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Archive for the ‘Middle Class’ Category

College Algebra Should Be Illegal

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Apparently it is in this year to promise a free college education. That way, college-age people will like you, back you and strive mightily to get you elected. Their parents, who in many cases cosign their college loans, will like you, too.

To be fair, we have all been beaten about the head with statistics showing the supposed advantage in earning power college graduates have over non-graduates since I can remember. While the economist in me wants to dig a little deeper and look at component factors (such as major, program rigor and course content), I can see why people react the way they do to that data. Meanwhile, college costs have increased at 2.5 times the rate of inflation since the 1980s. So, yeah, I understand the pain.

In 2014, 69% of graduates of public and private non-profit colleges graduated with debt, and the average debt load of those graduates was almost $29,000. This is a substantial portion of anticipated first-year earnings that alters the economics of getting a college degree. In 2013, Senators Dick Durbin, Jack Reed and Elizabeth Warren called for a basket of student loan reforms, including penalizing colleges who had high graduate loan default rates.

“They will have to have skin in the game,” [Senator Reed] said. “They will have to make financial judgments based on how well-informed and how reliable their graduates are in terms of paying back their student loans.”

I would like to take a different approach to this issue. In this essay, I will survey what content can be moved into public secondary education so that more of what we now consider to be a college education is available at no cost to the student.

Preparation for What?

I am not saying that the education professionals are scheming to slow children’s learning down in order to exploit them by selling them more courses. Many of the people who have shaped our public education system are earnest, sincere and want to do what is best for the kids. That is what makes the problem so intractable.

Some people believe that all children should be prepared for college; others believe that would be a disservice to many students who would be better served preparing for a trade. We have differing concepts of the purpose of childhood: is it to be engaged as an end in itself, or is it a time of preparation for adult life? We have different levels of funding across school districts: how much does that influence outcomes?

All these questions are worthy of discussion — but we don’t really discuss them. The proponents of different viewpoints gather together, share evidence supporting their pre-existing beliefs, and holler abuse at those who disagree.

Creating the Client

The same schools that are not teaching your grade-school child to read are teaching remedial reading when the kids should be learning effective composition and algebra. Then, when the kids go to college, they can be put through more remedial courses in composition and algebra to correct prior omissions in their education.

Indeed, U.S. schools do teach arithmetic well … But they teach it over and over again, instead of assuming students have learned, say, fractions after a couple of years. In his study of textbooks, Mr. Schmidt found that U.S. books covered up to 35 different math topics a year — that means teachers fly through them at a speed of one a week — and didn’t drop any of them until seventh grade.

If some topics are taught over and over, algebra usually isn’t taught at all until ninth grade because . . . well, because ninth-grade algebra has always been an American tradition. But isolating algebra that way means that about 90% of a ninth-grade math book is new material — a huge blast of abstract thinking after years of easy-going arithmetic.
— “Low X-pectations: Students Fear Algebra, And Then Comes the Ninth-Grade Crunch“, Wall Street Journal,  16 Jun 1998.

For many students, Algebra 1 is their first formal encounter with abstract thinking.

.. Algebra is what teachers call a gatekeeper course; you have to go through it to reach the possibilities beyond. Algebra is the language of math and science, “the language of problem solving,” says University of Chicago math professor Zalman Usiskin. It deals in abstractions — using letters to generalize math operations — that expand thinking skills. In a technology-fueled society, says Mr. Usiskin, not knowing algebra “limits what you can do.”

Abstract thinking is essential not only to make a living as a knowledge worker, but to solve problems as a citizen. Without the ability to think abstractly, you can’t find patterns. Every problem is brand new, having nothing in common with any that you have ever seen before. Abstract thinking is a necessary skill, and those who are on the sensory side of Myers-Briggs and don’t come out of the chute thinking abstractly are especially dependent on the education system to teach it to them.

Youngsters who take algebra tend to go to college, research shows, and low-income youngsters who take it are almost as likely to go to college as middle- and upper-income kids. The gap in test scores between students in private school and those in public school largely disappears if they take upper-level math courses, beginning with algebra.

Thus it is premature to say to a ninth-grader, “you don’t need to take algebra because you’re not going down an academic track.” He sure won’t if he can’t learn math and can’t think abstractly.

Three Years of College

Many high schools offer advanced placement classes. Some even offer college-level courses in conjunction with local community colleges. Can we formalize those and push down the content of what is now a year of college so that everyone can get access to it in their public high schools?

The current estimate for a year of room and board at a college starts at around $10,000. Tuition, fees and incidentals pile on top of that. Even in-state tuition at public colleges averages about $9,500 a year. Getting students one year of what is now college somewhere cheaper would significantly reduce their costs.

Do Something Different

It is clear that an adult starting out in life with no work experience and $30,000 in debt is not loaded for success. We wish there were some grown-ups in the room who would tell them not to do that, but evidently that is not going to happen.

Nevertheless, you should understand the risks you are taking on. Look for alternatives to get the same content at lower cost. Above all, wring all possible value out of the free public education options you have available to you.


Written by srojak

February 10, 2016 at 3:22 pm

Anguished Art Historians

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President Obama finally said something I agree with. Naturally, he has since retracted it.

Speaking at a GE engine plant in Waukesha, Wisconsin in January, Obama said:

And I just want to make a quick comment on that.  A lot of parents, unfortunately, maybe when they saw a lot of manufacturing being offshored, told their kids you don’t want to go into the trades, you don’t want to go into manufacturing because you’ll lose your job.  Well, the problem is that what happened — a lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career.  But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history.  (Laughter.)  So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.  (Laughter.)  I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.  (Applause.)
— Official transcript,

Yeah, some of my best friends have art history degrees — and they are now senior baristas at Starbucks.

Anguished Art Historians

Naturally, this did not go over well with people who have time on their hands and access to outlets for their opinions.

Building on the standard “we don’t provide vocational training” argument, Carol Geary Schneider, who is president of the Association of the American Colleges and Universities, responded in an email:

In recent years, we’ve sunk into a ‘what’s in it for me’ approach to learning, making career earnings the litmus test both for college and for different majors … It was depressing to hear President Obama describe college mainly as vocational and/or technical training in the State of the Union address, and it’s even worse to have him casually dismiss one of the liberal arts — or even the whole idea of baccalaureate study — because you can earn good enough money in a skilled trade. The fact of the matter is that human beings need bread and roses — and people who help make things do it better, as Steve Jobs said and demonstrated repeatedly, when they study both the arts and technology.
— “Obama vs. Art History”, Inside Higher Ed,

The article also features a helpful chart listing incidents of “politicians bashing liberal arts,” listing the politician, the discipline he called out and the quote. Obama was the only Democrat on the chart, keeping company with Mitt Romney and two Republican state governors. Shame!

An art history professor at the University of Texas, Ann Collins Johns, was motivated to take more direct action. She wrote a letter on the White House website. She received a handwritten note of apology from the President himself:

Ann —

Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.

So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.


Barack Obama
— “President Obama Pens Personal Apology to an Art Historian”,,

See, it was just channel confusion. I wasn’t trying to cannibalize the market for art history majors. I was trying to expand into other underserved markets.

Analyzing the Value of a College Degree

Others referenced a 2011 report by Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale objected to the overall assertion that a bachelor’s degree in general was a good investment, without taking into account the major and the school. He went through the data of the 2009 American Community Survey and analyzed the results of graduates over 171 college majors. He still maintains that the value of getting a degree in general is sustained:

But the authors grouped the 10 lowest-paid majors together and ran the lifetime earnings for them. They found people with those majors earned, on average over their careers, $148,000 more than someone whose highest degree is a high-school diploma—even after taking into consideration the expense and opportunity cost of attending college.
— “What Are You Going to Do with That?”, The Chronicle of Higher Education,

However, as the article notes, the report only considers full-time workers. Therefore, the unemployed or underemployed college graduates do not appear. Neither do the students who bounce from college to college and never complete a four-year degree in anything.

Such analysis is heresy in higher education, where it has been the standard rebuttal of college presidents and deans that universities are not there to offer vocational training, but to broaden the intellect and expose the students to alternative viewpoints. Which is fine, until you consider that the average student loan debt for a graduating senior in 2012 was $29,400 []. If the experience does not enhance your ability to pay that money back, you shouldn’t borrow it to go.

Which really does bring us back to the audience to whom Obama was addressing his remarks. Others have noticed a funny thing going on in the discussion of college:

As with most social issues in America, the debate over college-for-all and career education has taken place mostly at an elite level, with little understanding of the desires and needs of low-income students and their parents.
— “College-for-all vs. career education? Moving beyond a false debate”, Hechinger Report,

The people who can afford college without loans are most likely to be able to afford degrees in subjects such as English, art history or anthropology. They have the means to pay for it without incurring crushing levels of debt and the connections to get opportunities to use their learning, possibly even applying it to other settings such as business, engineering or law. If your family has the means to send you and is willing to finance your journey, more power to you.

The Education for the Rest of Us

The most common defense of the liberal arts education is that it teaches students how to learn. In my own experience, not everyone makes the jump from being taught to learning, but those who do generally do so as college undergraduates. Part of this is because the teaching quality is so poor, you have to if you are going to make it.

In his commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, Fareed Zakaria offered his defense of liberal arts education:

I could point out that a degree in art history or anthropology often requires the serious study of several languages and cultures, an ability to work in foreign countries, an eye for aesthetics, and a commitment to hard work—all of which might be useful in any number of professions in today’s globalized age. And I might point out to [Florida] Governor Scott that it could be in the vital interests of his state in particular to have on hand some anthropologists to tell Floridians a few things about the other 99.5% of humanity.
— “Fareed Zakaria Commencement Keynote Address”,

However, there was something else I saw about 25 times when I was in college (getting my liberal arts degree): Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from which I learn that those citizens of Florida who are hanging on by their fingernails couldn’t care less about the other 99.5% of humanity. Such interests appear when you are up at the self-actualization level, not down at the levels of basic needs.

Zakaria has a slightly different take on the value of liberal arts educations than the standard learn-how-to-learn justification:

I know I’m supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. The columnist Walter Lippmann, when asked his thoughts on a particular topic, is said to have replied, “I don’t know what I think on that one. I haven’t written about it yet.”  There is, in modern philosophy, a great debate as to which comes first—thought or language. I have nothing to say about it. All I know is that when I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them and sort them out. Whether you are a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant, or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and brings clarity and order to your ideas.

I find it is also true for me that thinking and writing are tightly coupled — it takes me considerable revision to write one of these pieces, as I go back and re-read and realize that something I have said is unclear, needs additional support or begs an obvious question. I think this is the process by which people who think extrovertedly really learn.

Introverts, on the other hand, do not operate this way. Both of my parents were introverts, and constantly enjoined me to “Think before you speak.” But I had to speak in order to think. I wasn’t defective for being the way I was, but neither were they for being the way they were. We must avoid forcing square pegs into round holes, but making all the holes square is not the answer, either.

In his address, Zakaria gives three benefits of the liberal arts education:

  • The student learns how to write;
  • The student learns how to speak;
  • The student learns how to learn.

However, we are rolling in college-educated people. Where are these benefits?

Our graduates lack writing skills. While adept at crafting bullet points, they often have difficulty writing in declarative sentences and complete paragraphs – thus impeding the effectiveness of their business communications, including memos, letters, and technical reports.
— “Our College Graduates Can’t Write!”, Wall Street Journal,

Part of learning to speak, meanwhile, is understanding the definitions of words and saying what you mean rather than what evokes a warm feeling. How are we doing on that score, when so many people don’t know the difference between a republic and a democracy?

More importantly, why do we need to attend college to obtain these abilities? This is the real false choice: between getting a liberal arts college education and doing without the ability to write, speak and learn.

These are all abilities that we require of all citizens, if we are to have a nation where power really is derived from the consent of the governed. All citizens need them to function in a world in which your mind is more important to your livelihood than your physical abilities. It is the proper mission of the public K-12 education system to deliver these abilities to all citizens.

I am not buying the argument that some of the graduates are not capable of learning to write and speak for themselves or to master learning independently. The education establishment has been in the clutches of the stupidity industry for almost a hundred years. This has resulted in a repetitive exercise where the student is turned into a client. She is not taught to read properly in the early grades. Most of the material in the middle grades is repetitive. Later she can be sold remedial reading, while she ought to be learning algebra and other forms of abstract reasoning. Then, in college, she can be sold courses in college algebra and English composition.

Our public education system must teach students what they need to know to take their effective places as citizens, as productive economic agents and as individuals in charge of their own lives. After completing that program, those with the means and inclination to go to college can do so.

Written by srojak

May 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm

What, Exactly, Do You Do Here?

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Back in 1982, two Harvard MBA students published a book in the Official Handbook mold, titled The Official M.B.A. Handbook, or How to Succeed in Business without a Harvard M.B.A.. The authors didn’t want to impair their future chances to recapture their educational investment, so they wrote under pseudonyms.

It turned out that they were ten minutes ahead of their time. They captured the issues around the aspirations of the decade.

One particular item in the book has stuck with me. The authors were discussing how to choose a career. They presented an overlooked but important consideration.


The Line of Direct Labor. Fisk and Barron, p. 104.

The Line of Direct Labor. Fisk and Barron, p. 104.

M.B.A.’s, having a rather oversized opinion of their own worth, are very sensitive about being underpaid. In addition, they know that pay levels are often keyed to one’s level of tangible output, if output is actually measurable. Thus, managers who work in jobs with tangible output get paid appropriate salaries, while managers whose output cannot be measured can earn absolutely stratospheric ones.
— Fisk and Barron, p. 104.

Yes, it’s satire, but satire has to have some grounding in recognizable truth in order to be funny. Moreover, in our time, yesterday’s satire will be left behind as stale and unimaginative by what people say and do in all earnestness tomorrow. As Tom Wolfe had written not five years before, “No sooner do you think you have hit upon a piece of Rabelaisian hyperbole for our times than reality shrinks you like a wool sock.”

What actually happened in the past thirty years is that everyone in the middle class has made a run for the right side of the Line of Direct Labor. The goal has been to find a setup where you have no tangible output, or even better, no output at all. This has led to corporate environments that I described in an earlier post. Even if you can’t get into a line of business that has no tangible output, you can set yourself up away from the tangible output within the business by being a gatekeeper or a professional critic. A substantial portion of the people who have middle-class jobs have done exactly this.

However, the relatively few people hitched to responsibilities with tangible output are carrying all those others who are above such mundane considerations. This leads to less wealth production and more people claiming credit for the wealth that is produced.

You would never know it to look at the published figures:


St. Louis Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED): Real Gross Domestic Product, Downloaded 4 May 14.

St. Louis Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED): Real Gross Domestic Product, Downloaded 4 May 14.

But this is completely meaningless if you want to understand the wealth picture. Gross domestic product (GDP) is a backed-into number. We have no way of measuring what was actually produced. We measure what was spent and say, “Well, if someone spent the money, they must have got something for it.”

But this is not true. All those people who don’t have tangible output, or any output at all, are also getting paid, eating food, buying houses and putting gas in their cars. All their expenditures show up in GDP, even if they don’t contribute anything — even if they actually obstruct wealth production. Furthermore, they are competing in the marketplace with those who do produce for scarce goods, bidding the prices up.

This is the dark, seamy, stinky story no one wants to touch: what if the middle class, as a whole, isn’t producing enough to earn its keep? Far better to stroke everyone with stories about how they are ripping you off. You, the salt of the earth, are out working hard every day and hanging on to what you have by your fingernails. Why is that? Because they are taking advantage of you.

But we have been down this road before, and it wasn’t pretty.


Written by srojak

May 4, 2014 at 3:33 pm