The Weekly Owl

Home » 2011 » June

Monthly Archives: June 2011

Educating Our Young and the failure of Economy

Listening to the news this morning, I heard a story about Portugal and its appeal for economic help to the E.U.  The young college graduates of today are protesting, both politically and artistically, their abandonment by their parents.  A young singer sings “How stupid am I to put off marriage?…  How stupid is it that you have to get a degree to do nothing?” because of the lack of jobs and the failing economy in her country.  This lament could describe the youth of the United States almost as well.  The U.S. has nobody to look to for help — can you imagine the U.S. going to the United Nations or the World Monetary Fund asking for a bailout?  No, we are left to play a shell game.  The federal government bails out corporations “too big to fail” while in our cities the number of empty shop fronts and buildings “For Lease” increases every day.

And the college students, I think. They study hard, earn high marks, even have good letters of recommendation from their professors and still cannot find a position in their field.  We are, as a species, doing a good job at what humans have done better than all other animals: educating our young to build on the collective knowledge of the past.  But we have utterly failed in that other strange human activity — economy.  I don’t mean economics — that is the study of economies.  I mean the collective set of human behaviors and institutions we create to manage our daily bread and make the best use of all our “resources” — including what we have come to call “human resources.”

I don’t like that term “human resources” because it seems so dehumanizing, and if anyone ought to be concerned about their fellow man as a human — a whole person — it ought to be the H.R. department.  Still, it is better than “human capital.”  Corporations are handling their human constituents better, more humanely, these days in some cases, but the system of free market capitalism prevents them from really succeeding at a much deeper level.

Similarly the educational system we have created.  Clever, to be sure, but it evolved out of social systems that hardly exist anymore.  Elementary schools and High schools were created in the U.S. to educate its citizens enough to read, write, and do arithmetic, and know a little about the world.  This was just enough to help them succeed in being farmers and hired hands or factory workers.  As the sort of knowledge required by increasingly technical jobs grew, so did the subject matter taught in High Schools.  In fact there developed two tracks in the public school system in America (which is the State school system).  One track was still for those who would enter work as factory labor, plumbers, electricians, and construction workers, or secretaries, beauticians, and waitresses.  This track gave you enough knowledge (or at any rate exposure to knowledge) to permit you to not seem stupid and to behave well in working class society.

The second track of American High Schools attempted to imitate what the private prep schools did: prepare teenagers for success in college.  This kind of education is more demanding, and became increasingly so over the twentieth century because of the increase in knoweldge.  Whole new fields emerged — psychology, sociology, economics, scientific management, microbiology, quantum physics, and ever more sophisticated electrical and mechanical engineering.  The king of the engineering fields emerged in the last three decades of the century in the form of compunter engineering and programming.  In medicine and law (the old professions) there was also increasing knowledge and specialization making it more and more important that children start learning their biology and chemistry earlier in life.

The problem with the American system of High Schools is that these two tracks, so very different in their goals, were being taught together in the same buildings by the same teachers.  The classrooms might be different, but even the students whose ambitions did not include a college education were taught chemistry and literature and so forth — fields of knowledge that as plumbers or electricians or sanitary engineers, they would not ever actually need.  Of course nobody in American school planning seems to really believe that anyone needs literature and art education, or even music.

Those forms of knowledge and talent had (before the twentieth century) been learned by girls mainly and at home with private teachers.  Reading literature was not a thing to study; it was a cultured activity that young women and some men were encouraged in to be attractive companions to their future marriage partners.  It was only through the emergence of music, English, and art as academic disciplines in colleges during the 20th century that these fields became departments in High Schools.  There was (and is) a belief that the Humanities were necessary for a “well-rounded” persons.  (This expression comes from the days when being “well-rounded” physically was attractive.  Today we want to be “lean and mean” which ought to say a lot about how our culture has changed.)

Really, schooling in the Humanities emerged because the old school subject matter — the old “Humanities” in the British system — were disappearing from American schools.  Nobody believed that you had to study the classics, in the sense of the Greek and Latin authors, to be a “gentleman.”  Upper class America was not associated with this kind of education, in which the Greek and Latin was really only a tool to teach obedience, discipline, and loyalty to ones peers.  In a small, homogenous country, as Britain was in the old days, it worked.  A close-knit “ruling class” could be created through the shared experience of its men, having all attended the same few “public schools” like Eton, Rugby, and Harrow and the same universities — Oxford or Cambridge.  Americans have a curiously romantic view of those Old Boys schools in England and the close knit class system where everyone knew who was who. That’s why we like to read Dorothy Sayers, P.G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, and Anthony Trollope.  It is also why we like to read much else of Victorian literature that was generally about the lower classes or the nouveau riches breaking into the upper class — authors like Dickens and George Elliot.

As a Doctor of English Language and Literature, I tend to put everything into literary terms, just as doctors of medicine tend to put everything into terms of biochemistry and science.  In nineteenth-century literature we can already see the crisis of education.  In Dickens’ Hard Times, we find the problem of educating the masses.  The dull Mr. Gradgrind founds his school for factory workers and their children on strict principles of utility.  Imagination and “Fancy” are forbidden.  “Facts!  Facts are what we want!”  One hundred fifty years later, our schools have all become like that.  The Gradgrinds have prevailed, and the voices for the cultivation of that other half of human genius — the artistic and inventive imagination — are marginalized and un-funded.  In hard times, as we have today, music, the arts, and literature all take the lowest priority.  In a crisis in which new thinking and creativity are the only hope of finding the way out, these things are neglected and even scorned as impractical.

When I was a boy, I loved to draw and invent things.  I would have done well in an artistic career.  Unfortunately no one around me knew anything about how to pursue such a career from a practical standpoint.  I remember watching movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Star Wars, and Silent Running, and TV shows like Star Trek and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  Creating such shows and working in the props and models department seemed like the perfect job.  But my father, bless him, was an ordinary American man of business who had worked his way up through trade school in electrical systems, served in the Navy as an electrician’s mate, and ended up as a computer engineer during the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors.  To Dad, a career as an artist just didn’t seem practical.  The epithet “artist” was then hardly ever without the word “starving” attached to it.

So, I decided to be an engineer.  Unfortunately for me, after High School the urge to write novels was overwhelming and I had to change my tack.  But I still did not pursue a career as a novelist either.  Nobody around me knew how to do it.  Indeed, logically, the only way to find out how to be a novelist was to study English in college and see how all the famous novelists of the past and present had done it. Of course that was enjoyable, but I realized a few years into graduate school that training to be an English professor was not at all the same thing as training to be a novelist.  It didn’t hurt, but it pretty much counter-productive for an artistic career.

My own college career was marred by the fact that after years of study and achieving a Ph.D. in my field, I did not get a permanent teaching position.  An English major inspired by the biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and the old classic schooldays novel “Good-bye Mr. Chips,” my understanding of the academic job market was woefully uninformed.  Whatever my professors did to prepare me for the realities of job hunting in the field of English in the United States, I came out with few interviews and no callbacks.  I might as well have pursued a career in acting.

But as a student, in my mind nothing could be safer or more sure than a career as a college professor.  Summers off to write and a pleasant type of work if you didn’t mind correcting papers.  It was hard and time-consuming brain work, but it was supposed to pay well and everyone considered that college professors were professional men of high rank, quite on the same plane of respectability as lawyers and physicians, only more tweedy.  Of the social rank of business executives I was, in those days, surprisingly ignorant.  My father, though an executive for Memorex, did not socialize with the big men (so far as I knew) and the glories of the upper echelons of the rich and famous were as unreal to me as the fictional worlds of nineteenth-century English society.

This autobiographical interlude is merely context for my thoughts today.  And the thought is that while our educational institutions may or may not do a good-enough job preparing our children for a life of wage-slavery and economic social-climbing, nonetheless it apparently doesn’t matter a whit if the economy is down the drain.

From my time in the 1990s to the present, we have turned out marvelously educated people in the droves, but many of their talents go to waste doing things they were never trained to do.  There was a time when it was thought that English majors could get executive jobs in business because the higher-ups wanted a well-rounded person with some imagination.  The bachelor’s degree in accounting or even business administration was becoming a prerequisite to hiring in the world of business, but at the same time, some employers were realizing its limitations.  Having come up from the ranks themselves and learned “on the job,” the men with their names on their office buildings were skeptical of these college boys with degrees in “business.”  But I don’t know that the well-rounded English major with good “communication skills” (spelling and grammar) ever caught on.  At any rate, I never saw how to turn my expensive Ph.D. into a lucrative job in corporate America.

The graduates of today have it much worse.  Now, not even the accounting majors can depend on getting a position, and if you were imaginative and curious enough to major in sociology, anthropology, history, or the arts… well, you might as well take up a career in fast food or work at a car wash.  If you are lucky.  But it isn’t really luck because the way our economy works, if you graduate from college and take a job outside your field, you are forever tainted.  There are so many applicants for every job that the applications go through a very rough sort of triage.  I had the experience of sitting on a hiring committee at the university once.  It was amazing and sad. The first level of elimination was based almost entirely on presentation — how did the letter of application look.  That was an indicator of the person’s sophistication and professionalism.  (Oh, how I hated that word “professionalism” when I was in graduate school, and how little I understood that my future depended on it.)

The second level of triage was based on content, but getting tossed out could depend on very minute particulars.  One of which was if your major or your area of study did not fit the exact specialization stipulated in the advertisement of the position.  We wanted someone who was already in their pigeonhole; not someone aspiring to another pigeonhole.  So, if you were, say, a specialist in Milton, and the job was for Victorian literature, you would get sorted out no matter how great a genius or how great a teacher you might be.  Another particular was where you came from. At the Univeristy of Minnesota (then at least), if you applied from some place of exile like Duluth or a small midwestern college with no particular reputation, there was a general feeling that you didn’t make the second cut.

A great university wants its new hires to come from other great universities — and actually from greater universities.  If your degree (like mine for instance) was from the Univeristy of Minnesota, you wouldn’t make the second cut either.  So, by the beginning of the third round of culling, the pile maybe down to a hundred or so applicants for the job — we had a group of very high flyers from places like Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia, and Princeton, and a few of the highest ranking state universities to which a provincial univesity like the U of MN could look up to with puppy eyes.  Of course, they were all impressive applicants, but I was haunted by the 300 or so applicants that had been rejected by that time. The next phase, after this triage was to scrutinize the remaining hundred or so and then compare our lists (among the committee members) and argue for any of our favorites who might not have been deemed worthy by the others members of the committee.  After all that we were down to perhaps a dozen that would get an interview.  Then from those, maybe four or five would get a second interview at which they would have to teach a class session to show us their stuff.

It was bad in English departments.  Because big university English departments were mandated to teach every student in the university how to read and write, there were not enough English professors to teach all the necessary composition classes.  The result was that English departments needed a large number of graduate students to teach composition, and so they admitted many more grad students than the job market could possibly place.  Whether my professors and advisers knew that was what was happening, or whether they were blissfully ignoring it, I did not find it out until I set aside the demands of constant study and writing, and took up the cudgels of the job hunt.  There is hardly anyone with a fresh Ph.D. who has such a huge ego that they firmly believe they are going to be the one person chosen from 700 applicants to a job.  I remember there was one position in Arizona that was rumored to have that many applicants.

Undergraduates have fewer consolations.  They have gone into debt to get their bachelor’s degree and worked hard for straight A’s.  Those with B averages, or C averages, have very little hope of making the cut in a hiring process.  There are too many A applicants to choose from.  So, the students in Spain, Portugal, Greece, whose countries have effectively gone backrupt and are placed under severe “austerity measures” (doesn’t sound so bad, does it?), have no jobs.  A whole generation of our children may get the education to succeed and utterly fail to do the work for which they have been trained at such expense.

Our State universities are wasting not only the money of our citizen-consumers, but tax revenue as well in this ridiculous system.  One can hardly call it a system.  Job markets are dictated by forces that are almost never correctly predicted by economists — or if they are correct, they are never listened to.  The number of majors in the many fields and disciplines of our universities is dictated by the sheer whim of the students and their parents.  Freedom of choice in a college major is the freedom to choose to be unemployed.  You choose which school to attend, and no one tells you that by chosing a small obscure or mediocre college or small, rural state university far from an urban center, you may have already sealed your own doom.  The name of your college is worthless on the job market.  The names of your advisers and professors are unknown and their connections at the big universities few.  These factors that are completely outside of your own performance as a student will determine your fate on the job market.

Our children move through school for sixteen years or more of their lives.  The academic system is all about grades and standardized test performance.  While those methods of evaluation are traditional, many teachers today doubt if they are really doing the students any service.  Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, showed us a future society in which children were genetically engineered in test tubes and educated hypnotically to take a particular position in society.  That these “classes” of workers were named according to the Greek alphabet — Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas — was an allusion on Huxley’s part to the system academic grading.  The upper two classes were subdivided too into Beta plus, Beta minus, Alpha plus (I don’t think there were any Alpha minuses in the story).  When I took a year of college in England and found that this was actually the terminology used by the professors there, it was a revelation.  (Getting an Alpha plus on a paper was damned difficult.)

But in Brave New World, these happily adjusted workers never had to worry about having jobs, because the state ran the hatcheries and determined according to economic projections (more accurate than ours evidently) how many of each grade level would be required in each “generation.”  There weren’t “generations” of course.  Only batches of babies from the factory.  It is social satire, and like all good satire, it strikes very true.  The only people who suffer in the system of Huxley’s fictional world are the misfits who get a little something wrong in their embryonic chemicals.  They come out of their bottles a little mal-adjusted to their class.  It is poignant that the main character who has this problem is an Alpha.  Betas, Gammas, and Deltas, are happy workers — the Betas teachers and secretaries and minor scientists (all apparently women in the novel).  The Gammas factory workers.  The Deltas, elevator operators and guards.  The Alphas (all apparently men) are the one’s with the adjustment problems occasionally  One of the things that puts a spanner in the works is any hint of artistic leanings or critical thinking that challenges the whole system.

In today’s real world, we have a lot of Alphas working in Beta and Gamma jobs.  Our Gammas and Deltas often have to turn to the military for careers, or other just as deadly and problematic kinds of work.  They weren’t genetically engineered or educated to think that sort of work is great, but they have little alternative in a free market economy.  The Alphas who are not working as Alphas in our society become disgruntled singer songwriters, comedians and satirists. Some lucky ones, novelists.  The happy ones conform well and take their majors in mathematics, computer science, engineering, medicine, or law.  Though rather chaotically organized in America, there are also religious careers, which I suspect, are regulated better by seminaries so that gluts of applicants do not occur.  No one ever hears of a seminary graduate failing to get placed with a congregation.  The only problem is that they, like members of the Peace Corps, have to take what they can get and there are a lot of churches in small-town America.

Of course, there are still many government jobs.  Even with “austerity measures” there are plenty of bureaucratic jobs as a civil servant.  But there are too many applicants for those jobs as well.  The only workers that seems to be in chronically short supply are nurses and psychiatrists.  The latter seems telling.

What then?  I always tell my composition students to apply the “So What?” test to their essays and reports.  I don’t advocate a “command economy” to solve this problem.  It has been demonstrated to work even less well than a free market economy, principally becasuse politicians don’t make decisions based on the advice of economists. Greed and power-hunger always enter into the decisions of politicians.  It is really too bad we cannot genetically engineer politicians.  But it also doesn’t work because economists have not yet figured out how to project economic conditions into the the far future.  They cannot advise universities on how many English professors will be needed in the next cohort, much less advise elementary school teachers on the next generation.  Economists working in a free market seem to be able to predict only a few years ahead — and then the people actually running the economy (investment bankers and so on) do not listen to them.  Or they hire economists who will tell them to go ahead and do whatever they want to do.

The fact is, that a free market economy has very short sight.  It does not project into the future and when it does it projects only optimism.  The corporate leaders desire a future of infinite growth for their business, which means infinite steady growth of their consumers or customers — that is “the market.”  Nobody wants to predict that demand will fall off, or that supply will collapse, much less that giant banks and industries may completely unravel and go bankrupt over night.  So, the students protest.  Marxism looks good compared to the reality of free market capitalism.  Having 400 acres and some cattle sounds good compared to free market capitalism.  But even the farms aren’t self-sufficient these days.  They are dependent on borrowing for cash crops and so at the mercy of the food market.

Probably bagging groceries at a supermarket is still one of the more dependable jobs.  People have to eat and these days they need a college educated person with a major in Decision Sciences to help them decide between paper or plastic bags.  (a bagger with a Ph.D. is requried to get customers to buy reusable cloth shopping bags.)  Hair cutting also seems fairly stable.  The upper classes are very unlikely to start cutting their own hair at home, as long as the beauty industry successfully prevents the return to style of the old crew cut.  We can have strange pockets of industry that survive for a while because of our customs of class image.  An executive might let buying a new car go for a few extra years, and might decide not to buy a new suit.  But the last thing to go will be his or her hair.  Only bald men are freed from this expense to some degree, but even they need to turn to a professional to trim their executive tonsure.

Restaurants occupy an almost as secure position because there are now so many people who do not know how to cook for themselves.  How the economy might rebound for everyone, if people only learned to cook for themselves at home.  They would save enormously from their income, but of course the flourishing restauranteurs and waiters and chefs would suffer.  (Well, maybe not so much the chefs because at least they know how to cook.)

So what?  I have not answer, I fear.  Only that I think blaming teachers and schools is barking up the wrong tree.  The possum you are after is in the economy and its disfunctional operation.  Our economic system does not work right.  We are inundated with propaganda to the opposite effect, but a clear-sighted, hard look at free market capitalism will show that it works very badly indeed.  And nowhere more obviously when college-educated men and women are going to waste standing in unemployment lines.  We waste our talent and knowledge in this way, quite apart from the human suffering.  From a coldly calculating capitalist view, it is like mining the highest quality steel in vast quantities and then letting it sit in a pile to rust.  Or creating expensive nuclear power plants and never switching them on.  Or making cars and trucks that sit at car dealerships and never are sold.

I am not an economist, so if you, dear reader, are one, you will no doubt think my thoughts little more than sour grapes.  But it seems to me, speaking as an imagineer, that more imagination is what we need in our world.  Not more science, or more math, or more facts alone.  Without imagination and creativity, we will, as a species, never make the leap that needs to be made to the next step of our social evolution.  When free market capitalism was born out of medieval mercantilism, it was a brilliant leap upward.  It’s history over the past three centuries or so is fascinating and exciting as well as often tragic for the workers involved in new enterprises.  Its history in the 20th century, challenged by communism, socialism and trade unionism is just as exciting. But on the leading edge of the 21st century, it should be clear to anyone who has read this history and the fiction that has surrounded it and critiqued it in human terms that something new is needed.  A crisis always indicates a turning point in human history and we have had several centuries of optimism during which the next turning point was always up and better, not collapse.

Students of ancient and medieval history can see examples of systems that have entirely collapsed and retreated into what we like to call “barbarism.”  There is a lot of talk about making war against barbarians even today.  We just are careful not to call whole other nations “barbarians.”  Instead we aim the rhetoric more surgically at particular groups within other nations.  Most of the former “barbarians” of the world have adopted Western ways, at least superficially, and bought into the idea that free market capitalism is the only economy going.  Even the communists seem to have bought in.  When I was a kid, it was fairly common knowledge and a daily topic of debate whether the world’s population wasn’t getting out of hand; whether the “population explosion” might not be the cause of economic and environmental catastrophes.  It amazes me now how few people talk about it that way.  The prophets of doom have all been silenced.  I think that the campaign for zero population growth was seen to be “racist” and therefore lost its power over liberals.  Conservatives in America being for the most part capitalists, see an infinitely growing population as quite fitting into their vision of infinitely growing markets for their infinitely growing production lines.

A growing population has been seen as a sign of prosperity for hundreds of thousands of years of human culture.  Not only is there no apparatus to put the breaks on childbirth, there isn’t any will for it.  People want to make children (for the most part) and it is seen as a sign of success in life.  And indeed, I would say it is an important part of being human.  But if it threatens the existence of our economic system to the point of collapse, then maybe we better think about it.  Was the world a better place a hundred or two hundred years ago?  Not really.  The natural world was flourishing better, but the human world was full of disease, poverty, death, and cruelty.  Well, maybe it still is, but some progress has been made on the disease and cruelty front.  Is there more poverty now than then?  I don’t know, but I am inclined to think that if we take the world as a whole, and the vastly greater numbers of people, there must be more poverty now.  Is it a greater percentage of the whole?  I don’t have an answer to that.

But it seems as if every institution we have created, from central governments, to corporations, to schools are suffering from their own growth.  They are getting so overloaded with people and the impossible escalation of expenses in operation, that they are dying of their own obesity.  More people today does not mean more happy workers and consumers.  It means more poverty.  A free market is always based on a supply of cheap labor in excess of what is required.  That means it is based on some part of the society living in poverty (or slavery). But the bigger the economy gets the more poor people it needs until there is a vast underclass of people who never get out of poverty. They are a surplus population of potential workers.  Huxley had it right in Brave New World when he suggested that the birth rate has to be regulated to match the need for labor.  But he also had it right in pointing out that the only way we can think of to do that in our present culture is to give away all our personal freedom, and nobody will stand for that.

If such decisions cannot be made by changing the way people think about reproduction, then the forecast looks pretty hopeless.  We are not in a “slump.”  We have finally gone over the edge of the cliff that writers were predicting since at least the 1960s.  I have been waiting for this turning point for nearly my whole life since high school. Overpopulation and the biological point at which our species overtakes the planet’s ability to continue supporting us.  What will happen?  More unemployment, followed by a generation that hate the system, are poor and disenfranchised.  The State will unravel because it can no longer afford to sustain a social “safety net” or even the illusion of one.  And as poverty grows so also, for a time, may the super-rich, but they ultimately are a tiny part of the population and at some point the other 99.9% will cease to tolerate them.  At some point the soldiers of our high tech armies will have to make the choices that the armies in places like Egypt and Libya are making today — to support the ultra-rich rulers, or to side with the other 99.9%.  And that is not going to be an easy choice in America.  A country started by a revolution overthrowing the existing government, the United States is more terrified by the idea of a revolution at home than any other country.  Not just the rulers, but the ordinary people.  Hence the success of the Red Scare for decades in the last century.  Revolution became a bad word almost as soon as the American Revolution was over.

Are our college graduates going to ever get jobs in their fields?  Our culture has a habitual optimism with regard to systemic problems.  “Oh, we’ll figure it out.  New technologies are coming to solve our problems,” we say.  But that old line is wearing a bit thin for middle-aged people like me.  When you reach the medieval period of your life, you start to notice that the same old ideas and rhetoric dating from your childhood are still being used decades later.  Nobody has thought of anything new, and the new technology has solved nothing.  Indeed, most of the new technology does nothing to fix the systemic social and economic problems.  It becomes a commodity to make a few people rich and the rest of the people pacified with their new toy.  The iPhone is perhaps the most marvelous example of this phenomenon.

Such technologies give an illusion of “progress” and “freedom” that are extremely useful in preventing revolution.

Not that I’m advocating revolution either.  Nobody really decides to have a revolution.  Not even Lenin.  Social pressures just reach the boiling point when too much poverty and oblivious tyranny by the rich causes the social melting pot to melt down.  It is very hard to sit in one’s garden in the sunshine and prepare for such a future.  My Ph.D. is employed in several ways.  Certainly the least profitable being the writing of Blog articles so long no one has the stamina to read them.  Like the lemmings charging over the cliff the six billions of humanity find their headlong flight helped now by gravity, as they surge over the edge of the cliff.

From up in a Tree,


%d bloggers like this: