Arnold Kling  

Academia vs. Reality

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I probably need to wear an asbestos suit after posting this essay.


A few years spent working in a corporate or government setting would benefit professors by giving them first-hand knowledge of organizational behavior and politics in practice. I think that both our society and our universities would be improved if professors were required to spend a few years taking Real World 101.

UPDATE: Thinking along similar lines was Ben Stein.

Once someone has to get up in the morning, clean up, get dressed, spend the day at work, and live off the pittance he makes, the whole world becomes different. You look at loafers and bums totally differently. You look at taxes differently. You look at a country that gives you opportunity differently. In the workplace, a very rapid maturation takes place for most. Back at the university, where professors have tenure and only have to teach a few hours a week, the situation worsens. The faculty becomes like a black hole in space, a death star that gets ever darker and denser. The faculty is a leisure/intellectual class that never has to grow up and can cling to its fear and its childish loathing of the grownups out in the big wide world forever. But like all black holes, it threatens to crash in upon itself constantly.

For Discussion. Would my proposal make the economy less efficient by over-ruling the comparative advantage that professors have in the academy? Let the flaming begin.


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COMMENTS (30 to date)
FH writes:

You may get flames from profs, but I'm here as a student to say this is one VERY good idea.

I'm at the UofChicago now, and recently had a professor teaching a class on organizational theory who has never once held a position outside of the academy. From what I know of him, he didn't ever really have any job that wasn't at a school of some sort. (I should say that he is a very nice guy, and at a school known for reclusive profs, refreshingly outgoing.) He's obviously brilliant, but the class was an astounding excercise of theory-in-a-vacuum. Having worked for years before going back to school, I spent weeks reading about things I'd never seen once in any of my workplaces from advertising to consulting to government. The professor was unable, and largely unwilling, to make any connection between the class theory and the real world of work. He seemed to get a bit astounded at the question when students asked for such a thing, as though to say "What would I want to do that for?" (True, this may be a function of the UofC to begin with.)

Great suggestion. Now if only we can get people to follow it...

John writes:

During my undergrad years i was drawn to economics because it seemed like simply common sense analytical techniques applied to some real world problem. Graduate school on the other hand, is nothing but theory and math. I understand the need for a strong grounding in theory but after several years I find myself forgetting much of the common sense aspect of economics. I can only imagine that after 20+ years, some professors may have no common sense left at all (Dr. Kling excepted).

David Thomson writes:

William F. Buckley long ago stated that he would rather be governed by the first one thousand names in the Boston phone book than the Harvard faculty. Earning a Liberal Arts Phd (and yes, economics is a Liberal Arts area of study) is sometimes fairly described as a process where supposed knowledge is piled, higher, and deeper. Moreover, it doesn’t hurt to be something of an intellectual slut if you desire a career in academia. I normally consider every Phd recipient a jerk until proven otherwise. My somewhat startling conclusion is based solely on calm and objective reasoning.

Richard Hofstadter wrote the brilliant “Anti-Intellectualism in America” in the early 1960s. The late historian legitimately took to task religious fundamentalists and others who were contemptuous toward serious learning. I strongly and unhesitatingly agree with most of Hofstadter’s insights. Huh, am I perhaps contradicting what I said in my previous paragraph? Not in the least. I am merely recognizing the uneasy paradoxical tensions inherent in the pursuit of higher education.

David Thomson writes:

“Graduate school on the other hand, is nothing but theory and math. “

I may be going off the deep end, but I suspect the emphasis on math is greatly exaggerated. Could it be that economic PhDs possess an inferiority complex due to the fact their area of study is not part of the per se hard sciences? The study of human nature is of far greater importance. We cannot ignore that the at least metaphorical reality of Original Sin is alive and well on planet earth. Anyone who rejects this harsh truth is doomed to commit many intellectual errors.

Tom writes:
Brad Hutchings writes:

What is really different in specializing to be an educator (or an academic) from specializing to be a practitioner in some other field? The costs to a person to switch careers mid-stream are pretty high. Today's job market punishes job seekers for venturing slightly outside the bounds of their resumes. Look at tech job postings to see how much specialization is required of late. So what would encourage an academic to spend time out in the real world? Those who can will probably experience disproportionate success in both fields, enabling them to financially survive the transition(s).

Arnold, I don't think your whacking at the right piñata here. The problem is not creating a supply of academics with real world experience. The problem (as I see it) is temporing the demand and perceived value of opinions of academics who have been stuck in academia. Or perhaps, in a world that stresses specialization so much, elevating the stature of the Renaissance Man (or at least of the Bo-Jackson style cross-trainer). It's a tough sell either way.

Matt Young writes:

Just cut government spending on higher education by 50% and you will get wonderous reality.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

And exactly how would this help, say, a physicist or a historian or a classicist?

Why not say that businessmen should spend serious time studying academic economics? In my experience, entirely too many of them are ignorant of basic theoretical principles, such as opportunity costs, sunk costs, etc., that should come into play, but too often don't, in their everyday decison-making.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Why not say that businessmen should spend serious time studying academic economics? In my experience, entirely too many of them are ignorant of basic theoretical principles, such as opportunity costs, sunk costs, etc., that should come into play, but too often don't, in their everyday decison-making.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Eric,

Arnold writes,

"A few years spent working in a corporate or government setting would benefit professors by giving them first-hand knowledge of organizational behavior and politics in practice. "

I didn't miss the point at all.

My question was how this would help physicists, for example. Now, it may also come as a shock to you that not all businesspeople have MBA's, and that some who do have forgotten their lessons.

Boonton writes:

To be honest with you I don't think this will help many professors. I took 'Organization Behavior' with a professor who had spent 20 years working at various companies from CBS, AT&T and so on. While her stories 'from the field' were interesting the class and subject was still horribly boring and almost totally detached from the real world.

I think Eric is talking about Paul Krugman when he complains about regular columns in the NY Times. It should be noted that Krugman is actually somewhat unusual, an academic like Friedman who writes for both worlds. Most NY Times columnists do not have Phds.

I seriously do not think that the Phd fools people into thinking that a person is free of bias. It only means that the person has spent time studying a particular field, nothing more but nothing less.

Would it benefit Professors to spend 10years in the 'real world'? Of course. Just like it would benefit allof us to know Latin and Greek. Resources are limited including lifespan, though, so something more is required to the argument other than 'it would be beneficial'.

gerald garvey writes:

I reckon the math-bashing is misplaced. There is no shortage of bad and irrelevant economic analyses that have no math at all. It gets worse when you leave econ for other social sciences. And in my field (finance), practitioners use pretty high-level math.

But back to Arnold's proposal. As he well knows, Econ theory (and hopefully common sense and respect for individuals) implies a strong presumption against forcing folks to do things against their will. What exactly are the benefits of requiring business experience? I say this as an inherent sympathiser. I've been an academic for 15 years and am leaving in 3 months to go work in the private sector, probably permanently. But my situation is easy; researching and then working in finance, chose both lines of work. What about a humanities or sociology type? The obvious benfits are some humility and maybe an understanding of how most people live. Actually, that is pretty good. OK, Arnold, I am almost convinced.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>My question was how this would help physicists, for example.

Ross N. writes:

In your article you state, "Many academics share the adolescent fantasy that government would be terrific if only the right leaders were in charge." I'm wondering if you've read any of Thomas Sowell's "Vision" trilogy. One of the themes throughout Sowell's writings is contrasting people who see the world in terms of disposition (i.e., this person is good, that person is bad) instead of incentives (i.e., what do the systems inherent in bureaucracies, businesses, academia, etc., reward or punish?).

Boonton writes:

"Physics is such a difficult subject oftentimes because those teaching it are introverted geeks who are more in tune with elementary particles than other human beings. The structure of academia, which Arnold described so well, does nothing to address this problem."

Perhaps but a good counter argument is that those who really have a gift at physics will overcome such difficult teachers to learn the subject. Would you deny students at Princeton the ability to take a class by Albert Einstein unless Albert agreed to work first at a Mall for 3 years in order to know what it was like to understand 'common people'?

If the teacher is of less caliber than Einstein, then he should have other advantages...such as ability to teach. It's not clear to me that just working in the private sector will develop that skill. It may be useful for some but I wouldn't require it of everyone.

Matt Young writes:

The debate here is astounding.

Private universities are in a business, and the business of their professors is exactly that, the business of teaching.

Public universities take goverment money to fund 80% of their costs, and the economics professors can do no better than prove, using free market principles, that public universities should not take 80% of their money from goverment.

Adrian writes:

I am glad this debate happens in the US as well.

I have been studying on and off for ten years, in the fields of economics and applied finance, with a bit of political science for good measure. The lecturers I have had ranged from completely academic (paricuallry in micro and macro subjects) to highly practical (namely Economics of Corporate Control taught by Gerald Garvey one of the posters in this blog!).

As I have progressed (while working full time for the last five years) it has become increasingly obvious just how competent (or otherwise) my 'teachers' have been.

The issue for me though is not so much the qualifications life or otherwise of the lecturers but how they teach. The most recent phenomena I have faced is recieving a distance education pack for one of my courses with about four pages of work by the lecturer, referring to a text book. The aim of the course apparently is for me to read a textbook and answer some questiosn at the end of the chapter. There is nothing better to teach?

Perhaps the issue is not so much experience but building some robust performance measures around 'student' (customer) satisfaction. I am sure there is a way to measure academic productivity in a way other than the number of articles published. Another aspect would be to do as many Uni's in Australia have done and simply abolish tenure.

I should also note that as an economist it disturbs me that the demand for our skill is largely generated by the people whom we wish to restrict (namely government). I have not resolved this conflict yet, but it has been an interesting topic of debate amongst my colleagues (ie what would be the market for economists if we succedded in achieveing truely small government).

Boonton writes:

One thing that is interesting about this proposal is that it seems designed to put not better teachers in colleges but ones who are more likely to agree with the author's political stance.

I wonder if the author would be equally supportive of a requirement that tenured professors spend their summer break serving in a soup kitchen or helping developing countries in a Peace Corp type of group? That too would bring experience from the real world into the classroom. Even better, it would expose students to a real world they are unlikely to ever experience themselves. Now dealing with on the job corporate politics so you can keep paying your rent? Everyone deals with that sooner or later...

Bernard Yomtov writes:

"Physics 101 is the biggest weed out course in engineering. Granted, the subject is kind of difficult. But it would be easier if physicists were better teachers."

OK. But doesn't that argue that people getting doctorates in physics should spend more time learning to teach, rather than spending a year doing some "real-world" job that might be totally unrelated to either teaching or research in physics.

A year or three spent, say, programming computers, is not going to make someone a better physics teacher.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>OK. But doesn't that argue that people getting doctorates in physics should spend more time learning to teach, rather than spending a year doing some "real-world" job that might be totally unrelated to either teaching or research in physics.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>One thing that is interesting about this proposal is that it seems designed to put not better teachers in colleges but ones who are more likely to agree with the author's political stance.

Eric Krieg writes:

Answer this question: why has Marxism failed in every sphere of social conduct EXCEPT academia?

Arnold Kling writes:

>I wonder if the author would be equally supportive of a requirement that tenured professors spend their summer break serving in a soup kitchen or helping developing countries in a Peace Corp type of group? That too would bring experience from the real world into the classroom.

Boonton writes:

"Answer this question: why has Marxism failed in every sphere of social conduct EXCEPT academia?"

Because Marxism today is maybe 20% economics (which has been mostly discredited) and 80% humanities. As a tool for analyzing history, sociology, art etc. Marxism seems to carry some usefulness. While I don't think it's a complete explanation, analyzing history as a story of conflict between different classes does yield some valuable insight. Do I think that means nationalizing all the coal mines and railroads is a good public policy? No I do not.

As for speaking about public policy, all experience is real world experience. Is the experience of a spin doctor who works for a private sector 'think tank' with academic pretensions somehow more legitimate? Is the experience of talk-radio / pundit superstars like Sean Hannity, Ann Coutler really closer to what the typical person goes through every day? No one tells Ann Coutler to shut up because she went from a cushy University to the life of a pampered super-pundit. I think it would benefit her greatly to have to spend 4 years as, say, a single mom making ends meat from a job as a bank teller or mall clerk.

But this is just dreaming, the real world of professors, pundits & regular bloggers is more interesting than the sterotypes we make of them.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Because Marxism today is maybe 20% economics (which has been mostly discredited) and 80% humanities. As a tool for analyzing history, sociology, art etc. Marxism seems to carry some usefulness.

Boonton writes:

You asked why does Marxism persist, the answer is simply that it remains a valid theory outside of economics. Looking at historical and sociological events thru the point of view of class conflict does produce interesting views. Whether or not they are correct is difficult to really say. What does the 'private sector' have to say about the causes of the Spanish-American War? Not much. How are we to judge whether the predominate academic opinion on this matter is correct (let alone Marxist inspired or not)?

I don't think making Eric Hobswald work at Starbucks for a 5 years will alter his theories very much. I'm sure it would be a worthwhile experience for him....but then I also think working a min. wage job would be a worthwhile experience for Ann Coutler. I'm not going to advocate a law or rule requiring either.

BTW, you should be aware there are many 'working class' Marxists who held numerous private sector jobs to make it thru rough financial times. Whether mostly right, mostly wrong or in between the theory is not just one of pampered professors who have never had to hold a real job.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>I don't think making Eric Hobswald work at Starbucks for a 5 years will alter his theories very much.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>BTW, you should be aware there are many 'working class' Marxists who held numerous private sector jobs to make it thru rough financial times.

Boonton writes:

"Being from a working class background might make you a trade unionist, but it doesn't make you a Communist."

I never said that being from a working class background made you either a trade unionist or communist. I'm only pointing out that there have been leftists, unionists, socialists, marxists, communists and a lot of other 'ists who were working class & did not have cushy Professorships in academia.

Eric Krieg writes:

There are no Communists at Walmart. Seriously, in the 1950s, there was a huge movement within the AFL-CIO to purge known Communists. The irony of Communism is that it has little appeal to those truly of the working class.

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