31 July 2011

Keeping Them Off The Market

I have been trying to find an article (or was it a blog post?) I read a while back.  I can't recall where I read it, but I can recall the gist of it:  Unemployment statistics are artificially low because, in addition to those whose unemployment benefits have run out or who are working part-time or off-the-books, there are many others who, in fact, are eligible to work but are not working, yet are not counted in the statistics.

Among the uncounted, according to the article/blogpost in question, are those in prison--and those who are in college or university.  Granted, many college students--or, for that matter, prisoners--may not want to work.  But they are, in fact, not working, or are working part-time.

So, why aren't college and university students counted among the unemployed?  Well, I am going to offer an explanation that may cause some of you to think I am a Paranoid Conspiracy Theorist.  Perhaps I am, or have become one.  But, from what I have read and learned--as someone who's not an economic historian or economist--I think that a well-known Federal program was designed specifically to keep unemployment statistics low.  

I am talking about the GI Bill and various student loan programs that the Federal Government initiated from the end of World War II onward. 

Now, I am not suggesting that veterans of the war should not have received educational or other benefits provided by the GI Bill.  For that matter, I am also not suggesting that Federal or State governments should not have provided aid to students, though I think some of the programs should have been administered differently.  (If they had, we probably wouldn't have runaway inflation in college tuition and other costs.)  What I want to suggest, instead, is that the motivation for the GI Bill and student loan programs was not munificence.  I also don't think that spending on those programs as "seed money" for the development of this country is the only reason why the government enacted those programs.

Now, I am not an historian, at least not formally.  But what I have read suggests, to me, that you can't think about World War II or its aftermath without thinking about what preceded it:  The Great Depression.  In 1941, on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the unemployment rate stood at 9.7 percent.  That is almost exactly the rate we have now, at least officially.  The rate had gone as high as 25 percent during the preceding years; the 1941 rate was the lowest since the stock market crash of a dozen years earlier.  

As the war was winding down and troops began to return home, there were fears that unemployment--which reached an unheard-of low of 1.2 percent in 1943--would shoot back up to levels seen a decade earlier, especially after factories started to lay off workers they hired for war production.  

So what could be done with all of those returning soldiers?  You guessed it:  Some members of Congress had the brilliant idea of sending them to college.  Around the same time, many of the current loan and financial aid programs began.  That had the effect, naturally, of keeping millions of young people--many of whom were seeking their first jobs--off the labor market for a few more years than they would have been.  

There is no question that some of the GIs and new high school graduates who attended college under these programs benefited from them.  And there is also no question that they helped to develop this nation's development.  However, they also helped to foster the idea that every young person must go to college, and that opting not to--or not being able to--was somehow seen as a sign of failure or even moral weakness.  

Not coincidentally, the GI Bill began at the same time as young women were once again discouraged from working outside the home or going to college.  Of course, that took millions of women who, a couple of years earlier, had been working in factories and such off the labor market.  They, along with all of those GI students and younger people, kept unemployment low for more than a decade after the end of the war.  

And, also not coincidentally, these overt and covert policies, were great instruments of social control.  That, and artificially low unemployment statistics, made the economy appear more prosperous than it actually was, which may have prevented some of the social unrest that came with the Great Depression.  While that was probably good, under-reporting unemployment and other problems isn't. And that is one of the things keeping people in college and taking other options away from them has done.

30 July 2011

Remembering Some Of My First Students

Reading the scamblogs got me to thinking about some of the first students I taught.

I was supplementing the paltry paycheck from my graduate assistantship by teaching in another nearby university.  Specifically, I was teaching night courses in that university's extension program, which offered classes in community centers and other public places in inner-city neighborhoods.

Those students, most of whom were older than I was, were members of ethnic and racial "minorities." And, in the first class I taught in that program, they were all women.  Subsequent classes were predominantly female.  More to the point, most were getting some or all of their tuition paid by a program that began with the premise that enrolling such students in college would motivate them toward success.  

If nothing else, being in school was probably an improvement over the circumstances under which many of the students had been living.  Some had been in rehab; many of the female students came from homeless and battered women's shelters.  A few of the students had been in prison.  A large number, if not the majority, had GEDs:  One female student had earned hers at age 45, less than a year before.

Although I very much enjoyed the students, as people, at times working with them could be frustrating.  The main reason for that was their lack of academic as well as life skills.  That is the main reason why most of the students either flunked or dropped out.  Try as they might, they simply had gaps in their educations and work histories that mitigated against possible success.   For some of those students, those gaps were exacerbated, or even caused by, substance abuse and related problems.  

The following year, I was teaching in another college that had a similar program.  And--you guessed it--a large portion of those students had also been my students at my previous university.   

I know that, for some of those students, tuition and other costs weren't at issue, for they were paid by the program--which, I believe, was under the auspices of the State government.  But both of the schools I mentioned are private; one of them charged a tuition that was even higher than that of an Ivy League university in the area.  

Now I find myself thinking about how much money the Government spent to keep those students in those schools. And, even if their tuition was paid for, they were incurring other costs that weren't paid for by the program.  

That was nearly two decades ago.  I wonder whether any of those students are still paying for the costs they incurred.  And I wonder how much it cost to send them to school--and whether and how much we are still paying for it.  

Even more to the point, I wonder whether any of those students graduated, or simply moved on.

29 July 2011

Do You Want To Lose Ten Years Of Your Life And Go $200,000 In Debt For This?

I'm trying not to spend too much time talking about the conditions under which adjunct instructors work, or their relations with their full-time colleagues and the institutions in which they work.  However, as I expect that some of you may be considering graduate school and academic careers, I believe it makes sense to discuss the world of adjuncts at least a little. After all, nearly everyone who follows this path will spend some, if not all, of his or her career as an adjunct.

An e-mail sent on a college's internal system illustrates the status adjuncts have in the academic world as well as in the institutions in which they work.  I will replicate it here:

"This is one of the reasons I like engineering and computers:
maybe CUNY can use this to print adjunct professors...;-)" 

Note:  I have shown the e-mail as the professor wrote it.  The error in sentence construction is his, not mine.  And CUNY refers to the City University of New York, which may be the largest employer of adjuncts in the world.

Now, I think the video is pretty funny.  But the comment that follows the link, not so much.

28 July 2011

The Real Debate

Over the past couple of days, I've watched fragments of the Congressional budget debates on CNN.  It seems that whether the House votes to raise the debt ceiling or the country goes into default, none of us will be in a good way.  From what I can see, unless there is fundamental change, this country is going to have a lower credit rating.  And that will not bode well for anyone who has any sort of debt.  (That includes yours truly.)

Much has been made of the sheer pettiness of the arguments some Congressional representatives are making.  Actually, they're not even arguments at all, unless you consider repetition a form of argumentation.

Now, I'm going to put my cards on the table.  I'm not a fan of big government.  On the other hand, I'm not an anarcho-capitalist:  I think we've seen the problems of letting corporations (the financial ones, at any rate) having too much control over the nation.  Still, I think we need to cut spending, but judiciously.

One of the few real arguments made was the one made by a few members of Congress (all Democrats) who pleaded for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  As one member--I think she was from Minnesota--pointed out, the NEA's budget is something like three cents out of every thousand dollars the Federal Government spends.  And the money spent on them not only enriches people's lives; it also generates far more money in the economy in terms of the businesses that make money, directly or indirectly, from the arts as well as the creativity of all kinds it fosters.  

As one representative so eloquently summed it up:  "The NEA and the NEH aren't breaking the bank."  Instead, it's the three wars this country is fighting as well as the bailouts and other sweetheart deals given to bankers and other corporate executives who put the livelihoods and lifestyles--if not the lives themselves--of millions of people in jeopardy with their greed.  Those executives, of course, include those who run the loan providers that extract such extortionate terms from those who want nothing more than a chance at a life they were taught to believe is their birthright.

But then again, what we've seen are nothing more than the ways power corrupts.  Writers since antiquity have warned of this:  Those so corrupted by power will, when their power is threatened, use force (physical or otherwise) against those least able to fight back.  So they amend laws to prevent student loan debtors from discharging their debt in bankruptcy but, at the same time, those who took reckless gambles with the lives of people, and lost.  And, instead of doing something to end our involvement in three wars, and deflating the bloated budgets and contracts they've engendered, they go after an organization whose annual budget is less than what it costs for the US Military to spend one day in Afghanistan.

In addition to the NEA and NEH, there are many small programs that those same representatives want to de-fund.  Taken together, their annual budgets are probably less than what a month in Afghanistan or Iraq costs.

If the majority of the House of Representatives--and a large part of the Senate--cannot consider such realities, then whether this country defaults or raises its debt ceiling really isn't going to matter:  Either way the lives of most of us will be worse.  And it certainly doesn't bode well for student loan debtors.

27 July 2011

They Can't Understand Any More Than An Abstraction

Yesterday I saw a colleague for what might be the last time.  I have only come to know him during the past year, but in that time, I have grown to respect, and even like, him.  

He completed his PhD about half a dozen years ago after a career in journalism.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts, journalism has been hemmorhaging jobs at an even faster rate than most other occupations.  Worse for him, he is well into that part of life in which people experience age discrimination.  And he is African-American.

Anyway, he is moving to California to live with the woman whom he plans to marry. She works as a librarian. He doesn't know whether he will find a job, as he knows that the economy is even worse there than it is here in New York.  But, he says, he hopes that he can do "something," even if it's not in higher education. "At least I have a chance of being happy there," he said.

In the time I have come to know him, our conversations have stimulated me:  something I don't often experience in the academic world.  They have also given me some of my inspiration to start this blog, as well as material for at least a couple of my posts. 

I'm thinking now of two things in particular he said to me.  A few weeks ago, when we were talking about our classes and students, and the uselessness of most of the workshops we've attended and materials we've read on the subject, he conveyed one of the most acute observations I've heard about.  Referring to the workshops, conferences and books on educating "nontraditional students," he said, "The problem with them is that the people who put them together see our students as abstractions.  They don't have a clue about their lives, about the way they see the world."

"That's because they come from completely different kinds of backgrounds," I said.

"Yes.  All they see are labels and generalizations that they learned in some workshop or conference."

"I guess I'm guilty of that sometimes, too."

"Maybe.  But you have some understanding of that; you come from a different background from most profs."

The last part of that statement is definitely true:  I grew up in a blue-collar family and community, with no books at home.  My parents (Yes, thankfully, they're still alive.) are intelligent people with practically no formal education:  My mother went to work when she was fourteen to help support her family, and my father, for various reasons, dropped out of high school to join the military. (The draft was in place then, so he probably would have been in the military one way or another.)  The majority of my students come from today's equivalents of that background; others are even poorer many don't speak English at home.

I am thinking now of a comment someone left on my post from a couple of days ago.  This person describes a "highly theoretical" PhD program in Spanish where professors "claim to expose injustices against the little guy,"--In this case the "little guy is an amalgamation of different people from the so-called "Third World," as well as other kinds of backgrounds!--through the books of academic philosophers like Lacan and Derrida.  

Now, reading those books has its value, but I think that trying to use them to explain the experience of "minorities in the US, the indigenous in Peru, the working class in Argentina" or to clump the expereinces of people from Mexico to India under the rubric of "post colonial" is less than helpful, and can be outright misleading.  Really, the profs who do that are no different from those twelve-year-old boys who hear about "survival of the fittest" in their science classes and use it to justify their worst behavior.  And some of them never change.  But I digress.

Another thing this colleague told me has shed light on much for me. We were talking about the economic crisis (Who doesn't, these days?) when he mentioned that, nearly three years ago, Alan Greenspan said that he couldn't explain why the financial system all but imploded.  "If he could have explained it, he wouldn't have been where he was."

I instinctively knew that was true, but asked him to explain.

"You can't get an advanced degree in economics if you actually understand how the capitalist system works."

"I don't know much about economics.  But from what I've read, it seems that people get to that level by constructing mathematical models of economic activity rather than watching human interactions."

"Yes, you're right about that.  It's essentially what the Chicago School.."

"Milton Friedman?"

He nodded.  "That's what he and his followers do.  And that's the kind of thinking that controls graduate programs in economics."

That got me to thinking about how there are parallels in other fields.  Almost everybody--even the people who are in those fields--knows that to be entrusted with running things in that field (or the whole country!) and mentoring the next generation, you have to be steeped in whatever the prevailing orthodoxies of that field are.  An example was described by the commenter I mentioned earlier:  Nearly all graduate school professors in language and literature are, to some degree, under the spell of Lacan, Derrida and a few other critics and scholars, much as an earlier generation was in thrall to Freud.

Now, I realize that there are certain basic skills and fundamental knowledge that everyone in a field needs to possess.  Anyone in any medical or health field needs to know how the human body is put together, and anyone who wants to study literature or language needs to know the basic structures.  Those, however, are not the same as the "isms" that dominate most fields in graduate school.

The fact that my colleague spent decades as a journalist before pursuing his PhD makes him all but immune, I think, to being an "-ist" of any kind, at least in the academic sense.  That is exactly one of the reasons why I wish him well but worry a bit about him.  I think he'll be fine but, as someone a bit older than I am who's moving to a part of the country where the economy is even worse than it is here, it might be difficult at first.  At least he has a chance at being happy, which is more than can be said for too many I've met in the academic world.

25 July 2011

What Happens To The Indebted If The Government Defaults?

Tonight I heard Obama's speech on the looming Government default and Boehner's rebuttal. Both were predicatable:  Obama lecturing the country about having to "come together" and Boehner talking about his experience as a small businessman, his love for his country and those terrible Democrats.  

So what happens if the Government defaults?  The truth is, nobody knows.  But everything I've read so far says that interest rates will skyrocket.  That means that if you took out a variable-rate loan for your education, your debt could soar.  

Rising interest rates are among the few outcomes economists agree upon.  Some are predicting a collapse of the dollar and hyperinflation; others are predicting Japan-type scenarios.  Cryn has a couple of really good posts on this topic, and it seems that she's not finished.

Some who've commented on her posts, and others on other blogs, fantasized that a collapse of the banking system--which some economists predict as a result of a default--would effectively bring about a "debt jubilee."   In other words, they say, if the banks go, so do your debts.  I don't know enough to know whether such a thing is possible.  But if I had six-digit debt, I'd hope for such a possibility.

And, of course, a collapse in the dollar would make your debts that much smaller.  

But a default could also plunge this country--and much of the world--into a Greater Depression.  That, of course, would make jobs and money more difficult to come by, but would not wipe out debts.  So, in that sense, it could be as much a disaster for those in indebted servitude as it could be for anyone else.

Stay tuned!

24 July 2011

I'm Not Saying "Don't".

After the last two posts I made, I want to clarify a couple of things.  I don't mean to condemn all education, or even all schooling.  I know, as all of you surely know, that, for example, you can't become a teacher, engineer or doctor without the appropriate training and credentials.  And there are many other jobs for which you won't be seriously considered--or considered at all--if you don't have a degree of some sort.

And I don't mean to denigrate the pursuit of knowledge.  There is value--apart from career considerations--in studying literature, history, mathematics and other seemingly abstruse subjects.  Sometimes those studies confer unexpected benefits in the job markets:  For example, tech companies sometimes hire philosophy majors because of their training in logic.  

What I want prospective students and their families to do is to understand what more schooling can and can't do for them.  Yes, if you take challenging courses and professors, and continue the work after the classes are over, you can become a better-rounded person.  And, if you are an engaged and engaging person, you can make some valuable contacts while in school.  

I also want to add that even though I've had some exasperating, frustrating and infuriating experiences, I am glad that I have spent a considerable part of my life teaching at the college level.  While not as remunerative as some of the other things I did before, there have been times when it was satisfying in ways that my work in the corporate world never could have been.  

That said, though, I probably wouldn't choose the same path today, as I told one of my former students.  Part of that has to do with the difficulty I've had in getting permanent full-time employment in academia.  But I have also come to understand the limits my schooling has placed on me, and some of the limits I--sometimes unwittingly--placed on myself in order to fit into the social milieux in which I've worked.   

Plus, I've come to realize that what anyone learns in school--no matter how much time should he or she spends in it--should be only the beginning of his or her education.  Learning history or literature or science from your teachers and professors can be interesting and useful.  But it is only one experience, one facet, of those subjects.  And--contrary to what we see in graduate school--it doesn't exist in isolation from the world.  The great writers, artists and scientists of this world all got their cues from the world around them; had they depended on graduate seminars for their knowledge, they never could have done the things we study in those seminars.

So...If you're going to spend more time in school, make sure you're doing so for very clear reasons you've come up with on your own, with no pressures from family, friends or guidance counselors.  And, of course, realize that if you endebt yourself to do it, you're going to be required to pay it somehow.  That sounds like common sense, but that is often the first casualty of being in the cocoon of academia.

23 July 2011

Why Higher Education Cannot Be An Agent For Social Equality

Higher education has been touted as an “equalizer” between those who have and those who don’t, those who have traditionally held power and those who have been disenfranchised, and those who are engaged and those who have been alienated.

It’s been sold as a way to give people of color a chance to compete with whites and for women to prove that we are the equals of men.

Now,  I must emphasize that nothing is more important than education—not the kind that begins with a capital “E”—for people who have any sort of disadvantage in the job market or in any other area of society.  A classmate of mine who worked with the Peace Corps in Africa said, only partly in jest, that the easiest and cheapest way to cut the birth rate in half in just about any Third World country is to teach the women how to read.    And any young African-American male in the inner city is practically doomed to a life of under- and un-employment, if not prison—or no life at all—if he doesn’t learn how to read, write and calculate, if not compute.

However, African-Americans, women and others who are not part of the power structure (Yes, I’m talking about working-class white men, too!) need to be as educated as we can make ourselves.  By that, I mean that we need to continue to read, to inform and challenge ourselves, and to pass the lessons we learn on to whoever comes after us.

This means that, at some point, we cannot depend on the education systems we have.  And we certainly cannot depend upon colleges, graduate schools and other institutions of “higher” education.  If anything, dependence on those institutions will hinder us to the point that no matter how much we attain, according to their standards, and even if we rise to positions of authority within them, we can never be anything more than second-class citizens within them.

Think about this:  Nearly any rational person will tell you that you can’t ultimately win, let alone rule over, a game in which rules are made by someone who has power (and the means to enforce it) that you don’t have.  Yet those same people pursue degrees in fields not of their own making in the hope of jobs that, for the most part, have disappeared or never existed in the first place.   And they work for those degrees, and try to otherwise distinguish themselves, in institutions that were designed to train classes of people that, for the most part, no longer exist, to take their positions in a society that only superficially resembles anything we have today.

Now, some people will protest that academia is “tolerant” and “diverse” in ways that other areas of society aren’t.  They’ll point to Gender Studies and African-American Studies and all of the other Studies as evidence that there really is a place for someone who has ideas of her own and is willing to work hard enough to realize them.

Well, I can tell you from first-hand experience that those “Studies” garner no more respect from academics who aren’t involved with them than they get from prospective employers outside academia.    The real effect of those areas is to “ghettoize” those people whom they purport to empower.   Those in the more “traditional” areas don’t want to share their “territory” with people who are poorer, darker or queerer than they are, or who have biological equipment that differs from their own.  So they shunt those from the other side of the tracks, if you will, to those areas which they consider to be “marginal” or “peripheral” to their own areas of study.
Researchers have noted that inbreeding produces all sorts of mutations and, ultimately, weakens the species.  Other researchers, and any number of people who have firsthand experience with the higher education system, can tell you that it encourages, enables and exacerbates all manner of egotism, pettiness and various personality disorders.  That is because so many of those who go through the system and become academics—and even those who become educators at the pre-college level—tend to be people who have never known any environment but school.  There are some who go into the military, who work in the corporate world or are self-employed, before going to college or graduate school, but for the most part, those who become professors, department chairs and deans are people who have never been anything but students and employees in educational institutions.

For the rest of this post, I am going to concentrate on the effects of the things I’ve described on women.  But I think some of what I’m about to say can be applied to other members of so-called minority groups in the world of education.

In many colleges, women constitute the majority of the faculty in some departments, particularly in areas like English.  Most of them have spent most of their lives in school.  In that sense, they are no different from their male colleagues.  However, even if they were the class valedictorians, the editors of their newspapers, or were chosen for some award or another, they were still reporting to a man.  Or, the woman to whom they reported had to report to a man.  So, no matter how much they achieved or how much they rose, they never could develop the same sense of confidence or self-worth that the male college president or trustee could. 

This lack of self-confidence, quite frankly, stunts their emotional growth.  When I decided to go to graduate school after spending a decade in the corporate world, I felt as if I were in a time warp.  The women I met in graduate school—faculty members, as well as students—were deferential to male colleagues in ways my mother couldn’t even have imagined.  Worse, it seemed that they were trying to keep each other in their “place,” much as the “House Negro” did to other members of his race.  Those who didn’t stay in their “place” were punished, in some ways more severely than they could be by males higher on the chain of command.

And I felt as if I’d returned to junior high school.  I’ve seen plenty of “cattiness” and have been guilty of some of it myself.  However, I have never seen—not in corporate jobs, or even when working in a coffee shop by the interstate when I was in college—anything like what I have seen in the academic world.  To be fair, many of our male colleagues are cliquish.   But, as immature as their behavior may be, it will never have the same consequences for them that it will have for us.

I fail to see how anyone believes he or she can grow, emotionally or intellectually, let alone spiritually, in such an environment.  The worst thing about it is that the childishness of those educators leads them to resent anyone who has, or who will have, anything they won’t or can’t have.  That is why they put down talented people who attain success outside the ivory tower.  So, the last thing they want you or anyone else to do is to be independent.  Working with them will not show you how to acquire knowledge and to think for yourself; it will only teach you how to function at a level that’s just high enough to continue as a second-class citizen in their world.

If you find that you need to think, and to continue your education (in the real sense) as a matter of survival, you are not going to learn how to do those things from people who make gestures of them in order to get grants and tenure.  Folks like Malcolm X and Virginia Woolf never went through such a system; they continued to make themselves more knowledgeable and literate on their own.  And, Malcolm and Rosa Parks developed an emotional maturity—a “coolness,” if you will—that you will never find among those academic cliques.  The “irony” and “detachment” academicians so exalt are merely caricatures of those things that the truly educated people learn throughout their lives. 

And now I will confess something:  One of the reasons I’ve started this blog is that I think that it will help me to continue my education.  That’s one of the reasons why I value your comments and welcome guest contributions.  We all have much to learn, and to teach each other, wherever we are.  I only hope that all the time I’ve spent in school hasn’t destroyed my ability to learn and to grow.

22 July 2011

Why They Sign On The Dotted Line

A few weeks ago, Brian couldn't even get a checking account in his own name.  And his family wouldn't let him touch the family car.  Yet, there he is, signing up for a five-figure loan.  

His parents are co-signing. Not only that; they are happy to be signing.  So is Brian. 

He's thought about becoming a lawyer or forensic investigator.  He doesn't know much about either job; they just looked interesting and "cool" on those episodes of CSI and Law and Order.  Plus, those women in those chambers are really, really hot.  What would give him a better chance of snagging one of them than by becoming a Medical Examiner or District Attorney?

His grades in science and SAT scores were mediocre.  But, hey, they were enough to get him into this school, never mind that he was wait-listed and wasn't offered any sort of financial aid. And he hates to write.  Lucky for him (or so he thinks), his high school didn't demand much of it.  And, he wonders:  How important could it be?  After all, those babes and dudes on CSI and Law and Order never seem to write.  Only their secretaries do that.

When he was fourteen, he was making spending money by "rescuing" old bicycles from the trash people left at their curbsides and the local dump. When he said he could fix bikes "blindfolded," it wasn't just an idle boast.  But when his parents realized what he was doing, they threw away his tools and forbade him from "rescuing" any more bikes.  No son of theirs was going to get his hands dirty--not after the sacrifices they made for him and his sister.

You know a couple of ways this story goes.  In one, Brian parties too much or simply finds that he is in over his head in Chemistry, Math and English Comp.  He flunks or drops out. If he's in a state school, he ends up a few thousand dollars in debt.  If he's in a private school, he might be twenty or thirty thousand in the hole.  Still, things could be worse.

In another scenario, Brian somehow makes it through his freshman year--just barely--and, not sure of what he wants to do, he figures, "Well, if I get a degree in something, that ought to be good for something."  So he spends the next couple of semesters hopscotching through majors--business, political science, marketing and sociology--before deciding that he would pursue his real dream and major in film studies.  And, since he has started playing guitar in a band with a couple of other guys from school, he decides to minor in music.

You know what comes next:  Brian graduates.  Even though he has no job and no idea of what else to do next, he and his family celebrate.  Their joy is short-lived, though, after Brian moves back in with his parents and spends his days making You Tube videos and nights playing guitar with his friends.  His father says he needs "direction."  

Finding no jobs that pay more than minimum wage and utilize his studies, and not  wanting to join the military or Peace Corps, he decides on--you guessed it--more school! His parents are pleased when he's accepted into a third-tier law school.  They, like others, still think that one doesn't have to go to Yale or Columbia in order to make lots of money as a lawyer.  And they can tell everyone their kid is a lawyer.

Plus, Brian figures, he won't have to pay his student loans--on which the balance is higher than it was the day he graduated--for another three years.  By then, he should be making six figures, easily.  

Better yet--at least from Brian's point of view--his parents are willing to co-sign for more loans.  That means he gets an interest rate of five percent instead of fifteen.

If you've reading some of the blogs I've listed, you know how this story ends.  

And why did it happen? Why did Brian accumulate six figures in debt in an aimless pursuit?  And why did his parents co-sign for the loans?

Well, like so many other people, they've been inculcated with the notion that getting a degree, whether or not the person pursuing it has any idea of why he is doing so, is somehow better than fixing bikes or cars or air conditioners, or cooking, baking, sewing or massaging.  It is seen as more socially honorable, somehow, to say that one or one's kid has a degree from compass direction-geographical feature state college than it is to say that your kid is in demand because she or he can resurrect a Cutlass Sierra from the dead or make a lasagna for which people are willing to stand in line. 

Now, it's true that lots of unethical administrators and loan officers sell kids on going to college when they have neither the inclination nor the ability for it.  And they prey upon the parents' anxieties that somehow they didn't do a good job if their kid doesn't continue his or her schooling.  But not all of the blame for young people with useless degrees (or no degrees) and debts they'll never pay back can be laid at the feet of those administrators and loan officers.

That is because those fears those young people (and their families) have about losing face, or worse, if they don't get a degree--even if they pursue trades they enjoy and that pay them well--were formed well before they and their parents signed for those loans.  That is because they have been influenced, to a great degree, by a culture and education system that perpetuates a class system most Americans don't want to admit they have.  (I find that the more time people have spent in school, and the higher they are on the socio-economic ladder, the less they are willing to admit that this class system exists.)  

Almost from the day kids enter school, they are "tracked."  Very rarely does one find the high academic achievers in the same classes with vocational/technical students--if indeed the school still has a vo/tech program.  (The fact that such programs are disappearing from American high schools speaks volumes.)  One also doesn't find the high achievers, a.k.a., the Gifted and Talented, in the same rooms with so-called Special Education or Bilingual students, although one might find the bilingual or Special Ed kids in the same English, Social Studies or Phys Ed classes as the Vo/Tech kids.  

Is it any wonder, then, that kids internalize the notion that the Vo/Tech kids--who, as often as not, come from the opposite side of the tracks from the so-called Gifted and Talented kids--are the children of a lesser god, if you will?  Is it surprising that the parents of those kids would fight their placement in Vo/Tech, never mind Special Ed, as zealously and angrily as they would protest sex offenders moving into their neighborhoods?

I can't discuss this without thinking about the Regent's Examinations in New York, my home state.  They were originally designed to determine who would enter the "elite" and "competitive" public high schools and academies (like Bronx Science and Stuyvesant in New York City) and which students would graduate with distinction.  While this system is arguably elitist, most people accepted that a small percentage of students would score high enough on those exams to earn placement into the "elite" schools and graduate with "distinction," and there was no shame in not being a Regents scholar.

However, a few years ago, the New York City Department of Education tried to mandate the passage of Regents examinations as a basis for earning a high school diploma.  That would have meant, in essence, that every New York City graduate would have been a Regents graduate.  Some people argued that such a mandate was necessary; the unstated reason was that they had no faith in the quality of New York's system or its graduates.

But where would such a mandate leave that kid who doesn't like to read (and, in fact, may have disabilities that make it more difficult than it is for other kids) but has other goals. Say that kid wants to fix motorcycles or style hair.  Or maybe she wants to enlist in the military, if for no other reason than to get out of the projects. Does this mean that, in essence, these kids are less worthy than those who don't have goals, or creativity, but know only that they or their parents want them to go to college?

The cynic in me says that situations like these can be understood by asking cui bono?  Who benefits from such a system?  The short answer is, of course, the schools.   They can trumpet their "success" by claiming that a high percentage of their graduates went to college, and that a relatively high percentage of them went to the prestigious four-year schools.   Claims of such "success" lead to grant money as well as publicity.  No such pot of gold awaits school systems that graduate competent electricians and hairdressers. And, of course, kids who graduate programs for those kinds of careers don't get access to the kind of loan money to continue their training--or, later, to open their own businesses that Brian can get by going to college and graduate school.

Never mind that Brian could have continued fixing bicycles and, from there, branched out into motorcycles, cars and other vehicles and machines.  (And--who knows?--perhaps he might have decided to go to school for engineering.)  Forget that he could have been happier, and made considerably more money, than he was as a liberal arts and law school (or other professional school) graduate.  That sort of thing doesn't sound good at the dinner parties his parents attend.

20 July 2011

Enrolling and Enlisting

Although I wrote the other day in support of a student who believes that her time in college will help her to be an agent of change in her community and family, I want to reiterate that she is, for one thing, a bit older than most of her classmates.  She has gained some of the self-awareness (which is the polar opposite of self-absorption) that, one hopes, people gain as a result of working, starting families and other life experiences.

Most people who enter college--at least most of "traditional" college age--lack that knowledge of themselves and the world in which they will live and (unless everything goes to hell) work.  That is the reason why they can be motivated by dreams that may be entirely unrealistic for them, or outright vanity.  All of their lives, they have been inculcated with the notion that going to college is "better" than working with one's hands and that a nametag and funny hat await those who don't pursue a BA or more.

That, of course, is what makes them vulnerable in the ways that the authors of First Tier Toilet  and Fluster Cucked describe.  What happens to those new college (or graduate or law school) students is not so different from what happens to someone of the same age who walks into a military recruitment center.  One dreams of serving his country; another dreams of saving the world; still another dreams of having a Lamborghini.  Intoxicated with their fantasies of how life will be peachy once they enlist or enroll, they sign their lives away.  Literally.  When you join the military, you are their property, which they can dispose of as they see fit. Likewise, when you sign up for those student loans, loan providers can take the shirt off your back as payment. 

In one sense, signing up for the college/graduate school/law school /medical school loans is even more of a form of servitude.  You may be forced to spend more time in the military than you originally planned, but at some point, if you don't want to "re-up,"  they will most likely discharge you.  And, once you're discharged, you're free.  On the other hand, you can't discharge those loans.  If you stop paying them--even if you have been granted a "forebearance"--the interest is compounded, and your principal grows.  It's entirely possible that you could spend the rest of your life paying those loans.

Of course, most 18- and 19-year-olds no more understand the consequences of signing for those loans than they do of signing that contract with Uncle Sam.  Almost no one who's over 30 would sign up for those loans or military service, except perhaps out of the purest desperation.  I doubt that even most 24- or 25-year-olds would. 

But one other thing makes those loans even more of a trap than a committment to bear arms for the military/corporate plutocracy.  Some parents, at least, fear for their children when they decide to join the military; some talk or plead their kids out of signing up.  On the other hand, almost no parent tries to persuade his or her kid not to go to college; many will even co-sign for loans that include terms that would make The National Crime Syndicate envious. 

For a long time, I have thought that military recruiters ranked right up there in integrity with used-car salespeople and politicians running for office.  But those who encourage young people who have no particular plans or aspirations, and whose dreams are all but unattainable, to sign up for debt servitude are no better.  In the end, they manipulate young people and their families through means that any advertiser would love to have.

In a subsequent post, I will try to show at least one of the sources of those ideas (which I've just described) held by those who "sign on the dotted line" and their families and exploited by the military/eductional/financial complex.

18 July 2011

Who Should Be In College?

I'll be one of the first to agree with the scambloggers when they say that a bunch of law schools should close.  I'd say the same for graduate programs in the humanities:  For more than four decades, they have been turning out far more PhDs--most of whom, presumably, want to become professors--than there have been job openings.

Now, while I think much else needs to change in higher education, and even more in the way students pay for it, I don't think that everyone should be discouraged from going to college.  For one thing, I have respect for people who actually pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This is not the same as being in college, or any other kind of school, because you don't know what you want to do with your life or are delaying adulthood.  (To me, it's sort of like the difference between nonviolent resistance and mere passivity.)  And, for another, there are still some people who, while they might not be in majors that share names with job titles, have a vision that, while it may be difficult to achieve, is realistic and well thought-out, and who can clearly see how one course of study or another will help them realize it.

A student with whom I spent about two hours after class is in the latter category. She has spent her entire life in what had been, until recently, one of the poorest urban neighborhoods in the nation.  More to the point, she has seen the toll it has taken on members of her family and community.  Specifically, she can describe the many health problems people there develop as a result of the poor diets and other stresses that come with living there.  Those experiences, she says, are motivating her to become a health educator.

So, during the time I spent with her after class, we discussed a paper she was revising.  And she used it as an opportunity to pick my brains.  Having been a journalist and having worked for non-profits, I know a bit about community organizations and how they work.  But, even more important to her, I am doing what I can to help her improve her research and writing skills.  I didn't tell her she needed those things:  She simply has figured that out.

And, she says, her vision is teaching her the importance of what she is learning in her classes and of "bringing it all together."  History started to matter to her, she said, when she realized she needed to understand why her community is the way it is.  And, she explained, that need to understand has motivated her through courses ranging from literature to physiology.

Although I think large numbers of students would be better off doing almost anything else besides passing through school, I think that anyone who is so motivated to learn should be encouraged and supported.  That she has gotten to within a semester of graduation with her vision and ambition intact is a testament, not only to her qualities, but to the way colleges and other schools can benefit students who not only want to be there, but have a clear vision of themselves.  They may not know the specific job they want, but they know what they want to accomplish and what skills and traits they have, and don't have.  

Now, I grant you that I have not described the majority of students.   I also don't believe that they're the only ones who should be in school.  However, I think that making school the "default" (in more ways than one!) choice for those who are too young or undisciplined, or who lack the self-knowledge and self-confidence, to do anything else does not do them any good.  And it ultimately robs those who are truly motivated. It just happens that I'm teaching a small class of upperclassmen, so I have more time than I normally would have for a student like the one I've been talking about. 

 I wouldn't have that time during the regular semester, when I'm teaching more and larger classes and some kid who's in school because his parents dumped him there is trying to negotiate his grade after having missed the majority of the assignments and classes.   Or, worse yet, when another student like him is insisting that I write a letter of recommendation, or when I'm being summoned to a dean's office to answer some spurious complaint from a student who simply couldn't be bothered to do the work.

In a sense, I can understand why such students behave as they do.  They've been forced to do something that, not only they don't want to do, but that they can't understand why they're being forced to do.  So, being young (usually), they get angry--and lash out.  And, as we all know, that drains not only the energy of those being lashed out at, but also the time and resources that could be spent on more motivated students.

17 July 2011

One Who Knows, But Doesn't Do, Better

A couple of people who commented on yesterday's post pointed out an article the New York Times published yesterday.

In it, one of the scambloggers' favorite targets for criticism--Richard Matasar, the dean of New York Law School--is shown as someone whose words conflict, whether or not intentionally, with what he has done during his long reign at NYLS.  However, the article--as well as the first 40 or so comments on it--failed to mention is Matasar's most egregious conflict of interest:  his membership on the Board of Directors of the Access Group, one of the largest providers of loans to law students.

As any number of blogs, articles and books have pointed out, the student loan industry is enormously profitable, especially when students fall behind on their payments.  Student loans are also the only ones not dischargable in bankruptcy.  When borrowers are delinquent or default, penalties and interest are compounded.  That is how, for example, "JD Painterguy"'s student loan debt went from $210,000 in 2008 to $300,000 the other day. 

The availability of so many and such large loans is exactly what allowed NYLS and other law schools (and other kinds of schools) to double their class sizes in a few years, just as job prospects for new graduates (as well as veteran lawyers) were disappearing.  Those same big loans are also what allowed NYLS and other schools to increase their tuitions to what the "market will bear" and to build flashy new facilities.

Increased class sizes, high tuition and the building of new facilities are the main factors that determine a school's ranking from the US News and World Report, which is the ranking system that receives the most attention.  Matazar admitted that he increased class sizes and tuition, and embarked in one of the most expensive building projects ever undertaken by an educational institution, with those rankings in mind.  

In one sense, I can understand what he says. In the brief time I was an administrator, I saw how , very often, one has little choice but to go against one's better judgment or, worse, principles.  But, in another sense, his hypocrisy is all the more apparent when one realizes that, with his Deanship and Directorship, he was in a position to challenge the forces and policies that led to the tyranny of the rankings, which went hand-in-hand with the opening of new law schools and the graduation of new attorneys far beyond the market's capacity to employ them. 

Probably the best thing about the Times article is that it clearly showed those conflicts, and the role people like Dean Matasar play in creating as well as being shaped by them.  They are like those military commanders who say that the world would be a better place if there were no wars and if swords were beaten into ploughshares, but who also know that their careers would end along with the system they helped to create.

16 July 2011

They're Certainly Behaving like a Cartel

When you use the word "cartel," most people think of one of two things:  those groups responsible for the trafficking of illegal drugs, or OPEC.  I still think of the latter, mainly because I first heard the word used in reference to them.  

Lately, some people--including a couple who have left comments on my posts-- have referred to higher education, or the education system generally, as a cartel.  While it may not apply to pre-college education, as most local school systems and K-12 schools have no competition, it may well apply to colleges and universities.  After all, post-secondary institutions that ostensibly compete with each other actually consult with each other, and with governments and various professional associations, to decide on who can and can't enter various professions, or who can go to law school or other professional schools.

Another image that people have of cartels is one of violence. Those groups use not only physical violence and extortion, but also other forms of intimidation, to cow people into not bearing witness against them.  

The educational and professional cartels, like their counterparts in other endeavors, want to keep their monopoly on keys to the gateway, if you will.  And, just as cartels react ruthlessly to anyone who stands up to them or is otherwise "bad for business, so will members of the higher-education cartel.

Over the past couple of days, I've been reading about an example of what I've just described.  The Thomas Cooley Law School has been described by various people in the legal profession as well as scambloggers as the worst law school in the United States.  The U.S. News And World Report, in its annual ratings of colleges, universities and graduate and professional schools, consigned TCLS to the fourth, or bottom, tier of American Law Schools.

In retaliation, the school has started a lawsuit against four bloggers who, supposedly, defamed it.  C. Cryn Johannsen mentioned the suit in one of her blogs; the authors of Lawyers Against the Law School Scam and Restoring Dignity to the Law also mention it, and the chilling effect it could have if it's carried out.   Cryn and "Lawyers" expressed concern that they, too, could become objects of such a suit;
Restoring Dignity seems not to have much concern because he (she?) is more confident that Cooley was over-reaching in this case.

Still, even he/she expressed concern.  And, isn't that one purpose of a cartel:  to manipulate people through fear.

15 July 2011

They Are To Call You "Professor."

Perhaps it has to do with growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood.  Or maybe it's a trait I inherited from my mother:   After all, I share it with her.  Then again, it might be a reaction to what I've seen. Or, perhaps, all those people who say I'm a contrarian are right.

Whatever the case may be, I have no patience or use for pretentious titles.  When I worked as a secretary, my job title was something-or-other assistant.  (It was quite a while ago; please forgive this lapse of memory.)  But when people asked what I did, I told them I was a secretary.

That attitude, I've found, isn't very welcome in the academic world.  Once, I found myself in the office of the provost (This is the grown-up version of being in the principal's office.), defending myself against charges I would later learn were trumped-up.  The dean who read me the charges was doing her best to imitate somebody's idea of a prosecutor, and piled some other charges on top of them.  They included, among other things, a story that I allowed students to call me by my first name.

"I've never done that."

"What do they call you?"

"Ms. (X)"

She looked at me with contempt.  "You are never, NEVER, to allow that!  They absolutely must call you Professor."

"But I'm not one."

"Yes you are."

"But my title is 'Lecturer'."

"It's Professor-slash-lecturer."

"Where does it say that?"

Her face reddened.  "It's in your contract!"  I knew it wasn't, but I wasn't going to press the point with her.  "You will do as I say and make sure that your students address you as Professor!"

That day, I began to understand something I'm going to try to articulate, for the first time, now.  That exchange showed me how college administrations play, not only on the hunger for status and other insecurities many faculty members (and would-be faculty members) share, but on the belief some students have (at least when they first go to college) that they are getting instruction from some authority in his or her field.  You tell your students to call you "Professor;" they think you are and no one is the wiser.  

To this day, I correct students when they call me "Professor."  I explain to them, briefly, that it is the title for only a small percentage of faculty members; the others are associate professors, assistant professors and lecturers.  Likewise, I correct students who call me "Doctor."  Some do it out of habit; they have been conditioned to believe that everyone teaching in a college is a professor.  

Yet it seems that too many college administrators are duplicitous enough to let this belief become a major part of how things work day-to-day in the colleges.  

Most educators fancy themselves as role models of one sort or another. How can they be, if they are lying and telling others to lie about something so basic in the community.