Tag Archives: kevin carey

A narrow, self-interested agenda

A handy rule of thumb for distinguishing between an argument and an explanation is whether the "conclusion" is something in need of proof.  You explain why coffee wakes people up in the morning, you don't argue that it does.  Borderline cases are legion, but this rule generally works with appropriate context qualifiers.  However easy, people mess this up.  Here's a good example from the Washington Monthly:

One of the principal differences between K-12 and higher education is that people representing elementary and secondary teachers often go to elaborate lengths in denying the extent to which they’re pursuing a narrow self-interested agenda at the expense of student welfare and the public good, whereas in college they’re completely upfront about it. Two recent examples illustrate. Last week, the Chronicle reported how Syracuse University chancellor Nancy Cantor’s efforts to enroll more minority and low-income students, provide more need-based financial aid, and improve engagement with the surrounding community is meeting resistance among the faculty:

Seems to me that even an iron manner would say that the first two claims might only be accepted as commonly known and largely indisputable facts in the newsroom at Fox.  What interests me is the "two examples illustrate" remark.  I suppose he means "two recent singular instances must go in the column marked 'this claim is true'".  He must mean this because this is one of those claims that really needs a lot of proof, and two examples aren't going to do it.  Besides, the first case he cites (immediately following the above) doesn't make the case that professors are following a "narrow, self-interested agenda."  Here it is:

One of the most-contested parts of Ms. Cantor’s plan to remake the student population has been the acceptance rate. The rate, which stood in the mid-50-percent range after she arrived, spiked up to around 60 percent in each of the last two academic years. That sent up warning signs to both professors and students, who worried that Syracuse was becoming less selective. “Ivy Leagues pride themselves on minuscule acceptance rates of less than 10 percent,” said an editorial last winter in The Daily Orange, the student newspaper. “The shift in recruitment strategy and subsequent rise in the acceptance rate could devalue the SU diploma, cause larger freshman classes, and affect the quality of an SU education.

Some professors agree, although they have been reluctant to speak out because questions about the university’s admissions policies have touched off charges of racism here. “My fear is that the university is moving away from selective to inclusive,” says David H. Bennett, a professor of history. He says that Syracuse already had a diverse student population before Ms. Cantor arrived, but that the chancellor has taken it to a level unmatched by other selective universities. “If you look at the universities with the top 50 endowments and the percent of their students who receive Pell Grants, none of them were anywhere near even what we were before Nancy Cantor came,” he says. “This may be an admirable goal, but it is going to have an impact on our reputation. It’s a road to nowhere for a place like Syracuse, which is asking parents to pay a lot because they think they’re going to increase their kids’ life chances.”

However jerky this selected passage sounds, the professors in question can't be interpreted to be insisting on narrow self interest, when their primary interest is in the value of their students' degrees.  Every student, I think, ought to have access to a Harvard quality education, but I don't think it's appropriate they all go there.  In the first place, Harvard probably isn't big enough.  Second, if everyone went there, it wouldn't be Harvard. 

I'd like every university to be as inclusive and diverse as mine.  I guarantee that if the President of the University moved to alter that image, the Faculty would object en masse, and for similar reasons as the faculty at Syracuse.

Anyway.  I wonder if I need to point out that one doesn't use "illustrations" or "examples" (let alone just two of them) to prove general claims.  Even the kids who didn't get into Syracuse know the name for that.