Thursday, September 24, 2015

Should Colleges Encourage Students to "Give Back?"

Said Americans Should Give Back


The September/October edition of Washington Monthly Magazine includes the publication's annual rankings of the nation's colleges and universities.  As the magazine's editors explain, these rankings self-consciously eschew some of the metrics ordinarily employed to assess the quality of institutions of higher education.  For instance, the rankings include no data on the academic quality of incoming students, instructional quality, breadth of course offerings, or whether graduates succeed at obtaining remunerative employment or admission to professional schools.   Under this system, then, a school with mediocre students, horrible teachers, a small number of over-subscribed course offerings, and armies of unemployed graduates could outrank schools that excel on all of these metrics.  

Instead, the Washington Monthly rankings purport to measure each institution's "contributions to the public good," as measured by performance in three broad categories: "(1) Social mobility (recruiting and graduating low income students); (2) Research (cutting edge scholarship and PhDs granted and (3) Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country)."  Washington Monthly asserts that these "three measures would make the whole system [of higher education] better, if only schools would compete on them."  The issue employs these measures to rank universities in four different categories: (1) national universities; (2) liberal arts colleges; (3) master's universities and (4) baccalaureate colleges.

Hopefully colleges and universities will reject Washington Monthly's invitation to compete on these three metrics to the exclusion of others.  In particular, liberal arts colleges should categorically reject calls to "encourage students to give something back to their country." Ditto for national universities that purport to offer a liberal arts education, as many do.  Free societies allow individuals to select and pursue their own vision of the good life, or, as Jefferson put it, to "pursue happiness," so long as that pursuit does not injure others.  A sound liberal arts education in a free society should provide individuals with the intellectual tools and inclination to examine their own lives and determine for themselves what obligations they have to others and society at large and how to discharge such obligations. Schools that purport to provide such an education should not, therefore, consider themselves authorized to select their own version of the good and "encourage" students to embrace and pursue that particular normative vision.  Such an approach hijacks institutions that provide a liberal education and employs them to inculcate students with a particular and controversial vision of moral virtue that reflects the political preferences of each school's leadership.

Proponents of Washington Monthly's vision would no doubt claim that it is "obvious" that individuals who attend the nation's colleges and universities have an obligation to "give back" to the larger society. Think, for instance, of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, which challenged each American to "ask what you can do for your country[.]"  Many treat this admonition as a fundamental part of the American Creed --- as fundamental as Jefferson's right to "pursue happiness."  Some might even contend that college students have a heightened duty to "give back," in so far as they are fortunate to have received educations not always available to their fellow citizens.

If the existence and content of the duty "to give back" is so obvious, then one might ask why universities must expend scarce resources to propagate this view to their students and tout the fact that they are doing so.  Of course, the existence of such a duty is not obvious. While certainly eloquent, President's Kennedy dictum and the philosophy it expressed are not without equally powerful detractors. Indeed, just one year after President Kennedy's address, Milton Friedman, who would later receive the Nobel Prize for Economic Science, rejected Kennedy's dictum because it "implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen the servant or the votary."  "To the free man," Friedman continued, "the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them."  See Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962).  Consistent with Friedman's views regarding the appropriate relationship between the citizen and the state, this blogger has previously argued that even billionaires have no generalized duty to "give back" over and above the hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes the State extracts from such individuals and redistributes to others. Government exists to serve the people --- to facilitate individual efforts to pursue happiness. Governments that do so are simply discharging their pre-existing obligation under the social contract; performance of such obligations does not imply that citizens must serve the State.

One need not believe that Friedman was correct and President Kennedy was wrong to reject Washington Monthly's advice to the nation's universities.  One must instead merely understand that there are competing philosophies regarding the appropriate relationship between the citizen and the rest of society, some quite inconsistent with that espoused by Washington Monthly.  Some reject altogether any duty "to give back."  Others derive such a duty from particular religious commitments, while still others invoke a purely secular basis for such a duty.  Some emphasize one's duty to other individuals, while others emphasize a duty to the State or some other manifestation of the community as a whole.  A sound liberal education equips individuals to evaluate these competing accounts and to choose properly between them.  A University whose leadership selects a particular vision and seeks to inculcate its students with it short circuits the educational process and reveals a lack of confidence in the quality of the education it provides.