Response to Tyler’s "Sobering Thought" Blogpost

Tyler’s quite interesting short post on American Higher education is here. The money quote:

In other words, I work in what is perhaps the most competitive and successful sector in the most competitive and successful economy of all time.
And yet what I see around me is a total, total mess.  And I believe my school to be considerably above average in terms of how well it is run.

My sense is that he’s on to something here in that higher education is a mirror to the larger society in which it is embedded. Cowen had just blogged previously about David Brooks Two Economies (perhaps the 21st century’s version of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures). Central to Brook’s thesis is that there are two economies these days in the US and they are growing ever more separate. Here is Brooks riffing on Tyler’s own recent work:

His work leaves the impression that there are two interrelated American economies. On the one hand, there is the globalized tradable sector — companies that have to compete with everybody everywhere. These companies, with the sword of foreign competition hanging over them, have become relentlessly dynamic and very (sometimes brutally) efficient.
On the other hand, there is a large sector of the economy that does not face this global competition — health care, education and government. Leaders in this economy try to improve productivity and use new technologies, but they are not compelled by do-or-die pressure, and their pace of change is slower.

One gets the impression that Brooks sees American Higher Ed as being firmly ensconced in Economy 2, while Tyler in his blog post sees it as being in Economy 1.

I think American Higher Education is mirroring the larger American Economy and that there are elements of both Economy 1 and 2 in the Academy. Further, the “mess” that Tyler sees around him is simply an accurate reflection of the tensions that Brook refers to in his column:

A rift is opening up. The first, globalized sector is producing a lot of the productivity gains, but it is not producing a lot of the jobs. The second more protected sector is producing more jobs, but not as many productivity gains. The hypercompetitive globalized economy generates enormous profits, while the second, less tradable economy is where more Americans actually live.
In politics, we are beginning to see conflicts between those who live in Economy I and those who live in Economy II. Republicans often live in and love the efficient globalized sector and believe it should be a model for the entire society. They want to use private health care markets and choice-oriented education reforms to make society as dynamic, creative and efficient as Economy I.

As long as we have STEM fields viewed from an Economy 1 prism and Humanities viewed from Economy 2….well, that’s pretty much a recipe for the perception of a mess, even at a well run place like George Mason. Oops, we’re back to C.P. Snow and Two Cultures….