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14 January, 2018

Modern Universities Are An Exercise in Insanity





Chronicle Review Illustration by Scott Seymour (Source)



Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, wrote a true but trollish column for the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month. He titled the piece "Higher Education is Drowning in BS."

His list of collegiate "BS" is correct. It's also predictable. One does not need to read the article to know exactly what it will argue. This is i2018. We have not only seen dozens of articles and journalistic accounts of the crisis Smith describes; entire books have been published to chronicle the sins of modern university life. The university system still has its defenders, but they are few and far between. Most folks who look at the state of American universities recognize that the system is broken. Few offer ideas on how to fix it. This conversation would improve greatly if less folks wrote long lists of their complaints about universities and more folks wrote long lists of ideas on how to improve them.

Smith says that  reform will require "visionary traditionalism and organizational radicalism." I agree with the sentiment. In that vein, let me offer a truly radical solution: take universities out of the liberal arts business all together. 

Let me be clear here:  I believe the humanities are essential. Essential to our civilization, even. No objections from me: the liberal arts are important. But not important enough to sell yourself into debt-slavery for. The liberal arts cannot be "saved,"  this "crisis of the humanities" cannot be resolved, as long as the cost of studying them requires mortgaging your future away. This is the issue all the other problems with humanities education revolves around. For most students, the gains of a liberal education cannot justify their costs. 

The cruel thing is these costs are not even necessary. 

Let's run the numbers so you can see what I mean. 

My alma mater was Brigham Young University-Hawaii. If you are a member of the LDS church attending the school, then in 2017 your tuition was $3,000 a semester. If you are not a member, it was $5,000 for one semester. The school has a special program where you can graduate in three years by taking three semesters each year, and that costs $8,000 and $16,000 a year for LDS and non-member students respectively.

You can see why I chose it.

To compare to another small private religious university, here is what tuition cost for students at St. Aquinas College for the two semesters they studied there in 2017: $29,000.

St. Aquinas brags that their students "obtain a private college education at an affordable price." Their costs are comparable to the evangelical Patrick Henry College, where tuition comes in at $28,000 for two semesters. This is much cheaper than religiously named, but no longer spiritually visioned, Trinity College. Tuition there is $53,000 a year.

Do the math here:

48,000 dollars are needed for non-members to graduate from BYU Hawaii ($24,000 for a member), $114,000 are needed to graduate from the cost-conscious religious schools, and $212,000 dollars are necessary to attend four years at the non-religious liberal arts school.

This is without including rent, food, or other charges of that sort.

There are a few questions that come to me as I review these numbers.

First, how is this possible? How can you possibly justify a $200,000+ college expense? How can you justify a $100,000+ college expense?

This is not necessary.


The average tenure track professor makes $40 an hour. If you were to employ her as a private tutor at the cost of $60 an hour, and had four hours with her a week, and did that for 14 weeks (that's the length of an average college course folks) that is about $3,400.

Were you to employ three such professor-tutors, that would be about $10,200, or a bit over $20,000 a year. In four years you would have racked up $80,000 in costs. But this is still $30,000 less than the total for the 'cost conscious' universities. It is a quarter of what you would pay for Trinity.

Remember: this $80,000 is for private tutoring, where individual attention would give you far and away a better and more thorough education than the 300-kids-in-a-lecture-hall style of classes that dominate undergraduate education today.

But it can get even cheaper. Let's say you take the general principle of group classes from the university. Say you can find four other people to take all of these other classes with you. Just four. Well that equals out to $680 per class, or $16,000 a person for four years of classes.

To be fair, add in $1,000-$2,000 for textbooks and a subscription to JSTOR, for a total of about 17,000 to 18,000 for four years.

Modern universities are insane.

For the vast majority of human history universities as we conceive of them did not exist. The modern university system did not produce the Mahabharata, The Aneaid, or The Tale of Genji. The modern university system did not produce Ibn Khaldun, Thomas Aquineas, or Alexis de Tocqueville. The universities John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison attended looked or functioned very little like Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton do today. Men like Abraham Lincoln are evidence that a deep reading and appreciation for the liberal arts do not require formal education at all. 

Let's not kid ourselves: the humanities existed before the modern university department was conceived; they will exist long after the modern university department has been destroyed. 

I would like to see something along the lines of a "liberal education" preserved. But do the math. The important elements—the students, the books, the teachers—can be provided for at under $20,000 a year, and that is with paying the teachers $20 more an hour than they are currently earning. Any attempt to reform the current university system must take this fact as its foundation. 

I know where the objections to this logic will come. University education is really about signaling; universities provide lots of other goods you cannot get from being privately tutored, and so on and so forth. Fine. Those objections are all correct. But are any of those goods worth $180,000 more than the $18,000 education I have outline above? 

A liberal education could be affordable, if we wanted it to be.  But we don't much care, and are now reaping the consequences.


[EDIT 15 January 2018: Fixed a few grammar mistakes and a minor mathematical error].


01 January, 2018

Every Book I Read in 2017


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It is New Year's Day, and thus time for my annual list of every book I read in the preceding year. By listing a book as "read" it means I finished the last page of the book sometime in 2017, though some of these books I actually began before the year startedin the case of one book (the Menon "modern rendering" of the Mahabharata) I started all the way back in 2015!

As in past lists, I have bolded and provided a link to the Amazon page of the top ten books of the year. As before, only books that I have never read before can qualify for this distinction.

 I usually aim to read three or four books on a theme or topic at one time, and you can see that in the titles below (which reads more or less chronologically, listing books by the date I finish, not first start them). Early in the year there is a cluster of American history books that corresponded with a class in American history I was teaching. Then followed a series of books about midcentury totalitarianism, a cluster focused on the Icelandic sagas, then the Iliad, the Roman republic, English poetry, Chinese poetry, and a return to American history at the end of the year. If you compare this year's readings with past years' (here are the lists for 201320142015, and 2016), this last one stands out for being far more literary and America-focused. The return to American history is a happy one. Studying so closely the origins of America's democracy while living in authoritarian China has had a decisive effect on my world-view. The extensive readings in poetry and 'classic' literature is an experiment of a different sort. Back in 2013 I was accused of not having enough fiction on my lists. I do not think the same accusation could be made today.

On the other hand, the old mainstays of Chinese history, strategic theory, and economic history have had almost no coverage this year. I will have to change thisespecially in that last category. So many interesting things have been published in the field of economic history in just the last three years, and I have fallen badly behind the literature.


I cannot pick one book out as the best of the year, but if I had to pick out one book I think most important for others to read, it would be William Freehling's two volume Road to Disunion. I highlighted the first volume of this book back in 2013 as one of the top-ten reads of that year; the second volume is not quite as good, but would probably make it into the top-fifteen cut for this year. Together they provide an immensely satisfying social and political history of the American south from revolution to secession.

Why this book? The national fracas over the cause of the U.S. Civil War revealed just how ill-informed we are about why that war happened. "Slavery" is the easy, obvious answer. It is also utterly inadequate: slavery and disunionism had existed since the birth of the American republic, and slavers willing to sacrifice the Union for sake of slavery had been around just as long. So why did they succeed in only in 1860not 1789, or 1800, or 1820, or 1855? Some might answer that the South was more 'radical' in 1860 than decades earlier, but all that reflexive answer does is give you another question: just how did the South get that way? Radicalism does not just happen. In the South radicalism emerged because it was planned. Freehling's first volume tells the story of the plans that failed: of attempts to get southerners of different stripes and interests to identity with "the South," convince these converts that this magical "South" was under attack, and that the only defense of "Southern" institutions was secession. In a wonderful mix of cultural, social, and political history Freehling shows why each of these attempts fell apart. But the last group of secessionists were by far the most self-aware of the bunch. In the second book, Freehling charts the rise of a conniving group of tyrants who consciously used the history past defeats to craft a stronger, more sinister political strategy. This strategy was intended to radicalize the South and drive the Union into a crisis intentionally designed to make compromise impossible.

It is a remarkable book.  It is masterfully written. It is topical. But most important of all, its concepts can be generalized. No other book has helped me to better understand the mechanics of radicalization. All Americans should be aware of these mechanics. There are eerie parallels between the principles and strategies employed by the secessionists of antebellum days and certain political groups in America today. This book will help you see them.

I suppose a more detailed exposition on that theme deserves its own post. I will not say anything more on this one. But consider buying and reading both volumes.

BOOKS READ IN 2017

Kate Arney, Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).

John C Wathley, The Illusion of God’s Presence: Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2016).

Paul H. Godwin & Alice L. Mille, China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 2013).

Ian Easton, Able Archers: Taiwan Defense Strategy in the Age of Precision Strike (Washington DC: 2049 Institute, 2014).

William Freehling, Road to Disunion, Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Bernard Bailynn, The Peopling of British North America (New York: Vintage Books: 1988).

Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settlement of North America to 1800 (New York: Penguin, 2002).

Shi Ji, Graded Chinese Reader 1500 Words (Beijing: Singolingua, 2013).

Ramesh Menon, The Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling (New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2009).

Henrik Ibsen, Enemy of the People in Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen (x:x).

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Penguin Books, 1954).

Gordon S. Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969).

Richard Carwadine, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (New York: Vintage, 2007).

Juan Williams and Julian Bond, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965. 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).

Hermann Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (New York, Penguin, 1995).

Yuval Levin, Fractured Republic: Rethinking America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years, trans.  (New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 200x)

Vaughan Lowe, International Law: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Louis Lowery, The Giver (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

Anthony Esolen, Out of Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Washington, DC: Regenery Publishing, 2017).

Bruce Bennet. Preparing North Korea for Unification. (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2017).

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, reprint (New York: Penguin, 2006).

Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The Diary of Anne Frank. (Dramatist Play Service, Inc, 1986).

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism: (New York: Hartoughn Mifflin, 1974).

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Stalin and Hitler (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: 20 Lessons From the 20th Century (Tim Dungan Books, 2017).

Robert Cook, trans.  Njal's Saga, (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Penguin Books, 1954).

William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (New York: Penguin, 2001).

Michael Sandel, Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).

William Ian Miller, Eye For an Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Jackson Crawford, The Poetic Eda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2015).

Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: Ace Books, 2017).

Andrew Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasia Defense Strategy (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017).

Aeschylus, The Oresteia, trans Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1984).

Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: War Trauma and the Undoing of Character. (New York City: Atheneum, 1994).

Homer, The Iliad: A New Prose Translation, trans. Robert Fagles, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1999).

J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, 2nd ed. (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Press, 1999).

Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (New York: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (October 2003)

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).

Tim Holland, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (New York: Random House, 2007).

David Gwynn, The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Laurence Perrine, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, 7th ed. (New York: Harcourt Publishers, 1991).

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar in Globe Illustrated Shakespeare: The Complete Works Annotated (New York: Greenwhich House Publishing, 1984).
John Williams, Augustus, reissue ed. (New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 2014).

Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Amberson (New York: Tor, 2001).

Egil’s Saga, trans. Bernard Scudder, in The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Jane Smiley, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

Christopher Ricks, ed., The Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Frances Cornford, Poems (London: W.H. Smith & Sons, 1910).

Frances Cornford, Spring Morning (London: Poetry Bookshop, 1923).

Frances Cornford, Autumn Midnight (London: Poetry Bookshop, 1923).

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, trans. Alan Clarke (New York: Harper, 1993).

Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Mareike Ohlberg, Simon Lang, Bertram Lang, Ideas and ideologies competing for China’s future. How online pluralism challenges official orthodoxy (ERICS Paper on China No. 5. October 2017).

Kunz Kavena, trans. The Saga of the People of Laxardal, in The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Jane Smiley, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear, new ed. (Amazon Publishing services, 2010).

John Milton, Paradise Lost in Paradise Lost and Regained (New York: Penguin, 2001).

Leland Ryken, Milton's Paradise Lost (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

Steven Peck, A Short Stay in Hell (Washington DC: Strange Violins Editions, 2009).

Steven Peck, Science: They Key to Theology (By Common Consent Press, 2017).

John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern in Delphi Complete Works of John Dryden (Illustrated) (Delphi Poets Series Book 29) (Delphi Classics, 2013).

Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (Washington DC: Project 2049 Institute, 2017).

Office of the USN Secretary, 2017 Strategic Readiness Review (Washington DC: USN, 2017).

Francis Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (Hanover: University of New England Press, 1995).

Bernard Baiylnn, The Barbarous Years: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (New York: Alfred A Knopft).

Leslie Stephens Hours in a Library, vol I (London: C.D. Warner, 1873)

Arnold Bennet, Literary Taste and How to Form it (London: Hodger and Stoughton, 1907).

John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, 1750-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Uighur Human Rights Project, Fifth Poison: The Harassment of Uyghurs Overseas (Washington DC: UHHP, 2017).

Lynne Cheney, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered (New York: Penguin, 2015).

Merril Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (Oxford University Press, 1988).

Samantha Hoffman, Programming China: The Communist Party’s Autonomic Approach to Managing State Security, Phd. thesis, University of Nottingham (2017).


Books that I read large portions of, but did not finish cover-to-cover:

Vassily Grossman, Life and Fate; David Young, Du Fu: A Life in Poetry; Keith Halyoake, Facing the Moon: Poems of Du Fu and Li Bai; He Mazi, ed. and commentator, 唐诗四百首[300 Tang Poems];  Wang Fuyin, 唐诗三百首详注,英译,浅析 [300 Tang Poems, With Annotations, English Translation, and Brief Analysis]; David Hawkes, A Primer in Du Fu; Tang Yueying and Li Xioming, eds.,  唐诗鉴赏辞典 (A Compendium of Treasured Tang Poems);  Archie Barnes, Chinese Through Poetry: An Introduction to the Language and Imagery of Traditional VersePaul Rouzer, A Primer in Literary Chinese; Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848; Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: History of a Puritan Idea; The American Pageant, 12th ed; Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic; Terrly and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life's Great Questions; Michael Green, Not By Providence Alone: Grand Strategy in American Power in the Asia-Pacific ; Eri Hotta, Japan 1941; SCM Paine The Wars for Asia; Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War; Kevin Horsely, Unlimited Memory; 50 Classic American Short Stories.