Monday, March 29, 2010

Repost: On the future of education

I'm looking forward to reading DIY U by Anya Kamanetz (the author who brought us Generation Debt), after reading her interview in Salon. The letters section was at times insightful, often rancorous, and sometimes displayed the worst fruits of our current education system. I tried to step in. I figure there are some half-baked ideas in here that might be useful with a bit more time in the oven, so I'm republishing it here.

The broad themes of the letters so far

Techno-utopianism: iTunes U is gonna be great! All Web 3.0, social networked and Twitterfied, with courses straight off YouTube and papers submitted to

Class warfare: Online classes are just going to be one more way for the elites to screw the working class, the way prestigious universities are now.

My job has value dammit! Mostly from cranky academic types who seem to think very poorly of the students they teach.

Kids these days: with their cell phones and their whining and their stupid, piggish faces.

Adults these days: with their lazy teaching and arbitrary grading and ridiculous salaries for telling me stuff that I could just google if I was actually interested.

Techno-dystopianism: Online classes suck. They started sucking in 1998 and will keep right on sucking until the heat death of the universe, and by the way The University of Phoenix is a perfect vacuum of suck.

It sounds like we have all the stakeholders in the room, but we're just talking past each other. I'm going to try to pull an Obama and solve the problem by throwing money at it^W^W^W^W^W^W^W^W set up a common framework for the problem.

Threatened academic types: Your work does have value. But the system you work within is crippled by high costs that make your work inaccessible to many Americans, and -- given the amount of debt racked up in obtaining an education -- downright dangerous to some. We need to find ways to make your knowledge more available and allow your teaching skills to reach more people. I think technology is going to be a big part of the solution.

I doubt that anything can replace the student/teacher interaction, but technology could be used to free up your time, so you can spend it guiding specific students with specific problems.

Until the technology matures, do your students a favor and start looking for free/open source textbooks that are relevant to your classwork. You could save your students a bundle.

Online coursework haters: The online experience is only going to become more and more effective at delivering education. Those who mock the quality of online education today are repeating the mistakes of those who mocked the online shopping experience twelve years ago. Both groups look at the deficiencies of the current experience, and project them into the distant future.

Students: If you expect education to be effortless and entertaining, you're going to be disappointed. The process of rewiring your brain to take advantage of the collective wisdom of ten thousand years of human culture and civilization is an agonizing process. Nor can you expect your degree to magically grant you an exciting, fulfilling job. Life is hard, maybe harder than it ought to be, and moving classes online isn't going to change that.

I believe that 90% of the secret to happiness is learning to manage your own expectations. The other 10% is Super Monkey Ball.

Student haters: Look, we as a society have overpromised and underdelivered the future to the next generation. Grade school teachers have long motivated kids by pretending they were teaching to a room full of future presidents and astronauts. Our consumption-soaked culture has promised everyone a big house, an SUV, and if I'm parsing the subtext of commercials correctly, sex with Beyonce.

That overpromising is especially cruel to people who have drawn the short stick in the great circular firing squad of life. But it keeps people hungry, dissatisfied, and willing to work, and therefore serves our corporate masters well. Okay, starting to ramble back there. The point is, we need to build an education system that can deliver on those promises, and $8500 a semester will not do.

Yes, students need to curb their expectations and be willing to put in hard work. But as educators, you are responsible for ensuring that the education system rewards their best efforts, guides them toward the values and habits that will serve them in their later life, and doesn't cripple them with debt straight out of the gate. Right now, the education system doesn't do any of those things particularly well, and as the people who make education what it is, you need to do some self-reflection.

Class warfarers: I think the diploma-based reputation system of the past will soon be at an end. It was the best we could do with the 18th-century technology at hand. But as The Sacrosanct Sheepskin is replaced with a more nuanced, competency-based reputation system, the value of "prestige" is going to tumble. Who cares about the quality of the instruction a student received, if objective benchmarks show that he can't do what he was taught?

Note: This isn't the first time I've whinged on Salon about education.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"The line of grace now has to be horizontal"

Before Glenn Beck singlehandedly poured gasoline on his career and set it on fire, Van Jones was Obama's Green Jobs Czar.* Now, after being drummed out of the executive branch for the sin of, well, having a past wherein he said and did things, he's moved on. But he gave a very interesting interview to Grist. A couple of paragraphs really jumped out at me:

It used to be, as you went through these stages in your life, you could go to the next town and start over. The only person you were accountable to besides yourself was, if you were a person of faith, God. The line of grace was vertical, between you and your creator. Now, in this age of YouTube and Google, all of us are leaving digital bread crumbs behind of the person we used to be. Anything you do or say, some silly thing you did at a college party if somebody had a cell-phone camera, can be seen by everybody, forever. You can know more than you ever wanted to know about pretty much anybody.

It requires more wisdom of society. The line of grace now has to be horizontal. We have to learn how to forgive each other and extend a certain amount of empathy as we all grow up in front of each other. At some point, there'll be enough people who have had these "gotcha" experiences, and we'll hit a tipping point. We'll have a different level of tolerance. But it's too early. We're still too new to this, we don't have the language, customs, and rituals to be able to handle all this stupid stuff we can learn about each other.

I'm not hopeful about the prospects of developing the language and rituals. When everything you do is etched into ones and zeros, your whole past becomes, well, present. If anyone holds a grudge against another person, they can find plenty of fuel around to feed their discontent. If someone wants to tarnish a reputation, Google will lead them right to whatever they need.

If we cannot forget, are we even capable of forgiving? Maybe forgetting is a critical part of the forgiveness process.

Tired. Need to think on this. Byes.

* Technically a made-up title bestowed on him by the media.

A few health care talking points

Reposted from a Yahoo News comment, in reply to the following:
ATTENTION: Attention, all you progressive, liberal, democrat, "pretend-no-one-has-to-pay-for-anythings!!! Attention all you "the-government-will-make-my-life-better-for-me-so-I-don't-have-to-actually-be-responsible" democrat sheep!!! Try this exercise, PLEASE: STEP 1. Go back to the very beginning of these comments and read each comment and look at the votes on the postings. STEP 2. Do some SIMPLE math (you should not need your congressman to do simple math for you, right?) STEP 3. Realize that THESE very votes here--that are KILLING Obama and progressive comments--are a fore-taste of the votes you will be seeing in the next two election cycles!! RESULT: Bye-bye Democrats!!! Bye Bye One-term President!! READ the numbers and weep--you got SOCIALISM and HEALTH CARE for those who do not work and do not pay into the "system' BUT--and it is a BIG BUT: the government running it will RUIN it very quickly for the POOR and ILLEGALS TOO, AND, best of all, there is no recovery now for GUARANTEEING the dems LOSSES by this vote and government take-over.... Read the votes and WEEP!!!

Here's what I wrote back:
A few points, in no particular order:

* Yahoo is no substitute for a properly sampled, well framed survey of public opinion.

* If any party "pretends no one has to pay for anything", it is the party that A) went to war (twice) without raising the taxes needed to pay for it (twice!), B) passed two mammoth tax cuts without making the spending cuts to match it, and C) passed the highly popular prescription drug benefit without passing any unpopular tax increases to pay for it. A,B,and C were all Republican initiatives.

* Illegal aliens do not qualify for insurance subsidies under Obama's plan.

* In prior years, before Obama stole the idea, the right wing was happy with the idea of having an individual mandate to purchase health insurance. Mitt Romney was a fan (and signed an individual mandate into law as governor of Massachusetts. The American Enterprise Institute (also no haven of socialism) also supported the idea.

* Polls have shown that the better people understand the health care plan, the more likely they are to like it. They have also shown that Massachusetts' Obamacare/Romneycare plan is far more popular now than when it was being passed into law.

* Honestly, the differences between Obama's plan and Romney's plan are small. In other words, only a few years ago, it was considered centrist enough that a Republican governor could put his signature to it. Now, a very similar plan is socialist?

* Prior to the passage of the main bill, most polls showed the country split on health care reform, with about a quarter of the people who opposed it being disappointed that it wasn't more "socialist" (e.g., no public option or single payer). Polling also showed that a great many of the individual elements of the plan had 80% or 90% support. So you insult my intelligence when you pretend that the will of the American people has been thwarted.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The R word

Reposted from a Boing Boing comment

The math and the history makes exact figures difficult, but the idea behind reparations is simple: Because of preferential treatment in the past, one group of people has a position of advantage over another today. Therefore, simply ending the practices that led to the advantage isn't enough.

In pre-Civil War American South, blacks were forced to spend their lives building up the wealth of others, rather than wealth for themselves. After the Civil War, well, same thing.

When the federal government gave away the bulk of the Midwest to homesteaders (and think of the amount of wealth that represents), almost no blacks benefited.

Then, when the government gave millions of WWII vets a free education through the GI Bill, black veterans had a difficult time taking advantage of the gift. The military had been desegregated, but the colleges had not.

So even if we could call ourselves a post-racial society today (we can't), some people would be entering the era of equality as unequals. Poverty is very easy to pass onto one's children, easier than wealth in some ways.

Honestly, I don't believe that formal reparations are the answer. But I think that we as a nation make only token efforts to help poor Americans prosper, or to try to include them in society. If that ever changes, I think the calls for reparations would disappear.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Are Health Savings Accounts the answer?

Indiana governor Mitch Daniels brags in the Wall Street Journal about his state's health savings account program. I'm basically undecided on the issue, but given that there were almost zero criticisms of HSAs in the comments, I just had to be the voice of discontent.

My comment:

It seems to me that health savings accounts are just another way for healthier, wealthier, younger people to partly remove themselves from insurance pools, raising premiums for those who remain. Also, I'm completely unconvinced by Daniels' claim that HSA participants aren't generating their savings in part by going without important medical care.

For those of you claiming that Obama is only skeptical of HSAs because "he loves statism," please read a bit of how HSA opponents actually think. Also, congressional testimony of another skeptic.

Numerous studies indicate that, while consumers who bear a greater proportion of their medical costs use less health services, they are almost as likely to pass on medically necessary procedures as they are on wasteful ones. I'm sure a doctor or nurse would make an outstandingly savvy consumer of health services. The rest of us, not so much.

I do have to congratulate WSJ for having an unusually high-quality comments section. Yes, it's 95% free-marketeers, but they're articulate, and seem to be managing their ODS pretty well.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


"The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace, and conspire against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy. I see in the near future a crisis that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned. An era of corruption will follow, and the money power will endeavor to prolong it's reign by preying upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated into a few hands and the Repubic is destroyed."

- Abraham Lincoln Some guy impersonating Abraham Lincoln

From this we learn 1) that Lincoln was a broody guy, 2) that Republican party today doesn't resemble the Party of Lincoln in the least, and 3) that ours is an endless struggle.

Update: Never mind. The quote is a fraud. I mean, it's a danged good quote, but there is no evidence that it has anything to do with Lincoln.