One of the most problematic aspects of the U.S. educational system is the persistence of the achievement gap. White students generally perform better on tests than black students. Rich students generally perform better than poor students. And students of similar socioeconomic background perform differently across classrooms and school systems.
Well, that wasn’t a serious title: After an hour of reflection, I am forced to admit that pizza qua pizza is a morally neutral proposition. We might have thought it was politically neutral too, until Congress decided this week that pizza sauce still counts as a serving of vegetables in public school lunch lines.
The brouhaha over pizza’s nutritional status reminds one of the Reagan-era attempt to classify ketchup as a vegetable. The department of agriculture was tasked with cutting the federal school lunch budget but maintaining nutritional standards, which it proposed to do by reclassifying ketchup — acondiment up to that point — as a vegetable. The move would have saved schools the cost of an extra serving of vegies, but Democrats cried foul (hard to blame them), and ketchup was left alone.
At Acton we go in for the natural law, and tend to shun legal positivism, so Congress’s declaration on pizza doesn’t really change the way we look at it (which is, after an informal poll, as a mixture of a number of food groups, vegetables not among them since the tomato is a fruit).
Talking Points Memo takes a less metaphysical tack, and discovers to its outrage that (1) lobbyists for Big Pizza spent more than $5 million lobbying Congress to maintain the status quo, and (2) the reclassification of pizza as a non-vegetable might have helped lower the child obesity rate, which is alarmingly high.
When a democratic government begins making laws that harm particular business sectors, they hire lobbyists. If TPM thinks it has solved the problem of faction, it should reveal the solution before skipping right to complaining about its redundancy and assuming we’ve all made the same brilliant political discovery they have.
Otherwise, if they’re upset that the problems of faction have infected school lunch lines, they should remember that the only way to get the K Street money out would be to relinquish Congress’s micromanagement of what children eat for lunch.
And that brings us to the second point. TPM can’t believe that even though “the CDC estimates about 17 percent — or 12.5 million — of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese,” Congress is allowing public schools to continue passing off two tablespoons of salty pizza sauce as a vegetable.
But the 17 percent childhood obesity rate is not actually a result of Congressional action. Michelle Obama’s recent healthy eating campaigns admit as much — they’re aimed at parents.
Laws always have an effect on the character of citizenry — a fact which the left usually chooses to ignore — and much less frequently on its health. In the case of school lunches, it’s easy to trace the government take-over of lunchtime through parental disregard of nutrition to 17 percent childhood obesity.
If you teach parents that their children’s health is not their responsibility, they’ll stop worrying about it, but when your federal bureaucracy can’t keep their 74 million children healthy, you shouldn’t blame Domino’s and Papa John’s.
For too long government-run systems have dominated American primary and secondary education. As innovations of the past two decades such as charter schools and vouchers prove, parents, children, and society benefit when government promotes rather than stifles educational reform based on choice and competition. Add to the mounting evidence another success story: St. Martin de Porres school in Philadelphia. This inner city school is finding new life through the cooperation of three not-always-cooperative entities: church, community, and government.
Read the rest of the commentary.
In this Great Recession, it is sad to travel through this great country and see the ranks of the unemployed crowded with so many youth. I think we can all agree that this is deplorable—and that we should endeavor to find an equitable and efficient method for improving the lives of our young people.
So, I have a proposal: Tuition and books at a public university should be free to all students. Students would attend the public university closest to their home. This would be financed by some combination of local, state and federal taxpayer dollars. And it would be regulated by a similar combination of local, state, and federal oversight– university boards, parent-professor associations, state legislators, and a new federal program, “No College-Student Left Behind” (NCLB).
Those who want to attend a private university would still have that option. They would pay taxes to support the public universities and then pay private school expenses on top of that. A wide variety of private schools—some religious, but mostly secular—would be available to satisfy the demand for various niches in the market for higher education services.
All government loans and grants would be eliminated, since there would no longer be a financial barrier to obtaining a college education. Students could still borrow money from family, friends, or banks to pay for education at a private university.
Think about the benefits: First, in the short-term, it would reduce unemployment among the young people (and others) by engaging them in another productive endeavor.
Second, education—a wonderful thing—would be freely accessible to all. In the long-term, at the micro level, we would expect an increase in worker skills, leading to higher pay. At the macro level, we would expect an increase in human capital and technological advance, leading to more economic growth.
Third, jobs would be created throughout higher education—from administrators to professors to staff. Construction at universities would boom, creating an untold number of jobs in the building trades. Publishers would sell more books; office furniture makers would sell more desks; computer makers would sell more laptops; and so on.
Of course, one can imagine some of the complaints that would arise.
Private schools would vociferously oppose what they would describe as “unfair” competition, having to operate alongside highly-subsidized public schools. But the market they serve is fundamentally different and one might argue that their preferences should not be allowed to supersede the greater, public good.
Some taxpayers might complain about higher taxes. But how many would notice the difference? With the costs spread over multiple levels of government and across many taxpayers, the per-tax, per-person costs would be modest. In any case, what’s the big deal about those in the middle and upper classes paying additional taxes?
Bureaucrats connected to government grants and loans might lose their jobs. But more bureaucrats would be needed to regulate the growing public sector efforts in higher education. And those displaced from loans and grants could probably be shuffled to other areas of the education bureaucracy without much impact.
The biggest ruckus would probably be raised by economists. As George Stigler once pointed out, economists are “the premier ‘pourers of cold water’ on proposals for social improvement”, particularly through government activism. Although political supporters and utopian dreamers focus on the benefits of such proposals, an economist would inevitably ask about its (opportunity) costs as well.
The costs? Resources taken from taxpayers would be diverted from efficient uses to the subsidized area. Some people would have money taken from them through taxation—to support an activity that other people would not value enough to devote their own resources.
Proponents of free higher education would point to its positive ripple effects. But the diverted resources would also have negative ripple effects. On net, we would be merely moving resources from one sector of the economy to another. In a grand shell game, jobs would be gained, but more jobs would be lost.
Economists would also wonder about the impact of reduced property rights and ownership. If one doesn’t pay for something, they are less likely to take it seriously. This is already a concern since higher education is subsidized significantly by the federal and especially state governments. With even less skin in the game, students would be more likely to treat the education casually, reducing its value for all students.
Of course, if you don’t like my proposal, then you should also be opposed to our current provision of K-12 education. Elementary and secondary public schools are free and students must attend the government-run school in their neighborhood—unless their parents are wealthy enough to attend private schools or resourceful enough to homeschool.
If my proposal is not all that swift for young adults, how can it be the policy of choice for children?
Political discourse and news media have been consumed of late by talk of debt, spending, and recession, but meanwhile the educational freedom movement has been making real progress. State legislatures across the country are giving a green light to vouchers and tax incentives that will in the future pay impressive dividends in the form of better educated students and more efficient schools.
My friend Joe Knippenberg notes some of my musings on the field of “philosophical counseling,” and in fact articulates some of the concerns I share about the content of such practice. I certainly didn’t mean to uncritically praise the new field as it might be currently practiced (I did say, “The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable.”).
Even philosophers can be entrepreneurial when economic reality comes crashing in, creating an existential crisis. That’s one lesson from this intriguing Washington Post story (HT: Sarah Pulliam Bailey), “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers.”
The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable. But it does illustrate one response to the variegated crisis faced by higher education, particularly by those in the liberal arts and humanities. When you are done with school and have dim employment prospects and looming loans, you have a few different choices. You can ask, “Would you like fries with that, sir?” Or you can get out and create something for yourself in an entrepreneurial fashion.
These philosophical counselors represent something significant in the latter realm of response. And this is illustrative of the new kind of mindset that academics are going to have to have, even if they find places in traditional educational institutions. For a long time the entrepreneurial dynamism in higher ed was largely expressed in founding new centers and even independent think tanks and research institutions. This will continue, but it seems to me at the individual level scholars are going to have to be more creative and innovative simply to make ends meet. This will mean starting consulting businesses and creating new ways of providing a service to people, often outside of a traditional classroom setting. These realities are new for many in the liberal arts, but they are nothing new to researchers in the natural sciences.
So higher education is definitely undergoing a kind of destruction, but philosoprenuerial efforts like those in the WaPo piece will help determine whether that destruction is “creative” or not. I have hope that the decadence of humanities higher education can be challenged by these kinds of economic and moral realities.
Such examples are also instructive for those in other fields, perhaps especially theology. Increasingly institutions are realizing the need for “ecclesiastical entrepreneurs,” so to speak, and looking at new ways of integrating and aligning the interests of the academy and the church. In some cases this means new ways of combining programs, or launching new majors to provide expertise and instruction in a variety of institutional settings.
There were several comments and comments on comments following my recent “Comfy Faculty Lounges” contribution. In the Wall Street Journal, the author of the book I was reviewing makes her own case regarding tenure and teaching versus research.
“At a recent conference where I spoke on collective bargaining in higher education, one professor questioned (and others in the room also fussed about) my right to speak on the subject without—she was incredulous—a Ph.D.! I might ask why a degree in medieval literature or molecular biology would qualify one to discuss the growing unionization movement on college campuses.”
Naomi Riley’s full article “Academia’s Crisis of Irrelevance” is here. And the beat goes on.
In the opening scenes of the classic movie version of Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town” the narrator tells us that the newspaper boy we are watching toss papers onto the porches nearby will go on to college — an ivy league college I recall — but is sent to Europe during WWI and dies. “All that education for nothing,” he laments.
Naomi Riley has written another book about academia. The large type on the book jacket reads “The Faculty Lounges” but under that banner is the book’s real warning: “… and other reasons why you won’t get the college education you paid for.”
That second part is addressed to the payer, and in most cases, the payer is mom and dad. So if you’re a mom or dad you’d best take a look at this offering from Ms. Riley while the kids are still in grade school and start your homework lessons on where you’re likely to get the best bang for your buck. Because although Riley offers good suggestions and a smattering of potential improvements to the business plans of America’s college and university campuses, they aren’t likely to be implemented on any large scale by the time little Jimmie or his sister is ready for college. The wheels of the academy turn slowly.
In a recent column reflective of his tv shows, John Stossel remarks, “What puzzles me is why the market doesn’t punish colleges that don’t serve their customers well. The opposite has happened: Tuitions have risen four times faster than inflation.”
That reality and more is provided in Faculty Lounges but not by tv personalities. No, the sources of Ms. Riley’s information in many cases are members of the education establishment themselves. And they’re not very forgiving in the criticism.
But Stossel’s comments are poignant. As consumers, parents and the children they finance through four or more years of college tuition, room and board are getting screwed to put it bluntly, or at least defrauded, and nobody seems to care about the protection these consumers aren’t getting. Certainly not the education industry.
You can only get the full picture by reading the book but I can tell you that faculty tenure and the unreal situation it nurtures is a big piece of why college costs so much and continues to get more expensive. Imagine having a workforce that agreed to work Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 am to 2:00, notwithstanding the time it takes for lunch? But despite that work schedule continues to be paid like a full time 40 hours per week employee. Now imagine having an entire workforce of such folks but a physical plant with classroom space based on a capacity that is suited to having students in the rooms from 8 am to 5 pm. In business we call it underutilized plant capacity. It’s the reason you have a night shift or swing shift when business is booming.
In the surreal world of academia, such concepts would never be discussed. Instead, buildings continue to be built, new departments funded and staffed, and tuition raised, raised, and raised again. Where will it end? A tilting point is often reached when mom and dad, facing financial calamity or at the least really tough times, tell little Jimmie to find a job and put college on hold. That’s what happened to my mom and dad in 1932. They met and were married a few years later.
One thing stands out in the many anecdotes in this book and that is how the undergrads financially support the graduate programs. If you know someone who has been accepted or is participating in a PhD program you might have also been told that the tuition, room and board and a stipend were part of the deal. Of course these opportunities are only available to really bright kids but still, haven’t you wondered who’s paying the bills. Well, it’s you and your undergrad. And who’s taking care of the tenured professor’s classes? one of his grad students. And not getting paid for it either. That’s a good reason to think twice about little Jimmie attending the prestigious university with the myriad of researching scholars.
For many, tenure or lifetime job security is what makes the academic life palatable. Yet many use the “academic freedom” argument to make their case. Liberals argue that they’d never survive proposing their enlightenment theories without the protection of tenure. Conservatives argue that they’d never be able to come out of the political closet without tenure. Both making this case in a country that links its founding to freedom of speech, assembly, faith. It makes you wonder if anybody could pass a civics test — teacher and student alike.
Of course all of this talk of college, money and careers has been the subject of the month of June since school calendars were first printed. Books rush to the shelves and abound on how to get into college; is college for everyone; the missing “core” curriculum; and is it all worth the money. But until we consumers really start to push back, it’s likely that for many schools, nothing will change despite the revelations and suggestions like those in Riley’s book. And it’s parents who have to lead here. And either way prepare their children for life with a eye on the unexpected and the common sense to avoid danger.
In April a Yale senior astronomy and physics major was found dead in a college lab. She was working alone during the night with a machine tool — a lathe — and somehow her hair which was long and dangling had been wrapped around the spinning chuck and she had either choked or her neck was broken. Some, reacting to the tragedy, blamed Yale for not sufficiently supervising her.
“All that education for nothing.”