Fraud noun: a) deceit, trickery; specifically: intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right ~Merriam-Webster Dictionary
My son learned about the Russian Revolution in school this semester. He was fascinated by the story, as was his father many years before him. I explained to him that I had the good fortune of being a college economics student during the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I studied the two great economic theories of capitalism and socialism, I was able to watch in the real world in real time as the greatest socialist experiment of all time completely collapsed.
Once into my major, every class I took was related either to capital markets or Marxist ideology. I took a modern Russian history class entitled “The History of Communism,” which was taught by a visiting Russian professor. I was so fascinated by it that I unintentionally ended up with a minor in international studies. The last semester of my senior year I wrote a paper for an independent study on how the Baltic states should transition from socialism to a free-market economy. I argued that they should follow the Poland model, which, simply put, was the rip-the-Band-Aid-off theory.
My professor was horrified. A full-blooded Keynesian, and perhaps a closet socialist, he told me how disappointed he was and asked how low of a grade he could give me and still allow me to graduate. I told him he could flunk me and I would still graduate. He gave me a C, the lowest grade I ever got in my major. Fast forward almost a decade and Wake Forest got email, so we could write our old professors. In that time, Poland had proved itself to be the most successful former communist state by far; in other words, I had been correct. I emailed my professor to ask if he would consider changing my grade. “Touché” was his response.
I learned something very important through that experience: The difference between practicing economics or a related field in the real world versus doing it as a college professor is that in college, one must be politically correct, while in the real world, he has to be actually correct. If I am wrong, my clients lose money and I lose my clients and therefore my job. In the academy, as long as one voices the popular opinion of the day it seems not to matter when that turns out to be wrong.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was, in my opinion, a pivotal event for higher education. Colleges had long been a refuge for Marxists, even if they were in the closet. It is an appealing ideology for the academic as it plays to the ego. It argues that they should be in charge; what is not to like? Its total collapse had to be earth shaking, and I do not believe that it is a coincidence that the collapse of Marxist ideology and the rise of postmodernism within the academy happened at roughly the same time.
Intellectuals are human beings, with the same psychological weaknesses as the rest of us; they are just better at masking their cognitive dissonance in fancy mumbo-jumbo. An ideology where Truth doesn’t exist was exactly what was needed to avoid the harsh reality that what they believed was wrong.
Where has this led us? This week The Wall Street Journal reported that California is adopting a new math, because, “white supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom” includes a focus on “getting the right answer.” This past summer as rioters tore down statues of Ulysses S. Grant, among others, we were told repeatedly that this was the cancel culture that began on college campuses. We read about so-called “safe spaces” where students can go to escape from being taught difficult facts. Courses have to have “trigger warnings” so students know ahead of time that what they believe will be challenged.
These ideas – a cancel culture, safe spaces, and trigger warnings – are antithetical to education. A truly educated person is an open-minded person who is not afraid of being challenged, and perhaps most importantly is capable of changing her mind and willing to do so in light of facts and reason. An educated person doesn’t burn books or tear down statues; in fact, they do the very opposite.
An educated person does not erase names off of buildings or the university itself, because an educated person realizes that even great people can do terrible things. Neither of those attributes erases the other. Even King David, the greatest of all the Kings in ancient Israel, had a man sent to his death so that he could sleep with the man’s wife. His flawed sinful nature does not negate his greatness; it simply proves that he was human. Educated people understand that human beings are complicated and that history is nuanced. Further, they know that those who are ignorant enough to erase history are doomed to repeat it.
We all know that the cost of college today is absurd, and if that were the only issue it would be bad enough. Cost, however, is not the only issue or even the biggest issue. Students are going to college, paying outrageous amounts, and leaving with minds that are closed, not opened. If this was any other industry they would be charged with fraud. People are paying for an education and they are not getting it.
That is right: the university as we know it today is a fraud, and it will remain that way until we demand that political correctness is replaced with actual correctness; when postmodernism is replaced with an honest pursuit of Truth; and when the goal is once again to open minds instead of closing them. Until that day, parents will have to better prepare their children, as college degrees will likely still be necessary for a job, but an education is something they will have to gain elsewhere. At least that is my perspective.
Chuck Osborne, CFA