Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 15: Researchers and Degree Purchasers * - Are Economists Basically Immoral? and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion
Return to Title Page for “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 15: Researchers and Degree Purchasers * - Paul Heyne, “Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion 
“Are Economists Basically Immoral?” and Other Essays on Economics, Ethics, and Religion, edited and with an Introduction by Geoffrey Brennan and A.M.C. Waterman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
About Liberty Fund:
Fair use statement:
Researchers and Degree Purchasers*
I’ve been teaching for slightly more than twenty years at a state-owned, taxpayer-supported university. The vast majority of the students with whom I talk believe that the primary function of our university is to teach undergraduates. I’ll give long odds that most of the taxpayers in the state, those who pay our salaries and maintain the pleasant facilities in which we work, hold the same belief.
They’re quite wrong, of course. Almost all of the faculty appointments in the university are made on the basis of research potential, not teaching potential. Tenure and promotion are granted on the basis of contributions to research in the discipline where the faculty appointment is held. A very few faculty members are appointed specifically to be teachers—I’m one of those few at the University of Washington—but good teaching, even excellent teaching, will not by itself gain anyone tenure at my university. In today’s circumstances, with so many more candidates than positions, universities can afford to make satisfactory teaching a necessary condition for tenure. But even the very best teaching is not a sufficient condition.
Why do so many people think that universities such as mine and yours are primarily educational institutions rather than what they are in fact, research institutions? Inattentiveness is part of the answer. Faculty and administrators have no great interest in correcting the public misapprehension; what they don’t know can’t hurt us. Moreover, since most of us believe that the best undergraduate education occurs in a research context, we don’t find anything dishonest about claiming to be effective schools of education while always aiming at becoming more effective schools of research. But does the best education for intelligent undergraduates in fact take place at institutions dedicated primarily to research? Would it perhaps be desirable to separate undergraduate education from faculty research?
While I was in the process of preparing this talk, I decided to pull down from my shelves The Aims of Education and Other Essays by Alfred North Whitehead, a book that I first read years ago and have re-read several times since. I wanted inspiration for my task, and no one inspires me as well as Whitehead. As I read I was surprised to discover that every major idea I wanted to examine with you today had originated in one or another of Whitehead’s essays. So I decided to be honest and use quotations from Whitehead as the text for my talk. Here is the first one, speaking to the issue I have just raised.
The universities are schools of education, and schools of research. But the primary reason for their existence is not to be found either in the mere knowledge conveyed to the students or in the mere opportunities for research afforded to the members of the faculty.
Both these functions could be performed at a cheaper rate, apart from these very expensive institutions. Books are cheap, and the system of apprenticeship is well understood. So far as the mere imparting of information is concerned, no university has had any reason for existence since the popularisation of printing in the fifteenth century. Yet the chief impetus to the foundation of universities came after that date, and in more recent times has even increased.
The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively. At least, this is the function which it should perform for society. A university which fails in this respect has no reason for existence.1
“[U]niting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.” We aren’t exactly doing that. But before complaining, I want to take a look at the undergraduate students who come to our universities.
I teach the history of economic thought once a year to undergraduates, and at some point in the course I always assign the section in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations that he titled “Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Education of Youth.” Three-quarters of it talks about universities and colleges. My students love it. It generates the most lively discussion of the term. They come to class with Volume II of The Wealth of Nations under their arms ready to launch an attack on their university and most of its faculty in the name of Adam Smith.
They find Smith witty and wonderful as he argues that faculty members have no incentive to teach well because their salaries do not depend in any way on how well they teach. They positively exult in Smith’s claim that wherever teachers do execute their duties in a tolerably effective way, students never neglect their own obligations. But I always have to point out to them—I’ve never had any students notice it on their own—that Smith’s proposals for educational reform at the college and university level call for abolishing the “privileges of graduates.” This means that schools will not issue transcripts that employers can use as screening devices, which in turn implies that a college degree, as distinct from a college education, will have no value on the job market. “How many of you,” I ask, “would be here today if successful performance in this class did not lead to a degree that you thought would help you land a job you want?” I get more sheepish grins in response to that question than professions of interest in learning.
I have not seen any empirical studies. I haven’t looked for any, because no amount of data collected by others could offset the testimony of my own experience, which says that the vast majority of those who enroll in our universities today have done so to purchase a degree. And so teaching in our modern universities takes place primarily between researchers and degree purchasers.
That raises the possibility of an interesting contract, one to which we would never explicitly consent but into which we are already implicitly sliding: The faculty will give the students high grades and little work if the students will give the faculty decent teaching evaluations and otherwise leave them alone to pursue their research.
Aside from the morality of such a bargain, we have to be concerned about the third party, the taxpayers who support all this. I do not believe that most taxpayers understand or appreciate the value to society of an institution that exists primarily to encourage research. Medical research they understand and will fund if pressed. But not research in the humanities. Attitudes toward the social sciences and natural sciences fall somewhere in between, but mostly toward the humanities end of the continuum. I infer this from the glee with which most people greet the topics of research projects when enterprising newspaper or television commentators decide to publish a list of dissertation titles. Universities are luxuries that wealthy societies ought to support because it is good to maintain places where people are paid to push speculation as far as it can be made to go in every direction. But our democratic societies will not long support universities, I predict, if the word gets out that they are not educating students but merely granting them a meaningless certification.
Thus my argument for better teaching of undergraduates becomes an argument for the maintenance of research universities. But before proceeding let me insert another quotation from Whitehead.
It must not be supposed that the output of a university in the form of original ideas is solely to be measured by printed papers and books labeled with the names of their authors. . . . In every faculty you will find that some of the more brilliant teachers are not among those who publish. Their originality requires for its expression direct intercourse with their pupils in the form of lectures, or of personal discussion. Such men exercise an immense influence; and yet, after the generation of their pupils has passed way, they sleep among the innumerable unthanked benefactors of humanity. Fortunately, one of them is immortal—Socrates.
Thus it would be the greatest mistake to estimate the value of each member of the faculty by the printed work signed with his name. There is at the present day some tendency to fall into this error; and an emphatic protest is necessary against an attitude on the part of authorities which is damaging to efficiency and unjust to unselfish zeal.
But when all such allowances have been made, one good test for the general efficiency of a faculty is that as a whole it shall be producing in published form its quota of contributions of thought. Such a quota is to be estimated in weight of thought, and not in number of words.2
Let’s return now to Whitehead’s bold claim: “The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning.” How can that possibly occur in an institution where the students have no interest in the faculty’s research and the faculty have little interest in sharing it with them? There is no hope, of course, if we are satisfied with the present situation and have given up all expectation of ever doing better.
The fading of ideals is sad evidence of the defeat of human endeavor. In the schools of antiquity philosophers aspired to impart wisdom, in modern colleges our humbler aim is to teach subjects. . . . I am not maintaining that in the practice of education the ancient were more successful than ourselves. . . . My point is that, at the dawn of our European civilization, men started with the full ideals which should inspire education, and that gradually our ideals have sunk to square with our practice.
But when ideals have sunk to the level of practice, the result is stagnation.3
As an incurable idealist, I believe we can avoid stagnation and disaster. How? Whitehead suggests a way:
The only avenue towards wisdom is by freedom in the presence of knowledge. But the only avenue towards knowledge is by discipline in the acquirement of ordered fact. Freedom and discipline are the two essentials of education. . . . I call the first period of freedom the “stage of Romance,” the intermediate period of discipline I call the “stage of Precision,” and the final period of freedom is the “stage of Generalisation.”4
I think we are failing above all at the stage of Romance. Our students for the most part have no interest in what we are doing because we have not tried hard enough to arouse their interest in our basic disciplines. Here is Whitehead stating what seems to me an obvious truth about education that elementary and secondary teachers cannot afford to deny but which we have blatantly disregarded at the level of tertiary education.
There can be no mental development without interest. Interest is the sine qua non for attention and apprehension. You may endeavor to excite interest by means of birch rods, or you may coax it by the incitement of pleasurable activity. But without interest there will be no progress.5
We have all sat in faculty rooms or clubs and complained about the students who would rather watch television than read John Locke or whatever it is that they neglected last night. But why in the world should we expect them to find Locke’s Second Treatise more interesting than Spin City with its Canadian lead actor? Is it natural for 18-year-olds to wonder how the coercion of some by others, or what we call government, can be justified, and to open Locke in pursuit of an answer to that question? It is quite unnatural.
I teach introductory microeconomics, which has a miserable reputation among most of those who have encountered it or only heard about it from others. When people at parties find out that I teach the principles of economics, they often grin and say, “I had that once. I don’t remember a thing about it.” Or “I had that once and I hated it.” I think I know why. It’s because it is usually taught by people who have completely neglected the stage of Romance. Whitehead once more:
The first procedure of the mind in a new environment is a somewhat discursive activity amid a welter of ideas and experience. It is a process of discovery, a process of becoming used to curious thoughts, of shaping questions, of seeking for answers, of devising new experiences, of noticing what happens as the result of new ventures. . . . Now undoubtedly this stage of development requires help, and even discipline. The environment within which the mind is working must be carefully selected.
. . . In no part of education can you do without discipline or can you do without freedom; but in the stage of romance the emphasis must always be on freedom. . . . [A] block in the assimilation of ideas inevitably arises when a discipline of precision is imposed before a stage of romance has run its course in the growing mind. There is no comprehension apart from romance.6
A romantic course in introductory microeconomics is possible, necessary, and not really all that hard to construct. But that construction will not occur, will not even begin in the absence of a conviction that freedom in an introductory course is more important than discipline. I’m picking on economists because these are the people with whose habits I’m most familiar; but I know that what I’m describing occurs in other academic disciplines. We construct introductions to our fields on the assumption that everyone in the class will go on to acquire a Ph.D. in the subject. So there’s no need to arouse their interest in the subject, to give them a reason for studying it beyond the necessity of passing our examinations, to persuade them that knowledge of this subject can provide the zest of life. We have no time to waste on such entertainments. The students must begin learning. They must at once begin mastering those techniques that will be required in the next course. We ruthlessly ignore the fact that, as Whitehead regularly insisted, enjoyment is the natural mode by which living organisms are excited toward suitable self-development. We prefer to rely on non-corporal forms of the birch rod.
I am absolutely convinced that the first course in economics and, I suspect, in every other academic discipline, should be directed almost exclusively toward raising interesting questions and suggesting ways in which the discipline can be used to generate interesting responses. I don’t know how many times I have cut off exciting discussions with the excuse, “We have to move on.” Even I, who know better, cannot always resist this urge to move along toward my goal, to turn the students to what I am interested in no matter how effectively that stifles a growing interest on their part. There is such a thing as “off the track,” and “off the track” is not always as interesting to the better students as it is to those whose limitations of experience or intellect have drawn them off onto a stale route. That is why some discipline is required even at the stage of romance. A good introductory course is not just a bull session. But we don’t need to be told that, because we only err in the direction of bull sessions when we have not prepared for the class. Good preparation for an introductory class requires constantly asking, What will arouse their interest, fire their curiosity, set them to wondering, stimulate that satisfying “I begin to see”?
What should come next?
But when this stage of romance has been properly guided another craving grows. The freshness of inexperience has worn off; there is general knowledge of the groundwork of fact and theory: and, above all, there has been plenty of independent browsing amid first-hand experiences, involving adventures of thought and of action. The enlightenment which comes from precise knowledge can now be understood. It corresponds to the obvious requirements of common sense, and deals with familiar material. Now is the time for pushing on, for knowing the subject exactly, and for retaining in the memory its salient features. This is the stage of precision. This stage is the sole stage of learning in the traditional scheme of education, either at school or university.7
It is an essential stage. But it will not succeed if it is not preceded by the stage of romance. Whitehead continues:
During the stage of precision, romance is the background. . . . The organism will not absorb the fruits of the task unless its powers of apprehension are kept fresh by romance.
. . . To speak the truth, except in the rare case of genius in the teacher, I do not think that it is possible to take a whole class very far along the road of precision without some dulling of the interest. It is the unfortunate dilemma that initiative and training are both necessary, and that training is apt to kill initiative.
But this admission is not to condone a brutal ignorance of methods of mitigating this untoward fact.8
One method of mitigation is to know exactly what you want to accomplish and to aim at it directly and quickly.
A certain ruthless definiteness is essential in education. I am sure that one secret of a successful teacher is that he has formulated quite clearly in his mind what the pupil has got to know in precise fashion. He will then cease from half-hearted attempts to worry his pupils with memorising a lot of irrelevant stuff of inferior importance. The secret of success is pace, and the secret of pace is concentration. But, in respect to precise knowledge, the watchword is pace, pace, pace. Get your knowledge quickly, and then use it. If you can use it, you will retain it.9
No one can make Intermediate Microeconomic Theory as interesting as Introduction to Microeconomics. There will be unavoidable boring stages in the process of education. But we should not celebrate that fact or suppose that our genuine dedication to the pedagogical task is proved by our willingness to force our students through tedious experiences.
What is worse, we no longer insist that our students actually master the material appropriate to the stage of discipline. We seem to be too disciplined at the first stage, when freedom and romance should dominate, and far too slack at the stage of discipline and precision. I suspect this growing tendency to let students escape without actually having mastered the materials is one consequence of the unholy bargain I mentioned earlier. We don’t want to be seen as ogres. We don’t want to set definite standards when no one else seems to be doing so. What difference does it make after all whether they learn this or not? It’s their problem if they come to the next course and aren’t adequately prepared. But what this means is that at the next stage our students will not be able to enjoy the freedom and the satisfaction that comes from the application of material they have mastered. Our failure to be thorough at the stage of discipline and precision almost guarantees failure at what Whitehead calls the stage of generalization.
But before moving on to that I want to emphasize once again what Whitehead says about definiteness, halfheartedness, and pace. Simple truths. All teachers should scratch them on their desktops, wooden or computer. Know what you want to teach. Teach it forcefully. Move along. “The watchword is pace, pace, pace.” Think about it.
We have now come to the third stage of the rhythmic cycle, the stage of generalisation. There is here a reaction towards romance. Something definite is now known; aptitudes have been acquired; and general rules and laws are clearly apprehended both in their formulation and their detailed exemplification. The pupil now wants to use his new weapons. He is an effective individual, and it is effects that he wants to produce. He relapses into the discursive adventures of the romantic stage, with the advantage that his mind is now a disciplined regiment instead of a rabble. In this sense, education should begin in research and end in research. After all, the whole affair is merely a preparation for battling with the immediate experiences of life, a preparation by which to qualify each immediate moment with relevant ideas and appropriate actions. An education which does not begin by evoking initiative and end by encouraging it must be wrong. For its whole aim is the production of active wisdom.10
I won’t presume to add anything to that. But I do want to discuss one more supremely important issue before opening the floor to your comments. And again Whitehead supplies my text. Consider these remarks from the title essay of The Aims of Education:
And I may say in passing that no educational system is possible unless every question directly asked of a pupil at any examination is either framed or modified by the actual teacher of that pupil in that subject. The external assessor may report on the curriculum or on the performance of the pupils, but never should be allowed to ask the pupil a question which has not been strictly supervised by the actual teacher, or at least inspired by a long conference with him. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but they are exceptions, and could easily be allowed for under the general rule.11
A growing frustration in my country with the ineffectiveness of our schools has generated a demand for standard examinations. Whitehead warns against them. He knew about the danger of teaching to the examination and how incompatible this was with any philosophy of education that aimed to impart wisdom, or arouse the zest of life, or unite the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. Here are some of his further comments on the general subject:
The best procedure will depend on several factors, none of which can be neglected, namely, the genius of the teacher, the intellectual type of the pupils, their prospects in life, the opportunities offered by the immediate surroundings of the school, and allied factors of this sort. It is for this reason that the uniform external examination is so deadly. . . . [S]uch examinations have their use in testing slackness. . . . [But i]t kills the best part of culture. When you analyse in the light of experience the central task of education, you find that its successful accomplishment depends on a delicate adjustment of many variable factors. The reason is that we are dealing with human minds, and not with dead matter. The evocation of curiosity, of judgment, of the power of mastering a complicated tangle of circumstances, the use of theory in giving foresight in special cases—all these powers are not to be imparted by a set rule embodied in one schedule of examination subjects.12
External examinations do have their use, he admits, in preventing slackness. But the slackness against which he warns is not the slackness of the student, nor even the slackness of the teacher, but the slackness of the school. Consider the following:
Primarily it is the schools and not the scholars which should be inspected. Each school should grant its own leaving certificates, based on its own curriculum. The standards of these schools should be sampled and corrected. But the first requisite for educational reform is the school as a unit, with its approved curriculum based on its own needs, and evolved by its own staff. If we fail to secure that, we simply fall from one formalism into another, from one dung-hill of inert ideas into another.
. . . When I say that the school is the educational unit, I mean exactly what I say, no larger unit, no smaller unit. Each school must have the claim to be considered in relation to its special circumstances. The classifying of schools for some purposes is necessary. But no absolutely rigid curriculum, not modified by its own staff, should be permissible. Exactly the same principles apply, with the proper modifications, to universities and to technical colleges.13
As an active participant in efforts to improve the elementary and secondary schools of my own city, I have often been challenged to define a good school. I have learned to say that a good school is any school controlled by professionals who work collegially to further a shared vision. I don’t want parents or taxpayers or school boards or students to be in charge of schools, although they are certainly entitled to a veto at some stage. Parents exercise a veto, for example, when they decline to enroll their children. But I want professionals in charge. The professionals, however, must behave collegially. That means they must know and care what others in their school are doing and be willing to correct what is wrong and to support what is strong in their colleagues’ behavior. This will require courage. It will also require a shared vision.
When this conception of a good school is applied to colleges and universities, it carries an implication that faculty members at my university vehemently reject. I experienced that vehemence once when I suggested at a meeting of the university’s general education committee that effective undergraduate education was being throttled by the power that the disciplines exercised over it. Because every student must choose to major in one of the disciplines, fulfillment of the requirements for a major tends to dominate the design of each student’s curriculum. But those requirements are increasingly controlled by the assumption that the student majoring in a subject intends to continue with post-graduate work and acquire at least a master’s degree and preferably a Ph.D. in the subject. In this way undergraduate education at our universities is becoming pre-professional education for students who lack both the interest and the ability to become professionals.
The standard defense of the major is that colleges and universities ought not to graduate dilettantes. Students must master at least one subject. But most students are not doing anything of the sort, because the faculties of the various disciplines are for the most part unwilling to do more than lay down formal requirements. They are not willing to invest the time, thought, and trouble to design, implement, monitor, and enforce realistic and coherent requirements. They rarely teach the courses they require. They know only rumors about what goes on in them. And when they see undeniable evidence that the requirements are not producing the desired results, they basically do not care. They are not rewarded for caring. The research projects that interest them are so distant from undergraduate education that they would not know what to do if they did start to care.
The problem is a difficult one. Because faculty receive appointments and gain promotion for accomplishments in their disciplines, they are politically as well as intellectually attached to these disciplines. They see the power of their departments as their first and perhaps only line of defense against a sinister administration. I have never understood why administrators are presumed to have interests in opposition to those of the faculty. The general interests of the faculty, it seems to me, are completely shared by the typical university administration. Of course, insofar as the central administration is held responsible for the welfare of the institution as a whole, it will and should question projects that strengthen some departments or divisions by weakening others or by destroying functions that are central to the success of the university though of marginal importance to the faculty in individual disciplines.
One such function is undergraduate education. I do not think it can be revived and therefore I do not think it will survive within the current institutional structure of our research universities. And since I fear that taxpayers, legislators, and philanthropists will not continue to support research universities that do not teach undergraduates, I predict years of famine not far ahead for those who now occupy or hope to occupy research positions within our major universities.
I have been extremely fortunate in being allowed to spend most of my life working within research universities despite my eccentric credentials and idiosyncratic interests. The tolerance of these institutions for eccentricity and idiosyncrasy is a major reason why I love them and, more importantly, a principal source of the benefits they generate for societies that can afford them, as ours surely can.
No one designed the modern research university. It just evolved. And that is a major reason for its successes. Most major social institutions are like economic systems: they cannot be designed or centrally planned. They must evolve if they are to be successful. Social institutions evolve as members of the relevant society pursue their own interests and thereby produce novel situations to which others respond in the pursuit of their own interests, thereby generating further novelty, and so on. This evolutionary process produces complex institutions marvelously adapted to the needs of those who participate in them. But the process can also lead its participants merrily along the road to suicide, because such processes are characteristically blind to the larger context.
I don’t expect universities to change in any ways that are not consistent with the interests of those who comprise them, and that means principally their faculties. What I hope for is an enlargement of interests, perhaps set in motion by the recognition that our present course, for all its past success, portends tragedy for the institutions that have served most of us so well. If we can enlarge our interests, think at least a little more grandly of our vocations, we may come to raise and discuss the question: What do we really want?
Whitehead has written:
The ultimate motive power, alike in science, in morality, and in religion, is the sense of value, the sense of importance. It takes the various forms of wonder, of curiosity, of reverence, or worship, of tumultuous desire for merging personality in something beyond itself. This sense of value imposes on life incredible labours, and apart from it life sinks back into the passivity of its lower types. The most penetrating exhibition of this force is the sense of beauty, the aesthetic sense of realised perfection.14
The question now is whether our universities still harbor that force, that motive power, in sufficient strength to preserve themselves.
[* ] Unpublished typescript of remarks for presentation at the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg under the sponsorship of the Faculty of Arts Teaching Committee, 7 February 1997. Reprinted by permission of Mrs. Juliana Heyne.
[1. ] Alfred North Whitehead, “Universities and Their Functions,” in The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, c. 1929, renewed c. 1957, Free Press paperback edition 1967), pp. 92-93. Page numbers in this chapter refer to this edition.
[2. ]Ibid., pp. 98-99.
[3. ] “The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline,” p. 29.
[4. ]Ibid., pp. 30-31.
[5. ]Ibid., p. 31.
[6. ]Ibid., pp. 32-33.
[7. ]Ibid., pp. 33-34.
[8. ]Ibid., pp. 34-35.
[9. ]Ibid., p. 36.
[10. ]Ibid., pp. 36-37.
[11. ] “The Aims of Education,” p. 5.
[13. ]Ibid., pp. 13-14.
[14. ] “The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline,” p. 40.