A Course Everyone Should Take

Students often come to college with their own set of impressions about the people in the world around them, whether they’ve ever personally interacted with those people or not.  That’s not a criticism of college students, it’s a reality of modern life.  We all live in our own little worlds, and we form impressions about what others might be like based on the news that we allow to filter into our bubbles.

img_20180526_130448But what if people tried to get out of their bubbles and actually meet some of the people they’ve formed impressions about, to see what their lives are like and experience their worlds?  That’s what the Harvard Institute of Politics tried to accomplish with something called the Main Street Project.  The goal was to get Harvard students, most of whom hailed from the coasts, out into places in flyover country where they could meet real people who live and work in the heartland.  The group of students visited towns in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, saw people working at their jobs, and went to the restaurants where the locals go.  They stayed in bed and breakfasts owned by locals, traveled in a van, and took the back roads.  In the process, they even met a few Trump voters and went to a gun range where women were engaged in some vigorous target practice.

As one of the organizers wrote:  “Even though these kids had almost all been raised in the United States, our journey sometimes felt like an anthropology course, as though they were seeing the rest of the country for the first time.”  The students admitted that they “had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “backwards,” “no longer useful,” “un- or under-educated,” “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.”  But as they traveled through places like Youngstown, Ohio, meeting good people who were living happy, productive lives, the students saw the stereotypes break apart.

None of the students got course credit or a grade for participating in the Main Street Project, but they did get an education.  One of the student organizers said:  “The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it” — and he is right.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone, regardless of their age, had a similar opportunity to meet people and challenge some of the stereotypes that we all carry around?

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Old Vegas

If you head down the Strip toward the towering Stratosphere, it’s a bit like walking back in time. You leave behind all of the huge, sprawling casino and hotel complexes, with their lovely pools and different entertainment options and fine dining establishments, and end up passing places that are much more modest in scale and cost. These are places that date back to the earlier days of Vegas, when wedding chapels, all-you-can-eat buffets, and inexpensive motel rooms were among the attractions.

One of the places you’ll pass is Circus Circus, with its giant neon clown sign. When I came to Vegas in the late ’70s with college buddies, Circus Circus was one of our specific destinations because it was featured in one of our favorite books — Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. We played blackjack there, watched some of the circus acts, and used some lucky winnings to wolf down a huge meal at the all-you-can-eat prime rib buffet.

When Doctor Gonzo wrote the book, Circus Circus was one of the new generation of casino hotels. Given Las Vegas’ seemingly constant reinvention of itself, I wondered if I would find on this trip that Circus Circus had been replaced by some new shimmering tower. I was glad to see that it is still there, offering a glimpse of a different Vegas.

Should Federal Taxpayers Pay Off Student Loans?

During the 2016 presidential election, the student loan debt of Americans was one of the issues that attracted attention.  Bernie Sanders, for example, advocated for the federal government paying the college tuition of students attending public colleges and universities — with the cost to be covered by a tax on “Wall Street speculators” — and others argued that the federal government should pay off the student loans of college graduates who have found that the real-world problem of paying off their debt is interfering with their ability to follow their dreams.

So, should the federal government pay off student loan debts?  After all, the feds bailed out GM and has helped the big banks, and our politicians have just approved a $1.3 trillion interim spending package — so why not just toss a few billion dollars more onto the national debt load and help out those overwhelmed college grads who are working as waiters or baristas rather than pursuing whatever career awaits philosophy majors?

One of the problems with one-size-fits-all solutions is that, by definition, they do not take into account the important differences that may be revealed if individual circumstances are examined.  That’s where a recent survey of college students comes in.  A company called LendEDU, which operates in the student loan space, polled 1,000 college students at four-year institutions who are receiving student loans — and it found that more than half of them admitted to using their student loan proceeds to pay for spring break vacations.

That’s possible because of the way student loans are administered.  Colleges and universities get the proceeds, take out the tuition costs, and then remit the remainder to the students — who can use it for pretty much whatever they want, including some fun in the sun with their fellow students.  The LendEDU poll isn’t scientific, and of course there are highly responsible college students who aren’t using their student loan proceeds for a frolic and detour on the beach.  Nevertheless, how students actually used their student loans certainly seems like the kind of information we’d want to consider before we decide to pay off their debts.  (And, incidentally, I would apply the same test before bailing out large corporate institutions, too.)

Which of the federal taxpayers among us wants to foot the bill for last Saturday’s excellent kegger?

One Reason Why College Is So Expensive

There’s a longstanding debate in the United States about how expensive college has become, and what to do about it.  Some people say we need to get over the notion that every young person needs to go to college, and recognize that learning a trade that is always going to be needed is a perfectly fine way to live a happy, productive life.  Others argue that we need to make college loans more available, and at better terms, and still others say that students loans are a long-term trap for the borrowers and therefore the federal government should pay for college.

Curiously, there’s not much of an outcry for colleges and universities to actually take steps to cut their costs and, as a result, cut their tuition.  And while there are some low-cost alternatives, in the form of community colleges, traditional economics don’t seem to apply to the college decision-making process.  Low-cost competitors don’t restrain the pricing of tuition at more prestigious institutions, because there is always a gaggle of parents, and students, willing to pay exorbitant amounts to go to Harvard, or Stanford, and acquire the diploma from an eminent school.

stanford-university-696x391Could colleges and universities cut costs and offer lower tuitions?  A recent article about the school bureaucracy at Stanford points to one way it could be done.   The article describes the explosive growth in the administrative apparatus at the school and cites some interesting statistics:

“Expenditures for non-academic administrative and professional employees have doubled at US colleges in the past 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students and faculty. According to the Department of Education, administrative positions have grown by 60% between 1993 and 2009, ten times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions. Private schools are more guilty than their public school contemporaries; there are now 2.5 non-academic employees for every full-time tenure-track faculty member at private institutions, which exceeds the 2:1 ratio at public universities. A proliferation of associates and assistants, marketers and managers, now outnumber faculty and TAs.”

Why has the number of administrative employees at colleges doubled, and what do all of these people do?  Were you aware that, at Stanford, there is an “Office of Alcohol and Policy Education” that has its own associate dean, assistant director, operations manager, and assistant dean?  Or a Students & Activities Leadership area that is supposed to “help students find community and foster passions” that has four professional staff members?  And the growing college bureaucracy not only contributes to the spiraling cost of an education; the article linked above argues that the administrative state at Stanford not only consumes resources and money, but also “strangles student culture” and harms the education students receive.

When I went to school at Ohio State in the ’70s, the administrative part of the University was small, and many of the positions and offices described in the article about Stanford didn’t exist.  And, not coincidentally, tuition was very reasonable.  And while some new positions are logical and appropriate, such as those that seek to enhance diversity and inclusion on campus, the need for other additions is highly debatable.  When I was in college, we didn’t need school administrators to help us “foster passions” or “find community,” we somehow managed to do it ourselves.  And maybe it would be better for students, and a more fitting preparation for the real world, if students had to muddle through themselves without having an army of officious administrators dictating what they should and shouldn’t do.

Are there school trustees, or college presidents, out there who are willing to tackle cutting bloated administrative budgets, eliminating nonessential positions, and making the cost of an education more affordable?  We may find out only of students and parents decide to stop writing blank checks when it comes to tuition.

Paging Professor UJ

Back when UJ used to write for this blog, he added a tag for “happiness” because he wrote a number of posts about it.  I regret to admit that, since UJ stopped his scrivening, it’s probably the least-used tag on the blog.  In fact, this post is likely the first one with a happiness tag in months, if not years.  I consider myself a happy person, but I just don’t write much it.

Apparently, Yale students also need help with happiness.  This semester Yale is offering Psych 157, a course called “Psychology and the Good Life.”  It tries to instruct students on how to be happier — and it has quickly become the most popular undergraduate course Yale has ever offered.  1,200 students, which is about 25 percent of the entire undergraduate student population, is taking the course.  The professor posits that Yale students are flocking to take the course because “they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school” and in the process adopted “harmful life habits.”  If you read the article linked above, you’ll conclude that Yalies are a pretty sad, stressed bunch.

14344198_1067434466644984_673868475086152520_n copyWhen I was going to college, lack of happiness and “deprioritizing” personal happiness and fulfillment was not a problem.  If anything, Ohio State students of the ’70s tended to overprioritize their dedicated, incessant, deep-seated, Frodo Baggins-like quest for happiness.  The notion that fresh-faced students, still possessing the bloom of youth and newly freed from the constant supervision and irksome rules of Mom and Dad, need to take a college class to learn how to be happier would have been totally alien to the undergrads of my era.  And it’s really kind of depressing to think that, in any era, college students would need to sit in a lecture hall to get tips on how to be happier.  College must have become a grim, hellish place indeed!

But this is where UJ comes in.  He’s always got a happy grin on his face, a positive outlook, and a firm belief that “life is good.”  Sure, he’s retired, but his youthful attitude should allow him to connect with the legions of sad, beleaguered, put-upon Yalies who just don’t know where to find happiness in their soulless, barren college lives.

Hey, UJ!  Time to call that Psych 157 prof and offer a few pointers!

Exam Anxiety

Right after waking up I realized with a start that I have a crucial exam today. Even worse, I’ve been procrastinating studying for the test, and not even going to the classes, besides. Now, Exam Day has arrived, I am totally unprepared, and I am well and truly screwed. How could I be so stupid and reckless?

The next thing I know, I’m rushing through the empty, echoing halls of the building, looking for the room where I’m supposed to take the exam. Everybody else must be in the classroom already! Unfortunately, in my rush to get here I obviously forgot to write down the room number where the exam was being given, and now I’m frantically racing through the empty hallways, trying to find the right room before the test starts. My anxiety level shoots through the roof, and I think: I am a colossal idiot to have foolishly gotten myself into this horrible predicament.

At about this point the conscious brain takes over and realizes that I’m a 60-year-old lawyer who doesn’t take classes or critical exams any more, and I wake up with a start and a racing heartbeat.

Why do I still have exam anxiety nightmares, even though I haven’t had to endure a crucial exam for more than 30 years?  It’s apparently a very common dream, and no doubt it’s because those long ago days of actual winner-take-all exams with real-world consequences engraved permanent, scarring concerns deep into the dark, twisted world of my id, where they are ready to spring forth with only the flimsiest excuse. Expose me to any unusual stressor, and that night I’ll probably be kicking myself once more because I’ve blown off the class and Exam Day is here. Yesterday I took some on-line training modules that ended with short quizzes that you needed to complete to show you’ve paid attention. I got passing scores, and I could have taken the quizzes over even if I didn’t get a passing score the first time around, but perhaps even that limited, low-pressure exposure to simple testing is enough to trigger the bad dreams.

It’s sad to think that I’ll probably continue to be haunted by the specter of long-ago exams for the rest of my life, but at least when I wake up I have the pleasure of knowing that the days of all-or-nothing testing are behind me — except in my dreams.

Trigger Warnings And The Bard

We’ve reached a milestone of sorts:  students at Cambridge University in England have been given “trigger warnings” about studying the plays of William Shakespeare.  According to reports, undergraduates in English Literature at the school — which is located just north of the Bard of Avon’s old stomping grounds in London — were cautioned that a lecture focusing on Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors would include “discussions of sexual violence” and “sexual assault.”

william-shakespeare-the-life-of-the-bardThe decision has provoked a useful debate about the “trigger warnings” that more and more schools seem to be using in their academic curricula.  Advocates of such warnings say they serve to advise students about discussion of topics that might be upsetting because, for example, they might remind students of a traumatic personal experience.  Detractors of trigger warnings say it infringes upon academic freedom, because teachers will self-edit to avoid discussing difficult topics, and that it gives students a distorted perspective by leading them to believe that they can simply avoid learning about the ugly realities addressed in history and literature.

I’m in the latter camp.  And I think that, once “trigger warnings” become accepted in any context, the debate inevitably will shift to whether even more trigger warnings are needed, and how exactly they should be worded, and what students should be permitted to do to avoid the potentially upsetting topics.  The slippery slope seems pretty slippery and pretty steep.  It’s hard to think of any play by Shakespeare, for example, that couldn’t plausibly be the subject of a “trigger warning” because of violence, incest, insanity, sexual misconduct, bawdy humor, or depictions of characters on the basis of gender, race, or religion.  And what history course wouldn’t be riddled with trigger warnings about wars, plagues, racism, sexism, and general human misery?  How could students possibly get a real, meaningful education if they were allowed to skip courses that addressed topics they might find personally upsetting?

I think the use of trigger warnings, while well intentioned, does a real disservice to our young people.  It indicates that they are viewed as so brittle and weak that they need to be protected from mere words and knowledge, and it also gives them a distorted view of what life is going to be like.  The real world doesn’t give trigger warnings to allow people to avoid confronting upsetting topics or situations, and you have to wonder what kind of hyper-delicate, head-in-the-sand adults are going to be produced by school systems and colleges that employ trigger warnings.

As Shakespeare himself wrote in Marc Antony’s great soliloquy in Julius Caesar:  “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”