Fixing Education

We return today to one of the subjects that have continued here since we began: education. What’s wrong with it, and sometimes: how to fix it. Peter W. Wood had a very good (and quite long) article yesterday in The Federalist on this subject. I found it very good, both in identifying problems and proposing cures. See what you think.

How much would it cost to fix American higher education? Think big. In 2015, colleges and universities spent about $532 billion to teach 20.5 million students enrolled in two-year and four-year colleges.

That $532 billion figure is the lowest estimate in circulation. The National Center for Education Statistics gives the figure as $605 billion for 2013-14. But let’s stick with the humble $532 billion.

So how much would it cost to fix our $532 billion worth of colleges and universities? The answer depends, of course, on what you think is wrong with them and which of the possible repairs you favor. But let’s not get overly complicated.

Here’s What’s Wrong with Higher Education

American higher education is subject to five broad categories of complaint.

The progressive left criticizes it for reinforcing oppression based on race, class, and sex. American higher education favors the rich and abets unjust capitalism.

Pro-market and libertarian observers criticize its dependence on public funding; guild-like stifling of innovation; and hostility to capitalism. American higher education privileges itself.

Liberals, moderates, and conservatives criticize it for putting identity politics at the center of curriculum and student life. It fosters inter-group hostility, a grievance culture, psychological fragility, incivility, and contempt for free expression. American higher education is illiberal.

Those who support the classical liberal arts criticize it for trivializing higher education, turning the curriculum into a shopping cart, neglecting the formation of mind and character in favor of political advocacy, and estranging students from their civilization by elevating the false ideal of multiculturalism. American higher education is culturally corrosive.

A wide variety of people criticize its high price, frivolous expenditures, and increasingly uncertain rewards for graduates. The gigantic growth in the number of campus administrative positions relative to the faculty comes under this heading too. American higher education is too expensive.

It would be easy to add more items or expand any of these into a whole book. Many have done just that. But my goal here is to cut a path through the forest, not to linger over the variety of trees.

When I speak of fixing higher education, I discard the first category, the criticisms of the university as a font of capitalist oppression. It simply has no basis in reality. Each of the other four categories is cogent, and any real repair would have to address all of them. Moreover, they are deeply connected.

I won’t linger over their interconnections either, but it is important to keep in mind that the guild-like or oligarchic aspects of higher education undergird its illiberalism, incoherence, and excessive expense; and its culturally corrosive quality licenses its voracious appetite for public funding, suppression of intellectual freedom, and frivolity.

Four Proposed Repairs to Higher Education

Corresponding to the four legitimate categories of complaint are four broad categories of possible repair:

Fix the financial model. Reduce and restructure federal and state support for colleges and universities. Eliminate the regulations that favor the guild and prop up oligarchy. Unleash the marketplace, including for-profit, online, and other entrepreneurial alternatives to the dominant model of two and four-year colleges. Steer Americans away from the idea that a college degree is necessary for a prosperous career. Find new and better ways to credential people as competent in specific endeavors. The general-purpose undergraduate degree should face competition from alternative credentialing.

Dismantle the infrastructure of campus illiberalism. Eliminate grievance deans and programs; rescind all government programs that subsidize identity politics; insist that colleges and universities punish those who disrupt events or otherwise undermine free expression. Some call for eliminating tenure because it has become a bulwark for the faculty members most intent on redirecting higher education into political activism.

Restore a meaningful core curriculum. This repair has three varieties: create an optional core curriculum at existing colleges, leaving everything else alone; create a mandatory core curriculum for all the students at a college; create new colleges that start out with their own core curricula. Reversing the cultural corrosion of American higher education will take more than reviving core curricula, but by common consent, that is the first step.

Restructure federal student loans. This is, of course, part of fixing the financial model, but it is crucial if the goal is to reduce the ballooning costs of higher education. Colleges and universities are expensive for several reasons, including their very high labor costs and tendency to compete with one another by increasing their amenities (e.g., rock-climbing walls), but the underlying cost-driver is their ability to rely on federal student loans to subsidize their ever-expanding budgets. […]

Continue reading How To Start Fixing America’s Higher Education Crisis

I found it all very good, and some of it outstanding. Part of what I like is that he recognizes that not everybody needs a to go to a four-year college. In truth, most don’t. College (except perhaps engineering) is not supposed to be a trade school. And when you make it one you end up with BA degree holders flipping burgers, a very silly outcome, particularly since in our setup they owe impossible amounts of money.

Part of the problem that I see is that our secondary (and primary) schools are no longer fit for purpose, graduates are far too often both illiterate and innumerate, and so the private sector, pragmatic as always, simply requires a degree, thinking they will at least get a candidate that can read at some level and maybe do arithmetic. It’s not a solution really, but in reality, their problem is to do whatever they do with whatever widget they do it with and make a profit, not to fix the education system.

At some point, it may become bad enough for them to find it cheaper to fix the problem than to use avoidance strategies like degrees, but we aren’t there yet. If we get to that point – well we’ll pretty much have failed as a country so it won’t really matter all that much.

Don’t do this at home (or at work)!

Time to lighten up a bit, thanks to Oyia Brown.







This safety meeting is adjourned.

Feeding the World, Disrupting the Markets, That’s America, Too

Norman Borlaug should be one of the American heroes of the world. Instead, many revile him. Why?

Borlaug’s life was one of extraordinary paradoxes: A child of the Iowa prairie during the Great Depression who grew up on a dirt-poor farm, attended a one-room school and flunked the university entrance exam but went on to become one of most renowned plant breeders in history – and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for averting malnutrition, famine and the premature death of hundreds of millions.  (That was at a time when the award meant more than political correctness.)

Borlaug introduced several revolutionary innovations.  First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce some new ones with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20% to 40%.

Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties, which were smaller than the old shoulder-high varieties that bent in the wind and touched the ground (thereby becoming unharvestable); the new waist or knee-high dwarfs stayed erect and held up huge loads of grain.  The yields were boosted even further.

Third, he devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding”– growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico.  The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the years required for breeding new varieties.  Moreover, because the two regions possessed distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early-maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes and soil types.  This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed.

Similar successes followed when the Mexican wheat varieties were planted in Pakistan and India, but only after Borlaug convinced politicians in those countries to change national policies in order to provide both improved seeds and the large amounts of fertilizer needed for wheat cultivation.

In his professional life, Borlaug, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of critics and skeptics who predicted that in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia.  His work resulted not only in the construction of high-yielding varieties of wheat but also in new agronomic and management practices that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America to feed their populations.

How successful were Borlaug’s efforts?  From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland — an extraordinary increase in yield per acre of more than 150 percent.   India is an excellent case in point.  In pre-Borlaug 1963, wheat grew there in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease.  The maximum yield was 800 lb per acre.  By 1968, thanks to Borlaug’s varieties, the wheat grew densely packed, was resistant to rust, and the maximum yield had risen to 6000 lb per acre.

via Norman Borlaug: The Genius Behind The Green Revolution

Think about that for a while, Borlaug efforts saved the lives of nobody knows how many millions, who otherwise would have starved to death. The doomsayers who wrote about the population explosion in the sixties were (perhaps) correctly reading the trend lines. We were producing people we couldn’t feed. Until an Iowa farm boy came along.

And while they themselves don’t realize it, many in Europe, in those elites (for lack of a better term) and many who desire power for its own sake, would have rather those millions starved to death, than that a humble guy, and especially an American should find a way to feed them.

Yes it still goes on, Out here on the fruited plan, which 150 years ago was the Great Ameican Desert you used to be lucky to get 30-40 bushels of corn/acre, now 200 is average, using less water, less pesticide, less fuel, and not working the farmer to an early death.

The Biotechnology or BT, as it is referred to is exactly the same thing that plant breeders have always done, cross-pollinating plants, it’s just a much more elegant method, producing faster results.

And those results, are feeding the world, except where they are banned by narrow political interests, there poor people still starve.

Such is the way of man.

Ethics and Sausage Factories

A few days ago, S.M. Hutchens on The Touchstone Blog published an article dealing with Betsy DeVos and the Education Department in relationship to the teachers union from the perspective of Reinhold Niebuhr’s group v. personal ethics. Good and interesting thinking. Here’s some

[…] Unions depict themselves as combinations of the weak against the strong in the service of justice, for fair pay, decent working conditions, and respect their members otherwise would not enjoy—goals not unworthy in themselves. The concentration of power in the teachers’ unions, with the full collusion of a Democrat Party dominated by its left wing, however, has given rise to a set of conditions unfavorable to education, and to which sensible Americans are now calling a halt.

Reinhold Niebuhr, in Moral Man and Immoral Society, a book as penetrating and significant now as when published in 1932, analyzes the inferiority of group morality to that of individuals in terms of a focused, collective egoism that repels self-criticism and is constitutionally bereft of the spirit of contrition and amendment that only religion can bring—an egoism by nature irreformable and increasingly destructive of both itself and its society.

Applying Niebuhr’s analysis to the teachers’ unions one finds a group of mainly decent people, few of whom are manifestly vicious or selfish, with many dedicated to the work of educating children, but who are part of a malign collective.  For the individual teacher as a positive moral agent there is a heavy price to pay for union membership, for only to a point will society accept the union’s plea that it only seeks justice for its members, especially when it detects that in the exercise of its power it has become increasingly inimical to the interests of the students it professes to serve.

When, for example, the teachers’ unions, in the spirit of Governor Wallace, enrich politicians for standing in the way of voucher programs that have helped underprivileged children receive better educations than have been available to them in the inner-city government schools, and for which Mrs. DeVos is a fervent advocate–programs for which their parents are clamoring, ignored by their Democrat representatives who do not send their own children to these schools (the Clintons and Obamas being recent examples)—nowhere is the hypocrisy and selfishness of these unions, and the necessity of breaking them as a negative social element, more evident.

via Betsy DeVos and the Immoral Society – Mere Comments Do read it all, I think he makes a good case here.

But I think we need to widen it out some. Isn’t this true for any organization? I think we know it is. When we join together in a group, often the group becomes more important than the members. It’s true for unions (as described here), but isn’t it also true for business, civic groups, governments, and yes, even churches?

Isn’t this the root of the Reformation, which we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of later this year? Dr. Luther found the Catholic Church, composed mostly of good, caring, even Godly people, had become a corrupt organization putting itself above the people, and even above God, Himself.

Don’t we sometimes see this ourselves in our local organizations? Our local governments, our civic organizations, and yes, our churches. Almost everyone concerned (with exceptions, of course) wants to do a good, moral job. But for whatever reason, peer pressure, regulations, individual dislike, or many others, they put the organization ahead of their personal morality

Answers are few, nebulous, and temporary, I suspect. I think it is a just a fact of organizational behavior. Most of us want to do the right thing, but the right thing for whom, or for what organization? How do we deal with conflicting aims, all of which may be good.

For me, it is an argument for making anything we can, a small, lean organization, as close to those who are the ‘customers’ (used very loosely here) as possible. In other words, what we Americans call Federalism in government and what the Catholics call Subsidiarity.

It’s simply much easier to keep a neighborhood organization on track, all things being equal, than it is, for example, the United States government. It just tends to be more transparent, and if we can’t avoid seeing the sausage being made, we will likely know what is in the recipe, or go find another sausage factory.

Irrelevant Trump Wingeing, and Some on the Free Market.

129445-quotes-about-can-do-attitudeYesterday, Jan Hansenn in comments proposed that we are not logical in our hopes for Trump, that others fear him, not because he may succeed but that he may damage the country, and finally that his business career is not all that successful. He also referenced sites that I consider mostly fake news, the New York Times, and Newsweek. But that’s still common, and many share the delusion (including the purveyors) that they provide real news.

I think he is wrong and Kurt Schlicter is right, categorically, that is my conclusion, and the only one that fits. My article and Colonel Schlichter’s had little to do with Trump, in fact. They were expositions of why the so-called Progressives are acting like a bunch of spoiled brats who want a do over. The thing they, and Jan, need to realize is that about 12 Noon on January 20, Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States. Your reservations, fears, and my hopes, in fact, all of our feelings about him are simply irrelevant. He is the President -Elect.

But what is the wonder of an age to me, is the sight of a plurality of the country, and a good percentage of the world, denying these facts. Trying to reverse a deal as done as Jodl’s signature on the surrender of Nazi Germany. It’s over, kiddies. We can argue about cabinet picks, Supreme Court justices, policies, and many other things. For the most part you, and occasionally I will lose. It’s real simple, elections have consequences, and he won. For good or bad, he will be President. Deal with it, Snowflakes.

America doesn’t do do-overs. That’s Europe’s thing, to keep voting until the elites get the answer they want. If you remember way back there in 2008, most of us thought Obama had some pretty looney ideas, but we were prepared to give him a chance, until about the time of that speech in Cairo, anyway. Speaking of damaging the country. We managed to survive, although it was tough, and I’d guess we’ll make it through the next fortnight as well.

Then we’ll see, all of us, how he does. I’m pretty confident he’ll be the best president since Reagan, and perhaps since Coolidge. But that remains to be seen, he could be a total flop, but if he can accomplish a third of what he wants to, it’s likely to become known as ‘the Roaring Teens’.

There is a reason, several really, but one salient one, why I am almost always opposed to government interference in markets. It could easily be summarized as “they do not know what they do”. Mostly we call it the law of unintended consequences. It echoes through almost every piece of legislation and regulation that the government does (see Obamacare). That’s why Coolidge was right, it is much better for the government to not do, than to do, especially if they know not what they are doing. The best thing for the workers, whether blue or white collar, for the investors, and indeed for the country, is for the government to get the hell out of the way.

That is why we were a bit disappointed with Trump’s handling of the Carrier thing. Offsetting that, though, is this: a promise is a promise.

Dan Mitchell has more on the economic thing, here. Read it and absorb it, because he, and Bastiat, are simply correct.

12 Bucks for a Cup of Joe – Why it is Worth it to Many

Barista Ryan McDonnell siphons coffee using vintage technology at the coffee experience bar of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room. (David Ryder/Bloomberg)

Barista Ryan McDonnell siphons coffee using vintage technology at the coffee experience bar of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room. (David Ryder/Bloomberg)

George Will notes in the Washington Post the other day that Starbucks has a new and exclusive coffee experience awaiting you. Let him explain.

Indiana’s Thomas R. Marshall, who was America’s vice president 100 years ago, voiced — he plucked it from a Hoosier humorist — one of the few long-remembered utterances to issue from that office: “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar,” which would be $1.11 in today’s currency. A century later, what the country needs is a $12 12-ounce cup of coffee.

Or so Howard Schultz thinks. Betting against the man who built Starbucks to a market capitalization of $86 billion is imprudent.

Today, you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a Starbucks store. There are 25,000 in 75 countries, with another 12,000 due by 2021, so Starbucks is not an elusive or exclusive experience. This poses a problem peculiar to affluent societies, and an opportunity. Seattle, where the original Starbucks was opened in 1971, now has a Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room where customers can turn a cup of “small-batch” coffee into an experience — Starbucks sells experiences as much as coffee — of both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous connoisseurship. Bloomberg reports that for a pittance, a.k.a. $10, skinflints will be able to buy a cold-brew coffee, which presumably is an excellent thing, infused with nitrogen gas, which sounds like an acquired taste.

Well, OK, even though my taste runs more to strong although not burned Java. In fact, I dislike  Starbucks, and find the average convenience store coffee better, although I admit that gets you negative style points from the cool kids.

My favorite(s) come from the Black Rifle Coffee Company, a fairly new outfit, started by veterans. I like the coffee, and I like the badassery, which feels so very American, for a change. Like this from their site:

Patriotism, honor and sacrifice; three words that hipsters, (most) millennials and as of recently…an NFL quarterback know nothing about. Thousands have served our country through 2 wars and have seen first-hand what sacrifice means. Personally, I have lost many of my best friends and teammates to both wars. Whether they agreed on the politics behind being there, when our country asked, they called! So sitting on my ass while our nations anthem is played is something I cannot fathom. I can say with a substantial amount of certainty that with any other veteran, this is also the case. With all that said, the United States of America would not be who we are without the right to free speech, expression, religion and most importantly…the right to bear arms.

Worth my money, and yours, to have people around that understand that.

Back to George:

Four decades ago, the economist Fred Hirsch distinguished between the material economy and the positional economy. Once a society has satisfied basic material needs (food, shelter, clothing), it turns yesterday’s luxuries (cars, air conditioning, college educations) into necessities. Because these are mass-market commodities, such material prosperity is a leveling, egalitarian force. Positional competition is emphatically not.

In the competition for an “elite” education or an “exclusive” vacation spot, one person’s success is necessarily a loss for many other persons because positional goods cannot be expanded indefinitely. Of course, Starbucks Roasteries could be expanded by the thousands, but this would make the “experience” banal and drain the stores of their positional power.

via Starbucks shines in our ecosystem of snobbery – The Washington Post

Yep, he’s right. In fact, my liking for BRCC is kind of like that as well. It’s damned good coffee, in my opinion, but a good part of the appeal is in the values they promote. And in a sense, we all do this. Why do we drive a Caddy instead of a Chevy, or a Ram pickup instead of a Prius, or any of those myriad choices we make. It has a lot to do with how we see ourselves, and how we want others to, as well. Nothing new under the sun, it’s always been that way, and it always will. That’s why I wear Lucchese boots and a Stetson hat these days, instead of Chuck Taylor All Stars and a stray baseball cap.

You know, I always laugh at people buying bottled water, but it’s the same thing, Richard Hammond explains it pretty well, amongst other interesting things to do with water.

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