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Economics, Competition and Academia: An Intellectual History of Sophism versus Virtue

Author(s):Stabile, Donald R.
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.NET (February 2007)

Donald R. Stabile, Economics, Competition and Academia: An Intellectual History of Sophism versus Virtue. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2007. vii + 148 pp. $90 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84720-236-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

In this book, Donald Stabile gives the highlights of a two millennia-long debate between market-driven models of higher education and market-sheltered models. Tracing the debate back to the Greeks, Stabile equates the market-oriented approach with the Sophists, who taught the practical subjects students were willing to pay for, and who measured success by their own incomes. The market-sheltered approach, Stabile argues, was promoted by Plato and Aristotle, whose wealth exempted them from reliance on students’ fees and who sought to teach what made for virtue. Stabile suggests that the “virtue” school relied on endowments of one sort or another to insulate education from market pressures toward more utilitarian subjects. Stabile uses the term “endowment” in a somewhat elastic manner, including, for example, personal wealth in the case of Plato and, in the present era, state support as an equivalent of endowment.

Stabile is an historian of economic ideas and he concentrates on thinkers (including groups, such as the authors of the 1828 Yale Report) who articulated or defended particular models of education. Using the poles of “sophism” (market-driven and utilitarian education) and “virtue” (market-sheltered and non-utilitarian education), Stabile analyzes where various thinkers and educational institutions have been located on the spectrum between the two. The analysis is richer than merely considering how higher education is financed (tuition fees versus endowment earnings); it includes issues of motivating students and faculty, the nature of curriculum, divisions between the responsibilities of faculty and administrators, and how education relates to its culture.

Curriculum is central to the sophism-virtue debate, as Stabile sees it. The sophist curriculum would be pragmatic, with much student choice, in order to appeal to tuition-paying students. In modern terms, there would be many electives, and this would pose the problem of assuring sufficient demand to justify offering those electives. Conversely, what he calls a virtue-oriented curriculum would offer a core of required courses deemed by faculty to be essential for moral development. This was the model of colonial and early nineteenth-century denominational colleges, which could offer fewer courses and keep faculties small. As Stabile indicates, very few American universities in the post-1800 era have been pure polar models of sophism or virtue. Most have relied upon multiple sources of funding, including tuition and fees, endowment returns, state support, and current donations. And, many university curricula combine elements of sophism and virtue.

Though Stabile starts with the Greeks, and gives consideration to pre-Enlightenment thinkers and universities, his main efforts are concentrated on the period after Adam Smith. Following Smith, Stabile’s focus is predominantly on the American scene, although he does pay attention to Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, and Alfred Marshall. The American educational theorists considered were not all economists, but include figures such as Benjamin Rush, Francis Wayland, Charles Eliot, and Abraham Flexner.

Stabile argues that education reflected trends in the culture, and gives special focus to the culture of the rising corporate capitalism. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard for four decades prior to 1909, revised its curriculum in directions that fit the ethos of capitalism, keeping an eye on what the market demanded. Eliot ultimately approved a graduate business school to serve the need of business for trained leadership. This strategy implied that the university would grow, just as business had, by serving the needs of business and adopting the methods of business. On the other hand, in some areas, Eliot pushed back against the capitalist ethos. He made sure his businessmen-trustees did not meddle in curriculum matters, nor think of faculty as they would think of employees. And he was emphatic that the profit motive should not drive the university. By Stabile’s categories, Eliot exhibited tendencies associated with sophism in some sectors yet resisted such tendencies in other arenas.

Eliot is not the only figure in this book to produce ideas consistent with both the “virtue” and the “sophist” approaches. In Stabile’s telling of it, even the rise of the business school in American higher education was not a pure case of the triumph of sophism, for their funding was often provided from large endowments; and the faculties aimed to impart virtue to students by creating business codes of ethics and placing liberal arts courses in the business curriculum. Indeed, Stabile’s general conclusion is that “virtue has retained its primary place in academia in spite of academia’s being surrounded by the culture of capitalism [i.e. sophism]” (p. 124).

Throughout the book, Stabile makes the case that even the thinkers most committed to sophism respected boundaries (defined by their notions of virtue) beyond which they would not push their ideas. In the end, we find that influential thinkers and educational institutions seem to have been pulled in both directions, ending with characteristics of both sophism and virtue. Does this mean that Stabile’s sophism and virtue are not the best reference points against which to survey higher education?

The reader departs from this book with a reasonable idea of what sophism means. However, throughout the book, virtue remains ill-defined. In fact, this reader came to suspect that ? at least as Stabile tells the story ? “virtue” has little independent content of its own, and simply plays the role of a foil ? that is, “not-sophist.” Part of the reason for this is that the norms of virtue have changed: they were one thing to the ancient Greeks, another in the Catholic middle ages, yet another in early Protestant America, and finally another in secular twentieth-century universities. Stabile is aware of this shifting of the meaning of virtue, and the implied moral relativism, though he writes only sparingly about it. Summarizing a proponent of business education, Stabile makes the point: “Once academia had become secularized … what was the definition of virtue? … Business faculty could lay the same claim of virtue as did liberal arts faculty. With no intrinsic standard of virtue such as Christianity held, all disciplines could claim a privileged place” (p. 114). In short, virtue had been rendered meaningless by secular moral relativism.

Stabile makes the brave claim that “the Christian ethos has persisted despite the secularization of academia and the influence of capitalism” (p. 123). Yet, he does not develop this claim. Indeed, even in his discussion of earlier, presumably more Christian, eras, Stabile is not very detailed in his discussion of what virtue would mean in the curriculum of a Christian university or college. Functionally, as used in this book, “virtue” seems to stand simply for whatever tendencies in higher education cannot be reduced to utilitarian motives (as noted, virtue seems to be a foil, an anti-sophism with little content of its own). Even in the Christian context, when Stabile gives virtue some content, its meaning is simply anti-sophism: to avoid “unnatural” acquisitiveness.

A component of Stabile’s failure to define virtue as understood by different eras is his lack of distinction between Catholic education and Protestant education that dominated the American colonies and continued into the nineteenth century. For example, Stabile’s description of Puritan education boils down to the statement that Puritans “were firm believers in education as a way for humans to understand sin and avoid it” (p. 45). He does not mention the nature of the Puritan intellectual culture described at length in many books by Perry Miller in the mid 1900s, the Puritan commitment to empirical science and their adoption of the scientifically oriented curriculum of Peter Ramus, or their fascination with the pioneering educational ideas of John Amos Comenius. In short, there are different perspectives on even Christian “virtue” that Stabile fails to consider, which would have enriched the book. Protestant theories of education might even have allowed pragmatic subjects to be integrated in a curriculum as a matter of theological principle instead of as a matter of sophism.

This concern aside, I found this book well worth reading. Even if the categories Stabile has chosen to summarize higher-education strategies are not ideal, he raises an issue that has a long history and remains important. Today, some of the most contentious debates in faculty meetings of liberal arts colleges are waged over proposals to reduce “core” requirements or to add a major that might appear “too vocational.” In dealing with the educational ideas of major economists, Stabile is also particularly good at showing how their general economic ideas had implications for higher education. And, in fact, his short sketches of the economists’ general ideas are useful summaries for anyone.

Donald E. Frey has published in the economics of education and in the history of economic thought. His current work is a history of America’s economic moralists.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative