Saturday, August 06, 2016

Liberal Students are Destroying Their Own Future

The New York Times of August 4th offers this headline (click through to read):

The NY Times reports a general decline in alumni donations as academic rigor has given way to touchy-feeliness and increased student protests demanding that free speech be curbed (obviously I'm paraphrasing... read the article). And the comments to this article are as informative as the article itself... I urge you to at least skim through them.

Amherst College, mentioned in the NY Times piece,
has a truly bizarre approach to problem-solving.
First, let's recognize something obvious: the university system, and the higher-level degrees in particular, are constructed so as to be somewhat dismissive of conventional wisdom.

This is by design. A candidate must present a thesis or dissertation that is based on significant, original research. There's a weird little dance in which prior research is acknowledged, but the thesis itself should be original. That's difficult to claim if your research is confirming that everything we knew to be true is true. That's just the way it is. So there is a tendency of students to over-reach in their desire for a blatantly original thesis despite being told that a thesis doesn't have to be world-changing.  The fact that they are told this is evidence of that tendency toward over-reach. While your thesis and research should be original, there's really no requirement for it to be correct. It can be total bullshit. Many are. But it has to be defensible bullshit. And if your research backs your bullshit claim and nobody calls you on shoddy research, then there's no "right" or "wrong" about a thesis. (I'm speaking in absolutes here only for concision, but if you are familiar with a thesis you should be smart enough to figure that out.) 

So there is a built-in bias toward being dismissive of prior thinking... it doesn't get you a masters or a doctorate. It just gets you close. And it also means that as the body of academic work has exploded with theses pointed in every direction, it has become easier and easier to cherry-pick prior research that leads you in any direction you want to go. Thus, nobody should be surprised that each generation of students is at odds with the previous one. I think it's an obvious result of the system.


While we're stating the obvious, I've said this for years: private universities are businesses. They are in the business of selling education. However they were founded, whatever their mission charter, they must continuously bring in funds to maintain their facilities, pay their professors and staff, house their students, etc. For this purpose they not only require that students pay tuition, but they also regularly hit up their alumni for funds based on charitable or nostalgic arguments. In return for this, the university must deliver perceived value.

For instance, tuition buys you an opportunity to earn a degree that proves you are well-educated and capable of independent thought; and with it a "good job" and the prestige of that degree. For instance, you can be addressed as "Doctor". An endowment buys you immortality by putting your name on a wing, or exhibit, or scholarship; and it buys you prestige because you're obviously one generous and selfless son-of-a-bitch.

This "school is a business" thing is foreign thinking to a lot of students and educators alike, but it's on-target, and has begun to be reported as news. To me, this is like "discovering" that the sky is blue. Supply and Demand acts even upon socialist professors. Unpopular classes get canceled. Unfunded programs die. Everyone bemoans the political advantage that athletics enjoys over academics, but the plain fact of the matter is that athletics generate vast amounts of revenue. Money talks.


One of the side-effects of "universities are businesses" is that higher education has been aggressively marketed since the waning days of World War II and the passage of the G.I. Bill. That marketing has consisted in great measure of people whose business it is to sell education telling you how little you can do with your life without their product. If you want to "get ahead" and "be somebody" and "make something of yourself" then you need a degree. "White collar work" is good. "Blue collar work" is bad. You "settle" for Community College or Tech when you can't get into a "good" school.

There have been decades of concerted brainwashing on this issue. It is brainwashing. It is marketing. It is hype.

Until it isn't.

You see, those people who graduated with those degrees wound up in positions of influence in business. They decided that in the interests of efficiency they could hire based on the degree itself rather than by any demonstration of skilled proficiency as they had in the past. Thus their pronouncements of the value of a degree became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Idiots on parade.
The public has responded by responding favorably to pandering politicians who passed laws funding University degrees, which have never actually needed to be publicly funded. A result of all this freely-flowing money has been a veritable explosion in the cost of a University education. They can do it because the market bears it. But at a certain point it becomes questionable whether a degree will get you a good enough job to pay for the degree required to get that job.

Yet, the Snowflakes continue to buy the sales pitch. They pursue degrees that make no economic sense, funded by debt made "freely" available by those pandering politicians. And bless their brainwashed li'l hearts, they blame all their ensuing financial troubles on "Big Banks". Big Banks didn't raise your tuition. Big Banks didn't promise you pie in the sky served on a sheepskin. Big Banks didn't choose your college. Big Banks didn't seek out those loans and sign those guarantees. Big Banks didn't map out this future for you. YOU DID. If you had a better education, you'd know that.


And that brings us to the point. You see, whether or not it makes empirical sense to use a university degree as an indicator of job skills, HR managers and employers did not do that without a great deal of rationalization. Having acquired degrees of their own, they know that a classical liberal education provides a scholar with certain competencies. These competencies are valuable to the employer. And with the exception of those relatively few career academics, the degree is only valuable to the student because it's valuable to the employer. It's the student's ticket to a "good job". It's what he was promised by the salesman disguised as a guidance counselor.

But what happens when a degree no longer ensures those competencies are met? What happens when you have no core curriculum? What happens when the tolerance that is required for the discussion of competing views in an honest academic debate or a business negotiation gives way to the intolerance of "safe spaces" and speech codes? What happens when emotional self-indulgence takes precedence over achievement and service?

A student may feel it's a lovely thing to have no core curriculum, but an employer really has no interest in hiring you just because you felt that it was worthwhile to part with tens of thousands of dollars -- much of it someone else's money -- to do what you want and feel nurtured for four years. Frankly, it makes you look like an immature idiot, and nobody really thinks immature idiots are terribly productive. Nor will a self-indulgent diva do very well as a team player in a corporate environment. On the other hand, the kid from tech school is pretty bright, has some skills, and takes well to OJT. Her diploma is worth more because she is worth more. Providing in-house OJT looks cost effective once you get tired of cleaning up the messes of unqualified grads, and you realize that you've got to provide OJT anyway.

You can see this in the comments of that New York Times piece. Academics and students just think, "Gosh, those old white men are just mean old racists. They don't understand the diversity of this new generation." It's bullshit. Those "old white men" fought for that diversity so that more people could get the same quality of education they themselves received, not some watered-down useless pablum in its place. And those "old white men" are not complaining about diversity... they are complaining about the intolerant self-indulgence of identity politics; the frivolity and uselessness of the coursework; and frankly, all the bitching about "old white men" who have continued to fund scholarships and endowments for the ungrateful little whiny brats who receive them and then cry about the meanness and greed of their benefactors in the "one percent". And in return for these investments, made possible by money earned by competent executives in their corporate offices, the "old white men" (some of whom are neither old, nor white, nor men) get substandard job candidates who are not executive material.


Meanwhile, Mike Rowe has it right. There's nothing inherently wrong with American Capitalism. Where it's broken is that not everyone should be going to university. Fortunes are not made in Yale, they're made in the free market. And a very decent living can be had providing the services that have been abandoned by US citizens to immigrants... shopkeepers, hoteliers, landscapers, welders, plumbers, bricklayers, electricians, roofers, carpenters. Regular, ordinary people can and do become not just middle-class, but millionaires in this country, without a lottery ticket and without student loan debt. And people are starting to endow them, through initiatives such as the Mike Rowe Works Foundation.

We are still the Land of Opportunity, but only the idiots in college don't know it. I say "idiots" because in my opinion they're earning the label. How else can you explain their demands for opportunities at the same time that an immigrant from Pakistan can work at a convenience store, then own one of his own, then two, then a chain? We're talking about college students who are so stupid and ineptly educated that they can beg for $80,000 of someone else's money to buy something they want right now, and then claim that the lender is greedy for wanting his own money paid back over a period of many years; students who are so dumb they conclude that it's then OK to steal that same $80,000. That is the level of economic incomprehension of many of the people who are in college today.

Prediction: as university degrees are increasingly perceived as worthless, what we see in these "small, elite Liberal Arts colleges" will become a broader trend. Not only the alumni will continue to abandon them; but also employers. And even as the academics scream about the injustice of it all, those employers will have shifted their sights. Fewer jobs will require university degrees as opposed to certification or on-the-job training. For many of those who are attending only for "a good job", this will make those degrees worthless in fact. It won't matter who funded them.

The shame of it all is that a university degree should be a badge of achievement. It should be valuable. But should this current trend continue, who will have erased the value of that hugely expensive degree? It won't have been those mean old capitalist employers, my dear Snowflakes. They're not the ones who built that perception of uselessness and counter-productivity.

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