Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Waiting for Superman: My Education

I finally got to watch Waiting For Superman, which I have wanted to since I read a Time article about it towards the end of winter semester, thanks to the forbearance of my sister and brother-in-law. For those of you who aren't addicted to education news, it is a documentary sort of about the state of public education in America. The filmmaker follows a few, mostly minority and underprivileged, families who are hoping to enroll their students in some form of charter school through the lottery system.

Although interesting, I found the movie somewhat disappointing as an intellectual exercise. The director seems to have been focused on making the, perhaps dubious, point that teachers unions are evil, charter schools are wonderful, and lottery systems for children's futures are heartbreaking. I have to admit to only agreeing with the last point. To this end, the movie barely mentioned suburban schools and gave rural schools no screen time at all, focusing almost exclusively on inner city schools.

As the product of a rural school system, I am kind of curious how they would compare. Although I'm not really sure how indicative my experience was of the average experience of those attending my school. I have to admit that I was surprised when, in high school, someone told me that drug use was not terribly uncommon among students, so what did I know about my own school? Still, I think that rural schools may have an advantage in that there is less opportunity for segregation to occur. In Waldport almost everyone in the community goes to the same school, whether they are poor or dirt poor.

That said, some people, like my elitist sister, did choose to apply for variances to attend school in Newport, where they had amenities such as electives and a music program. In her defense, we had both attended the Newport school system when we lived in Newport, so she also was going back to her friends. I, of course, had no (few) friends to which to return, which should hardly surprise people who know me, so I remained in Waldport. Those who know me will probably also not be surprised when I say that despite our size and lack of class selection, I managed to obtain quite a satisfactory education at Waldport High School.

As I have often maintained, I think it is quite possible for the motivated student to become educated in almost any environment. That said, after watching Waiting For Superman I must admit that some of the examples of terrible educators provided, who ignored or even abused their students, might be sufficient to stifle even the most inquisitive of minds. Maybe I was lucky, but all of my teachers made at least a perfunctory attempt to present the material relevant to their course, and I also had some outstanding, supportive, and challenging teachers along the way as well!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Cost of College: Purpose

What is the purpose of college? A question vague enough to be safely meaningless. After all, each of us probably has our own, slightly different, purpose for going to college. However, what we as a society think the purpose of college should be informs how we structure our society around college. So then, what should the purpose of college be?

To the modern, I would imagine that the purpose of college will be tightly bound to acquiring a job. Of course, the real trick to finding a job out of college these days seems to be being born forty years ago. That said, apparently college grads are less unemployed than those who lack a college degree. However, I think we can trace the link between college education and employment to an over proliferation of occupations wherein some form of college certification has become a de facto (in practice), or even de jure (in law or regulation), requirement for employment. As I noted a couple of posts back, many professions that require such certification could probably be performed by individuals who complete an apprenticeship or some form of non-college training. In other words, having the skills to perform a job has become secondary to having a paper that says you should have the skills to perform a job, perhaps in order to increase the ease of replacing even skilled laborers, as I discussed here.

If we are going to maintain the college framework of job preparation, rather than an abbreviated education followed by apprenticeship, we should probably get something more than employment out of it, to justify the higher costs of going to college. Here we can start borrowing from the historical traditions of higher education. In previous times, a college education was perceived less as a form of vocational training and more as a type of intellectual finishing school. Arguably, this tradition persists and is evidenced in phenomenon such as requiring all bachelor degree seeking students to take a smattering of core courses from a wide range of subjects or requiring all doctoral students to, ostensibly, have a passing familiarity with at least one foreign language.

Justifying the increased cost of a college education through the value of a well-rounded academic experience in the tradition of historic academies seems to be the most obvious method to do so. As I indicate in my Three-R's post (which I still think is one of my best posts), thinking is not a simple undertaking, a college education provides students with practice thinking, fruitful avenues of thought to pursue, and exposure to previously suggested answers to the, thus far, timeless questions asked by humanity.

Although anecdotal evidence is not a sound foundation for statistical conclusions, it does provide evidence of something that actually happened (on the other hand, who actually has the average 2.54 children?). Personally, I have never been terribly concerned with fitting my college education to a specific career, considering I studied philosophy and ended up in grad school I'm sure this is a huge surprise to you. If I end up as a clerk in a used book store or a hobby shop, jobs I could do without a college education, I will by no means consider my education wasted, nor lament the years I spent attaining it. Rather, I hope to keep pursuing education, in whatever guise, for the rest of my life.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Cost of College: Dollars and Sense

While I was spending some quality time in the airport last week I read a set of interesting articles about whether a college education is worth it. In the anti-college corner there is this article from the Huffington Post, and in the pro-college corner this article from the New York Times, both of which I found from this rather uninspiring TIME article. Whew, now that I've linked them here I can close three tabs and tidy up my browser a bit!

The first thing that occurs to be about these articles is that all of them, whether they are arguing for or against college, argue using projected earnings/debt and other economic factors. This leads to two related but distinct questions, how do we measure worth or value and what is the purpose of college? I intend to address each of these in turn, and although I wanted to make this post about education I think I shall begin with the former, as it will provide us with a philosophical context from which to approach the latter.

So, how do we measure worth or value? Borrowing heavily from the ideas of Marx, put forward in the first volume of Capital, there are two different types of value. "Use value," is the purpose for which we use something. For example, the use value of your hiking boots may be that they keep your socks relatively clean and dry, provide good traction, and don't give you too many blisters. To REI the use value of those exact same boots may have been that they can be exchanged for money. If they were a gift from a friend, the use value of the boots to that friend may simply be the smile on your face when you open them. Use value, it's the practical reason for you to have something.

Contrasting with this there is the idea of "exchange value." Exchange value attempts to capture the relationships between different goods or services. For example, we might say the boots are worth a guitar, two Avril Lavigne CD's, or $34.50. Note that this says nothing specific about the use value of the boots, we don't expect you to strap the CD's to your feet and hike about in them. It is intended to capture something about preference, people would rather have hiking boots than one CD, but would rather have three CD's than the boots, and consider the boots and the CD's about equally desirable. For convenience, economists like to express exchange value solely in terms of dollars these days, which makes a certain amount of sense, on the assumption that everything is interchangeable, since we can always convert the value of something into dollars.

At this point the mathematician in you should be wondering if you are comfortable with the assumption that everything is interchangeable. However, let us continue to hold that assumption for the nonce. Even then, just because everything can be expressed in terms of dollars does not imply that we can simply consider the dollar values involved. Calculating the expected earning of someone who does not attend college and comparing it to the expected earning of a college graduate having subtracted the interest earned over a lifetime for the money that one spends on college might not fully capture the worth of college. One might imagine that the education obtained at college would have some value to the person earning it independent of future earning value, but that is a topic for another post. Under the interchangeability assumption, this extra value can be expressed as a dollar amount, but that dollar amount should not be ignored.

That said, how realistic is the interchangeability assumption? Could you put a dollar price on your happiness, a sibling, your right leg? In order for every value to be converted into dollars, we must be able to assign a dollar value to such things. I have a post entitled, "Women Are Worth It," in which I by no means assign a dollar amount to the value of an equitable society. It seems a little more reasonable to assume that there are some things which, although they have value, are literally priceless. Oddly enough, these priceless things may indeed have a price tag. For example, to a person dying of thirst in a desert, a bottle of water must seem of value beyond price, yet that bottle may indeed be purchased for a set amount of money in a supermarket.

So, when we next consider the value of education we must consider not only the literal dollars and cents of the matter, but also whether there is value which is not obviously measured in money or even ineffable and impossible to capture with trap shaped like a dollar sign.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Only Skin Deep

Although I have another blog post about education that I want to write, since my previous one was also on that topic I thought I'd take a detour for body image before returning to a topic that I prefer.

One of the things that I consider myself fairly good at is avoiding overvaluing appearance. Those of you who know me in person probably won't disagree. When I started college my standard attire became t-shirts and glorified gym shorts, probably rumpled. For the longer, if not better, part of the last four years how best to describe my hair would be a tie between Viking and Hagrid-ian. I find the assumption, made most clear in the movie 300 I think, that good is beautiful/handsome (and totally built) while evil is ugly and mutilated to be insulting. When I went to interview to be a Resident Assistant I heard that one of the interviewers characterized me as, "under dressed," but it was a two day interview process, and I only had one pair of pants at the time, and I got the job anyway!

However, consider my reaction to 300. I don't characterize the movie as being an oversimplification, an equivocation, or some other form of reductionist argument, I call it insulting. I consider myself among the unsightly, and I would prefer to believe, although you are free to correct me, that I am not particularly evil. I am forced to admit that one of the reasons that I do not value appearance is because it is an asset which I do not believe I possess. This is, of course, akin to assertions by the poor that money is not an indication of hard work (or divine favor), or the counter-assertions by the rich that it is.

As I noted in my previous post on body image, I do find most other people aesthetically pleasing in their own way, so intellectually I am forced to admit that it is possible that someone with an objective eye might classify my appearance as, "intriguingly novel," or "pleasantly eccentric," rather than "disturbingly ogre-ish" as often pops into my head in conjunction with my facial features. However, as is the case with so many things, just because I am intellectually forced to acknowledge that something is logically quite plausible, does not force me to believe it. While beauty may only be skin deep, crazy goes all the way through ones head.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Response to a Washington Post Article

The title says it all, here are some thoughts in response to this Washington Post article about five things they believe the public erroneously perceives about public education. You may have noticed that education is something that interests me, and although I teach at the college level, the status of K-12 education affects me non-trivially as it forms the foundation for the students I see in my classes. Since it really is a response, you ought to read the article if you want my thoughts to make the most sense, but it is an interesting article.

1) I think this bullet point glosses over a major source of the turmoil in the realm of higher education. Our high school diploma rates are rising, our college attendance rates are rising, so we are, ideally, expecting a larger segment of our population to perform at college level. Whereas in the past college attendance was, for the most part, restricted to the highly motivated or those for whom academic achievement came naturally, who are probably still doing fine in our education system, nowadays we are attempting to serve a wider clientele. (The word choice "clientele" in purposeful, laden with meaning, and an entirely different point which I have made elsewhere.)

While increasing access to higher education, and education in general, is laudable, and even perhaps necessary, from a democratic point of view. It does put additional strains on the system. At the K-12 level we find ourselves needing higher levels of preparedness than has previously been necessary. The phenomenon of the "social pass," while understandable from the point of view of a teacher, will hurt the student in the long run if they eventually progress to a level where they are evaluated on ability in any subject wherein they have been allowed to skate past with an insufficient understanding previously. Additionally, the influx of different types of students to higher education correlates with changes to the public perception of higher education, which in turn affects what people expect to obtain from their education, as I talked about in slightly more detail here. Long story short, it seems plausible that, while the average high school student has improved, the average college student is actually at a disadvantage to her historic counterpart due to the increased attendance at college.

So what? If we are "better educated" "on average," measured by some absolute scale of educational level, aren't we doing well? This goes back to the changing social meaning of education. Having better educated high school graduates now is less impressive if the a bachelor's degree is nowadays the societal equivalent of a high school diploma. Of course, some of this is entirely artificial, and I have read various articles talking about the over-emphasis on college education in today's society. Part of this is a reflection of societal values, while we want people around who fix our plumbing and build our houses, these positions are not glorified in our society. One could also argue that we are simply degree crazy, and some positions where a college education is not strictly necessary have become, be default, jobs for the college educated. For example, it seems many types of engineering could be done by graduates of a trade school, not recipients of a classical academic education, even more extreme, do Park Rangers (Outdoor Recreation Management) and PE teachers (I don't know what degree, Kinesiology?) NEED college educations to do their jobs well? And, if not, why do they need college degrees?

2) The only thought that the second bullet inspires is that I wish were observed and supported by a seasoned veteran teacher. I, of course, consider myself to be an underperforming educator.

3) I think the article overstates its case when it asserts that cooperation is necessary for education and performance based bonuses negatively incentivizes cooperation. The grounds for this opinion is the simple fact that cash bonuses appear to have no effect on educational preparedness, rather than a negative one. That said, I have never been a fan of evaluating a teacher's merit based on their performance on standardized tests. Among other reasons, classes are unique and it incentivizes training students to take the standardized test, rather than teaching them the material in question.

4) Once again, I think the article almost breezes over the most important point of this bullet. Motivated students are important! Furthermore, motivation cannot start in the classroom, especially if social value of education is already in question in the minds of students. After all, if teachers are percieved to be uncool and "out of it," then why should a student trust one when they try to explain why their subject is interesting?

That said, separating out the high performing students may not be such a bad idea, in order to challenge them at their own level rather than shackling them to the level of the "class average." However, there are a lot of very bad ways to separate students, and some of them even end up looking like accurate measures of their ability, such as self fulfilling determinations of ability and separation along socio-economic lines.

5) I don't know what to say to the 5th point, not in the least because I don't know how much of my class's performance reflects my efficacy and how much reflects other factors. Even when students persistently do not attend class I develop the feeling of having "failed them." (Which, by contrast is not the same as having flunked them, which I definitely do.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pentagon, Hexagon, Oregon, Michigan

By the way, the first two rhyme, the second two rhyme.

Appropriately enough, although I begin writing this post in Michigan, I expect to finish it up from an airport in Oregon. It has come to the point where I have to admit I call both states home, although I still consider myself an Oregonian. Thus, flying from one to another provoked some emotions, which I'm not really going to talk about, and some thoughts, which are more my thing.

One thing I realized is that I don't really visit Oregon proper, I visit an idealized version. For one thing, I am just visiting Oregon, I don't have to live here. Which means I'm usually not doing work when I'm here, although that isn't always the case. My stress level also tends to be a lot lower here, because even if I am working on things my deadline doesn't come due until I head back to Michigan. Another idealization is the delusion that a lot of my Oregonian friends still live in Oregon. This is especially true in the Christmas season, when I get together with old friends who have also made the pilgrimage back to Corvallis, a few of them from origins even further away than mine, although this coming year I expect to be the second most distant. I realized at least a year ago that the Corvallis which I visit is a Corvallis that mostly exists in my memory, rather than reality, but it has been a more recent revelation that I have been comparing Michigan to this ideal Oregon unfairly. That said, the weather really is much nicer in Oregon.

Another interesting thing I recently realized is that I really do consider Michigan my home now. I think I made a grave error in considering my move to Michigan temporary. This, combined with my pain from leaving Oregon, probably contributed to a desire to avoid feeling at home in Michigan, so that my planned eventual leaving wouldn't hurt so much. Of course this, along with other stuff, led to me being fairly miserable my first couple of years in Michigan, so I can't really say as I recommend this course of action. I'm sort of inclined to write it off as just me not transplanting well, but that is disingenuous, as I acclimated to Corvallis very well, and I always enjoy visiting and exploring new places, so it is probably more complicated than that.

In conclusion, it's not easy having your life scattered across the continent, but whose life is easy? I try to persevere and keep thinking interesting thoughts. And seriously, pronounce Oregon correctly ;)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Note on Content

As I mentioned, I have many browser tabs open, storing things about which I would like to talk. However, I am not going to do that today. "Why?" you might ask. Because responding to things in a meaningful way takes a lot more time, mental energy, and effort that just making up a post whole cloth, and I am still fairly worn out.

There is the obvious reason, posts in which I respond to other things, or even develop my own idea seriously, tend to be longer, and thus take more time. They need to introduce whatever it is I am referring to, in a way so that the people who don't love hyperlinking around the Internet discovering new, interesting, and awesome things will have an idea what I am talking about without reading the source link.

It also is a more arduous process because I feel the need to give weighty consideration to what I say. In this post, after I decided what I wanted to say and why/how I would say it, I basically am just writing as it comes to me. But if I am developing an idea I think is important/interesting, or, to put it another way, about which I would really like some discussion and constructive feedback, I feel that I should take the time to structure my thought in an interesting, appealing, and accessible manner, which takes time.

Additionally, if I am responding to something thought provoking, I feel the pressure to make my response a worthy one. If I don't add meaningful thought to the discussion, then I might as well have just posted the link and let you simply read it for yourself. So, while response posts are quite interesting to write, as you might guess from the number of them I do, and pleasant in that I don't need to worry about coming up with something to talk about, they do require a lot of energy.

I don't have a lot of energy, so you got this today ;)

Saturday, July 2, 2011


You may have noticed that I have not posted recently. Like many other fun internet things I do in my spare time, blog posting got shoved out of my life as I tried to teach a 5 credit class and take a 5 credit class both in the span of 13/2 weeks. Those of you who see me on Facebook already know this had mixed results, academically and emotionally. But, now all that is over, and I have lots of browser tabs open with things that I wanted to blog about, but couldn't find the energy to adequately address. I may not feel up to it today, but by tomorrow I will have a real post about something up, and I will be updating more than once a month the rest of the summer. Thanks for sticking with me!