Monday, September 28, 2015

College’s Purpose Then And Now

By Professor Doom

     “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”
--from 1984, a catchphrase to prevent the citizens from thinking much about the purpose of the war.

     It’s fascinating how easy it is to lose track of relatively recent history. Oh, we know Rome built a huge empire, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and all the rest, but it seems as we get closer to “today,” we start to forget everyday things that were known to all.

     People think, for example, constantly rising prices, what is commonly called “inflation,” is how the world has always been, little realizing that before the advent of fiat currency, prices were relatively stable. As a child, George Washington paid about as much for bread as his great-grandfather did when he was a child…nobody in our modern world can honestly say that, and most people can’t conceive of a world without constantly rising prices eroding any attempt at savings.

     My blog is more about education than bread, but much the same applies. We’ve lost track of what higher education used to mean. It was only a few years ago, when I’d stumbled on a long-forgotten box of old tests, looked at them, and realized “I’d be fired if I gave tests like this today” that I began to realize that the changes I was seeing were not simply the imaginings of an ever-more-curmudgeonly professor. I had concrete proof of the changes, seen with my own eyes, held in my own hands. Seeing those old tests led to the eventual birth of this blog, but I digress.

      A recent Harper’s magazine article really hammers home the changes in higher education within the last handful of decades, beyond the astronomical tuition. Even when it comes to tuition, people don’t realize how cheap higher education used to be. Two generations ago, tuition at Harvard, perhaps the most prestigious school in the country, was a mere $2000, while the minimum wage was $1.40. Tuition then was less than a year’s pay for even the lowest paid workers…and now it’s up by a factor of 20 (realistically, various fees put it way more than that), beyond the reach of a minimum wage worker, beyond the reach of even “well paid” workers today.

     It isn’t just tuition, however. The whole idea of higher education has been warped to the point it would be unrecognizable to someone from less than a century ago.

     A century ago, “mission statement” was a meaningless phrase, although all institutions today have a mission statement. That said, certainly institutions of the past thought about their purpose. Consider the following from a liberal arts college founder, from about 1925 or so:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

      Note how this is a complete sentence, and identifies the primary purpose of the college quite clearly. Even though the word “education” isn’t there, it’s very clear that the purpose of the institution is to help students mature into better human beings. Note also the length of the sentence: you have to pay attention to the whole thing to comprehend the value of what is written. Incidentally, I encourage the gentle reader to read texts from this period and earlier, to see how much the English written language has degenerated into brief sequences of grunts by comparison.

      The same school now has a mission statement. Consider this quote from it:


     Instead of a real sentence indicating purpose, we now have isolated words that don’t remotely comprise a coherent thought. With no supporting words, these words can mean whatever the reader wants them to mean…and I’ve certainly encountered many an administrator that honestly doesn’t know the meaning of these, and quite a few other, words…but can still recite the words by rote, little different than a trained parrot.

      The excellent article highlights the above issues, but, not being too familiar with higher education, the author makes a misstep:

(“Integrity” is presumably intended as a synonym for the more familiar “character,” which for colleges at this point means nothing more than not cheating.)

     It’d be nice if integrity even stood for as little as “not cheating.” Every semester I get an expanded list of cheating methods to watch out for, assuming I was foolish enough to catch cheaters. I’ve seen many faculty destroyed for catching cheaters. Administration, in their zealous pursuit of growth at all costs, penalizes faculty for catching cheaters in ways I’ve discussed before in my blog. Just this semester, a friend’s child just started at a state (flagship) university; her first day there she was given access to a “secret” database of questions/answers for the tests of her classes. We all pretend our schools of higher education are doing a good job, but…I really think some legitimate scrutiny is in order.

      So, whatever “integrity” means, I know on campus it sure has nothing to do with cheating.

     But the most important thing to note about the second text is what it doesn’t talk about: thinking or learning.

     To be fair, the older statement also says nothing about learning.  I know, it’s all too easy to be nostalgic for the good old days, but it’s clear that in the past, higher education as least gave the intention of trying to help students to improve themselves…and it’s similarly clear that this endeavor is not on the table today.
     The author of the article discusses what is on the table today:

“College…has three potential purposes: the commercial (preparing to start a career), the cognitive…and the moral... “Moral,” here, does not mean learning right from wrong. It means developing the ability to make autonomous choices — to determine your own beliefs, independent of parents, peers, and society. To live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

“…Only the commercial purpose now survives as a recognized value.”

     The author then goes on to decry that our institutions of higher education have ever dwindling majors in the “pure knowledge” fields, and more and more are attempting to become jobs training centers. While the author says much I agree with, he’s not considered why this is the case.

      There are two primary issues. First, as always, the student loan scam has driven the price of tuition so high that students must indebt themselves to go to college. Because of these loans, education as an end must suffer—a student taking out a loan should focus on jobs training, as he’ll need a means to pay off the loan. This provides a significant drift away from knowledge and into technical training.

     The second is more subtle. Administration is paid based on growth, and, bottom line, at the risk of sounding elitist, it requires much more effort to master  things like science, mathematics, and literature, than it does to figure out how to do well in fields where a primary requirement is not shave. So, campuses, to increase retention and growth, are flooded with pointless courses that accomplish nothing. Students, not knowing better, and seeing they’re charged the same for “Game of Thrones” courses as for “applications of fluid dynamics” courses, sign up for the former if they can’t handle the latter.

Admin: “There were many applicants for the position, but I couldn’t accept any of them. So, we’re advertising the position again and do let me know if you know someone.”

Me: “What was wrong with the applicants?”

Admin: “They were Education degree holders. I really need someone competent. Do you know anyone?”

--yes, some admin don’t care who they hire to teach, as long as the candidate will work for nothing. But at institutions where it matters, suddenly all degrees are not equal.

     Education Departments are notorious for offering simple degree programs, sucking in students—driving down the costs of hiring teachers while simultaneously creating legions of degreed but unemployed people…because you don’t need 25% of your population to be professional teachers, even as 25% of the student base is taking Education courses. Our “leaders” of higher education should know that and take moves to stop it, but instead they just get excited that the Education departments are growing so nicely.

     This trend towards “university as jobs-training” is being further accelerated by our political caste:

“We see it in our president’s swipe, last year, at art-history majors. “I promise you,” said our intellectual in chief, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art-history degree.” We see it in Governor Rick Scott’s proposal to charge liberal-arts majors higher tuition at Florida’s state universities….(Governor) Walker “proposed striking language about public service and improving the human condition, and deleting the phrase: ‘Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.’

 ” The university’s mission would henceforth be to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

    I suspect there’s more going on here than public interest. There are now 4 year Hotel Management degrees, for example. Even though one could learn everything useful about hotel management quickly, colleges somehow manage to take 4 years to teach what many immigrants figure out how to do within months of coming to this country. Even if learning such things took so much time, I’m not convinced our youth should be encouraged to take out massive loans for skills trivially learned on the job. Alas, teaching trivial skills is good for growth…

     Part of the problem with higher education is the untouchable administrative caste, which has no respect or understanding of education. While the statement quoted above about the “paramount obligation” of the college comes from the college’s founder, the four disjointed words comes from our new breed of looters leaders. The author inadvertently reveals how worthless these “leaders” are when he asks a Poo Bah of higher education a question:

“So what do you think the college should be about?” I finally asked him.

“Leadership,” he said.

      Instead of coherent answers, the Poo Bah can only grunt out a meaningless slogan. It’s little different than the Oceania of 1984, where whenever a citizen was asked about the reasons for the war, he could only respond mindlessly: “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”

     Orwell was wrong in his 1984 prediction about using an entire sentence as a slogan, we’re degraded to the point that we are training our kids, even our leaders, to only grunt out single word slogans. That said, Orwell’s prediction was correct: we’re being trained not to think. A century ago, our leaders knew what higher education was ultimately about, but today’s leaders don’t care, or even know.

      One more generation perhaps, and everyone will believe “Higher education was always about Leadership.”

Friday, September 25, 2015

Degree For Sale: “Never Been Used”

By Professor Doom

According to a paper by Mr. Autor published Thursday in the journal Science, the true cost of a college degree is about negative $500,000. That’s right: Over the long run, college is cheaper than free. Not going to college will cost you about half a million dollars.

--it seems like every mainstream report on the subject says something like this. But why did the Occupy Wall Street movement have so many graduates holding signs,  why are the default rates on the student loans so high, and why do we have 17,000,000 college graduate waiters/hairdressers/salespeople?

      Time and again I’ve quoted the Poo Bahs that run our institutions, saying how higher education is worth it, no matter the cost. I’ve gotten into a few arguments with friends when I try to point out that paying out huge sums of money for a degree, any degree, fiscally makes no sense.

      I don’t blame people for arguing with me, I’m challenging beliefs ingrained when they were children, after all. From childhood, we’re told how critically important it is to get an education, and that always, more is better, that no price is too high when it comes to education, that the only way to succeed in life is an education, that oh-so-expensive college is the only way to get that education.

     Even people that leave their jobs, spend years of their lives getting some degree, then go back to the exact same job they had before (plus debt, and being older), generally won’t admit that, yeah, getting a degree was a mistake.

     Don’t get me wrong, legitimate education is valuable, but that’s not what education is today, for most people. We were trained in public school that education is primarily about showing up, that as long as you did the bare minimum to get by, then a high school diploma would be yours.  It’s little different in many colleges and universities. Open admissions in higher education has forced standards to lower to the point that, in many classes, all you need to do is show up, and you’ll pass. Heck, data from one school I taught at indicated about 1/3 of classes you don’t even need to show up to get an A.

     Public school trains us from a very young age that you get your education at large institutions, provided by a “teacher.” It even trains us that all high school diplomas are equal, that all diplomas are equal.

      And so we have this huge population of students in higher education that comes to campus, and doesn’t even mind that classes typically don’t ask the students to do anything, not even show up. The students don’t even mind that they’re going deep into debt for the degree, because they’ve been trained for years that education (education of the sort they’ve been exposed to) is worth it, no matter the price.

     Then these students leave with their shiny degrees, a big monthly payment on their student loan…and encounter the real world, which sees no reason to reward  college graduates who are indistinguishable from high school graduates in terms of knowledge or capabilities.

     This problem is just beginning to snowball. Years ago, student loan default rates used to be in the area of 10%. Despite a wide array of deferment programs (which didn’t exist when default rates were much lower), default rates are now 27%...this is not a trend that will reverse any time soon.

     Some people are finally starting to figure it out, and their responses to the realization of how they’ve been victimized by a higher education scam that truly begins in kindergarten can border on comedy:

     What a clever idea! Since degrees no longer necessarily represent any actual skills or knowledge, and are merely pieces of paper that represent a student went to classes for four to six years, why can’t they be sold like anything else?

"I thought this piece of paper [had] so much worth to so many people, but for a theater major, it couldn’t mean less," Ritter told BuzzFeed, according to the Daily Mail. "I’m doing the exact same things and probably getting paid the exact same amount as people that dropped out halfway through freshman year, except I’m still $40,000 in debt and they’re, well, not."

--why did admin approve a ridiculously expensive degree program in a field where degrees are meaningless? More importantly, why can’t we throw these thieves in jail?

     The enterprising graduate is offering a bit more than just the diploma, she’ll provide some of the student experience at FSU: a tour of where she spent her time, from visiting her drug dealer, to the theatre, to where she was given speeding tickets going between classes (does anyone else think universities need to be so large that you can drive from one class to the next?), as well as access to photos of when she was a student.

     Now, here’s the thing: she did get an education, and it is worth something. She would have gotten an education (probably a better one, and certainly a cheaper one) if she’d just gone down to the library and read for four years, as opposed to doing what she was told to do as a small child: go to a large institution and pay endless sums of money to have teachers talk at you while you sit at a desk.

     She set a minimum bid of $50,000 for this degree, but, alas, no buyers. Hey, why didn’t any of the Poo Bahs of higher education step up to buy this? They’re paid so much that $50,000 would’ve only been a minor dent in their monthly expenses. Not a one did, of course, because they all know they’re lying when they say an education (as the Poo Bahs define it) is worth any price.

      Someday, I hope everyone will know what’s going on in higher education, and I hope they learn it before they’re deep in debt with a useless degree.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

University of Tennessee: Stop Using “Him” or “Her”

By Professor Doom

     When writing of the madness of today’s higher education, I’ve been picking on California a bit much. This is a little misleading, because the foolishness that dominates higher education isn’t restricted to California, it’s country-wide. No state is immune from the corruption and incompetence that defines much of higher education today.

      So let’s look at the madness at the opposite side of the country from California:

--there are actually 9 new words being added to the vocabulary. The reader can click the link to see them, but will possibly become less intelligent by doing so.

     The point of this was to make a campus of 27,400 students, already larger than some towns, “inclusive” by no longer including language references to gender in pronouns. The simple fact that using this language exclusively to this one campus will exclude normal people from knowing what the heck is going on when they come to this campus clearly didn’t occur to administration. This is insane, although  already some faculty penalize students for using “wrong” gender pronouns.

     Officials have since insisted that the guidelines are not compulsory and that they do not want to 'dictate speech'.

Donna Braquet, who runs the university's Pride Center, wrote the guidelines, which are accompanied with a long table demonstrating how to replace the regular parts of speech.

      While not mandatory, there’s a real risk here. The sane people will simply continue to use the English normal people use…and will quickly become excluded by the “inclusive” nutbars that think changing the language in this way will accomplish something.

      I feel the need to point out here that gender is “baked in” to many languages in the West, but is far less a part of Eastern languages. Mandarin, for example, doesn’t have distinct gender pronouns—this presents an extra hurdle for native speakers of this language when they learn English. If admin had their way, Chinese students coming here would have an extra hurdle on top of that. It’s worth noting that despite this supposedly “superior” aspect to the language, there are still the same gender “issues” in China as here. These issues have nothing to do with the language.

      She also advises staff members not to call roll in class, and to instead greet every student by asking them to announce their name and pronoun of preference.

     Because so much of tuition is now paid for by Federal loans, the Feds want to know that the students are at least coming to class. While admin prefers professors to commit fraud and just say everyone is coming to class (because that way admin can claim more money for itself), the rules mandate that you should call roll every day. It’s reasonable enough, although with the large huge gigantic Brobdingnagian classes of today, simply calling roll is a significant chore, consuming, over the course of a semester, an hour or more of class time. Professors have no real chance of learning student names…the possibility that the professor will recall “pronoun of preference,” beyond what should be obvious, is goofiness that only an administrator with no classroom experience would consider. 

     Now, this “suggestion” has been roundly, and justifiably, mocked as absurd, but, as is so often the case, the news article misses the real issue here.

      Donna Braquet, a gay rights official at the university, wrote the guidelines,…”

     See, the above is the real problem. Higher education is getting more, and more, and more expensive, even as the teacher’s pay drops, in many cases, to below the poverty level. All the money flows, not to education, but to a bloated administrative caste that literally has nothing to do but try to figure out a way to justify their highly paid jobs.

      Part of the tuition expense is to pay for, and I’m obviously serious here, “gay rights officials” governing our universities. Where exactly do they work? In fiefdoms, in this case the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee. These kinds of fiefdoms are overrunning our campuses, sucking up dollars by the oceanful. Each fiefdom has its own staff, each usually making far more than any educator or researcher.

     Inside this particular fiefdom is the sub-fiefdom where Donna Braquet rules:
     Donna is the director of the Pride Center, which, mercifully, includes only a few assistants to Donna’s needs, as well as keeping the Center open for 12 hours a day, most days (seriously, do we really need this fiefdom to be open this much? Do they honestly get many students coming in at 8:30 pm looking for help with gender pronouns?).

      There’s a fundamental rule to fiefdoms: do not interfere with any other fiefdom. Each fiefdom is staffed with administrators whose primary concern is feathering xyr (sic, “xyr” is a proposed new word) own nest, and secondary concern is for maximum sycophancy to the ruler of each fiefdom.

      So, when a ruler comes up with an idea, no matter how idiotic (and it gets far worse than today’s topic), there’s nobody to stop it. The Poo Bah is so far removed from campus events that he may as well not be there (in fact, getting rid of the Poo Bah would be wonderful for education). The other fiefdoms won’t stop a stupid idea because doing so might lead to interference with their own stupid ideas…and nobody inside the fiefdom will dare tell the ruler xe (sic, and I defy anyone to pronounce that in a way that doesn’t sound much like “she”) is being ridiculous.

     There really needs to be an honest discussion about all these little fiefdoms on campus.  More accurately, there needs to be an annihilation of these fiefdoms, which consume much of the resources of higher education today. Not only could tuition then be lowered to more reasonable levels, but higher education would be greatly improved without all the distractions these useless fiefdoms cause.