The inertia of the suburbs

The Girlfriend and I have been watching The Wonder Years lately, and it’s striking how generic the setting is — if not for references to news events in the late 1960s, it could be any time period from 1965 to the late 1990s (and I only posit that cut-off point because of the advent of the internet). The suburban model that was built out starting in the immediate postwar era has proven to be remarkably resilient, and even now it has a kind of self-evidence as the “mainstream” American approach to family and community life.

In the immediate postwar years, it seems as though there was a level of “buy-in” across the population, as the prospect of one’s own house, a car, etc., seemed like wonderful luxuries. By now, however, the suburban model has shown itself to be costly, environmentally destructive, and in many cases isolating and community-destroying. Further, the concentration of good schools in the suburbs perpetuates an ongoing vicious cycle of “white flight” that reinforces the systemic racism of our society. And as the financial crisis revealed, the aspiration to suburban middle class status increasingly carries the risk of financial ruin.

More and more people are realizing all of this and don’t want to buy into the suburban model — yet except for the very wealthy, there seems to be no real choice for middle class people if you want to have children. And the reason for this surprising persistence of a model that no one really wants anymore is the power of state planning. Even if the population could be initially convinced to want suburban-style development, the decisive factor was a concentrated effort on all levels of government to create all the necessary conditions for that lifestyle, through physical and legal infrastructure and often through explicit subsidies (such as the mortgage interest tax deducation, which seems to be invulnerable). All of the stuff they created in that heroic era of American urban planning is still in place. The roads and schools have been built, and the legal structures for expanding suburban development if needed are already in place and ready to go. All the incentives for middle-class families still point outward into the suburbs.

While reading about the ongoing disaster of education “reform,” I once thought: “What if cities stopped trying to attract tourists and started trying to gain permanent residents by creating awesome schools?” As I thought about what that would entail, however, it became clear that no one city has the resources to fully reverse the trend — to really work, it would have to entail a complete reshaping of the school funding structures, a build-out of public transportation infrastructure to support the expanded population, etc., etc. In other words, it would take forceful state planning on the model of what created the suburbs in the first place.

Unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. only had one relatively brief window for such forceful state planning, extending from FDR to Nixon (only 40 years out of the 200+ of the Republic’s existence) — and it wasted it on the suburbs. Barring a new FDR, we’re probably stuck with it. The bright side, I guess, is that The Wonder Years will remain legible and relatable for generations to come.

It’s the economy, stupid!

The New York Times editorial on education from this morning’s paper is better than one might expect, insofar as it compares the US system to other more successful countries rather than postulating that completely untried systems such as vouchers and charter schools will automatically fix things, but there’s still a persistent blindspot, as illustrated in this paragraph:

Teachers in leading nations’ schools also teach much less than ours do. High school teachers provide 1,080 hours per year of instruction in America, compared with fewer than 600 in South Korea and Japan, where the balance of teachers’ time is spent collaboratively on developing and refining lesson plans. These countries also have much stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students’ social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for teachers to focus on their academic needs. These elements create a virtuous cycle: strong academic performance leads to schools with greater autonomy and more public financing, which in turn makes education an attractive profession for talented people.

Emphasis added. Of course, there is literally no follow-up on the highlighted sentence. Read the rest of this entry »

MOOCs and “The Great Books”

Shimer’s president, Susan Henking, linked this morning to an interesting, if cranky article on the Great Books. The author makes the obvious, if oft-overlooked, point that the Great Books approach is hardly the bulwark against relativism that conservatives make it out to be — rather, in presenting all the Great Books of the Western tradition as equally valid options, it directly inculcates the relativism that conservatives decry. This is actually what I was partly trying to get at, albeit from the opposite direction, in my essay on the Shimer pedagogy, where I basically argue that the reason Great Books are so Great is that they are endlessly discussable.

What really interested me in the article, though, is this historical point: Read the rest of this entry »

What is education actually for?

Among readers of this blog, I’m confident that there is a consensus on what education is not for: namely, it is not exclusively for job preparation. While working is part of life and education has to contribute to that, I doubt that anyone here is willing to say that education should be geared solely toward work.

That said, then, what is it actually for? Read the rest of this entry »

What is the business model for online education?

I should be clear: I believe that online education has only a very narrow ideal application (i.e., for literal shut-ins or for people stuck in Antarctica). There are more than enough classrooms and instructors to go around nearly everywhere in the US — indeed, colleges are constantly building new satellite campuses to compete with each other. The only benefit is an economic one, namely to create economies of scale. Yet every single credible piece of evidence in higher education research strongly supports the (completely intuitive) idea that high-quality education simply cannot be “scaled up.” Education is something that’s best carried out with some balance between small groups and one-on-one contact with an instructor.

Now it’s not as though most universities are following the ideal practice in any case. Large lecture classes are already essentially “distance learning.” So just from a totally cynical standpoint, one could begin to discuss whether the economic gains are likely to be enough to make up for the loss in quality of an already low-quality model (i.e., the large lecture class that remains a staple of mainstream higher ed despite the overwhelming evidence against its efficacy).

Let’s begin by bracketing the question of whether the money saved is likely to be well-spent — that’s pretty much a lost cause. But even if we start from the proposition that increasing revenue is an unalloyed good in itself, it’s still unclear how online education is supposed to do that. Read the rest of this entry »

The reverse invisible hand

As we all know, capitalist accumulation is guided by the “invisible hand,” which ensures that the selfish and short-sighted choices of individual capitalists fit together into a beneficial whole that promotes long-term wealth-creation for all. What’s less well known is that for workers, the situation is reversed: their self-interested decisions add up to create a situation that is more and more disadvantageous for workers as a whole. Examples abound. On the individual level, taking an unpaid internship can give one a leg up on the competition — on the whole, it creates a situation where more and more work is being done on an unpaid basis, so that there are fewer slots available for paid workers. On the individual level, increased social mobility through education can help one to escape from a poverty and deprivation — on the whole, it waters down the competitive advantage of education while creating ever-greater competition for the handful of positions near the top of the heap. On the individual level, prudential advice about self-presentation and interviewing technique can increase one’s odds of getting a job — on the whole, such advice only increases the legibility of the applicant pool, while doing nothing about the underlying ratio of applicants to jobs. Etc., etc., etc.

Globally, workers are caught up in a perpetual arms race. They must work harder and harder, they must come pre-trained, they must be flexible and ready to nimbly switch careers as market forces dictate — and never ask why, never ask who’s actually benefiting from this regime of work that is making everyone anxious and miserable. Similarly, these habits of thought allow us to build social policy on an individualistic basis, as though the real crime in social inequality is that the most talented members of the underclass might go to waste. No one asks, meanwhile, why less prestigious jobs, which are presumably just as socially necessary, should “naturally” carry with them a lower quality of life, nor why the social ladder upon which we must all be allowed the “equal opportunity” to climb should be structured in just the way it is.

The long game

Many liberals hold the view that on “culture war” issues, they can simply wait out the conservatives. Inevitably, younger people who grow up around openly gay people, for instance, will be more accepting of homosexuality, while the more conservative older cohort will eventually just die off. Any step forward on liberal cultural issues is welcome, but none is a make or break — victories reinforce the inertia that is already working in favor of the liberal position, but no particular victory is ever strictly necessary.

This view doesn’t seem to be entirely unjustified. There are many examples of a forcible reassertion of “traditional values” throughout history, but the extreme measures required in those cases highlight the strength of cultural inertia. Barring a radical Christian junta seizing control of the United States and imposing “biblical law” or something, liberal confidence in the power of inertia seems reasonable.

A similar calm confidence attends another cultural presupposition of our time: that all of life should and inevitably will become a market. Read the rest of this entry »

A Great Authors curriculum

A strange thought occurred to me: what would the “Great Books” curriculum look like if it was restructured around a “Great Authors” principle? That is, it wouldn’t be a matter of picking out the most exceptional or useful works to build a curriculum, but of picking out a handful of authors, whose works would be read in full (or as close as possible). What would it look like to provide a plausible education in such a format?

One major change is that the “Stockholm Syndrome” approach that one will often favor in introducing students to new texts (i.e., read as charitably as possible, construe the arguments as strongly as possible, etc.) would be unsustainable. Let’s say you chose Freud, for instance — you couldn’t start from a “Freud is always right unless we’re really, really sure he isn’t” position, because Freud changes his mind too much. After a certain point, it’s no longer about figuring out “what Freud thinks,” but about figuring out the persistent problems that he’s responding to. If students could come to that point, they might arguably have a more lively grasp of what’s at stake in psychology than if they had a sampling of several authors’ views.

Or maybe not. In any case: Who would you choose? And keep in mind that I’m from a less strictly orthodox Great Books school, so you’re allowed to pick contemporary authors and, more generally, there’s no requirement of overtowering obviousness. (In my view, the only author who would be totally non-negotiable is Kafka.)

Algebra Abolitionism

There’s a pretty compelling argument in the New York Times this morning that requiring algebra (and higher math more broadly) of all students is unnecessary and even detrimental. The author reports that discouragement about math is the top academic contributor to drop-out rates, and I’m sure all of us have learned the dirty secret by now: virtually no one solves quadratic equations in the workplace.

I say this as someone who was always good at math — in fact, I often regret not continuing on with Calc II in college, and I’ll occasionally read up on math for fun. (A few years ago, for instance, I read David Berlinski’s Tour of the Calculus, which tied up a major loose end for me: why integrals and derivatives cancel each other out. I guess we would’ve gotten to that in Calc II.) To me, it seems to make more sense to make such topics available and let people with natural aptitude and inclination find their way to it, rather than drilling it into everyone.

What do you think, readers?

A sincere question

It seems to me that in popular discourse, education is uniquely susceptible to instrumentalization as compared with other quality of life issues. Getting a job is seemingly the sole horizon within which education can be discussed — even humanities scholars continually exhort each other to “make the case” that their graduates actually have the most valuable job skills of all, etc., etc. There are more “idealistic” visions of education that tend to place it within the context of democratic citizenship, but that is just a larger-scale vision of practical instrumentalization. There just doesn’t seem to be room in mainstream discourse for someone to say, “Being educated improves and enriches every part of life, not just your work life.”

Now it’s clear that people need skills and jobs and that education should help to serve that end. Yet to understand how strange it is for that to be the sole focus, let us consider another quality of life issue: health care. Read the rest of this entry »

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