Roman Blunders?

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Wondering how the United States should be supporting higher education? Well collegiate education opponent Richard Vedder argues in the Chronicle of Higher Education that it might be a good idea to look at ancient Rome for lessons about college financing. He writes that :

In ancient times, the Romans engaged in enormous building programs, particularly in Rome itself, which they largely financed by raiding the provinces for tribute. Rome started to fall when the marginal costs of maintaining the empire began to exceed the marginal revenue extracted from it, coupled with excessive spending in Rome, under direction of emperors of dubious quality such as Nero.

Fast forward a couple thousand years to American college campuses. Like in ancient Rome, stadium-building and other forms of bread and circuses today (climbing walls and luxury dorms) are hiding an increasingly rotten institutional setting that often suffers from both mission failure and excessive spending. Most colleges and universities have not clearly articulated what they want to do, have done a crummy job of even measuring what they have accomplished, and have viewed university resources as something that need to be spent in a way to minimize discontent from alumni, administrators, and occasionally students and faculty—rather than to achieve a well defined academic goal.

Well okay, but it seems presumptuous to suggest that the American university is in danger of collapse due to excessive spending, “just like the Roman Empire.”

This is not quite the right association, at least in part because the Roman Empire-American Empire comparison has been made rather well in other places. No matter how wasteful the American university might be (and this is debatable), it’s merely a part of the superpower that is United States of America, it’s not the superpower itself. Rome had higher education too; its cost didn’t destroy the empire.

Actually, it’s possible to use the story of Rome to make a far different point about education spending. Rome demonstrated that rising powers overspend domestically, “whereas declining powers tend to overspend militarily in a desperate attempt to defend their entire empire when they no longer have the economic power to do so,” according to University of Vermont historian Mark Stoler. Things like higher education would fall into that domestic spending category.

The lessons of Rome could perhaps demonstrate that we should not be so worried about the cost of education. Let the universities alone; in terms of American power it would be more productive to worry about the cost of, say, the war in Afghanistan.

“Across the country, schools are following the Emperor Nero approach of overbuilding, overspending, and ignoring reality,” Vedder warns. Well Nero was actually one of the early Roman emperors. The serious decline didn’t begin until several hundred years after Nero’s death, but whatever.

But even if Vedder were right, his metaphor doesn’t help much for action steps. Just because declining civilizations spend inappropriately doesn’t mean spending less money would stop the decline. That’s a symptom, not a cause, of decay. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer