Archive for October, 2015

Education Is Not a Right

In all the hassles and kerfuffles involving the issue of education, it seems to me that one critical aspect of the problem has been totally overlooked, and that is the difference between the “right” to an opportunity as opposed to an outright right. All “rights” come with conditions, whether those are legal or physical or mental, or financial, or some combination thereof. One has to be a certain age to vote. One cannot exercise his or her second amendment rights under certain conditions… or if one has exercised those rights unwisely and ends up in jail.

Likewise, the “right” to an education is really the right to have the opportunity to gain that education. Not all individuals have the ability to become engineers, lawyers, physicists, or other professionals. Some individuals do not have the intellectual ability or the temperament to persevere through college and or graduate school. Saying that anyone has the unequivocal “right” to any particular kind of advanced education is either wistful dreaming or delusion. Saying that they should have the right to pursue education as far as their abilities may permit is far more accurate, although that still doesn’t address who will fund those studies and by what means. Nor does it address, as I’ve noted earlier, whether that education will lead to a job in that field.

The reason why the distinction between the right to an opportunity for education and the right to the education itself is vitally important is that if legislators insist on an unqualified right to a specific course of study that course of study will be dumbed down (while grades are inflated) in all but the most elite institutions, which is what has already occurred in U.S. public education, and which is why many parents mortgage their futures and everything else to pay to live in elite school districts and to send their children to the best colleges possible [or the best ones that they can afford].

Once upon a time, the vast majority of students who graduated from high school could write coherent sentences and understandable paragraphs and had a solid basis in fundamental mathematics, history, and science. Today, almost two thirds of all U.S. high school students have never written a paper exceeding five pages, and three quarters of them cannot write anywhere close to proficiently. Sixty percent cannot read with enough comprehension to effectively handle college level work, yet surveys show that over seventy percent of parents believe that public high schools are adequately preparing their children for college.

Those statistics are also another reason why more and more employers are requiring at least two years of college, not because the students need the college courses, but because only students who can complete two years of college are likely to have the basic reading, writing, and mathematics skills for most jobs.

So… if you want to finish destroying secondary and undergraduate education in the United States, by all means insist on every student’s “right” to higher education.

All Too Casual

A week or so ago my wife and I went out to dinner at our favorite local Italian restaurant, a modestly upscale establishment, and as such, one of perhaps three in our entire geographic area.

We enjoyed the meal, as always, but I have to say that I was definitely distracted by the couple at the adjoining table, given that the male of the pair was wearing a tee-shirt of the type I usually reserve for exercise and yardwork, complimented by non-matching shorts that looked more like those worn by basketball players, and sandals. The woman with him was dressed very slightly more suitably.

Now, I know why the restaurant didn’t turn them away on grounds of attire – simply because it’s newish and is still running on the bare edge of profitability – and, in fact, one of the reasons we frequent it, in addition to the excellent food and setting [disregarding the attire of some patrons], is because we want it to survive and prosper and to continue to provide a higher level of food and service than all the fast-food outlets and mid-scale chain restaurants that proliferate in a regional university town.

Nonetheless, I am frankly baffled and astounded by what so many people wear out in public in the name of comfort(?) or convenience (?). The Italian restaurant is not exorbitant in its pricing, but it’s anything but bare-bones cheap, either, and I’m certain those thankfully few of its all too casually dressed patrons could certainly afford better attire than tee-shirts and running/basketball shorts, although from what I’ve seen advertised some of that sort of attire actually costs more than clothing that would seem more suitable to public appearances and dining in restaurants.

I understand the supposed lure of comfort, but what I don’t understand is why so many people wear “outfits” (for lack of a better term) that make them look their worst. There are plenty of clothes that are comfortable, affordable, and enhance the wearer’s presence – or at least don’t worsen his or her appearance. One fashion designer was reputed to have said that his clothes were designed to make a woman look more attractive than if she were stark naked, and as I unfortunately age, I know that my clothed appearance is definitely more attractive than my unclothed appearance.

The same general observation goes for men’s and women’s grooming. Why are hair “styles” and beard styles seemingly designed to make the wearer look worse? Or have people gotten so narcissistic that they can’t tell what does look good? And don’t tell me it’s for convenience… beards so unkempt that they get into everything including food, and that everything gets into, aren’t exactly convenient. I’m not against facial hair per se, and I have several acquaintances who look far better in their well-trimmed beards than they would bare-faced, but what’s with the growth of slovenly clothing and grooming that seems to be spreading? Is it just another aspect of the “shock culture? If so, I’ll admit I find it shocking, shockingly stupid and ill-mannered. But then I’m an anachronistic troglodyte who believes in wearing in public clean clothes that are actually clothing, as opposed to excessive skin-exposing exercise gear, and at least vaguely match, and grooming that doesn’t make people want to move away in fear and disgust.


One of the most regrettable trends I’ve seen in recent years is how many acquaintances and friends have given up landlines entirely for their cellphones. Included in this trend are several of our grown offspring. At first, this trend was a mere inconvenience for me, solved by making certain I had a personal directory of all their cellphone numbers, both in the directory of my seldom-used cellphone [except when I’m traveling] and in a short hard-copy list on my desk.

Now, I know why people are shutting off their landlines. First, it gets rid of – at least for now – a huge percentage of the obnoxious charitable and political telemarketers (who are exempt from the federal do-not-call regulations) as well as the scam artists and shysters who ignore the lists. Second, it reduces total telecommunications expenses, sometimes significantly. Unfortunately, it also does one other thing. It makes it just about impossible to contact people who aren’t either relatives, close friends, or frequent business associates, for the simple reason that, unless there’s a service I don’t know about, it’s just about impossible to find out someone’s cellphone number except on a personal basis. On more than a few occasions, when urgent work issues came up or when power failures occurred, my wife was unable to inform some faculty members because, when the computers crashed at work, so did email access, and without either email or their telephone numbers…

Now, I suppose, for most people, all of that is just fine, but what it means is that, effectively, people who rely just on cellphones are narrowing their contacts with the wider world. Sometimes, this is more than a mere inconvenience. On one occasion it took us days to discover whether one of our grown children had in fact survived a hurricane because, first, the cellphone towers had been disabled, and second, they were without power for almost two weeks.

Then, too, on more than one occasion, we’ve wanted to include people that we’ve met at various gatherings and invite them to one social occasion or another. In several cases, it took weeks before we could get in contact because they had no lineline and were new to the area. Without a listed telephone number, it’s hard even to find an address to send a written invitation.

And, finally, the last problem I have with exclusive reliance on cellphones is that it’s a reflection of the “me” generation, the idea that what’s convenient and cost-effective for “me” is all that matters. It doesn’t matter if people have a hard time reaching you, but then, I understand that, too, because ninety-five percent of the calls our land-line receives are from charitable organizations or political shysters, and I’d just as soon not have to even look at the caller listing, let alone answer them, which we never do. Although the other five percent are still important, I can definitely see the temptation in just ditching the landline, and its costs, and regrettable as what that represents is, I wonder how long we’ll end up holding out.


Depending on who’s taking the survey and when, between forty and fifty percent of recent college graduates are underemployed, meaning that they’re working in a job that doesn’t require a college degree. Add to that the ten to seventeen percent of recent college graduates who have no job at all, and that adds up to more than half of all recent graduates being either unemployed or underemployed. A Federal Reserve study which examined this problem both in current and historic terms discovered that historically around thirty percent of college graduates tended to be underemployed, but fifty percent is unprecedented.

Yet almost everyone keeps touting higher education as a way to a higher income, and, I suppose, in a way, even with these statistics, they’re right, because the income and employment picture for those without degrees is far worse. But isn’t there something wrong with a system where the number of taxi-drivers with a college degree has gone from 1% to over 15% in the past twenty years? Or where being a telemarketer and phoning every number the computers dial is one of the great opportunities for those with bachelor’s-level English and psychology degrees?

One of the answers that pops out of all the statistics is that college graduates with degrees in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields have higher rates of employment, and that may well be… except that, on average U.S. colleges and universities graduate twice as many degree holders annually as there are jobs in those fields.

In some ways, higher education has become almost what amounts to “the Red Queen’s race” [borrowing from Lewis Carroll], in that students have to invest more and more in higher education, in essence to stay in the same place or to find jobs with modest additional returns compared to past generations.

When we as a society are producing what amounts to twice as many degree holders as there are jobs for them, at an ever-increasing cost to the students, their parents, and society, shouldn’t we be looking at whether we need more college graduates, especially given the costs involved? This doesn’t even consider the costs to those who cannot afford higher education and who are effectively barred from jobs they could do, and often do well, by employers who look for college graduates they really don’t need but that they can get. Nor does it consider the costs to graduates with degrees, sometimes with multiple degrees, who are rejected for jobs because they’re over-qualified.

And now that we have candidates for president advocating free college tuition, exactly what would we get for the tens of billions of dollars that would cost, at a time when so many existing graduates can’t get jobs commensurate with their degrees? Or maybe, just maybe, we should allow more students to enter college, but toughen up the curriculum so that only the brightest and most determined graduate?

In any case, for the moment, doesn’t ensuring that there are more people with a college-degree education appear to be the one-size-fits-all answer that isn’t really the solution to a far more complex problem?

Simplifying Laws

More than a few people have asked the question “Why can’t Congress simplify the laws, rather than making them more complex?” Similar questions are asked about federal regulations all the time as well.

They’re good questions, but they unfortunately also have fairly simple answers. The first is that, in a political system that allows “popular” input, laws can be changed, or tweaked, to benefit those with enough political or financial power to influence the lawmakers. Such tweaks add complexity.

The second reason is that the United States is overflowing with attorneys, and almost every law ever passed is challenged in some way or fashion, either to get benefits under it, to avoid being covered by it, or to widen the coverage. While not all those challenges require changes in the laws, a great number do. In turn, those changes spark additional legal challenges, which in turn often spawn more legislation…and more litigation… and possibly more legislation…

The quick answer to this is to keep the laws “simple.” And, it’s true, “simple” laws don’t offer as much opportunity for legal challenges. But, unhappily, if laws are too “simple,” they can also turn out to be horribly unfair in many cases. So, politicians, never wanting to seem unfair, try to craft laws that are more “fair.” More fair is also more complex, and often the provisions that are meant to make things fair are then challenged by one group or another claiming that the law should or should not apply to them, whichever is to their advantage, and sometimes on the grounds that the application of the law is inequitable.

And when you have a large and complex economy, based on complex technology, with global implications, the legal structure becomes equally complex, and more often than not, the idea of fairness becomes twisted into something that is anything but fair.


In the United States, the “outsiders” continue to dominate the Republican presidential nomination contests, and even among the Democrats, outsiders are gaining ground. What makes this all so surreal is that the same voters who are backing the outsiders are the ones who backed the insiders in all previous elections, because they’re frustrated that elected government isn’t doing what they wanted.

What very few seem to recognize is that what has led to governmental deadlock in so many areas is that voters penalize any official who tries to work out a compromise by throwing them out of office. So there are few compromises. With neither party able to muster a clear majority, compromise is the only way to get anything done, but compromise has essentially become political suicide, because of the polarization of the two main political parties.

So now the voters want to penalize the mainstream and experienced candidates because they didn’t commit political suicide. These voters are doing that by backing candidates who promise results they cannot deliver because their promises are based on ignoring reality. And anyone in the media or political arena who points this out is shouted down, mocked, or ignored.

Is this the result of the “me” culture? The “I want it now and I’m going to have a tantrum if I don’t get it” culture?

That may be, but I think it’s also largely the result of the two-fold failure of most Americans to understand that (1) none of us deserves special treatment merely because we exist and (2) none of us are exclusively self-made successes.

I’m not saying that successful people didn’t have talent and didn’t work to get their success, but I am saying that without all the social and physical “infrastructure” provided by American society and government, few if any of those successes would have been possible. Just having clean water and decent sanitation provides a great advantage. Almost half the world doesn’t have one or the other. Having a basic education is another great advantage. Roughly over a sixth of the world’s population is illiterate. Having enough food to eat with the right nutrients means that children don’t grow up mentally and physically stunted, but some 13% of the world’s population is malnourished, and in large areas, such as Africa, almost a quarter of the population is undernourished.

Wide-spread corruption and arbitrary laws stifle development, ideas, and success, and one of the major factors behind the success of the United States and Western Europe has been the development and enforcement of more equitable laws and regulations. Likewise, the encouragement and development of national and regional transportation systems by governments fosters success. There are scores of other factors in our culture without which individual genius, determination, and effort would be totally thwarted… and yet the myth of the totally self-made individual persists.

We are in great danger of losing everything if we persist in ignoring that our greatest strength is not survival of the individual most fit, but a culture of cooperation and compromise that allows those with talents to flourish. It might help to remember that the deadliest individual predator on the planet is the tiger – and it is an endangered species.

Just One Thing

The other day I went to the grocery store for just one thing. Now, I’ll admit that, since I was there, I did pick up several other items, but I wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t wanted to pick up that one item, which, by the way, happened to be Canadian bacon. When I left the store, I was departing without the Canadian bacon, because out of every single item in the meat department, the only thing the store was sold out of was, of course, Canadian bacon.

I should have known better. The time I wanted my particular shaving cream and nothing else, they were out of it. The same thing happened a month before when I went to pick-up extra-strength buffered aspirin for my wife [this is more than occasionally necessary for those who teach college students]. Or the time that I went just for dry cat food.

It’s also why I pick up two of all of those items, and try to remember to get replacements before we’re all out… because… exactly, when I wait until we absolutely need just that one thing, more often than not, the store happens to be out of it.

Whether this is because I have an unerring instinct that enables me to run out precisely when the store also runs out, or because the universe is perverse in dealing with the procurement of otherwise minor and insignificant items, I have no idea.

What I do know is that, at least for me, running out of anything leaves me with a fifty-fifty chance of finding the store without it at all… and that’s why we have a pantry with lots of duplication… and why I STILL have trouble picking up just one thing [because when you have duplicates/backups, you tend to think you have more than you do].

Assessment Mania

Enough of the surveys! Enough of rating everything! And especially enough of tests and studies conducted or designed by “impartial outsiders.”

Today it seems as though any business or institution of any size is trying to assess, study, and measure its effectiveness in doing its job and meeting its goals, from Amazon to education, from big banking to start-ups not even off the ground. On top of that, supervisors and managers are flooding subordinates with emails wanting instant progress reports on a daily basis, if not sooner, and the amount of time spent on answering such largely pointless communications continues to rise.

One of the critical points that all these “assessors” in search of data and accountability seem either to ignore or to never have learned is that every minute and every dollar spent on assessment is a dollar or minute not spent on achieving the institution’s or business’s objectives, and more and more assessment inevitably leads to less and less real achievement, no matter what results appear to come from such additional assessments.

Education is becoming the poster child for excessive and counter-productive assessment. No matter what those proponents of great testing and assessments say, and no matter what statistics they cite, American education remains at a crisis point, because, particularly at the elementary and secondary levels, and even to a degree at the baccalaureate level in college, instructors are in point of fact essentially being forced not only to test more and more, but also to “teach to the test.” Add to that the fact that at the collegiate level, they also have to teach to “student evaluations.”

While the tests show a slight improvement in basic skills, what they do not show is the losses. The fact is that the majority of graduating high school seniors cannot write a logical, coherent, factually based, and grammatically correct paragraph. They cannot analyze anything with much complexity involved, and they cannot integrate data, skills, and knowledge. Nor can they apply skills learned in one area to problems in another.

These are not skills that can be accurately measured by any “objective” test, yet they are skills vital to the continued success of a high-tech society.

We’re also seeing similar problems in the political and media arenas, as Americans seem less and less able to integrate data and analyze all the sound bites they receive, many of which are factually incorrect, contradictory, and logically flawed. Businesses over-focus on immediate short term goals, all too often in opposition to what would insure greater long-term success, because success in meeting short-term goals can be far more accurately and quickly assessed.

Metaphorically speaking, we don’t need to kill all the lawyers, as Shakespeare’s King Henry VI asserted, but a good start would be decimating the assessors.

Not So Special

It’s now approaching the halfway mark of the fall semester at the university, and certain all too predictable things are happening. A significant percentage of students, especially first year students, are getting sick. More of them are zoning out or only half- awake in class because of lack of sleep. A great many of them are also realizing that they’re way behind where they should be in terms of learning, reading, and getting assignments done, and the undone assignments are beginning to pile up, especially when they spend too much time on social media.

Then there are those upon whom it has dawned that they’re not special. In my wife’s field – singing and opera – this is particularly noticeable, because probably half of the incoming voice students were the top performers in their high school. Then they discover that they’re in college, amid other first year students who were used to being the center of attention, and all of them also discover, mournfully, that the singers in the upper classes are generally much better. Most of them learn that they have flaws in their technique, and that they need to learn their music far more quickly than ever before – while taking music theory, which is a far tougher course than most would-be music majors have ever seen before in their life, and also taking diction and literature, which requires scores of hours listening – on their own – to music the majority of which most of them have never heard, by composers whom they largely know only by name, if that, and not by their music, while learning things like the international phonetic alphabet (IPA)[so they can learn songs in foreign languages correctly].

And no, they won’t get a lead role. In fact, many will only get minor roles in the operas, or chorus roles. They also discover that they have to practice, and develop, if they haven’t already, basic piano skills and improve their skills enough to pass a proficiency test by the end of their second year…or be washed out of the program.

In short, many of them discover… they are not special in the slightest. They also discover that a great voice, a beautiful natural voice, is only the beginning. One of the problems is that too many of those with great natural talent have been praised every day of their high school life and have never really worked at music. Now they have to work, after discovering they’re no longer special, and every year at least one, if not more, student with great natural ability bails out or flunks out because they actually have to work, because they can’t accept that they just can’t get up there and sing, that they’re expected to develop a good technique, and learn not just arias, but art song, and things like secco recitative. These are just a few of the skills and knowledge that a good program will teach a student, the ones whose mastery will make a student special, rather than providing largely empty praise.

That’s because, in the real world, what makes one special is that you sing not only “beautifully,” but precisely and with emotion and expression, day after day, often under conditions that are anything but ideal. Only the results count, and that’s a hard lesson for students to learn, especially today. Some will… and that’s where their education for life truly begins.