Month: November 2015

What Does Ancient Rome Teach Us About ISIS and Syrian Refugees?

Temple of Saturn

The short answer to the question is, nothing. But let One Thing after Another explain why it is asking the question in the first place.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks that took place on November 13, Niall Ferguson wrote the following opinion piece that appeared in the Boston Globe, entitled “Paris and the Fall of Rome”:

Ferguson argues that the attacks herald the collapse of contemporary European civilization. The Europe of today, he claims, is following the same path as Rome on the way to destruction: “As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.” He likens the great numbers of Syrian refugees to the Völkerwanderung, the great migration of barbarian peoples that swamped the Roman Empire and destroyed it. He points out that while the vast majority of Muslims currently living in Europe are neither violent nor terrorists, they hold views that are extremely difficult to reconcile with the principles of “modern liberal democracies.” For that reason, “it is . . . remarkably easy for a violent minority to acquire their weapons and prepare their assaults on civilization within these avowedly peace-loving communities.”

Ferguson was originally trained as an academic economic historian. He has since written books on a variety of topics (including a biography of Henry Kissinger that was published this year), many of which are aimed at a more popular audience. He has also become a journalist and an opinion-maker. The combination of these roles has turned him into something of a public intellectual. The position of public intellectual is an honorable one, and in this context, one is reminded of the Victorian sages, particularly John Stuart Mill, of whom One Thing after Another is particularly fond. The problem with assuming the role of sage, though, is that it is extraordinarily difficult to express an informed opinion about everything. As Ferguson himself implies in “Paris and the Fall of Rome,” he is not an expert on late Roman history. And Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789), to which Ferguson repeatedly adverts, does not accord with the most current scholarship on Rome’s demise.

With his constant references to Gibbon, Ferguson seems to indicate that 5th-century Rome was overborne from without because it was rotten within. He mentions the work of contemporary historians Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, but he does not do justice to their findings because they do not necessarily support his argument. Heather’s most important recent book, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History (2005) argues that the Rome which entered the 4th century was not the decadent and disintegrating society that Gibbon portrays. Instead, it was strong, stable, and full of vigor. For centuries, it had managed its frontiers with a combination of brute force and diplomacy. Any barbarians who settled within the frontier did so on Rome’s terms. Yet starting in the late 4th century, for a host of reasons that were mainly outside its control, Rome began experiencing great difficulties in asserting control over the Germanic peoples who sought to enter the empire so as to escape the Huns. Such a picture does not accord with Ferguson’s representation of late Rome or contemporary Europe. It is not hard to see why. Fifth-century Rome is not the Europe of 2015. Syrian refugees do not resemble the Völkerwanderung. And Muslims living in Molenbeek are not like the Goths of late antiquity. In other words, as an analogy, Ferguson’s formulation is problematic because historical analogies are problematic in general. If anything, Ferguson’s statements are more metaphor than analogue, and the employment of metaphors themselves entail a number of dangers.

Indeed, if we were so inclined, we could look to Roman history for a completely different “lesson” with contemporary applicability. The reasons for Rome’s fall to which Ferguson refers have long been disputed—by Gibbon, Heather, and a host of others. What is not disputed is that during the period of its greatest expansion under the republic, Rome was an inclusive community that extended citizenship and other privileges on a huge scale to recently conquered peoples. One might be tempted to make the case that Rome promoted a model for assimilation that could have contemporary uses. In other words, by way of analogy, this example might entice one to support a very different set of policies from the ones Ferguson advocates. And one would be wrong because Rome was not a modern liberal democracy. Its “inclusiveness” was not the sort envisioned by the 21st century. As Machiavelli put it in his Discourses on Titus Livy, Rome’s policy was driven by “friendliness and by force” with an emphasis on force. Roman inclusiveness was imposed on those who had been defeated. It was driven by a rapacious desire for military manpower that was required to destroy enemies and acquire yet more territory: the flip side of citizenship and privilege within the republic was military service that could not be evaded or denied. It was the huge pool of trained military manpower obtained in this fashion more than anything else that allowed Rome to survive three colossal defeats at Hannibal’s hands (the Battles of the Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae—costing a total of around 100,000 dead) before it turned the tables and smashed Carthage. In other words, Rome’s inclusiveness served the military needs of a ruthless and awesome empire in which we would probably not want to live.

One might support this policy or that one with regard to ISIS, Syrian refugees, and other related issues. But ancient Rome does not provide unambiguous justification for any course of action. History can hone our judgment while historical analogies and metaphors can clarify our thinking. Yet all tools of this sort ought to be handled with great care and applied with some attention to detail.

Yet Another Post about Marco Rubio, Welders, and Philosophers


On November 10, at the Republican debate in Milwaukee, Sen. Marco Rubio declared that “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” The internet came alive with all sorts of commentary, much of it disappointing.

A host of observers pointed out that Rubio was wrong. Welders do not make more money than philosophers. Of course, making such a determination depends on how one defines what a philosopher is. However, commentators established that, on average, professors of philosophy, who probably constitute the vast majority of professional philosophers in this country, do indeed earn more than welders. Others have also found that the average mid-career pay for philosopher majors is about $85,000, which far outstrips the median pay of welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers which amounts to around $37,000. Much commentary—too much—focused on these kinds of figures. Such a focus does not really answer an important question: if Rubio had been correct in claiming that welders made more money than philosophers, would that mean the United States needed more welders and fewer philosophers? The answer, as always, is both yes and no.

One could argue that in a free market, high wages in one area signify scarcity. So yes, if welders made more than philosophers, that would mean in one sense that we needed more welders than philosophers. Even though that is not exactly the case, in his own mistaken way, Rubio was sort of right. The United States does not have enough welders. According to David Landon, president of the American Welding Society, our country faces a shortage of more than 200,000 professional welders. Landon suggests that this shortfall is the result of a stigma against blue-collar labor, and indeed, it is this stigma that Rubio seemed to be driving at with his comments. Before he let slip his observations about welders and philosophers, Rubio commented, “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational training.” He has something of a point. There seems to be a kind of classism that depresses the demand for vocational training. Even so, especially compared with other developed states in Europe, the United States has fared poorly in meeting this demand. For example, according to a recent study by Northeastern University, technical high schools and community colleges in Massachusetts have been unable to produce enough skilled labor to fill the 1.2 million job openings that will become available by 2022. The point is, the sooner everybody stops thinking of blue-collar work as degrading, the better. As Martin B. Crawford has argued in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, the manual trades are a thoughtful place were one’s mind is often engaged. That being the case, the country should do a better job of preparing people whose inclinations lead them in that direction. In other words, not everybody needs to go to college and earn a B.A. or B.S. in order to find rewarding and stimulating work.

Clearly, America does need more welders, and in this sense, Rubio is correct. But what about philosophers? By drawing the contrast in the manner he did, Rubio seemed to indicate that philosophy was the opposite of welding. Crawford would argue that such a distinction is a false one: “the division between knowledge work and manual work is kind of dubious, because there is so much thinking that goes on in skilled trades.” Fair enough, but let us accept for the sake of argument that philosophical cogitation is fundamentally different from the thinking that goes on in the manual arts. Rubio seemed to imply that welding is more useful than philosophy (because welders make more money—although such is not the case) and that our education system is mistaken in placing a premium on the latter instead of the former.

Such a charge has been leveled against the humanities in general, and it is for this reason that One Thing after Another is so keen to refute Rubio. It is not for love of philosophy solely, but love of the humanities, of which history constitutes a part, that One Thing after Another decided to tackle Rubio’s comments in the first place. In what way are philosophy and the humanities useful? Why should they be taught in college? There is, of course, the oft-used argument that philosophy inculcates habits of mind that will help graduates in any career they choose to pursue. One could say the same about any of the disciplines in the humanities. It is no surprise, for example, that many lawyers are history majors. History majors learn to read large amounts of material, synthesize information, and present convincing and articulate arguments—exactly the kinds of skills lawyers need to develop.

Important as they are, though, let us stop thinking about job skills and earning power. After all, a number of commentators have argued that Rubio’s basis for comparison is fundamentally flawed: there are more ways to measure the value of a job than the earnings with which it is associated. Donald Trump earned over $350 million in 2014, 4,487 times the average salary of a firefighter in New York City ($78,000). Is Donald Trump’s job equivalent in value to those of 4,487 New York City firemen (about 44% of the city’s total)? In one way yes, but many of us would have a hard time accepting that claim because we know there is more to a job’s value than its salary.

Let us start thinking of value in a different way. What about the way in which philosophy and the other disciplines in the humanities turn us into good people and better citizens? In dealing with Rubio’s comments, Tom Morris, the prominent public philosopher, has presented the following argument:

When I first went to graduate school at Yale to become a philosopher, I remember seeing a newspaper clipping on a philosophy department bulletin board. It featured a photograph of a construction worker sitting on the ground, eating out of his steel lunch box, his hard-hat by his side, and with a copy of Heidegger open in front of him. I said to myself, “That’s it. That’s the role of philosophy—to help everyone become more thoughtful about their lives.” I spent fifteen years as a professor of philosophy in a great university and my goal was never to turn my students into wage-earning academic philosophers, but instead to help them develop a more robust philosophical dimension of their experience and thought, whether they went on to become doctors, lawyers, insurance agents, or welders.

All of us, he argues, need philosophy: “The good thinker should ideally be a proficient doer; and the active doer, a careful thinker.”

Morris, of course, has presented an apologia for philosophy because Rubio’s comments specifically addressed that discipline and Morris is a philosopher. But as we contemplate the much-discussed “Crisis of the Humanities,” we ought to think about his argument. It applies to all the disciplines in the humanities. The History Department’s main task does not consist of producing professional historians (although we have started a number of people down that path). In fact, the great majority of students that it teaches are not even history majors. The main point of our department (and the reason that historical reasoning is part of the core curriculum) is to enrich students’ judgment as well as their comprehension of the world around them. We are here to remind students that there was a past, that there are multiple ways of interpreting that past, and that this past not only facilitates our understanding of how our world came to be but also provides us with a stock of experiences that help us judge that world. To paraphrase Morris, we want to help students develop a more robust historical dimension to their experience and thought because it will make them better people and citizens. Such a perspective will aid them whether they become hedge fund managers, FBI agents, nurses, or journalists. And especially if they become politicians or presidents of the United States.

The Economist’s College Rankings: The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

Monopoly Man

What The Economist Says

US News & World Report, Forbes, Princeton Review, and other organizations rank colleges annually. Now The Economist has tried its hand at producing a new hierarchy of schools based on a different set of criteria.

(This blog post also relies on the hard copy of the article that appeared in the October 31-November 6 2015 issue of The Economist.)

The Economist was intrigued by the claims made in an article published by the Quarterly Journal of Economics which seemed to question the degree to which colleges enhanced workers’ earning power. As The Economist puts it, the article suggested that graduates from Harvard University earned high salaries not because the school enhanced their skills but because it admitted very bright people to start with. Using data provided by the Department of Education’s “college scorecard” website, The Economist attempted to determine just how much a college elevates its graduates’ salaries. To use The Economist’s own words:

The government generated the numbers by matching individuals’ student-loan applications to their subsequent tax returns, making it possible to compare pupils’ qualifications and demographic characteristics when they entered college with their salaries ten years later. That information offers the potential to disentangle student merit from university contributions, and thus to determine which colleges deliver the greatest return and why.

The Economist then asserts that its “first-ever college rankings are based on a simple, if debatable, premise: the economic value of a university is equal to the gap between how much money its graduates earn, and how much they might have made had they studied elsewhere.” Figuring out how much graduates actually earned ten years out of school is the easy part. It is somewhat harder to determine how much they could have made if they had gone to a different school. The Economist, however, plucky as it is, used multiple regression analysis to determine that figure for 1,308 schools.

In determining the value added by a school, The Economist had to account for a number of variables that had some bearing on graduates’ salaries:

  • average SAT scores, sex ratio, and racial makeup of the school
  • the size of the college, whether it was a public or private institution, and its religious affiliation
  • the wealth of the state in which it was located as well as the wage rates of the town where the college is
  • the number of students who use Pell grants
  • whether the college has a ranked business school or is a liberal arts college

The Economist even developed a “Marx and Marley Index” that measured the extent to which schools had students who were disinclined to pursue lucrative careers in, say, business.

After filtering out these factors, The Economist determined how much of a return in earning power each school generated for its graduates. As The Economist points out, the bar is set very high for schools like Caltech (California Institute of Technology) because it is very selective (it admits the cream of the cream), it is close to a prosperous city (Los Angeles), and teaches subjects that often lead to high-paying jobs (science and engineering). In other words, the kind of student who attends Caltech should be expected to do very well whether he or she goes to Caltech or not. (And according to The Economist’s model, Caltech actually does not enhance its graduates’ earning power—median earnings ten years out are actually around $8,000 less than expected earnings).

The list yields some not-so-big surprises. MIT and Harvard, perpetual winners in other rankings, are close to the top. What is intriguing about the list is that a number of lesser-known schools do quite well. If one includes vocational colleges, pharmacy schools score highly (e.g. MCPHS University in Boston—which has placed this fact prominently on the home page of its web site). They are not particularly selective, but they practically ensure six-figure salaries for their graduates less than ten years out of school. The maritime colleges (e.g. Massachusetts Maritime Academy), which train engineers for careers in shipping, also lead to lucrative careers. In fact, graduates of SUNY Maritime in New York have higher salaries than the poor slobs at Caltech.

If we exclude these vocational schools, though, the picture becomes somewhat more speckled. Yes, schools that admit students with high SAT scores tend to have graduates who possess greater earning power. And, yes, schools that focus on engineering and business also seem to do well in the rankings. Having said that, graduates from schools that stress the humanities still go on to remunerative careers. The Economist suggests that if students from traditional liberal arts colleges do not fare particularly well according to this ranking, that’s because they are not focused on making money. David Oxtoby, Pomona College’s president, claims his school’s graduates are more interested in “changing the world, affecting people’s lives, and having a fulfilling career” than “on being compensated for their work.” (As you can guess, Pomona did not fare well in the rankings.)

Where Saint Anselm College Fits

Saint Anselm College ranked 171 out of 1,308 colleges or in the 86th percentile. To put this performance in perspective, here are how some other New England colleges performed:

36 College of the Holy Cross 97%
72 Providence College 94%
129 Colby College 90%
171 Saint Anselm College 86%
258 Stonehill College 79%
281 Middlebury College 78%
403 Bowdoin College 68%
421 Assumption College 67%
736 Saint Michael’s College 42%
997 Merrimack College 21%

In other words, Saint Anselm College does a better job of providing its graduates with earning power than a number of peer institutions. How or why this happens is unclear.

What Does It All Mean?

There is something to be said for measuring schools in this manner. The Economist points out that its rankings indicate a number of public schools have done an outstanding job of catapulting poor students into the middle class. Saint Anselm College can take some pride in the fact that it is better at performing this service than 86% of America’s colleges.

But earning power is not the only or even the most important means of measuring a college’s performance. The Economist is up front that its ranking does not measure anything but the degree to which a college enhances its graduates’ earning power. And earning power is not the be-all and end-all of college education.

Society needs engineers and businessmen, and such people rightfully earn big money. But society also needs nurses and schoolteachers, and these professions don’t earn huge salaries. Even more important, though, society needs people who can see its problems in the round. There is an idea circulating in Silicon Valley that the engineers and businessmen who are pushing the frontiers of the Information Age have the power to resolve many of our difficulties because they possess tools that nobody has ever had access to before. But a narrow training in engineering or business does not necessarily make one fit to use those tools—no matter how powerful they are—any better than anyone else. A broad understanding, but one that is also capable of training itself to study a variety of problems in depth, is what is wanted.

One Thing after Another is here reminded that it once had a colleague at another institution who used to claim that a liberal arts education enabled students to “learn how to learn.” Her argument was that the broad education students received at a liberal arts college did not provide them with all the knowledge they needed to tackle any problem. Rather, it allowed them to understand how to go about mastering different fields on their own. It is this skill that we need now more than anything else, and it is not cultivated by the intense study of one area. This skill, however, does not always lead to great earning power. In this context, David Oxtoby’s observations might be self-serving (Pomona finished 1241 and in the 2nd percentile) and a little overdrawn, but he has a point. “Changing the world, [and] affecting people’s lives”—both of which are important jobs—are not necessarily remunerative.

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, One Thing after Another must admit that it a) subscribes to The Economist and b) obtained a BA from Pomona College.