What are the ruling ideas today? Is “College For All” among them? (Doubts-that-don’t-change-our-practices edition)

by flickr user ChrisM70
by flickr user ChrisM70

I’ve just finished an article on higher education and the liberal arts, and it’s full of hope and comes to some definite conclusions about particular ways that an education in the liberal arts is valuable. It’s out for peer review right now, which means that if the reviewer is googling phrases maybe she’ll find this, so I want to say up front: I believe in what I wrote there. But I also have doubts about the progressive push towards education for all, the idea that through education we can all shed the demands of material labor, or that the value (and cost!) of an education should be totally disconnected from its role is securing a job.

Automation v. Education

The Economist recently gave voice to this particular error in its article on how technology will increasingly be automating office workers out of their jobs, which will widen the already broad inequality between those who must compete with machines and computers, and those whose jobs cannot (yet) be reduced to an algorithm. Here’s how they put it:

The main way in which governments can help their people through this dislocation is through education systems. One of the reasons for the improvement in workers’ fortunes in the latter part of the Industrial Revolution was because schools were built to educate them—a dramatic change at the time. Now those schools themselves need to be changed, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking.

Technology itself will help, whether through MOOCs (massive open online courses) or even video games that simulate the skills needed for work. The definition of “a state education” may also change. Far more money should be spent on pre-schooling, since the cognitive abilities and social skills that children learn in their first few years define much of their future potential. And adults will need continuous education. State education may well involve a year of study to be taken later in life, perhaps in stages.

Yet however well people are taught, their abilities will remain unequal, and in a world which is increasingly polarised economically, many will find their job prospects dimmed and wages squeezed.

What value, then, is an education, if it won’t prevent the technological obsolescence of our skills? Put simply: if there are going to be ditches (which are required for plumbing, among other things) then there are going to be ditch diggers, or ditch-digging-machine-operators, or ditch-digging-machine-programmers. The move to automation replaces many operators with a few programmers, enriching the educated programmer at the expense of the uneducated operator, and that’s the move that should concern us, since it violates a basic rule of maximin: the people hurt are both more numerous and more needy than the people helped.

The standard economic argument is that lower prices help the poorest the most, and that freedom from unskilled labor allows workers to do something more rewarding, something that requires an education but cannot be imagined under the current political economy that requires so many to dig ditches. It’s like the old joke:

An industrialist is visiting a construction site and watching a newly-invented steamshovel in its first job. The union foreman complains that its job could be done by a dozen men with shovels, each earning a decent wage. The industrialist retorts it could be done by a hundred men with spoons.

Usually I prefer state-level redistribution through a basic income guarantee, but sometimes I think it makes more sense to fight for higher wages for the folks doing the digging than it does to hope that everyone will be able to escape that life if they could only get a Bachelor’s degree or a PhD. That hope in education has an ideological function that exceeds its aspirational and inspirational effects.

Who is the Ruling Class?

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas…”

So wrote Karl Marx in the The German Ideology. I’m not entirely sure that there is a single ruling class in American politics, in the sense Marx articulated it, but if there is one, it’s the folks with Bachelor’s degrees, the modern bourgeoisie. We are often-enough regaled by politicians with solicitations to the “middle-class” or “working Americans” that we might be tempted to identify these groups as the ruling class, but about 60% of the population participates in the workforce, and exactly 60% of the population are in the middle three quintiles of income sometimes identified as the middle class. I would argue that these groups are too large to have conjoined interests or ideas.

On the other hand, we are sometimes assured that the very rich and very few (for instance, the top 1%) are in fact governing the US, and that the masses don’t perceive the truth of this dominance because of ideology. If I’m right about the college educated, then it’s much too convenient to limit the ruling class to bankers and stock brokers and identify neoliberalism as the ruling idea; if the traditional bourgeoisie still exercises a great deal of control, then even the very rich must still win over that larger group in order to maintain their wealth. Arguably the 99% v. 1% language of Occupy was a clever rhetorical strategy for enlisting the support of the larger ruling class with the interests of the proletariat. It may be that billionaires manipulate the agenda, but the baseline agenda the wealthy are trying to steer is set by the merely well-off.

Another possibility is that that larger class really does share class interests with the 1%, so Occupy was unsuccessful because the ruling class’s ideas can’t be moved by rhetoric if its interests are at stake. (As I understand it, this is Marx’s point: ideology is believing that ideas matter more than practices.)

Bourgeois Ideology

So what does that class (to which I and my readers probably belong) have in common?

  • We are college educated.
  • We work in offices, with computers.
  • We are employed, and if we are in relationships we probably cohabitate with our partners who are also employed.
  • We live in cities or “suburbs” which have been adopted by some metropolitan area.
  • We own our own home (though this may be changing.)
  • We often don’t live near where we were born, or in the same city as our families.
  • We are likely to work in education, health-care, technology, management, or the public sector.
  • Our careers tend to benefit from globalization.
  • We are predominantly white.
  • We have very little contact with police, prisons, or the criminal justice system unless we are employed by those institutions (which many of us are.)

If what I’ve described above is correct, then perhaps these would be the ruling ideas:

  • Education is for everyone, and more equal educational access will create a more equal society.
  • Office-work is difficult and valuable, and education ought to prepare us for it.
  • Jobs and workplace regulations are the primary mode by which the state ought to see to the public’s good.
  • Marriage is good for everyone; even homosexuals should marry.
  • Urban life is better than rural life.
  • The American Dream should require (and subsidize) home ownership even if that punishes renters and those too poor to afford a home.
  • Family ties matter less than economic success.
  • Education, health-case, technology, and the public sector are the “best” jobs and ought to be subsidized.
  • Globablization is good.
  • Race is irrelevant.
  • The criminal justice system should supply entertaining plot lines for movies and television, but it is not otherwise relevant. Probably most people in prison belong there.

To be clear, while I’m not advocating these ideas, I believe (or act as if I believe) many of them. If those ideas are fundamentally aligned with my class-interest, it would be more surprising if I didn’t believe them. It’s not simply a coincidence that those with the most power and influence in society never have their fundamental interests questioned in our politics. That’s what makes them ideological, that these aren’t partisan issues: no one contests the value of education or marriage, and very rarely do they contest the important of home ownership.

Another possibility is that the top 20%-30% of Americans are not members of some ruling class, that the class is either much smaller than that or that there really isn’t such a thing as as single ruling class any longer, just a number of different social groups that align themselves in ways that they can succeed and govern on some topics and not others. For instance, none of the possible ruling ideas I mentioned included things that are quite clearly also governing American culture and politics, like support for the elderly through Medicare and Social Security (unless you think the elderly are the true ruling class), or America’s military role in the world (unless you think the military is the ruling class). Ideas like meritocracy and personal responsibility, patriotism and faith are frequently rejected by the richest two quartiles, precisely because they conflict with the values instilled by higher education and urban life.

If those ideas are also “ruling” in some way, then we would expect that those who hold them would be the true ruling class if all ruling ideas must belong to the ruling class. Perhaps instead, ruling ideas come from all the classes. Indeed, other ideas aren’t even “ruling ideas” so much as deeply felt constitutional claims, like the important of markets and prices for mediating our economic interactions, the idea that personal property and capital property should be governed by similar rules, or the assumption that inequality can ever be justified by increased productivity or merit. These ideas no longer have their source in a single class, even if they once did, just as in some sense American’s deep commitment to the idea of democracy and one-person-one-vote is a classless idea, at least in the US.

(It should be pointed out that what I have just written in the last paragraph is almost precisely the position being lampooned by Marx in The German Ideology. Ironic, eh?)

At What Cost?

I worry that the cultural promotion of the value of education is ideological, often, because I both benefit from it and yet also regularly watch how “College For All” seems to be disadvantaging a lot of my students. My fellow progressives who rail against the false equality of opportunity that makes the poor think they will someday be millionaires ought to understand why college can’t be an exit from the working class for everyone. Sure, anyone can be a millionaire or good at college, but everyone can’t. It’s a meritocratic institution, not an equalizer, and very little of the so-called college wage premium goes to those who graduate from community colleges and unselective four year universities. The inequality is built into our political economy!

I mean no disrepect to my students, either. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to appreciate the priorities of those who are actually choosing between homework and subsistence labor, for instance, or attendance and childcare. I’ve only been working at an unselective institution for three years, after seven years at selective universities, and the difference is palpable. I watched one student’s children so she could take exams without leaving them accessible to her abusive ex. She barely passed, and we both called that a victory: she hadn’t had much time to study, and had to read her notes through a hell of a black eye. Was education really the most important thing to do for her? What did she learn that she’ll remember later?

What about the student who I have cried with because she is dying from cancer: her husband just left her because the chemo makes her not want to have sex, and all she wants to do is graduate before she dies? Or the student who discovered she was pregnant and came to me because she didn’t know what to do? Or my student whose brother was shot and broke down in class? Or my student who was followed into class and physically threatened? Or my student who thought she had to be a nursing major until she realized she was really good at philosophy, but is still majoring in nursing to be practical? Or my student who asked me to help him figure out how to transfer when he realized that the only way he’d get a good education in computer science was if he left us? Or my students who are also incarcerated?

Rights and Privileges

I’m not saying that they don’t deserve an education: they do! Those are almost all people who will have college diplomas or already have them. Most of them are women. They won’t dig ditches, but they will work in jobs that only require a college degree nominally, where the skills they’ve often failed to learn are irrelevant. The diploma will prove that they have grit and conscientiousness, and give them a leg up in a job market where signaling such things are necessary, but they, like most people, will not remember what Modus Ponens is or how the the Rawlsian original position is supposed to help us think about justice.

There’s a difference between saying, “Right now, you have more important things to do than your logic homework, and that’s okay,” and saying, “Because you are poor, you don’t deserve a college education.” My students in prison are much better academically than the ones who are free, just because they have the time to focus on their studies, and I think there is a lot of value in the work that we do together. But no Pell Grants means no credit, and a felony record means that the skills they learn may never be put to work.

Maybe there’s a difference between “deserving” and “needing” an education. Most people don’t need a college diploma, certainly not to do their jobs, and probably not to be good citizens. They need a union or a basic income guarantee or a social minimum or a citizen capital grant or workplace democracy. But increasingly the only people who still have unions and political power are the people who also have college degrees, and those of us in that group like to pretend that increasing subsidies for bourgeois students (our kids) will help the ditch-diggers, too. That’s a bit too convenient, isn’t it?

In-Groups Defend Their Turf? Philosophy versus Psychology in the New York Times

A showdown of sorts with Jonathan Haidt is brewing on The Stone.

Michael P. Lynch gives us “A Vote for Reason.”

The judgment that reasons play no role in judgment is itself a judgment. And Haidt has defended it with reasons. So if those reasons convince me that his theory is true, then reasons can play a role in judgment — contra the theory. Think about the passage I quoted above in this context: those who love truth need to take a good, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. This sounds like a self-defeating argument: we are being advised to use reason to see that reason is flawed.

Gary Gutting adds “Haidt’s Problem with Plato.”

Plato’s intuitions derive from a long and complex process of physical, emotional and intellectual formation in a supportive social system.  (This is what Plato means by the “education” of his philosopher-rulers.) These intuitions are what — given sufficient experience, maturity and, especially, responsible intellectual engagement with others — we hope will replace the snap-judgment intuitions Haidt rightly sees as underlying so much of our moral life.

Haidt is scheduled to respond this Sunday evening. (My own previous challenge to Haidt has gone unanswered.)

Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers

(This post is a continuation of Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Strike.)

Another way of thinking about public sector unionization is as an effort to force democratic public institutions to remain accountable to the professional standards and know-how of those who work within them. Citizens want better, more accountable teachers, yet they don’t know how to achieve this. Politicians are pressured to offer the politician’s fallacy:

“Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.”

Thus, they end up championing measures like high-stakes testing that masquerade as accountability while failing to supply statistically meaningful information about teacher quality. Without an advocacy group, Chicago’s teachers would not be able to convey this simple message: there may well be bad teachers, and the current system makes them difficult to fire, but the proposed measures won’t help us get rid of them. Instead, the tests will make teachers randomly fireable based on their bad luck in getting the wrong students, and as a result experienced teachers will learn to avoid contexts (like underserved students) that place them at risk.

The plan is assuredly bad, but it’s the best that a technocratic vision of our educational troubles can cobble together. Real technocrats ought to realized that we don’t actually have educational troubles, at least not in the sense that most people assume: our schools are the best in the world, and everyone knows it but us.

In education, it’s important to recognize that we do better than the comparative international rankings give us credit for. We do poorly in rankings that don’t acknowledge that immigration creates unique challenges, but such rankings are bound to prefer homogeneous and xenophobic places and I don’t think we should see them as any kind of model to emulate. If you divide our performance into two bands, one of immigrants and one of non-immigrants, and compare us to the same bands of other nations, we’d win both categories: we do better by our long-term residents, and we do a better job educating immigrants. The US outperforms Western Europe and Asia on PISA scores, if you account for the demographics of immigration. As much as the political rhetoric and in the US is quite xenophobic and there’s been plenty of backsliding in the last few years in various states, we’ve long been deeply economically and culturally committed to a kind of multiculturalism you won’t find anyplace outside of North America. (Canada is also awesome on this front, but Finland certainly isn’t!)

That’s right: we’re doing it the best it can be done here in the US, (though the pace of the quality increases are slowing.) Plus we educate more immigrants than any other country, to better effect. We’re ranked lower because we have more, lower-skilled immigrants, not because we don’t teach as well. What’s more, education is an important part of immigrants’ assimilation, and we’re better off to have those new citizens, even if it means we take a hit in the “overall” scores.

Why then do we seem to believe otherwise?

“Of course, the biggest myth that the media reporting of PISA scores propagates is that the American public school system is horrible. The liberal left in U.S and in Europe loves this myth, because they get to demand more government spending, and at the same time get to gloat about how much smarter Europeans are than Americans. The right also kind of likes the myth, because they get to blame social problems on the government, and scare the public about Chinese competitiveness.”

What’s worse, often times international rankings are used to try to show that American teachers aren’t performing as well as they ought to be. In fact, they’re dealing with so much more than teachers in other countries, and succeeding, but their successes are being inappropriately compared to the easy victories elsewhere and painted as failure. Gah!

We should still strive to improve. This will sometimes require teachers to change in ways they would like to avoid. But let us be clear that we’re in the position of improving on the best, which is more difficult than simply aping the behavior of those who are allegedly “ahead” of us. (Think of Apple: they’re in the lead, so there’s often no one for them to copy.) And we should always ask ourselves why something is the way it is before we try change it, lest our efforts at improvement merely make it worse. Teachers and teachers unions are certainly in this category! Remember Chesterton’s Fence….

Of course, the Democratic technocrats aren’t all wrong. Sure, poor students do poorly, but some poor students do more poorly than others, and the correlations suggest that some teachers are much, much better at helping poor students improve. That means we can’t just throw up our hands and point to structural racism and poverty, because teachers merit a share of the praise or blame for actually enacting that poverty and racism by exacerbating mediocrity or rising to the challenge. At the same time, discovering the traits that make teachers great doesn’t guarantee that we’ll have an infinite supply of folks with those traits. We need excellent doctors and scientists and politicians, too. If there’s not enough greatness to go around, what then?

Our ongoing strategy has been to shunt the most ineffective teachers to deal with the poorest students, with predictable results. But the reverse strategy isn’t likely to satisfy, either: rich people want their kids to have good teachers, too, and they can afford to pay for the privilege. If we believe that they’re really getting something for their money (and maybe we shouldn’t; maybe private school teachers are no better than public school teachers) then we ought to see what we can do to get it for poor and middle-class students as well.

I should just note that while the strike has been suspended, the Emanuel administration is trying to enforce a provision of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act that prevents teachers from striking on the basis of “workplace conditions” like retention and testing regimes, and instead mandates mediation for such matters. This provision was added as a part of the 1995 move to grant mayoral control of schools championed by Richard Daley. Even as a dedicated deliberativist and advocate of alternative dispute resolution, I can’t help thinking that such a mediation is unlikely to lead to the promulgation of a wise testing policy, which would be extraordinarily expensive and slow to design, evaluate, and implement. Even then, many teachers will never work with enough students in the average two-year period to generate statistically meaningful results. And yet the drumbeat for measurable excellence continues.

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike

I am one of those ideologically-impure liberals that worries a lot about public sector unions. On the one hand, I favor workplace democracy and collaboration; on the other hand, I worry about the fact that as union membership has declined, the majority of remaining union members haved tended to be at the top of the income distribution and to have many other forms of cultural and social capital as well. A public sector union member gets input into the functioning of government as a voter, plus they get input into our government as a union member concerned about their own labor conditions. What’s more, public-sector unions are not all the same: to my mind there’s a difference between a teacher’s union and a police or prison guard union, and I’m not willing to be univocal in my support for both. Still, my bias is generally in favor of teachers: I am one, after all.

Caption BelowI recently read an interesting factoid about teaching: in the 1960s, 2/3 of all households had school age children. Today, only 1/3 do. Attempts to verify these have been unsuccessful, although the percentage has certainly been dropping for a long time along with the birth rate. (I also learned that 39% of Chicago’s public school teachers send their own children to private schools.)

Looking at the responses to the Chicago Teacher’s Strike, especially the way it pits centrist technocratic Democrats like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel against old-school labor progressives, I suspect that the falling percentage of families with school-age children is part of the problem. Sure, everyone agrees that education is important, but fewer families actually have current need of a good education, and so for better or worse they have begun to look at the costs rather than the benefits of strong schools.

In my view, this decline allows an interesting analogy with Hannah Arendt’s account of the growth of anti-semitism in Origins of Totalitarianism, which itself is derived from Karl Marx’s essay on On The Jewish Question. Arendt argued that Jews had failed to take advantage of their political and economic power while it was still extensive enough to garner protection from the Christian majority. When their role as scapegoat creditors was centralized into big (non-Jewish) businesses and a few Jewish financiers, the long-ignored differences between Jews and Christians exploded to the fore, with genocidal results.

Arendt bases this theory on Tocqueville’s account of the downfall of the French aristocracy:

“the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any considerable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country.”

Troublesome as inequality and oppression may be, inequality without the power to back it up is even worse. Arendt suggests that the Jews refused to occupy a designated space within the European political economy, instead “choosing” to remain aloof no matter which class individual Jews would otherwise occupy. (Of course, it’s not so simple, but to Arendt it seems that there was a coincidence between the Jewish desire for group survival and the nation-state’s interest in preventing assimiliation.) Yet according to Arendt this became a great problem when successful Jews sought acceptance and assimilation into the professions and intellectual elites:

“Central and Western European Jewries had reached a saturation point in wealth and economic fortune. This might have been the moment for them to show that they actually wanted money for money’s sake or for power’s sake. In the former case, they might have expanded their businesses and handed them down to their descendants; in the latter they might have entrenched themselves more firmly in state business and fought the influence of big business and industry on governments. But they did neither. In the contrary, the sons of well-to-do businessmen and, to a lesser extent, bankers, deserted their fathers careers for the liberal professions or purely intellectual pursuits they had not been able to afford a few generations before.”

Arendt called this “political ignorance” that blinded the Jews to “the political dangers of antisemitism.” Certainly they understood the costs of social discrimination; what they did not understand was the way this would morph under totalitarianism:

“Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any gauge by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is “normal” if he is like everybody else and “abnormal” if he happens to be different. This perversion of equality from apolitical into a social concept is all the more dangerous when a society leaves but little space for special groups and individuals, for then their differences become all the more conspicuous.” (55)

To be unequal when equality is understood as equality before the law is a blessing; to be unequal when equality is understood as a social requirement for membership in the political community is quite a curse. The more that Americans attend to income inequality, the more they will worry about Wall Street bankers, certainly; but they also worry about the local inequalities, those they see at work in their own communities. Wall Street is far away for most Americans; yet everyone has a local government, and most Americans can observe that the cars that park in the teachers’ lot are nicer than their own, while simultaneously noting that teachers have shorter days and longer vacations.

For Arendt, the backlash of resentment comes when those with a privilege lose the power to enforce it. The aristocrats tried to keep their privileges without preserving the authority to organize their communities, and they lost their heads; the Ancien Régime gave way to the centrally-administered bureaucracy. Teachers are no longer trusted to evaluate their own success or failure; more and more of their lesson plans are legislated or provided by centralized textbook publishers. Fewer families depend upon teachers than ever before, and those who do have political power don’t trust the public schools in large urban school districts like Chicago, New York City, or Washington, DC. In these and many other ways, the job of teaching K-12 education is being de-professionalized, in large part because we’ve tried to demand that education solve all of our problems and it simply cannot.

Perhaps this comparison is not the right one, but what I notice is that labor solidarity is increasingly exclusive of the least-advantaged. Especially during times of increasing unemployment, I worry that solidarity with laborers will not include those most in need. Unions are no longer primarily sources of solidarity between the lower and middle-class and a means of stepping into the middle-class; now they are sources of solidarity within some elements of the upper-middle class, i.e. those who are well above the median income in the United States. In this sense, public sector labor unions appear to command economic power while failing to achieve the cross-class solidarity that would legitimize that economic power for those who are worse-off. The resentment that emerges, then, appears to be driven by the demographic constitution of the union itself. As Arendt pointed out, rights without the power to protect them are useless: when you need them, they’re not there.

Even as teachers are losing political power, it appears that the political power of labor solidarity has an unfortunate tendency to accumulate among those who already have it. In the US, the people who most need unions don’t have them: Walmart workers; nurses and home health aids; agriculture and construction workers. Meanwhile, the people who least need unions get them: folks with graduates degrees and guns. Soon, perhaps, it will just be those with guns who can prevent the legislative undermining of their rights to collective bargaining.

(Continued in the next post, Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers)

There is no college bubble

Megan McArdle’s Newsweek cover story, “Is college a lousy investment?” is an odd beast. Parts of it are really great, and there are some very important observations throughout to which my colleagues and fellow progressives should pay attention. But the title, framing, graphics, and many of the arguments are just silly, which makes it a bit odd that she accuses others of “mythomania” (i.e. pathological lying.)

She says, for instance:

The price of a McDonald’s hamburger has risen from 85 cents in 1995 to about a dollar today. The average price of all goods and services has risen about 50 percent. But the price of a college education has nearly doubled in that time.

It’s just not true. The sticker price has risen dramatically, but the net price (what families actually pay on average) has remained fairly constant. What we have more of is price discrimination: families with more money pay more, as do students with better prospective income.

McArdle also claims that:

the amount of student-loan debt carried by households has more than quintupled since 1999. These graduates were told that a diploma was all they needed to succeed, but it won’t even get them out of the spare bedroom at Mom and Dad’s. For many, the most tangible result of their four years is the loan payments, which now average hundreds of dollars a month on loan balances in the tens of thousands.

These sentences are literally true, but deceptive when accompanied by the graphic that shows atypical students with larger than average debt. Students aren’t taking out a lot of loans per capita: there’s just more people taking them out than ever and there are some really egregious examples especially at for-profit colleges (which abuse the false sticker prices to extract high real tuitions) and in some professions, like law. The average college graduate has a small car payment’s worth of student loans, which they can pay off in ten years. The guy in the image with $75,000 in debt went to Georgetown and Harvard Law; he’s not typical, and he’s going to be able to pay that money back with those credentials. Certainly, in some cases, students without sufficient merit buy their way into superior colleges and universities, generally at private schools. But the students using debt to finance educations for which they are inadequately prepared and from which they’ll gain nothing are at for-profit institutions (which are absurdly expensive) and community colleges (which are cheap already and need to be better-subsidized.)

Still, there are things McArdle gets right: credentialism is a huge problem. We’re overtraining for a variety of skills that simply aren’t in demand. I don’t mean we have too many poets, I mean we have too many students majoring in business and marketing. And the degree treadmill has a cost: some of our smartest citizens devote all their youth and entrepreneurial energies to coming up with publishable papers, ways to impress their advisors, and grant-worthy research programs rather than getting to work trying to solve their communities’ and our nations’ problems.

It shouldn’t take a libertarian to remind us of that; after all, it was America’s preeminent progressive, Jane Addams, who warned us of the “snare of preparation“:

which… we spread before the feet of young people, hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform it to their own ideals.

Worry about the shift in college spending from instruction and faculty salaries to lifestyle and administration. Worry about the lack of good apprenticeships. Worry about youth unemployment, especially among non-college youth (that’s most of them.) But don’t worry for the poor folks who’re going to make a million more dollars over their lifetimes than their counterparts, don’t worry about Harvard-graduates with a bit of debt, and–for Münchausen’s sake!–don’t worry that we have too many poets. We need more poets, otherwise the pundits will bore us to death.

Mythomania about college, indeed.