Sunday, March 30, 2008

Higher Ed costs

I ran into young friend active in Chicago politics at Midway airport. I don't think we need be concerned whether I am increasingly amazed at the degree of corruption in Daleyville. We should be concerned that he is increasingly amazed. He's been doing this community organizing thing for awhile now, but every time I see him his eyebrows go up and he shakes his head you wouldn't believe how bad it is.

He asked my opinion on higher ed funding, and let me use his name if I am properly circumspect. His sample of how I might refer to him is exactly what I shall use:
Tim King is works for a young adult group called PACT in Chicago. He emailed me when they began research on higher education costs. His concern was that the prevailing wisdom of simply providing more government subsidies and loans was simply facilitating higher costs and creating a culture of debt...

My unedited reply.
I am not expert on this, but I have read a bit and have some thoughts. I entirely agree that we have oversold the idea of 4-year college to everyone. The pre-WWII model was that 4-year colleges served three purposes: initial training for the professions of law, medicine, and ministry; inculcation of
Western classical values in the elite classes who were going to run the country anyway; practical training in science, technology, or business for the brightest males. A lot of this is still left over in our expectations of what college is. It wasn't that bad a system, but it had serious limitations.

In addition to the GI Bill increasing the number of people -mostly male - going to college, the steady prosperity decade after decade since WWII also brought the numbers up - this time with females. To retain the elite status of the wealthy who were (originally) going to run the country anyway, the four-year liberal arts schools made status rules that within their confines, the inculcating values part would remain the pinnacle. But to maintain that against all those middle-class science and business students, who were picking up western civ lite, the elites had to go more obscure, and bring in non-western and anti-western values to teach. Impressionable young people from all classes gravitated toward the high social status studies, but it was primarily the wealthy and upper-middle class kids who populated the Medieval Lit, Art History, and Sociology majors. The elite schools kept insisting that this was where the highest intellectual status was at and structured their curricula accordingly.

In evolutionary biology, there is a concept that conspicuous waste is an advertisement of enormous resources and status - like peacock feathers, which state "I've got energy to burn, baby!" To be able to take cerebral, philosophical courses that wouldn't obviously result in better jobs and income is a sign of eliteness. "Those grasping business and computer majors are scrambling after mere money, but we have a higher calling."

The system is breaking down in many ways, including at least one dear to your heart. First, the world only needs so many physical anthropology and history of dance majors. Only a few can go on to have careers in those - usually only teaching the next poor group of suckers to get squeezed through the bottleneck. As a result, those few can self-select their peers according to whatever criteria they choose. They choose to bring in people who think like they do. Such fields - ethnic and gender studies, comparative or foreign literatures - have to keep upping the ante of obscure code-words and thoughts far above the great unwashed to keep the barbarians from the gates. They have become jokes, and bitterly resent their dead-end choice. Like all human beings who fail, their first strategy is to keep doing exactly the same thing, only harder, purer. Some catch on to the sucker's game and get out. Those who remain are doubly distilled intellectual elites, who need badly to know about things that others don't, like Chicana literature. They make themselves increasingly irrelevant to improving their lives or anyone else's, and their status drops every decade. This makes them even more resentful of the terribly unjust and regressive society they live in.

Meanwhile, their elite status further erodes because we are increasingly a science and technology world, and business models move increasingly toward change and creative destruction. That geeks and entrepreneurs now go on to run the world is axiomatic. It has become a common movie motif and cultural expectation. Forty years ago people were only beginning to be aware of that, and everyone still expected that if you wanted to make money or even make a living at something interesting, you had to do the four-year college thing. That is less true every year. Self-learning and online learning, whether formal degree programs or just getting yourself hooked into the right network, is becoming more common. As learning now has to be ongoing, and online is the most efficient way to do that, those who can't learn online will fall further behind.

Third, education is breaking down at younger levels, especially for boys. Homeschooling and online learning will continue to increase, and public school will grow less relevant. It will be an interesting collision, as formal schooling will still be required by law, and colleges will continue to turn out education majors who will join unions and insist that they are the only ones qualified, but parents - especially parents of boys - will increasingly regard non-school learning as more important. You were very cutting edge on this, and will see your intellectual descendants have pitched battles with the educational establishment. (Note to reader: Tim did both homeschool and online study for the second half of highschool. It looks like that was a good choice) So four-year liberal arts schools will continue to turn out students we don't need and charge a high price for it. The complete collapse will probably never happen. The traditional model works very well for some students and some courses of study and will persist. But they will no longer be the only item on the menu.

I do fear that the teaching of western civilization will be more and more sporadic. The elites have moved to non- and anti-western thought, online technical training will neglect it, informal networks will teach it only accidentally. The homeschoolers and Christian schools will be the last bastion, but those curricula usually stress only those parts of the western canon that fit with their world-view.

The left believes that the current college system must be mostly preserved with a few modifications to perpetuate their values, so they want to pour money into keeping that system afloat. Conservative free-marketers have the right idea, but I'm not sure they understand the consequences either, and they may not like what they get. Letting the market decide will accelerate the decline of the current system. I think it's creative destruction and a good thing, but it has its costs. Accountability will be more elusive. Governments will try harder and harder to regulate and make sure that everyone gets a good education, and will be increasingly angry about those things out of their reach. They aren't assuring a good education now, and everyone knows it.

How this will play out for poor and minority communities could be their rescue, but the risks are high. On the internet, no one knows if you're a dog, so the automatic racial and class prejudices can be avoided. Black kids will have the opportunity to move ahead unfettered. But if they are in substandard schools and they don't get hooked up with the new methods of learning, they will be doubly screwed. A lot of kids could just be competitively destroyed before anyone has a chance to see what works for them. I don't see why a hispanic kid from even a crummy school couldn't be just as good as a suburban white kid at selling stuff on ebay or otherwise online, but who is going to get them there to even try? Educators think it is beneath them to teach such grubby skills to their students.

I see little hope that legislators at any level will see the need to risk their grant money on more adventurous programs, many of which won't work. Political people and government bureaucrats don't think like that. They would rather waste money the old-fashioned way, on things that look like they should work and do work for a limited number of people. Ebay grants, or American slogan t-shirt marketing to Southeast Asia grants, or independent market-research project grants for highschoolers, or even no-writing, all-typing/mouse/Wii instruction starting in kindergarten just isn't going to impress bureaucrats.

Related topic: I think city schools can be improved faster with safer neighborhoods than with more teachers. Overstretched police departments stress drug arrests - easier to catch - instead of labor-intensive violence prevention. The hope is that the drug arrests will catch a fair number of the violent in its net. Well, it hasn't worked. Non-violent or only incidentally violent drug users, disproportionately black, clog up the jails but don't get enough of the violent people off the streets. General Petraus needs to focus on Detroit and south Washington DC next.

Does that answer your question?

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