As I sit in my office, on occasion, I think about what the "great books" have to say about education and its funding. Of course, this is in large measure because the matter of how we fund higher education -- and indeed, how Shimer funds its education -- or Shimer students do so -- is a matter of great concern. Both locally and nationally, and indeed internationally, the theme of afffordability is everywhere. Student debt crises -- and international debt crises -- abound. Like the horses of the apocalypse, the themes of access, accountability, and affordability are, perhaps, the shadows that put all else in relief. And all too often, affordability is the key.
Part of that conversation is about confusion about the relation of cost and value. Part of it is about the ways we provide financial aid. Part of it is about escalating costs of higher education associated (on the one hand) with the costs of employment benefits, debt management, and other real phenomena and (on the other hand) part of the rising cost has to do with the rise in amenities "demanded" by those looking for a college or university to attend. The fabled third hand, though, is the many ways we have shifted the financing of higher education from the public sphere (alongside a recognition if its public good) to private funding (whether the individual or private foundations). The percentage of college costs paid by state and local, not to mention federal, funds has declined in recent decades. Our tax dollars are not funding as high a percentage of higher education as they once did. It is complucated, true, but that is part of the story.
Even when affordability is not the topic for discussion, finances remain centrally important to every institution of higher education. As I have been told (and of course know): higher education is a business. Well, not quite in Shimer's case: it is a not-for-profit institutions and most businesses are not. The sentiment is right, though, insofar as it means we must balance our books (and in this case I do not mean balancing Aristotle with Derrida or ensuring all of us read the work of women authors). Keeping our eye always on hte educational mission AND finances is the challenge.
And what does this have to do with great books? Here's one example.
(thanks to this site for the picture! I love a good beret.)
Adam Smith has not only gone to college but he has (like his friend Mr. Smith, played long ago by Jimmy Stewart) gone to Washington (and to many state capitals as well). Though born in 1723, and dead by 1790), his words seem oddly relevant today. All of the following quotations come from the copy of Adam Smith I acquired while teaching in Soc II at the University of Chicago many years ago. The underlining seems oddly apt. (The edition: from the U of C Press, edited and with an introduction by Edwin Cannan.) The sections -- Book V, Chapter 1, articles II and III.
"In every profession, the exertion of the greater part of those who exercise it, is always in proportion to the necessity they are under of making that exertion. . . The endowments of schools and colleges have necessarily diminished more or less the necessity of application in the teachers." (p. 283)
"Whatever forces a certain number of students to any college or university, independent of the merit or reputation of the teachers, tends more or less to diminish the necessity of that merit or reputation." (p. 285)
"The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the masters." (p. 287)
There is, of course, more, and these are, of course, taken out of context both in terms of the structure of the argument and the period of history (and thus the state of higher education). And yet, aspects of what Smith says seem quite relevant today. Or, at least there are echoes of these views out there about the relation of affordability to teaching to . . . . economics. Could this be in part because those who warrant the privatization of many goods in our social order have read Smith?