Review of Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, Cracks in the Ivory Tower

January 2020

Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness, Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, Oxford University Press, 2019, 322 pages.

The academic book is in the process of becoming an echochamber of anti-science, projects that are funded by professional manipulators to confuse others or serve selfish ends (or both). Or at least that’s my impression after trying to read Cracks in the Ivory Tower (Oxford University Press (!)). This work drove me to ask, ‘what is going on with books as a form of academic publication in the age of the Internet?’

Luckily, there is good, free research being conducted on this question. Below are three visualizations from a study of large scale academic citation data.

Figure 3 above shows that as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, academic books are on average being cited almost no times in academic literature. All forms of academic content is being cited less and less, but books are the most expensive to create. To my mind the most plausible explanation for the drop in citations is a flood of academic publishing overall, as digital technologies drive the cost for publication and distribution to 0. This picture emerges clearly from the data. Overall academic publication since the early 2000s went from linear to geometric growth.

Cracks gives me the impression that desperate publishers, trying to derive revenue for a dead wood product in an open access academic publishing world, are both cutting editorial costs and courting sensationalist nonsense that, they hope, will produce Amazon clicks. The next visualization shows that, although overall citations per publication are approaching zero across three major categories of academic publications, there are differences between formats emerging recently in terms of what other format cites them.

Citations to books are dropping off from journals and conference papers, while the percent of all citations to books that are from books is growing rapidly. My own sense is that the peer review associated with journal articles and conferences is a better protection of academic significance and quality, but this is arguable.

Now let me give you evidence from the book itself for my strong, initial conclusion. First, since this is a book that is trying to convince you of immorally deceptive promises made by the post-secondary academic industry, let’s get a look at what the authors think of students: “every hour spent studying is not an hour spent playing video games, working out, partying, or hooking up” (35). It is revelatory that it doesn’t even occur to the authors that, due to tuition that has for decades been rising faster than inflation,

students might be balancing part-time jobs with their educations. The authors seem to be thinking about undergraduate students through the lens of their own experiences: “When we the authors were in college, study groups were for scoping out potential girlfriends” (50).

Given the contempt that the authors have for undergraduate students, perhaps you might think they think better of their readers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Simple ideas get muddied every few pages with bizarre, almost unreadable examples and thought experiments. Did an Oxford University Press editor sign off on the attempt to explain reliability vs. validity by asking the reader to “suppose you ask the character Hodor from Game of Thrones to read a bunch of flash cards” (87)? We are also told of the “diamond-water paradox… Early in the development of economics, economists were puzzled why water costs more than diamonds” (31). No, there is no error in my quotation from the text.

This last bit of nonsense is inserted to explain why (I think) the authors’ view that universities are filled with terrible teachers. This factoid is presented, like so many others in this ‘book’, with sarcastic anecdote, but no data: “Students and academic outsiders often gasp when they discover that many professors, including world-famous scholars, can’t teach and show no interest in learning how” (30). I think that the authors are talking about large introductory classrooms, which is of course a single part of education in the post-secondary context. Research supervision doesn’t appear as a topic of the authors’ scorn.

Luckily, as early as Chapter 3, Cracks gives us what the authors view as their most important contribution. In their words, “[the] chapter [Why Most Academic Advertising Is Immoral Bullshit] may be the most damning in the entire book” (48). This chapter begins by quoting the marketing material from a handful of universities, and then lazily gets to the point:

“Why study the liberal arts? Insert joke here about art history majors flipping burgers” (52).

Pages 55-81 have the following structure. First, they cite data according to which philosophy majors earn more and do better at a variety of standardized tests than other majors. Then they offer pages and pages of weak sources for doubt that maybe, just maybe, the education had nothing to do with the successes of these students. Sources of doubt include

  • an endless, pedantic presentation of the concept of a selection effect, without any evidence of its operation in this case;
  • whining that universities don’t conduct randomized clinical trials to justify claims about the value of a liberal arts education;
  • weak data that, across all majors and some standardized tests, some students don’t improve scores after a four year degree; and,
  • weak evidence that, for some definitions of “transfer learning”, this psychological effect is small.

The “most damning chapter” is excellent evidence that this book can be dismissed outright by anyone interested how to improve post-secondary education, with one suprising exception: the recognition by the authors in a few places (e.g. p. 41) that administrators, as a percentage of university expenditures, are outpacing academics.


  1. Zhu, Y., Yan, E., Peroni, S., and Che, C. (2019). Nine Million Books and Eleven Million Citations: A Study of Book-Based Scholarly Communication Using OpenCitations. arXiv preprint arXiv:1906.06039. Note that the creative commons license associated with this publication permits reproduction of figures.
  2. For a review of tuition over time in the Canadian context, see the RBC report For the American context, see Market Watch