Category Archives: academia

right and left on campus today

A recent book by Amy J. Binder and Jeffrey L. Kidder, The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today, rings true to me and offers numerous original insights. It’s based on 200 hours of interviews with 77 student activists on four flagship state university campuses.

The progressive activists include liberals (who define liberalism as support for the Democratic Party) and leftists (who disparage liberalism). On campus, most find courses, professors, majors, and co-curricular opportunities–such as multicultural centers–that align with their views and interests. Progressive donors and foundations fund such opportunities by donating to the institutions, which remain in control of the students’ experiences. None of the leftist students have leftist parents, and often they have been radicalized by courses. This does not mean that professors brainwashed them; sometimes, rigorously presented material radicalizes people who choose to study it.

The progressive students are especially concerned about their own universities’ policies, whether regarding diversity, climate, or labor issues. They form close relationships with favored faculty and staff. However, many are frustrated when their institutions fail to change; and their faculty and staff mentors–who are employees with job descriptions and supervisors–cannot help them wholeheartedly. (In my experience, many employees are also torn between their personal political views and a professional ethic of neutrality.)

Progressive students who work with national or global organizations or networks provide free or cheap labor as “service”; some even raise money as canvassers. In short, they give more to national progressive efforts than they get back. Their activism rarely opens channels to post-college employment, and some even want to return to academia as staff or faculty.

The conservative activist students range ideologically from moderate institutionalists and intellectuals to MAGA radicals. However, they are fewer and they form more of a community on each campus than the progressives do. They express few complaints about university policies and are rarely interested in that topic. They are critical of campus culture, and they blame their fellow students more than the institution for perceived leftwing bias. In any case, they are mainly involved with national organizations and networks.

Conservative donors and foundations are leery about contributing to universities–or at least to their liberal arts, academic components–but eager to support conservative students directly with paid internships and other opportunities. Conservative students meet peers from other campuses at national gatherings and move readily into post-graduate jobs. They get more than they give from national organizations.

To the extent that conservative activists intervene on their own campuses, it is mostly by inviting speakers in the hope of influencing campus culture. For conservative national organizations that fund speakers, controversial visitors represent an attractive wedge issue. Although conservative students are deeply divided about the merits of the more controversial speakers, they are united about free speech. Besides, protests against conservative speakers attract national publicity that plays well on the right.

This sociological account explains more about politics on today’s campuses than a narrow focus on the universities’ own policies or an analysis of generational proclivities, such as an alleged turn away from liberal values. As always, most people behave according to incentives and norms–including radical people in radical organizations.

For me, the book raises complex normative questions (what should we want from higher education?) and policy questions. I hope to address those matters further in a review-article about this book and several other interesting recent works on higher education and politics.

See also what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech

the sociology of the analytic/continental divide in philosophy

I agree with William Blattner that “the so-called Continental-analytic division within philosophy is not a philosophical distinction; it’s a sociological one. It is the product of historical accident.”

The Continental and analytic schools each encompass too much diversity and overlap too much to allow them to be distinguished on the basis of doctrines or methods. Rather, they are two social groupings whose behavior can be illuminated by thinking about group-dynamics, incentives, and structures that may apply in other such conflicts.

In other words, we can put aside the content of the philosophical discussion and view analytic and continental philosophers as analogous to other examples of rival groups that display similar behavior, such as the Jacobins and Girondins during the French Revolution (minus guillotines), Weimar Classicists vs. Jena Romantics around 1800, or perhaps mods and rockers in British youth culture around 1960.

Here are the features I would note. Professional philosophy is a community that controls who can belong, and memberships (college teaching jobs) are scarce and desired by a larger population than can be accommodated. The community is decentralized, without a single authority; decisions about membership are made by local clusters (departments). However, the prevailing culture is hierarchical and status-conscious, and participants value reputation highly–fame is more salient than money. A small proportion of members have reputations across the community, but most are not widely known.

Within the whole community, two larger groups formed in the later 1900s and persisted for many decades: the analytics and the Continentals. They never encompassed all philosophers. There were also smaller self-conscious groups (American pragmatists, Thomists, specialists in classical and Asian philosophy, Marxists) and many individuals who refused to identify with a group at all. But some philosophers were committed to the analytic-Continental distinction and invested effort in debating, shifting, and maintaining the boundaries of their own group and expanding its influence.

Individuals may hold principled reasons to identify with one of these groups or the other, or not to participate in the distinction at all. They also have incentives to align or not align and to publicize or obfuscate their own stances. Such incentives vary. Is there an opportunity to get a job in a department that is overwhelmingly analytic? Is that department looking to reinforce that tilt or to diversify? Some philosophers may want to avoid such careerist considerations, but natural selection will weed out many of the purists.

A situation like this encourages people to treat some individuals as shibboleths. Perhaps a controversial person is influential–although not universally admired–within Group A. Most people in Group B cannot believe that this person has any admirers at all. Not only do they make tolerance for the person a defining characteristic of Group A, but they attribute aspects of his beliefs and behaviors to everyone in Group A.

Perhaps Robespierre is an example, polarizing Jacobins and Girondins even though many Jacobins hated him, and even though it is hard to identify sharp conceptual differences between these groups’ ideologies.

I think Blattner is right to attribute this role to Heidegger in the analytic-Continental divide. Although many Continental philosophers dislike Heidegger on numerous grounds (not only his Nazi phase), most would acknowledge that he belongs in the curriculum, that he inspired valuable work by others, and that one should know his work. For many analytics, he is a willful obscurantist, and they tend to attribute various aspects of his writing (an extremely self-conscious style, lots of hard-to-define neologisms, close readings of Romantic lyric poetry, an idealist history of thought) to Continental philosophy in general.

I am not sure which specific author to mention as a shibboleth on the analytic side, but it would be someone who dismisses historical philosophy and insights from the humanities in favor of only the latest natural science and logic and who denies being influenced by his (sic) social, cultural, and class position. Maybe A.J. Ayer?

Philosophy is usually under external pressure–since Socrates–and it now faces declining enrollments and doubts about its economic value. (See “the ROI for philosophy“.) External pressure could unify the discipline, and maybe it is doing so to some extent. But it can also fuel the fires of internal division, as when royalist invasions of France provoked Jacobins and Girondins to turn on each other as traitors.

There have been many examples of fruitful interaction at the level of individuals or even between groups. But the analytic-Continental conflict persisted for so long that plenty of people carry lists of grudges. “Yale Riot Protests Tenure Denial” said the headline after Richard J. Bernstein was denied tenure at Yale–in 1965–and that episode lingered when I majored in the same department two decades later.

Affective polarization within the discipline is a Bad Thing, because it discourages learning, promotes stereotyping, and discriminates against heterodox approaches. But I don’t think it is unusual or inexplicable. In philosophy, the problem may already be improving. To the extent it persists, we should think about group-dynamics and instutional incentives more than actual philosophical differences.

the links between capital and education

My employer and primary community, Tufts University, appears (along with virtually all US colleges and universities) in two massive studies by Raj Chetty and colleagues. I will use Tufts’ statistics to offer some general observations about the relationships between capital and education in our economic order. Tufts represents one type of institution that plays a significant economic role in the US and even globally.

According to his study of economic mobility, 62% of Tufts students who arrive from the bottom fifth of the income distribution attain the top fifth, which ranks Tufts #7 among “elite” institutions for upward mobility. However, students from the bottom of the income distribution are relatively scarce at Tufts (due, I believe, to our relatively small endowment), ranking us 40th in accessibility out of 65 elite colleges. Putting those two facts together generates a rank of 30th out of 65 for what Chetty et al. call “overall mobility.”

Basically, Tufts students tend to be economically advantaged, but their median income at age 34 is much higher than their family income was at age 18. This is typical of the institutions Chetty et al. call “elite.” (See the graphic with this post, which shows Tufts right in the midst of the elite schools.)

Meanwhile, according to Chetty and colleagues’ analysis of Facebook data, 94.4% of low-income Tufts students’ Facebook “friends” have high incomes, ranking Tufts in the 100th percentile among all US institutions on that measure. Tufts demonstrates relatively low “clustering,” meaning that Tufts students’ Facebook-friend networks are relatively cliquey. But these cliques do not seem to be economically homogeneous (Chetty et al 2022). In short, because Tufts is somewhat diverse and fairly cohesive but also predominantly affluent, students who are admitted from the lower economic strata obtain economically valuable connections while in college.

Chetty follows James Coleman (1988, cited 61,000 times), Robert Putnam (2001), and other authors, mostly Americans, in finding that social capital boosts educational success and upward economic mobility. The argument is basically that individuals–especially children and youth–are more likely to succeed if other people voluntarily support them and if many people support their schools and colleges, thereby making these institutions work better. If we define “social capital” as such networks of voluntary engagement, then having social capital benefits the individual and has positive externalities for the society. It is win/win.

A different literature is equally influential but has a different audience. Pierre Bourdieu sees education primarily as a way of reproducing economic stratification. His most famous idea is that educational institutions mark their graduates as members a specific social class by teaching them how to talk and act (Bourdieu 1983, cited 61,000 times). Members of the current ruling class dominate the institutions that mark people as upper class, ensuring that their children obtain “cultural capital.” Bourdieu also uses the phrase “social capital,” referring to the network-ties that further stratify a society. For instance, if a rich and powerful person knows and likes you, you have social capital. For Bourdieu, social capital is zero-sum, a means of gaining relative advantage over others.

To make these theories vivid, image two concrete stories.

First, imagine a US teenager who has only decent odds of completing high school, obtaining an associate’s degree, and getting a job that pays as much as her parents did when they started out. She will be more likely to succeed at these goals if her family members and other adults and peers offer emotional support, occasional financial support, and connections, and if many people support the local schools, sports leagues, and other community-based settings where she spends her time.

Second, imagine a teenager (we will call him “Brett”) who attends a selective private school in the Washington suburbs with a future Supreme Court justice, goes on to Yale, where his grandfather had studied before him, and then to Yale Law School, where he rooms with a future federal judge and plays basketball with the Yale professor who leads the Federalist Society chapter. He gets clerkships, jobs, and appointments that culminate in a seat on the Supreme Court along with his former schoolmate, two other Yale Law graduates, and five other former members of the Federalist Society. Brett was more likely to succeed at reaching his goal–the nation’s highest court–because well-placed friends looked out for him and supported the institutions where he studied.

Both of these theories could be true. They might name dynamics that apply for different segments of our population. I am not aware of empirical studies that explicitly juxtapose them in ways that would allow them to be compared and, perhaps, combined. Chetty’s work hints at some combinations. If he and his colleagues only studied institutions like Tufts, the main findings would be consistent with Bourdieu. But Chetty offers data for all colleges, universities, school systems, and neighborhoods, and often it appears that social capital benefits everyone, as in Coleman and Putnam.

I would also cite the tremendously ambitious Chicago study by Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls (1997). As Sampson presents the results, this study finds very little evidence of economic mobility in Chicago. The vast majority of Chicagoans retain their class position as they move through life (Sampson 2012, Kindle loc. 5138). Nevertheless, individuals are much safer and healthier if their neighborhoods are more socially cohesive. In this model, social capital–which Sampson et al. re-conceive as “collective efficacy”–improves one’s quality of life without challenging the class structure. This is a way of synthesizing Bourdieu and Coleman.

I cannot offer additional empirical evidence, but I would like to suggest some conceptual clarifications. Basically, I believe that the categories in this debate are complicated and that neither Bourdieu’s Marxism nor neoliberal economics offers sufficient nuance on its own.

Capital takes many forms. Let’s define capital most abstractly as a stock that produces some kind of flow. This stock can be land (with our without natural endowments that benefit people), raw materials, equipment, organizational structure, know-how, basic knowledge, specific knowledge, network ties, and/or influence or even control over other people. Depending on the type of stock, it may or may not belong to groups, as opposed to individuals. Depending on the laws and economic system, it actually belongs to some entities and not others. Likewise, capital can have many flows, from money to happiness to prestige, and those outputs either benefit or harm different people or groups. Some flows accumulate while others dissipate. It may be possible to purchase one kind of capital with another. A classic example is the lucky nouveau-riche who buys cultural capital in the form of a fancy educations for his kids. But such exchanges face barriers and inefficiencies.

People want a variety of things: not only concrete goods for themselves but also relative status vis-a-vis other people, feelings of belonging, freedom, and various other people’s welfare.

Education has many aspects. It can mean practical knowledge with social or economic value for the individual, the community, or both; intrinsically valuable knowledge that may not be socially valued; an indication of relative talent and/or ambition; an indication of membership in a specific social category (e.g., the social elite, a religious group, the military); a process of accommodating individuals to current authority and prevailing norms; or a liberation from those norms. People may consciously seek various combinations of these outcomes for themselves or their children and may experience outcomes that they did not intend. For instance, think of parents who believe they are purchasing economic advancement and good behavior, yet they watch their children turn into subversive radicals–or the reverse.

The socioeconomic distribution can be characterized in various ways. Chetty and colleagues write a lot about mobility, which means movement from one income or wealth percentile to a different one. It is important to remember that upward mobility must be exactly matched by downward mobility, holding other factors constant. For every first-gen. student who attends college, one college graduate’s child must not go to higher education, unless total enrollments rise (which will cheapen the relative advantage of college). This explains why the upper strata are so fierce about preventing mobility. Studies like Sampson et al. are focused on absolute levels of human welfare, such as victimization by violent crime. It would be possible for everyone to rise above reasonable levels. Bourdieu might be interested in the ratio of the top to the bottom, although his relatively classical Marxism is more about power than income. (And France, which he studied, is unusual in its combination of economic equality with political and cultural elitism).

There are many kind of relevant institutions, from neighborhood public schools that appear open to all but may be deeply exclusive because of residential patterns, to public universities that are genuinely accessible yet internally segregated and stratified, to well-endowed private institutions that heavily subsidize a minority of their students in the interests of “diversity,” which may primarily benefit the best off, and more.

There are many policy options. As I understand it, the elite of Mexico congregate at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, UNAM, which enrolls 356,530 students, admitting just 10% of its applicants, and charges $900 for tuition thanks to federal support and a limited budget. About half of UNAM students graduate. A considerable number of affluent but less ambitious Mexican students opt for private institutions in Mexico or US colleges that offer more individual services at higher cost but with less distinction. In contrast, many EU countries do not allow their universities to differ much in reputation or selectivity, and they typically serve students from their local areas, again, offering limited services. Even relative inexpensive and more accessible US public institutions usually provide many more services, beyond classroom instruction, compared to European universities. One would expect different results in terms of mobility, stratification, minimum welfare, median welfare, and equality–which are different measures.

Here are some possible takeaways for different kinds of people:

  • If you’re prone to admire selective (Akil Bellow calls them “highly rejective”) institutions because many of their less advantaged students move upward on the socioeconomic scale, focus less on those few students and more on the vast numbers who aren’t admitted. Furthermore, if selective institutions offer exclusive social capital, their impact on mobility could not be expanded. Making them bigger would dilute their benefits for their own students.
  • If you view selective institutions as merely exclusive and all about preserving social advantage, you have a valid perspective. However, you might consider the public goods that these institutions produce (from highly trained physicians to translations from Sanskrit) and ask how we else we might generate those goods.
  • If you want to promote mobility by giving money to selective institutions, you should at least Google their per-student endowments. Some US universities (but not including Tufts) could already offer completely free tuition for all their students below a high income threshold. You might ask what they are doing with your fungible contributions.
  • If you think that universities should invest more in services and quality of life to promote their own students’ equitable well-being, you might consider evidence that such investments also make those institutions more selective and less accessible (Bulman 2022). Institutions could instead expand the number and/or diversity of the students they admit, but that means serving a hypothetical constituency instead of an actual one, and it rarely happens.

Citations: Bourdieu, Pierre. Forms of Capital: General Sociology, Volume 3: Lectures at the College de France 1983-84. United Kingdom: Wiley, 2021; G. Bulman, “The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition,” NBER Working Paper 30404 (2022); Chetty, Raj, Matthew O. Jackson, Theresa Kuchler, Johannes Stroebel, Nathaniel Hendren, Robert B. Fluegge, Sara Gong et al. “Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility.” Nature 608, no. 7921 (2022): 108-121; Coleman, James S. “Social capital in the creation of human capital.” American journal of sociology 94 (1988): S95-S120; Putnam, Robert D. 2001. “Community Based Social Capital and Educational Performance.” In Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, 58–95. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Sampson, Robert J.. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press 2012; Sampson, Robert J., Stephen W. Raudenbush, and Felton Earls. “Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy.” Science 277, no. 5328 (1997): 918–24.

See also why don’t colleges allocate more resources to access?; four perspectives on student debt forgiveness;  the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; Bourdieu in the college admissions office; the ROI for philosophy, etc. 

values of a university

Leszek Kolakowski wrote “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist” in 1978. His short essay is a model of pluralism, in the sense that he intentionally combines values that are necessarily in tension.

Institutions can also be pluralist in that sense. Indeed, the best universities may be conservative liberal socialistic republican democratic anarchistic utilitarian communities. Yet they can also fall short on each or all of these criteria. Here is a framework for assessment:

Values espoused by a universityCharacteristic failures
Conservative: Preserving wisdom and excellence from the past and conveying it to young people.Arbitrary adherence to the past–or faddish novelty.
Liberal: Developing people’s capacity to be free individuals by allowing them to speak and think on their own.Group-think; social pressure to conform. Or irresponsible individualism.
Republican: Preventing individuals from dominating others by using arbitrary power.Domination, especially by senior faculty and administrators.
Democratic: Making decisions collectively and teaching that skill.Bureaucracy and hierarchy–or incoherent decisions by individuals.
Utilitarian: Producing knowledge and applications that increase human (or animal) welfare.Outcomes distorted by money or fame–or useless work.
Socialistic: Adjusting costs by income, pooling resources and distributing them equitably, and belonging–as a corporate body–to the state (in the case of public institutions).Social stratification; competition for admission and employment; specifically bourgeois values.
Communitarian: Serving as a supportive, affective groupLeaving some students and employees out of the community–or becoming an exclusive community that sees itself as superior to outsiders.
Anarchistic: The knowledge created by free people within the university is unowned and belongs to a global commons.Corporate enclosure and/or close affiliation with governments.

why don’t colleges allocate more resources to access?

You would think that when a college or university gets a financial windfall, it would spend as much of its new funds as possible to make itself more accessible. It could cut tuition prices, increase financial aid, and/or expand the number of students. But George Bulman finds that none of these things happen.*

Bulman investigates the results when institutions see highly varied returns on their investments, from a 19% increase in an endowment in a single year to a 19% loss. Even in a given year, different comparable institutions can see disparate returns. Bulman finds that when their investments do well, colleges and universities spend more money on their programs, become more selective, allow their tuitions to rise, but allocate no additional money to financial aid, and actually admit and fund fewer students of color. The overall decrease in racial diversity is statistically significant.

Bulman doesn’t really speculate about the reasons. One could model institutions as decision-makers that are trying to maximize their own selectivity and rankings and use windfall money for that purpose. That model fits the data, but I would offer a different explanation that reflects my informal observations better.

I think that a host of groups within any given institution have needs. They make arguments for spending money on everything from student housing to research administration. Often these arguments have merit and an idealistic ring. For instance, students at several universities that I know are advocating more campus housing to relieve rent pressure on nearby neighborhoods that are subject to gentrification. They get this idea from their genuine engagement with those neighborhoods. They don’t want housing for themselves in a narrow way.

However, as a result of many such claims, all available revenues are quickly used up. The new expenditures tend to make the institution look more impressive, increasing applications and allowing the admissions office to become more selective. In essence, it’s a problem of actual internal constituencies trumping the interests of an abstract constituency: potential students.

What should we think when we read this kind of announcement?

Princeton University will enhance its groundbreaking financial aid program, providing even more generous support to undergraduates and their families as it works to attract talented students from all backgrounds.Most families earning up to $100,000 a year will pay nothing, and many families with income above $100,000 will receive additional aid, including those at higher income levels with multiple children in college.

To put this in context, I would note that Princeton’s endowment of $4.5 million per student should generate an average payout of about $225,000 per student per year. Princeton could double or triple its student body and offer full scholarships to all the additional students. Instead, it spends its funds on a range of activities, many of them meritorious, and many of which increase its luster, thereby allowing it to reject 94.4% of its applicants—all the while soliciting its alumni to support financial aid. Again, I would interpret Princeton’s priorities not as an intentional choice to buy selectivity, but as a result of many internal constituencies making valid claims on resources.

(Tufts’ endowment is about $200k per student, which should generate about $10k per student in an average year: a different story.)

See G. Bulman, “The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition,” NBER Working Paper 30404 See also Four perspectives on student debt forgiveness;  the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace; etc.