Free College is Not a Game Changer

There have been two battle cries in our current election cycle, “Free College!” And “The System is Rigged!”  My analysis is that the second slogan is actually true (but not in the way it thrown around) which makes the first plan not all that useful.  To understand why I think free college is not a game changer you need to understand what education is really about.

Yes education is certainly about acquiring certain skills and knowledge and most schools are pretty good at that (believe it or not!)  But education also has another function, and that is a social sorting function and this is the part that is certainly rigged.

You could, if you wanted to head over to EdX and get yourself a Harvard education.  You really can, if a Harvard education is about getting information.  But as you will quickly find out, knowing as much as a Harvard graduate is not the same as being a Harvard graduate.  Granted there are a few things you won’t get in your online Harvard education, things like mentorships, but ultimately actually going to Harvard actually means that you are the kind of person who can go to Harvard which means you can get the kinds of jobs that the kinds of people who go to Harvard get.  It is pretty much that circular.

Which is not to say that Harvard folks are not smart.  They certainly are.  But we have a real problem in defining what “intelligence” really is.  How it is defined now, we know that socio-economic status is very closely correlated with both IQ and school achievement.  But again, the process could well be circular.

So, we know that kids raised in a rich environment are more intelligent.  Most likely it is that the environment stimulates brain development and a more developed brain is smarter.  House full of books, trips to zoos, museums and Europe — all stimulate brain development and make people “smarter.”  But wait there is more.

Psychologists like to say that “intelligence is what intelligence tests measure.”  And what they really mean is that how and what you measure in turn defines what intelligence is, or at least what it is perceived to be.  Let me give you an example with this little thought experiment.

So, you are an intelligent reader, perhaps college educated, certainly widely read and schooled in critical thinking.  Then you should have no problem whatsoever with this short little “college entrance exam.”  You don’t have to actually do it, just look at it and you will immediately know what kind of score you would probably get on this.  OK, go “take the test” and come back.  I’ll wait.

How did you do?  I know for myself that my score on the test would be a big fat zero.  Imagine that the skills and knowledge measured by this test were the ticket to the upper middle class.   Upper middle class homes would all be conservatories of music.  Here is another thing to consider, especially if you are one of the few that aced this exam.  If you aced the exam, you get to go to a “selective” college which is great for you!  Congratulations!

Oh, but wait, there is some “affirmative action” program that lets in kids that didn’t quite have access to your musical education.  Unfair right?  You have much better qualifications than they do!  Because, of course, this test measures musical ability perfectly.  Or does it?

Before you answer, consider a few people who know a thing or two about music, but could not pass this test, starting with the Beatles.  Neither Lennon nor McCartney could read music.  Are people who passed this test really musically “smarter?”  I think the same can be said of SATs and other academic tests.

My point?  What we call “smart” and what actually is “smart” certainly overlap, but are not necessarily the same thing.  An article in the Atlantic on the subject of free college points out that the “selective” California schools (UCLA, UC Berkeley and UCSD) are full of kids who got near perfect SAT scores and have near perfect grades.  Yes, I am sure they are smart.  I am also sure that their upper middle class parents exposed them not only to zoos and museums, but also professional journals and SAT prep courses.

Another example, the students at the technical college often times struggle with writing academic papers in APA format.  They have not had much exposure to academic writing, if any.  Children of doctors and lawyers surely get exposed to academic writing style in high school, and surely their parents make sure they do it well as they probably have professional journals around the house.  Writing papers in college is a breeze.  Which is why almost every kid at UCLA is getting A’s.

Excuse me while I digress, but if college is supposed to be a meritocracy shouldn’t the best of the best of those kids get A’s and the rest B’s and C’s.  Oh, there would be a riot if they did that, never mind.  Back to the article in progress.

So, upper middle class kids get A’s in “selective” colleges, which allows them to get into “selective” professional schools (medical and legal) or get the best internships and jobs.  And then they take their kids to zoos, museums, and Europe and the cycle continues.

Let’s face it, in our society a college degree is really a filter.  It separates a person from the “common riff-raff.”  If you don’t believe me, do a Google image search on “College students on the quad.”  Looks like Paul Ryan’s interns.  Lower college tuition is not going to change this, people will simply find another filter.

For many people, college is not really about getting smart, it is simply a marker that they travel in those circles.  Free college tuition is not going to help this.  If anything it will push the price of private colleges even higher.

This does not mean that there is not anything we can do.  We certainly need to strengthen funding for our public colleges to make them as accessible as possible.  We need to have college admission systems that value diversity, not only culturally or ethnically, but also in how we assess “intelligence.”  SAT tests were supposed to bring in a pure meritocracy.  High scores supposedly were indicative of pure ability.  It was originally said that you “could not study” for them.  That has turned out not to be true.  And they only measure a small slice of what might be called “intelligence.”  So, we can do better.

We can also do better in providing education that matches real needs in the job market.  Everyone talks about how we need so many more people who can write computer code.  Yet it is not taught widely in secondary schools.  We could do better.  We can test for “intelligence” better as well and understand it better in society.

Unfortunately there is no way to “unrig” the educational system.  There is no such thing as a pure meritocracy (except maybe Major League Baseball, and I am not even sure about that) and social advantage is always going to be a factor.  The winners of today’s economic system will want to hire people such as themselves, who will come from families like their own.  And it will probably also always be true that kids from well off families will always be “smarter” because their advantages in their home environment.

A fully funded Head Start system is probably the best way to “unrig” the educational system, not free college.


Left Wing Fundamentalism

It was certainly not my intention to get political on this site (I have another blog site where I get political) but this year there is a phenomenon that crosses the line from politics into religion.  There has been a lot of attention on third party candidates because of the less than likable nature of the two major party candidates.

For the record, I find that Gary Johnson’s libertarianism might be appropriate for the 18th century, but just doesn’t cut it in the corporate age.  I agree with many of the positions of the Jill Stein and the Greens, but they are not in any way an organized, effective political party.  Well, same with the Libertarians as well, and I would never vote for either person for President.

Even though I would say that I often agree with Jill Stein’s political positions, I wish she would sit down and shut up.  I find her campaign completely illogical and frankly, insulting.

The latest example comes in a Salon piece, which quotes her in the lede as saying, “Democracy needs a moral compass.”  This is ludicrous.  Democracy is a technique, a way of organizing people.  It cannot have a moral compass.  Only the people who practice democracy can have a moral compass.  I am further bothered with her implication that “We the People,” when we do not act in the oh so pure way that Stein does, that we are lacking in a moral compass.  This is exactly what you would expect Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, Jr. to say.

I am not quite sure if this is just smug moralizing or the same kind of delusional thinking that lead Donald Trump to declare that he — and only he! — is the solution to all of our problems.

The article further says that Stein said that her platform is “is an emergency job program that will address climate change and will create an emergency transition to 100 percent renewable energy.”  Hmmm…Emergency this and emergency that.  Actually sounds kind of un-democratic to me.  This is how dictators often take over in other countries, finding an “emergency” that requires a brutally efficient fix.  “I’ll just do this for you now and we can work out the niceties later.”  Stein seems to think of herself as some kind of philosopher king, that if we would just give her the reins of country for a few years, she will just patch everything up perfectly in her image.
But the sad reality is that she apparently has no clue as to how things actually work in our republic (we are not a democracy, by the way.)  If we are to have a massive jobs program and renewable energy program, where does that have to come from?  Congress of course.  Have such things been proposed?  Of course they have.  Went no where.  Ask Obama what you can get done when Congress is against you.

So how many Greens are in Congress?  None.  Here is Wisconsin, the Greens are “supporting” four local candidates.  They cannot even fill out their own state governing committee here.  They can’t get a decent number of local candidates, cannot even fill out their own organizational chart and Stein thinks she is going to push a New Deal style jobs and energy program through Congress?  Don’t make me laugh.

If, as Stein says, the future is not in our hopes or dreams, but in our hands, then let her and the Greens get themselves a functioning political party.  Senate candidates in every state, a Green for every congressional district.  Until then she is just a delusional hoper and dreamer.

Now, some will say that we need other parties to push back against the two main parties that have “sold out.”  While I agree that our current political climate has plenty of problems, I have to take issue with the idea that both parties are “just same,” “equally corrupt” and have “sold out.”falseE

This just the fallacy of false equivalence.  Yes. both parties take corporate money and billionaire money.  But do you really think that Elon Musk and the Koch brothers are “just the same?”  What each party seeks to achieve with those donations is very different, and claiming otherwise is just disingenuous.  Just as an easy example: do you really believe that Antonin Scalia and Thurgood Marshall were “just the same” on the Supreme Court?  Which is a Democrat more likely to nominate?  A Republican?  You can’t argue that both parties are “exactly the same.”  (And just for grins, even if you believe that Stein would nominate, say, Noam Chomsky to the Court, how in the hell would she get him confirmed?)

The same with “selling out.”  We all sell out to one degree or another.  The college I teach at now insists that all teachers use the same curriculum elements.  Same assignments, same grading scale.  I don’t think they are that great.  Am I selling out by continuing to teach there?  Maybe, but at least inside the system I have a better chance of effecting change.

Whether we like it or not corporations are part of our democracy.  They have a right to do business here and the people who run them have a right to participate in the political process.  The question is not whether but rather how.  Stein, in that sense is like a fundamentalist — all or none.  In her case none.  I find it ironic that her followers are denouncing corporate influence by tweeting from their iPhones over the AT&T network.

Fundamentalism, that is to say rigidity of thinking, is just as bad in politics as it is in religion.  For that reason alone, I think no one should vote for Jill Stein.

The Worst of Times? I Think Not!

There seems to be a chorus of voices all crying that these are the worst of times, I think there are reasons for that, which I will get to at the end of my post, but first I want to tell the story of my Grandfather.  AmericanFamily

Let’s say that on the surface, it might be his story that the Trumpeteers are thinking about when they say, “Make America Great Again.”  With a modest education, a high school diploma my grandfather got a job with one of the biggest corporations in America, AT&T.  He made enough money so that my grandmother could stay home with her four kids.  He worked for AT&T for 40 years and retired with 80% of his pre-retirement salary as a pension.  Three of his four kids went to college, and got advanced degrees.  His fourth child wound up at IBM in a well paying position.  The American dream, right?  It would seem so, but let’s take a look at the details of the story as well.

My grandfather was born in 1911, so was graduating from high school in, do the math, 1929.  Yes, he came out of school looking into the maw of the Great Depression.  You think we have it bad, how about that?  Now, yes, he was very lucky in getting his job with AT&T in 1932.  I have no idea how.  He got married that same year and bought a house in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  And basically did the same job for the next 40 years.  Second shift.  Whoo hoo.  Sound like your ideal career?

Although he was lucky to be employed, the scars of the depression lingered.  In his retirement he paid all his bills immediately because he was afraid “they would come and take the house.”  He lived in the same house for more than 40 years, it had been paid for for years.  But those memories obviously remained.

After my grandmother had her first three kids, they faced the abyss again.  The rise of Hitler in Europe, blitzkrieg in Poland and France and finally Pearl Harbor.  Again, he was lucky and got to stay on the homefront, but once again, life must not have been a bowl of cherries.  Rationing, shortages, complete uncertainty.

Finally, the war was over and America entered its golden age.  Well, except for McCarthy seeing commies under every desk.  The anxiety of the nuclear age.  The rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.  Their fourth child was born in 1950, perhaps adding a bit of uncertainty to their lives personally.  But perhaps the 1950s were about as sanguine as their lives held.  Little did they know that all hell was about to break loose.

My mother and her sister got ready to leave home as the 1960s dawned.  I am sure my parents looked ahead with optimism as they got married in 1959.  Just a few years later, they thought it might be all over as the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed.  All around them the civil rights movement and the southern backlash was tearing the country apart in what must have looked like the second coming of the Civil War.  Just when it looked like it might be resolved peacefully in 1963, next thing you knew, the president was assassinated.   Johnson wins reelection in a landslide, but all hell breaks loose again as Viet Nam bursts into our consciousness and the anti-war movement joins the Civil Rights movement on the streets.

Bobby Kennedy is killed.  Martin Luther King is killed.  Cities erupt with riots, fires and shootings.  Casualties mount in Viet Nam.  My uncles join the military.  At any one of these points, the country probably looked as though it was going to come apart at the seams.

Finally, as his retirement approached and things looked like they might be calming down, Watergate bubbled up the surface.  Just two years after he retired the country was hit by the twin shocks of the oil embargo and Nixon resigning.

Any of this sound like a piece of cake?  Something you would like to go back to?  And my grandfather, was extraordinarily lucky across all those years.  But wait, there was a couple of more issues he needed to face.

Just ten years into his retirement, AT&T was declared a monopoly and ordered broken up.  This must have caused just a bit of anxiety as “stagflation” was the economic worry of the time.  Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away soon after AT&T was broken up and just a few years later he finally moved out of the house where he had lived since 1932 — into a nursing home to deal with Parkinson’s disease, which finally claimed him in 1992.

And none of this mentions some of the other lovely features of the “golden age” he lived through.  Smoking rates of close to 50% among adults.  An epidemic of heart disease, especially among middle aged males (which took my other grandfather at the age of 52).  How about the Cuyahoga river catching fire, Lake Erie dying, smog and deindustrialization.

Of course there were many good things that happened in those years and I am sure if you asked him, he would have insisted that he had a great life.  And yes he did.  But it was not easy, it was not golden by any means.

There is a lot that is wrong with our world (perhaps more on that in later posts), but there is very little chance that 2017 is going to be anywhere as near as bad as a few years I can think of for my grandparents.  The coming year cannot be as bad as 1933. Or 1963.  Or 1968.  Or 1941.  And so on.

It is my opinion that the “powers that be” want to convince us that these are, in fact the worst of times.  Trump made it explicit in his acceptance speech, essentially, these are the worst of times and only I can save you.  Perhaps you have noticed that many churches are the same way, “The end times are near and only Jesus (and the priest, his representative) can save us.

So, don’t believe the hype.  Are there going to be tough times.  Of course there will be.  But theses are nowhere near the worst of times.  If what my grandparents lived through can now be considered a golden age, image how rosy our current times will look in the rearview mirror.