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Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Simply could not have said it better than Neal Gabler [ht:cr],

Some may see this obsession with perfection as the culmination of a long trend; tiger moms have been pushing their children to be intellectual decathletes for generations. But it may actually be a reversal of an even longer trend. At the turn of the last century, the influential philosopher John Dewey saw education as a democratizing force not just in its social consequences but in its very process. Dewey believed that education and life were inextricably bound, that they informed each other. Education wasn’t just something you did in a classroom to earn grades. It was something you lived.

The modern corporate university hardly resembles John Dewey’s vision of education as a democratizing force. Gabler’s depiction (in the rest of the article) hits the nail on the head. I often get the impression that academia is no place for activists, but Gabler demonstrates wonderfully the importance of reflection on the role of higher in our society and the roles of students, educators, or administrators, and then changing those aspects that do not harmonize with our vision of education. So, who is with me in the revolution?

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Ezra Klein indirectly rebuts my post from last night (of course I’m under no illusion that he has read it). He argues that it’s hard to pay workers well in America. I think he’s wrong, but this is the crux of his argument:

So then the question is why were manufacturing jobs traditionally high-wage jobs? There seem to be a few answers to this (unions, industrial policy, capital intensity, etc), but the one that I’ve found most persuasive is that they could be. To a degree I really didn’t understand before picking through the endless tables and graphs in ‘Where Are All The Good Jobs Going?‘, high wages were a choice that businesses could make. Some of them were forced into making that choice through unions and some of them were lured into making that choice because they wanted the best workers. But a lot of them just made that choice because, well, they could…

Foreign competition has made the wage gap between different sorts of workers vast: Paying American workers a good wage while the other guy pays Thai workers a bad wage leaves you at much more of a competitive disadvantage than paying American workers a good wage while the other guy pays American workers a mediocre wage. Unions are partially in decline because of policy, but they’re partially in decline because these forces make it very hard for them to survive. Bottom line? It’s hard to pay workers well in America now, even if you want to…

I’d really like to find an answer that’s more interesting than “education” here. And maybe I will. I’m toying around with the idea that we’re in a weird interregnum period in which a lot of other countries have become rich and educated enough for their workers to compete with our workers but not quite rich and educated enough for their workers to begin buying things from our workers, and that this’ll largely sort itself out as time goes on.

I don’t think Ezra’s last paragraph will bear much fruit- these forces of globalization seem unlikely to equilibrate. Regarding his fallback of education, I think most of my rebuttal comes in my post from last night, which of course is completely ripped off of Larry Mishel’s excellent work. The important fact, though, is that profits have been doing just fine- yes, they fell during the crisis, but they have soared in the recovery.

Profits show that businesses can choose to pay better; however, because labor is weak, they don’t, and because their political power is strong, they have to give back relatively less in corporate taxes. The power gap is the reason why businesses can afford to pay better wages, and create more jobs, but choose not to. The power gap will not go away on its own, but will only accelerate without a political movement to restructure our economy.

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Larry Mishel has a new briefing paper with the Economic Policy Institute. In it, he argues that more education will not cure our employment deficits or our inequality. The succinct claim is made early on:

The huge increase in wage and income inequality experienced over the last 30 years is not a reflection of a shortfall in the skills and education of the workforce. Rather, workers face a wage deficit, not a skills deficit.

Mishels brings a lot of time series and cross-tab data to refute the structural unemployment argument:

This argument implies that unemployment difficulties reside in the workers who are unemployed: they either are located in the wrong place or do not have the required skills for the currently available jobs. If this is so, then macroeconomic tools such as fiscal policy (spending or tax cuts) or monetary policy cannot address our unemployment or long-term unemployment situation. But surprisingly, perhaps amazingly, there is no systematic empirical evidence for such assertions.

He specifically takes on the claim that we need more higher education:

The point for our current purposes is that the pay of college graduates is as disconnected from productivity growth as is the pay of high school graduates. Vastly expanding college enrollment and completion will do nothing to address this problem…

Together, these trends suggest that the forthcoming supply of college graduates is meeting the growing demands of employers for such workers. Moreover, these trends suggest that a rapid expansion of the supply of college graduates will cause the wages of college graduates to decline, assuming that the productivity–pay gap continues unabated.

Mishels concludes:

It is not the economy that has limited or will limit strong income growth, but rather the economic policies pursued and the distribution of economic and political power that are the limiting factors.

Education is a favored response to inequality and unemployment for many mainstream economists of all stripes. Its proponents are then able to say that by favoring equal education, they favor equal opportunity. However, a class lens shows that this leveling does not actually happen. Rather, a relatively powerful and small group of people will continue to capture societal surplus, while wages for everyone else will stagnate relative to what they produce. It needs to be said again and again- power matters. There is also no guarantee that increased education will lead to more jobs, as our economy has clearly not shown that tendency in the last several decade.

If the bottom 90% of Americans have no say over how surplus is distributed, they will continue to get less than their productive share as the incomes of the very top fly away. This issue holds for the uneducated, high school educated, and college educated- however, the college educated are relatively productive enough that they end up earning plenty to get by (although this could become less true).

Thus, we realize that as Mishels says, the wage gap and jobs gap do not come from a skills gap but a class gap and a power gap. Unemployment and stagnant wages are structural, but not in the sense that conservative neoclassical economics define it. They are a result of the capitalist power dynamics and employer relations in our society. Fiscal stimulus and education are both admirable goals, but we need radical changes to restore our economy’s long-term ability to create quality jobs. Mishels doesn’t drive at the solutions to these problems, but I’m really glad he helps dispel some important mainstream economic myths.

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No room for reading

I was talking to some English PhD students today, and when the conversation turned to economics they were dismayed to learn that no one in “top” economics departments ever read Marx, much less understood any of his theories. Then I was caught off-guard when I was asked, “so what thinkers do most students in economics programs read?” The student just assumed that we must read someone. But as far as I can tell, and the answer I gave, was “none.” The training of economists in the “top” programs does not entail any reading of books.

This should not be news to anyone familiar with the current state of mainstream economics, which has become a branch of mathematics. But the English PhD students’ surprised reactions to that reality reminded me of how incredibly bizarre this current situation is. Neoclassical economists are trying to completely divorce economic theory from all ethics, philosophy, literary theory, history,  social theory, political theory, etc. But of course that is impossible, and even economists are using certainly philosophical and ethical assumptions, and their theories are historically and socially contingent. For example, we do use some form of utilitarianism, although anyone who actually bothers to read any Jeremy Bentham knows that he would be appalled at the distortion of the ideas attributed to him today.

What is scary to me is that these students of economics, who are trained not to read about anything but mathematics, are the ones who go in to government, business, policy research, and have the authority to shape policies and influence debates. No wonder our economy is in such a mess. I think requiring students of economics to read some books during their training would go a long way. Certainly, they used to. But now, the pressure to take more courses in mathematics, modeling, and statistics has relegated reading to an optional hobby for those students in graduate economics programs and finally earned the discipline the title of “dismal science.”

Update: See the thoughtful response by Maxine Udall.

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I want to continue our string of postings on education (here and here) with a discussion on rankings. Rankings are both alluring and dangerous in their simplicity. For U.S. higher education, U.S. News & World Report publishes rankings as a guide for prospective students. And because universities need to attract students, they pursue a higher ranking, sometimes recklessly. At Notre Dame, the reckless and thoughtless pursuit of a higher ranking eliminated pluralism from the economics department. Pursuit of ranking also leads to some bizarre occurrences, such as strictly enforcing 49 person class sizes (to score higher in the “classes under 50″ category) and strange accounting measures on who is an alumni (to score higher for “% of alumni who donate”), among others.

Taking actions that seem to waste university resources or decrease the experience of the student may in fact be logical, if it helps the school’s ranking. It is easy for critics of US News and World Report rankings to point out the flaws. The Washington Monthly actually took up the challenge to provide an alternative ranking that better reflected university’s missions to be socially beneficial, as they describe:

Unlike U.S. News and World Report and similar guides, this one asks not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country. Are they educating low-income students, or just catering to the affluent? Are they improving the quality of their teaching, or ducking accountability for it? Are they trying to become more productive—and if so, why is average tuition rising faster than health care costs? Every year we lavish billions of tax dollars and other public benefits on institutions of higher learning. This guide asks: Are we getting the most for our money?

You can read the methodology on how they set out to achieve such a ranking, but it basically involves compiling a Community Service Score (which includes how many students do ROTC and Peace Corps, and what % of federal work-study grants go to community service projects) a Research Score ($ spent on research and PhD’s awarded) and a Social Mobility Score (which compares the proportion of students with Pell Grants and overall graduation rates).

You can see their rankings here. The University of Notre Dame actually improves slightly (from #20 in US News) to #19. Princeton drops (from #1 in US News) to #28th. Check it out. See, rankings are alluring, aren’t they?

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Rodger Malcolm Mitchell has what amounts to a very reasonable proposal for education/stimulus policy- read the whole thing for the details. Here’s the crux of it:

Generally, I prefer to state a problem, then propose a solution. But when one solution addresses several problems, perhaps the reverse sequence is appropriate. The solution is: The federal government should pay all students – elementary school, middle school, high school, college and post grad – a salary

The salary can be lowest for the lowest grades and increase stepwise through post graduate. It might vary according to average local salaries, with the student’s home being the determinant. For high school and above, the salary should be above the single person’s poverty guideline for each geographic area.

[emphasis his]

Of course, the proposal’s success relies on students responding to this incentive by investing more time and effort in their education. This leap should be easy for most economists, although I’m sure there are some behavioral economists who might cite perverse incentives, capture of money by parents, and others. At the margins, though, it’s likely that salaries would reduce dropout rates and increase post-secondary completion rates. Depending on how high the uptake is, this proposal could be high bang-for-buck as far as education policies go.

From a political standpoint, one would think Mitchell’s idea would be better received in terms of the education/investment benefits, and less well-received on the stimulus/deficit aspects of it. Of course, in our current conjecture, it’s almost guaranteed that the latter would receive far more attention. Convincing deficit hawks to invest in anything with government funds seems like a lost cause these days. Mitchell’s proposal to leave implementation up to the states probably makes it more palatable, but also more susceptible to manipulation by conservative state administrations.

Given the apparently stagnant recovery, these would be well-spent stimulus dollars that would address the key problem making our economy less dynamic- too little education. I might amend the proposal to have a parent income phase-out, as less incentive is needed for these students, and I would argue those dollars are less stimulative. At the same time, making this inclusive also makes it seem customary and less divisive.

So, what’s wrong with this?

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The Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University, one of the only accredited Buddhist academies in the US, is in jeopardy. [ht:jh]

The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, has thrived in the tradition of the Beat movement as a center for avant-garde and experimental writing. But recently, the University has been facing financial difficulty, and as a result of restructuring and layoffs, the future of the program is uncertain.

Students, who have largely been left out of any decision making processes, are demanding their voices be heard by the administration while trying to keep the program intact. They are demanding greater transparency and a role for student input. “Save TKS” has been using social networking sites including facebook to spread their message.

This issue is not just about Naropa. It is about student involvement in US higher education. Should students be treated simply as consumers of this product called education? Or, in the rich tradition of student activism at Naropa and other US campuses, should students be able to take charge of their education? I hope that educators and administrators learn to treat students as the stakeholders that we are in the institutes of higher education, and truly hold us to being intellectually curious when they encourage us to be so.

Maybe students might even have a role in designing programs of study and course syllabi ;)

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