Learning, Knowledge, and Credentials

Sometime back, I wrote about some of the “innovations” proposed and since implemented by the local university, in order to create a three-year bachelor’s degree, a degree pushed by the state legislature. One of those “innovations” was to cut the length of the semester by twenty percent, without any increase in the length of classes or the number of classes. Despite all the rhetoric, what that means is that students won’t learn as much.

I’d thought about detailing more of the so-called improvements in education and pointing out how they actually degrade learning and how most students today know less, have lower critical thinking skills than their predecessors, and have more difficulty learning and recalling material.

But there’s little point in that exercise. Most of the American people have turned their backs on what used to be the objective of education, especially higher education, and that was the ability to read and write critically, to think analytically, to understand what numbers actually mean, and to obtain the skills to be able to learn and to attain new skills on a lifelong basis.

Instead, public education, at least through the collegiate baccalaureate level, has largely become a charade of exercises in mastering objective tests and obtaining paper credentials in the hopes of leveraging an inadequate education and an overstated degree into a job that will provide an adequate income.

It’s also become an incredibly expensive exercise, as millions of young Americans with massive student debt can testify, especially given that we’re graduating twice as many students from college every year as there are jobs requiring a college degree, and yet the mindless push for more students to go to college continues.

At the same time, we’re seeing a growing contempt for science, for verified facts, and for reasoned analysis of everything, and unthinking tribalism is running wild. All that suggests to me that, despite record high numbers of high school graduates and the proliferation of college degrees, the possession of credentials, and the mastery of the cellphone, Google, and objective tests, doesn’t help much with critical thinking, logical writing, or understanding and solving the problems facing the world.

A Little Perspective, Please

Liberals tend to be very good at portraying the historical and current evils in our society, and they tend to focus on what hasn’t been accomplished, as opposed to what has. They’re also very good at influencing mainstream media and more “elite” institutions of higher education. The problem with this is that it suggests greater political strength than actually exists. The far-left liberal media and organizations are also incredibly good at disgusting and angering much of middle America, all too often unnecessarily and against their own interests.

Police reform is an absolute necessity, but screaming “defund the police” undermines realistic and necessary reform. For example, the Baltimore police department has a bad reputation for dealing with minorities, but almost half the department is black, which suggests that the problem lies not primarily with racism, but with the “police culture.”

Beating people over the head with incessant shrieks of “white privilege” just alienates people rather than educating and persuading them that, in our culture, those who are white and male don’t get the same unthinking skepticism and doubt that minorities and women do.

The conservatives are always screaming about the domination of “liberal “higher education, but all that rhetoric ignores the fact that there are thousands of colleges and universities that are not “bastions of liberalism.” Those universities just don’t get the press – unless one of their presidents has a personal scandal – but they’re still there, and they’re not going away. Neither is the less visible and often semi-underground conservative media.

Keep in mind that despite an overall performance by Trump as President that was substandard at best, and pretty much a botch of the COVID crisis [except for vaccine development], liberals actually lost ground in terms of the number of U.S. House seats and only picked up a few Senate seats despite the fact that the Republicans had far more potentially vulnerable Senators up for re-election and that Democrats outspent Republicans in most races. Liberals also did poorly in state level elections.

Because I live in a non-liberal state and media market, I can see that conservatives and even ultra-conservatives are not about to dry up and blow away. In fact, if Democrats don’t get their act together and deliver results for the entire country and not just measures backed by the so-called “progressives,” they’ll have their heads and their asses handed to them in the next election.

President Biden seems to recognize this. He’s opposed a number of “progressive” demands and appears to be focusing on the baseline problems facing working Americans, but the so-called progressives are already showing dissatisfaction, and the conservatives have never stopped being dissatisfied.

In the end, we’d all be better off if we toned down the screaming, identified and worked out solutions for the basic problems, and stopped agitating for political correctness – and despite what the far-right says, there’s far too much political correctness in the extremes of both parties, not just the left. The left is just better at pissing people off.

Public Higher Education

Republicans used to believe in helping people help themselves, even if they underestimated the amount and type of help necessary. Now, it seems as though their message is that the government’s given you as much help as you deserve [except for big business], and the rest is up to you, even if you didn’t get any help, and that applies to public higher education as well.

For the Democrats, on the other hand, it seems as though they’re addicted to more and more help, with less and less required of those who receive it and no questioning about whether programs are worthwhile. As I’ve observed previously, the idea of free college education for everyone is nuts, as well as a social, financial, and educational disaster. So is forgiving college debt. But targeted college aid or assistance programs [up to and including full tuition and fees, but also with accountability goals] for promising poor and minority youth make a great deal of sense, assuming that the education bureaucrats can figure out how to make targeting work.

Part of the problem with college aid is that it’s extremely difficult to predict how the majority of students will do in college. Various tests can predict accurately those likely to succeed, IF they’re from a certain higher family income, but aren’t that accurate for students from minorities or less affluent backgrounds. Likewise, with the massive grade inflation and “pass practically everyone” system prevalent in public secondary schools, it’s virtually impossible to determine for the “middle 80%” of college applicants which students have the raw ability. And given how hard some parents push their children, it’s also almost impossible to determine which ones have the determination to succeed on their own.

The result is a huge waste of money and ability, and pouring more money into higher education, under the current system, will only make matters worse. Part of that is because state politicians are more interested in the numbers than the education. So long as more students graduate, even if they’ve learned essentially nothing, the politicians and university bureaucrats can claim “success.”

No one, if for different reasons, is asking the hard questions, such as:

What percent of students can analyze multiple input situations and provide a workable and cogent solution?

What percent of students can read a set of facts and immediately write a logical and grammatically correct analysis?

How good are they at recognizing fallacies?

Why do universities put so much money into athletic programs, while more and more classes are taught by part-time adjuncts, paid poverty-level wages? Why do top
coaches make more money than university presidents?

Why are professors paid, based at least in part, on their popularity as measured by student evaluations, filled out by 18-22 year-olds who know far less about the
subject being taught than the professor?

Why do universities feel that they can’t weed out students who either fail to do the work or appear unable to do so?

Since the Republicans really don’t believe in effective education – except for the elite – and the Democrats think that more aid and money will automatically solve the problem, until both sides are willing to look at public higher education and ask those hard questions – and more than a few others – higher education will consume more and more resources while continuing to diminish the quality of public undergraduate education and bankrupting the unsuccessful students and hanging debt chains around the successful ones [unless they come from family money].

Why Not Change?

A recent commenter on this blog made an observation along the lines that the Republican Party was dying, but that instead of changing, the GOP was rigging the system in an effort to disenfranchise Democrats and reduce their voting influence. Although I have doubts that the Republican Party is dying, its base is a minority in the U.S., and that minority appears to be slowly shrinking.

So why don’t Republicans change?

Over the past several decades, some have tried, either by returning to the ideas of fiscal prudence and personal responsibility. Others have tried to bring in new ideas, such as true immigration reform. Those efforts have been rejected by the “mainstream” Republicans, although they do justify blocking any increases in social programs by citing fiscal responsibility, even while they cut taxes on the wealthy and provide business subsidies.

The only real “change” in the Republican Party is making a greater and more concerted appeal to the far right and ultra-conservatives.

Real change is difficult, both for political parties and individuals. This is true of both parties.

The simple fact is that we live in rapidly changing times, and the majority of human beings, while adaptable, resist rapid change. That’s understandable. Rapid changes are disruptive, both to society and to individuals. But we now live in a time where not changing can be even worse.

Coal mining jobs, for example, are not coming back. The only even marginally profitable coal mining is highly mechanized strip mining with greatly reduced jobs and tremendous environmental problems. That kind of mining likely wouldn’t be profitable if the costs of environmental remediation were included in the cost of that coal. The number of high-paying oilfield jobs has decreased enormously in recent years as oil producers have automated and streamlined operations. This sort of change is occurring everywhere.

Years and years ago, I found that there was essentially no market for my skills in the area where I grew up, and the jobs that were available that would support a family didn’t match my skill set. So I moved to where such jobs existed. The same was true of my wife when she graduated from college. To continue as a professional academic musician meant moving where the jobs were – and moving away from friends and family. While such moves were costly in many ways, including failed early marriages, we each eventually made it work and found each other along the way, which entailed yet another move.

Republicans tend to be conservative in more than politics, both in their family, and in where they grew up. The problem is that, if you choose staying where you grew up, particularly in rural and agricultural areas, all too often the economic opportunities are limited and pay less, even for highly skilled professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, etc.. This is a relatively new aspect of culture, and it’s caused by technology. But the people in these areas are angry that technology created a choice between staying with their roots – and getting steadily poorer, for the most part – or leaving everything behind in an effort to make a decent living, and with no assurance of that. Such anger fuels a strong commitment to a party that recognizes the situation and the fact that people either can’t change or won’t and identifies with those who feel that way. But for a party to tell people, in any way, that times are changing and that some change is necessary leaves supporters feeling disenfranchised. They want the benefits of technology without the costs.

The same is true of the Democrats, in a different way. They’re angry because much of their base has been disenfranchised economically and politically for centuries, and all they see is that the Republicans are doing everything they can to keep them down economically and politically, and any politician who suggests moderation is considered a sellout.

Right now, neither side can afford politically to recognize the other’s concern because emotions are running so high, and those emotions will remain high unless and until the majority in both parties feel that their situations are improving… and improving more than just marginally.

And that’s the challenge facing both President Biden and the Congress.

Power Trumps Ethics

Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, pleaded with Trump to call off the rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol, and Trump essentially refused. Yet McCarthy opposed impeachment, as did most Republicans in the House of Representatives. All but ten House Republicans voted against impeachment despite the fact that mob that invaded the Capitol threatened their lives, and family members have condemned one of the Republican Representatives who voted to impeach Trump.

Mitch McConnell votes to acquit Trump…and then gives a speech blaming Trump for the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Seven Republican Senators voted to convict him, and it appears that all seven have either faced or will face Republican Party censure or disfavor in their home states. Yet, from what I can determine, very few, if any, Republican Senators think Trump is actually innocent of inciting the attack.

Instead, their various rationales for not voting to convict him included: (1) it’s unconstitutional to try a President who’s left office [which is patently and legally false]; (2) it’s better for the country not to convict him [better for the senators in question, certainly]; or (3) it was deplorable but doesn’t fit the legal definition for incitement [which isn’t necessary in an impeachment trial].

Various polls show that, while the majority of Americans think Trump was guilty of inciting the attack on the Capitol, something like 70% of Republicans opposed the action to convict Trump.

Yes, Republicans, the so-called former champions of law and order, and they don’t want their boy convicted. They’re happy with troublesome non-violent civil rights activists being thrown in jail, especially if they’re minorities, or even women protesting for equal rights with men, but not our white, blond, blue-eyed former president who turned a mob on his own Vice-President for daring to uphold the Constitution.

Is it any wonder that Republican members of the House and Senate are reluctant to act ethically? Why, if they voted ethically, they might lose their seats to an even more far-right extremist in the next Republican primary.

And all that goes to show that grass-roots Republicans are so angry and so tribal that they don’t care about law or the Constitution, especially if either gets in the way of what they want.

The problem is that what they’re angry about are fundamental principles on which the nation was based, if imperfectly. They’re opposed to equal voting rights, or why would they do their best to restrict voting in ways that disadvantage the poor and minorities disproportionately?

They keep trying to enact religious dogma into law, despite the design of the Constitution by the Founding Fathers to separate church and state.

Yet they insist they’re the ones who who support the Constitution.