Posted by: CJ | October 25, 2010

Rambling on Academia

Arnold Kling frequently says stuff that makes me annoyed, but I the following seems strangely resonating.

As you know, I think that credentials bottlenecks are at the root of much evil here. What if it were easier for a non-accredited university to compete? What if it were easier for an accredited university to fail? Why are some careers (I’ll use my favorite example, physical therapy) only available via a classroom path rather than an apprenticeship path?

I think that if the problem were just that college education uses a highly-educated labor force that is in limited supply, we would see different economic behavior. When you have a scarce resource, you try not to waste it. But it seems to me that professors waste most of their time engaged in status competition, meaning the attempt to publish.

Matt Yglesias has been on the warpath against credentialing recently, as well. They both seem to have good points, that it makes things more expensive for the benefit of those providing the service. But I think there are some downsides to that argument as well, which I’ll discuss in my next post.

What I want to focus on now is the final line, that “professors waste most of their time engaged in status competition, meaning the attempt to publish”.

I wonder how much this is true. On the one hand, lots of great stuff has come out of universities and research labs over the past century. On the other hand, lots of great stuff has come outside of them, too. What bothers me is the idea that, were I to go into academia, I could spend a lifetime where my two activities were teaching and research, and both could all be for naught. Teaching is a fickle thing, and tons depends on the students themselves. I don’t like giving up that much control over what I might manage to do with my life. And research is, in a way, almost as disheartening for the reason Kling articulates. As I attempt to get research done and published, will I be accomplishing it because the research is honestly interesting and contributes to humanity’s well-being, or would I be more focused on one-upmanship within my peer group?

I don’t really have a huge desire for the latter. In the past few years I’ve started to feel like I’ve accomplished many of the one-upmanship goals I’ve wanted. I went to a good college, I did well there, and I learned my subject areas well. I am far less sure that I would be an exemplary researcher in my field, though, if for no other reason that it’s not really what  I desire. What I want is to consume and understand ever more knowledge and to find ways of productively applying that knowledge to solve interesting and useful problems.

I guess I just wish I knew I could accomplish those goals outside of academia. And Klings comments suggest to me that it’s possible, and that staying in academia could involve a whole lot more jockeying for position than I want anyways.



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