Theories of Government and a Plug for Academic Prostitution

Blog neighbor Mr Schraub tosses up on the wall two notions, that there are basically few, if any, useless “medical” studies that one might sponsor and that mocking the historical speciality near and dear to him, notably “Black Studies”, is unwarranted. For the both in part, that opinion depends on your what you think the role of government might be. If you think government is basically limited (see 10th Amendment) to the role of keeping my fist from your nose and vice versa, settling disputes, guarding our borders, and then getting out of the way so we can be about our business pursuing life , liberty and all. Then these measures as instituted by the state makes little sense. If on the other hand, the role of government is to supply happiness, life and liberty to everyone … then government has a tall order to fulfill and has to employ  plethora (see Das Scholss -> The Keep/Castle) of fellows xyz-ocrats making sure everyone is maximally happy-in-ated, all in a very Kafkaseque fashion.

So, you go to school and major in this Black Studies thing, and as Mr Schraub suggests, do some useful writing in the field. What the heck do you do with that? I guess you write papers in academia read by other academics. Or you become a Castle senschal? Is Exxon going to hire you? To do what? Do you become a better barista in Starbucks competing with out-of-work actors? What?

But what in general are we to make of Academic pursuits? For this has begged a serious question, what role do history, literature, and other “soft” studies have in our academic and general pursuits? What is the point of this Academic research. Academics themselves have noted (and I’m not finding the link where this was posted, it was months and months ago) that lots of their papers are read by a select few. We are in an age of hyper-specialization in parts of academia and as this is the result. For academic teaching of those “hard” topics, maths, engineering, medicine, and for that matter, carpentry the pay off is obvious. Kids trained in those subjects have careers outside of academia awaiting them. So here’s some unsolicited advice to “fix” the problem of hyper-specialization in increasing irrelevance of so much of the academic world. Here’s one solution, less considered. Prostitution.

Academics are used to publish or perish driving their existence in their department and as a measure of their worth. It is their carrot and their stick. How about If  instead of having specialized journals be the norm, that those were the exception, That schools began to demand “publish” mean “publish” in a general market and make money at it? That in turn to the general audience and more importantly make a profit selling those works … then they’d be forced to confront and to embrace some level of relevance. In the historical field, a David Hackett Fisher can make a good buck selling good history … well, get the rest of the historians to do the same thing. If you can’t make a return selling your speciality (hence the second part of the title) then … perish.

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16 comments

  1. Wow, is there a lot of wrong here.

    1) I did not in fact say there are “basically few, if any, useless “medical” studies that one might sponsor”. I said the ones Rep. Issa identified do not appear useless, but are in fact quite useful.

    2) The 10th Amendment does not, either by its terms or by any reasonable interpretation, restrict government to “to the role of keeping my fist from your nose and vice versa [etc.]. In particular, the ability for the federal government to fund grants to scientific institutions falls easily within enumerated congressional power (Art. I, Sec. 8, Cl. 1). It’s ability to create such institutions (like NIH) falls well within the parameters of McCulloch v. Maryland.

    3) The academic department in question is at Northwestern University, a private institution.

    4) I do not suggest or not suggest one major in Black Studies. There are a few reasons for this, one of which is that we’re talking about graduate students in a Ph.D program, whereas “majors” are for undergraduates.

    5) It’s unclear why academics aren’t participating in a market. They offer a service (being professors in a given field). Various institutions pay them money to do so. Those institutions, in turn, get money from students who apparently value having teachers who do this research. Universities are perfectly profitable as it is. It seems like the market is already doing its thing, and the result is academics doing research on topics that interest them and being paid for it by universities. There’s nothing in “free market” that says “but it doesn’t count if Mark Olson doesn’t see why it’s useful”.

  2. Mark says:

    David,
    Wow, wonderful way to make points without making headway.
    #1, I concede, you didn’t say that.
    #2, not exactly relevant to the point that there are two competing notions of what government should be doing. I’ll take your sidestep as agreement.
    #3, So? The question on academics is one of being relevant useful outside of academia, which has a problem of hyperspecialization, the existence of “Black Studies” departments being a symptom.
    #4, Ok. And what is that PhD student going to to on getting his or her degree, besides work in that hyperspecialized field in academia? OK. You have your degree. Now what? And note, “work in government” hinges alas on your aligning with the nanny state version of the competing theories of government noted above. So set that aside. Outside of academia and government … what might that PhD do? Work as a barista in Starbucks?
    #5 “Universities are perfectly profitable as it is.” I guess you haven’t noticed tuition hikes? Or that government backing student loans distorts the market? Hmmm. I didn’t require “Mark Olson” to find it useful, I’ll freely admit that I’m not the only person purchasing books. My point is that if you can make a profit selling your research in books (ala Mr Fisher) then that’s a sort of publishing that might be useful to put alongside publish (in academic journals) or perish. You didn’t actually address that at all? Like I said, without making headway.

  3. Boonton says:

    Ok. And what is that PhD student going to to on getting his or her degree, besides work in that hyperspecialized field in academia?…

    This seems to be centered around the idea that ‘black studies’ are economically useless while other things like computer programming or engineering are. But instead of ‘black studies’ why not say ‘theology’? Or ‘Ancient Greek Literature’? Seriously what does one do with a degree in Archaeology? Travel the jungles of the world finding acient monkey heads made of solid gold while doding bobby traps? ‘Hard’ majors like engineering, math, computers etc. are all well and good but there’s not esp. special about them. Most people who major in ‘black studies’ are like people who major in literature, or sociology, or psychology….getting a liberal arts education with a concentration in one area that they find interesting. If you’re getting a PhD in anything you’re by definition a very small portion of the student population.

    And note, “work in government” hinges alas on your aligning with the nanny state version of the competing theories of government noted above. …

    I doubt gov’t is a major employer of ‘black studies’ majors and to the degree such majors end up working in any gov’t job they probably could have gotten the same job with a degree in sociology, liberal arts, ancient literature, or theology.

    In regards to your #2 point, you did not address David’s answer. The Tenth Amendment has nothing to do with either Mr. Issa’s cheesey rhetorical stunt or ‘competiting notions of government’. You, like many on the right, have deluded yourself into thinking the 10th and the rest of the Constitution was meant to enact some type of Ayn Randian system. It wasn’t.

    #5 “Universities are perfectly profitable as it is.” I guess you haven’t noticed tuition hikes?

    Not at all clear what one has to do with the other. Does gas price increases demonstrate that Exxon isn’t profitable? Given you recently actually tried to assert, with a straight face I assume, that landlords do not care about the rent they can get from a house when deciding how much they were willing to pay for it, I would have thought you would have let some more time go by before venturing into pseudo-economic discussions again.

  4. Boonton says:

    FYI, some context

    Over 1/4 billion people and a quick search indicates all of 13 doctorate programs in ‘black studies’ in the US
    http://www.gradschools.com/search-programs/african-american-studies/doctorate. Meanwhile the same site says it has 219 programs in classical studies phds.

    So exactly how big is this supposed army of doctorates in ‘black studies’ supposedly unqualified to work for Exxon so instead are employed by a vast nanny state with makework programs? I would say it is so small it doesn’t exist in any sense that matters but the illusion that this is some sort of problem that has to be solved by the right certainly exists.

  5. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    This seems to be centered around the idea that ‘black studies’ are economically useless while other things like computer programming or engineering are. But instead of ‘black studies’ why not say ‘theology’? Or ‘Ancient Greek Literature’? Seriously what does one do with a degree in Archaeology?

    I cited “Black Studies” because that’s what Mr Schraub talked about. Yes, theology, literature (Greek, English, Russian and otherwise) and so on, all these should be publish or perish, in which publish primarily means “selling respectably to the public.”

    So … you don’t think “Black Studies” degree’d individuals work in government. If not in government or academia … where? You (and Mr Schraub) kind sidestep that.

  6. Boonton says:

    I cited “Black Studies” because that’s what Mr Schraub talked about. Yes, theology, literature (Greek, English, Russian and otherwise) and so on, all these should be publish or perish, in which publish primarily means “selling respectably to the public.”

    Why publish or perish? Why not teach? Do we need thousands of new books about Hamlet this year or might people rather have thousands who have never seen or understood the play to be guided through it by someone who does?

    So … you don’t think “Black Studies” degree’d individuals work in government. If not in government or academia … where?

    I’m sure some people with black studies degrees do work in gov’t, just as there are those who have degrees in computers, engineering, science etc. who do so. But you seem to be confusing ‘using your degree’ with ‘getting a job that is specialized to your degree’.

    Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina had a degree in medieval history and philosophy. Disney’s Michael Eisner was a double major in English and theater. Back in 2001, though I’m sure the numbers haven’t changed much, only 1/3 of CEO’s actually had degrees in business (see http://www.usatoday.com/money/covers/2001-07-24-bcovtue.htm). The advantage of any liberal arts degree is that unlike a highly specialized scientific based field of study, it is highly flexible.

    I cited “Black Studies” because that’s what Mr Schraub talked about…

    Yes because this seems to be a favorite whipping boy but now that the true numbers have been provided by me might we see that this meme might be a bit biased. It’s easy to mock the ‘boring’ study on black midwiferly through history but is this any different than the history major who spends ten years conducting research trying to nail down the population of some ancient villages through time? Is such work only valuable if he can write it up into an entertaining book that sells as well as other ‘celebrity historicans’?

  7. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Mr Schraub made the distinction between “majors” and PhDs. Mr Fiorina does not have a PhD in History/Philosophy and neither does Mr Eisner have a PhD in English and Theater.

    Do we need thousands of new books about Hamlet this year or might people rather have thousands who have never seen or understood the play to be guided through it by someone who does?

    Oddly enough I’m not asking them to stop teaching, publish or perish holds teaching notwithstanding. Or are you suggesting removing the publish entirely from their position?

    But you seem to be confusing ‘using your degree’ with ‘getting a job that is specialized to your degree’.

    As noted above, Mr Schraub was talking not about major or classes, but post-graduate education and departments.

    Yes because this seems to be a favorite whipping boy

    He’s defending it.

    but is this any different than the history major who spends ten years conducting research trying to nail down the population of some ancient villages through time?

    No. If he/you think this is valuable, it might be. But if you can’t make convince anyone else of its value, perhaps it isn’t.

  8. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Yes because this seems to be a favorite whipping boy

    … you asked what other topics might apply and I said all of them. How is that not what I offered, that I used that example because that was the context of his piece.

  9. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Ms Fiorina btw, got her post graduate degree in management. Odd that. The wiki on Mr Eisner does not list any post graduate studies, so his post-graduate career is kinda irrelevant due to non-existence.

  10. Boonton says:

    So you’re trying to say a degree in philosophy is fine for a future CEO, provided it’s an undergrad. degree but Ms Fiorina would have been screwed if she had gotten a masters in that? I don’ t think so. To be honest with you most people who do graduate business schools are doing it because its being paid for by their company or as a signal that they are ‘about business’, not because it really makes one ready to be a CEO. Always exceptions, of course, and I’m not going to say grad. business school is of no value, I will say it is of limited value.

    No. If he/you think this is valuable, it might be. But if you can’t make convince anyone else of its value, perhaps it isn’t.

    Is Market Success the only valid metric of value in your opinion?

  11. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    So you’re trying to say a degree in philosophy is fine for a future CEO, provided it’s an undergrad.

    The distinction of post-graduate was one made by Mr Schraub. Now you want me to defend it. Ms Fiorina was a bad example, because she did get the business degree you said was unneeded.

    Is Market Success the only valid metric of value in your opinion?

    The problem is irrelevant hyperspecialization and the tiny audience for so many papers. I’ve offered one mechanism for insisting on relevance. You’re free to name others. How would you fix the problem?

  12. Boonton says:

    The problem is irrelevant hyperspecialization and the tiny audience for so many papers.

    This is the problem? In an age of google where the entire Library of Congress can not only be stored on a thumb drive but searched in less than a minute?

    And speaking of writers with tiny audiences…..ahhh well best not to go there.

  13. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    And speaking of writers with tiny audiences…..ahhh well best not to go there.

    My overhead is somewhat lower than the grants and funds (including tuition loans) that professors receive. You realize that my stipend for this blogging thing is but the tiniest fraction of your stipend as a favored comment author.

    This is indeed a problem, noted in articles/essays by academics themselves. Look for essays considering costs and audience for academic papers. If a prof. spends 9 months working on and writing a paper that only 6 people in the world read … and his school pays him much of salary based on his publishing (and students pay to support that) … what sense does that make? Again, if your work isn’t of interest … why is it worthwhile? How do you measure interest/worth. Oddly enough some centuries back a metric to measure interest was created. We call this abstract “interest-metric” … money. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Again, why is this not appropriate here? (hence the title).

  14. Boonton says:

    My overhead is somewhat lower than the grants and funds (including tuition loans) that professors receive. You realize that my stipend for this blogging thing is an fraction of your stipend as a favored comment author.

    Speaking of which, my check seems to have been delayed in the mail again. But professors don’t get tuition for writing papers, they get it for teaching classes. A professor who has a very small specialized niche (say the plays of Shakespeare’s competitors) will typically teach more generalist classes (i.e. Elizabethean Literature)

    This is indeed a problem, noted in articles/essays by academics themselves. Look for essays considering costs and audience for academic papers. If a prof. spends 9 months working on and writing a paper that only 6 people in the world read … and his school pays him much of salary based on his publishing (and students pay to support that) … what sense does that make?

    Does such a professor set out to write a paper only 6 people read? Even a specialized niche paper could aspire to break out and become a major piece in the field. No doubt most professors dream of achieving something like that even if their efforts only end up producing a moderately publishable paper that will quickly be forgotten. How many book manuscripts, scripts and other works have been produced that only ended up being read by 6 people or less? Quite a few.

    How do you measure interest/worth. Oddly enough some centuries back a metric to measure interest was created. We call this abstract “interest-metric” … money

    Certainly you’ve heard of metrics based on how often a person’s work is cited by others?

  15. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Speaking of which, my check seems to have been delayed in the mail again.

    It’s in the mail … just not the US mail. I contracted a dozen crickets to drag your check overland to Joysee.

    A professor who has a very small specialized niche (say the plays of Shakespeare’s competitors) will typically teach more generalist classes (i.e. Elizabethean Literature).

    And at a party he might (hopefully) be able to get animated and excited about his work and explain to you why it is very interesting. All I’m doing is suggest he make that case in front of or to a wider audience.

    Does such a professor set out to write a paper only 6 people read?

    Unless he’s really dense he has some notion of the scope of his audience. And if he’s really that dense … why is working in a field requiring intelligence.

  16. Boonton says:

    And at a party he might (hopefully) be able to get animated and excited about his work and explain to you why it is very interesting. All I’m doing is suggest he make that case in front of or to a wider audience.

    Why? Given a class of 20 kids that’s $20,000 of income produced in a 1/4 year. That makes him quite a productive asset. Compared to that, when was the last time you considered *paying* someone to provide entertaining conversation at a dinner party?

    There is, though, a class of academic who specializes in popularizing difficult fields. There’s a huge slew of books about physics that do that but you can find such examples from many other academic fields. That, though, is a unique skill and I’m not sure you can really expect all academics to do it.

    Unless he’s really dense he has some notion of the scope of his audience. And if he’s really that dense … why is working in a field requiring intelligence.

    True but status competition is quite real in human nature. I would say there’s no academic journal devoted to just six readers, even if there was, though, you gotta start somewhere. Do you think plenty of aspiring bands don’t take stupid gigs simply to get out there? No academic aspires, IMO, to be read by just six people.