Monday, April 25, 2011

Beyond the education bubble

Peter Thiel’s contrarian approach to higher education, as you might expect, has provoked considerable squealing from the usual suspects. Thiel believes higher education has become a speculative bubble, and that the price of a college education is vastly overvalued compared to its lifetime payoff. There are more college graduates than there are jobs that call for their qualifications, which means that for many unemployed or underemployed graduates a student loan is the equivalent of an underwater mortgage.

The education bubble, like the finance bubble, is fueled by excess money looking for an outlet and unscrupulous promoters looking for suckers. Just as shady bankers lured people into mortgages that were beyond their means, the higher education industrial complex — through its affiliated high school counselors — lures kids into obtaining what seems to be easy money through Sallie Mae with the promise of higher lifetime incomes. Meanwhile, the availability of this third-party money fuels an educational culture based on high-overhead and cost-plus markup — the same culture that gave us the Pentagon’s $600 toilet seats — and tuition increasing at more than four times the rate of inflation.

To challenge the college mystique, Thiel is in the process of selecting the twenty most promising candidates under age 20 to drop out, in return for $100,000 over two years to start a business. Hence the above-mentioned squeals of outrage.

Of course the idea that the educational panacea is overrated isn’t a new one. The late Joe Bageant pointed out that the “economic growth by sending everyone to college” meme was a fallacy of composition. The Empire, he said, only needed about 25% of its population in administrative-technical positions. Sending more than that to college just resulted in burger-flippers and floor-moppers with bachelor’s degrees.

There are some serious difficulties with Thiel’s position, in an economy organized on the kind of hyper-capitalist corporate model he seems to assume. In such an economy, as plenty of critics have pointed out, higher education — even if overpriced — will be indispensible to people seeking certain kinds of professional employment. It will continue to perform a signaling function, simply because HR departments will naturally desire some bureaucratic S.O.P. for processing human raw material without having to deal with a lot of special cases on an ad hoc basis. And I’ve seen more than one person argue that Thiel probably hires college educated people; if American higher education implodes, he’ll just hire cheaper credentialed Chinese tech workers.

John Robb, of Global Guerrillas blog, wants to go further than Thiel and challenge the existing state capitalist model of how employment itself generates demand for credentials (“The Education Bubble,” April 13).

The idea is not to eliminate higher education, but to eliminate the mass-production model by which it is organized: Transporting people to a central location with expensive physical plant and a bloated administrative bureaucracy in order to process them into human resources. Network technology, with its ability to move information cheaply rather than moving people, offers the potential of an alternative that “creates its own educational modules if needed (from scratch using modern tools and techniques).”

We’ve seen the first hints of this with MIT’s Open Courseware project, which puts its entire catalog of course syllabi and lectures online. And there are corporate capitalist challengers, like the University of Phoenix, offering a cheaper education in competition with the legacy colleges. But what happens when you combine the two? What happens when you combine online syllabi, video lectures, online conferencing and virtual classrooms into a single package on the U. Phoenix model — but the lectures and other content are provided on an open-source basis without the state’s copyright monopolies?

Education may provide an essential signaling function, given the conventional model of employment. But the conventional model of employment by a large bureaucratic corporation — with a conveyor belt running from schools to the HR department which sorts out the “resources” which are manufactured to spec — is itself becoming obsolete.

Industrial supply and distribution chains are radically shortening, and tools are becoming radically cheaper, which means that business enterprise will become much smaller and relocalized, with business models driven by those who actually own the tools and the skills.

So the organization and selection of educational options will be driven much more by producers’ own assessments of what they need to learn to be able to produce effectively, instead of a curriculum set to the specs of HR at GlobalEvilMegaCorp LLC. Curricula will be set on a much more decentralized, bottom-up and ad hoc basis, with the student — not the corporate employer — as the real customer.

Higher education, as conventionally understood, is a legacy of the 20th century model in which giant interlocking bureaucratic institutions — large oligopoly corporations, centralized government agencies, bloated bureaucratic universities — dominate society.


University Administrators Refuse to Allow Christians to Speak Their Peace

It’s hard to understand what, exactly, public university officials across the country have against the Christians on their campus.

Christian students don’t often lead riots. Those who are serious and sincere about their faith don’t cheat on their exams, traffic in drugs, get drunk and disorderly, indulge in sexual hijinks in the dorm, or otherwise undermine the general campus esprit de corps.

Christian students put a particular premium on learning truth (a time-honored practice in academic realms). They value life and the worth of every individual and have deeper incentives than most of their peers for treating those around them – even those with whom they disagree most fervently – with dignity, compassion, and respect.

Many are driven by the nature of their beliefs to share their faith with others, but most do so in appropriate and respectful ways. And proselytizing is not exactly a rarity on college campuses, where the urge is to make converts runs at least as strong among political theorists, sexual hedonists, and vegans as it does among Christians.

So, what’s not to like? Or, more to the point…what’s to despise, so aggressively?

Something, apparently – for the antipathy is intensifying, as more and more public universities coast to coast are creating and enforcing regulations clearly designed to silence, humiliate, and dispel Christian students. In recent years, the Alliance Defense Fund alone has taken on 70 colleges and universities across the country where administrators have bullied, marginalized, and in many cases, violated the most basic constitutionally protected rights of students who openly profess faith or identify themselves with Christian beliefs.

ADF has won the 61 of those cases decided – a most recent one being against the University of Wisconsin, a perennial base for anti-Christian sentiment and one that’s spurred several lawsuits in the last decade. Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear UW’s appeal of an appellate court ruling in favor of a student ministry at the university’s Madison campus.

The case, Badger Catholic v. Walsh, stemmed from the refusal of UW officials to allow the ministry the same kinds of student activity fee funding that the university makes available to other registered student groups on campus. Their reason for withholding the money: the Badger Catholics’ events include prayer, worship, and sharing their faith.

The university’s policy marked such a blatant attack on the students’ rights as protected by the First Amendment that a string of courts – culminating in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit – ruled flatly against them. And this is only the latest in a slew of clear-cut, ADF-backed cases dating back to 1995, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia that a school couldn’t provide funding for every campus student publication except the Christian one.

But the universities’ bigotry isn’t limited to mere budgetary considerations.

At Missouri State University, Emily Brooker was threatened with expulsion for declining to violate her Christian principles by completing a class assignment that required her to write a letter to the state legislature endorsing adoption for same-sex couples.

At California’s Yuba College, Ryan Dozier stood just off a campus walkway, holding an evangelical sign and politely offering Gospel tracts to students who asked for them. A security officer charged him with conducting an unauthorized “assembly” (of one). Later, administrators informed him that free speech was only permitted at Yuba on Tuesdays and Thursdays between noon and 1.

The Commissioned II Love club at Savannah State University was banned from campus when officials characterized a student re-enactment of Jesus humbly washing His disciples’ feet as “hazing.”

At Georgia Tech, Ruth Malhotra objected to speech codes that severely curtailed any student conversation, publications, events, or activities administrators deemed “intolerant.” She drew the full fury of those campus officials, who cut off funds for organizations involved in religious activities, banished free speech in all but the most remote areas of campus, and even instituted a program to demonize anyone who considered homosexual behavior immoral. When Ruth’s public stand brought threats of rape and murder, the university offered no protection or support.

Full disclosure: ADF represented the plaintiffs in each of these cases, which all have two more things in common: (1) the schools involved lost their case – expensively – in court. (Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, how do you suppose they made back the money?) And (2), they are all the tip of the iceberg in an academic Cold War against Christians.

Across America, an estimated 274 public universities currently have speech codes that can be used to shut down points of view that a student, professor, or administrator might find “offensive.” (At Penn State, officials even went so far as to say that “intolerance will not be tolerated.”) And nothing offends the academic Left faster than a Bible, a prayer, or a Christian with a conscience.

Of course, ultimately, it’s not the people of faith that the Left objects to – it’s the faith itself. Their hatred is really aimed at a Truth that galls them to the deep, deep places of their souls…in the place where sins, and the need for a God bigger than themselves, can’t be denied.

They won’t go there. They can’t shut Him up. So they’re bent on removing some of the best students and most thoughtful professors they have. If that means destroying not just good people, but the holiest freedoms endowed by that Creator and ever cherished by mankind – well, surely that’s not too high a price to pay, for delusion?


Is teaching racist? No more than Oxford University or 'Mastermind'

We are too quick to throw around accusations of racial discrimination, argues Alasdair Palmer

There was consternation in schools last week when The Guardian – the teachers' favourite newspaper – reported accusations that the profession was "institutionally racist". The evidence for the charge was that while those of black Caribbean or black African origin make up 2 per cent of the population, they provide only 0.7 per cent of our head teachers.

That might sound like a standard Guardian whine. But it is actually a very common complaint, and one which is treated with the utmost seriousness. From a statistic showing that the proportion of a particular ethnic group in a particular position does not mirror that group's share of the population as a whole, the conclusion is drawn that the only explanation can be racism. This is visible everywhere, from the insistence that the police are institutionally racist to last week's claim that Mastermind must be guilty of the same fault, since it hasn't had enough contestants from ethnic minorities. Even David Cameron was at it a couple of weeks ago, lamenting that Oxford's admissions system was "disgraceful" – code for "racist" – because it admitted only one black student last year (actually, it was only one black Caribbean student).

Yet the inference, although widespread, is invalid. It's a way of not thinking about whatever problems there are with ethnic or other "minority" representation. (Minority has to be in quotes, because women are frequently described as a minority, even though they are actually the majority.) Racism can be the explanation for the fact that a group is under-represented, but it does not have to be, and frequently is definitely not.

If you look at Britain's Olympic sprinting team, you will not find the white middle classes represented. Indeed, you may not find anyone white at all. Is this the result of racism? Er, no. It is simply the consequence of the fact that the fastest runners, at least over short distances, do not happen to be white and bourgeois. No one complains, for the obvious reason that there is nothing sinister going on.

Again, almost all of the workmen who built skyscrapers in New York and other big cities on America's East Coast were, until recently, Mohawk Indians: there were very few Italians, Jews or Wasps. This was not down to racial prejudice on the part of the contractors: it was merely that Mohawks were better at the job. For reasons no one fully understands, they had less fear of heights and were better able to weld rivets 20 storeys up.

If Mr Cameron's reasoning were valid, the over-representation of Mohawks in high-rise construction, and of blacks in sprinting, should automatically be labelled a "disgrace" – as should the fact that Jews and Chinese, for instance, do better at getting places at top universities and firms than the ethnically Anglo-Saxon. Which merely shows the silliness of that form of inference.

The real explanation for the failure of some groups to do as well as others is not that admissions tutors, the Civil Service, and other employers are closet racists who conspire to ensure that incompetent whites are appointed to top jobs, in preference to more able individuals from ethnic minorities. Educational attainment is determined by many factors, particularly the sorts of things a child is exposed to before the age of seven. The gaps within the ability range have opened up considerably by then, and get wider during the school years.

By the time a child is old enough to go to university, there is not much that government can do to close them – other than ordering institutions not to admit or appoint on merit, but on some other characteristic, such as ethnic or class background. That, of course, is precisely what this government is trying to do, and it really is a disgrace. Dispensing with merit as the only criterion for entry to our top institutions is the fastest way to destroy them. But then again, perhaps that is the idea.


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