Educated Beyond our Intelligence

In my post about Perkin many moons ago, I alluded to the tremendous waste of resources that I feel is endemic to our educational system. Since then, a certain blog post from my favorite collection of bean counters and Marines has goaded me into putting my thoughts into a new rant. Not only do we hold precocious 15 year olds (such as Perkin) back in the primary system, we waste their personal and our societal resources on useless crap once those students hit college.

My point about education in the Perkin post was that the education system that sprang up in the Industrial Age is essentially more of a warehousing program than a serious attempt at education. The most glaring example of that is the programs aimed at �talented and gifted� students in the primary system. Teachers attempt to provide enrichment exercises, but past the 5th or 6th grade level, most teachers are not qualified to provide very much that a bright student is not getting on their own. They pretty much boil down to lip service paid by the educational system to the concerns of the parents of brighter students, in order to keep those students from fleeing to greener pastures and dragging the average test scores of the school into the toilet. I was a victim of participant in these programs in a smaller, fairly rural, school district, and the middle school * ones were, by and large, a waste of time. The most useful enrichment exercises I got were as part of the Johns Hopkins summer programs where middle school students to participate in summer college programs based on PSAT scores (taken in 7th grade).

Those JH programs pretty much solidified my view that TAG programs should be scrapped in favor of fast tracking students right out of the public system. If you think about the talent pool of primary teachers, how many of them have really solid subject matter expertise? Aside from a few motivated and dedicated high school teachers, most teachers are not at the top of the intellectual heap in any useful field of inquiry. In decades past, teachers were smarter and better trained, but the opening up of traditionally male fields to women in the 1960s seriously depleted the talent pool for education, and this has paralleled the undermining of respect for subject matter knowledge in the schools of Education.

When you get right down to it, why should a student take an AP class from a teacher with at best a Master�s (and that usually not in the subject matter, but in useless education theory), when they could attend the local college and learn in a more professional environment? The real reason that the school systems hold on to those kids for dear life is not �to allow the student time to mature� but rather �keep these kids in our system for as long as we can to pad our stats�. If you read the math teacher blogs, you get the distinct impression that most High School calculus is a waste of time. Mine certainly was. Of all the technical AP courses I took, only the Chemistry teacher had a clue (and she had several � her Master�s was in Physical Chemistry, not Education). Hence I became a chemist rather than a physicist or mathematician. I would have been much better served in going to one of the local colleges for calculus and physics. My Chemistry teacher went on to author a General Chemistry text and become a professor at one of the local colleges, so now I guess that the AP landscape at my old High School is totally barren.

There certainly are students who need the full 18 years to mature into a student who is not going to major in drunkenness and disorderly conduct, but from what I�ve seen, there are plenty of 18 and 19 year olds who do that anyway, so there is no reason to hold mature younger students back. The only serious attempt at serving this population that I have seen is Simon�s Rock College of Bard . When a greater number of serious institutions start programs such as Simon�s Rock, we will see the public system move reluctantly in the direction of targeted education. But I�m not holding my breath. Colleges do not want the added responsibility of a mass of younger charges, and in any case the focus of the big schools is on athletics and bringing in those research grants, not in teaching undergraduates. But as more and more parents opt out of the public system and take on the full costs of education themselves, I think we are going to see a trend towards skipping years of primary education.

This waste of resources isn�t a new phenomenon, either. My own mother, a 25+ year teaching veteran of the public school system from the 60s to the 00s, recently admitted to me that she so hated elementary school (well, I�d long known that), that she called in �sick� and missed more than 1/3 of each year from first through fifth grades. Yet she still managed to become her high school valedictorian and win the scholarship that got her off of the farm. So what exactly were those teachers in the halcyon days of US public education teaching in the 60 days per year that Mom skipped? Not a whole lot, obviously.

In states such as mine, where the schools are funded through property taxes, education poses a serious economic burden on the local level. Eliminating students who can learn on their own dime from the student population would go a long way towards making our public schools cost-efficient, not to mention loosing a lot more young people into the work force with a longer stretch of their peak creative years spent not in school but in a job.

On top of holding the brightest students back, the public schools are under-serving the middle and lower ability students. When I was a first year TA, the was no way in hell I was going to get one of the plum Honors College assignments, so I spent an awful lot of time on teaching logarithms in my General Chemistry classes. No one, not even future English majors, should graduate from high school without knowing what a log is and how to calculate at least a base 10 one. Just what in the Sam Hill they were studying in high school math classes is not something I care to contemplate for long, given my familial history of hypertension.

That leads me to the other topic I�ve been ruminating on since the reading about Spellings�s plan to track the progress of students in higher education that the Universities are screaming bloody murder about.

We treat adolescents and young 20-somethings like pets in this society. We don�t expect much from them, and with some rare exceptions, we don�t get a lot from them. Not surprising. Spellings was lamenting the fact that we waste a lot of money in Pell Grants and student loan subsidies on students who take six years to find themselves in their undergraduate careers. Spellings also repeated the old canard that China is outpacing us in producing Engineers. Now, I spent a some quality time in the USSR, which bequeathed its education system to the PRC, and I can tell you from first hand experience that this quote:

In fact, about half of what China calls “engineers” would be called “technicians” at best in the United States, with the equivalent of a vocational certificate or an associate degree. In addition, the McKinsey study of nine occupations, including engineering, concluded that “fewer than 10 percent of Chinese job candidates, on average, would be suitable for work [in a multinational company] in the nine occupations we studied.”

is right on the money.

Be that as it may, I happen to agree that we Americans do not encourage enough math and science studies at the University level. That�s a big surprise coming out of an American-born physical chemist, right? But Spellings wants to institute some tracking system and a whole lot of other garbage that will do little except increase the reach of the DoE into a lot of matters where bureaucrats will do more harm than good. I�ve got three suggestions to decrease the amount of taxpayer-funded self-discovery and increase the technical competitiveness of American college graduates:

1. Fund and encourage programs such as Simon�s Rock of Bard College at real institutions such as MIT, RPI, Cal Tech, etc.

2. Fund Pell Grants and supply student loans for the full amount of tuition, room and board at any institution that the student can matriculate to, but only for 3 years. The student can pick which 3, so poor students who don�t have the start-up capital can get their money right away and have 3 years to figure out how to get their senior year funded, while students who have a little capital saved can postpone their grants or loans until the sophomore year, or diddle around a bit. Full disclosure � I started out as a double degree (Chem / Chem E) at a private engineering school, taking overtime credits out the wazoo. But when I saw how much my education was costing my parents, I dropped the Chemical Engineering degree in the middle of my sophomore year and graduated in 3 years (still taking credits out the wazoo, I don�t think I ever had less than 20 in any given quarter) with one degree. I do not see why other students who are tight for funds can not do the same thing � there is a lot of wasted time in college as well as in primary school. I�m a hard-assed elitist bastard, but I don�t see why my working class relatives should be taxed to fund the �educational� self-discovery of pampered middle class idiots who leave college with few marketable skills to show for their efforts.

3. Put a quota system on the number of grants and loans per major, and offer more in the technical disciplines. As Charlie Munger pointed out (via David Foster), incentives are everything. If the DoE truly believes we are losing to China and India (I don�t, but I do think that we would be better off if we graduated more doctors and fewer lawyers), that incentive system alone will do more than two dozen blue-ribbon DoE panels to increase the technical knowledge of each graduating cohort. You could even incent the English majors to learn something marketable by giving partial loans or scholarships to those who miss the quota if they minor in a technical subject.

In addition to this, if I ran the DoE, I�d pull funding for any college or university that did not require every student to take 4 years of a foreign language regardless of major, with extra funds for colleges that exceeded certain percentages of non-Indo-European languages (with adequate testing to ensure rigorous instruction). Sure there�d be some major complaints about that one, but are we serious about competing in the global economy or not? Are the multi-culturalists serious about teaching something substantive about foreign cultures, or not? Put your money where your mouth is, then. (I�d say the DoE is not serious about anything except increasing the reach of the DoE.) Oh yes, and I�d make pre-laws and JDs pay double for their educations (sorry Lex).

This stuff is not rocket science, but the sclerotic DoE bureaucracy in Washington, backed by Bush�s statist domestic policies, is going to waste a ton of money studying the problem, and I�ll bet you dollars to donuts that they won�t come up with anything more effective than what I just proposed.

One of the reasons that the DoE won’t do anything useful is that it will rely heavily on professors to staff its panels, and there is a conflict between what professors see as the purpose of higher education – learning for learning’s sake, and what society sees as its function – job training. This was eloquently pointed out a while back by the Moebius Stripper. I would add that the monumental amount of resources that society pours in to education in the form of student loans, Pell Grants and scholarships, and research grants for professors, means that we in the public at large ought to either win this debate or take our ball and go home.

This brings me to a point I�ve been pondering for a long time, now. Public solutions to problems – which is what the public school system is � work well in the short and sometimes work well in the intermediate term. The Chemical Rubber Program is a good case in point. But sooner or later in all human institutions, the group that – for want of a better term – I call rent-seekers creeps in. Communism was one of the greatest experiments in this regard, and I learned a hell of a lot about human institutions by living in the USSR. I�d recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to go live in the PRC (Cuba and the DPRK are too skeery, even for me).

At some point every successful institution falls prey to rent-seekers. It is for this reason that science only remains useful insofar as its practitioners perpetuate the scientific method � the inevitable ossification of the rent seekers is continually combated by the infusion of fresh blood testing old truisms. The same is true for the market and its purging effect on businesses � rent seeking behavior is the major reason that GE is the only surviving company of the original Dow � all the others fell prey to the vagaries of the market and the fat dumb and happy syndrome of the rent seekers. World War I was a huge reality check for the rent seekers in the British Army. Without such mechanisms, all human endeavors will eventually collapse under a tide of selfish idiots.

Higher education, outside the professional schools and technical disciplines, is pretty much at the point where only a revolution will save it. The fat studies article I linked to at the Coalition is proof that we have become so rich as a society that we can tolerate an entire class of educated parasites that produce nothing of value, not even to each other. There are very few Ginny’s in the Humanities anymore, people who make it their mission to help students express themselves more clearly. There are an awful lot of useless departments such as the ones outlined in this article, and what it comes down to in my mind is that we now have a class of people educated beyond their ability to contribute to society, but who think that they are due some position of prestige and power by virtue of their ability to navigate the artificial educational environment. And unfortunately, the aura of respect that still clings to higher education gives these parasites a lot more power and influence than their abilites deserve.

The psychology of the rent-seeker is a mystery to me. The person who has no interest in preserving or adding to the system from which they wish to extract value and status (that most of the time is not due to them, especially in the amounts extracted). Many of them turn to politics, but even our bloated political system can�t contain them all, so they spread, like a fungus into other large, successful organizations. I see them every day in big business. They may be the ruin of us all. It certainly seems to me that the public education system in this country is infested with them to such a degree that there is little alternative to completely scrapping the system in favor of something more accountable to the people who pay for it.

* The elementary school ones were the only – the honest-to-God only – place I ever got a formal introduction to the hypothesis-testing scientific method (in 5th grade) until I got to AP classes in high school. That right there is a crying shame. Thanks to my 5th grade teacher (who also happens to be my Mom), I got that exposure, though.

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