“Where does the hate for colleges come from?”

In an online discussion someone asked where the “overwhelming hate” for colleges comes from. I don’t think (many) people hate college or colleges, but many are baffled and unhappy about the higher-education situation—for good reason. I’m immersed in these issues, so to me the answers are obvious, but it’s useful to recall that some points “every knows” in one sub-culture are totally unknown in the wider culture. Plus, there may seem to be more hate towards colleges online because people online are systematically filtered for a set of opinions pretty far outside the mainstream; I suspect most normal people retain a pretty high and pretty positive view of college, colleges, and universities, while those who are familiar with the absurdity that is the modern student loan system and some other common challenges may be less positive. I can enumerate some culprits behind unhappiness with college as it’s presently constituted, including:

1. College costs have been outstripping inflation and wage growth for decades. This is well-known and obvious.

2. It’s not clear that most colleges are actually teaching much most of the time, per the book Academically Adrift—which also matches my own anecdotal teaching experience.

3. Related to #2, it seems that most colleges have evolved non-educational tracks for those who want them. Students who enter those tracks without realizing what they’re doing may regret their choices later, especially when they have to pay off student loans with low-value degrees that do little to build human capital.

4. See Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which argues that most of the education system is about signaling, not human capital formation. If that’s true, we ought to work harder to find other ways to signal—among other things we ought to do differently.

5. It’s not clear where the money for college is going. It’s not going to instructors or instruction. So where is it disappearing into? Many blame administrators, sports, Title IX, bureaucracy, Baumol’s Cost Disease, etc., but I’m not sure what the real answer is.

6. The logical arguments are mostly in books, not online.

Some degrees still make a lot of sense: wages for many kinds of engineers and computer scientists remain high, as do wages for economics majors. The overall college premium is still high, but most of those average college premiums fail to account for major.

Note that the WSJ article, “U.S. Colleges Are Separating Into Winners and Losers: Schools that struggle to prepare students for success losing ground; ‘The shake-out is coming'” observes, “the pay advantage for college graduates over high-school graduates declined” in the past few years. That may be because the signaling value of a degree isn’t as strong as it is when it’s scarce. That may in turn be driving some to get graduate degrees—or to signal in alternative ways, like projects or online portfolios. If education is really a big IQ, conformity, and conscientiousness test, as Caplan argues, then it may be that more people who score low in those traits are still now managing to get degrees, lowering the overall and total premium.

I think the student-loan burden is underrated, too, especially considering the psychology of many undergrads and their families. When I was an undergrad, student loans felt like something to worry about… later. You, dear reader, can point out that this is irrational and stupid, and while you are correct, that mindset also seems to be very common. Apocalyptic language like, “I have seen an entire generation destroyed by student loans” is overwrought but also has some truth. Schools, in the meantime, are mostly party to the problem and have done almost nothing to substantially restrain costs (from the perspective of students). I’ve wondered out loud, “Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?“, and so far I’ve not seen any really good answers.

I’m a very small, unimportant part of the college system, and I’m not seeing a huge amount of the massive amount of money spent on higher-ed come my way. If I had a good I had a good, actionable idea to fix the cost problem from the student and adjunct perspectives, I’d go attempt to implement it—but I don’t. If I saw a company that I thought could really reduce the cost of college, I’d try to go work for it.

At the same time, many if not most students contribute to the challenges by being almost totally uninterested in labor market signals or genuine learning; Caplan covers this as well. Again, yes, I’m sure that you, the person about to leave a well-thought-out comment about how you are/were different, are correct, but you are also a minority.

This comment is also useful, about why academic culture is messed up and incoherent from the grad student and young professor perspective. An incoherent, destructive culture doesn’t matter that much if prices are low. When prices are high, they matter a lot. The tenure system has a bunch of other pernicious problems and outcomes, but this piece is long enough, so we’ll table them.

Links: Authoritarianism, how we got to now, NIMBYs, paper, and more!

* “Can it Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America.” In 2015 I would’ve said it’s very unlikely; today, however, I’ve been proven wrong and have to think it’s very possible. One hopes for serious corrections in 2018 and 2020 but there are no guarantees, and assaults on the right to vote are especially worrisome.

* Why everything might have taken so long.

* “Of Course They Hated Her: The Uncomfortable Honesty of Mary McCarthy.” She is still startlingly honest today, and for that reason I think she will never be really popular—but The Group holds up well, while The Groves of Academe is boring and has been superseded by novels like Straight Man or Blue Angel.

* “How ‘Not in My Backyard’ Became ‘Not in My Neighborhood.’” Or, stated differently, why so many cities are now absurdly, disproportionately expensive.

* “American reams: why a ‘paperless world’ still hasn’t happened.” I think the answer is simple: paper solves a set of fundamental and important problems, and many of its drawbacks are also its advantages.

* Is Trump making Bush’s mistake in North Korea? Maybe.

* “Jordan B Peterson, Critical Theory, and the New Bourgeoisie.” If you hear someone say “Critical theory” uncritically, you are likely be slathered in intellectual bullshit.

* “Management and the wealth of nations.” I’ve had only limited experience in this domain but it’s amazingly hard to do well.

* “Let’s Ban Porn.” Not my view but an interesting take and one that one rarely sees.

* “I’m no longer advocating for clean energy; here’s why.” Important though also depressing.

* “American Fertility Is Falling Short of What Women Want.” News rarely heard.

* Students Tweet Mass Shootings Now. Wow. The Onion posts the same story, over and over again: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” By the way, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led efforts to filibuster gun safety legislation.

Links: Jordan B. Peterson, the tyranny of language, what happened to blogs?, distractions, and more!

* “How ‘Cheap Sex’ Is Changing Our Lives – and Our Politics.” But is sex cheap for everyone? I don’t think so, and that is why an essay like “Radicalizing the Romanceless” is so powerful: it describes the people truly forgotten by our society, who aren’t the people PC writers usually claim are forgotten or invisible.

* “What’s so dangerous about Jordan Peterson?” An excellent piece.

* “Tinder and the Tyranny of Language.” Goes well with the first link.

* Joel Spolsky: “Birdcage liners.” Joel is back on his blog! Finally.

* NYC finally orders more subway cars.

* “Babe Turns a Movement Into a Racket.” There are often adults in the room for a reason. Related to the above: “‘MeToo’ and the Taboo Topic of Nature.” I think the taboo topic of nature in certain intellectual precincts will, in the future, be seen as one of the stranger facets of our time.

* The only 7–8 minutes a day you need to master to be truly productive and also “Why the worst distractions are the ones we love.”

* “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track.” File under, “Things that seem obvious yet get no attention.”

* “Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism,” which I find very funny and a few of you will too.

* Ten years of Instapaper, which I use almost every day.

* The startups attempting to disrupt education. One can hope.

Briefly noted: Nexus – Ramez Naam

Read Nexus for the plot rather than the sentences; I’m looking for an evocative sentence to quote by way of example and not finding any, while banal sentences are everywhere. In this world, Nexus is a drug or treatment or process (the “right” word doesn’t exist) can link people’s minds directly together, allowing people to experience what another person experiences—or to invade and control another person’s mind. The protagonist is a grad student who figures out the next technical step in the Nexus process.

One could say that the Nexus drug / treatment will radically increase empathy, with unexpected or unforeseen results. In-group empathy seems to have been important to the evolution of human cooperation, so artificially further increasing empathy could have unpredictable outcomes, just like no one foresaw Facebook as being a central part of the Internet experience for most people. Making empathy radically common could decrease some kinds of violence. But it can also leave people susceptible to predation. But as one character observes, “If Nexus 5 ever gets out, it’ll spread like wildfire. Permanent integration means a user only ever needs to procure a single dose for a lifetime effect. You can’t fight that on the supply side.” He’s right about the supply side, as we’ve seen from the supposed “war on drugs,” and he’s right that people will likely want a drug that leads to unbelievable euphoria, sex, and knowledge—but note too that the character resorts to cliché: “it’ll spread like wildfire.” Do things spread in some other fashion? Can we fine something better here?


Kim and William furiously hit keys [. . .]

Sam took her time in replying. “I’m human, Kade”.

Does a person take time “in replying” or “to reply?” And is just saying “paused” easier? These kinds of language infelicities can be called minor but when they recur throughout the novel they become major.

Still, properly read, Nexus may be about the dangers of dual-use technology: “They’d built Nexus OS to give people new freedoms, new ways to connect, new ways to learn. Not to use it as a tool for control or assassination.” The Internet was arguably invented in part for new ways to connect and learn, and now it’s used for virtue signaling, character assassination, and petty rivalry blown up to the world stage. Things have not gone as I once imagined they would. I used to be an Internet utopian. No more. Yet maybe Nexus would be different, though Nexus also raises the essential philosophical question: “What is real?” If another person can reach into your mind and rearrange it, what stops them from planting whatever memories or preferences they want? What, in this scenario, makes an individual an individual? “Nothing” seems to be the answer to that last question.

In Nexus, as you can likely tell from what I’ve written so far, the ideas seem more important than the words expressing them, which may say something about the underlying work. The book seems destined for TV, where the quality of its sentences won’t matter. I’m not unhappy to have read the book, but if you’ve not read Blindsight and like SF, start there. Still, I’ll read the next Naam novel after the Nexus trilogy.

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