The Long View 2006-01-31: Save the Dinosaurs; Unfriendly Democracy; News Medley

I think John Reilly also mentioned this in other places, but here he advances the suggestion that law school is a scam, and could be folded into an undergraduate curriculum. I lack subject matter expertise to comment on law school in particular, but it seems at least plausible to me.

Bryan Caplan argues that education is less about skills and facts, and more about signaling that you have valuable qualities. In general, I find Caplan's case persuasive, although I think it would be easy to take this idea too far. Some data points in favor: I turned out to be a decent engineer, despite not studying that field in school. The English university system currently uses a much shorter timeframe for degrees, but has equivalent results.

It is always risky to generalize from a n of 1, even more so when it is your own experience. An example of what I am talking about can be seen in this twitter exchange with Greg Cochran about the evolutionary fitness cost of schizophrenia:

It isn't really a good argument to assert "I turned out fine." With that in mind, not everyone with my education background makes a good engineer. There are other personal qualities that matter. Conditional on those things, educational background loses importance as a predictor of success. If you know what to look for.


Save the Dinosaurs; Unfriendly Democracy; News Medley

 

Hugh Hewitt has buried the dinosaurs of the Main Stream Media (or at least so he seems to imagine) in an article in The Weekly Standard of January 30 entitled "The Media's Ancien Regime." There he describes his visit to the Columbia School of Journalism. He was well received by all concerned, particularly the dean, Nicholas Lemann. He found a relatively small graduate institution that has become very keen on teaching its students serious analytical skills, including a fair amount of number-crunching. Hewitt thinks it all for naught:

Lippman's world, Pulitzer's world, even Nicholas Lemann's world of the Harvard Crimson from 1972 to 1976--they are all gone. Every conversation with one of the old guard quoting the old proof texts comes down to this point: There is too much expertise, all of it almost instantly available now, for the traditional idea of journalism to last much longer. In the past, almost every bit of information was difficult and expensive to acquire and was therefore mediated by journalists whom readers and viewers were usually in no position to second-guess. Authority has drained from journalism for a reason. Too many of its practitioners have been easily exposed as poseurs.

It is certainly the case that journalists often seem to be woefully underinformed about what should be common knowledge. (Fr. Neuhaus remarked last week on the reporter who responded to his allusions to the pope as "the bishop of Rome" with a query about whether it was unusual that the current pope was also the bishop of Rome.) However, anyone is gravely mistaken who thinks that New Media and the blogosphere make good the deficit.

Blogs are engines of critique. They are not particularly good sources for primary news. For that, we will continue to need journalists to assemble the first-draft narratives for critique and elaboration in the noosphere (a term i use advisedly, since more than blogs are at work here). It's true that journalism used to be primarily a sort of arbitrage between information-poor and information-rich domains. It still does that, particularly at the local level, where public events enter the information stream only if a shoe-leather reporter puts them there. The effect of communications technology, which simplifies reporting for many classes of stories, is not to abolish journalism, but to allow it to focus on generating value through synthesis.

The preceding paragraph may be the geekiest thing I have ever written. Anyway:

The problem is that the type of person best suited to this is the sort of widely educated liberal-arts graduate that the universities seem determined not to produce any longer. There is something wrong with the very idea of journalism as an academic major, much less as a graduate-school subject. (Law school, in contrast, could easily be folded into an undergraduate curriculum; it's law school that the hoax.) At the end of four years of college, you should know enough languages, and accounting, and history, and sociology, to make yourself useful in a newsroom, assuming you can write acceptable expository prose. There is a craft to reporting, of course. It is ably described in any number of memoirs. Reading them may be more helpful than journalism school.

* * *

Walter Russell Meade's proposal to abolish college, which appears in The Weekly Standard Online is ingenious:

There is no reason the government should try to prevent American families who value the traditional college experience from paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, but perhaps it could offer an alternative: a federally recognized national baccalaureate (or 'national bac') degree that students could earn by demonstrating competence and knowledge.

This would leave us with, what? A think-tank industry to replace the research university and a Chinese-style civil-service test to replace the undergraduate college?

* * *

That Spengler takes no prisoners, if we may so judge by his latest at Asia Times:

Fight a dictatorship, and you must kill the regime; fight a democracy, and you must kill the people. Two years ago I called George W Bush a “tragic character” (George W Bush, tragic character, November 25, 2003) who “wants universal good, but will end up doing some terrible things”. Now we have begun the third act of his tragedy, which shatters the delusions that led him to the edge of disaster. President Bush met Nemesis in the form of Hamas, whose election victory in Palestine last week makes clear that democracy can empower the war party as well as the peace party.

Look, maybe this will help. The purpose of promoting democracy is not to create pro-American regimes. It is to create regimes that have relatively transparent and responsive political systems. They can be as anti-American as they please, but provided they nurse their grudges in public and have to convince the rest of the world that they are stable enough to do business with, then there are far preferable, far safer, than even the friendliest tyranny.

* * *

If all these recent elections are starting to run together in your mind, this piece of January 28 by David Warren will surely make it worse:

After the first TV reports that their party would win the Canadian election, Conservative campaign workers began smashing windows in the Parliament Buildings, and in government offices around Ottawa. They roved through the corridors, beating up clerks and civil servants suspected of having Liberal Party connexions. From St John’s to Victoria, both winning and losing Conservative candidates took to the streets, leading heavily armed supporters in ski-masks, followed by millions of happy, cheering, banner-waving CPC voters, dressed in toques and scarves. Merchants and homeowners raced to get Liberal and NDP signs out of view, as the Tory hordes marched through towns, firing their guns in the air, vandalizing post offices, and looting shops belonging to their opponents.

Perhaps a good test for a perspective journalist would be to examine a pile of putative newsstories and pick out the ones that, like this one, are jokes.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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College Learning Assessment Plus

The Wall Street Journal has an article up on the CLA+ test, with an accompanying data set from 68 public colleges obtained through FOIA requests. I put all the data in an EXCEL style spreadsheet as well.  

I always like to plot my data, so here is a scatterplot matrix of the whole thing:

CLA+ Scatterplot Matrix

CLA+ Scatterplot Matrix

There are several columns that are just different ways of saying the same thing, like Freshman Score and Freshmen with Below Basic Skills. So I dropped everything that was just the same data in a different format and we get this:

Subset of CLA+ Scatterplot Matrix

Subset of CLA+ Scatterplot Matrix

Just about the only scatterplot that stands out to me is that higher freshman scores are pretty correlated with higher senior scores. I never would have guessed.

The next most interesting is the relationship between freshman score and the difference between freshmen and senior scores. The correlation is negative, perhaps implying there is a score ceiling in the test, or that average college graduates tend to end up in about the same place by the end of school.

Both freshman scores and senior scores are correlated with graduation rates, but since we are supposed to be using this data to see whether a given college does anything useful, I plotted both freshman and senior scores against graduation rates, but I color-coded the points by the improvement between freshmen and senior scores.

CLA+ relationship between senior score and graduation rates, color coded by score improvement

CLA+ relationship between senior score and graduation rates, color coded by score improvement

CLA+ relationship between freshman score and graduation rates, color coded by score improvement

CLA+ relationship between freshman score and graduation rates, color coded by score improvement

The color-coding looks random on the senior scores graph, but against freshman scores the highest improvements are concentrated at the lower-left. This might be interesting, since point difference versus graduation rates in general looks pretty random in the first scatterplot matrix.

I don't see anything groundbreaking here, which is probably why colleges don't talk about this much. If there was something to crow about, they would.

The Big U Book Review

NOT American MegaversityI picked up The Big U while I was organizing my library, and I decided to see if I still liked it ten years [at least] since the last time I had read it.

It turns out, I do! For me, this is the perfect college satire, on the same level as Thank You For Smoking or Office Space. I read it when I was an undergraduate, and it was hilarious, and a devastating send up of the bizarre world that is the American university. Ten years later, it is still hilarious and devastating. Then I flip to the flyleaf, and I find Stephenson wrote it in 1984.

Stephenson nailed the essence of university life in a way that is still relevant thirty years later. The LARPers. The Goddess worshippers. The terrible cafeteria food. The out of control parties. This is the American university, in all of its glory. American universities have long been at the center of the culture war, fostering, even encouraging, a hothouse culture in which the strangest things can flourish. Add to that a culture that has been intellectually static for the last hundred years, a guaranteed fresh supply of naive teenagers, and you will get a system that loops through the same obsessions, over and over and over.

In the introductory chapter, Stephenson's narrator says:

What you are about to read here is not an aberration: it can happen in your local university too. The Big U, simply, was a few years ahead of the rest.

This turns out to have been prophetic. In the Big U, we have all of the current obsessions of trendy politics. Rape culture. Identity politics. Minoritarianism. Endless curricular disputes. Weird religions. There are few things in the book so outrageous that they have not managed to happen in the last thirty years. It is all so ridiculous, and all so pertinent. I liked it the first time because it seemed very much like my alma mater. I like it now because it seems like all the universities in America. If anything, my own university has only grown more like American Megaversity with the passage of time.

It is fortunate this is a book and not a movie, because it prevents you from seeing out of date clothes and assuming everything in the book happened in the past. With a few minor changes, The Big U could easily be set today. The Stalinist Underground Battalion would have to be replaced with Occupy Wall Street, smart phones would have to be added in, and the university mainframe would have to be replaced with the web, but everything else could stay the same. 

The first time I read this book, I was attracted to the commonalities to my own life. The character who was a budding physicist. The genius programmers. The awkward fit of so many of the viewpoint characters to the dominant party scene. Even the bit with the university locksmith [in college, I worked as a student locksmith for the university]. It just seemed to fit.

Ten years later, there are a few things I appreciate more now than I did the first time. The cynical university president is someone I can now identify with. The Big U administration made poor choices, but now that I have actual responsibility, I appreciate the heroic virtue that would be required to resist those temptations. S. S. Krupp is bright, decisive, and capable. His only flaw is putting the university's reputation [and lots of jobs] ahead of doing the right thing. I am glad I don't face the same choices, because it is hard to see how I could realistically do better in the same circumstances.

The sexual dynamic that drives many of the viewpoint characters is far more obvious in retrospect. Especially if you were a nerd [who I presume is Stephenson's target audience]. Teenagers are driven by their hormones in strange ways, nerdy teenagers even more so, and those of us who have survived that phase can only pity them. This too shall pass.

Of all Stephenson's books, this is the one I like best. The first Neal Stephenson book I ever read was Snow Crash. Snow Crash was recommended to me by my freshman year college roommate, and I liked it enough to try more, although I'm not sure its many fans realize it is a dystopia. The Big U was the second. I really liked The Big U, so I tried a number Stephenson's other books, but I never really enjoyed them. Stephenson wrote Zodiac when it seemed like dioxin was the worst thing ever made by humans. By the time I read it, the evidence was a little more mixed. Thus I had trouble taking the plot seriously. I couldn't get through even the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. Maybe this one was a fluke.

I choose to see it as a stroke of genius. Maybe this book couldn't have been written seriously or intentionally, because we are all too identified with sides in the on-going culture war that rages in the universities. Stephenson has a pretty clear side with the left-Libertarians now, but in this book maybe he hadn't quite found his voice, because even characters on the wrong side seem sympathetic, despite some salvos in favor of his clear favorites. As Lincoln and C. S. Lewis argued in their distinctive ways, the sides we are on, and the sides that are really in the right, may not necessarily turn out to be the same.

My other book reviews

Bryan Caplan on the Signaling Theory of College

Bryan Caplan is a popular blogger and economist at George Mason University. Caplan was recently interviewed on EconTalk about the value of a college education. Short version: a college education doesn't have much intrinsic value. I'm simplifying a bit, but only a bit. Caplan argues that higher education is more important for sorting out the smart and hard-working from the rest than in teaching anything specific.  Of course, I might very well say that. I skipped out on grad school and went into the workforce precisely because I was convinced that more school wouldn't make me any smarter, or teach me anything useful. Of course, I also hated academia.

The signaling theory of education is nothing new to me. I've certainly pooh-poohed American higher education on multiple occasions here. However, it is easy to go too far. Caplan is too careful to say one learns nothing in college. What he is saying is that overall, and for the most part, specific skills are less important than intelligence, the capacity to work hard, and a willingness to play by the rules. These are the things college selects for. These are also correlates of success in America and similar societies.

On the other hand, I can certainly point you to plenty of disgruntled college graduates who cannot readily find work because they have the wrong degree. So there is a sense in which college functions in this signalling fashion that Caplan posits, but there is another sense in which employers, particularly in the much-vaunted STEM fields, really do expect college graduates to know things, very specific things. Personal experience suggests to me that this tendency is perhaps somewhat stronger than necessary to ensure competence, but one needs to understand the difference between ability and skill, or potentia and actualia. Since Caplan is an economist, perhaps he can look at the opportunity cost of hiring an able but unskilled graduate.

[Caplan] The human capital story says that you go to school; they actually teach you a bunch of useful jobs skills; you then finish and the labor market rewards you because you are now able to do more stuff. The signaling model says, no, no, no, no; that's not what's going on. What's going on is that people go to school; they don't actually learn a lot of useful stuff; however, the whole educational process filters out the people who wouldn't have been very good workers. So people who are lower intelligence, lower in work ethic, lower in conformity--those people tend to not do very well in school. They drop out. They get bad grades. And that's why the labor market cares. It's not that the school actually transforms you to a good worker from a bad worker. It's that the schooling, the school puts a little sticker on your head--you know, Grade A student, Grade B student, Grade C student.

...

[Interviewer] I have a natural skepticism about it. And I think a lot of labor economists do as well. And the reason is that it's an extremely expensive signal. So, you are saying, for 4 years, I give up the chance to work; I pay this tuition, whether it's $5000 or $10,000, or $30,000, or $40,000--at a private university. And for that enormous amount of money, I prove that I am a good worker and I get a sticker on my head. Wouldn't there be an easier, cheaper way to get the sticker? If all it's doing is measuring ability, this 4-year slog that's extremely expensive? That's the best way that people have come up with to get the sticker?

...

[Caplan] Yes, it's an arms race. And the fact, if it is a fact, the private return is high is really a very bad argument for pouring more money on. Now, the other point, as we were saying, the return that you should be looking at in terms of this argument of not being able to borrow against your future earnings--what you are looking at is return for the marginal people who are just on the edge of going or not going. And as we've seen, the return for those people is actually not, is actually quite mediocre. And then finally if you adjust for ability and everything else, really I would say that once you appreciate signaling you realize that, so we have subsidized education way past the point of [?] returns. So by my calculations, actually, the social return to education is now quite negative. And it would be a much better policy to drastically scale it back, so rather than encouraging more people to go, I think it's better to discourage them from going or at least to encourage them less. So in fact--so, the biggest policy implication that's going to come out of my book is we just have way too much education. I call this the white elephant in the room. There are way too many people going to school, maybe not from their own selfish point of view, but certainly from a social point of view to go and pour more money on this really is just throwing gasoline on the fire. And we need to do less of it.

h/t DarwinCatholic