Links: Schools, TSA voyeurs, parenting, and more

* “The end of higher education’s golden age” (maybe; if the problems Shirky discusses have existed since 1975, why can’t they exist for another 40 years?)

* In “Hit ’Em Where It Hurts: The solution to the higher-ed adjunct crisis lies in the U.S. News rankings,” Rebecca Schuman proposes that colleges be discouraged from hiring adjuncts by having U.S. News and similar college raters penalize colleges for hiring adjuncts. But I see two big problems: I haven’t seen any conclusive evidence that adjuncts are worse teachers than full-time faculty; yeah, we can provide a lot of anecdotes for either side, and, based on a very minor study, the answer so far appears to be “no.”

The second problem: how many colleges care about rankings, or play rankings games? Maybe 300 or 400 out of 3,000. Matthew Reed over at Confessions of a Community College Dean is fond of pointing out that everyone in the media focuses obsessively on those 300 or 400 colleges and especially on the ones perceived as elite, despite them representing a tiny portion of the college population or market.

* “TSA Agent Confessions;” these are the people “keeping you safe.”

* “Fight Over Effective Teachers Shifts to Courtroom.” Brilliant maneuver.

* “How the left’s embrace of busing hurt the cause of integration;” file under “unintended consequences.”

* “Is Parenting Really All Joy and No Fun? A Happily Childless Reviewer Investigates Jennifer Senior’s Book.” I read the book and find the behavior of many of the women in it bizarre. There is an interesting long-form magazine article to be written about All Joy and No Fun, Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity, Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and a few other of the baby-crazy-backlash books (perhaps the one about French parenting). It does seem that the more children are objectively safer, the more parents and especially mothers worry.

* Humans of New York: The Dating Coach. Fiction has for the most part not written about individuals like John Keegan.

* The terrifying surveillance case of Brandon Mayfield.

* “Mooconomics,” a terrible title for a fascinating piece about how we might get to online education works (or it may already be here).

Links: Modern sex dynamics, making American literature, journalism, morality, ideology, and more

* The Making of American Literature: The correspondence of editor, critic, and Lost Generation chronicler Malcolm Cowley. I’m not sure that I’ve even heard of Cowley before this article.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* The Tragedy of Common-Sense Morality: Evolution didn’t equip us for modern judgments. Or, for that matter, many diffuse, modern threats. The book concerns Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, which is very good—just not quite as good as Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Both answer a lot of fundamental questions about morality, group thinking, and ideology.

* “Does journalism have a future?” When I graduated from high school, I guessed not and have lived my life accordingly. I’m glad I made the choices I did in this regard. Instead of making the mistake of trying to be a journalist, I’ve made different mistakes.

* Camille Paglia on Rob Ford, Rihanna and rape culture. Paglia is giving many interviews lately though not because she has another book out. She’s also in the WSJ on the end “suicide of a civilization.” Though I would ask: Suicide, or evolution?

* People are moving to Florida because it’s cheap.

* We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn: At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. Having been on both ends of the college teaching / learning experience, I’ve rarely read a truer article. I’m just not convinced that today is much different than 50 years ago, except for having much higher financial stakes on both sides of the table.

* “More ominous than a strike,” a post responding to Dr. Helen’s Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream – and Why It Matters. The book is okay but is more a collection of blog post blockquotes than a real book. Nonetheless it’s somewhat useful for people who just started thinking about modern gender dynamics but haven’t done much reading on the subject.

Just because I’ve been stupid doesn’t mean you should too: responses to the school and jobs post

In response to “Employment, attitude, and educational entitlement,” a couple friends noted my own experience in higher education and asked if I was being a hypocrite by telling people to do as I say not as I do. But I would phrase it differently by saying that going to grad school was a stupid thing to do, and an important component of intellectual honesty is admitting when we do something stupid.

When I make a mistake, I admit it and encourage others not to make the same one. What do you do?*

In addition, although it’s true that I’ve been in various pouches of academia, I’ve also been working continuously as a grant writer (If not for that, I doubt I would’ve majored in English in the first place: I like to read and write but am aware of the job situation). When I began English grad school, I thought I’d be able to conventionally publish a novel by the time I was done. This has turned out not to be true. For me, that’s annoying but not a crisis. For many of my peers, however, it is a crisis.

English grad school is also somewhat less pernicious than some professional grad schools. In English, they pay you (a small amount, to be sure), instead of you paying them, which means it’s relatively easy to walk away—much easier than law, business, or medicine. It’s becoming apparent to those of us who pay attention to higher education that higher education institutions have an increasingly predatory relationship with those they are educating. Or nominally educating.

There’s also a “follow-the-money” element to the higher education problem. School can go on pretty much forever when you are paying them. Not surprisingly, if you offer someone money, they will usually be inclined to accept it. Want to get into any but the very top PhD programs? Say you’ll pay your way and you can at least start. Finding someone who wants to give you money is harder than finding someone who wants yours.

Universities have realized this.

Finally, I’ll note that, in the absence of a better job, I will do whatever jobs I can get, and, in my life, some relatively low-status jobs have been better than relatively high status jobs; working as a lifeguard, for example, is more fun than being a lawyer, and it was a great job from a writing perspective: about 10% of my conscious mind would keep an eye on the pool while the other 90% came up with ideas. I wish I’d been smarter and started lifeguarding in high school.**

It’s true that lifeguards don’t get to fuck with other people’s lives in the way some lawyers do, so it may be a worse occupation for the power hungry, but it also doesn’t require tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to be a lifeguard.


* “When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?”

** Then again most people probably wish they’d made smarter choices.

Employment, attitude, and educational entitlement

This whole attitude is weird to me:

He says his name is George but declines to give his last name. He’s 29 years old, holds a master’s degree in economics, and has been unemployed for a year and a half, not counting the five months he worked as a street cleaner.

“It’s more difficult for the highly qualified,” he says. “The market thinks we will cost too much.” He’s applying for a position as a secretary, a job that requires a high school degree. For a couple of minutes, he and Stratigaki discuss whether his education will be an asset or a liability, and then their names are called.”

People aren’t owed jobs because of (possibly bogus) qualifications or credentials; they get jobs because they can do something valuable for someone else. Degrees don’t necessarily show that, and I’ve met plenty of doofuses in advanced degree programs or with advanced degrees, who I wouldn’t hire, and plenty of people without degrees, who I would hire.

That point doesn’t say much about the macro situation in Greece, which is dire and a human tragedy. Nonetheless, the idea that being “highly qualified” automatically makes someone worthy of a job is bizarre to me yet also seems endemic among many of the people I run into, who view educational credentials as accurate proxies for valued skills. Yet I look at many of the people I’ve met in various forms of higher education (law school, grad school in English lit) and am struck by how few of them I would hire to write proposals.

Among people in the English grad department, I can think of no one I would want to hire—students or professors. Perhaps I am judging them unfairly, but the stories about marginally employed “professors” on food stamps makes sense to me, because what else are many of these people going to do? Many don’t even seem to realize that, given their sometimes tremendous writing talents, getting a blog is the way to spread ideas and make connections. Many seem to have a limited sense of possibility. On the other hand, I’ve met two different people on the Internet who, if I suddenly needed a writer, I’d seek out, since both are already competent writers who can get things done.

By contrast, generic grad students frequently spend a decade in grad school and have literally nothing to show for their effort other than their degrees; a few have peer-reviewed articles that are only 25 pages long and intellectually vacuous at that. Many perpetual students don’t seem to care about whether they provide value for someone else or somehow just deserve jobs for existing.

To my mind, the question of “What value do I provide for other people?” is paramount, so much so that I keep citing it again and and again in this post, even if “What degrees do I have or can I get?” is easier.

Links: Back to Blood and James Wood, Amazon wipes Kindle account, school reform, computing, the female social matrix, and more

* “‘Back to Blood’: Tom Wolfe forgot his own rules: Almost 25 years ago, the author made a case for the realist novel. His silly new book suggests he should reread it.” In other Wolfe news, James Wood doesn’t like it either, although “doesn’t like it” is a pretty stupid phrase, but I can’t find or fashion one better at the moment: Wood’s review is really about how free-indirect speech, registers, and personality function not just in this novel, but in The Novel.

* “A couple of days a go, my friend Linn sent me an e-mail, being very frustrated: Amazon just closed her account and wiped her Kindle. Without notice. Without explanation. This is DRM at it’s worst.” Until there are more robust legal or contractual guarantees on Kindle books, I’ll remain reluctant to buy them. On the other hand, as of this writing, it’s possible to strip the DRM from your ebooks. And it works!

* “Why school reform is impossible.” Maybe.

* “As we watch computing become a central part of the language of science, communication, and even the arts and humanities, we will realize that students need to learn to read and write code because — without that skill — they are left out of the future.

* The Female Social Matrix: An Introduction.

* This is the Era of Nuclear Rejections.

* “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” and what to do about it. Unfortunately, we haven’t done the things we should have done and should be doing, as discussed in the article.

* “Write My Essay, Please! These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?” This supports Bryan Caplan’s theory that much of education is about signaling.

Why “Man’s Search for Meaning” and Viktor Frankl

I recommend Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to a fair number of people in a wide array of contexts, and one of my students asked why I included him in a short list of books at the back of the syllabus. Though I’ve mentioned him on blog a number of times (see here for one example), I hadn’t really considered why I admire his book and so wanted to take a shot at doing so.

As Frankl says, we’re suffering from a bizarre dearth of meaning in our everyday lives. One can see this in the emptiness that a lot of people report feeling and, more seriously, in suicide rates. In material terms, people in Western societies have never been as well off as we are today—and most of Asia and Latin America, along with much of Africa, are catching up with surprising speed. Yet in “spiritual” terms (I hate that much-abused word but can think of no better one—metaphysical, perhaps?) many of us aren’t doing so well, which is odd, given the cornucopia of goods and opportunities around us. I think Frankl tries to teach us how to better actualize our lives—we truly don’t live by bread alone—and I think he has a keen sense of the malaise many of us feel. I’ve struggled with these issues too and think Frankl’s treatment of them is a good one.

One can see another version or statement of this general problem in Louis CK’s much-linked bit “Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy.” It has 7 million views, and while YouTube views are hardly a good metric for importance or content, I think CK’s bit has gone viral because he’s touching a profound problem that many people feel, even if they don’t articulate it, or usually won’t articulate to themselves or others.

Many people also seem to feel isolated (see Putnam’s possibly flawed Bowling Alone for one account). Yet because they feel isolated, they have no one to talk to about feeling isolated! The paradox worsens isolation, and there isn’t an obvious outlet for these kinds of feelings or problems. Plus, technology seems to enable crappier and more tenuous relationships, when many of us really want the opposite. That’s partly a problem of the person using the technology—we can talk to anyone, anywhere despite many of us having nothing to say—but technology also pushes use to use it in particular ways, which is one of my points about how Facebook is bad for relationships.

And people are mostly on their own in dealing with this. Schools, as they’re widely conceived of right now, are largely seen as job-training centers, rather than as places to figure out how you should live your life. So they’re not very helpful. Religion or religious feeling is one answer for some people, but religious thinking or feeling isn’t very satisfying for me and a growing number of people.

I don’t know what is helpful—problems are often easier to see than solutions—but Frankl offers a framework for thinking about leading a meaningful existence through attempting to do the best with what you’ve got and choosing an aim for your life, however small or absurd (Hence: “Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence”).

Frankl and Louis CK are hardly the only people to notice this—All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is a contemporary example of a book tackling similar basic concepts from a different angle. Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis are others. The fact that this problem persists across decades and arguably becomes more urgent means that I don’t think these books will be the last. As Frankl says in a preface:

I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under the fingernails.

Links: Sibling loss, free speech, self-publishing, transfer of learning, and more

* Quora answers: “What does it feel like to have your sibling die?” HT MR.

* The Case for the Private Sector in School Reform.

* Terrifying Teen Speech in the News Again: What kind of democracy teaches its young people they’ll be punished for talking out of turn?

* The Joys and Hazards of Self-Publishing on the Web. This basically describes where I’m going.

* From Tyler Cowen, a link to “Working 9 to 12: ‘How Much Is Enough?’ by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky:”

I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food — and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window — apparently broken for some time — and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia, which he had found terrifying because of America’s high crime rate, though he had not been touched by it. I remember being a guest of Brasenose College — Oxford’s wealthiest — and being envied because I had been invited to stay in the master’s guest quarters, only to find that stepping into the guest quarters was like stepping into a Surrealist painting, because the floor sloped in one direction and the two narrow beds in two other directions. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm.

As I said in MR’s comments, to me, the situation may not have improved that much; as an undergrad I went from Clark University to the University of East Anglia for a semester and was shocked at the condition of the latter, and of England in general. Notice too this:

There is virtually no discussion of how people, their incomes halved, might be expected to employ the vastly greater leisure that the authors want them to have. Besides the sentence I quoted about the musician, sculptor, teacher and scientist — and the description is of their work, not of their leisure activities — there is a suggestion that a good leisure activity is letting one’s mind wander “freely and aimlessly,” and a list of three recreations — “playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends” — offered to refute any contention that the authors’ conception of leisure is “narrowly highbrow.”

I like my work, most of the time, and would probably be bored being idle. We might be better off if we tried to do things we like, and, if we can’t, we should at least try to like the things that we do.

* “Low Transfer of Learning: The Glass Is Half Full,” which ends with this: “Instead of bemoaning American workers’ mediocre literacy and numeracy, we should be grateful that millions of Americans who learn little in school still manage to learn useful trades on the job. Seriously.”

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