What We’re Reading

The Pope Center, for the most part, is about policy. Our mission is to conceive and promote policies that will improve higher education. Yet there is a dimension to our work that is unique in the policy world: because our policy area is higher education, we are drawn into the world of ideas in ways that other organizations are not. We therefore have to read widely, in order to keep up with ever-changing intellectual trends.

Every once in a while, we all read something that really excites us or makes a deep impression on us. Sometimes it’s a timeless classic, sometimes it’s entirely new. We thought we’d share a few such influential works with our readers. Enjoy.


Jenna A. Robinson, President

Political diversity will improve social psychological science,” by Duarte, J. L., Crawford, J. T., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. E.

I first heard about “Political diversity will improve social psychological science,” published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, last year when a preprint of the article made a splash in the media. But I didn’t get around to reading it all until recently.

The upshot of the work is that the lack of political diversity in social psychology can cripple creativity, discovery, and problem solving. (It should go without saying that this argument could easily apply to any discipline in the humanities or social sciences.) It’s long been acknowledged that these fields are peopled largely by left-of-center thinkers. But until now, those within the academy have argued that a lack of diversity in political views doesn’t matter, since it has no effect on classroom teaching or research ability.

That’s why this article, which neatly dispels that notion, is such a significant contribution to the academic literature.

The section on minority influence is particularly important, but also familiar. It states:

For a scientific community, discord may be beneficial because it motivates majority members to think more deeply about the issues at stake…. In scientific contexts, the evidence or logic provided by the minority may sometimes be so persuasive that it wins the majority. Alternatively, if the majority view was correct all along, then the validity and credibility of the majority view are strengthened by withstanding a forceful attempt at falsification by the minority.

Finding this argument in a respected academic journal is gratifying. But why has it taken so long? At its core, the case for intellectual diversity in the academy is simply an application of John Stuart Mill’s argument for “liberty of thought and discussion” in the second chapter of “On Liberty” in 1859. He makes the same points. Namely, that we should listen to dissident opinions because “the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true” and that anything which is not “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

The authors of the paper suggest a few solutions to the problem, but none that I find particularly promising for the immediate future. The best suggestion is to “develop strategies to encourage and support research training programs and research conferences to attract, retain, and graduate conservative and other non-liberal doctoral students and early career professionals.” Perhaps in 20 years, we can look forward to a more diverse and vibrant academy.


Jay Schalin, Director of Policy Analysis

The Shrinking World of Ideas,” by Arthur Krystal 

I read critic Arthur Krystal’s provocative essay, “The Shrinking World of Ideas,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a year ago and I’m still bowled over by it. The essay left me with two opposing sentiments—one despairing for the future and one optimistic.

Krystal began by describing the vibrant intellectual life that existed in mainstream America after World War II and then jumped to today’s postmodern intellectual wasteland. The 1950s are conventionally painted as a bland, conservative materialistic era in which home appliances took precedence over philosophy. Rather, it was an era alive with books and ideas; educated people read deeply and kept abreast of the latest intellectual trends more frequently than today.

The problem was, the ideas that the intellectual establishment adopted contained the seeds of intellectual decay, in the forms of European radical modernism, Marxist critical theory, and postmodernism. Sixty years later, those philosophies that gained a foothold back then are now spent, victims of their own perspectives. Krystal suggested that, “when literature professors began applying critical theory to the teaching of books, they were, in effect, committing suicide by theory.”

By rejecting objective truth and declaring everything to be mere politics, postmodernism has removed any support that it, too, may be considered the truth. All ideas, no matter how meritorious or advantageous, can be dismissed without further discussion as simply an attempt to gain advantage. Today’s thinking class appears to have painted itself into a corner with no place to go that does not make a mess of the paint job or the painter.

Yet, as Krystal explained, they have been hatching an escape plan all—total surrender to the deterministic cognitive sciences. The humanities have long been shifting their focus “from the meaning of ideas to the means by which they are produced.” That path leads eventually to the mechanistic world of neuroscience where the “firing of neurons” chase reason and the soul from consideration.

“Ironically,” Krystal laments, “the last great surge of ideas in the humanities was essentially anti-humanist.”

For some on the left, this capitulation offers greater freedom than free will ever did: if we are merely biological organisms responding to chemical stimuli, then we are absolved of our sins before we commit them. After all, our chemicals made us do it.

But in the end, such a scenario means that we have lost all real freedom—there is no longer any argument against tyranny. And very likely, we are heading down a dead end intellectually as well, as Krystal warns: ”one can’t help but reflect that by placing too much faith in the human brain, we may be relinquishing the idea that the mind may fathom the human condition.”

But there is a hopeful side to these developments. As Krystal noted, extreme positivism “is not to everyone’s liking.” For, as the prevailing winds of thought on the left decay and surrender, there is growing intellectual energy building on the right that could keep the humanist project alive. And these counter-trends place freedom and reason—not the empty void of postmodernism or, even emptier, mechanistic science—at the center of man’s universe.


George Leef, Director of Research

The Education Apocalypse: How It Happened and How to Survive It, by Glenn Reynolds

University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds has become one of the foremost critics of the American education system. His well-known Instapundit blog often links to articles about the waste and follies that go on in the “higher education bubble.”

Reynolds’ latest book is short and easily digested—The Education Apocalypse: How It Happened and How to Survive It. Reynolds provides readers an excellent “nutshell” presentation on the dramatic changes coming to our education system, changes that will simultaneously make it more effective and less costly.

The main reason why we’re facing an educational apocalypse is that gushers of government money and the inevitable bureaucratic controls that come with such money have transformed schools (at all levels) from lean and pretty efficient into fat and grossly inefficient.

Consequently, we have an educational bubble. It’s going to burst, he says, not for a shortage of dollars, but for shortage of value.

Abundant money flowing into colleges has brought about a spendthrift culture in academia. Instead of finding ways to make education better, administrators approved lots of spending that merely made campus constituencies happy. For example, nearly every college now has a large “diversity” bureaucracy that educates nobody. One example comes from North Carolina, where, Reynolds writes, “UNC-Wilmington is combining the physics and geology departments to save money, while diverting more funding to campus diversity offices.”

Students and their families are beginning to realize that college isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Reynolds observes. Therefore, they’re looking for alternatives that give them more educational value for less money. And the market is responding. A good example is the recent introduction of an online computer science degree by Georgia Tech and Udacity that will cost only $7,000. Most colleges cost much more than that for just one semester—a semester that’s apt to be loaded with courses the student neither wants nor needs.

As this trend of turning to alternatives gains momentum, lots of college professors will lose their jobs. Reynolds sheds no tears. That’s just the inevitable result when innovation collides with a “bubble” industry.

Reynolds concludes with several “quasi-predictions.”

One is that education (at all levels) will become more customized. That is, each student will be able to find educational programs that are closely tailored to his abilities and interests. That will be a great advance over the uniformity we imported from Prussia in the 1840s.

Another is that education will become more effective through “gamification.” That is, students will derive much of their learning through games like The Sims. Reynolds writes that his daughters learned a lot about business by playing it.

And third, he predicts increasing integration between school and life. Instead of the old, sharp division between getting your education and then getting on with life, the two will be much more integrated, allowing people to begin their productive lives earlier.


Jesse Saffron, Senior Writer

I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,” by Francine Prose

Last year, I stumbled upon Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer in a local library. In that book, Prose (clearly, a person with that last name has only one career option; she’s written dozens of fiction and non-fiction books and is now a regular literary critic for the New York Times) advocated close reading of classic novels and attention to sentence structure and style.

She also opposed the now-fashionable approach to writing instruction, with its emphasis on race, class, gender, the sociopolitical backgrounds of authors—issues that rarely concern the actual text of a given piece. This message resonated with me, and so I began following Prose’s work. More recently, I came across her 1999 essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.”

Although its subtitle is “How American high school students learn to loathe literature,” the essay’s implications for higher education are clear: Bad pedagogical ideas—often conceived by academics—trickle down to the K-12 level and negatively influence students by instilling bad reading and thinking habits. Those students then enter college, where their educational shortcomings often go uncorrected.

Prose, a longtime undergraduate and graduate writing instructor, sought to understand why her otherwise capable students were “handicapped not merely by how little literature they [read] but by their utter inability to read it….” After analyzing roughly 80 high schools’ reading lists and English course descriptions, she concluded that many schools assigned easily digestible, mediocre books (as the essay’s title suggests, Prose includes in that category Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).

But schools also assigned, as Prose called them, “masterpieces and competent middlebrow entertainments,” such as Shakespeare’s plays, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, and The Catcher in the Rye. So why weren’t schools churning out lovers of literature and skilled writers? The problem, according to Prose, was that they encouraged trendy, uninspired, and superficial literary analysis that left no room for complexity, ambiguity, or “the ways in which the vision of an artist can percolate through an idiosyncratic use of language”:

Only rarely do teachers propose that writing might be worth reading closely. Instead, students are informed that literature is principally a vehicle for the soporific moral blather they suffer daily from their parents. The present vogue for teaching “values” through literature uses the novel as a springboard for the sort of discussion formerly conducted in civics or ethics classes…. The question is no longer what the writer has written but rather who the writer is—specifically, what ethnic group or gender identity an author represents.

Since Prose’s article was published, such problems have intensified. Today, many high school graduates enter college reading at a middle school grade level. And many colleges, instead of maintaining strong academic requirements, have responded by increasing remediation and decreasing course rigor. Moreover, the postmodern instruction style criticized by Prose is now pervasive in higher education, especially in liberal arts and humanities courses.

Anyone who wants to revive the study of literature or foster an appreciation for Great Books in a youth culture dominated by lowbrow art would do well to heed Prose’s message. For current trends, if left unabated, will continue to erode civil society. As Prose asked in her essay, “Doesn’t our epidemic dumbing-down have undeniable advantages for those institutions (the media, the advertising industry, the government) whose interests are better served by a population not trained to read too closely or ask too many questions?”


Jane Shaw, President Emerita

The Political Economy of Modern Universities,” by Henry Manne

In 1973, an organization called Liberty Fund published an essay by Henry Manne, “The Political Economy of Modern Universities.” Manne, who died this year, was a law professor and a pioneer in the field of law and economics—by then already well-known for his insights into mergers and acquisitions.

I’ve looked at Manne’s essay many times, because it has become a classic selection for reading at conservative conferences about higher education. It is perceptive and irreverent. 

University governance today reflects the framework set up by the trustee-founders of the hundreds of small, denominational colleges that still dot the American landscape.

Those trustees, he said, were using their funds to “purchase” a commodity—the proper education of young men. They wanted to instill an understanding of religion and morality in order to produce Christian ministers and Christian gentlemen.

Had those trustees set up shop as for-profit schools providing such instruction, they would have failed. There weren’t enough students willing to pay full price for the education the trustees wanted to give them. The trustees wanted to teach religion, not serve a market. So their schools were not-for-profit, subsidized by the trustees, often with some state support.

Over time, the religious motivation of trustees waned. The schools—Yale, Duke, Wake Forest, and hundreds of others—continued to exist, but without the commitment that launched them. They became more broadly vocational, Manne wrote, and the trustees’ “interest in serving” is now the “quite weak reed of community status or prestige.”

Another issue surfaced in this 1973 essay. If most colleges primarily taught religion in the nineteenth century, how did the major industrial society of the United States get built? Manne was confident that there was a sizable for-profit educational industry that produced engineers, architects, accountants, financiers, lawyers, and other highly trained, but not college-educated, workers.

That private industry disappeared. Manne speculated that the Morrill Act, the 1862 federal law creating land-grant universities, killed it. Citing economist Albert Wallis, he explained that most government programs appear “only when the need alleged is already being adequately served in the private sphere.”

Late in life, Manne returned to writing about higher education. Among other things, he wanted to confirm the existence of a thriving, early American for-profit education industry and, through public choice analysis, link its demise to the Morrill Act.

But time ran out. The challenge is left to others to make that connection. I’m one of the people working on it.