Archives For education


When you hear the word tenure, you’re more than likely imagining the countless groans from a certain subset of pundits who think that’s it’s a magical ticket for an academic to do nothing and keep his or her job no matter what. Of course the reality is not quite as dire. Tenure has never, ever been a guaranteed job for life with no requirements. In fact, tenure is a reward for a really productive academic bringing in millions in grants and paying his or her salary, as well as for a whole lot of lab equipment and graduate students. You have to be really good at both research and raising money to even have a shot at it, and once you’re tenured, you could still be fired for doing bad science, or any other offense pretty much any of us would consider to be reasonable grounds for termination. Really, the only two things tenure would grant you is a reprieve from a committee laying you off for being only really good, not exceptionally amazing, and the right not to be fired on the spot, but after a hearing to decide if any of your offenses were actually worthy of termination and you’re not a target of retaliation, political malfeasance, or discrimination.

Sadly, for the politicians who made up their mind that tenure is just a way for scientists to bilk a few million tax payers in their states while they do nothing useful, and abuse the law to make it illegal to fire them for this egregious abuse of public funds, there’s plenty of popular support to simply do away with it. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker did just that by giving public colleges the power to fire any academic for any reason they could portray as remotely plausible. Instead of any guaranteed due process, a political appointee could simply decide that the research being done by the scientist “needs redirection or modification,” or that it’s not in the budget and that’s that. Obviously, academics are upset and one public college had to spend $9 million to keep at least some of the researchers it had so it could hold on to $18 million in grant money. But what happens if the scientists UW-Madison kept still feel threatened that if Walker or an appointee of his really doesn’t like what their experiments uncovered, or get upset that a paper challenges a partisan orthodoxy to which they’re particularly attached and suddenly, the program is just way too expensive and needs “realignment,” meaning that the academic is no longer needed?

Sure, there are definitely professors who abuse their tenure and use their perch to indulge in a variety of unsavory conspiracy theories, but changing or even removing tenure to punish them simply isn’t worth it because it creates a precedent in which important but unpopular speech all too easily gets silenced. Researchers and academics need to be intellectually independent, not beholden to their colleges and the political beliefs of the people who run it, fearing retaliation in response to unflattering scientific findings. If an owner of a sugar company can dismantle a lab where scientists were testing how excess sugar consumption can cause diabetes, that’s both a huge blow for science and public policy. Conversely, should UC-Berkeley dismiss the notorious AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg, it would lose his promising work on cancer genetics. And when the University of Colorado finally decided to get rid of the human Gowdin that is Ward Churchill, his incendiary essays weren’t the reason, it was his plagiarism and academic fraud that got him fired. If anything, his dismissal proves that the system works and that tenured academics aren’t immune from investigation and punishment if their science is even somewhat suspect.

I agree that we need be firing subpar scientists, frauds, and do-nothings, but we already do that when they’re tenured. To force good scientists to depend on the will of politicians and the mood of special interests which thrive in partisan echo chambers under the excuse of punishing those supposedly invincible bad apples would turn the scientific process into a groupthink exercise. If you can be fired simply for not parroting a party line or offending a powerful donor, why risk the trouble? This is how think tanks do their “research,” not universities, and if we want to fulfill the crude stereotype of colleges being propaganda mills, there’s no better way to do that than to do away with tenure. But then again, I really don’t think that those pushing for tenure’s repeal have much interest in independent scientists challenging long accepted dogmas or diving into a really controversial topic. They like their science pliant and rigged to produce data they agree with so their worldview never has to change. And they’re doing the equivalent of telling scientists that’s they’ve got awfully nice tenure and such well funded and ran labs, asking whether it would it be a real shame if something happened to all that should their next study be… disagreeable.


College in America is the ultimate solution to any problem involving income. We’re told to go to one to get a four year degree, and suddenly, we’ll have lucrative jobs, fulfilling careers, and just as a bonus, make an extra million dollars over our lifetimes. Or at least that’s how it works in an oft-repeated fairy tale told to teenagers every day across the country. The reality is that college nowadays isn’t just an expensive guessing game, but leaves half of its graduates unable to get enough money together to start their independent lives while saddling them with debt. Not only that, but some 57% of people with jobs say that the work they do simply doesn’t need a degree at all in a trend that held steady for the last decade. And if you think working in a job that needs one will put that sheepskin to use, you’re in for a rude surprise. Just 27% of people actually use their degree in their daily job as it was intended. Things get even worse when you’re actually in your new office because many employers view college degrees with thinly veiled contempt.

Even if you got a job in the field to which your degree is relevant, be prepared for your future to include applying for new jobs with ridiculous, unrealistic requirements, and companies praising college graduates while complaining bitterly about them, refusing to train new workers and then expecting colleges to act as their apprenticeship programs. Even if we do make public colleges free of charge, as some are proposing, all we’d be doing is increasing access to something that has been oversold to the public as a cure for all that economically ails us, and fails to anticipate what happens as automation continues to crater job growth. Companies have already turned a four year degree into a prerequisite for higher paying jobs, but do not seem to care much about whether the degree their require is actually relevant to the job, as we can see by the practice of constantly employing people with irrelevant degrees. And that prompts the question of why we’d spend our own or taxpayer money on traditional four year programs unless we actually need to for the job at hand. Demanding a $30,000 check mark on an application is utterly asinine.

Consider that 70% of people either couldn’t care less about, or outright hate their jobs, then just factor in that between them is something like a trillion dollars in student debt, fewer than a third of them are actually doing what they studied, most taking all those courses and tests, going into all that debt just to get a piece of paper in the grand scheme of things, and pile on the stagnant wages, rampant automation, and managerial indifference of today’s workplace, and suddenly it all makes sense. People are miserable because they’re being asked to jump through expensive and painful hoops only to end up somewhere they didn’t want to be, bosses included. They too are every bit not happy with their jobs as their subordinates, filtering their noxious attitude down until the cloud of toxic ennui consumes the workplace. The drive to get everyone to go to some sort of college, any college, and study something, doesn’t matter what, just something because hey, a million dollars, created a lot of over-educated graduates whose skills can’t be relevant to what employers need, because colleges insist on existing in their own economic vacuum. They don’t cater to the marketplace, they say, because their job is to educate rather than train.

What we need isn’t even more education, or better education, whatever that means, we need a flexible, responsive, and relevant higher-education system with real world apprenticeships and internships as required parts of the degree program. Instead of rushing kids into college armed with a BLS report that was stale by the time it was published, we should encourage them to get some real world experience in a year off from school, and companies should help. It’s just plain irrational to expect the kind of workers they want to appear ex nihilo; they should be exposing a new generation to what they actually do day in, day out when they’re still living with family, able to take lower paying jobs and still deciding what they want, and not relegate them to busy work that no one wants to do. If a teenager wants a philosophy or history degree only to find out that no one is going to give him or her a job even when it costs pennies to do so, that would be one hell of a wake up call to reconsider. And if the job doesn’t require specialized skills you can only learn in college, why require a degree? Just let the new apprentice advance up the ladder. How would that not make sense? Why force him to her to waste time instead of learning the job?

College as we know it today was started to give a liberal arts education to the wealthy and their children, people not really concerned with how they’ll make a living after they graduate, though perpetually in the habit of asking for more spending money. Widespread public literacy and the requirement for all kids to be educated is barely a century old, as is the concept of a steady job with a regular schedule. Most of our ancestors never sat in offices for 250 days a year and got paychecks on a regular schedule. In many ways, the so-called gig economy was the norm until the industrial revolution created an insatiable demand for jobs as we understand them today. In the last 150 years, we’ve adapted colleges to teach skills relevant to many professions, such as medicine and applied sciences, aka the STEM majors, but we haven’t changed how many four year programs still exist simply for the sake of education and aren’t offering attractive incentives to keep these vocational programs up to date and relevant with the marketplace. Education for education’s sake is still the order of the day, which is really bad for current vocational majors.

It’s not that education for the sake of self-betterment is somehow wrong or should be seen as a waste of time and effort, quite the opposite. It’s just that we can’t have it both ways, demanding that colleges turn into vocational schools that also teach expansive theory and general classes for expanding one’s mind, while deriding vocational schools as a refuge for C and D students to perhaps make something useful of themselves, seeing as how they weren’t good enough to go to a four year institution. Millenials have a chip on their shoulders precisely because they had a childhood filled with warnings that flipping burgers and fixing cars was for losers, then after over a decade and a half of education, finishing with strong GPAs, they’re now derided for being “too proud” to flip burgers and fix cars. Which they were told was a punishment for incompetence. If they had been gently tracked, if vocational schools were presented to them as a viable and just as honorable of an option as four year colleges, and if we stopped demanding college degrees for things no college needs to teach, is it somehow unreasonable to think we would all be much happier and have more ways to find gainful employment while remaining fiscally solvent?

bumbling ninjas

Remember the nasty and bitter social justice clashes that rippled out across what still remained of independent pop sci and skeptical blogs, the ones that ended up swallowing a good chunk of organized skepticism and sent many groups into a slow, quiet slide into nowhere? Well, they’re all the rage on college campuses and writing about them and their effect on students and all of the adjuncts who have to teach perpetually aggrieved and offended students is all the rage for media outlets. In the New York Times, there was a longform discussion of how the movie PCU has been playing out in real life in upper crust private schools, an adjunct shared his fear of the vocal college liberals in his class on Vox, and after the countless articles generated in response to these pieces, even The Onion stepped in to give the topic the obligatory snark treatment. To cap things off, we have even been treated to an academic thesis that political correctness on a widespread scale is actually teaching students to follow a downright pathological worldview.

In the lefty circles of social media, the term political correctness is often held as simply treating others with respect being ostracized by bigots, an imaginary pejorative like that now constantly used social justice warrior moniker. But as with SJWs, there’s a point where activism turns ugly and becomes far more for the sake of the activist than the people on whose behalf the person advocates. It’s one thing to demand some sort of vocal disapproval when faced with a bigoted behavior on a college campus. Making fun of a group of people for the sake of offending them for a punchline just isn’t appropriate in public. But the politically correct activists in colleges and outside of them go far beyond that and actively mollycoddle the groups they want to protect to the point where everything must come with trigger warnings and every classroom must be near some sort of “safe space” if not turn into one, as if the groups being protected are incapable of an academic discussions of complex, controversial topics, the reason why they’re in college.

See, colleges are supposed to be places where your ideas are challenged and where a difficult topic for you is externalized and experimented with in the relatively consequence-free space of classrooms. It wasn’t long ago that I too was a college student and in AI classes we took on the topic of drones and other potential killing machines that we might one day be called on to build with several veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the room. If we can’t talk about it in class as we’re learning about relevant implementations of complex ideas, where getting wrong answers or expressing a controversial opinion just means more discussion rather than a death by remote control on the other side of the world, where can we? If you’re a pacifist and refused any grant to help make killer robots possible, does that give you the license to pretend they can never exist and run away from discussing what they could do if left unchecked? Real life simply doesn’t care about your feelings when comes to a topic and gives no trigger warnings.

We don’t build colleges for students to emotionally Nerf themselves and become family lawyers who can’t discuss rape or pedophilia, doctors who can’t deal with pharmaceutical companies in their offices, or food scientists who can’t be in the same room with a GMO experiment. Life isn’t easy, but that’s why you have to be tough, why you have to be bigger than your feelings, and to be able to look a real life bigot or hatemonger in the wild, and not shy away from confronting all the offensive garbage he spews. Fewer than five years ago, drunken hookups on campus were lessons to be learned. Now there’s an army of activists who made their careers on turning long night of bad decisions into criminal cases and legislating sex and gender among teenagers still trying to figure this stuff out for themselves, often failed by their schools’ shoddy sex ed. When the activists’ critics say that we can’t turn classrooms into echo chambers by the aggrieved for the aggrieved, sanitized and censored from all ideas deemed offensive, they’re actually worried about the students’ abilities to deal with the real world on their own, not just resisting “progress” for the sake of obstinacy, or because they’re following some sort of secret bigoted agenda.

And perhaps the worst thing to me about the new dawn of political correctness is the aspect of identity politics being forcibly crammed into every topic, so in order to even be allowed to have an opinion heard, you have to divulge very personal information to be seen as relevant. I don’t feel comfortable volunteering my childhood memories and sex life in order to be allowed to say something in a nevertheless important debate, but that’s what I have to do in order for zealous activists to actually address a point being made rather than dismiss me because I don’t have a deep personal stake in a topic. The narcissism in play is astonishing because every debate has been turned into “me, me, me” and “how I feel about this” instead of what everyone thinks and what should be the right answer if there even is one. Buying wholesale into PC culture seems a lot like buying a ticket into one’s own navel and shutting out the rest of the world for a sanitized echo chamber made to your personal liking so you never, ever have to feel uncomfortable and can deploy a constantly ready string of buzzwords to preemptively silence any new ideas.

Yet this is exactly what we get when we allow the “invalidation” argument be used to censor an emotionally charged topic. The idea that by presenting a different view on a subject you are not simply giving a dissenting opinion but actively invalidating the experience of another person is a frequently used but absurd reasoning to shut down debates about PC-sensitive matters. One of the most frequent places you see this is when law courses mention false rape and child abuse allegations, something that sadly happens in a small percentage of cases to help an ex-spouse find legal leverage in a divorce and custody proceeding. The fact that false allegations really do happen, and that they do in no way invalidates what victims of rape or child abuse suffered, or change the guilt of the perpetrators. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. However, that we’re told that because someone could use a term or a factoid totally out of context to attack an individual’s rights or demean someone’s experience, we are not to bring it up is asinine. People who are deluded enough to consider every case of rape a shakedown by evil women just out to get their money will voice their opinions regardless. They’d just make up their own “facts.”

Even worse is that dogmatic adherence to perfect communication in which the right terms must be used at the right time, in the right context, in their right tone every single time, drives away a lot of people who are very much on the dogmatists’ side. Even in an extreme PC echo chamber like the current incarnation FTB after the Atheism+ fiasco, the gatekeepers of what is and is not properly sensitive and correct can be eaten alive by the mob they created for voicing the wrong opinion at a moment’s notice. Alienating your friends and allies because they’re not perfect and can’t keep up with the current lingo decided to be the most sensitive and inclusive is not a good way to advance an agenda. It’s a great way to pat yourself on the back for taking others’ stories and identity issues on an emotional joyride so you can feel like you’re doing something good for the world, but for an actual movement that needs allies and advocates, it’s a terrific way to stay marginalized. And the same goes for the frequent lack of self-reflection among the most vocal activists who take criticism like this not as constructive feedback, but as a personal slight and a chance to play a game of Privilege Bingo to swiftly invalidate the person who made it.

But there is a silver lining to all this. Many of the cases cited in all the articles about it are rather extreme one-offs in very liberal colleges attended by upper middle class students with way too much free time on their hands and lots of misguided passion to make things right. For the many words expanded on how adjuncts are terrified of their liberal students, just a handful of cases in which students storm out or complain are ever given. In the meantime, your typical students on campus are having all sorts of debates on social media with people whose opinions they find to be objectionable or downright hateful, and roll their eyes when the campus’ often self-appointed guardians of personal sensitivities have another protest or interfere with day to day classes. It’s not that colleges and students are perpetually at war with each other over what their professors should be allowed to say in class, it’s that a vocal minority found a good cause to take too far in search of a meaningful pursuit when not studying for midterms and finals. Eventually, they’ll get bored and a far more reasonable approach to controversial subject matter in campus will again put freedom of speech and academic debate above personal opinions of a dogmatic few.

Since John Oliver’s weekly deep dives tend to explode across the web, you may have seen this scathing expose of the sorry state of sex education in America which shows that how prepared you are for becoming sexually active and how safe you will be depends largely on where you’re living at the time. Or perhaps more accurately, what a bunch of middle aged men and women in windowless rooms think your sex life should be like. Just in case you haven’t, take a look…

What we’ve been effectively shown is that in America, when it comes time to sit down with their teenagers and talk to them about sex, all too many parents just say “um… well… err, don’t they teach you this stuff at school?” Now, saddled with the major responsibility of teaching kids how to become sexually mature responsibly, schools do one of three things and the following two of them are alarmingly far more common than the third. This first of them is to sit teenagers down in a class and say “um… well… err, don’t they teach you this at home?” because the teacher is poorly trained and doesn’t know much about the topic, uncomfortable talking about it, afraid of an immediate backlash by fundamentalist parents, or all of the above. The second of the most frequent responses is an abstinence only class where the “educators” are one step away from some sort of teenager exorcism, visibly holding themselves back from starting an assembly or a class with “we gather here today so the Lord can purify thee of your filthy carnal urges…”

Far too few teenagers actually receive comprehensive sexual education that is legally required to be medically accurate. That’s horrible because despite the asinine threats and rhetoric from abstinence-only dogmatists, comprehensive sex ed has been proven to accomplish every goal they claim to be pursuing. California refused federal funds for abstinence-only education so the state can teach what it wanted and found that open and accurate sex ed delayed the average age of first sexual encounter and sent the rates of STDs and unwanted pregnancies to record lows. In the meantime, studies of how well abstinence-only education fares found the opposite results. Instead of being scared out of sex as intended, teenagers indoctrinated with it had sex younger, were less likely to use protection, and were more likely to get infected or pregnant, or both. Remember virginity pledges, which 82% of those who made them denied making them in the first place after a few years and had sex anyway? Every shred of evidence shows that this form of sex ed is an abject failure which makes things worse for those who must endure it and comprehensive sex ed is an empowering force for long term personal and social good.

It’s at this point that rational people would stop, look at the all of the available stats, and defund abstinence-only education instead of giving it even more money because funding public health hazards is a really stupid thing to do. But we’re not dealing with rational people. We’re dealing with the kind of people who want to be able to tell how many times you had sex by the number of kids you have. These are people with a pathological obsession with everyone’s genitals and whose internal cultural dynamics are best described as abusive. In fact, those abstinence-only educators in the video look overdue for a psychiatric evaluation. They give unsolicited, woefully uneducated advice, then defend themselves by basically slut-shaming those of us who are fine with actually having a sex life beyond the bi-monthly missionary with the intent to conceive. Like the sneering polyamorists of over-sexed New Age woo-friendly havens who assume that if you are monogamous, there’s something wrong with you, the abstinence zealots declare that there is nothing to be gained by more than one sexually active relationship but misery and woe, and the most devoted and irrational few even want premarital sex to be punishable by law.

But perhaps even worse than the hysterical moralists who refuse to accept that their way failed consistently for the last 60 years, that they cannot reshape society to their personal whims, and that despite what they’re told on talk radio and in the news, people are actually having sex with fewer and fewer partners each generation, are the politicians who pander to them. Allowing the irrational and dogmatic to rule over sex ed in their school districts with an iron fist simply for the sake of votes is a massive disservice to both the kids and the community. In their quest for the title and the paycheck, the politicians who could change things keep on allowing their cities and towns to shoulder the fallout of the terrible education kids will receive. No one is holding any of them accountable for the single teenage moms, the rise of STDs, the extra taxpayer cash that will need to help with the damage, or the toxic culture that excuses and perpetuates extremely dysfunctional relationships. And for as long as only the aggrieved senior citizen told by tabloids and sleazy pundits about imaginary crises goes out to vote in local elections, on one will…

If you’ve never been out with a large group of teachers, and I don’t mean five or six of them, I’m talking about 30 or 40 people, a word of caution. Teachers can drink so much that sailors would caution them to slow down and maybe have some water instead. The wildest parties that yours truly has ever witnessed were teachers’ nights where the people who have to deal with some of the worst local bureaucrats and your kids, put even the rowdiest frat boys to shame. But why do teachers need to let loose so badly on a regular basis? Well, it’s mostly thanks to standardized testing, which is ruining their profession and their students’ learning potential. How? Well, let me hand it over to John Oliver’s model monologue on the subject, vetted by all the teachers I know, and confirmed to be absolutely, spectacularly dead on when it comes to this painful subject…

To sum it up, standardized tests are given far too much, they’re written very poorly and with no sense of how to ask age appropriate, or sometimes even sane questions, graded by a random group of people recruited on classified sites according to a senseless standard, are pushed by clueless politicians and their appointees, and exist primarily for the benefit of testing companies, because they sure as hell haven’t improved education one iota. In fact, they did the opposite. If you ever dealt with anything in the world of education or academia, you’ll hear that if you teach your students well enough, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pass a standardized test that’s supposedly measuring their educational milestones, or why you should focus on teaching to the test in the first place. But that only works when the tests are sane and appropriate, and you are not tying numerically impossible and ridiculous benchmarks to both student grade and teachers’ pay. When you peer inside the process, it quickly becomes apparent that the politicians and the test makers haven’t the faintest clue what they’re doing and when you point our their abject and borderline malicious incompetence, they resort to political invective about teachers’ unions.

To her the politicians tell it, the tests are fine, the benchmarks are fine, it’s those dang teachers who won’t get with the program because [insert list of imaginary teacher pay and benefits you’ll see on right wing shock jock blogs here]. But you see, most teachers care and most of them do want to help the kids. However, as those on the front lines, they see that the current tactics are not working and that in many other places in the world currently outperforming Americans on all sorts of educational benchmarks, standardized testing is nowhere near as prevalent. Why? The schools in other educationally high achieving countries get better funding, teachers get not just better education, but better pay and more autonomy because they just spent six years learning how to develop minds and are hired and treated as professionals, and the schools track pupils into possible career paths of interest early to give them a jump start on their future. The notable exceptions are Asian schools where students live and die by the test, but even there, there are far, far fewer than some 130 tests over the course of 14 years we currently have in the U.S.

So how exactly are students around the world doing better? Partly, many live in countries where schools have strict national standards and more equal funding across the board, the population is more homogeneous, and income inequality is less pronounced. This is important because the biggest achievement gap in education often boils down to poverty. And sometimes there’s good old fashioned cheating involved. Chinese students who are supposedly doing far better than all of their American counterparts are actually hand picked to be the only ones who count towards the country’s score on international achievement tests. While the rest of the countries taking the test count pretty much everyone, China insists on grading only its best and brightest. If the U.S. pulled the same trick, it would dominate the rankings since American students account for close to a third of the top performers on such tests. However, the problem still remains that for all the testing that was supposed to help identify and fix gaps, all we’ve successfully done is hand over tens of billions of dollars to testing companies because the average student is still performing at an exceedingly mediocre level that has now fallen on colleges to fix with an expensive remedial circuit of classes that nobody actually wants to teach, much less teaches well.

And there are even more bad news there as standardized tests are ruining even that as well. It may be disheartening to hear that after finally making it through the testing gauntlet before you finally get to college, you need to take yet another set of standardized tests to see if you need a few remedial classes. It gets worse when you’re told that you do in fact need them because the tests you took have the predictive power of a coin flip regarding your performance. Yet again, a test written by companies for a profit with little clue what to actually test points to a problem we’ll need to fix and when it does, politicians demand even more testing, more money, more classes, and oceans upon oceans of useless data. The more conspiratorially minded might even call the No Child Left Behind Act a stealthy giveaway to testing companies, but in reality it’s a symptom of a political culture in which a politician is supposed to be an expert in everything and have the appropriate media-friendly solution to every problem. Instead of actually parsing the issues, the lawmakers demand improvement and accountability, then help pass laws requiring both with no clue how to implement them. In come lobbyists who sell them a fanciful bill of goods with which non-experts can’t argue, while the experts who can, lack the political pull to be heard.

As a result, the current American education system stretching almost into graduate school, is a product of the blindly ambitious leading the powerful but ignorant, pulled to the side by a snake oil salesman or two who sense that they can make money on the whole thing, all while telling us that they only want to help. But let’s be honest. Yes, the politicians at the top want to help as do those below them, I’m sure. However, the testing companies only give a damn about quarterly returns and profit margins, and because those politicians who want to help have no background in education, or have been out of it for so long they only have the faintest recollections of what it means to teach someone, are often clueless, they easily let profiteers sway them to pursue not the right course of action, but the one most profitable for the companies hiring the lobbyists. It’s a vicious circle. Ignorance breeds more ignorance because it doesn’t know any better. And as it runs schools into the ground, neither will the students whose formative educational years have basically been reduced to little more than filling in little bubbles with a number two pencil…

exposed brain

For those of you who haven’t read my post about social activism in the skeptical movement, or don’t remember it, I would recommend a quick refresher before proceeding. One of the biggest reasons why a pop sci blogger would be concerned with this topic is because such debates are spilling into college campuses at an alarming rate, and colleges is where we’re supposed to be, at least in theory, minting future scientists and public intellectuals. How ready and willing they’re going to be to challenge their minds, hear contradictory ideas, and tackle tough questions many find painful to discuss or that have no easy answers, will shape how and even if they’ll have any tangible impact on the world around them. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t want to censor, discourage, or outright antagonize social justice activists, I want college students to hear what a passionate activist has to say about a topic. What I will advocate against, however, is making all of college so safe emotionally and potentially physically, that it borders on the absurd.

Here’s a prime example of this. In a bid to respond to the scandals surrounding colleges’ role in their students’ sex lives one university is seriously mulling imposing a ban on women entering a fraternity between 10 pm and 3 am. Sororities objected of course, and with good reason. You’ll never solve a problem by restricting people’s freedom of choice and movement and it’s such an amazingly tone-deaf and dehumanizing idea to think that it’s fine to basically punish women just to avoid bad PR instead of dealing with widespread binge drinking which contributes to most of the cases they’d like to avoid at all costs. But that’s how bureaucrats think. If drunken fraternity hookups cased trouble, let’s just ban events where such situations occur. Easy fix and no need to dig deeper, right? Wrong. It’s just one more a clear signal that colleges are dropping the ball and failing their students, morally and educationally. How exactly is a topic for several upcoming posts, but think of this as a taste of how college administrators “problem-solve.”

life cycle

Despite what many readers might think, the only reason why the politics I advocate on this blog come across as fairly liberal is because nowadays, ideas like better education funding or public competitions for worthwhile government contracts to improve our infrastructure or advance the scientific and engineering engine of an advanced economy are now considered lefty goals. Not too long ago, all these things were being promoted by Republican politicians as answers for the future in which automation and globalization were devouring jobs, but now it’s the liberals ready to at least talk about doing both, particularly about making public colleges free by closing some corporate loopholes which allow huge corporate behemoths to avoid paying billions. If just like these companies say, we need more and better education for their future employees, let them put some skin in the game and put up the required $30 billion per year out of the $2 trillion that sits in overseas bank accounts, or has been deducted from their taxable income.

Now we don’t have to get punitive and I’m sure we can work out some deal by which American companies doing business overseas get to claim taxes paid to the countries in which they have been doing business as a deduction, or even some sort of massive tax holiday to encourage a major asset migration. Better still, we could even let companies get deductions and tax credits if they directly invest in colleges as they’re moving their money over. The point is that with literally trillions involved, surely 1.5% of that could make it to colleges. We’re basically insisting on every student going to college in order for them to get gainful employment, why then make college an expensive, life-hindering proposition? We’ve given students 12 years of free schooling and now we’re going to make them pay through the nose to get a job that keeps them worrying about an extremely toxic, non-dischargeable debt? That’s just asinine and transparently predatory.

While I’m sure college loan companies will protest all of this bitterly because public colleges are no longer going to be a steady income source, it’s hard to feel sorry for them, much like it’s not easy to have compassion for a loan shark losing his business to a new community bank. And a even though a few million dollars from them can definitely bolster a campaign, the ire of future voters who remember you as the politico who voted to keep them trapped in debt they had very little choice but to take, is going to matter a lot more come election time. So there is momentum behind this issue, and as the college loan bubble expands, expect the issue to get raised again and again. Free public colleges won’t happen overnight, but there’s way too much pressure not to do something to make them easily accessible. It’s really the only way to move our otherwise battered and deeply unequal economy towards sanity. But there is a big catch.

Before we even consider making public colleges a free service for high school students with the grades and skills, we need to have a conversation about what the successful college education should look like and how proper accreditation should work. If we don’t, we risk giving away that hard-won cash to institutions what will waste it on ads, put little towards education, pocket most of the remaining funds, and do a massive disservice to their students over the long run. We can already make a huge step towards free public colleges by shutting down for-profits, which leach billions of dollars from the government and spend close to four times as much on branding and marketing than they do on actual education, which shows when their students pay tuition on par with Ivy League schools, but have a 22% graduation rate and an 18.7% loan default rate for the two thirds of their students who have to take on loans to be able to attend.

We also need to figure out what gainful employment looks like. Again, we do understand that it should be a job that can pay the bills and gainful employment rules caught the aforementioned for-profits counting working part time at a fast food place as gainful employment to avoid fines and legal actions. But traditional colleges have similar problems, with half of their grads ending up underemployed and in debt. A lack of debt would definitely help already, but if we are going to be paying for their education, we need to make sure it actually leads somewhere. This would also mean ending the now decade-long issue of companies and colleges talking right past each other on what should constitute a proper degree program by agreeing on a set of standards by which degrees should be judged. Making college education free is a great idea, but there is so much potential for it to go wrong that we can’t simply insist on free colleges, we need to design better college educations and then fund the best and most viable programs. Anything less is a politically suicidal and economically non-viable misuse of $30 billion per year…

future highway

As I said before, we really want the Musks and Gates of the world to keep investing exactly the way they’re investing now and we want to keep on encouraging their choices through every tax credit, rebate, and whatever other enticement we can think of. Then we need to take that cash and start pouring it into the sciences and education. Why? Because the biggest reasons those knocked out of the job market by machines and outsourcing will not be able to find new, steady work are a) one-way globalization by nations happily trading goods and services, but severely restricting the flow of labor, and b) lack of skills for new careers and the prohibitively high price tag of acquiring relevant credentials. The former is very, very hard to solve because it’s asking certain countries to put the good of the world above their self-interest, which is political suicide for their leaders. The latter, on the other hand, is something we can take on quickly.

Right now, the typical new degree requires about $18,000 not including books, fees, and living expenses for the next three to four years. And by the time you graduate, your job may already be made obsolete by a new app or maxed out by existing candidates. You’ll also have trouble with getting enough experience in your new chosen field for employers and end up having to work an unpaid internship position just to put something on your resume. Oh and your student debt could only be dismissed by an act of Congress or an alien invasion, and given the current political climate, I would bet cash money on the aliens. Although I’m sure Sally May would keep their employees hounding debtors even while buildings around them are being mowed down by the invaders’ lasers until the bitter end, knowing how they typically operate…

This is an asinine state of affairs. We need something closer to formally accredited certification programs and really, really consider making the college degree optional again for fields which honestly don’t involve specialized knowledge requiring years of theoretical study. If we sponsor enough universities to offer them for affordable sums and actually do job training programs with major companies, we’d be giving millions of people displaced by machines new chances in life. There are trade schools and community college programs that try to fulfill this function already, but there aren’t enough, too many are just predatory scams, and too many HR departments will scoff at these credentials when they see them on a candidate’s resume. We need to tackle this as directly as possible because even management experts consider the way companies hire to be often broken and completely illogical, often indicating a management problem.

We also need to take our education system seriously, easing up on standardized testing across the board and setting our sights on helping students discover what they really want to do in life as they’re getting their general education, providing chances for real world experiences in their fields of choice. When they can see what their lives would actually entail if they choose to follow their dreams, they’ll make better choices about how to peruse them rather than play education poker with a college which views them as customers receiving a product for which they borrow many to pay and expect a bang for their buck, not students to be educated so they can acquire a career by employing the theoretical framework their professors give them.

The common thread in all this is of course lowering the financial and time commitment bars for getting to work and learning new skills as they are needed by the marketplace by getting rid of nonsensical requirements that don’t actually help students or adults looking to make a change. Not only would it help them immeasurably, but they could give them a chance to explore their potential, try more new things in life, and live up to their aspirations without sticker shock. Yes, we could try to create some sort of minimum national income for all citizens as some suggest, but other than the many social questions this idea raises, questions we’re obviously not ready and willing to answer, passively reacting to a decline in jobs and income growth for the 99% by widening the social safety net and hoping that we can change things by doing exactly what got us into this mess in the first place, this approach would kill the potential of millions.

Today we’re snuffing out engineers, writers, doctors, and designers by under-educating them the first 12 years of their schooling, bilking them the next four, and subjecting their resumes to death by a thousand keywords and buzzwords. Just giving them some money while placing all their goals even further out of reach isn’t going to do any good whatsoever. What we need is a lot more moon shots, crazy inventions, and government aided competitions for solutions to our big problems; big picture thinking that asks “what about tomorrow?” rather than “how do I make a buck today?” We got into this mess by taking the easy way, by assuming things won’t change. More of the same solutions to our problems, like Piketty’s wealth tax, or standardized testing, or more lopsided free trade deals, or pouring our money into another bubble, won’t get us out. We need to rethink our priorities and focus on investing in a new post-industrial world where basics like education, wealth, and jobs, aren’t just zero-sum games.

minimalist office

Generally the informal rule around Weird Things is not to persue the same topic two days in a row, but there are always exceptions, especially in the case of hard data that brings the points discussed the day before into better focus. So while yesterday we talked about the mismatch in what science advisers recommend to the government about the job prospects of STEM grads and what really happens, today we’ll peek at the other side of the debate. As noted previously, one of the reasons why companies today claim they can’t find qualified employees is because they believe that the only qualified employee is one who has done the exact job the position for which they’re hiring entails and anything other than that is an unwarranted gamble. But they’re also very down on colleges overall, with more than half saying that they have trouble finding an applicant pool worthy of their time and dinging the grads’ communication, critical thinking, and problem solving skills in a way that makes it sound as if colleges hand diplomas to anyone.

And yet, amazingly enough, some 93% say that college graduates work out well and make fair and good employees, with the good employee designation being awarded to college graduates more than twice as much as fair to boot. Likewise, more than half believe that a college degree, especially the four year kind, is just as important as it was five years ago, if not more, and about two thirds will refuse to wave any educational requirement before reading a resume. So to sum all of this up, colleges are churning out barely literate, functionally useless candidates who can’t find their way out of a paper bag and are way over their heads when applying for a job, and yet they become good employees and college education is an extremely important qualifier during the hiring process. Wow, and the companies that took this survey criticize college students for a startling inability to communicate since these results are completely contradictory when taken at face value. But you see, there’s an underlying thought that clears up these odd results.

One of the more frequently cited complaints by companies is that college graduates can’t jump into a new job and hit the ground running. Now, this would make sense since colleges teach the theory, the basics, and the science behind something, not necessarily how to do a specific job function, and argue that it’s not their job to do so and never has been. To companies who don’t want to spend money on training, internships, and long term commitments to their employees to mold their workforce over years rather than the quarterly reports, this is unacceptable. They do want college graduates and they do want the colleges to give them the basics, but they’re also looking for colleges to become high end vocational schools. The graduate they want to hire out of school doesn’t just have good grades but can plop behind a desk and use industry standard tools when shown to his or her cube. So when a newly minted computer science grad can’t get into a chair, load up, say Visual Studio, and start weaving a UI with jQuery and Knockout, they think that colleges have come up short in their duty to produce qualified workers.

We can go back and forth about all the issues in higher education today. We can talk about all the useless degree programs, the high profile terrible advice given to young students, the fact that not everybody needs to go to college, and that the current college system can actually stall your career if you don’t balance your degrees and work history just right, and we should try to address the downright predatory and unfair system of student lending in place today. But even though these discussions need to be held to fix the problems we’re facing in colleges, perhaps the most important discussions we need first and foremost are negotiations between academics and companies that hire their students. Certainly colleges do fail some graduates and I’ve seen perfectly bright and intelligent students left years behind the industry despite going to schools with good names and reputations, given unrealistic expectations of what their degrees would do in the real world. At the same time, for companies to force students and parents to pick up a big tab for specific job training and turn professors into underpaid corporate trainers is absurd.

We need to move past nebulous qualitatives and settle some real requirements for what we’re trying to expect from a college education, honestly aware that the system cannot be all things to all people and there needs to be a balance between learning the theory and learning a job. And if we can accomplish that, students will have an easier time deciding their majors, paying on the loans they took out to go to school, and then getting jobs after they’re done. Maybe companies will have more realistic expectations of what colleges can do for them and start training people, just like they did in the good old days, when employees were a lot less disposable than they are today and new hires were expected to grow with the company and expand their skill sets instead of performing the required units of work to then move elsewhere. A good way to start this sort of debates would be to think through the system from the viewpoint of a student rather than how to hit a macro metric that could easily be changed by the powers that be…

mass media advice

Nature recently published a thorough look at Norman Augustine, an engineer who now advises political bigwigs on how to allocate research and development dollars for scientific ventues. A lot of his recommendations are praised as overdue, common sense, and essential. But there’s one nagging criticism that emerges every time. Augustine argues that the United States needs to get more STEM students from around the world because the United States can’t compete with entire armies of new engineers and scientists emerging from China and India. Sounds like good advice as well because science is fundamentally a collaborative process and the more ideas germinate and can be tested, the faster we can advance the task of acquiring and applying the brand new knowledge universities and research labs are supposed to produce. Unfortunately the data that lies under this recommendation appears to be fundamentally flawed…

The first version of the report ended up including at least one major exaggeration: that China graduated nearly ten times more engineers than the United States (600,000 versus 70,000) — a comparison used to argue for increasing the number of scientists and engineers in the United States. But the Chinese data probably included two-year technical degrees whereas the US figure did not. The error “contributed to the alarm quality of the report”, says Michael Teitelbaum, an economist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York… “I don’t know of any serious analyst with an open mind who has concluded there are shortages in the science and technology workforce,” he says. In fact, many US scientists and engineers were struggling to find high-quality jobs in academia and industry, a trend that continues today.

Whoops. True, the "serious analyst with an open mind" part sounds a lot like a fallacy because there are analysts who disagree that there are enough STEM grads in the United States, but the problem of scientists and engineers being unable to find jobs is very real. We churn them out in significant numbers but companies don’t want to hire them because they’re too busy looking for perfect fits into their exact jobs, not transferable skills, and severe budgets cuts in higher ed can leave PhDs on food stamps. Which brings us to the real dilemma in American STEM disciplines today. Students often take on huge debts, study for 6 to 8 years for a shot at a $35,000 a year post-doc by professors who believe that it’s not their duty to prepare them for jobs, then with an immense debt burden and little pay face companies who refuse to hire them because they want someone with three years of very particular experience for an entry level position or prefer to offshore the positions to save money up front despite the often mixed results.

Augustine’s voice joining major tech companies who support massive offshoring and H1-B visas, which are dominated by a small clutch of Indian consulting companies, only makes the problem worse for the STEM grads. Now not only can they not find work, but they’re being told that we’re not graduating enough scientists and engineers and need to import them from abroad. What an incredibly cruel, mixed message! We have the best universities in the world. Only they don’t get enough STEM grads through the system and those they do are apparently unfit for work, while a technical college half a world away apparently churns out a surplus of the STEM grads we want those being produced by the world’s best colleges to be? Now, it is just me or does this make no sense whatsoever? Do the people who advocate this line of debate really research the quality of the data they use? Or do they simply brush it aside and assume that the complains about a lack of properly qualified STEM workers is the honest truth of companies with no ulterior motives?