Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013: A Year of Personal Loss

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Syra_freight

Let me start with a few of the good things about 2013: family is doing well, children continue to amaze and confound me, no problems on the job. Had a chance to get around: Santa Barbara and New Orleans to hang with old school friends, off to London to chill with Bob from Brockley, Kellie (Air Force Amazons), and other UK bloggers from our little trans-Atlantic alliance. Bob even made it out here to NYC for a few days, which was a lot of fun. I was able to show him around: Prospect Park and Brooklyn Heights, dim sum in Flushing, 5Pointz before it was buffed. Roland (But, I am a Liberal!) Dodds) was here for his honeymoon and I had the pleasure of hanging out with him and his lovely wife for an afternoon of tapas, sangria, history, and more drinks.

As all regular readers of this blog know, Norman Geras passed away in October. We never met in person—our correspondence was limited to a few emails and I occasionally commented on his Facebook posts—but he was undoubtedly a major influence on the Decent Left as well as those associated with the Euston Manifesto. His lucidity, friendliness, and insights on a variety of topics from philosophy to human behavior will be missed by many, including myself. RIP, Norm.

gigs_syra

On a more personal level, two very close friends of mine,  SYRA-1 and HTD died this year. I am avoiding using their names and apologize in advance if anyone objects to the use of these images.

Syra1

The name SYRA ONE–FSC, KTD, RF, GM5–will run forever on the great freight train in the sky, the Wall of Fame of true graff KINGS. His style will be emulated by those who aim for mastery of the art of writing. This is a miniscule selection of his pieces.

syra crate

SYRA was the first good friend I made when I moved to Oakland in 1992. Little did I know back then that he would become like a family member. We lived in the same neighborhood on the border of Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley.  He was bombing hard, still seriously into skating and spending a lot of time building his DJing skills. He had a legendary record collection. In the days before Ebay and the Internet, collectors used to travel from as far away as Japan to buy old Jazz, funk and hip-hop records from him. He turned me on to a lot of great hip-hop–especially NYC crews like DITC: Lord Finesse, Show Biz & AG, Diamon D–back when I was mostly listening to West Coast artists.

There used to be crazy skate sessions at his pad, this place called “The Dome”, a huge warehouse with ramps, rails, and other obstacles. The kids that skated there would go on to pro status for Chocolate, Menace, World Industries, and a variety of other companies that have long since disappeared. One example was Fun Skateboards. SYRA did the logo artwork on the deck on the left:

Syrafun

Towards the end of the 90s we were hanging out almost every evening after work. We had a small crew of people that would meet at my place, our SYRA’s or our other homeboy TH. We would make dinner, and listen to music, drink, smoke, hang out, talk about the day. When you hang with people so much, they are sharing practically every other meal with you sometimes, they become like family. And in some ways better than family because they are the family you choose, or you are lucky enough that they choose you. SYRA was one of those people for me. When I would fly back to Oakland he was first person I would call when my plane landed. He was usually picking me up. That is the sort of friend he was. If you have a SYRA in your life, count your blessings because you never know when they may be gone.

Sira_fsc

Most of my memories of SYRA are in the bay area–a lot of concerts from jazz to hip-hop, too many to remember–but he made it out here twice.  Once when we were living in Queens and another time when we were in Brooklyn. We had a lot of fun carousing and managed to fit in a couple of shows: Lou Donaldson at the Village Vanguard and Crooklyn Dodgers reunion at Prospect Park. Here is a pic of a piece he painted on the roofs off of the 7Train near 5Pointz:

Sira_NYC

SYRA was my only close friend who made it India for my wedding, which was a real blessing. It turns out he was in a lot of peeps weddings. We also met up in Barcelona after I finished my research in Mondragon. Of course he came equipped with a cache of fat markers and got up all over the city. I wasted the ink on writing corny political slogans. I was taking way too long and we ended up getting chased by the police in the Den Hague train station. Good times.

Sira1

But the memory that says the most, I think, is when I was spending the Thanksgiving Holiday away from family for the first time and SYRA invited me over to eat the meal with his family. They were all so welcoming that I did not miss being away in a new place where I barely knew anyone.

Rest in Paradise KING SYRA-ONE!

HTD was an iconoclastic intellectual, psychedelic artist-entertainer and a lawyer. At his memorial service everyone who knew him, almost everyone, used the word “brilliant” to describe him. And he was. He remains one of the smartest people I have met.

HTD 005

I met H when I first moved to Marin County for university from Santa Barbara. We were both studying the political economy of what used to be called Third World development. His focus was Latin America, especially Mexico. We had a shared taste in music and beer, among other things. Turned out he grew up in Los Feliz which was right next to where I grew up, Silver Lake. We moved to San Francisco with our girlfriends, he to the Mission, me to the Lower Haight and continued our mischief throughout the Bay. We went to a lot of shows–Boogie Down Productions (twice), Public Enemy, Fishbone, George Clinton/P-Funk, among others. He ultimately grew up before me, finishing a law degree and having a child while I was still playing around at making the revolution. He moved back to L.A. and we sort of lost contact with each other, especially after I moved to NYC but I was glad to reconnect with him if only electronically in the last two years of his life.

HTD was larger than life. He really filled a room or a conversation in a good way and I will miss him immensely. He also had a way of telling people he loved them without any of the sappy hippy bullshit that was so common in the Bay. I love you too, brother.

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Back in the Mix

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in the mix

I want to thank Bob from Brockley, Ryan (But, I am a Liberal!), Martin in the Margins, and Jogo, for encouraging me to reactivate my blog. Many of the posts that will appear over the next few weeks–hopefully months–were sparked by email conversations with Bob, Jogo and Ryan over the past year.

A lot of my time has been taken up by work and family life. Blogging gave way to Facebook which is great in some ways, connecting with family and friends, sharing pictures and the like, less so in others. I avoid political conversations on Facebook in a way that was not the case back when I was blogging. With Facebook, and I imagine this is worse with twitter, the depth of an argument is largely lost, buried in a series of links.

In my absence of posting any new material this blog has become a sort of meeting (or at least commenting) place for disaffected and current cultists. I appreciate you keeping things lively around here. However comments on the Oneness Movement and the York/Nuwabian posts are now closed.

Higher Education, Employment and the Current Crisis: Comments, Critique and Possible Solutions

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John-Belushi-College-Poster-C10000320

[Don’t blame me…]

From early 2011 through 2012, a time-frame roughly corresponding with the emergence of the Occupy protests, I noticed a series of articles appearing in the mainstream press sharing a common theme: recent college graduates were finding the job search far more difficult than they expected, with few finding employment in the their major and many bearing the additional burden of college debt. Some questioned the utility of their degrees. The general response of the graduates interviewed was: “what happened? We expected jobs when we finished college.”

It was telling that most of the those who expected employment were graduates of the Ivy League. The phenomena of unemployment after graduation has been a problem in this country for decades. The idea of education as an “investment” rather than an “expense” has been laid bare by the high levels of debt often required to attain a BA and the declining likelihood that the BA will lead to employment.

More recently, a number of articles appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Republic, The Claremont Review, and elsewhere lamenting the decline of the humanities. Here is a portion of TNR’s Leon Wieseltier commencement address to the Brandeis University class of 2013:

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method…The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life.

This post addresses three interrelated concerns: the decline of the Humanities and Liberal Arts (HALA), the increasing cost of education and some possible solutions. I begin with a somewhat paradoxical and undoubtedly controversial thesis: the Humanities and Social Sciences are in crisis because too many people pursue these fields of study rather than too few.

college-tuition-chart1

The Burden of Increasing Cost

In general, subsidizing consumption of a good or service leads directly to increased consumption of that good or service, which, in turn, leads increase in price. The idea that an infusion of federal dollars into the education sector is fueling price increases is known as the Bennett Hypothesis, after former Secretary of Education William Bennett. Bennett’s hypothesis is based on a simple understanding of the law of demand. And he was quick to point out that he did not think federal aid was the sole cause of the increase. However, there was a strong correlation. Nevertheless, his supporters often neglect other basic principles of micro-economics, including if the supply of something increases over time in pace with demand, the cost will not increase as well as the possibility that demand for education may be inelastic. That is, demand is not impacted by price.

Other contributing factors include increased administration costs and real estate expansion, plant and student housing upgrades, and the cost of college sports teams.

I am not an economist, but there are two factors at play here: how valuable is a humanities education? And how much does it cost? There is also the matter of tuition in relation to cost. Some Ivies, like Harvard, have increased their tuition, but they manage to keep costs down for students whose families make less than $50,000/year. In any event, the cost of higher education has increased while the economic value of many degrees has declined.

Why Are the Humanities in Decline?

As the quantity of something increases—and especially as its quality decreases—that leads to a service or commodity becoming less dear, less valued, and less prestigious. Writing in the Claremont Review, William Voegeli notes:

College was indeed a good investment of time and money in 1960, when only one out of every 13 American adults had a bachelor’s degree.

Now that the day is at hand when one out of every three will have a B.A., the calculus is different. Going to college is becoming one of those good ideas that turns into a bad idea when too many other people have the same idea—like leaving town early before a three-day weekend to avoid the traffic jam, thereby helping cause and becoming part of the traffic jam you left to avoid.

I recognize a decline in the prominence and stature of the humanities. Only it is not a relatively recent development as progressives argue or a product of 1960s efforts to replace a Western canon with something else as conservatives contend. Instead, the roots of our educational malaise can be traced back to the movement for compulsory high school and the democratization of college. Our crisis is one of oversupply. We have too many over-educated people in the US.

The truth is we (institutions of higher education) have been graduating too many Humanities and Liberal Arts majors since the 1980s. The vast majority of HALA graduates back then were not getting employed in their field of study. We (society) continued saying: “go to college. Education is the way to succeed.” But we were never honest about the type of education that was necessary to get ahead or the massive debt that many students would accumulate in pursuit of marginally beneficial degrees.

But what about the employers who constantly tell us they are not able to hire domestic graduates with the skill sets they are looking for? What about all these people with BAs who are unemployed or underemployed?

Thomas Jefferson was an early advocate of a two-tier educational system in the United States, with separate tracks for the laboring and elite classes. His vision largely held for over a century and a half. Before WWI, fewer than 15% of the population graduated high school and approximately 3% above the age of 25 held a bachelors degree. BA degrees in History, English, Foreign Languages and the Arts were a sign of membership in an intellectual elite. Liberal-arts education emphasized a Western canon of thought, politics, society and culture with a normative white, male, heterosexual.

Much of this elite nature of education was challenged by the Left. The Left fought for the democratization of education—more getting into college and more receiving degrees—as well as a decline of admissions standards to supposedly allow for more diversity and finally—via various forms of identity politics—a tremendous expansion of interdisciplinary “studies” programs that were openly hostile of the Western canon. Viewed in this light, conservatives claim it is not surprising that the Humanities have underwent a decline. Today, rather than a sign of erudition and familiarity with a common core of knowledge, a BA in the humanities is more likely to have a strong critique of Western imperialism and the supposed ills of “globalization” and a weak understanding of Western thought, art and culture.

While I share the conservatives malaise, the reason students who graduated high school in the 1920s were more knowledgeable than those of today concerns more than curriculum, it is closely related to the instigation of compulsory high school education. In rural areas it was common for males to end their formal education when they were strong enough to work on family farms that lacked a lot of machinery. That meant elementary school for most. The level of education was slightly higher in cities, but not much. It was not until the post-WWII era that educational opportunity was broadly expanded

We are not going back to the Jeffersonian model or the Fordist ideal of the production line. The nature of employment has changed. But do these jobs require bachelor’s degrees? One liberal economist notes:

Very few of those occupations require college in the sense that 90+% of people who pursue that occupation will benefit from having learned about it in college. But my guess would be that more than a few of these occupations “require” college in the sense that employers expect that applicants will have a BA. And this is our problem.  A “Diagnostic Medical Sonographer” is a highly-skilled job that doesn’t require college training in the sense that you can learn everything you need to do the job in a manner of months. But many colleges offer programs to help you become a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer. And when you compare unemployment rates for college graduates and non-college graduates, you see why someone might want to go to college to become a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer even if it means taking on huge, unnecessary debt. And once there are enough college graduates who can become Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, you can see why employers would rationally toss out of the pile any resumes that don’t have a college degree on them.

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[How do I operate this thing?]

Some Possible Solutions

In conclusion I would like to mention some possible solutions to these problems. I am restricting these to higher education because that is my field. I realize they are drastic, even unfair. Do not take this as a policy blueprint and I do not expect those adversely impacted to agree with these recommendations all I ask is an honest evaluation.

The first thing that needs to happen if we in the Humanities want the stature of our work and research to increase is our schools need to be more restrictive. We need to accept and graduate fewer BAs, MAs and PhDs in History, Sociology, or Political Science, for example. Outside of the institutions, federal assistance for the non-poor should be extremely limited. We should not be subsidizing the sons and daughters of the managerial class to “find themselves” or otherwise extend their adolescence. The vast majority of funding for undergraduate students should go to the STEM majors: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and others who are pursuing courses of study that have a greater likelihood of gainful employment.

We need to be more supportive of students who display no interest in HALA and little in a BA. AA programs in engineering and science are often a perfect match for students with little interest in higher education and employers who need a workforce skilled in higher-level quantitative reasoning and an ability to communicate complex projects clearly and succinctly. This would mean increasing funding to community colleges and other two-year schools and retooling them for the twenty-first century. Making them more like Germany’s Fachhochschulen and less stepping-stones to the supposed “real” degree, which for most remains the BA.

Think about this: we would have more of the population getting educated for less money in less time, graduating with the skills that employers actually need. Instead of the situation where we are now, where we keep turning out unemployable twenty-something who are 100k in debt and wonder: “how did this happen to me? I did the right thing. I went to college.”

Telling teens to “just get the BA” is not working when over half never finish. From my close to ten years of teaching I can say fifty percent should not be in class in the first place. Douglas Murray opines, “even though college has been dumbed down, it is still too intellectually demanding for a large majority of students, in an age when about 50 percent of all high school graduates are heading to four-year colleges the next fall. The result is lots of failure”and:

The acceptable excuses for not going to college have dried up. The more people who go to college, the more stigmatizing the failure to complete college becomes. Today, if you do not get a BA, many people assume it is because you are too dumb or too lazy. Face it: To say “I’m just a high school graduate” as of 2008 is to label oneself in some important sense as a second-class citizen. No amount of protestations of egalitarianism by people who like the current system (i.e., people who do well in an academic setting) will change that reality-a reality fostered by a piece of paper that for most students in most majors is close to meaningless.

We shouldn’t aim for more college grads or fewer. The aim should be a comprehensive education system where every American can find a post secondary program to fit their needs; and for them to feel free to do so without experiencing a decline in their social capital. That’s bigger than an ed or a policy problem. This is a social/cultural issue.

We are missing an important component of the jobs discussion and that is, it is not so much that America lacks good jobs–we hear all the time from companies that want to fill jobs but lack qualified applicants–but that American youth are increasingly unemployable. Significant percentages of students are graduating high school without the ability to construct a well-written paragraph, let alone think critically. The National Assessment of Educational Progress estimates close to half are not prepared for college-level reading and a third are functionally illiterate. Even for those who do well, the skill set that most possess after a high school education is inadequate to land these good-paying jobs so some level of college is necessary.

Not necessarily at the BA level. In fact, our educational system over-emphasizes the BA. A large measure of this is market-driven, employers demand a BA and so we have applicants for BA programs. But when you look at what our students are graduating with (in terms of degrees) and the skills that employers are looking for, there is a huge disconnect. So what are these skills?

Our problem, generally as a society and specifically in regards to education, is we have prioritized the liberal arts degree over the technical degree for a variety of reasons. Part of this relates to the elite roots of a classical liberal education as opposed to the more plebian origins of technical-colleges. In other words, there is a class dimension. The assumption being a degree in the liberal arts was a pathway to the middle-class if not a certificate of bourgeois-ness. There was also a racial dimension. Urban Blacks and Latinos argued they were being tracked into industrial occupations and away from more intellectual and critical endeavors. All of this is part of our past. But it does not help explain how to fix things now.

My first proposal is dramatically reducing federal student aid for four-year college degrees in the fine arts, social sciences, and humanities primarily through a gradual elimination of the federal college loan system. This would have a double-impact in the short term in addition to a more longer term result. The dual impact would be reducing student enrollment–which would be the focus of the progressive media and the educational establishments–as well as significantly reducing costs. As others across the political spectrum have pointed out, the tremendous flows of capital from the federal government to higher education have contributed to skyrocketing tuition costs. The more longer term impact would be as the supply of people with BAs declined, the social value of the social science and humanities BA would increase.

My second suggestion is increasing funding for STEM especially at the AA level at city and community colleges: fully paid scholarships for students willing to complete these two-year degrees in the sciences and math, regardless of whether they want to complete a four-year degree.

These two changes in the way we think about and fund education would have far-reaching impacts. On the one hand, the notion that every young adult needs a liberal arts education to be successful would decrease. And we would be doing our youth a service by giving them an opportunity to start their adult lives free of debt and without a close to worthless degree in the liberal arts.