The Value of Stupidity

Nathan Harden writing in the American Interest argues that higher education as we know it is doomed. The short video clip below may provide an inkling why. “I want an education,” implores this lady student at a Chicago school in what passes for a class. Evidently, she doesn’t think she is getting it. Why is that?


In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

One possible answer is that schools increasingly don’t teach anything the students find valuable. They teach stuff, but that stuff isn’t knowledge. Real knowledge makes a difference in your life; it makes you capable of doing things you couldn’t without it. In that respect education is like those magical rays superheros received in comic-books. Before a 90 pound weakling. Afterward, the Green Lantern, in the days before the Green Lantern was gay.

But there are no magic rays in the Chicago school classrooms. So they leave the classroom with nothing of utility in their possession despite the hours they’ve spent sitting still waiting for it. About all they can be sure to receive, if they grit their teeth and hang around long enough, is a devalued credential from a Chicago public school handed out by a functionary on a stage with the band thumping out “Land of Hope and Glory”. Is that worth years of their life?


Aware of the disgruntlement, some professors have decided to compete with the next most valuable use of students time: video games.  If they can make classrooms pay off as much as a game, then maybe things can still work out. Professors are handing out badges, of the sort you can earn on Farmville.

Watson used them in an online graduate level course, and said students could see exactly what they would have to do to get the badges in order to show their mastery. Students even had the option to make the badges, once earned, publicly available on social media platforms.

This, Watson said, put the power back in the students’ hands. Employers can now go in and look at the skills that the student and potential employee have to offer, he said.

“It helps the student prove themselves,” Watson said. “They only have a transcript to show what they have learned, but the employer can’t see how that translates. Now they’ll have a type of portfolio that the employer can see with his own eyes.”

Meanwhile, reaction to the pilot program is mixed, he said.

“Some are seeing it as a different grade box,” he said.

That’s probably exactly what the badges are: a different grade box, instituted because the official grade box has become too corrupted to measure anything useful. The professors are printing their own currency because the academic money is worth about as much as Mickey Mouse Money.


But who says you can’t spend Mickey Mouse Money? David Frum explains to his readers that this is just what the system wants. It has long ago disconnected itself from reality. It lives in a hermetically closed universe where stupidity has become artificially valuable. The most sought after thing in the Obama administration today, a fact attested to by Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton is the ability to spout nonsense with a straight face. That requirement may shed light on the woes of the Chicago public school system. What if unabashed incompetence became the beau ideal?

Frum presents as Exhibit A Chuck Hagel.  Citing David Aaaron Miller at Foreign Policy, Frum argues that Hagel was been chosen by Barack Obama precisely because he is so unqualified that he can serve merely as a rubber-stamp.

Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran sanctions: Much has been made of Hagel’s views on other matters — talking to Hamas, changing tack on Hezbollah, and questioning the value of sanctions against Iran. On all these issues, Hagel’s views are out of synch with current U.S. policy. I disagree with the former senator on all three (and make no mistake, should the nomination move ahead, he’ll be pressed on all three).

But we’re kidding ourselves if we think Chuck Hagel will be in a position to influence the debate on any of them. As I’ve written elsewhere, Barack Obama is the most withholding and controlling U.S. president on foreign policy since Richard Nixon. All power on the big and sensitive issues flows in and out of the White House, as John Kerry will discover too. Obama dominates; he doesn’t delegate. Don’t like what Hagel has to say on Hamas? Not to worry. Unhappy about his views on sanctions? Never mind. His views on this and other matters won’t count for much.


In other words what Hagel brings to the table isn’t what he knows but the fact that he knows nothing.  It’s just like the public schools. They don’t exist to teach the students. They exist to employ the unions.

Real competence doesn’t matter any more in the Big Tent; it marches to a different drummer and neither should it matter in Big Tent Prep, the Chicago public schools.  The system no longer values what you know; it values where you graduated — or so it says; it no longer cares about what you are as much as Who Sent You.

But there’s more. Nathan Harden by arguing that the Big Tent Prep system is collapsing is also arguing perhaps without being aware of it that the economic system it feeds will also change radically.  The collapse of the educational system is the harbinger of the collapse of the system in which it serves. A world where “Harvard will enroll ten million students” will be a world where graduating from Harvard won’t matter. A gate ten million wide is no gate. In that torrent the grading power will shift to whoever does the recruiting. The emphasis will have shifted to what the graduate or certificate holder actually knows.

In that world, Chuck Hagel need not apply. Nor would perhaps Barack Obama be in a position to teach. But it might be a universe in which the disgruntled lady student could get answer to her plea. “I want an education!” she said. Want an education? Well go out and get it anyway you can.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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