Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent

How Airline Workers Learn to Deal with Passengers” reminds me of teaching; I’ve spent a bunch of years teaching college students and being a grant writing consultant, and I suspect that part of the problem airline workers experience is simple and akin to the problems I experience: 95% of people are fine, but that last 5% can occupy a lot of time and mental energy.* So there’s a temptation to become somewhat armored against that last 5%, which impacts interactions with the vast majority of people, who are normal and reasonable.

A lot of public-facing professions seem to have this problem, including emergency medicine doctors, cops, retail workers, and public school teachers. Because that bottom 5% is so noisy and time-consuming, a kind of misanthropy can set in, as one begins to think the bottom represents the whole—even if intellectually one knows it does not. Mental, psychological, and emotional armoring can reduce one’s overall effectiveness; this is particularly obvious in teaching, in which person-to-person connection plays a stronger role than it does in, say, consulting.

There seems to be something about the human mind that makes one negative interaction stand out more than 10 positive or normal interactions. So there’s a kind of crowding-out effect going on. And when I have to deal with someone who is unreasonable, I try to actively, consciously remind myself that they don’t represent the whole and that behind every irrationally unhappy person there are 49 to 99 normal people who aren’t giving me unwarranted grief.

Colleges in particular have been in the news lately, and a lot of people have seen crazy social justice warrior stuff out there, like the Middlebury College thing or the Halloween costumes at Yale. This stuff is in fact outrageous, but, again, it’s salient because it’s unusual and because it’s unusual one sees it in the news (and it does represent a real problem, though the problem tends to be overstated).

Friends and acquaintances who know what I do sometimes ask me about whether I see this kind of stuff. I do, a little. The vast majority of college students, however, seem to want what college students have always wanted: to learn something; to get by; to get a job when they’re done; to get laid; to learn something about themselves and the societies they live in; to make friends; to individuate from their families. You could add other items. Many students feel a vague sense of worry about being excellent sheep, and that worry is itself a sign of intellectual health. Most students, if they’ve thought about free-speech issues at all, vaguely support it. But a minority of well-organized and angry activists can make a lot more noise and news than the silent majority!

That last point is one many casual news readers don’t realize, which is why I emphasize it. It’s related to my essay, ““How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?” Similar issues play out in many fields beyond teaching and consulting. One angry, unreasonable, or irrational customer or client drowns out a lot of generically happy or satisfied ones. Or consider “I was a landlord: This is what it taught me about people.” Landlords often have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, and that preparation bleeds into their everyday scenarios and interactions.

Teaching, especially at the K – 12 level, really suffers from this problem. A teacher who tries to be honest and interesting risks the ire of his or her angriest, more unhinged, or most ideological students (and, even worse, their parents). Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students.

It’s easy for outsiders to say that teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized.

Social media probably amplifies many of the problem traits described above by allowing the least-reasonable people to organize, scream, and (not infrequently) lie. I don’t know what, if any, solution exists to these problems, apart from most individuals to attempt to be as reasonable as possible and not succumb to the noisy but unhinged minority. Not much of a rallying cry, is it?


* You can change the ratios some; I doubt the number of problem students reaches 10% in most scenarios, and I also doubt that the number declines below 2% (among professions that face the general public).

Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?

As the title asks, why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college? Or, if they have, what school is out there and has tried this?

It seems like a ripe strategy because virtually every (even slightly) selective school is pursing the same prestige strategy. Yet even as they do so, news about outrageous student loan burdens is everywhere and probably affecting the choices made by students. At the same time, college tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades—and everyone knows it. Education is a component of the “cost disease” that is afflicting other sectors too. The number of college administrators has grown enormously (though that may not be the prime factor behind public-school cost increases). Still, it used to be possible to work summer jobs and graduate with little or no debt; schools in the 1960s or 1970s don’t appear to have been dramatically worse at education than schools today, and in some ways they may have been better, yet today colleges are many times more expensive.

College costs and debts have soared, and at the same time the number of PhDs granted far outstrips the number of tenure-track and teaching jobs. Most universities and even many colleges care far more about research, much of which is bogus anyway, than teaching. Many universities don’t care about teaching at all, as long as the professor shows up to lecture, isn’t drunk, and doesn’t trade sex for grades. I hear many, many grad students and early professors lament the way their schools don’t care about teaching. So there’s a surplus of cheap PhDs out there who would desperately like to be professors. While professors who only teach two or three classes per semester complain relentlessly about all the “work” they supposedly have and how “busy” they allegedly are, it could be very easy to get professors to teach far more than they currently do at most schools, further reducing costs.

In short, the supply of faculty is there, and the supply of students ought to be there. So, with the setup above, let me repeat: why hasn’t anyone attempted to start a teaching-focused college with low tuition and extremely high-quality academics? I’m thinking of a school with a mandate to minimize the number of administrators and sports teams. One could even eliminate tenure, and thus ensure that PhDs hired today won’t still be on the payroll in 40 years.

This situation sounds like a community college, but I’m imagining a school that still draws from a national applicant pool and still maintains or attempts to maintain an elite or comprehensive academic character. Think of a liberal arts school but scaled up somewhat and with fewer administrators. If I were a billionaire I might try to do this; stupendously rich people loved endowing schools in the 19th Century, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion. Still, it worked then, so perhaps it could work now.

It may be that schools are really selling prestige and status, and consequently a low-cost, high-quality teaching school would be too low prestige and low status to attract students.

Still, and again as noted previously, pretty much every school, public or private, is pursuing the exact same prestige, admissions, and marketing strategy. With one or two exceptions (CalTech, University of Chicago—okay, there are a few others, but not many), they don’t even try (really or seriously) to distinguish themselves, and almost every school competes for the same BS college rankings. Such a uniform market seems ripe for alternate approaches, yet none are being tried or have taken off (so far as I know).

What am I missing?

* Maybe it was easier to start colleges in the 19th Century, when regulation was nonexistent and complex subsidies of various kinds weren’t available. In the 19th Century, many colleges were also founded with the explicit intent of saving students’ souls, so perhaps the lack of religiosity in today’s billionaires and/or most of today’s students is a factor.

* Current schools might just be too damn good at marketing for others to break in.

* Maybe there are efforts afoot and they’ve either failed or are too small for me to have noticed.

* Current schools are pursuing a complex price discrimination strategy, in which the sticker price is paid by a relatively small number of students, and much of the study body receives “scholarships” that are really tuition discounts. Maybe this system is more appealing to students and possibly schools than a transparent, everyone-pays-$5,000-per-year strategy.

* Students by and large pay with their parents’ money or pay with loans, so many an unbundled version of a school really is less attractive than one with lots of administrators, feel-good projects, fancy gyms, etc.

* Billionaires who might fund this are busy doing other things with their money.

* The number of “good” or at least weird and different students who would try such a school is not great enough (given the current cost of college and the number of students out there, I find this one hard to believe, but it isn’t impossible).

I’m guess that number four is most likely, but maybe there are other features I’m missing.

Circumstances under which going to law school can make sense

The reasons you should avoid law school are well known and I won’t repeat them here, but the other day I was explaining to a former student why she shouldn’t go to law school and she asked a perceptive question: Who should go? Under what conditions should a person go?

The answer is “almost no one” and “almost never,” but law school can be okay in a handful of circumstances:

* People who have already worked in law firms, probably as a paralegal but maybe under other circumstances, and who thus understand what the day-to-day life of a lawyer is like. That firm should have a job waiting and ready to go for the person before the person starts law school.

* People who have family (or close family friends) in law firms who can set the law school applicant up with a job straight out of school. If your uncle has a firm and wants you to take over that firm, law school can make sense.

* People with a very specific sense of what they want a law degree for and what they want to do with it—for example, people who desperately want to fight for voting rights, or immigrant rights, or something along those lines, and are convinced that those fights will be their life’s work, regardless of other challenges.

That’s really it; if I’m missing something, leave a comment or send an email. Law school mostly works for people who don’t need law school and only need the credentials that law school entails. There is a reason why most lawyers learned the craft on the job as apprentices, and law school only became a requirement in the post-World War II-era as a way of raising the salaries and status of then-existing lawyers.

Even going to highly ranked schools doesn’t make sense because, while you may get a big-firm job straight out of school, you’ll still be shackled to the work by student loan debt slavery, and you’ll still have to be a lawyer at the end (which most people don’t really want to do), and you’ll still probably not make partner (which means that you’re mostly working to line someone else’s pocket).

Don’t go to law school.

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama

My review on Grant Writing Confidential is actually germane to readers of The Story’s Story, too, so I’ll start by directing you there. The book’s central and brilliant point is simple: for at least a century various people have imagined that better technology and the spread of technology will solve all sorts of social ills and improve all sorts of institutions, with education being perhaps the most obvious.

Geek_heresy2There are many other fascinating points—too many to describe all of them here. To take one, it’s often hard to balance short- and long-term wants. Many people want to write a novel but don’t want to write right now. Over time, that means the novel never gets written, because novels get written one sentence and one day at a time. Technology does not resolve this challenge. If anything, Internet access may make it worse. Many of us have faced an important long-term project only to diddle around on websites:

Short-term pleasure often leads to long-term dissatisfaction. That intuition underlies the psychologist’s distinction between hedonia and eudaimonia. Pleasure-seeking hedonism is questionable, but maybe long-term eudaimonic life satisfaction is good.

One sees these issues all over. Porn remains ridiculously popular (though some consumers of it are no doubt fine). Many people drink soda despite how incredibly detrimental soda is to health, and in my view how bad soda tastes compared to, say, ice cream. TV watching time is still insanely high, though it may be slightly down from its previous highs. There are various ways one can try to remove agency from the people watching porn while drinking soda and keeping one eye on a TV in the background, but the simpler solution is to look at people’s actions and see revealed preferences at work.

Most people don’t have the souls of artists and innovators trapped in average everyday lives. Most people want their sodas and breads and sugars and TV and SUVs and all the other things that elite media critics decry (often reasonable, in my view). Most people don’t connect what they’re doing right now to their long-term outcomes. Most people don’t want to be fat but the soda is right here. A lot of people want a better love life but in the meantime let’s check out Pornhub. Most people want amazing Silicon Valley tech jobs, but Netflix is here right now and Coursera seems far away.

And, to repeat myself, technology doesn’t fix any of that. As Toyama says of one project that gives computer access to children, “technology amplifies the children’s propensities. To be sure, children have a natural desire to learn and play and grow. But they also have a natural desire to distract themselves in less productive ways. Digital technology amplifies both of these appetites.” I had access to computers as a teenager. I wasted more time than I want to contemplate playing games on them, rather than building the precursors to Facebook. Large markets and social issues emerge from individual choices, and a lot of elite media types want to blame environment instead of individual. But each individual chooses computer games—or something real.

It turns out that “Low-cost technology is just not an effective way to fight inequality, because the digital divide is much more a symptom than a cause of other divides. Under the Law of Amplification, technology – even when it’s equally distributed – isn’t a bridge, but a jack. It widens existing disparities.” But those disparities emerge from individual behaviors. People who want to be writers need to write, now. People who want better partners or sex lives need to quit the sugar, now. One could pair any number of behaviors and outcomes in this style, and one could note that most people don’t do those things. The why seems obvious to me but maybe not to others. The people who become elite developers often say coding is fun for them in a way it apparently isn’t to others (including me). Writing is fun to me in a way it apparently isn’t to others. So I do a lot of it, less because it’s good for me than because it’s fun, for whatever temperamental reason. Root causes interest me, as they do many people with academic temperaments. Root causes don’t interest most people.

Let me speak to my own life. I’ve said variations on this before, but when I was an undergrad I remember how astounded some of my professors were when they’d recommend a book and I’d read it and then show up in office hours. I didn’t understand why they were astounded until I started teaching, and then I realized what most students are like and how different the elite thinkers and doers are from the average. And this is at pretty decent colleges and universities! I’m not even dealing with the people who never started.

Most of the techno-optimists, though—I used to be one—don’t realize the history of the promise of technology to solve problems:

As a computer scientist, my education included a lot of math and technology but little of the history or philosophy of my own field. This is a great flaw of most science and engineering curricula. We’re obsessed with what works today, and what might be tomorrow, but we learn little about what came before.

Yet technology doesn’t provide motivation. It’s easy to forget this. Still, I wonder if giving 100 computers to 100 kids might be useful because one of them will turn out to be very important. The idea that a small number of people drive almost all human progress is underrated. In The Enlightened Economy Joel Mokyr observes that the Industrial Revolution may actually have been driven primarily by ten to thirty thousand people. That’s a small number and a small enough number that the addition to or subtraction of a single individual from the network may have serious consequences.

This isn’t an idea that I necessarily buy but it is one I find intriguing and possibly applicable to a large number of domains. Toyama’s work may reinforce it.

When there are too many administrators, which ones do *you* fire?

You know there are too many administrators when even The Nation argues there are too many administrators.* More importantly, though, everyone regardless of political bent is against “administrators” in the abstract but almost no one lists which administrators should be on the chopping block. Too few articles and polemicists say, “These are the 100 positions I’d eliminate at the University of Washington.” If a school decided to fire its “Diversity” department in the name of cost cutting, The Nation would be the first publication screaming about racism and institutional indifference and the betrayal of high-need populations. Everyone rails about administrators, but no one has concrete plans to halt their proliferation.

Consider UC-Berkeley’s “Vice Chancellor’s Office for Equity & Inclusion;” perhaps UC-Berkeley doesn’t need seven “equity and inclusion” teams or 17 employees in the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Equity & Inclusion.** The staff includes several financial analysts and a graphic designer exclusive to that office. California’s public salary database shows that that graphic designer earned $75,800 in 2014. The Development Director earns $109,000. The Executive Assistant earns $91,400. The Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion earns $209,000 a year. And so on. But UC-Berkeley will probably never cut this department (maybe that’s a Good Thing).

One sees this elsewhere. At Marymount Manhattan College, last week I got an email about a “Change of Title IX Coordinator.” That’s another part of one administrator’s job that didn’t exist decades ago. In addition, the email says the school “undertook an assessment of how best to comply with evolving federal and state legislation.” Which is another way of saying, “We spent a bunch of time and man hours.” Followed, since this is a large, modern organization, by numerous email followups. There were also “mandated student, faculty, and staff trainings” (emphasis added). Maybe that work is good and maybe it isn’t, but it’s still indicative of the time and energy and activities that otherwise hated administrators are doing.

(Title IX, by the way, is the subject of Laura Kipnis’s hilarious, expensive Title IX inquisition. I wouldn’t blame you if you left this somewhat dry article to read her funnier, ribald essay.)

I don’t want to pick on any particular school or even the education industry specifically. Regulatory compliance costs are increasing in virtually all industries, including the financial industry (link goes to a PDF) and many others. We rarely consider the systematic effects of regulatory compliance and instead think of each particular regulation / requirement in isolation. Nonetheless, when we get a lot of regulatory and other mandatory or optional costs together, we see the need for more lawyers, bureaucrats, administrators, and other people who all need to be paid and who have to be at least somewhat good at abstract thinking, writing, and statistics.

To be sure, the presidents and so forth making $500,000 or more per year is obscene on its face, but those are a relatively small number of positions, and, while I agree that college presidents should behave more like part of the university and less like corporate titans, I’m not sure that a small number of overly paid people is the biggest problem. I am sure that the next time I see someone announcing that we need to first fire all the administrators I’ll send them this post and get nothing in response.


* But here’s one, alternate explanation.

** Much of this post and its research came from a friend, who gave me permission to publish it.

*Do* we need Shakespeare?

Megan McArdle asks: “Do We Need Shakespeare?“, and she offers some theories about why we might that don’t rely on “Because we’ve always done it that way,” including “What remains is a sort of stubborn belief that people ought to study literature because it is somehow good for them” and “Maybe the best argument you can make for English class is that it offers a way for people like myself, and many thousands of future English teachers, to find out that they like English class.”

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Still, I’m not so sure. I began imagining reasons almost immediately, but most reduced to, “Because we’ve been doing it that way for a long time.” Which can be reduced to “path dependence.” Teaching a writer who seems incomprehensible at first glance and requires experts to decipher also raises the status of (some) teachers and professors, who have knowledge that can’t be readily accessed by every day people. That Hansonian reason, however, isn’t real good reason why we should choose Shakespeare plays over some other means of teaching English.

Let me try to develop an alternate possibility that will likely make many people unhappy. I’ve begun to think that education is really about cultivating a relatively small elite who really push forward particular domains (which is a variant of McArdle’s comment about the thousands of future English teachers). In other words, mass education doesn’t matter nearly as much as intensely educating a small number of very high skill people, but those people probably aren’t identifiable in advance. This idea isn’t purely mine, and I’ve been thinking about it explicitly since reading Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, in which he writes:

It is important to stress that the Industrial Revolution was the creation of an elite, a relatively small number of ingenious, ambitious, and diligent persons who could think out of the box, and had the wherewithal to carry out their ideas and to find others who could assist them. This is not to return to the heroic interpretations of the Victorian hagiographers such as Samuel Smiles and credit a few famous individuals with the entire phenomenon […] Even these pivotal people were a minority, perhaps a few tens of thousands of elite workers, well trained through apprenticeships supplemented sometimes by informal studies.

Wow: Something as big a deal as the Industrial Revolution may have been driven by a small number of people. I’ve also read a lot about the early computer industry and the early development of integrated chips, and that too seems to have been driven by a small number of physicists and mathematicians, with particularly important companies like Fairchild Semiconductor and later Intel starting off with tiny workforces. Most of the world didn’t matter much to the development of those industries, even though those industries are now so large that a large part of the workforce spends our time in front of glowing screens that show executed code most of us don’t understand and can’t write. Computers and the Internet are the biggest stories of our age, possibly excepting global warming and mass extinction, yet many of us aren’t substantially participating and don’t care to.

What gives?

The unpleasant answer may be that most of us don’t matter that much to the process. By the same token, most people who learn to despite reading from being made to read Shakespeare may never be good readers, writers, or thinkers—but they’re not the ones who push the world forward, intellectually speaking. Instead, those of us who go on to realize that, say, “
Shakespeare’s Genius Is Nonsense: What the Bard can teach science about language and the limits of the human mind
” are the ones who matter, at least in this domain.

Most Westerners are uncomfortable with outright elitism, but I’d ask: How many of us really work as hard as we can at a given domain? In “How A Slight Change In Mindset: Accelerated My Learning Forever,” Tristan de Montebello observes that few of us really throw ourselves into learning. Most of us learn as much as we need to to survive and do okay and reproduce, but not much more than that. You can tell as much via behavior.

That may be true in language as a domain as well. I read more than the vast majority of people I know, and yet there are people who read and write much more than even I do.

To return to Shakespeare, I’d also argue that sometimes complex, weird, or seemingly outdated works force us to read closer and more carefully than we might otherwise. Shakespeare makes contemporary readers work harder to understand what the writer means—which is ultimately a useful and under-used skill. Just look at most Internet forums: since the 1980s and Usenet, going forward all the way to today with Reddit, we have numerous places where people gather online and utterly fail at basic reading comprehension (this is one reason I spend little time posting there and much more posting here).

Under this theory, reading someone like Shakespeare is akin to lifting weights: a 500-pound deadlift may not translate directly into 500 pounds of force in a game, but it sure translates more force than a guy who can’t deadlift 500 pounds.

Still, I’m treating the argument that Shakespeare-is-good like a lawyer and trying to come up with the best possible argument, rather than arguing from first principles. I’m not fully convinced we need Shakespeare, as opposed to some other writer or group of writers, as a necessary component of teaching English.

“Uber [or Airbnb] for Private Tutors”—I’d sign up

Tyler Cowen suggests “Uber for Private Tutors,” which sounds like a great idea, but I’m not sure Uber is the right comparison group. Rather, the better comparison is to Airbnb: I’d want to be the penthouse of tutors, so to speak, and charge appropriate superstar fees. The best tutors are probably worth orders of magnitude more than average tutors.

Uber by contrast dictates fees to drivers, which drivers can take or leave. I’d rather see the opportunity for markets to decide how much I’m worth. Rides are also probably more similar to each other than tutors are to each other, so Airbnb is the comparison choice I prefer. One could also begin to imagine a combination of MOOCs, things like Coursera, tutor matching, and the like nibbling away at the current school experience.

I have the academic credentials and experience necessary to sign up for Airbnb for private tutors, and I live in New York City, which probably has a lot of pent-up demand for tutors-on-demand. I’m working as an adjunct professor at Marymount Manhattan College, and while I enjoy and appreciate the work it isn’t hard for me to imagine a better-paid situation arising. Uber for private tutors could supplement the large, existing adjunct workforce or even supplant some people who are currently adjuncting.

That being said it isn’t clear to me that people hiring tutors would care about credentials so much as they’d care about personality, though maybe both are important.

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