding extra cash.

    The problem of course is that most parents will scream bloody murder at the thought of having to actually raise their own kids. See the past year of COVID. Families forced to live together and spend time with each other proved an insupportable burden; they don’t want to do it, don’t know how, and don’t think they should be obligated to. They’ve so internalized the idea that they have a natural right to outsource family obligations to government bureaucrats and that no negative consequences of this choice can possibly be their own damn fault, it will not be possible to convince them otherwise.

    The entire society is crashing on multiple levels. On one level, it’s awe-inspiring to behold. On another, as a kid who grew up reading about rocket ships and space colonies, it’s unbelievably infuriating.

  4. Bomag says:

    “…smart ambitious people don’t go into things like teaching or public service. Those professions are filled, instead, with the dregs.”

    True enough, but the quality of a society is partly determined by how good are your dregs.

Leave a Reply