My Thoughts on an Alt-Academy, 2/9
Create the Substack of Academia?
Glenn Loury hosts Albert Eisenberg, who writes,
Professor Loury’s experience, as well as my own, is that many students—not just political conservatives —are desperate to experience freer discourse and debate based on a broader set of established facts. I believe they would flock to an alt-academy after receiving their pedigree, during a “semester abroad,” or instead of attending a traditional university at all. Increasingly, young men in particular are opting out of higher education. But that does not mean they don't crave knowledge.
He offers few specifics of what an alt-academy might look like. I am putting more thought into this.
In Sebastian Mallaby’s new book, The Power Law, he writes that an effective pitch to a venture capitalist is to say that your new enterprise will become “The ___ of ____.” Along those lines, I would propose the Substack of Academia. Substack connects writers to readers with much less institutional overhead than an ordinary newspaper. These days, a lot of that institutional overhead constrains what a writer may say. Suppose that we were to connect students with mentors (not necessarily credentialed academics) who provide help with learning and career connections.
You might also relate the concept to Thiel fellowships or Emergent Ventures. That is, it would give talented people a chance to develop their careers outside of the university channel.
Think in terms of a federation of faculty. Each faculty member would offer a subject, admit students to study that subject, and promote students to employers.
In my opinion, much of the value of higher education comes from students making connections with peers and mentors. So an important part of the vision here is to enable the students to benefit from peer interaction, at scale, but without the institutional overhead that comes with a campus. As we will see below, regularly-held large in-person conferences will substitute for sustained life on campus.
Faculty members will design their own courses. There will be no set format.
My own course would be a business economics course, geared toward curious, self-motivated students. They will have strong STEM abilities but have ambitions that go beyond merely being tech workers. Thinks of it as me trying to find and mentor the next Patrick Collison. Students could be just out of high school or with some higher education, now working in business. They could be anywhere in the world.
Students would work with me to design their individual course of study. When I know a topic well, I will suggest readings. When a student is interested in a topic that I do not know well but which is important, such as law or accounting, the student might have to find appropriate readings or get help from another faculty member.
I would expect my students to do a lot of independent learning. My preferred approach would be to suggest readings for students, encourage them to write essays on what they read, and offer feedback on those essays. Students who show me that they are diligent and capable would get personal recommendations from me for potential employers with whom I have credibility.
Although a lot of learning would be remote, the federation would collectively assemble students and faculty in conferences. Perhaps 4 to 6 conferences per year, with each conference lasting about three days. Some of that time, my students would meet with me. But most of the time they would interact with students and faculty from other courses. Students without the means to pay for travel would be given financial aid to attend these conferences. Maybe eventually conference attendees would number in the low thousands.
These in-person conferences would serve to promote cohesion among the students. They would enable students to know one another. They would build connections for subsequent online seminars, peer learning, and networking.
In a way, this is a throwback to an older method of education, in which a student worked with a tutor/adviser. The tutor was paid by the student’s family.
Payment by students might be one revenue model. But two other revenue models might be preferable. One is to be paid by established companies when a student is placed at the business. In that sense, our faculty federation would be something like a management recruiting firm. Another model might be alumni donations, offered by successful students.
The Substack of Academia would eliminate the institutional overhead of modern universities. My goal would be to give students equivalent or better benefits in terms of learning and career connections, without the high dollar cost and political baggage that now comes with college. I am by no means claiming that young people and their parents would flock to this model right away. But it might draw a particularly ambitious and mature clientele.
While I like the idea (and may have some students for you at some point), I expect the vast majority of students are going to college in no small part for four years of partying. One cynic noted that as expensive as college is, it is cheaper per hour than Coachella. To be immersed in a vast sea of hook-up opportunities with fun parties for free almost every night - while parents and government pay for it! Some may also want career skills, a few may have intellectual interests, many want the prestige and credibility they get from "going to college," but even for most of those, Arnold Kling's political economy wisdom academy can't compete with respect to dating opportunities and alcohol-lubricated social interactions.
It is not an accident that lists of "Top Party Schools" are available for students to decide where to go to get the education they really want. Music festivals and clubbing are expensive, you have to pay for it yourselves, and most of the people are strangers; but you can get federal student loans to go to college where you can walk to all the parties from your dorm room. 80% of college students drink and about half have engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks in two hours) in the past two weeks.
Binge drinking is higher among college students than non-college students the same age. Some observers describe college as "situational alcoholism," where students drink heavily during college then go back to more normal consumption patterns when they leave.
It always strikes me as charming when people believe students go to college to get an education.
It may already be happening from the bottom up. See for example, projects like the Millerman School. Michael Millerman is a philosopher who was chased out of academia for his heterodox interests and seems to be able to charge good money for lecture series on philosophers and philosophical works. Substack is the the journalistic analogue but there's no reason it couldn't include more focused educational products.