The New School: Saving Education from Itself

The Federal Reserve also found that those with student loan debt were less likely to purchase houses or cars than those without student loans. This isn’t surprising. [Such debt] doesn’t encourage people to live large. But with young people traditionally being a major source of demand in both the housing and auto markets, two areas deemed important to economic recovery and prosperity — buying first houses and first cars and then moving up to something fancier every few years — this burden is sure to be a drag on the economy as a whole.
Glenn Reynolds, The New School.

A drag for some time, I should think. Our older son is almost 29, now. His car died last year, and while he is lucky enough to have a full-time job, he cannot afford to replace it. When an uncle offered to give him a very-used but quite respectable vehicle, he had to turn it down, too. His student loan payment is such that it precludes the additonal burdens of fuel, insurance, parking fees and maintenance; even a free car is currently too costly for him, and he’ll be an apartment dweller for decades. Some might call that excellent news: a smaller carbon footprint, no urban sprawl. Okay, if you like it. I’d say anything that narrows one’s options makes one less free. But that’s just me.

A college education is supposed to broaden one’s options, yes? That no longer seems to be the case, particularly if you were persuaded to invest time and money into an arts or humanities degree, and most especially if you took out student loans to boot.

My husband and I did a little traveling the weekend,
and I brought along Glenn Reynold’s new book, The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. In the course of our trip, I managed to read most of it aloud to my husband.

As a rule, he hates being read to, but as we are in the midst of paying off our end of student loans we agreed to “split” with our sons (and they’ll be paying off their parts for many years) The New School captured his attention, and held it for mile after mile.

Regular readers of Instapundit know that Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee, has been talking and writing about the “higher education bubble” for quite a long time, and in this book he fleshes out his thinking while analyzing how government-loans-made-easy encouraged students to take on insurmountable debt — and colleges to spend outrageous amounts (often on unwise building and superfluous staff) — even as students and their parents were discovering that their educational “investments” were less likely to pay off in the future as they have in the past.

My husband and I are big believers in education and both of our sons are “certified geniuses” and autodidacts, which means that they are quite able and willing to educate themselves in most areas, and that they actually rather wilt within conventional classroom environments. Both of them detested college, and both begged us to let them quit about two years into it. We, of course, insisted they “get that degree” because it would be the key to their futures.

More fools, us. Our elder son managed to charm his way into a job that has nothing to do with his degree (although, in fairness, he wouldn’t even had gotten an interview without a degree in something) but our younger son, who is making his way as a musician while washing dishes on the side, loves to remind me that — had we allowed him to quit — he’d be further along with his music, and our debt load would be tens of thousands of dollars lighter.

Although increasingly we are champions of internet classes, apprenticeships, skills training, community colleges and the sort of competency testing and credentialing that could cut years and thousands of dollars from one’s degree experience, my husband and I still believe in higher education, and in education for its own sake — but it is galling to read that the debt we’ve incurred, which is currently keeping us from buying a needed pre-owned car, or updating our 40 year-old kitchen, helped to support this sort of dubious spending:

Even as the once-mighty University of California system slashes programs and raises tuition, it has created a new system-wide “vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion.” This is on top of the already enormous UC diversity machine, which, as heather MacDonald notes, “includes the Chancellor’s Diversity Office, the associate vice chancellor for faculty equity, the assistant vice chancellor for diversity, the faculty equity advisors, the graduate diversity coordinators, the staff diversity liaison, the undergraduate student diversity liaison, the graduate student diversity liaison, the chief diversity officer, the director of development for diversity initiatives, the Office of Academic Diversity and Equal Opportunity, the Committee on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Issues, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Campus Council on Climate, Culture and Inclusion, the Diversity Council, and the directors of the Cross-Cultural Center, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center, and the Women’s Center.”

While the UC system loses top cancer researchers to Rice University, it is creating new chaired professorships in, you guessed it, diversity studies. Likewise, in North Carolina, UNC-Wilmington is combining the physics and geology departments to save money, while diverting more funding to campus diversity offices.

Apparently we’ve taken physics, geology and cancer research as far as they can go, and we are left to ponder the precious and distant stars of ourselves and our grievances? This is all absolutely unnecessary to garnering an education but, as Reynolds notes, “If experience is any guide, administration — especially sacred cows like diversity programs — will be cut last; actual teaching will be cut first.”

After a good examination of what is ailing our colleges, and why, Reynolds offers up some solutions, and I like many of them, but this one in particular:

In ordinary credit transactions, creditors bear some risk . . . Perhaps if students can’t pay their loans by 10 years after graduation, they should be allowed to discharge them in bankruptcy with the institutions that got the loan money on the hook for, say, 20% of the loss. You fix a malfunctioning credit system by ensuring that the people who can control the risks are the ones who face a loss if things go wrong. our student-loan system as it exists today puts all the risk onto the students and taxpayers, who are the least-informed parties in the borrowing transaction. That should change.

I highly recommend this book, particularly if you have kids in middle or high school and you want to get a sense of what is happening right now, and how you might begin to seek alternatives to the status quo. But I think the release of Reynold’s book is a perfect time to consider how our kids are taught, where conventional practices are failing them and how we might re-imagine education, and so I suggest that when picking up The New School you also grab on to Sam Rocha’s A Primer for Philosophy and Education.

Sam Rocha is one of the “edu-punks” who Reynolds says “are exploring unconventional thinking about teaching and learning. In fact, the best way to master many subjects may be for students to find their own path, with the role of the education establishment being more to certify competence than to actually teach.”

That’s partly what Rocha’s book is about, but it is not what makes it, for some, “strange and startling”; rather it’s his passionate argument that education must supersede the utilitarian gathering of information, until it penetrates truth and finally love.

“Of course students who attend a school that assigns grades should want to get good grades. They should obviously not want to get bad ones. However, you should not confuse this institutionalized process of grade-getting, school-going, degree-worshipping, and job-seeking with what philosophy and education have to offer you. . . . Formal schooling does not have the monopoly on philosophy or education.”
“Read for the truth. Write and speak to show what seems true. Ask questions to get at what might be true. Attend classes to seek the truth. Do not settle for shallow, impoverished grades, and cheap, degrading awards. . . . Philosophy and education require courage.”

If it sounds like Rocha is suggesting that education is, finally, soul-food, yes. It’s what he’s saying. He is an unconventional fellow, and teacher. His ideas flow “outside the box” of established norms and at least one respected educator — Steve Perkins, Indiana’s Teach of the Year for 2014 — has found Rocha’s slim book so inspiring that he wrote a series on it, concluding, “For those wrestling with the educational challenges of our day, this should bring profound hope.”

So, yes…I recommend A Primer for Philosophy and Education, along with The New School. They seem to me to be essential reads as we grapple with necessary solutions to problems plaguing our education system and how we think about them.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Broken Whole

    **Please excuse this enormous wall of text, but as someone in the midst of the higher ed system I felt the need to add a few points**

    As a graduate student who has spent the better part of my adult life in the higher education system, I completely agree with this article’s (and Mr. Reynolds’s) general argument that a huge amount of the “bloat” in higher ed pricing is due to an ever-expanding administrative bureaucracy (and, as Ms. Scalia points out, endless and unnecessary building projects).

    However, in the quoted text on diversity initiatives in the UC system, it should be noted that committees and councils don’t necessarily require a meaningful increase in budgeting. For instance, I currently serve on a university-wide council at my school and none of the deans, administrators, faculty, graduate students, and health services workers who serve on that council receive payment for it and few university resources beyond a meeting room are—so far as I can tell—expended on it. I know that in some of the smaller “work groups,” which exist under the larger “umbrella” of the council, administrators meet together after their regular work hours and with no additional compensation. Of course, the formation of new administrative positions—like the ones in the UCs—do carry additional.

    As indicated above, I recognize the problem of administrative bloat. Nonetheless, I’m wary of the dismissal of attention to diversity as simply “pondering the distant and precious stars of ourselves and our grievances.” International students, first-generation college students, disabled students, and other student populations do legitimately face unique challenges in the college environment and often need some support structures in place to succeed. Not only is it in the interest of these individual students that they successfully complete their degrees, it is also in our collective societal interest since—statistically speaking—students who take their degree are less likely to default on student loans than those who do not. The seemingly never-ending explosions of VPs, Vice-Chancellors, and Deans is a problem in all aspects of university administration, not solely in diversity, but in diversity initiatives—as elsewhere—the rapid increase in extremely well-paid administrators quite often simply makes it *look* like a school cares about an issue without it ever really addressing that issue in a meaningful way. On this point I am in hearty agreement with this article—but, as I said, I remain wary of the more wholesale dismissal of the needs of diverse student populations.

    I am, additionally, quite happy to see the conversation about higher education recognize the problem of administrative bloat; this recognition moves the conversation about the crisis in higher ed away from the tired and predictable positioning that characterize STEM v. Humanities arguments about what it means for an education to be “useful.” At the end of the day, tuition prices aren’t being driven up mainly by faculty salaries or most other departmental expenses. Faculty in the sciences make significantly less than their industry counterparts and the salary of humanities faculty–who make substantially less than people in almost any other field with equivalent levels of education–barely puts a dent in overall university budgets. Instead, continual building and renovation projects, endless student life enhancements (which are completely unrelated to the actual education of students but look great in brochures!), and—as noted—an ever-expanding administration lead to the soaring tuition rates we see today. None of this is helped by the penchant of university presidents to jump on board—with substantial levels of investment—with untested but hip ideas like MOOCs at the cost of depriving their students of educational techniques that we know work (smaller class sizes, having students taught by tenured or tenure-tracked faculty instead of inexperienced grad students or overworked adjuncts, many of whom are trying to balance positions at numerous schools just to keep food on the table). Riding the zeitgeist keeps the Board of Visitors happy, but it often does little good—and even substantial harm—to a university’s students.

    I also am in thorough agreement with the point that we must stop treating a four-year college degree as a default expectation for the children of the middle and upper classes. Some students will develop and thrive in a university education, but many will not. Having taught freshmen at both a state school and an Ivy League university over the past six years, I can say from experience that there are plenty of hard-working, intelligent students who just don’t particularly “fit” into the college model but are there because that’s just what you’re supposed to do. It would be of great benefit if we could, collectively as a society, come to once again recognize the dignity of work in trades and could once again propose vocational training and apprenticeship as worthy ways of preparing to make a living.

  • Steve Perkins

    Thank you for the link, Elizabeth! I am recommending Sam’s book at the conference of all state Teachers of the Year right now in Arizona.

  • Louis Tully

    I’m 29 with over $80k in debt and an MFA in creative writing. It’s my fault–I was vain and dumb–and I’ll pay it back eventually, but in the very long meantime I won’t be contributing much to the housing or auto markets! I’d love to teach H.S. English, but none of my advisors advised me in the education-industrial complex. I have half a decade of college-level teaching experience and an advanced degree in my field, but apparently I’m not as qualified to teach high school as someone with a B.A. in education.

  • SunnyJS

    Very informative read, and both books mimic what I personally have experienced and see in my teaching position. I specialize in neurological rehabilitation and I weep in that everything I know about motor development, motor control and motor learning is defied in the process we call education. Big fat disconnect! We have a major disconnect between what the information we have tells us and how we do things…which leads me to believe that while we garner more and more data…we are learning less.

  • Adam Frey

    My kid is a decade away from college-age, so we’ve got plenty of time to strategize on this. However, I already envision a few strategies I want to encourage my daughter to follow as she gets older:

    1) Don’t go to college until you know why you want to go to college. (I wouldn’t put this off indefinitiely–eventually you need to do *something.*) As a teen, I remember being pushed into college because, well, everyone my age was. Probably not the best reason potentially take on huge debt.

    2) Save money; take your “core” classes at a community college. If you chose your school specifically for the degree relative to that school (i.e., you’re at MIT for an engineering degree), then your required English/history/philosophy classes probably don’t need to come from that school. Take some summer classes–including the summer before school starts–at the local community college for a fraction of the cost and transfer the credits. Make sure your college accepts them.

    3) Be willing to work through college and pay for your own car, gas, or luxuries. Yeah, you need to keep up your studies, blah blah blah. Time management is a skill. Me, I took a full load in college, worked between 20 to 30 hours a week at a supermarket job, and still found plenty of time for socializing. It’s stressful, but won’t kill you.

    4) Be willing to live at home (if your parents are cool with it). Yeah, the stereotype is still to “go away to college” and do a dormitory and eventual apartment. In my opinion, it’s overrated. The philosophy is that living in a dorm preps you for living on your own, but I’m not convinced given that your food is supplied by the dining halls and you’re paying board rather than rent. I realize this isn’t for everyone–people who live in remote areas or want to attend a specific school across the country will need to board. However, if you’re going to school in the same city where you grew up, commuting from home saves considerable money.

  • Maura Shea

    Thank you for the post! I’ve read several articles by Rocha but the book sounds really worthwhile.

    I’m a high school English teacher, and wrestle with these questions– not only because I myself am still paying off my student loans, but also because I write college recommendation letters frequently and urge students to pursue higher education.

    @ Louis Tully: Have you applied to private or Catholic schools? They are generally much more willing to higher non-Education majors.

  • RoyMix

    About 15 years ago I had a very good job but no college degree, when the internet bubble collapsed I lost that job and was unable to get a conprable one, despite plenty of experience because I lacked a 4yr degree (in anything). I know several other people who were limited at jobs they already had because of no degree and many others who couldn’t get jobs because of this. I have a friend this happened to who bought a diploma from a mill, I know someone who just lied one day on his application (claiming a creative writing degree from an obscure rural state college), and another who got a degree in law enforcement. Each of them got the next job they applied for.

    The problem is that it is deadly to your prospects to have no degree in this country today. I know people who fish in Alaska or work the oil fields but make sure to get a 4yr diploma for the day their back goes out.

  • RoyMix

    Of your suggestions one is vastly more correct than the other, which is use a community college for core classes. Waiting is not a bad idea, but going late can be a huge disadvantage both in education and getting hired afterwards. And working is only a good idea if it is coop or you can study at work. Better to just take more hours and get it done with. Taking an extra year because you are working, especially with the gpa hit is a false economy.

    Lots of people have to work, but the odds are without work you can finish a year earlier unless you are getting a degree where you don’t have to work.

  • Flee Bus

    25 years ago I was educated for free – the state paid my university fees and provided me with a small subsistence allowance. That state was the UK. Around 15 years ago, a Labour government decided to introduce fees and loans. Now UK higher education is the most expensive in Europe and students are saddled with US-style loans (although not yet quite so onerous repayment conditions).

    With the US and UK spending hundreds of billions on “defence”, as well as propping up a failed finance system, it is objectively absurd for them to say they cannot afford the relative handfuls it would cost to enable young people to reach their full potential at a reasonable price. The truth is that the elite wants it this way – for the vast majority of people to have to struggle, while a small minority receives all the benefits. They want people to be too scared and busy just trying to get by to really question what is going on. Sure, they don’t sit in little cabals rubbing their hands together in glee, but it is an unconscious process – class acting in its own interest. Ask Marx, or Freud.

    In the UK it is easy to see because our class system is well established. In America, a “young” country, social rigidity is still firming up, like “jello”.

  • Fiestamom

    My oldest is 19, finishing his last semester of community college. He is only attending this semester to get me to leave him alone. He is working full time for his dad, an apprenticeship of sorts. He is learning computer programming. Intellectually, I have totally bought in to Instapundits ideas. It’s hard in the real world, I worry that my son won’t have a degree. But I looked through his English 101 text (no classics, just ‘articles’ from The Nation, Time), & his sociology class text was so left wing loony it almost read like a parody. I can’t argue with my son’s contention that it was a waste of his time. He homeschooled high school, and read Thucides, Peloponnesian War, took 3 years of Latin. Other than the liberal arts component, Community Colleges really seem to be what Vocational Ed used to be in high school. Lots of certifications for careers kids might actually be able to get employment in. Haven’t read Insty’s book yet, but it is on my list.

  • Phineas

    Prep schools and boarding schools don’t always require state certification. I taught at two boarding schools and loved it.

  • kmk

    Community college is a great idea, but if you already know how you wish to finish up at a 4 year college, meet with counselors at both the CC and the 4 yr college to find out which credits will transfer, so you don’t end up at the 4 yr longer than you have to. It takes persistence and being very firm about wanting to know, and get their names and printed proof, as well.

  • kmk

    Sounds like he is self-propelled and will take the next step when he needs to. Good job, mom!

  • David

    Part of the outrageous student debt load is that universities heavily promoted the notion of taking out loans. Couple that with skyrocketing tuition rates at public institutions, it’s the mess we’re seeing right now. My three daughters, who are in college, apply for grants and scholarships, and so far, it’s kept the bill manageable. Even more outrageous than tuition rates are the ancillary student fees and book prices. We’ve pretty much past the point where a four-year degree does not make a difference in finding gainful employment or says “you’ve become”. I subscribe to the Mike Rowe concept of apprenticeships, but it’s a matter of “getting the word out”.

  • Gloria

    I live in Canada and I have noticed that our students have no debt or very little because of our lack of concern with “prestige” and “elite credentials.” Many students commute from home to university, thus saving money on dorms and also being better supervised by parents (fewer drunken weekends wasted). Also, Canadian parents don’t seem to be obsessed with elite universities and are quite happy to have their children go to local universities and to go to local institutes of technology or community colleges to get credentials that actually help them obtain employment. So, for instance, many Hollywood film production companies have moved their facilities to British Columbia or Toronto because there is a solid labour force in technical areas like audio production, computer graphics, etc. These are clean, interesting, “white-collar” type jobs, so I don’t know why anybody would look down on them. Being an elevator repair person or a plumber is interesting work; why don’t Americans prize these kinds of employment–especially since such employment can’t be outsourced to China or India.

    If American parents had been less concerned with credentials from supposedly elite universities and more concerned with actual learning and education, the tuition problem might never have occurred or at least the tuition increases might have been much less. For instance, if students are commuting from home they don’t need expensive recreational facilities on campus because they can use whatever is available in the city they live in.

    The average annual university tuition in Canada is about $8,000.

  • Becky

    You might want to look into higher education grant administration. It pays pretty well, the benefits are good, and it’s hard to find people with experience, so it’s often not too hard to find an entry-level position. Before I quit to stay home with my kids, my husband and I used to joke that the free market was determined to reward me despite my MFA in poetry. You do need to be fairly detail-oriented to be successful at it.

  • conservativemama

    I had a student some years ago who was new to this country, from Vietnam. She and her younger sister, the babies of the family, enrolled in our high school. Terrific young women. Great students, kind, friends to anyone, wonderful daughters, just the best.

    This young woman was a dynamo. She advocated for herself like no one’s business. She was learning English while completing high school. She took advantage of the academy in our high school, (think vocational school), and took classes in the health sciences and the culinary arts, alongside the more traditional core classes.

    She graduated on time. I wrote her recommendations for college and for scholarships. She began her education here, than transferred to a nursing program in Nebraska that fit her timetable, her finances, and her goals. Last year she graduated with her nursing degree. She’s kept in touch with me and her other teachers, always thanking us for our help when she was new to the US.

    This woman, and I have to say, so many of my students from Vietnam demonstrate this quality, was so practical, so thoughtful in her choices. She took my breath away. I was lucky to have her and her sister in my classroom.

  • Nonnymouz

    You are completely correct about community colleges today. This is because high schools now must prepare everybody for the standardized test scores, and everybody for college. To get an ordinary (not advanced, not honors) you have to take Algebra 2 at a minimum. When I went to college, it was unusual for students to have taken Calculus, but now its quite common.
    I wish we could do more with the classics you mention; I think we would really get some interest from the students. And for students who are average, they could stay in the average college prep classes instead of AP/Honors, and for those more interested in professions that benefit from hands-on training like culinary arts, plumbing, electricians we could again offer vocational schools.
    We have vocational schools, but often it is only open to the students who are advanced enough to be able to wiggle their schedules, and students who do not do well in a traditional classroom are excluded.

  • Nonnymouz

    Let me add that, if you need or choose to attend graduate school, try and find somebody to pay for it. I was lucky enough to get into a grant-program that my University had to train people to help with transitioning students with disabilities out of high school and into college or the real world, and when I decided I was going to do a PhD, worked for an employer willing to pay 100%. In hindsight, the latter wasn’t so fantastic because my employer treated me like mud, and I did wind up finishing the credits myself (resulting in two Masters degrees instead of a PhD because I no longer had an employer willing to let me do research with clients and to take a semester off to do the actual writing while still paying me), but that’s OK.

  • Augustine

    Allow me to plug a talk given by Sam Rocha at my parish on St. Augustine, his inspiration in his work:

  • Frank

    It has been a few years since I read much of substance about education, but this post is so wonderful it brings to mind many fond memories of reading and thinking about the subject. I always hated school — I couldn’t stand the imposed conformity — and while in middle school in the late 70s, I discovered the work of John Holt first, then many other radical critics. As my conversion to Catholicism progressed, many of these ideas were absorbed into my discovery of Catholic tradition. For me, it was a straight line from Paul Goodman to James V. Schall. What you offer here is a sound reminder of the essential commonality of the best of the so-called educational counterculture of the 60s and the best of Catholic reflection on the true meaning of education. Both “traditions” are of course almost entirely ignored in the institutions dedicated to “education” in our society, and I think this has always been the case, at least for the past century or so.

    As for your comments on the bureaucracy of “diversity,” I don’t disagree entirely, but perhaps you’re missing something. In a system as vast of that of California, it will surely always be terribly easy to find absurd waste, excess, and so on. Making lists like this one is therefore misleading without context. In addition, concerns about diversity are not necessarily petty “grievances.” There are a great many real problems of bigotry and intolerance, and it’s not a bad thing to address them institutionally.

    That said, I know I’m playing devil’s advocate. I’ve seen how completely insane these things can be. And since I’m basically an “education anarchist,” I have in principle little sympathy for what you describe. But critiquing it as a waste of money would be more effective if the critique was presented in terms of dollars spent on this matter as a percentage of overall spending in the system.

    PS Check out Ivan Illich sometime.