Trip to Hillsdale, Part 1

27 08 2009

With the carburetor debacle close to resolution, I actually feel like writing something again.  Maybe I’ll get around to documenting what exactly happened with that, but I’d really like to get the new-old carburetor in place and I just secured the correct base gasket.  Work on that will begin later today…after I get this post up.

My switch from from the University of Michigan College of Engineering to LS&A and, eventually, the Department of Economics was the right thing to do, but it came at the cost of a great deal of existential angst, hair pulling, loss of sleep, etc.  All right, it wasn’t really that bad, but I have been asking myself whether I’m at the right school for undergraduate economics and, if not, what my other options are.

So yesterday, instead of sitting around moping about Ted Kennedy’s passing, I finally got around to visiting Hillsdale College with my mom and sister.  It’s a decision I’m glad I made—though it further muddles my future plans.

I didn’t really sit down with an admissions adviser, instead opting to set up an appointment with an economics professor to discuss that program…which was more or less everything I was looking for in an undergraduate econ program and everything that I wasn’t going to get exposed to at U of M.  For example, each student is required to take two semesters on the history of economic thought; the only similar course offered at U of M is taught by a professor who, though I’m sure is probably intelligent, has only a picture of himself standing in front of a monument to Karl Marx, beaming, on his faculty web page.  I’ve scanned his published works; the picture was not for ironic impact.

I was told that if were to transfer after this semester at U of M, I would have to be at Hillsdale for four more semesters because of certain prerequisites I couldn’t avoid.  Like the class on the Constitution—the kind of class that I searched the course catalogs at U of M for and couldn’t find.

Moreover, if a class on the Constitution was to be taught at U of M, it would probably be called something like “Documents from Dead White Men: a Marxist-Feminist Analysis of the Most Oppressive System of Government, Ever.”  I did not disagree with the professor I talked to when he told me that I would enjoy the academic environment at Hillsdale more than that of Ann Arbor.  An example: the library at U of M has a handful of works by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who (along with the existence of the entire Austrian school of economics) is never once mentioned in my last econ textbook.  The library at Hillsdale, on the other hand, was chosen by Mises himself to receive his personal collection after his death.

What really made the biggest impression on me, though, was the professor’s deft analysis of the issues with undergraduate education at large public universities—issues which U of M cannot escape.  I’m sure I’ve heard this explained somewhere before, but the reminder comes at what is a crucial juncture for me.  One often hears about how well-respected the University of Michigan Department of Economics is, and articles and scholarly works from around the world cite research that the Department produces.  What one often doesn’t realize is that graduate economics program is the well respected side of the Department; the undergraduate side is merely adequate.  This is equally applicable for the well-respected Political Science Department, etc.  I didn’t notice this while I was in engineering, because most engineering departments do not have prominent graduate studies departments.  How many civil engineers work to get their PhDs?

The reasoning behind this focus on graduates is easily explained in economic turns.  The opportunity cost of catering to undergraduates is much higher that the cost of devoting time and resources to graduate students, since graduate students produce the research and win the department acclaim (and grants?).  So it’s understandable, but unhelpful to me as an undergraduate.

This is getting long, so I’ll break it up into a second post.  Hillsdale certainly has it’s advantages, but it has numerous downsides as well.  I’ll get around to those after I get this carburetor installed…

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