Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently re-reading Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Chapter 3 of Class Dismissed: Character, Citizenship, and Liberal Arts

I'm half-way through Chapter 3 of Class Dismissed.  This chapter traces the history of American views on education and its purpose.  I'm not well-versed in this history, which is to say that while I've heard a number of narratives that most other people have also heard, I've never examined enough sources to say with confidence whether those narratives are truly representative of everything going on in society at the time.  I know a tiny bit about what, say, some of the Puritans wrote 400 years ago, but I don't know how many people agreed with them or what else was going on.

Nonetheless, everything that I'm familiar with is consistent with Marsh's narrative that in early American history education was mostly viewed as being a path to character development rather than economic development.  The Puritans, an under-appreciated group of early Americans (IMHO) were great promoters of literacy, but one of their main motives for promoting education (though certainly not the only motive) was so that people could study the Bible, not so that they could further the ends of Mammon.  Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were both involved in the founding of great universities (UVA and Penn, respectively) and both were interested in the development of citizens and leaders and the protection of liberty, not GDP growth.  (Which is not to say that these industrious men were uninterested in commerce, just that they saw character development and civic virtue as the first order effects of education, and prosperity as resulting from character and work.)

Interestingly, Chad Orzel just put up a tangentially relevant post on defenses of the humanities (some of them being better than others). Although modern liberal arts advocates can (and probably should) cite all sorts of statistics about the economic prospects of liberal arts grads, the truth is that liberal arts education, especially in the traditional environment of a small, residential liberal arts college, is more about developing people than developing workers (and rightly so).  Our most traditional institutions descend from an era where the purpose of higher education was, in part, to take the sons of a certain class and steer them through rites of passage in a residential experience that might vary in intellectual rigor (remember, George W. Bush graduated from Yale!) but included a fair amount of socialization, some of it simply frat parties but much of it indoctrination into the norms and rituals of a certain class, through the sports of the upper class, extracurriculars, etc.  In that setting, it was fine to study art history rather than accounting because the purpose was to develop a certain type of man, who would then participate in the affairs of the class from which he came (or, for a few lucky scholarship students, the class which they were joining).

The immediate retort from passionate defenders of liberal arts colleges might be to cite the academic rigor and selectivity of elite liberal arts colleges in the modern era.  First, I have immense respect for liberal arts colleges, including the way that they have kept their purpose of character-building and socialization while developing into a more modern concept of academic rigor and challenge.  I believe that they have modernized in the best possible way.  Second, I agree that many of them have made heroic efforts to blend academic selectivity with inclusive values, and that they are no longer merely places for the sons (and now daughters) of a certain class to go through rites of passage.

My point in mentioning these institutions and their roots in the past is not to condemn them as relics, but to contrast them with an unhealthily vocational modern view of education.  I think that every passionate defender of the liberal arts would agree that a purely vocational view of higher education is ill-advised.  What I see Marsh bringing to this conversation is a recognition that viewing education as the primary path to class mobility, a view endorsed by a great many people in a great many settings, including some of the most committed defenders of inclusive values, is fundamentally a vocational view of college.  Even viewing a philosophy degree from a residential college as a path to economic class mobility is, in an important sense, a vocational view of college, and Marsh is trying to make us recognize that so that we might challenge it.

Marsh also makes the case that prior to the 20th century, and even into the 20th century for many people, the path to prosperity was seen as arising from work ethic, good character, and ingenuity, not academic achievement.  This is peripherally in synchrony with Lani Guinier's urging that academic institutions promote teamwork over individual scholastic prowess, though prosperity is not Guinier's primary motive in urging reform of higher education.  (Indeed, she urges less emphasis on individuals seeking the highest possible income.)  This is also in synchrony with my exposure to older books and magazines and entertainment urging young kids to work hard and be honest and thereby achieve the American Dream; GPA is not mentioned much.

I'm just at the part of the chapter where Marsh gets into how education got to be viewed as the paramount path to prosperity in the eyes of social reformers.  I'll blog about that when I've finished the chapter.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Marsh, first 1.5 chapters

I don't have a lot to say about the first chapter of Class Dismissed.  It lays out the case that economic inequality is real and growing in the US, and that the effects of inequality (relative economic disadvantage) are real, even if not as obvious as the effect of material disadvantage (i.e. disadvantage on an absolute scale rather than a relative scale).  John Marsh is not an economist, but he's definitely well-read and he draws on a lot of data sets (primarily government statistics) rather than secondary analyses.  Not being an expert on these sorts of macroeconomic statistics myself, I'd be reluctant to cite Marsh's analyses as the final word on any detailed issue, but the overall picture is reasonable enough and well-referenced.

I'm half-way through chapter 2, where he starts arguing that we can't educate our way out of this problem.  I have issues with a few specifics, like his annoying habit of saying that when a particular type of labor is abundant the demand is low.  I know what he means--he means that if there are lots of people available then employers won't have to search very hard or compete very much, therefore those types of workers are not "in demand" in the colloquial sense of the term.  However, in economics there is a very important conceptual distinction between supply and demand.  Also, on page 43 (to go back to chapter 1 but stay on the theme of harping on economics) he makes a rather assertion about the effects of immigration on wages, and his only reference is to a NYT article.  I wish he had directly cited whichever primary sources are referenced in the NYT.

Still, his big picture analysis is dead-on:  He keeps pointing out that if we flooded the market with more graduates in a particular area of expertise the compensation would go down.  That reduction in salaries is definitely not an argument against educating people; even if we view education through a purely economic lens there are still economic benefits to having educated people available, and the people who get those jobs are (often) better off than they would be without that education.  Still, the formula is not simply "These jobs pay $X, so educate more people and we'll have more people making $X."  John Marsh makes that point where so many others fail to get it.  Educating more people WILL reduce the college wage premium relative to less-killed jobs.  The only question is whether the reduction in the wage premium will be pocketed by consumers (cheaper services), employers (cheaper labor, bigger profits), and/or the less-educated (college grads lifted out of their ranks eschew the jobs done by the less-educated, so the less-educated have less competition and their wages go up).  It is by no means obvious that the gains won't be pocketed by employers, and the past few decades of economic history give us no reason for optimism.

He also notes that the "knowledge worker" jobs are often (though of course not always) the ones that can be most easily moved across national borders and done remotely, while many of the jobs most likely to stay "in person", i.e. not be outsourced or off-shored, are not necessarily jobs that pay well or require a lot of education.  Again, this is not an argument against getting an education, but it is an argument against treating education as our society's guaranteed (and only) path to economic equality.  The tea leaves do not necessarily point that way, despite all the protestations to the contrary.

Do not dismiss "Class Dismissed"

I should be working on something else, but I'm reading.  I'm reading a book relevant to my work, but still, I'm reading.  The book is Class Dismissed: Why we cannot teach or learn our way out of inequality.  I will simply quote something from the introduction, something that is rarely said but very true:
Some people may escape poverty and low incomes through education, but a problem arises when education becomes the only escape route from these conditions--because that road will very quickly become bottlenecked. As the political scientist Gordon Lafer has written "It is appropriate for every parent to hope that their child becomes a professional; but it is not appropriate for federal policy makers to hope that every American becomes one."  As another economist has put it, "Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better.  Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn't encourage it."

Unlike others who argue this point, however, my concern is not with the inefficiencies that come from everyone standing up to see better but, rather, the injustices that result.  That is, my concern is with those who cannot stand up, those who, either because of lack of abilities, lack of interest, or other barriers to entry do not or cannot earn a college degree.  Insisting that they really should is neither a wise nor a particularly human solution to the problem these workers will encounter in the labor market.
Nor is it a particularly feasible one.  As I explore later in this book, the U.S. economy, despite claims to the contrary, will continue to produce more jobs that do not require a college degree than jobs that do.  A college degree will not make those jobs pay any more than the pittance they currently do.  As some of my colleagues from graduate school could confirm, a Ph.D. working as a bartender earns bartender wages, not a professor's salary.  W hat will make those bartending and other unskilled jobs pay something closer to a living wage--if not a living wage itself--constitutes, to my mind, one of the major public policy challenges of the twenty-first century.  Education, however, is not the answer. (Pages 19-20)
I would add that an economy that treats the BA/BS as the default is an economy whose labor market becomes something of a monoculture.  It wouldn't be healthy for us, even if it were feasible.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chapters 7 and 8: A muddle

If the basic idea to take away from chapter 7 is that effort matters, improvement is possible, people are not fixed quantities, and those who start "from behind" can grow, then I completely agree with chapter 7.  I just disagree with her view that this required 27 pages to state.

If the specifics of chapter 7 are to have any significance on their own, then chapter 7 is a muddle. For instance, on pages 101-102, Prof. Guinier says "Being able to half-decipher the meaning of an arcane word or to eliminate one or two wrong math answers and thereby improve one's ability to guess--without knowing how one has arrived at the right answer--these are the skills that our culture prizes."  First, I'm not sure that "our culture" is all that monolithic on the question of what sorts of abilities or attitudes are prized.  Second, I agree with her that multiple-choice tests are hardly the be-all and end-all of learning.  (Interestingly, the person I know who is most likely to agree with every word in this book is also the person who is most reliant on multiple-choice tests for certain classes...)  I certainly don't make much use of multiple-choice in my teaching.  That said, sometimes narrowing things down is an absolutely crucial skill.  Guessing is the wrong way to finalize a decision, but eliminating a few wrong answers is EXACTLY the right way to start a decision.  In some sense, decision-making meetings at work are multiple-choice tests, whereby a group starts with a few options on the table, one or two ideas get eliminated early, and then the group has to sort out the rest.

None of this should be read as a defense of basing one's future on multiple-choice tests.  However, if the specifics of chapter 7 are to mean anything, then her breezy dismissal of certain strategies of thought is disconcerting.  But, as I said, the real point of chapter 7 is summarized in the first paragraph of this post.

As to chapter 8, she makes a powerful case that teamwork and character matter at least as much as book smarts.  I don't disagree.  Again, my question is simple:  Prof. Guinier wants to democratize higher education,  some institutions will confer degrees seen as having more value than others (indeed, if we take her case for character and teamwork as a given, perhaps it will be the institutions that do the most to build character and hone students' skill at working in teams), and if there are more applicants than positions in those institutions then we will need selection criteria for those positions.  She can implement any admissions criteria that she wishes, but it will be the privileged students who will have access to better interview coaches, who will have the resources to develop better portfolios of projects, and who will have the parental support to develop better extracurricular resumes with group activities.  How does this democratize access?

If you want to make sure that you have a more diverse student body, you should make a point of admitting a diverse range of students.  If you want to make sure that you admit the under-privileged, then you should admit the under-privileged.  If you want group work in classes then you should design group assignments.  If you want to do something you should do it, not do something that you hope is maybe a proxy for it, because people will always try to game whatever proxy you come up with.

And that's all I have to say about that book.

Reaction to chapter 6

Chapter 6 makes a good case that there's more than one way to teach (though one should take these rosy stories of STEM education miracles with a grain of salt, especially when they come not from somebody in the trenches of STEM education but rather from a law professor).  Prof. Guinier makes a good case that many people can succeed, even those who don't come in with the strongest performance on traditional measures of merit.

However, if she wants to argue that there is a path to democratizing higher education, and breaking through the stranglehold that certain elite classes have on elite institutions, she still has to answer this question:

Five years after you've changed your admissions requirements to something more aligned with democratic merit, if you should find yourself with a situation of ten thousand students applying for one thousand spots, will the thousand students who rise to the top of your metrics be predominantly students whose parents and counselors figured out how to ace those metrics of democratic merit?  Will they be predominantly privileged students with parents and teachers who groomed them for the new process?

I'm not interested in what happens when we adopt new mindsets and new methods.  I'm interested in what happens a few years later, when people have had time to figure things out and respond accordingly.  Maybe it's my education in economics showing, but if you aren't taking competitive responses into account then you don't have a proposal that makes sense for wide adoption.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Reaction to chapter 5

In chapter 5, Prof. Guinier talks a lot about successful programs for helping disadvantaged students through college with peer support and scholarships.  Though not from the same background as most of the students described, I can certainly attest to the importance of scholarships and peers for my own success in advanced study.  If the question is "Can people without strong scores on some of the traditional academic metrics nonetheless succeed with the right support?" I have to agree with Prof. Guinier:  The answer is an unqualified "Yes!"

If that were the only question to ask then I would declare the case closed now and put down the book.  We could convert college admissions processes from composites of test, grades, essays, letters, etc. to interviews of the sort described on page 70 (termed "Dynamic Assessment Process", or DAP), focusing on evaluations of how students work together in group activities.  Sounds great, right?

However, I see another big factor here: The interplay of competition and inequality. Let's suppose that more institutions stopped emphasizing tests, and started emphasizing the DAP, which Prof. Guinier characterizes as measures of "collaborative merit."  How long would it take for rich kids to hire coaches for these interviews?  If these processes were administered broadly, to large pools of applicants, and not just to disadvantaged students nominated for a handful of private foundation scholarships, what would happen when parents and guidance counselors in the suburbs realized that these interviews were the targets to hit, and put their social and economic capital into preparing kids for these interviews?  How long would it take for Kaplan and Princeton Review to develop interview prep courses?

The bottom line is that in our economy attending certain types of schools will give you a much greater financial return on time and tuition than attending other types of schools, and that some students have vastly more resources at their disposal for preparing for those interviews.  I have no problem believing that success in a DAP has more predictive power than a score on an easily-coached test...because right now there are few incentives for the privileged to put their social and economic capital into acing the DAP.  Change the incentives, and suddenly the DAP will predict nothing except how much money your parents spent preparing for it.

Here's the question that I still have not seen answered in Prof. Guinier's book:  Suppose that we adopt a new college admissions process, but some institutions still produce substantially greater returns on time and tuition than others.  What happens a few years after the rules are changed, when the privileged have had a chance to get their kids the appropriate coaching?

The problem here is that we have differential returns on time and tuition, and huge differences in the social and economic capital available to students from different backgrounds.  A thoroughly-gamed college admissions process does not produce or even exacerbate that problem; it merely reflects it.  The solution is probably some more radical transformation of society, in which colleges and universities will at best be bit players and more hopefully be bystanders.  (I firmly believe in the academy as something that is or ought to be timeless, and should serve in a role of advancing and disseminating knowledge for its own sake in whatever society it happens to exist in.)  Appropriately, the next book that I plan to read (and blog about) is this one.

Shorter version: When the buildings have the names of rich guys on them, do you really think the universities are the institutions that will upset the distribution of wealth?

Chapter four: special vs normal

The school that Guinier describes is great.  It also draws on a unique partnership and it only accepts students who want to be there.  Is this scalable?

Lack of scalability doesn't mean you shouldn't do something.  You should still do it if you can, but you are not fixing the wider society, nor are you building toward a transformation.  You are just doing what you can to make something better and that is great.  If she is writing on the virtue of doing the good that you can do, well, amen.  If she is writing on transforming a system of higher education then I question how relevant this is.

Also, I am bothered by the fact that the high school only does college prep, not vocational prep.  We need colleges but we also need vocational schools.  Exulting college as the only path is a one-size-fits-all approach and that bothers me.

I can already tell that I'll hate chapter 4

Chapter 4 opens by talking about This One School.  You know the one, it's That School Near A University.  Not just any public school near a university, mind you.  No, it's The One That Has A Special Partnership With The University.  It's the sort of school that gets NYT education articles and gets well-photographed in university brochures, as an example of Our Commitment To The Community.  See, if every school would just do what they do then everything would work great, so why don't they, huh?  Clearly it must be that nobody forwarded the other schools an email with a link to that NYT article.  I will forward this to the principal of the high school physically located on my university campus, and ask why more schools, like the ones that aren't convenient walking distance from me, don't just have Special Partnerships with universities.

OK, seriously, I'm two pages in, but I'm not sensing that this chapter will give me something that works for the other 99% of schools.  (Yes, the OWS reference is intentional.)

Well, she's famous, she teaches at an elite school, she doesn't teach freshmen, and she has a book deal.  All she needs now is a TED Talk.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Reaction to chapter 3 of Guinier's book

She makes a powerful argument that diversity, disadvantage, and other factors besides traditional academic measures are worthy of consideration in admissions decisions.  I agree 100%.  I just don't see the traditional academic measures as a problem.  Rather, I see sole reliance on them (or anything else) as a problem.

Also, while her anecdote about the black men recruited to Holy Cross is a powerful and important one, these young men were hand-selected for admission to a small institution.  I question whether traditional academic measures could be so easily eradicated from the entirety of higher education, given the labor-intensive nature of the selection process that identified the Holy Cross students, and the fact that it was undertaken by a man who had quite literally taken a vow to forsake a family life and devote himself to his work (i.e. a priest).  So far this is like reading a NYT article on “This one school that did this one thing in this one special setting and it worked and why doesn’t everyone do it?”

Finally, I am sooooooooo delighted to see that Eric Mazur's hip teaching methods will be discussed in upcoming chapters.  Yes, that's exactly what I want to read about.  Wow, Eric Mazur is such a revolutionary, man!  He wants to take the focus off the sage on the stage, and he will give you a workshop where he takes credit for that idea and encourages you to read a book with his smiling face on the cover.  Because he wants the focus to be on someone other than the sage.

Yeah, I'm gonna loooooove the upcoming chapters.

More seriously, peer instruction is a fine way to teach the students that you’ve admitted, but if you have thousands of applicants for hundreds of seats, all of the clickers in the world won’t help you.   Unless you decide to sit them in an auditorium, project the SAT questions on a screen, and then have them press buttons to pick answers together.  Which is probably not what Guinier has in mind...

P.S.  I use clickers in intro classes, but that doesn't mean I can't be annoyed by Mazur and the adulation for him.

Reaction to chapter 2 of Guinier's book

One idea that I find tantalizing is the suggestion on pages 24-25 that the new elite feels it has earned what an earlier elite cohort knew it had inherited.  It is an idea that makes perfect sense, accords with anecdotal observation...but might not be true.  Or might be true but irrelevant.  The modern elites are at least as concerned with window-dressing diversity as the earlier elites were with public displays of charitable largesse.  The modern elites send their youth to do resume-building volunteer projects (because the elite colleges insist on it) while earlier elites sent their sons (we needn't even pretend that they gave much thought to the education of their daughters) to engage in character-building athletic and team activities in prep schools.  I admittedly have no statistics on the prevalence of any of these behaviors in past or present, but she has no statistics on the relative prevalence of entitled attitudes in past or present.  Her goal is (presumably) to argue for reducing the use of a system of metrics, as a response to growing inequalities whose statistical validity is well known, yet she makes numbers-free assertions on prevailing attitudes while ignoring known patterns of past behavior.

Also, on page 25 she suggests that Ivy League grads are arrogant and narrow in their thinking because they have aced multiple choice tests for which each question can have only one right answer.  First, I know an Ivy League grad who is arrogant about his enlightenment and sensitivity, and who is narrow in his thinking because he happens to be an expert in the most important subject in the world :) Second, more seriously, surely classes that emphasize writing are an important part of the solution to narrow thinking, but the evaluation of writing is at least as subjective and vulnerable to cultural bias as any multiple choice question on antonyms or whatever.  Indeed, expensive essay coaching is part of the package for rich kids seeking admission to elite schools.  This is not to say that we should favor multiple choice over essays, just that I see more lamentation of problems than a consideration of tradeoffs that could move us forward.

Also, on page 19 she notes that the LSAT predicts only 15% of the variance in grades, and thus characterizes it as being wrong 85% of the time.  Leaving aside, for the moment, whether predicting grades is or ought to be the main concern of an admissions officer, failing to predict 85% of the variance does not mean that a measure is useless.  It merely means that the measure should not be used as the sole basis for decisions, but rather should be combined with others.  Indeed, I am not aware of any US admissions process that is entirely based on one number.  The only systems that even come close to that are foreign countries with much higher stakes college admissions tests, and I don't know that most of those countries are any worse than us on economic inequality.  (Or, at least, not the developed countries.)

Reaction to chapter 1 of Guinier's book

So far I am disappointed with the book.  I am familiar with all of the usual critiques of elite education and standardized testing, and I was hoping to hear some sort of solution to the competitive pressures that have pushed things to this point.  I’m not getting that yet.  Maybe she’s just moving gently, setting things up for an audience that isn’t as familiar with the usual critiques, but so far everything is reading as run-of-the-mill rather than novel.  To wit:

  1. On page 10, she (apparently approvingly) quotes another writer’s lament that college admissions used to be fairly straightforward affairs for the children of the middle and upper classes.  She also quotes (on page 6) Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on how simple college admissions were for him in Canada (in the early 1980’s), where the university system is (was?) not as stratified by prestige tiers as it is in the US.  These laments ignore the fact that a larger fraction of the population now seeks admission to institutions of higher education, making greater competitiveness a consequence of some effort at the democratization that she seeks for higher ed.  At the same time, the economy has become more stratified, with the median person finding it harder to advance without more education.  Greater competition is a consequence of more people responding to these pressures, and I don’t know that a simpler application form will fix any of that.

  1. She laments on page 10 the extremes of resume-building and extracurriculars that some students are resorting to.  However, in the introduction she calls for higher education institutions to focus more on service and character-building.  More extreme extracurricular resumes, and more baroque lists of volunteer and service activities, are likely to be the consequences of the focus that she is calling for, as long as the competitive pressures remain.  I remain unconvinced that the real problem is admissions processes rather than a larger economy that has more people desperately trying to credential themselves to fight for fewer crumbs.

  1. Throughout the chapter she repeatedly laments that colleges are focusing on getting students who are already equipped to succeed rather than students whom they can improve and help.  I understand her lament, and to a large extent I agree.  However, there are some facts that she doesn’t have to consider from her lofty perch as an Ivy League law professor, teaching elite students who have already been through considerable vetting.  It’s one thing to give a break to a kid who has a few weaknesses but at least has most of the fundamentals.  It’s quite another to take students who are barely competent in high school math and who struggle to produce coherent sentences (let alone well-structured paragraphs and organized essays) and get them to a college degree in the strict confines of a four-year, 120-credit program.

One could say that we should nonetheless take those students where there are at and at least do what we can to build them up for four years.  That’s fair enough, but programs structured for that goal will not go as far as programs structured for well-prepared students. Employers will know this, the value of those diplomas will not be as high, and the competitive pressures that Guinier laments will not go away, barring some sort of unanimous agreement that all colleges and universities will forego competition and cater to the same average.

Also, there are many who not only lament inequities in undergraduate education, but also (probably rightly) lament inequities in graduate education.  There is an understandable (if misguided) call for schools that serve the less elite students to send more of them to graduate study.  However, sending people to graduate study means preparing them to some level higher than “Whatever we could manage to do in four years, working with a cohort that included many who started off barely competent in math and writing.”  There is a conflict between “Solve problems of inequality by taking them wherever they are at and doing what you can for them” and “Solve problems of inequality by sending more of them to graduate school.”

On the last point, perhaps it is unreasonable to expect Guinier to view these issues the way that I do from ground-level, in a non-elite institution.  Well, fair enough, but that just means that she’s merely one more Harvard Professor with a bully pulpit.  So far she’s doing an excellent job of making the case that Ivy League elites lack the necessary perspective to solve the problems that our society faces.

Restarting this thing

It has been several years since I posted here.  In that time I have wandered far and wide over the internets, not always under my real name.  However, lately I have started having a hankering to discuss books, and the people around me in meatspace aren't always interested in reading the same books as me.  So, for now, this will be where I post my reading journal.

Currently I am reading Tyranny of the Meritocracy by Lani Guinier.  The next 3 posts will be my reactions to the first three chapters of her book.

And, FYI, I am a horrible, uncool person who reads books in analog rather than digital format.