Saturday, November 11, 2006

No College Student Left Behind

The Republicans transfer control of Congress to the Democrats with some unfinished business on the table. The proposed reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, or "No College Student Left Behind," proposes to do for American universities what No Child Left Behind does for primary and secondary schools, i.e. establish and enforce national "standards" and force colleges to obey. In this case, accreditation of universities would be taken over by the feds, and colleges hence forced to teach whatever the feds decide.

American higher education is still the best in the world. The establishment of federal central planning of higher ed will ruin it, and put it among the world’s worst. First, it’s impossible to imagine competent scientists acquiescing in letting incompetent bureaucrats and politicians tell them what to teach. Within economics, for example, there are currently no official or set standards. It’s impossible for me to imagine any serious economist willing to subjugate her/his own judgement of what’s important and what’s right to the opinion of someone else. It doesn’t happen. I am sure it is similar in physical and life sciences. To become a competent scientist, you must pay in far more sweat and tears (and maybe on occasion blood) than the average layman can imagine. Hence competent scientists are loathe to sacrifice their judgement to the whims of the politically-motivated below-average layman. And since competent scientists have other, quite lucrative, employment options, a NCSLB policy would drive the competent from universities.

Second, what sort of standards would rule in a NCSLB environment? This is a very hard question for me to answer, because it depends on who will be able to seize control of the NCSLB bureaucracy. Will it be leftist multicultural diversity advocates? Fundamentalist Christians? Neocons? Someone else? Whose version of political correctness will become the educational law of the land? Regardless of who wins, the battle for control will be bitter and costly, and the victory short-lived, as it will start all over again on a regular basis. Instead of truth, as the professor on the ground sees it, standards will be dictated from the "Center," as the Soviets called it, and war for control of this central planning apparatus will be permanent. The one thing that is certain is that if true doctrines receive PC status, it will be purely by coincidence, and not because of some systematic process for selecting better ideas.

Third…well, aren’t points 1 & 2 bad enough? Point 3 has to do with the negative effects of bad education and stupid ideas on Americans, considered both as a polity and a workforce. Most of the destructive things that government does to screw America (e.g. deficit spending, welfare statism, unilateral belligerence abroad) are countered by the dynamism of the American economy and people. But NCSLB cuts to the heart of America’s strength. It threatens to wreck our superior human capital, and our system. Idiotic ideas will become official dogma, and the current, admittedly imperfect, system of weeding out bad ideas will be replaced with one that "weeds in" bad ideas.

Unfortunately, this Republican proposal sounds like something the Democrats could easily adopt in a show of bipartisanship. And Bush would no doubt sign a NCSLB bill, if one got to his desk. This plus some additional "anti-immigrant anti-terrorist" police state measures, and a good dose of closed-border protectionism, would be enough to finish America as a free country and a superpower. (And when America loses superpower status, it will get its ass kicked by angry people from the rest of the world.)

There is a brighter side, I guess. If the Democrats bypass their important task of impeaching Cheney-Bush and pursue these sorts of ""constructive" measures, my costs of moving permanently to Ukraine, China, or some other place that is gradually increasing in freedom will be greatly reduced. And I’d probably be happier in these places, given that it was sure that America, the freest alternative, was degenerating and beyond hope. Small comfort, I know…but small comfort is better than none.

(I was really hoping to go to Russia, but the success of Putin's "No Sovietism Left Behind" makes that a doubtful prospect.)

Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, has written his own take on NCSLB. He hits the nail on the head, and I highly recommend his essay.

do you consider yourself a scientist?
It's great to see someone is keeping tabs on what's going on, and you make a good argument, as always.
Thanks Knud

Wall Street Journal just ran an article on accreditation in U.S. colleges & universities that points out the Bush administration is pushing for more measurement of student achievement at the college level. It's claimed that this isn't a push for standardization a la NCLB, but it's unclear why.

I don't have the citation handy, but anyone who wants it can email me at csteele(AT) and I'll send it.

BTW, are you back in the States?
I have been in DC at the embassy since August and plan to stay here until summer. I tried to find you email address today to direct you to Easterly's brilliant attack on Sachs in WSJ today. Please contact me at knud.berthelsen at gmail!
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