Paul Krugman: Education? Yes and No.

According to a recent Pew Research study, University Professors are overwhelmingly more likely to lean left than right; which is to say, they are not representative of the voting public. Which raises an interesting question about the independence of institutions of higher learning. As followers of this blog will long ago have noted, I am a keen follower of a strain of conservative thinking that is, on principle, anti-democratic and, ironically, anti-republican. Since it takes the revolutions of 1848/49 as its point of departure, this strain of conservative thinking holds suspect any critical reflection that rests upon survey research: truth is not subject to the demos.

But, what if the aristos, the “excellent,” were able to convince the doulos, the “slaves,” to adopt policies that were excellent, let us say, through “slight of hand” or “turn of speech”?

This, obviously, is the question that Plato raised and answered in his Republic. Insofar as the doulos, the slaves or workers, are ignorant of what the aristos know; and, therefore, are ignorant also of what is good for them, the aristos are obligated to deceive the doulos to embrace policies that promote excellence, not mediocrity.

In his recent blog, Paul Krugman wrestles with this dilemma; unsuccessfully, I would argue. As we might guess, Republicans are incensed over their lack of representation at institutions of higher learning. They are urging university administrators to craft their recruitment of professors to more accurately reflect the public these professors will teach.

Mr Krugman is correct to note that colleges have not grown more liberal. He is also correct to note that professors have grown more hostile to conservative views.

Yes – but surely that has a lot to do with the changing nature of what it means to be a conservative. When denial of climate change, and for that matter the theory of evolution, become tribal markers, you shouldn’t be surprised to find academics, very much including those in the hard sciences, decline to be identified as members of the tribe.

Here, presumably, is where Mr Krugman could shine. He could illuminate the economic and social changes that have given rise to a change in ideology. Or he could point out how control over public information has shifted over the past half century.

Instead, he falls back upon information itself — as though accurate knowledge were an independent variable.

When Mr Krugman appeals to the broadened educational franchise of the 1950s and 1960s; when he credits this broadened franchise with the leadership that the US enjoyed, albeit briefly, he allows the tail to wag the dog. Economic rigor invites us to reflect critically on the conditions that gave rise to the broadening of the educational franchise: the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, a Great War, and a President eager to spend whatever was necessary to defeat fascism in Europe and totalitarianism in Japan. That huge expenditure not only defeated fascism; it poured into the bank accounts of working families who suddenly found it within their means to send their sons and daughters to college. Moreover, these baby-boomers attended college at a moment when professors trained in the 1930s and 1940s were specially sensitized to the dangers both of populism (left and right) and of authoritarianism (again, both left and right). So, yes, Mr Krugman is right:

America basically invented the modern, educated society, leading the way on universal K-12 education, building the world’s finest and most comprehensive higher education system; this in turn was an important factor in how we became leader of the free world.

But, it was never ideology that underwrote the expansion of the educational franchise. In fact, it was the reverse. A great depression gave rise to social discontent. This social discontent might have yielded a movement to fascism or totalitarianism. In fact, sympathy for fascism was quite high in the 1930s in the US, at least in some circles. President Roosevelt, pressured by movements on the left, steered in a different course. Yet, were it not for the unprecedented spending required for defeating Germany and Japan; and did this spending not find its way into the pockets of working families, the “modern, educated society” that Mr Krugman praises would have been nowhere on the map.

What is odd is that Mr Krugman avoids this clear economic explanation for the expansion of the educational franchise and settles instead upon an ideological explanation; or, worse. He credits education with economic expansion; not economic expansion with education.

In the end, the two — knowledge and wealth — are mutually constitutive, each shaping the other. Yet, by isolating knowledge from the conditions that make it possible is, I would argue, a most un-economic way of thinking.

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