June 06, 2012

Krugman's view of the future past

Paul Krugman wrote a piece, White Collars Turn Blue, in 1996 "[F]or a special centennial issue of the NYT magazine. The instructions were to write it as if it were in an issue 100 years in the future, looking back at the past century."
Eventually, of course, the eroding payoff to higher education created a crisis in the education industry itself. Why should a student put herself through four years of college and several years of postgraduate work in order to acquire academic credentials with hardly any monetary value? These days jobs that require only six or twelve months of vocational training -- paranursing, carpentry, household maintenance (a profession that has taken over much of the housework that used to be done by unpaid spouses), and so on -- pay nearly as much as one can expect to earn with a master's degree, and more than one can expect to earn with a Ph.D.. And so enrollment in colleges and universities has dropped almost two-thirds since its turn-of-the-century peak. Many institutions of higher education could not survive this harsher environment. The famous universities mostly did manage to cope, but only by changing their character and reverting to an older role. Today a place like Harvard is, as it was in the 19th century, more of a social institution than a scholarly one -- a place for the children of the wealthy to refine their social graces and make friends with others of the same class.


Blogger The Other Front said...

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June 7, 2012 at 7:57 PM  
Blogger The Other Front said...

Krugman's a pretty smart guy.

But I don't think returns to education are falling - if they were, there wouldn't be an endless line of immigrants with checkbooks in hand to get into University of Texas, Santa Clara, Northwestern. They're not trying to buy social status, they're trying to get skills and credentials. Maybe it will be true in the future, but I don't think it's true yet.

Universities have always had an elite-building role, I don't begrudge them that. But it would nice if the elites knew their asses from their elbows. Somewhere along the way Harvard and Stanford figured out the "education" part wasn't actually all that important.

Slate got this right a long time ago:
"As Harvard can afford to staff its faculty almost exclusively with superstars, and as superstars are loath to teach, the gap between the global power of the brand and the actual quality of the education delivered is quite large." (link)

I gave a talk a few years ago at Stanford GSB. 1/2 the class was missing. The professor apologized, there was a big party in Vegas that weekend. Best brand, sure. Best anything else, bull-double-shit.

Same thing happened to England. The Empire's all gone, but clueless upper class twits infest the place like cockroaches after an atomic attack.

A hundred years from now, when the American Empire, having forgotten it manly, dynamic, vigorous origins, has collapsed into effete impotence and North America has devolved into seven separate warring states, Stanford will still be a well-regarded university, and their top economic thinker will have a smirk like this.

Anyway, we need to be careful talking about our betters this way. There's work to be done: some banks are still solvent.

June 7, 2012 at 7:58 PM  

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