Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jackson Toby Scores A Home Run

By Richard Vedder

Like most economists, I generally think sociology is a wishy-washy value-laden "discipline." (Of course, many sociologists no doubt feel the same way about economists). I think the emphasis on "class" and on things like race and gender is overblown and diverts attention from other more important issues facing society.

Apparently, however, New Jersey sociologists are different. I met Tom Espenshade this year, an extraordinary able demographer at Princeton whose new book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal I am dying to read. But today I am here to praise Jackson Toby, who retired many years ago from Rutgers (he was writing 600 page books in sociology 45 years ago), and by his own admission is in the later stages of his life).

Jackson's new book The Lowering of Higher Education in America is a gem. I have known of the book and talked to Jackson about it for years, and my sidekick Andy helped Jackson at a key point in its development. I even wrote one of the book jacket blurbs. Jackson is of the same school as Charles Murray, myself, and a growing number of others questioning the proposition that all persons are created equal when it comes to education, and that not all persons should be going to four year colleges.

There three things Jackson emphasizes that are important but usually neglected. First, lax admissions standards and enrollment maximization efforts of colleges have led high schools to become less rigorous and weaker. The usual line is "colleges suffer from poor secondary education in the U.S." Jackson takes almost the reverse position: "Lax university standards have contributed to the dumbing down of our secondary education system." And the more I think about it, I think Jackson is, minimally, mostly right.

Second, I like Jakson's emphasis on grade inflation and what he calls "goofing off in college." Most college students spend more time partying, texting, listening to barbaric and incomprehensible music, and having sex (or trying to) than they do studying, listening to professors, and contemplating the eternal questions that confront all societies. And Jackson is not afraid to say so. The most underutilized human resource in America today is our college-aged population, which, on average, is engaged more in conspicuous consumption of a country club like environment than in the serious business of preparing for life.

This later point has been driven home to me intensely recently. I returned a couple of days ago from taking 10 students to Europe --mostly students with high grades, campus leadership positions, etc. Yet I had a hard time getting them interested in cultural opportunities and learning about the society they were in, and was often dismayed at the unrelenting all night drinking. In short they were really good kids who have engaged in excessive hedonism well beyond the excesses of their parent's generation. Drinking every third night to 2 a.m. is not good enough. They want to drink every other night until 4 or 5 a.m. Bring back rigorous grading and admissions standards, and that problem would quickly decline in magnitude. By the way, I would predict that the livers and ears of today's youth are going to be a mess in another 40 years.

The third point Prof. Toby makes is that so-called need based aid, however well intentioned, has contributed importantly to the two problems cited above. Old fashioned merit based scholarship programs have the virtue of promoting academic excellence, while the need based programs inevitably lead to lower academic standards, greater dropout rates, etc. The cost of a romantic egalitarianism is very high, and the negative spillover effects of generous Pell Grants, big student loan programs, etc., may be so sizable as to call these programs into question.

Sociology, New Jersey style, may be okay. Run, do not walk, to your bookstore (or on-line provider) and buy Jackson's book.

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