Money Talks. (Now will it please be quiet?)

The idea that 4-year college degrees and liberal arts curricula waste students’ time and money, which I’ve lately been writing about in this blog,  is definitely spreading among those who seem most easily to get media exposure.  The recent words of Bill Gross, one of the country’s most revered bond investors,  have been heard across the land. The claims made in his company “Investment Outlook” column for July 2011, titled “School Daze, School Daze,” have been picked up widely by the business press. I saw them cited yesterday in a Philadelphia Inquirer business column piece about my own university,  “PhillyDeal: Drexel University Plans to Redirect its Expansion” (in which they were, happily for me, roundly contradicted by Drexel’s President John Fry). […and thanks to Scott Knowles for sharing the Inky article.]

When I looked into Gross’ original statement on the PIMCO (his firm) website, I went back to being unhappy. As have others in the last few months, Gross found “facts” that militate against providing the familiar college experience for many Americans. He writes off college as something that, even in a thriving economy, did little for the minds of those who attended:

…a degree represented that the graduate could “party hearty” for long stretches of time and establish social networking skills that would prove invaluable later at office cocktail parties or interactively via Facebook.

–Bill Gross, July 2011

In the face of the “erosion of our manufacturing base” going on today,  Gross sees the traditional comprehensive undergraduate immersion serving largely as a “vacation” for young people that does them, and the economy, little good. He says it is time to do away with the “stultifying and outdated”  idea of widespread enrollment in 4-year curricula. He would steer the nation towards “technical education and apprenticeship programs instead of liberal arts.”

Gross is playing an unfortunate zero-sum game with higher ed, perhaps counting the hours in the school day and finding that there just isn’t time for the seeming luxury of  humanities education.  But for a clever guy who is not entirely closed to hybrid solutions [see below],  he’s being notably uncreative here. For one thing, project-based technical learning,  centered on interdisciplinary blends of liberal arts and STEM content, is seen by many educators as the most powerful instructional approach to come along in years.  John Fry, for one,  seems to think that’s the case. He’d find  plenty of folks involved with Liberal Education at the American Society for Engineering Education to back him up, too.

In his column, Gross corrects a common error in discussions of America’s so-called lost manufacturing jobs by noting that  “high tech paragons”  like Apple, Microsoft, and Google “never were employers of high school or B.A. college graduates in significant numbers,” having sought offshore workers for hardware manufacture all along.  He also, unusually, supports a larger role for government in seeding job creation and providing job preparation for Americans:

In times of extremis, pushing on the private sector string is ineffective…Government must temporarily assume a bigger, not a smaller role in this economy, if only because other countries are dominating job creation with kick-start policies that eventually dominate global markets…

–Bill Gross, July 2011

Along these lines, citing economics and policy writer Fareed Zakaria, Gross calls for something like a new G.I. Bill focused on  “mid-tech” skills that will boost employment and productivity in the nation.  I share that belief in a larger role for government in higher ed,  but not the lowered bar.

If Gross feels that money rather than time is the problem, consider this point I’ve made before: Maximizing (rather than shrinking) opportunities for intellectual development among America’s citizens, opportunities historically provided by our institutions of higher learning,  may only seem fiscally imprudent  because we have to keep paying instead for things like wars, corporate tax-cuts and other publicly funded  undertakings that bring little long-term economic benefit.

But here’s something I haven’t really thought about before. This kind of wholesale indictment of the humanities and liberal arts in American higher education is downright nihilistic: With any perspective at all, we can see that it dismisses hundreds of thousands of hours that Americans of every class, ethnic background,  national origin, and political persuasion have spent in college classrooms, for the last 250 years, learning and thinking about human culture. To say these hours were wasted suggests a  spectacular and possibly tragic failure of imagination.

…and a failure of self-knowledge: Gross himself holds a psychology degree from Duke University (a school to which he has donated millions).  He now refers to this as his “own four year vacation.”  Does he really think his business acumen, understanding of world market behaviors, communication skills and (yes, we must say it) wide social influence today, what we might fairly call his own “social networking skills,”  have nothing to do with the things he learned as a young person at that institution? In “School Daze” Gross describes “professorial tenure” as something that stands in the way of improved productivity for the country…but I’m guessing his education at Duke included more tenured professors than adjuncts and teaching faculty.  And who exactly does he thinks generates the scientific and technical knowledge, the IP,  on which so much corporate R&D in the U.S. now relies? Adjunct instructors? Graduate teaching assistants? Nope: Tenured university professors  (absolutely all of whom started out by getting four-year bachelor’s degrees, not training as apprentices, let us add…).

Perhaps it is a case of the critic speaking about others.  Perhaps Gross feels that his talents and interests deserved the cultivation a superb college education delivered, but those of others  do not. We can’t be sure because like so many other who offer these recommendations, Gross doesn’t offer his criteria for which young people should pursue “good technical skills but limited college education.”

If  anti-higher-ed ideas like Gross’ are going to perpetuate among those of wealth and influence in our country, I’d like a little clarification, please: College is worthless…for which of us, exactly? If proponents of a diminished world of university education make that part of their thinking explicit, I think we might hear more objections from the individuals and communities consigned to mid-tech training.

Better yet, perhaps these short-sighted, elitist, and altogether less-than-constructive visions for America’s higher ed need not be shared at all.

Our Borders, Ourselves?: Rethinking China’s Test Scores

Be Afraid: China’s “stellar” performance on recent standardized tests, described in yesterday’s New York Times (“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators,” by Sam Dillon), is apparently another sign that America is being “out-educated.”  We are at our very own “Sputnik” moment, President Obama tells us, our nation once again threatened by the academic attainments of another.  Only a vast increase in our educational efforts (and in our anxiety, apparently), can correct this dire situation, according to a host of  commentators who have lately weighed in on the matter. Disaster looms: The Test Scores Prove It.

It’s pretty much axiomatic that where standardized test results are invoked for political purposes, arguments will be reductive.  And if we already suspected that the prevailing Sinophobia was about as well thought out as a toddler’s tantrum, last week the writers of “The Office” confirmed it: Can anyone seriously hold onto a geopolitical perspective once  it’s come from the mouth of the supremely illogical, trend-riding, Newsweek-wielding, Michael Scott?

Unfortunately, in the real world of STEM education, sound bites about our national science and math deficiencies continue to inhibit creative reform. We are our own worst enemies.

First, how much of this political fretting about U.S. intellectual inadequacy relative to China, India and other economically rising nations has included plans to implement the steps that educators know would improve math and science education in America? For example,  vastly increasing teachers’ training opportunities and salaries, expanding public school budgets and facilities, and instituting rewards for post-secondary STEM faculty who make teaching their priority?  Hand waving and furrowed brows we have, meaningful interventions, not so much…I guess the tax hikes such reforms would require are even scarier than China’s growing mental might.

 Second, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, citing David Sirota’s  insightful commentary,  those who most anxiously demand a more highly skilled American workforce almost universally omit any mention of the powerful disincentives that global wage structures (the worldwide “race to the bottom”),  including American policies that support the outsourcing of industrial labor, offer to just this sort of educational expansion on our own shores.  President Obama’s way too smart to have missed the connection here but he apparently fears to tread on corporate toes by calling those policies into question; sadly, the more tidily packaged White House jobs and training  initiatives become (“Skills For America’s Future”? As opposed to what?),  the more I worry about that reluctance.

Finally, the idea that China’s educational growth is best framed as a problem for America (or at the very least, a “wake-up call,” according to Arne Duncan)  is downright depressing.  Not only are Cold War-worthy nationalistic sentiments fueled with these kinds of comparisons (“It’s our brains against theirs!”), with not a small racial element easily following on that fear (“It’s our brains against THEIRS!?”) …but any vision of collective innovation or shared scientific priorities among nations is also completely suppressed.  We have our brains, they have theirs.  Promoting trade linkages is one thing, but intellectual collectivities across countries, let alone hemispheres?  Too touchy-feely, too retro, too soft for a time when America’s military-industrial powers are “at risk.”

No coincidence, of course,  that science-based challenges like sustainable production, a halt to global warming, worldwide health improvements, and a reduction in world hunger (all of which would  realign flows of global capital and power) would best be met through concerted multi-nation address.   Sorry: There will be no team projects on this syllabus.

But even from a less radical ideological stance,  global scientific competition just seems like such a stale idea, no? So 20th century! Instead, I wonder: Why not throw a big, inclusive, pot-luck Invention Party for brains both Chinese and American? What about massive student and teacher exchanges?  Global summits for excited 8th graders, or innovative engineers, or creative public health experts, or start-uppers and garage tinkerers of all nations?  

Of course, we have vast differences in our national values and interests; China’s STEM attainments are achieved in a society less open than our own.  Industrial capitalism shakes out with a huge variety of undemocratic results; we can chart these in every nation where it has been tried and they are of course not all equivalent.  Very messy stuff, morally: As Scott Gabriel Knowles wrote recently after a visit to Shanghai’s World Expo, modernization today is, as it always has been, all things to all cultures as each strives to sustain its own cultural priorities, 2010’s globally shared ideals of material accumulation and flourishing financial networks notwithstanding.  

But can’t we imagine scientific and technological activity, approached carefully, critically, and equitably, transcending some of this nation-centered self-interest?  If math and science have any progressive social potential at all (and yes, that’s a big “if”),  surely earnest transnational exchanges could nurture that potential, no? Couldn’t our governments, universities and even corporate R&D labs try to pool global capacities for discovery and invention, rather than just insistently sorting and delineating which nation does what better? Perhaps using the heightened educational attainments of a given nation as a shared benchmark, for shared educational and knowledge-creating goals? 

 Probably not. Because as the many very worried voices in the Times piece show, that’s not really why such standardized testing regimes come to be. Because that’s not why we quantify and rank educational achievements. Because the whole idea of collaboration and the pursuit of mutual good is no more likely for nations comparing their standardized test scores than for high schoolers.  It’s every brain for itself.