Thursday, July 29, 2010

Andrew Smith on what history teaches

Andrew Smith launches a vigorous attack on the census-killers, in which he argues that if they had only gone to university and learned what he learned this would never had happened:
one of the things the politicians who are hysterically opposed to the mandatory census have in common is that they did not attend or complete university.
Well.... I agree with him about the foolishness of this decision -- and I love his Lincoln's census entry illustration. But Andrew should maybe apply some of the empirical testing he advocates. Stephen Harper, who pushed for the decision, has a graduate degree in the social sciences (as Andrew indeed notes). Tony Clement, who implemented it, has degrees in political science and law. Maxime Bernier, its early advocate, has degrees in commerce and law. And so on.

The argument that the only information society really needs is that provided by markets and prices is one that has thrived in universities. They don't call it the Chicago School of economics because of deep-dish pizza and electric blues. It's from the Economic Department of the University of Chicago. The policy engine of the Harper government comes from the Political Science department of the University of Calgary. The London School of Economics includes many acolytes of Friedrich Hayek. Unwise as it is, the Harper government's hostility to governmental information gathering is something its leaders largely imbibed in university, not despite university.

The idea that governments do not need to gather comprehensive statistical data is a bad one, but it's not one that universities inoculate against. And of course universities shouldn't inoculate against ideas, even unfashionable ones. When Andrew says,
I believe that attacking statistical illiteracy through education will improve society in the long run, since it will encourage people to think more rationally.
"rationally" seems to mean "as we do," and that sounds disturbingly close to a faith that universities will make students will think like their professors and that all professors think alike. Fortunately universities are not unsuccessful at the first proposition and not very successful at the second.

I do agree with Andrew that history professors are useful to society. But this ain't the reason why.
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