If you haven't noticed, Jonathan Catalan has been churning out a ton of material at mises.org lately. I usually like reading him because I think he makes a lot of very good points, but even when I don't agree with what he writes is well reasoned.
His most recent piece, though, is one I simply cannot endorse but is intriguing enough that I thought it was worth sharing to get reactions. Jonathan has a side business writing term papers for other students. He's mentioned it before, and I've kept my thoughts to myself for the most part - I have strong views but I don't want to be a proselytizer. But since he's putting it out there in such a straightforward way in this venue it seems more appropriate to respond.
I adamantly disagree with him on at least four fronts:
1. First and foremost selling or buying term papers is very unethical in my mind, although Jonathan argues that it is not. The person buying these term papers is lying and cheating. I'm not sure what more needs to be said about it. People who sell term papers profit from lying and cheating. Nobody that's unwilling to produce their own work (or work with others in an appropriate way - i.e. with all contributing) should be at a university that expects them to.
2. Jonathan is wrong about curricular decisions. He writes: "Curricula, more often than not, are decided by boards and administrative groups who simply dictate what is to be taught. So the skills that someone may acquire as a university student are determined, not actually by the individual, but instead by someone else, who has absolutely no idea about the goals and objectives of that individual." For one thing, the people making these curricular decisions are usually educators. But even if they weren't, Jonathan is wrong to suggest that the goals and objectives of the individual aren't taken into account. Students make educational decisions based on course offerings. It made a big difference in my application decisions at all levels of education. Students also demand a degree that will be of recognized quality in that field, and to do that universities rely on experts in that field to design curricula. If universities aren't meeting student demand, application rates will go down. This is how choice works.
3. Jonathan is also wrong about the interaction between university education and the labor market. He writes: "They saw a correlation between higher productivity and an increasing degree of human capital. What they failed to come to terms with is the causality of the relationship. Higher human capital does not create more productive jobs. You can train as many engineers as you want, but if you train 1,000 engineers for 500 positions, then you will have a surplus of engineers, and that surplus will have to do something else for a living." People respond to incentives and their own subjective preferences when choosing fields, and labor markets have proved to be incredibly efficient. People choose to get engineering degrees when there is a demand for engineers (or people with engineering skills). I should know, I've spent the last year working through the major research of the last 75 years or so on labor supply in the engineering labor market, I've been pouring over 30 years of data on it, and I'm drafting a chapter for an NBER volume on it. The consistent conclusion has been: markets work. Students make investments that benefit them and that are in demand in the market. It's not like you show up to a university and are ordered by an administrator to be an engineering major, after all.
4. There is value to a liberal education and if you don't agree, don't pursue a liberal education. Jonathan ridicules the idea that people really need to write term papers. In many careers people don't have to of course. Even at my job as a researcher, the kind of writing I do is often nothing like what you do in school, and it's not even the activity I spend most of my time doing. But Jonathan ignores the pedagogical purpose term papers. It's not because people write these papers in the real world - it's a method for forcing students to read and learn material, process and synthesize it, and articulate their ability to understand and apply what they've learned. It's a matter of critical thinking skills and being an articulate person. That does have value in most jobs. A lot of people would benefit from just going to technical schools. One problem with the American educational system is that it's bifurcated: we have lots of people that drop out and don't go to college and lots that go to four year institutions, because we have failing secondary schools and a culture of liberal education. We could benefit from a culture of technical and vocational education too. But as of right now, that's in weak demand. Given what's in demand, though, there's nothing illegitimate about writing papers.
And if you don't want to write papers at a school where you are expected to write your own papers you shouldn't pay someone to do it and then lie about it: you should simply refrain from attending.
Noted for May 19, 2013
1 hour ago