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Charter Schools I: Preliminaries & Monopolies

In November of 2016, president elect Trump selected Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. While this appointment seems to have changed her mind about Common Core, DeVos has remained committed to expanding charter schools. Charter schools operate outside of the public-school system but are funded with public money. They can be privately owned and run as for-profit business. As might be suspected, they tend to be rather controversial.

Before discussing charter schools, I need to present the biasing factors in my background. Like most Americans, I attended public schools. Unlike some Americans, I got a very good public education that laid the foundation for my undergraduate and graduate education. Both of my parents were educators; my father taught math and computer science and my mother had a long career as a guidance counsellor. I ended up going to a private college and then to a public graduate school. This led to my current career as a philosophy professor at a state university. I belong to the United Faculty of Florida, the NEA and the AFT. As such, I am a union member. As might be suspected, my background inclines me to be suspicious of charter schools. As such, I will take special care to consider the matter fairly and objectively.

As with most politically charged debates, the battle over charter schools tends to be long on rhetoric and short on reasoned arguments. Devoted proponents of charter schools lament the ruin of public education, crusade for choice, and praise the profit motive as panacea for the woes of the academies. Energized enemies of charter schools regard them as plots against public good and profiteering at the expense of the children.

While there is some merit behind these rhetorical stances, charter schools should neither be accepted nor rejected based on mere rhetoric or ideological stances. As liberals and conservatives have both noted, there are serious problems in the American education system. Charter schools have been advanced as a serious proposal to address some of these problems and are worthy of objective consideration. I will begin with what can be called the monopoly argument in favor of charter schools.

Proponents of charter schools often assert that the state holds a monopoly on education and employ arguments by analogy to show why this is a bad thing. For example, the state monopoly on education might be compared to living in an area with only one internet service provider. This provider offers poor service, but residents are forced by law to pay for it and competition is forbidden. While this is probably better than not having any internet access at all, it is certainly a bad situation that could be improved by competition. If the analogy holds, then poor quality education could be improved by legalizing competition.

This analogy can also be used, obviously enough, to argue that people who do have children in school should not be forced to pay into the education system. This would be, to stick with the analogy, like making people who have no computers (including tablets and phones) pay for internet access they do not use. This is, however, another issue and I will return to the matter of charter schools.

While the analogy does have some appeal, the state does not have a monopoly on education. There are, obviously enough, private schools that operate without public money. These provide competition to public schools, thus showing that there is not a monopoly. By going through the appropriate procedures, anyone with the resources can create a private school. And anyone with the resources to afford a private school can attend. As such, there is already a competitive education industry in place that provides an alternative to public education. There is also the option of home schooling, which also breaks the alleged monopoly.

Supporters of charter schools can counter that there is a monopoly without charter schools. To be specific, without charter schools, public schools have a monopoly on public money. Charter schools, by definition, break this monopoly by allowing public funds to go to schools outside the state education system.

This can allow privately owned charter schools to enjoy what amounts to state subsidies, thus making it easier to start a privately-owned charter school than a privately funded private school. Those who are concerned about state subsidies might find this sort of thing problematic, perhaps because it seems to confer an unfair advantage over privately funded schools and funnels public money into private hands.

Supporters can counter these criticisms by turning them into virtues. Public money spent on charter schools is good exactly because it makes it easier to fund competing schools. Private schools without public funding need to operate in a free market—they must compete for customer money without the benefit of the state picking winners and losers. As such, there will not be very many privately funded schools.  Charter schools benefit from the largesse of the state, although they do need to attract enough students. But this is made easier by the fact that charter school education is subsidized by public money.

As such, charter schools would break the public-school system’s monopoly on public money, although there is not a monopoly on education (since privately funded schools exist). The question remains as to whether or not breaking the funding monopoly is a good thing or not, which leads to the subject of the next essay in this series, that of choice.


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Education & Gainful Employment

English: Table 3 from the August 4, 2010 GAO r...

English: Table 3 from the August 4, 2010 GAO report. Randomly sampled For-Profit college tuition compared to Public and Private counterparts for similar degrees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the years I have written various critical pieces about for-profit schools. As I have emphasized before, I have nothing against the idea of a for-profit school. As such, my criticisms have not been that such schools make money. Rather, I have been critical of the performance of such schools as schools, with their often predatory practices, and the fact that they rely so very heavily on federal funding for their profits. This article is, shockingly enough, also critical of these schools.

Assessment in and of higher education has become the new normal. Some of the assessment standards are set by the federal government, some by the states and some by the schools. At the federal level, one key standard is in the Higher Education Act and it states that career education programs “must prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” If a school fails to meet this standard, then it can lose out on federal funds such as Pell Grants and federal loans. Since schools are rather fond of federal dollars, they are rather intent on qualifying under this standard.

One way to qualify is to see to it that students are suitably prepared. Another approach, one taken primarily by the for-profit schools (which rely extremely heavily on federal money for their profits) has been to lobby in order to get the standard set to their liking.  As it now stands, schools are ranked in three categories: passing, probationary, and failing. A passing program is such that its graduates’ annual loan payments are below 8% of their total earnings or below 20% of their discretionary incomes. A program is put on probation when the loan payments are in the 8-12% range of their total earnings or 20-30% of discretionary incomes. A program is failing when the loan payments are more than 12% of their total income or over 30% of their discretionary incomes. Students who do not graduate, which happens more often at for-profit schools than at private and public schools, are not counted in this calculation.

A program is disqualified from receiving federal funds if it fails two out of any three consecutive years or it gets a ranking less than passing for four years in a row. This goes into effect in the 2015-2016 academic year.

Interestingly enough, it is matter of common ideology in America that the for-profit, private sector is inherently superior to the public sector. As with many ideologies, this one falls victim to facts. While the assessment of schools in terms of how well they prepare students for gainful employment does not go into effect until 2015, data is already available (the 2012 data seems to be the latest available). Public higher education, which is routinely bashed in some quarters, is amazingly successful in this regard: 99.72% of the programs were rated as passing, 0.18% were rated as being on probation and 0.09% were ranked as failing. Private nonprofit schools also performed admirably with 95.65% of their programs passing, 3.16% being ranked as being on probation and  1.19% rated as failing. So, “A” level work for these schools. In stark contrast, the for-profit schools had 65.87% of their programs ranked as passing, 21.89 ranked as being on probation and 12.23% evaluated as failing. So, these schools would have a grade of “D” if they were students. It is certainly worth keeping in mind that the standards used are the ones that the private, for-profit school lobby pushed for—it seems likely they would do even worse if the more comprehensive standards favored by the AFT were used.

This data certainly seems to indicate that the for-profit schools are not as good a choice for students and for federal funding as the public and non-profit private schools. After all, using the pragmatic measure of student income relative to debt incurred for education, the public and private non-profits are the clear winners. One easy and obvious explanation for this is, of course, that the for-profit schools make a profit—as such, they typically charge considerably more (as I have discussed in other essays) than comparable public and non-profit private schools. Another explanation is that (as discussed in other essays) is that such schools generally do a worse job preparing students for careers and with placing students in jobs. So, a higher cost combined with inferior ability to get students into jobs translates into that “D” grade. So much for the inherent superiority of the for-profit private sector.

It might be objected that there are other factors that explain the poor performance of the for-profit schools in a way that makes them look better. For example, perhaps students who enroll in such programs differ significantly from students in public and non-profit private schools and this helps explain the difference in a way that partially absolves the for-profit schools. As another example, perhaps the for-profit schools suffered from bad luck in terms of the programs they offered. Maybe salaries were unusually bad in these jobs or hiring was very weak. These and other factors are well worth considering. After all, to fail to consider alternative explanations would be poor reasoning indeed. If the for-profits can explain away their poor performance in this area in legitimate ways, then perhaps the standards would need to be adjusted to take into account these factors.

It is also worth considering that schools, public and private, do not have control over the economy. Given that short-term (1-4 year) vagaries of the market could result in programs falling into probation or failure by these standards when such programs are actually “good” in the longer term, it would seem that some additional considerations should be brought into play. Naturally, it can be countered that 3-4 years of probation or failure would not really be short term (especially for folks who think in terms of immediate profit) and that such programs would fully merit their rating.

That said, the latest economic meltdown was somewhat long term and the next one (our bubble based economy makes it almost inevitable) could be even worse. As such, it would seem sensible to consider the broader economy when holding programs accountable. After all, even a great program cannot make companies hire nor compel them to pay better wages.


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Gainful Employment & Education

For-Profit Education

For-Profit Education (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

Since education is rather expensive, it seems reasonable for a student to expect a return on her investment. Given that the taxpayers often contribute to the education of students, it also makes sense that they also receive a return on their investment.

As it now stands, the return on the student’s investment is supposed to be a job that is proportional to the cost of education. Roughly put, a student should be able to reasonably work out of her school debt with the job that education is supposed to get her. In terms of the return on the taxpayer’s investment, the return is similar: the students funded by the taxpayers are supposed to get jobs and repay the investment through the taxes they pay. The student becomes the taxpayer, thus enabling the next generation of students to also become taxpayers.

Because the cost of education is so high these days, it is natural for some folks to place their hopes in the free market. The ideal is that for-profit schools will provide a high quality product (education that leads to a job) at a lower cost than the (supposedly) bloated state and traditional private schools. As might be suspected, the ideal is rather different from the real.

While state schools obviously receive state funds, the for-profit schools receive massive federal support—about $26 billion per year in grants and loans. Unfortunately, this money seems to be ill-spent: 20% of the for-profit school students default on student loans within three years of entering the repayment period. About half of all student loan defaulters went to such for-profit schools, although these schools make up 13% of the student population. The estimate is that about half of the loans funneled through students to the for-profit schools will be lost to default, which is hardly a good investment.

One of the main reasons a student defaults on loans (though not the only one) is financial hardship. As might be imagined, not earning an adequate paycheck is a clear way to end up in such hardship. While there are over 2,000 programs where the students had load debt but who paychecks were not adequate to keep them above the poverty line, 90% of these programs are at for-profit schools. As such, these schools seem to be a bad investment for both taxpayers and students. While public and traditional private schools do account for the other 10% that need to be addressed, they are quite clearly a better investment for taxpayers and students. This is not to say that such schools do not need improvement—but it is to say that the current for-profit model in not the solution.

There have been some attempts, such as those in 2011, to impose regulations aimed at addressing the predatory exploitation of students (and taxpayers) by institutions. Not surprisingly, these were countered by the well paid lobbyists working at the behest of the for-profits.

Interestingly, some states are pushing hard for performance based funding for public institutions. For example, my adopted state of Florida has seen the Republican dominated state legislature engage in what some might regard as micro-managing of education. In any case, we are been transitioned to a performance based model in which funding is linked to achieving goals set by the state. Naturally, for-profit schools are not impacted by this since they are private institutions. As such, the current trajectory seems to be for state schools to be state regulated in accordance with performance measures while the for-profit schools enjoy unfettered access to the federal largesse.

Some might suspect that the performance based funding approach being taken towards public universities and colleges is cover for reducing funding even more. This seems reasonable since one of the main effects has been to cut funding for some state schools (such as my own). It is also the case that the approach is designed to shift funding to schools that have more political influence—which is supported by looking at where the money goes.

It might also be suspected that the performance based funding is also designed to harm public schools and push students towards the for-profit schools. These schools typically enjoy excellent political connections and certainly would benefit from reduced public education opportunities. Of course, the profits of such schools come largely at the expense of students and taxpayers—they are thus well-subsidized by the state in a new twist on the old corporate welfare system.  Shockingly enough, there is little conservative rage at this wasteful socialism and these welfare queens.


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Education & Negativity Bias

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S (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In general, people suffer from a wide range of cognitive biases. One of these is known as negativity bias and it is manifested by the tendency people have to give more weight to the negative than to the positive. For example, people tend to weigh the wrongs done to them more heavily than the good done to them. As another example, people tend to be more swayed by negative political advertisements than by positives ones. This bias can also have an impact on education.

A colleague of mine asks his logic students each semester how many of them are planning on law school. In the past, he had many students. Now, the number is considerably less. Curious about this, he checked and found that logic had switched from being a requirement for pre-law to being a mere recommendation. My colleague noted that it seemed irrational for students who plan on taking the LSAT and becoming lawyers to avoid the logic class, given that the LSAT is largely a logic test and that law school requires skill in logic. He made the point that students often prefer to avoid the useful when it is not required and only grudgingly take what is required. We discussed a bit how this relates to the negativity bias: a student who did not take the logic class when it was required would be punished by being unable to graduate. Now that the class is optional, there is only the positive benefit of a likely improvement on the LSAT and better performance in law school. Since people weigh punishments more than rewards, this behavior makes sense—but is still irrational. Especially since many of the students who skip the logic class will end up spending money taking LSAT preparation classes that will endeavor to spackle over their lack of skills in logic.

I have seen a similar sort of thing in my own classes. At my university, university policy allows us to lower student grades on the basis of a lack of attendance. We are even permitted to fail a student for excessive absences. While attendance is mandatory in my classes, I do not have a special punishment for missing class. Not surprisingly, when the students figure this out around week three or four, attendance plummets and then stabilizes at a low level. Before I used BlackBoard for quizzes, exams and for turning in assignments and papers, attendance would spike back up for days on which something had to be done in class. Since students can do their work via BlackBoard, these spikes are gone. They are, however, replaced by post-exam spikes when students do badly on the exams because they have not been in class. Then attendance slumps again. Interestingly, students often claim that they think the class is interesting and useful. But, since there is no direct and immediate punishment for not attending (just a delayed “punishment” in terms of lower grades and a lack of learning), many students are not motivated to attend class.

Naturally, I do consider the possibility that I am a bad professor who is teaching a subject that students regard as useless or boring. However, my evaluations are consistently good, former students have returned to say good things about me and my classes, and so on. That said, perhaps I am merely deluding myself and being humored. That said, it is easy enough to draw an analogy to exercise: exercise does not provide immediate rewards and there is no immediate punishment for not staying fit—just a loss of benefits. Most people elect to under-exercise or avoid it altogether. This, and similar things, does show that people generally avoid that which is difficult now but yields lasting benefits latter.

I have, of course, considered going to the punishment model for my classes. However, I have resisted this for a variety of reasons. The first is that my personality is such that I am more inclined to want to offer benefits rather than punishments. This seems to be a clear mistake given the general psychology of people. The second is that I believe in free choice: like God, I think people should be free to make bad choices and not be coerced into doing what is right. It has to be a free choice. Naturally, choosing poorly brings its own punishment—albeit later on. The third is the hassle of dealing with attendance: the paper work, having to handle excuses, being lied to regularly and so on. The fourth is the fact that classes are generally better for the good students when the students who do not want to be in class elect to not attend. While I want everyone to learn, I would rather have the people who would prefer not to learn not be in class disrupting the learning of others—college is not the place where the educator should have to spend time dealing with behavioral issues in the classroom. The fifth is I prefer to reduce the amount of lying that students think they have to engage in.

In terms of why I have been considering using the punishment model, there are three reasons. One is that if students are compelled to attend, they might very well inadvertently learn something. The second is that this model is a lesson for what the workplace will be like for most of the students—so habituating them to this (or, rather, keeping the habituation they should have acquired in K-12) would be valuable. After all, they will probably need to endure awful jobs until they retire or die. The third is that perhaps many people lack the discipline to do what they should and they simply must be compelled by punishment—this is, of course, the model put forth by thinkers like Aristotle and Hobbes.

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Researchers Discover Backwards Causation Particles

English: Matt Smith at the 2011 Comic Con in S...

Dr. Smith answers questions about F-ons and D-ons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While time travel has long been the stuff of science fiction, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found proof of backwards causation. In the normal course of events, a cause must occur before the effect. In backwards causation, the reverse happens: the cause occurs after the effect.

The head researcher, Dr. Juanita Ocheloco said that hearing anecdotes from fellow faculty members put her on the track that led to the discovery. “At the end of every semester, I would hear stories about students who earned F and D grades experiencing retroactive problems. For example, one student who failed a statistics course lost his grandmother to backwards causation caused by his F grade. Another student who earned a D, was retroactively injured in a car accident. Although he had seemed fine all semester, his D caused him to have an accident two months before the end of the semester.”

At first the researchers considered the obvious hypothesis: students were just making up stories to play on professors’ sympathy and to try to avoid the F and D grades. However, Dr. Albert Ninestein’s research revealed that D and F grades shed D-on (pronounced “Deon”, as in “Deon Sanders”) and F-ons (pronounced “ef-ons”, not to be confused with FU-ons) respectively.

Dr. Ninestein said, ‘it was really a matter of luck—I happened to be testing out my theoretical particle detector at the end of the semester and caught all these particle flows. I traced them back to the university’s servers and got the IT folks involved. We pinpointed the emissions to the servers used for grades. A deeper analysis showed that the D and F grades were shedding these particles like mad.”

Additional investigation revealed that D-ons and F-ons, like tachyons, travel backwards in time. Unlike tachyons, D-ons and F-ons exhibit considerable malicious intent: they have been shown to kill the relatives of students, cause mysterious and unprovable illnesses and injuries, and do other bad things. Said researcher Dr. Matt Smith, “Those particles are right bastards.”

Dr. Smith added that the particles seem to travel via the internet and that they attack through smartphones, tablets and laptops. “At our request, the university has issued a warning to all students and relatives about the danger to their health and well-being posed by these particles. We are working round the clock to develop shielding to stop the particles from travelling back in time to do their damage. Until then, the university has adopted a policy of not issuing any D or F grades. This has proven to be a success: the number of retroactive cases of illness and injury has dropped to zero.”

When asked about her next project, Dr. Ocheloco said that she was working on finding the particle that “makes journalists write about whatever damn thing passes as research these days” and also a doomsday weapon made from squirrels.

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Smart Phones & Sad Students

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several years ago I was teaching a night class and noticed a student smiling broadly with his arms twitching a bit. Looking closer, I noticed that his hands were moving rapidly under the desk—I immediately thought “well, this could be the most awkward and bizarre moment of my teaching career.” Fortunately, it turned out to be my first encounter with a student using a phone to text in class rather than the awful alternative. Since then, I have seen smart phones take over not only my classes, but the world. Like digital versions of Heinlein’s puppet masters, they are the new rulers of humanity.

Like most educators, I saw it as obvious that the phones would be an impediment to the students. After all, if a student spends the class time texting, booking their faces, and gazing upon the awful majesty of grumpy cat, then they will not be paying attention to what is occurring in class. While some students are capable of self-educating (or effective cheating), a failure to pay attention would generally have a negative impact on the GPA of a student. I predicted, correctly, that the phones would evolve and become ever more distracting. I am now waiting to see whether or not wearable tech becomes a thing with students—just imagine the impact of things like Google Glasses on students.

Apparently other educators share my concern about the impact of smartphones on students. Recently Kent State researchers Andrew Lepp, Jacob Barkley and Aryn Karpinski did a study of 500 university students. The study involved tracking phone use, measuring happiness (defined in terms of anxiety and satisfaction) and retrieving official grade point averages. The study population was composed of 500 undergraduates taken equally from each class (freshman, etc.) and included 82 different majors. As such, the study seems to be adequate in size and diversity in regards to the target population.

The analysis showed that as phone use increased, GPA decreased and anxiety increased. The overall conclusion was that high frequency users will have a lower GPA, greater anxiety, and less life satisfaction than those who are lower frequency users. Naturally, these results involve college students. However, it seems reasonable to infer they would apply more generally.

On the face of it, these results seem intuitively plausible and it makes sense to accept that increased phone use can lead to lower GPA, greater anxiety and less life satisfaction. First, it certainly makes sense that a student who spends more time using the phone is most likely spending less time paying attention in class, studying and doing coursework. This would tend to have a negative impact on the student’s GPA. Second, the lower GPA could certainly lead to more anxiety and less satisfaction. Third, there are various other studies that link the things people do on phones (like checking Facebook and seeing the awesome staged photos and crafted status updates of friends) that cause dissatisfaction.  As such, these results seem believable.

That said, as with any causal claims it is important to consider alternatives. First, the possibility of a common cause must also be considered. The basic idea is that when it seems like C is causing effect E, it might be the case that C  and E are both effects of a third factor. In the case of the phones, it might be the case that there is a factor (or factors) that are making students anxious, making them less satisfied, lowering their GPAs and causing them to use their phones more. Personal issues, such as with family or with a significant other, are likely candidates for common causes. In fact, it certainly makes sense that this could be the case in some instances.

Second, there is the possibility of reverse causation. The gist is that when it seems as if C is the cause of E, it might be the case that C is the cause of E—that is, the causal arrow is backwards. In the case of the phones, it might be a low GPA that leads to the anxiety and dissatisfaction and they lead to more phone use.

Third, there is also the possibility of mere coincidence—after all, correlation is not causation. However, the existence of clear causal mechanisms makes it unlikely that it is just coincidence.

While the alternatives are worth considering (and probably hold true in some cases), it does seem sensible to accept that higher phone use is a detriment to students (and people in general). While I would oppose schools passing regulations limiting student use of phones (after all, I consistently hold to the right of self-abuse and poor decision making), I do think that university faculty, staff and administrators should make students aware of the harms of phone use and should encourage students to look away from their phones more often, especially in the classroom. So, kids, if you do not want to be stupid, sad and a failure, put down that phone.

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Defending the Humanities: Practical Value

A war shield

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous essay, I noted the concern that the humanities are in decline in the academy. In this essay I will argue in defense of the practical value of the humanities.

Honesty compels me to admit that some of the problems faced by the humanities are self-inflicted. First, humanities faculty have generally not done a very good job “selling” the practical value of the humanities to students, parents, politicians, and society as a whole. Part of this might be the result of the notion that humanities faculty should not stoop to selling their beloved disciplines like a pimp sells his hookers. My view is that the practical value of the humanities can be shown without descending to the level of what would amount to intellectual prostitution.

Second, some humanities faculty devote considerable time to saying and writing ridiculous things about absurd matters as well as creating pointless academic problems whose solutions would achieve nothing of significance. These absurdities infest the professional journals and abound at the professional conferences—thus perhaps making it a mercy that the general public studiously ignores these venues. Those who become masters of both self-promotion and empty absurdities are often the most lauded of faculty—enjoying excellent compensation, modest workloads, and considerable attention. This enables critics of the humanities a ready stock of easy targets when they wish to argue for the uselessness of the humanities. Having endured finely nuanced deconstructions of cybernetic genders in fictional spaces, I have considerable sympathy for their disdain. However, I will endeavor to show that this fluffy absurdity is not all there is to the humanities and that there is actual practical value to the disciplines of the humanities.

Before entering into my defense of the humanities, I must first engage in a brief discussion of practical value. After all, to show that the humanities have practical value requires having a concept of practical value. There is also the matter of the often overlooked concern about why a specific view of practical value should be accepted as the proper measure of value.

Interestingly enough, defining practical value and arguing why a specific view of practical value should be accepted are both subjects that fall solidly within the humanities, specifically my discipline of philosophy. While some will obviously be tempted to go with their own view of practical value because it is “obvious”, this would be to engage in the fallacy of begging the question—that is, assuming as true what actually needs to be proven. Thus, one obvious practical value of the humanities is that it is needed to sort out the very nature of practical value and to determine which view of practical value that should be accepted.

For the sake of the discussion and brevity, I will stick with a fairly simple view of practical value that is popular in certain circles. The basic idea is that the practical value of a major is its economic value. Put a bit crudely, this can be considered in terms of how effectively job fillers are created for the jobs created by the job creators. The general measures of value would thus involve employment rates and salaries.

One common stereotype is that those majoring in the humanities are doomed to unemployment or, at best, poor salaries. Anecdotes (and jokes) do abound about people who got a degree in a humanities discipline and ended up doomed. However, as any philosophy major should know, an appeal to anecdotal evidence is a fallacy. What is needed is not anecdotes but statistical data.  Conveniently enough, Georgetown University released a detailed report on this matter.

Based on the usual stereotypes and common anecdotes, one would expect theatre majors, literature majors and philosophy majors to have very high unemployment rates as recent college graduates. Interestingly, theatre majors have an unemployment rate of 6.4%, literature majors are at 9.8% and philosophy majors are at 9.5% (unemployment rates are significantly lower for experience degree holders). Interestingly, the information systems (14.7%) and architecture (12.8%) have the highest unemployment rates. Computer science (8.7%) and accounting (8.8%) are fairly close to the humanities. Those doing best are elementary education majors and (5%) and nursing majors (4.8%).

Taking employment as being a measure of practical value, these statistics show that humanities degrees have practical value. After all, the employment rates for those with humanities degrees are competitive with non-humanities degrees.

In terms of compensation, the humanities fields generally offer less salary than some other fields. However, the average income of a college graduate in the humanities considerably exceeds that of the average income of a high school graduate. Thus, by this measure of practical value the humanities do have practical value. Thus, when people ask me what someone can do with a humanities degree, my cynical (but truthful) answer is “get a job and get a paycheck.” Some people get some very good jobs and some even become famous.

In addition to the concern about the practical value of a humanities there is also concern about the value of humanities classes—especially those that students are “forced” to take. While schools do vary, it is common for universities to have a humanities requirement and various non-humanities majors often require classes in the humanities. For example, the Florida public university system requires students to take two classes in the humanities. As another example, many of the students in my Critical Inquiry, Ethics, Aesthetics and Introduction to Philosophy classes have to take these classes for their non-humanities major.

It could be argued that “forcing” students to take humanities classes is a waste of student time and money (especially given that tuition is at an all-time high and graduation rates are still depressingly low) because such classes have no practical value to the students. That is, these classes do not contribute provide practical skills that would have a practical payoff. As with the humanities majors, it will be assumed that practical value in this case is a matter of economics.

Some humanities classes do have clear and general practical value. Obvious examples include the basic English classes (writing skills are uniformly useful), critical thinking classes (which is all the rage today), and logic.

Other humanities classes have practical value that does depend on the context. For example, those intending to be involved in overseas business can benefit from humanities classes covering these nations. This relative value is not unique to the humanities. For example, a class in biochemistry will not be particularly useful to someone who plans to manage a company that develops game apps for iPads, but it would be unreasonable to dismiss the class as useless simply because it is useless to some people.

Since the practical value of a class can be relative it is well worth considering whether or not a specific class has practical value for a specific major or student. As such, I would not claim that all humanities classes have practical value to all majors and all students. I would also not claim that all science or math classes have practical value to all majors and all students. However, the mere fact that a specific class does not have practical value to some students or some majors does not entail that it has no practical value.

As a final point, there is some concern that people should be reluctant to make an appeal to the practical when defending the value of the humanities. After all, this would seem to concede too much to those who regard themselves as opponents to the humanities. Rather, it could be contended, the defenders of the humanities should avail themselves of more traditional appeals to the inherent value of the humanities.

There is some merit to this concern and appealing to the practical does run the risk of handing a considerable advantage to those who wish to diminish or dispose of the humanities. However, I would contend that the humanities can be defended on practical grounds without abandoning the more traditional arguments in its favor. In the next essay in this series I will endeavor to argue for the value of the humanities on non-practical (that is, non-economic) grounds.


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The Decline of Humanities

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One of the current narratives is that the humanities are in danger at American universities. Some schools are cutting funding for the humanities while others are actually eliminating majors and departments. At my own university, the college of arts and sciences was split apart with the humanities and soft sciences in one new college and the now exalted STEM programs in another. Not surprisingly, I was called upon (at a moment’s notice) to defend the continued existence of the philosophy and religion unit I head up. Fortunately, I could point to the fact that our classes regularly overload with students and the fact that our majors have been very successful.

While this narrative is certainly worrisome to faculty in the humanities, this is actually not a new narrative. For example, while about 7% of majors are in the humanities, this has been the case since the 1980s. As another example, humanities programs have been subject to cuts for decades. That said, there is clearly a strong current trend towards supporting STEM and cutting the humanities.

As might be suspected, the push to build up the STEM programs has contributed to the decline of funding for humanities programs. Universities and colleges have to allocate their funds and if more funds are allocated to STEM, this leaves less for other programs. There is also the fact that there is much more outside funding (such as from the federal government) for STEM programs. As such, STEM programs can find themselves getting a “double shot” of increased funding from the university and support from outside while humanities programs face reduced support from within the institutions and little or nothing from outside.

Those who argue for STEM over the humanities would make the case that STEM programs should receive more funding. If more students enroll in STEM than in the humanities, then it would clearly be fair that these programs receive more funding. If humanities programs want more funding, then they would need to take steps to improve their numbers.

There is also the argument based on the claim that funding STEM provides a greater return for the money in terms of job creation, educating job fillers and generating research that can be monetized. That is, STEM provides a bigger financial and practical payoff than the humanities. This would, clearly, serve to justify greater funding for STEM. Assuming, of course, that funding should be determined primarily in terms of financial and practical values defined in this manner. As such, if humanities programs are going to earn increased funding, they would need to show that they can generate value of a sort that would warrant their increased funding. This could be done by showing that the humanities have such practical and financial value or, alternatively, arguing that the humanities generate value of a different sort that is still worthy of funding.

Those in the humanities not only need to convince those who redistribute the money, they also need to convince students that the humanities are valuable. This need not require convincing students to major in the humanities—getting students to accept the value of the humanities to the degree that they will willingly enroll in such classes and support the programs that offer them.

It has long been a challenge to get students to accept the value of the humanities. When I was an undergraduate almost three decades ago most students looked down on the humanities and this has not changed. Now that I am a professor, honestly compels me to admit that most students sign up for my classes because they have to knock out some sort of requirement. I do manage to win some of these students over by showing them the value of philosophy, but many remain indifferent at best.

While it is a tradition to claim that things are worse now than they were when I was a youngster, this is actually the case. Recently, there has been a conceptual shift in regards to education: now the majority of students regard the main function of college as job preparation or as vocational training. That is, students predominantly see college as a machine that will make them into job fillers for the job creators.

Because of the nature of our economic system, most students do have to worry about competing in a very difficult job market and surviving in a system that is most unkind. As such, it is not unwise of students to take this very practical approach to education.

While it is something of a stereotype, parents do often worry that their children will major in the humanities and it is not uncommon for students to pressure their kids to major in something “useful.” When I was a student, people I knew said just that. Now that I am a professor, my students sometimes tell me that their parents are against them taking philosophy classes. While some are worried that their children will be corrupted, the main concerns are the same as that expressed by students: the worry that majoring in the humanities is a dead end and that the humanities requirements are delaying graduation and wasting their money.

Those of us in the humanities have two main options here. One is to make the case that the humanities actually do provide the skills needed to make it in the world of the job creators. While some regard philosophy as useless, an excellent case can be made that classes in philosophy can be very helpful in getting ready for employment. To use the most obvious example, philosophy is the best choice for those who are considering a career in law. This approach runs the risk of devaluing the humanities and just making them yet another form of job training.

The second is the usual argument from the humanities, which is based on the idea there is more to life than being a job filler for the job creators. The usual line of argument is that the humanities teaches students to address matters of value, to appreciate the arts, and to both think and question. This, as might be imagined, sounds good in principle but can be a very hard sell.

Unfortunately, humanities faculty often fail to convince students, parents and those who control the money that the humanities are valuable. Sometimes the failure is on the part of the audience, but often it is on the part of the faculty. As such, those of us in the humanities need to up our game or watch the shadow over the humanities grow.


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Is American Education as Bad as They Say?

Seal of the United States Department of Education

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As a professor I have grown accustomed to the litany of doom regarding American education. We are repeatedly told that American schools are failing, that colleges are not teaching, and that the students of today are not as good as the students of the past.

There are, of course, problems with the education system. Because of economic disparity, some schools are significantly better than others and the ideas of equality of education and equality of opportunity are cruel jokes. However, the mere fact that there are some serious problems does not entail that all the dire claims are true.

One stock claim is that America has fallen behind the world in education in terms of performance on various tests. While the fact that America is behind other countries is a point of concern, there are at least three points worth considering here. The first is the above-mentioned disparity which will tend to result in lower performance when taking the average for America. The second is that many countries have put considerable effort into improving their education systems and hence it is worth considering that America’s decline is also due to the improvement of others. The third is the matter of the measures—do they, in fact, present an accurate picture of the situation? I am not claiming that the data is bad, I am merely raising a reasonable concern about how accurate our picture of education is at this time.

Another stock claim is that American students are doing badly on standardized tests. While there is clearly value in assessment, it is reasonable to consider whether or not such tests are a proper and adequate measure of education. It is also worth considering whether the obsession with these tests is itself causing damage to education. That is, as teachers teach to the test and student learn for the test, it might be the case that what is being taught is not what should be taught and what is being learned is not what should be being learned. My view is that standardized tests seem to exist mainly to make money for the companies that sell such tests and that their usefulness as a tool of education is dubious. However, such a claim would require proper support, ideally in the form of a properly funded assessment of these assessments.

It is also claimed that schools are failing and that even colleges are not providing worthwhile education. I do agree that the cost of college education has become ridiculous and there are problems in the entire education system. However, it is certainly interesting that along with the mantra of “public schools are failing” there has been a strong push to funnel public money into private and for-profit schools. Now, it could be the case that the for-profit and private schools are merely being proposed as solutions to the alleged problems. But, it seems worth considering that the “public schools are failing” line is being pushed so that people will support and favor shifting funding from the public schools to the for-profit and private schools. Interestingly, while traditional private schools generally do well, the for-profit schools have been plagued with problems, as I have written about in earlier essays.  As such, the idea that for-profit schools will save education seems to be a dubious claim.

One last matter I will consider is the idea that students are worse now than ever. After hearing colleagues and professionals say this over and over, I almost began to feel that it was true. However, my familiarity with history saved me from this fate: such claims about the inferiority of the current generation goes back at least to the time of Socrates. Every generation seems to claim that the next is inferior—think of all “when I was kid” claims that people make. “When I was a kid, people respected their elders.” “When I was a kid, we did our homework.” “When I was a kid, we studied hard.” While kids are different in some ways today (they have Facebook and smartphones), the idea that they are inferior must be considered in the context of the fact that people always make that claim. Now, it might be that every generation is right and that we have reached the lowest point in human history. However, going back and considering actual facts in an objective way should show that the kids today are a bit different but they do not appear to be any worse than the other generations.

As a professor I do often hear other professors lament about how kids get worse every year (I have been hearing this for about 20 years). However, there is an alternative explanation. I do admit that the work of students, such as papers, does seem worse than it did in the past. But, this could be due to the fact that I am better at my job rather than the students being worse. When I look back on my own work as a student, I can see the same bad writing and mistakes I see in my students today. I improve each year, but each year I get new students and it seems reasonable to consider that they seem worse because of this and not that they must actually be worse.

I do admit that changes in technology are probably impacting the students of today. They do labor under the delusion that they can multitask effectively (they cannot—they can just multitask poorly) and they also have more distractions than I faced as a student. However, the students seem to be about the same as when I was a student years ago.

Overall, I do not claim that there are not problems in education. However, I am concerned that the litany of doom and despair may contain consider hyperbole. I am also suspicious regarding some of the motivations behind the doomsayers. While some are no doubt sincerely concerned, it is worth considering that some people are motivated by political or economic agendas rather than the needs of students.

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Critical Thinking & College

Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

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With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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