©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Invisible Colleges and Economics: an Unacknowledged Crisis in Academic Life

by D.N. McCloskey
Change, 23 (6, Nov/Dec 1991): 10-11, 54.
Filed under articles [academic policy]

Thirty years ago, the sociologist of science Derek Price used the phrase "Invisible College" to describe the old-boy network of Big Science. Since then the rest of academic life has caught up to the social structure of physics, scattering old boys and old girls around the globe in each special field. The result has been damaging to the visible college and, in the end, damaging to science and scholarship. The 50-year experiment with turning intellectual life over to specialists has not worked.

The visible college consists of the fellow economists down the hall — they of many sub-fields — and, beyond them, in the next building, the non-economists in French and chemistry. The Invisible College, by contrast, is the group of expert specialists in one's narrowly defined field, such as medieval English agricultural history or the geomorphology of glaciers. The fellow experts live in faraway places like Bologna or College Park. In field after field they have come to govern the enterprise. Hiring, curriculum, promotion, and the rest have come to be decided by people and fads in the special fields, not by one's literal colleagues.

For example: An economist at a distinguished university recently was serving on a committee to choose the best Ph.D. thesis in the social sciences that year. He came to the meeting and announced with a decisive air that the thesis from the department of economics was, in fact, the best, and should get the prize. The Invisible College had pronounced its verdict that the thesis was What's Hot Right Now in a special field of economics. His colleagues in anthropology and sociology wanted to know why it was such a good thesis — not that they doubted it; they just wanted to hear the case. No soap. "You can't judge the thesis," declared the economist, "because you are not expert economists. Just accept what I say. " The colleagues politely demurred. The economist resigned in a huff from the committee, and the department of economics at that university has stopped submitting entries to the competition. It is damned if it is going to be judged by the merely visible college.

The takeover of the visible college is not all bad, of course. Thirty years ago, some actual and visible colleges needed new standards. Those of a fellow specialist in labor economics or Dante studies may not be God's own, but at least they are an improvement over the cocktail-party standards that most of the American professoriate once lived by. The visible college needed a kick in the rear to get it serious about evaluating colleagues.

On the scientific front, too, the experiment in extreme specialization has not been all bad. Indeed, if you believed the shills for Big Science, you'd believe that the new specialization has been all to the good. An economic rhetoric is called on to justify it: don't you believe in specialization? To this an actual economist would reply: specialization is bad when it reaches diminishing returns. Talking to a colleague across the hall in the same sub-field of engineering will be a fine thing exactly up to the point at which one could learn more from talking to a colleague in mathematics or English across the college quad.

The judgment of when to speak to visible colleague' depends also on how one values the products of speciaLization. The Invisible College claims boldly that every one of its products is worthwhile, by virtue of being tested in "the market. " all serious talk therefore should be with other experts, since that is what is in demand. Another economic metaphor. But the economics is again defective. The demand is created by the Invisible College itself, by an agreement to honor expertise, however useless, so long as the other experts keep quiet about one's own useless expertise. The average article in economics, for example, is read by a half-dozen people. It would be as though Chrysler sold its cars only to Chrysler employees, yet claimed boldly to be a viable enterprise.

What a college does nowadays is determined increasingly by whether or not an Invisible College exists to value it. The notion that a Literal, on-site colleague should be able to read one's work is, in many fields, unthinkable. The dean's committee will weigh publication Lists and try its hand at the hermeneutics of recommendation letters. But it will not read the work. Inside most departments, the notion of reading has died. Where it lives on, as in history departments, it is under attack from administrators looking for Prussian neatness in filling forms.

The economic outcome of such market-driven promotions and hirings is, to be sure, a certain neatness, like identical bunks in an army barracks. If you want your college to look like every other college, then do not read your colleagues' work: hire on the basis of reputation and ranking. Rely on "the market. " Departments at different colleges hire people from the same Invisible College and get identical bunks neatly made.

Market uniformity has happened in economics, I know, because economists are besotted with the market metaphor. The same looks to be happening in history. With each new call for vacuous letters of recommendation — one university in Pennsylvania now requires 40 of them, taking what amounts to a public opinion poll with deficient statistical properties — and with each new call for "building on excellence" (which is to say, building on the fields judged excellent by the Invisible College), the uniformity grows. The uniformity would be good if it actually yielded excellence. What it yields in bulk is normal science, routine literary study, publishable social science, fundable engineering. It yields more specialization from the Invisible College. The rule adopted recently at Yale that only N pieces (where N is small) can be considered in a promotion would reduce the proliferation of dull-normal science. But the Invisible College would still be the only reader.

The professors and administrators who value specialization and sneer at interdisciplinary work think that they are being tough and economistic. But they are not understanding the economics. They are being soft and non-economistic. For one thing, looking to the market for one's standards is the strategy of the follower, not of the entrepreneur. Henry Ford made his sort of car — not someone else's — and was willing to make it in any color, so long as it was black. True, following is necessary in the economy of intellect as much as in the economy of cars. But it does not lead to real breakthroughs. The dynamism of capitalism depends on leaders. American academic life is becoming a herd, tended to by deans of animal husbandry.

Good economics knows that specialization is not in itself good. The blessed Adam Smith (not to speak of Marx) was eloquent about the damage that specialization per se does to the human spirit. What is good about specialization is that it allows more consumption, through trade. As Smith declared: "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. " There is no point in a shoemaker piling up shoes in the back yard unless he is going to trade them some day. By all means, shoemaker, stick to your last — but then trade.

Intellectual trade is the use of other people's work for our own enlightenment. If we actually read each other's work and let it affect our own, we are well and truly following the economic model of free trade. That's the tough-minded economics. It is what is accomplished by interdisciplinary work — such as biochemistry or social history — if the work is something more than polite acknowledgment of the other's expertise, insulated from disturbing one's own.

Though most of the advances of science and scholarship have come from the trade, the Invisible College does not approve. People outside geology offer continental drift for sale, people outside engineering offer chaos theory for sale, and it takes decades for the departments in question to open their markets. The protectionists in the Invisible College make Japan look like a free-trade enthusiast. The trade goes on in some real and visible colleges, but mainly as a black market off the books.

The economic incentives are against the trade. One is paid by the present departments, not by the departments that would result in 20 years if intellectual problems were approached cooperatively. The deans, because of the incentives they face, routinely neglect their main job, which is investing in what comfortable departmental monopolies wish to drive out of business — an approach to technical philosophy, for example, that the department does not like; or the collaboration of a biologist with a geographer that does not match the National Institutes of Health's cellular idea of biology.

No one is looking after the trade that makes for advance in science and scholarship. The central administrators worry about the next budget and the next lawsuit, not about making new trade. The charitable foundations, which might have led the way, have settled for normal science and consensus politics. No one, I should hope, expects the states or federal government to help. The science journalists view their job as the selling of normal science, and get their prestige from supporting the present hierarchy in science.

And the expert faculty, who could change it by starting to talk to their colleagues, lie low. Most never crack a book outside their sub-disciplines and never talk seriously to colleagues in medicine or theology. They follow the economic model once popular in Albania, specializing in ox carts and moldy wheat. Modern academic life has whole departments of ox carts.

The argument is not against specialization, understand, but against the failure at last to trade. It applies to arguments as much as to subjects. Failure to trade is going to limit you. Classicists loathe quantitative arguments; physicists flee in terror from moral evaluation; economists will not listen to science based on questionnaires. The reply to such unproductive specialization in argument is again economic. Constraints hurt, like carrying a sack of cement in the 100-yard dash. We will do better with fewer arguments constrained a priori to be unspeakable.

Ruling out fewer arguments entails less sneering in academic life, less ignoring of chemists by physicists or of sociologists by economists or of statisticians by mathematicians. Considering that l other scholars read different books and lead different lives, it would be economically remarkable — a violation of economic principles — if nothing could be learned from trading with them. Just as differences in tastes or endowments are grounds for trade, disagreements about the causes of crime or the nature of capitalism are grounds for serious conversation. Most academic conversation is exporting alone, fending off the import of other goods.

The bad economic outcomes can be reversed if we are willing to trade in earnest. A college would again be something more than a shared problem of parking. If colleagues would read each other's work, authors would start to write for a wider set of colleagues rather than for the co-specialists in Edinburgh. If appointments and promotions came under the eye of administrators who cared about trade, the departments would pay less heed to the Invisible College. If joint and team teaching were made something other than an overload disdained by all departments, the professors would teach themselves along with the students. If the professors looked for the unities in their intellectual lives — such as their common interest in sound argument, a "rhetoric of inquiry," as we say here at Iowa — they would integrate the curriculum instead of pretending that the students do it.

When Daniel Coit Gilman, the great president of Johns Hopkins a century ago, was asked why the place had so much intellectual vigor, he replied: "We take each other's courses." Not in the Invisible College, you don't.

The unacknowledged crisis in academic life is an Albanian closing of borders. But these days even the Albanians have more sense than the academic experts. Harry Truman once said that an expert is someone who doesn't want to learn anything new because then he wouldn't be an expert. We need academics who take seriously the conversation of the academy, not additional inarticulate experts from the Invisible College. It's a matter of economics. Economists themselves should not be so pleased with their expertise. But neither, on strictly economic grounds, should their colleagues across the quad.