Acton Commentary

Between Virtue and Sophism: Competition in American Education


The latest outrageous proposal emanating from the halls of academia -- a $5000 “baby levy” and annual carbon tax on children, courtesy of Australian Professor Barry Waters -- returns us to a controversial question. Do intellectuals contribute to or detract from societies’ well being? The question is difficult to answer, in part because academic work is often not subject to two related phenomena that help to manifest value in other spheres: competition and price.

American culture, with a strong pragmatic bias on educational matters, has ever had a love-hate relationship with the intellectual. On one hand, the nation’s higher education system has long enjoyed a reputation second-to-none, sending high percentages of citizens through its corridors and producing and attracting many of the world’s top scientists and philosophers. On the other hand, the professorial caste and social critics have ceaselessly remarked on -- and usually deplored -- the “anti-intellectualism” of America’s rambunctious, democratic culture.

Two new books continue in this vein of observation and criticism. Bill Greene’s Common Genius is a manifesto of American anti-intellectualism. Don Stabile’s Economics, Competition, and Academia explores the economics of higher education and its ideological implications.

As the lengthy subtitle has it, Greene intends to show “how ordinary people create prosperous societies and how intellectuals make them collapse.” The book has some flaws, not least of which is its failure to tackle head on the moral dimension of the free and prosperous society. There is room for ethical obligation in Greene’s good society, to be sure: it may even be a necessary ingredient. When it comes to specifying the character of the religious or moral commitments that are helpful, however, Greene is vague. His appeal to the common sense of the common man can only take us so far: A high percentage of history’s common men and women found chattel slavery to be a commonsensical institution, but it hardly comports with Greene’s vision of freedom and prosperity.

That is not to say that the “soft science experts” Greene criticizes have been superior to others, either in their moral reasoning or in their actions. Greene’s large point is largely right. Intellectuals have done a lot of damage by concocting and promoting theories that are detached from reality, while “ordinary” men and women lacking the leisure required for such projects have gone about quietly making life better for mankind. American professors’ lasting infatuation with Marxism is but one sensational example. Greene’s book helps to raise a serious question, even if not everyone will agree with his answer: What exactly is the value that academics bring to society?

Donald Stabile’s book supplies important ideas to the discussion. Stabile traces two basic approaches through the history of higher education: virtue and sophism. The virtue side, identified by its origins with Plato and Aristotle, sees education as a high calling, elitist, the search for truth unconstrained by the prejudices of common opinion. The economic dimension of this approach is an insistence that education be funded by government or private endowment rather than tuition: true education cannot be “sold” in a “market.”

Sophism, originating in the group of Greek philosophers who were Plato’s antagonists, instead caters to the wants and needs of students. Because it depends on fees collected from its “buyers,” sophist education must be more practical, justifying the students’ investment by the return.

Contemporary American education, Stabile observes correctly, is a mix of these two approaches. Tuition is a vital part of college and university funding, but equally or more important, in many cases, are government subsidies and accumulated endowments. Similarly, academia is at once competitive and non-competitive. Universities compete for student matriculations and professors compete for student course enrollments. Yet universities benefit from government assistance and professors remain insulated from the vagaries of the market by tenure. One might say, with respect to the place of colleges within the American economic system, that they operate in the capitalist world but are not of it.

Both virtue and sophism, as Stabile defines them, possess attractive features. The genuine pursuit of truth, in one sense, should be free of economic encumbrance. Professors should not feel that their livelihood is in jeopardy if they voice an unpopular opinion. At the same time, if consumer choice does not set the limits of academic activity, then what will?

Here is where Stabile’s analysis may have benefited from a further distinction. His lumping together of endowments and government aid makes sense, but he should separate funds that are tied more immediately to donor intent. Private contributions, like tuition, are a form of accountability that lies outside the university and therefore a good measure of how much value people are placing on the institution’s activity.

As government subsidies to and endowments in higher education balloon, the whole system would be better off tilting a little further toward the sophist side of the scale. In fact, history suggests that Stabile’s dichotomy may be misleading: When universities rely on tax dollars and unencumbered endowments, it’s not at all clear that the freedom of truth benefits at the expense of subservience to ideology and popular whim. Maybe competition and virtue are more compatible than academics have imagined.

Kevin Schmiesing is a research fellow at the Acton Institute and the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought.