January 13, 2014

A READER SENDS SOME THOUGHTS AFTER READING THE NEW SCHOOL:

I enjoyed The New School very much, and have been shipping copies around to my small circle of academic friends with open minds. Great stuff.

Being a one-time faculty brat and more or less surrounded in consanguinity and geography by liberal educators, these are all topics that have intrigued me even before you started linking away on Instapundit. So I have a couple of unsolicited thoughts and reactions, which you may or may not find worthy.

On the question of declining standards, especially in primary and secondary education, conservatives tend to focus on institutional blockages, such as bloated administrations, unions and the application of post-modern ideology of one sort or another. I note, however, that here in Texas we have lower costs per student, no unions, and very little liberal ideology. Rather, the attack on standards has come from the right, and the extremely tight central control of education at the state level. My new mother-in-law is an old school Texas high school teacher, and very articulate on the subject. Can’t we all just teach science whether involving primate reproduction or natural selection? (Notwithstanding that, Texas gets by far the best results in math and science of any large state, spending around half per student of New York and New Jersey, so it must be doing something right, but that’s its own interesting subject.)

I think the biggest threat to standards comes from the intersection of democracy and heterogeneity. One cannot both cater to voters (whether in local elections anywhere or statewide in Texas) and impose high standards, except in those relatively rare circumstances where the voters themselves are fundamentally homogeneous (e.g., the Eanes school district in suburban Austin, which is very white, affluent, and excellent).

Put another way: Among (1) rigorous standards, (2) heterogeneity or socioeconomic “diversity” in the constituent population, and (3) democratic control of the schools, pick any two. The objective of any shared enterprise is the least common denominator of its participants. That is why businesses and other effective organizations spend so much time selling their objectives to their internal constituents (employees, investors, donors, and congregants). Schools with diverse constituents under democratic control cannot even forge a consensus objective to sell internally, so the least-common denominator is very low.

So: The schools worked in to the 1960s because America was much more homogeneous, and schools were especially so.

The question is, what to do about it? I would argue that the effectiveness of charter schools (and voucher-supported systems) comes from the self-selection: In effect, they eliminate heterogeneity in attitudes about education, at least, and (furthermore) they substitute market choice for majority-wins democracy. Yes, they also allow schools to bypass unions and get vastly more productivity out of the administration (my kids went to the Princeton Charter School, which is superb, and there were only two employees who did not teach), but I think these factors are less important than vesting control of individual schools in like-minded people with a shared vision and objectives.

Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing whether you think there is merit to that argument.

On the book itself, there were only three observations I would make. First, I absolutely agree that one of the things that sustains colleges is that employers leverage not just college transcripts but college admissions decisions as a way to distinguish applicants. Selective colleges are just about the only institutions in America who are allowed to say who makes the cut and who does not without any real oversight or risk of liability. This has been very useful for employers, because their own judgments are now subject to such intense scrutiny, especially for any business large enough to be a federal contractor. (The stories I could tell about the Office of Federal Contract Compliance… on the list for my retirement.)

The only way to break this, I think, is to revise OFCC rules, and that will require a Republican administration with some testicular fortitude. If only. But a topic perhaps worth exploring if you are going to develop this angle.

Second, I am not sure I understand the argument for allowing student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy. Student loans go mostly to people who are ipso facto insolvent. If you could discharge the loans in bankruptcy, why wouldn’t everybody just do that when they graduate? Yeah, bankruptcy carries a bit of a stigma and could damage one’s credit rating and therefore one’s borrowing capacity for a few years, but the stigma is declining and a huge student loan obligation is as big an obstacle to obtaining credit as a low credit rating. And, obviously, if the practice became widespread lenders would start discounting the significance of it.

If *that* happened, presumably, private lenders would stop making student loans, and that would put (even if desirable) fiscal pressure on universities. Perhaps that was your point, but if so I do not think you hammered it home.

Third, to my mind the most arresting point you made comes on page 60 in the “exit” paragraph: “While it’s harder than it used to be to get ahead in America, even with a college degree, it’s probably easier (and more comfortable) than ever to just barely get by.” For some reason, I had not framed it that way in my mind, caught up as I was in the back and forth about whether our material quality of life is really higher even though our incomes have stagnated (not mine, fortunately, but all y’all).

Anyway, thank you for writing that. I hope you sell a ton of them.

P.S. No problem from quoting from this on the small chance you would want to, but I’d prefer without attribution.

Very interesting stuff. To clarify, my bankruptcy proposal involved a waiting period of at least five and probably more like ten years post graduation. That addresses the “insolvent graduate” problem.