online education and the desperate need for educational realism

It’s not uncommon for politics and policy to be distorted by a romantic vision of human nature, but nowhere is that more true than education.

Here at Purdue, we have a strong freshman composition program, Introductory Composition at Purdue (ICAP). One of the reasons for its strength, in my opinion, is our  conference system. English 106, the largest ICAP course, is a five-day-a-week teaching commitment. All students meet with their ICAP instructor in a one-on-one or small group conferencing sessions every week. As you can imagine, having to teach every weekday is not a thrilling prospect for many of our TAs. Despite what most people think, teaching a college class is a major time commitment; lesson planning and preparation for in-class activities is an even bigger time commitment than grading, which is a bear itself. The conferencing requirement also has major cost implications for the university; because the course meets so often, it carries a higher credit load, meaning that our TAs typically teach only two sections a year, rather than the one/two schedule typical of graduate students. Multiply that across hundreds of sections of the course. It’s a major commitment.

Why make it? I wasn’t sure I knew the answer to that myself, when I first came to Purdue. I remember being surprised that a college class met every day. It was just so far out of the norm. After just one semester of teaching ICAP, my feelings had changed entirely: I was now worried about a possible future of teaching freshman composition at other universities where I wouldn’t have one-on-one conferencing with students worked into the schedule. Because there, more than in our regular classroom, computer lab, or online course site, was where the actual educating happened. It was in those very small groups, where I could give the individual students individual attention, that I was able to go through their work with them line-by-line and show them where and how they could improve their writing. I’ve tried all number of ways to do that outside of class meetings– marking papers extensively, using Track Changes, real-time online collaboration– and it never, ever works. Most them don’t look, and most of them don’t care, unless there’s the basic human accountability of sitting down with them at a table and going through the changes together. That’s how I drag them to the skills they want.

I will have lost some of you with that verb. “Drag them! How presumptuous! That’s so insulting.” I assure you: no, it’s not. No, it’s not insulting to use the word “drag” to describe educating undergraduates. I promise you it’s not. Of course, there are in most classes one or two or three students who are both very bright and self-motivated. They’re wonderful to work with. But most students require a frankly endless amount of pushing, pulling, cajoling, motivating, and yes, dragging to competence. Some actively resist. I’m not complaining: this is what I love to do, and it’s why they pay me. I signed up to be a compositionist knowing that many, both within and outside of the university, see nothing to respect in the discipline. I did because I love teaching people to write and love researching ways to do it better. I’m just relaying reality, in context with an education media that simply doesn’t want to hear it: our college students are not an army of young autodidacts who are pursuing knowledge out of a love for learning. They just aren’t. They’re here, in very large measure, to collect a degree that they identify as being a largely or purely economic instrument. Who could blame them? That’s what their culture is telling them education is for: making money. So they proceed rationally from that premise.

So you work, and you work, and you work, and you sit with them in conferencing and you revise their papers again and again and you chase them down when they don’t submit by deadline and you make your instructions explicit again and again and you hope that they’ll bother to come back to class after spring break and you work, work, work to get them to a reasonable level of ability. And then when you give them a B+ they write outraged emails to the dean about what a horrible injustice that is. But of course they do. Again, it’s natural: their culture teaches them that everyone is equally capable of everything, and that any problems in education are necessarily the fault of educators and not of students, so they rage when they get a grade that is commensurate with their work. They’re a product of their culture.

Again: I love teaching. I love my students. I’m not trying to insult them, at all. I’m trying, instead, to speak honestly about them in their actual, real-world humanity. And trust me: my  students here at Purdue are not unusually unmotivated or unintelligent. Just the opposite; they’re remarkably bright, attending a competitive public research university, in a period where getting into good colleges has never been harder or more competitive. Yes, they’re a restricted range. They’re restricted near the top, not the bottom. Still, it’s a struggle to educate them. I’m just trying to be honest with you.

So maybe you can see why I am so deeply frustrated with the Clay Shirky vision, which is really just the consensus view, and pretty much Obama’s major vision for the next era of the American economy. It’s a common saw: the next stage of American abundance requires all of our workers be educated, it’s too expensive to teach them in the conventional academic setting, and so we need to replace the physical university with online colleges, staffed by adjuncts teaching many sections of huge classes. And not only will we be erasing the very notion of individual instructor attention, we’ll be particularly targeting the most vulnerable, most difficult to educate students, the ones who now either never make it to college or drop out at huge rates. This is the perfect expression of an educational discourse that has no connection to the reality of what most schooling is like for most students.

At my MA institution, the University of Rhode Island, there’s a great program called Talent Development. It’s a program for minority students from urban parts of Rhode Island; they’re offered admission into the school on a probationary basis, with the requirement that they undergo a summer program before their freshman year and maintain an additional accountability and support program for their first two. Such programs are an essential part of the academy’s mission; they are a moral necessity. And the program does enjoy some success: TD students have better outcomes than other students from similar backgrounds. But notice that the Talent Development program works by doing precisely the opposite of what Shirky sees as the future of education. They’re not reducing face-to-face time; they’re increasing it. They’re not reducing individual instruction and attention; they’re increasing it. And even so, while the TD students do better than other students from similar circumstances, my understanding is that they still on the whole do significantly worse than the median URI student.

Because educating “nontraditional” students– administrator speak for poor students, students whose parents are themselves uneducated, minority students, and students who struggled in high school– is really hard. Look, I don’t doubt that the American university system has failed these students in any number of ways. I could go on at length about those failures. But at some point you have to actually grapple with reality, which is that for a complex and controversial set of reasons, some people are harder to educate. Not everyone is equally capable of educational success. They just aren’t. I’m dedicated to the task as getting as many marginal students in and through as possible, and I think that’s an absolute moral need for our colleges and our society. But it’s not going to work for everyone, and it’s going to take great efforts, and online models are precisely the opposite of what’s likely to work.

We’ll be debating the causes of that inequality for the rest of my life, with liberals asserting that it’s the product of unequal circumstances and systemic  forces, and conservatives asserting that it’s the product of natural talent and work ethic. But at a certain point, the reason becomes irrelevant; by the time they reach adulthood, people  just are unequal, and we have reams and reams of empirical research that demonstrates that. The refusal to grapple with that reality will prove ruinous to the long term economic justice of the United States, as people like Shirky and Arne Duncan and President Obama articulate a vision of education as a great equalizer that denies the reality of unequal ability.

Andrew Sullivan linked to Shirky’s piece by saying that Shirky “wants the academic world to face reality.” Well, I think it’s Shirky and those like him who need to get real. Efforts to change the long-term economic futures of vast social classes through education are the de facto answer to poverty and inequality among the Davos set, despite the fact that education has never been proven to be equal to that task, as people like Matt Bruenig keep pointing out. We are risking the future on a vision that, it seems to me, has no justifiable grounding in either experience or empiricism. Pleasant lies about everyone’s ability to succeed in college, particularly in a new kind of college where by design individual students receive far less attention, are politically pleasing but practically destructive.

I’m not teaching freshmen now, but rather grad students. It’s a lovely experience. And I think it’s what most people think most college teaching is like: working with self-motivated, committed students. But there’s a reason why grad students are rare, and without judgment, I’m telling you that most undergrads simply are not like my grad students. They just aren’t. Fooling ourselves that they are is a huge mistake.

Although my readership is quite modest, I have still enjoyed more attention, in online politics, than I ever expected to get. I have been making some version of this argument for a long time. I have never been able to get even minimal purchase with this argument. People not only don’t agree about it, but just don’t engage. The Atlantic has an entire education “channel,” but you could go weeks there without reading a word of genuine educational pessimism. This is par for the course.

The rhetorical mechanism through which this kind of argument is dismissed is ostensibly liberal– you’re saying that people can’t learn! You’re saying that people are unequal! But I’m not saying that people can’t learn. I’m saying that not everyone can learn the same things, and shouldn’t be expected to, but the dictates of “the economy of tomorrow” dramatically narrows the horizons of what education can try and do. And I’m not saying that people are unequal in their rights, their dignity, or their inherent value. But I am saying that people are deeply unequal in their ability to satisfy certain educational demands which, again, are dictated by the same people who are calling for an economy based on everyone selling smartphone apps. And I am saying that whatever the complicated reasons for that fact, it is a fact, and one that most people actually believe even as they deny it publicly.

The people pushing this vision, tellingly, are almost exclusively people who have little to no connection to the day-to-day work of educating undergraduates in basic skills. Either the people arguing for this are journalists and pundits who have never educated, or they are deans and administrators who haven’t taught undergrads in 20 years, or they are celebrity intellectuals who barely teach and when they do, teach at elite institutions where only the most equipped to succeed are present. The greatest division in educational discourse today is not best understood as progressive vs. neoliberal or something similar. The greatest division, at all levels of education, is between those in the world of media and policy who assert that we have the ability to make miracles happen, and the educators who are actually out there, day-to-day, trying to get students to standards those students cannot meet. We can begin to let our policy discussions reflect on what’s actually happening in our actual schools, or we can continue to engage in pleasant fantasy. We can build a vast edifice of online higher education where, as happens with for-profit online schools now, we all agree to juke the stats, grading and graduating students who lack even basic skills, and degrading the very notion of higher education. That’s an option.

The other option is far more direct, has a far better history, and a far better moral outcome: give people money. Redistribute. Institute some sort of guaranteed minimum income. Unlike large-scale educational reform, giving people money has a great track record for changing their material conditions. Social Security is one of the most wildly successful anti-poverty programs in history. They just cut checks. Extend those benefits to all Americans, paid for through steeply progressive tax rates, and eliminate the massive bureaucracy through which we now deliver our arbitrary and inadequate safety net. The positive effects on educational outcomes are likely to be massive. Freed from the need to secure their immediate material survival, many people will choose to go to school for subjects that they actually want to study. Many others will opt not to go to college, rather than pursuing a degree despite a lack of interest and prerequisite skills, which will be better for them and better for the colleges. I think a guaranteed minimum income would result in an incredible flowering of human productivity, and incidentally a great outburst in small businesses, which should make conservatives happy. But even if the results are more modest, they will be far better at eliminating poverty and human misery than hoping against experience that we can give everyone a quality college education, and that such an education would be a ticket to the good life.

I am a socialist precisely because I know that, whatever the causes, human beings end up substantially different in their abilities, and good people are denied access to a good life because what they are good at is not what the labor market wants to pay for. I believe in equality of human value, but I do not believe in equality of human ability. So I want to force a minimal level of equality in material security and comfort with a simple mechanism that works.

There’s a chance. I’m pessimistic. There’s too much money in the other vision, too many profiteers and too many people making careers as iconoclasts, selling unproven, fanciful visions of the next stage of our economy. We are likely to institute this plan or something like it, and then watch as it fails, and then resist, resist, resist the reality that it’s not working, until finally it’s become too obvious to ignore. Then, maybe, we’ll get real about redistribution. The question is, how much preventable failure and unhappiness will we generate in the meantime?


  1. For the college bound high achiever, the intensive one-one-one instruction you describe is an invisible privilege. They get it in school because they get the best teachers, because those teachers have the calmest classes, and because those courses operate under the heavy grade inflation that guarantees close attention to avoid embarrassment from the external evaluations such as AP exams and college admissions. They get it in their social interactions, and though that isn’t always what we might call ethical help it is highly personal. And they get it at home, again in a blend of the supportive and abusive but definitely still intensive personal and direct. It is clear that such networks are critical for what we view as the independent, self motivated college student, and it is clear that everybody concerned from this end is well aware that very few kids go off to Purdue, at least from my high school (three last year), in any way prepared to live that imaginary standard. That is why I share your contempt for these online models.


  2. Without doing some detailed side-by-side analysis of Shirky’s piece with your response – not easily done in a comments venue – I’m not convinced (having read this now, and scanning Shirky’s having read it closely days ago) that you’ve really engaged Shirky’s argument.

    First, I read Shirky as responding to a multi-tiered educational system. Would you argue that higher education in the US is not multi-tiered? Shirky doesn’t dismiss your institution, your students, you, or your premise about the bricks and mortar edifice that houses it all. Rather he argues that’s not all higher education in the US is.

    Secondly, he shares your awareness of the imbeddedness of students in the culture that causes them to seek a higher education.

    Above and beyond that, he also takes a turn at the effects shifts have had on faculty staffing patterns. Nice that your students have the luxury of these small group, close feedback coaching sessions (though some intellectual athletes be less willing/able than others). But, that isn’t available in many higher ed settings. [And, fwiw, I share your experience of sometimes needing to “drag” students to acquire the skills they ostensibly came to acquire. Imo, to do less is to fail to respect them; a sidebar discussion.] And, of course, these staffing patterns vary widely depending on the tier you examine.

    All that said, Shirkey’s working from a premise that is fundamentally different than yours; His: the Golden Age isn’t coming back vs Yours: The Golden Age wasn’t even golden. His premise addresses the tenured faculty. Yours, the policy makers (tax payers/avoiders). His is what he sees out his window right now. Yours, to what could be, but isn’t [Particularly, having looked at your comment there and his response to it.]

    While I might agree that your vision for higher education is desirable, I don’t disagree with Shirky that – at least in the near term – that ain’t the direction in which the economic forces are pulling higher education. The thrust of Shirky’s piece is, given the direction of these forces where yours seems to be, let’s redirect the forces. You can be frustrated with what you claim is Shirky’s “vision,” but would you deny the view Shirky sees out his window? No, obviously, you don’t. But, you can’t simply dismiss the effects of “credentialing” by arguing that students are inherently unequal in their abilities. That is a whole different discussion.

    1. In a sense, I think you’re perfectly right: he’s making a typical academic argument in describing a change that he abdicates any responsibility for– one which, we should be clear, will leave many worse off, but not him (the boys in Davos love his work)– and I am making a political argument, that the change which he merely describes is a ruinous direction not just for higher education but for our country, and one which will leave both far worse off in the long run. He is describing a change in which he has no great personal stake. I am opposing that change out of both personal and societal need. Which one of these you value more is a matter for you and your conscience.

      1. He is describing a change in which he has no great personal stake.
        I guess that’s not how I read him, particularly, given that he seems to be suggesting that the tenured faculty (of which, I understand he is one?) are going to have to forfeit a myth that – at least – underpins their sense of professional (and, maybe social/economic) worth.

        I am opposing that change out of both personal and societal need. Which one of these you value more is a matter for you and your conscience.
        I perceive a sneering quality to this which I’m not sure I deserved.

        To be clear (more clear?), I read Shirky as promoting a kind of triage for a system that is failing.

        The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

        Re; that demand. Since you have a grasp of the context, one of the places I would hate to see that demand go is increasingly to a for-profit “vocational” entity for which students can acquire substantial debt, and for which no substantial number of jobs exist…if the student completes.

        What I “hear” Shirky calling for is precisely this:

        Those of us in the traditional academy could have a hand in shaping that future, but doing so will require us to relax our obsessive focus on elite students, institutions, and faculty. It will require us to stop regarding ourselves as irreplaceable occupiers of sacred roles, and start regarding ourselves as people who do several jobs society needs done, only one of which is creating new knowledge.

        With an emphasis on a hand in shaping. And, the only way he seems to see that happening is if that “elite”-serving faculty picks their gaze off the toes of their own shoes and stops waiting to the situation to “right” itself. Because, as you note, you’re arguing against:

        the consensus view, and pretty much Obama’s major vision for the next era of the American economy

        Hard to know where it all lands if the academy chooses to involve itself. They might even fashion a “tourniquet” which would put the system in a damned better place to move in the direction you’d choose than if they simply let the “consensus view” take its course unimpeded.

        1. I didn’t intend to sneer, and I apologize if I came across that way.

          Maybe your take is fairer and more sensible than mine. It may be. All I know is this: so much of our educational conversation is predicated on the assumption that we can achieve types of gains for broad groups that we have very limited evidence are possible. And this is directly tied to a for-profit industry that is eager to siphon money off of vulnerable students. My interest, not merely for higher education but for education writ large, is to ground our investigations in a harsher, but ultimately better, vision of education: not merely to ask why Head Start fails or why No Child Left Behind fails, but to ask what those failures say about our general assumptions about what education does, what it can do, and what it’s for.

        2. There’s no “triage” in Shirky’s vision. There is only the jettisoning of the most vulnerable to a mass-produced digital product he calls “education” but most of us would recognize as “education-related product.”

          I’d be shocked if Shirky has any firsthand experience with the kind of education Freddie describes in this post or what most of us spend our time doing with our students. As someone who has taught undergraduates exclusively for better than a decade, I can honestly say that I recognize almost nothing of what he writes about.

          He views education through the lens of a credentialing marketplace, rather than a process through which people might actually learn things.

  3. Why do you say “minority students” instead of “students of color”? Will you move from one to the other as soon as Hispanic students make up a plurality of the population?

    1. Either way. Perhaps because “minority students” is the phrase that is conventionally used by the administrations of many universities, and within a lot of the extant literature on these topics.

      1. Thanks for explaining. I understand now. So you’re just going along with standard practice (all the while recognizing that the term is US-centric).

  4. In Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, he makes the point that African American students spend much, much more time on their studies than other groups while producing worse outcomes. He marshalls significant social science work to describe the idea of stereotype threat or negative performance bias that causes members of a group to perform worse because they have been told they will perform worse. If you accept his argument, expecting excellent performance from members of any group where there is wide spread belief that they will perform poorly is basically impossible (or at best very difficult to achieve). One of his proposed remedies is more direct attention from professors.

    1. I think that there is real work that can be done which can have real impacts on the problem you describe. But it’s another case where I think the economic and moral logic of a guaranteed minimum income or similar mechanism is clear: the way that black people are conditioned to believe in their own propensity for failure has to stem, in large part, from being exposed to poverty in vastly disproportionate numbers.

  5. Thanks, Freddie. I’m not sure what I’m advocating (beyond a slightly more charitable view of Shirky) is more fair. Only that my own experience as an educator of K-16, in the many, many venues (from a impoverished, rural central school, to a research institution, to satellite programs appended to a community college), and my experience with “elite” students from wealthy parents all the way to the economically marginalized, suggests that if the Golden Age isn’t coming back, then I’m not sure why the elite educational (socio-economic) opportunity afforded to some has to come at everyone else’s expense (because that demand will go somewhere). I don’t think that’s what you’re suggesting should happen, but I see that as a natural outcome if that faculty Shirky’s addressing doesn’t get involved. And, who knows? Getting that faculty involved could cut both ways; codifying the elite opportunity or expanding educational opportunity.

    John Warner, I’m tempted to tell you to go …. whatever. Credentialing is part of what we do. It’s the nasty, undeniable, underbelly of what we do. Go ahead. Make the argument that a professional graduate education isn’t a union card, and an undergrad education isn’t angled for that. I want to read it.

    1. I was imprecise in my phrasing. Credentialing is obviously a byproduct of our educational system. Without it, many fewer people would be interested in following through with their educations, as evidenced by the terrible completion rate of MOOCs without credentials attached.

      What I meant to say is that Shirky treats it as if it’s the only>/i> function of education.

      When you say the “demand has to go somewhere,” I wonder what you’re seeing as the demand. The demand isn’t for education, per se, it’s for what they believe education can provide: a secure, stable life. The credential of education is obviously part of that (the ticket through the door, if you will) but it’s the process of being educated that has a far bigger impact on one’s life trajectory. The most important part of the “traditional” educational experience is in the people you meet while experiencing education. The social capital earned is far more important to the lives that graduates will ultimately lead than the credential itself. I went to graduate school because the one undergraduate professor who knew my name paved the way for my admittance. Even college dropout Mark Zuckerberg might not have made it without the good fortune of being placed with roommates who could help fund his idea that became Facebook. I imagine just about anyone who has experienced “traditional” education has similar experiences that have fundamentally changed their fortunes.

      Once people realize that education-related-product has very little actual value because it is divorced from this other part of education, no more demand. I believe this is why many people continue to make major sacrifices in order to pay for the “traditional” experience. They know it’s not just the degree that matters.

      Look at some of the shadier operators in the for-profit industry that promise credentials but can’t deliver the social capital. IMO, that’s the future if we follow Shirky’s vision.

      I’ll also say that in my experience, faculty is very involved in addressing these questions, and getting more involved all the time. They’ve been slow to react, but I see a lot of engagement out there.

  6. Great post.

    I agree with you and Matt Bruenig, but doesn’t that get close to arguing for a voucher-ized system, except with a broader basic income instead of specific education vouchers? Create a base level of beneficial outcomes, and the rest will take care of itself – people who want education will get it (or their parents will make them get it, as before compulsory public schooling), and those who don’t will find other things to do. Why even have public schools and public universities if you’ve got a good basic income?

    1. I may be missing your point, but I don’t think that necessarily follows; part of the reason for public universities in the first place, and the laws like the Morrill Act that led to them, was because there was a paucity of universities for students who wanted to attend them even if they could pay. If you don’t have the University of North Dakota (etc) you don’t have many places to spend that voucher. But then again, it doesn’t take much for me to support public expenditure for social goods, particularly when you consider what a small percentage of the funding for public Us comes from states now.

  7. Not only are Shirky’s prescriptions for the current problems in higher education seemingly incorrect in the face of the empirics, they are also based on an utterly false a priori assumption: that we CANT AFFORD IT. We should be hiring new (qualified) teachers at every level of education by the boatload, both to improve the lives of instructors but to institute at a mass level the type of personal educational experience that Freddie described in his writing classes. I have yet to see a measured argument for why our society can’t afford this.

  8. Freddie,

    When you are truly serious about this, you’ll come out for Guaranteed Income / Choose Your Boss:

    You are delivering a big fat dose of reality.

    And the big fat reality of Guaranteed Income is that conservatives have a moral notion of fairness based precisely on keeping people from taking advantage of charity.

    Now, if you read the plan, you’ll see it delivers the greatest amount of personal joy (basically dream jobs for everyone in the system) and it preaches entrepreneurism, literally encodes it into the lower class.

    Don’t confront only half of reality.

    When you put yourself behind GI/CYB it will move the discussion, until then, asking for GI with a solid work requirement is as idealist as you accuse neo-liberals of being about education.

  9. Sorry, I misread your comment. The work requirement aspect is completely bogus. We need no more evidence than Clinton’s welfare reform and how it has impacted the poor during the depression. The point isn’t for people to work, it that people do what they want to do.

    1. Please take the time to read my plan. It has nothing to do with Clinton’s welfare plan. Zero.

      1. Do you disagree it will increase consumption for recipients by 30% more than GI alone?

      2. Do you disagree it delivers “dream jobs”?

      1. For the record: I don’t think that we need any kind of work requirement, in large part because I think it’s a myth that people are only productive under immediate pecuniary incentive. I think there will be a lot of work done by people who don’t do it for their job in the conventional sense.

        1. Again, guys please take the time to read my plan.

          It is basic economics.

          Pick some number:$1oK a year. Pick any number you think can pass.

          Now then, if we do Choose Your Boss, that amounts buys at least 30%, probably more like 40% more for the recipient.

          The consumption of the poor dramatically increases under CYB and thats not something comfy white boys can discount because it isn’t their preference. You need to search your souls here, the goal of the poor is MORE CONSUMPTION, whether that is your goal or not.

          Note, Choose Your Boss isn’t what you think of a “job requirement”

          It means the musicians get to be musicians, the athletes get to be athletes, the bloggers get to be bloggers, the gardeners get to garden.

          Look, being realistic, is the whole point of your post, and after you get done making a very honest straight-forward brutal truth, you then slap on the idealist hat you just shamed others from having, and I’m asking you to be VERY HONEST.

          There’s no way GI gets done without a work requirement, BUT my plan confronts reality, and if you’d just think it through, you’ll see – GI/CYB CAN HAPPEN.

          It can win full support of Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party and the Congressional Black Caucus.

          It will DESTROY Fortune 1000 companies, it will DESTROY Wall Street.

          Just take the time to read it. Ask questions. Poke it with all your brain power.

          GI/CYB CAN HAPPEN.

          If you really care about the above, you aren’t going to let people having to Choose Your Boss – be a deal breaker.

          1. I’ve read it. There’s things I like and things I don’t. I would certainly take it over the status quo.

  10. Freddie,

    With the immense success Mitch Daniels had with moving the Indiana public sector to HSAs, I think you’ll find a strong kindred spirit with him on GI/CYB.

    It’s not actually a policy first, it’s a piece of Open Source Software, that drives the policy change.

    Most of it is off-the-shelf OSS components: store front, search, cred / feedback system, accounting, ACH clearing, etc.

    The idea is once released, people can see it live, see how they can show the work they want to do, market themselves. For buyers, it forces them to clearly articulate the work they’d like done, see who is nearby, make offers to them.

    Code first. Pass waivers for a given state, like Texas or Indiana, second.

    The idea is to kickstart the software development using CATO/AEI as message sponsors.

    My point is, there’s a Tea Party approved plan, that is far better for CBC and OWS – as you surely get – and Mitch Daniels LOVES this kind of stuff. And I can hook you up with him.

    Wanna help?

  11. I always want to ask people like Shirky: what were the very most valuable, worthwhile parts of your own education? To what extent could these be made available to more people? I think the answers would be interesting.

  12. Thing I’ve often thought: people who believe education can solve all social ills believe that because, by and large, education worked for them. Presidents, high-ranking officials, executives, pundits, public intellectuals: all of these people are high-achievers, and most of them were high-achievers in school (or at least came from a very privileged background and were only exposed to the best education experiences). If you’re a Davos Man that, by definition, means that the system worked for you, or you’ve only ever been exposed to the best aspects of the system, or both.

    So, of course they think education is great! They were one of those two or three kids in the composition class who were bright and self-motivated. They were probably the best one of that two or three. Education worked, for them. These people do not understand that, not only do we lack the societal resources to turn everyone into a great student and future app developer (or whatever the occupation-du-jour happens to be amongst the elites), but that not everyone can do that and, arguably more important, not everyone wants to do that.

  13. Been reading your posts for awhile, but this is my first comment.

    As I see it, higher education is basically a great swindle for the working class. I mean, I’m to a degree a product of the academy, and think there are plenty of reasons why higher education should exist as a social good outside of the market. However, we live in a market-based system, and it’s frankly a shitty product if the primary goal of it is to train the next generation of workers. Everything I have read suggests that prior educational (or work experience) does little to nothing to how well a worker will perform at a task. Most of productivity can be predicted by general intelligence (basically IQ) and the personality trait of conscientiousness. While the extent to which both traits are genetic versus environmental is up for debate, as you point out, by the time someone is 18 the malleability of them is pretty much done.

    Of course there are still undergraduate degrees which are essential as job training, such as engineering. But you cannot help but come to the conclusion the vast majority of college degrees amount to spending tens of thousands to write five lines on your resume. You need those five lines because everyone else you’re competing with also has them. And if you get seven lines, you’ll look that much better. Even worse, many degrees have directly supplanted the earlier job training method of apprenticeship, where the onus was on the employer to assure a starting worker would be up to skiff. Thus there’s a tremendous, multi-generational concession going on.

    I am confident now this one aspect will collapse in the next few decades however. I’ve read an increasing number of articles about the use of “big data” to find “people metrics.” Basically this tests people’s intelligence and reliability, and makes the social signalling of degrees for job training irrelevant. Although it’s still in its infancy, it ultimately threatens to make most credentialing (except where required by law) irrelevant. Although it will lead to a massive reduction of higher education as a side effect, what’s left behind will be either things students actually are interested in, or which provide real skill training, so it can’t be seen as a major loss.

    1. Of course, there’s every reason to believe that those definitions of intelligence and reliability will reflect the social and cultural biases of the people who generate them, leading to an even more retrenched and ossified economy where people from the wrong backgrounds are systematically denied entry because they perform poorly on those metrics.

      1. I agree it may be fraught with its own problems and biases. However, one must think that a job placement system which will stop forcing people to spend massive amounts of money on functionally useless job training is a trade up. And while I’m highly skeptical of meritocracy in general (as I said below), many people would see it a step forward that the lazy, stupid, and somewhat rich wouldn’t have a built in leg up on those who couldn’t afford such prestigious social signaling. And people stop getting jobs just because the interviewer went to the same college =)

        IMHO though, once you’re dealing with computerized metrics it’s pretty unlikely personal bias will go into intelligence and reliability. The way I understand it works is they look into what traits productive workers have first, and then apply the associations afterwards. That said, there are two big social and cultural biases to begin with – the definition of “productivity” and of “work” itself. But those are inherent to the capitalist system.

  14. On another note, your main point here edges around something I hate with the education fallacy and modern liberalism. Liberals endorse meritocracy in principle, they just see the current system as not actually being meritocratic. But if we could wave a magic wand tomorrow, and make sure the “undeserving rich” and “deserving poor” switched places, would the world be more just? I’d say not, given there would be a lot of inequality and misery still. If we got rid of all environmental reasons that made it so some poor people couldn’t succeed, nothing would be left but heredity to determine who couldn’t achieve. But what’s fair about consigning people to poverty just because they got the genetic short end of the stick? Similarly, if you could construct a world where people rose to the top solely due to natural talents – why should they be rewarded? Either things are literally easier for them because they are smarter, and/or they inherited a good work ethic.
    A lot of my other socialist friends get uncomfortable when I talk like this. For example, all information I have seen shows that upper and upper middle class people on average do have higher IQs than working class people (basically, income tracks strongly with IQ, but inherited wealth does not). We can argue what degree IQ is genetic (although it seems like it mostly is from twin studies). We can also argue that it doesn’t accurately measure real intelligence. But it correlates quite well with academic and financial success, and it’s pretty impervious to positive change as an adult.
    The problem is, people seem to jump to the conclusion if you admit the average hedge fund manager is smarter than the average janitor that you’re implicitly saying that the hedge fund managers are better people, and they deserve their ludicrous earnings. They seem to think you can only justify socialism if you think the benefactors of the capitalist class are all “undeserving,” and functionally no smarter than the proles they exploit. IMHO this is the disease of liberalism which has infected the left – because presumably if you’re actually a socialist, it shouldn’t matter if the capitalist class are mainly dullards who lucked into money or those who lucked into a talent seeing trends and building relationships. The problem is one of control and subjugation, not one of deservedness.

    1. I’m not qualified to weigh in usefully on the topic of IQ. But I will happily say that I find the idea of meritocracy theoretically incoherent and practically impossible, and I wish we would drop it as a concept.

      I mean, the most important point for me is that human life is so incredibly multivariate that there is no ability to adequately parse whose success is the product of merit and whose is the product of chance or advantage. But suppose we could. As a friend of mine says, if “natural talent” of whatever nature really is intrinsic and unequally distributed, then the value capture by that attribute is a rent that should be fairly taxed at 100%.

      1. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one thinking about the genetic lottery and that sometimes life can be really unfair! At first I was a bit put off by Frederik’s discussion of unequal “abilities”, but all was forgiven once I got to basic income. People are good at different things, and maybe not everyone can be good at something but at least 99% can. (Maybe 1% have severe cognitive impairment that prevents them from living independently.)

        Within that 99% a lot of them are just bad at school. But a) school is not the same as a job and b) not all jobs are useful to everyone, so why is school so important anyway if it won’t necessarily make you good at a job that might not even be “useful”.

        Bringing us to basic income. Yay! Go Switzerland! Go Milton Friedman! Just give people money this doesn’t have to be so complicated!

          1. Disagree – there is still an incentive to work even if it is not required – provided that people continue to feel incentivized by material wealth (or simply the act of labor, which, in moderation is inherently rewarding). So let’s give people the freedom to do what they want with their lives whether or not they satisfy popular conceptions of ‘work’ or ‘productivity’.

  15. You could also make the analogy to exercise. Online classes are comparable to to home exercise equipment, which is rusting in homes across the country. Just like autodidacts, there are a minority who will use them regularly. But to get into competitive shape, few people can do it without a personal coach. In this case, there is also a very broad range of abilities, and those who are in poor shape will require more attention.

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