What many Democrats do not get about conservative views on higher education

The Atlantic published an article yesterday, Why Conservatives are Turning Against Higher Education. The article is mostly about legislation proposed by Josh Hawley, the extremely vocal junior senator from Missouri, that would allow federal funds earmarked for college assistance to also be applied toward the costs of vocational training. The Atlantic paints this legislation as part of a growing disdain among conservatives toward colleges and universities.

This is a terrible article on many levels, but mostly because it is factually inaccurate about who does and does not benefit from a college education. According to The Atlantic, Hawley is peeved by the fact that the perceived need for a degree, even in lines of work that do not require specialized training, is hurting the prospects of working class (read: white working class) Americans, and leading to a litany of social ills, including suicide and addiction. I’ve always been skeptical of this story line, living as we do in Florida, where skilled tradesmen can easily earn six digits with benefits. There are people laying pipes here that out-earn CPAs. But maybe that’s not true for Missouri. (Or maybe Hawley knows fewer working class people than he lets on.)

If anything hurt this population, it was the financial crisis and the steep economic downturn that accompanied it. These events created two scenarios: (1) wages in general were reversed to 1990s levels and many people found themselves competing for work for the first time in their lives; (2) many people rode out the recession on college campuses, where they could borrow virtually unlimited amounts of money from the federal government to live off of, and colleges sold people a lot of degrees they really did not need and many really were not qualified for. (Higher education is not any different than mortgage banking. Extreme cash flows into the industry lowers professional standards. The industry becomes about keeping the money coming in, not achieving a great product. The overwhelming majority of US colleges accept nearly all of the students that apply to them. Getting a college degree does not make you special because higher education is no longer competitive.) If you look at a chart of the total student debt outstanding in this country, it skyrockets in 2008. That’s not an accident. A lot of people who would otherwise have been on the unemployment rolls took out massive amounts of student debt instead. And that decision continues to ruin their financial lives, even as the people who were on the unemployment rolls then have found work and higher wages.

You see these circumstances reflected in the Millennial generation, which is simultaneously the most educated and worst educated crop of kids in modern American history. They have a lot of degrees, but many are unemployable and surely not worthy of promotion within a corporate culture.

All that said, it is not white working class folks that are kept from enjoying the benefits of a college education statistically. I have written about this fallacy before. Economic data from the Federal Reserve and other sources clearly demonstrates that there is no increase in net worth to Hispanics or African Americans with degrees over those with no degrees. These are the two groups where getting a degree literally has no value, because they are the most likely to go to college and still end up in a job that could be done without a college degree (and that’s not as a tradesman). It says a lot about how much colleges and universities truly care about where their graduates end up and how little all these new diversity departments on college campuses are achieving for the communities they were ostensibly created to help.

What is probably the most entertaining aspect of the article, however, is this notion that Republicans are now the party of the working class, and their policy prerogatives are now working against affluent populations. Democrats may be the party of suburban women who think they are special because they have an undergraduate degree like everyone else, but that is not affluence. Golf courses are not loaded with registered Democrats who think the rich do not pay enough in taxes. They are loaded with rich small businessmen and executives who happily voted for Trump and will do it again.

Which brings me to this: It’s not only working poor people who question our country’s perceived obsession with getting a college education. It’s corporate executives and entrepreneurs, who are looking at generations of “educated,” yet unskilled, workers that they really don’t want to hire. Spend twenty minutes around a twenty-something who can’t spell and thinks it’s appropriate to bring their identity politics into the workplace and then ponder why businesses want to automate away every function under the sun. These are the workers colleges are producing, and they are very different from earlier generations, where a college degree was an unassailable object of pride.

If you have a bachelor’s degree, you have taken a lot of core classes and a few electives on the subject-matter that you eventually want to seek employment in. Many of those core classes are now being taught by people who have gone completely off the deep end. I often think I received a college education just in time, because I did not have to experience all the absurdities that are taking place on college campuses now. My philosophy classes were actually about the works of great philosophers, not some instructor spewing their batshit political beliefs for hours. I didn’t have to suffer through listening to a Baby Boomer with comfortable stock portfolio lecturing me about how socialism is the ideal form of governance.

Class angst is not dominating the discussion about whether a degree is worth it. Ultimately, culture is. Are colleges turning out respectable professionals that are capable of financial independence? No, they absolutely are not. They are trading indentured servitude for listening to garbage ideologues for four years. That’s not an education, period, let alone an advanced education. A lot of college graduates resent the fact that they will carry $50,000 of debt for a piece of paper that didn’t actually prepare them for a practical existence in the corporate world. This is not only the opinion of bitter steelworkers and coal miners. It’s also not only the opinion of Republicans.

If trades are a solid path to good earnings, the government should subsidize them over alternatives that involve less desirable consequences. That is good governance. Continuing to throw trillions of dollars at institutions that now specialize in providing a second infancy is not.

I’m not sure that most people genuinely believe going into trades is a better alternative to getting a college education, if we are talking about what a college education could be versus what it has become. They just want to see the culture on college campuses return to some level of rationality. They want a college education to be worth the investment again.

Hiking through Linear Park

We’ve had Elise doing some intense school work this week. We decided to take her on a long hike this morning so her day would not be completely dominated by school. We woke up early, walked down the Intracoastal Waterway, and up the trails into Linear Park, which is a patch of forest through the interior of our town. It took us two hours, round trip. It’s definitely a lot more fun to walk all these trails when the weather is cooler, but you have to leave the air conditioning sometime.

I love all of the ancient, sprawling oaks covered in resurrection ferns. It makes you wonder how much history these guys have seen.

Missing fishermen

When I was writing about the wonderful weekend we spent in St. Augustine, I mentioned that we talked to three men who had traveled by boat down from Savannah. It sounded to us like they were helping the Coast Guard search for a boat that had gone missing.

It turns out, that’s exactly what has been happening. Two firefighters left Canaveral on Friday to fish along a reef and never returned home. The Coast Guard and an armada of volunteers have been out searching for them for four days now. The guys in St Augustine are part of the 180 people, 70 boats, and 10 aircraft they have combing the Florida coastline for signs of the firemen.

If you are of the praying persuasion, say a prayer for the firemen and all the people out there risking their lives to save them. We saw some violent storms in the area Friday night.

Education, flourishing, and why parents (and schools) fail their children

We were invited to a birthday party this weekend, which meant that I spent three hours watching young children play in a country club pool. I was surprised to see some children as young as seven or eight immediately split off into cliques. These pint-sized Kardashians resisted interacting with each other with ample servings of drama.

But more surprising was watching girls in one of the cliques playing house. The “mother” in the group pretended to wake her daughters up in the morning. She rushed into their imaginary room and shouted, “Get out of bed! You need to get ready for school so you can find a rich boyfriend!” I was aghast. I would not have believed she actually uttered those words, except she proceeded to repeat them several times. I looked over at their real mothers, who seemed unfazed. This was their normal.

After her imaginary daughters were dressed, the girl pretended to inspect their outfits like a general in the military. “Go back to your room and change! A rich man would never be interested in someone who looks like you!” The girls then dreamily discussed what their ideal mates would possess – a house made of gold, with “a pool even larger than this one.”

It was like listening to the comically tedious mother from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. “Girls, girls, I heard Darcy has ten thousand a year!” But it was presented without Austen’s biting sarcasm.

I say all the time that childhood is about developing an aesthetic. To persuade your child that they do not want to spend their one precious life engaging in activities that are beneath them. To model for them a sense of what a life well-lived would be like. This is the difference between having a child that spends their evenings on social media and the child that combs the Internet looking for a marine biology camp. Between the kid that is “addicted” to first-person shooter video games and the kid that wants to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and that’s true for parenthood too. If you don’t sell your child on an idea of happiness, society will supply that content for them. All bad behavior is a form of communication about what people need but are not getting. You don’t want your child developing a sense of purpose from the nihilists on CNN or Facebook. They will teach your children to rage and rot their minds.

Conversely, I’ve also met a lot of women (in particular) who think they are going to micromanage their children into having a good character. “You get only two hours of screen time a day!” Character is not built on the elimination of free will. The key is to raise a kid that genuinely wants to participate in better things. They aren’t spending their days hammering away on their smartphones because they are genuinely curious about something more important. Your rules aren’t going to change that.

Flourishing

I offer this story because I have been reading Ronald F. Ferguson and Tatsha Robertson’s book The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Highly Successful Children. This is an excellent book on parenthood and a persuasive appeal to an Aristotelian worldview in general (which I very much subscribe to).

The book is the outcome of the How I Was Parented Project at Harvard, which examined the biographical details and parenting experiences of hundreds of diverse but highly successful individuals. The goal of the study was to identify what these individuals had in common, to see if there was a “formula” for success.

The authors conclude that there is, in fact, a formula for raising successful children, and that formula transcends socioeconomic backgrounds. Affluent people can raise kids to be successful or sabotage their ability to flourish in the world (much like the children I observed at the party). Disadvantaged parents can raise kids to be successful or sabotage them. There are common paths to social mobility. There are common paths to failure. It is terrible to spoil children. It is also terrible to train children to fetishize their own perceived suffering or lack of opportunities.

One of the best chapters in the book is the life story of a homeless mother who raised her son up so he was eventually accepted into Harvard. She was determined for him to escape poverty, and she invested all her time into teaching him. She was creative in how she found access to resources for him. In one case, she was transferred to another shelter so he could attend a higher quality school in the suburbs.

Success versus sabotage

.The authors define success in Aristotelian terms – Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which is often translated from the Greek as “flourishing.” Flourishing is a grand combination of being happy in disposition, being materially secure, being a good citizen, having a household and friendships that contribute to spiritual well-being, progressing toward wisdom (which then carries on the project of helping future generations achieve the same).

The thesis of the book, of course, is that there is a formula for raising highly successful kids. That formula is expressed as:

Purpose + Agency + Smarts = A Fully Realized Individual

For the authors, a successful person is not motivated exclusively by material wealth or an unqualified desire to please authority figures. They develop a lofty goal or objective that will animate and bring continuity to their life decisions. (I would describe this as developing a sense of honor.) They possess agency, or a “let’s do this” attitude in life. (That is to say, they are not raised as cynics. They aren’t blind idealists, either, but they do actively search for ways to fulfill their purpose instead of shrugging their ambitions off in the face of challenges.) They are conventionally intelligent, not just because they possess innate gifts, but because they were raised to be curious and genuinely love learning new things.

High achievers versus prodigies

The book involves an interesting digression on the difference between what the authors label as “high achievers” versus prodigies. I’ve always been somewhat amused by our culture’s obsession with prodigies and their inevitable meltdowns as they transition from gifted children into adults that cannot function in the world. Amadeus. Good Will Hunting. A Beautiful Mind. Etc. etc. These movies, for example, get made primarily because Hollywood fetishizes suffering, not because they admire the people behind the stories. (Heck, Amadeus isn’t even marginally a factually accurate representation of Mozart’s life. I mean, they got his name right, and that’s about it.)

The authors suggest that these burnouts among prodigies are not an accident. High achievers are purposeful in choosing new projects; prodigies live lives in response to what other people – some with good intentions, some without – think about their talents and what can be gained from them. High achievers can learn to collaborate with other people; prodigies tend to perform for other people. High achievers can become polymaths and Renaissance women and men; prodigies are slaves to a specific talent, whether they enjoy it or not.

The main difference between prodigies and high achievers is that high achievers can be nurtured. Prodigies start their lives expecting success and notoriety to come without effort, and that dooms their future. Adults are their fans due to the novelty of a child functioning on an adult level. Then the prodigies grow up and their talents are no longer quaint or impressive. Adults cease to be promoters and now view them as competitors. That’s when the prodigy melts down instead of flourishes.

The eight roles of the master parent

The brilliance of this book is that it is less about what a successful child looks like, however, and more about what master parents look like.

They describe eight roles that master parents will fill in their child’s life:

(1) The early learning partner: The first role a master parent must fill starts before the child is even born. They amass materials and strategies to engage their children in brain-building literacy (and I’d add numeracy and logic) games. By the time their children are school age, the kids are at ease around language and numbers. This is not a force that is brought into their lives by people external to their household.

(2) The flight engineer: The master parent will intervene in their child’s behavior to keep them on course. They take disciplinary issues seriously. They track their child’s work and seek feedback.

I was interested in the discussion on the “flight engineer” role, because it predictably ended up covering some rants I have made here and elsewhere a lot. The authors don’t use the word “unschooling,” but they describe a similar philosophy of natural development. Intriguingly, the authors associate the education philosophy of “just let your child do what they are pulled to do” with lower income households. I would love to introduce them to some relatively affluent granola homeschoolers / private schools who nurse the exact same convictions as parents who feel economically defeated in providing their children with a serious education. The latter think their children will magically discover passions and talents if left alone, and that making them suffer through such atrocities as schedules or textbooks would annihilate their curiosity forever. Both are a rejection of fundamental responsibilities.

(3) The fixer: The fixer teaches their children practical skills to survive in a sometimes hostile environment. To locate mentors who will represent their interests to their own peers. To find allies who can teach them what is necessary, for example, to get into a tough school.

(4) The revealer: The revealer introduces their child to new ideas, places, and interesting people. They take their kid to symphonies. They travel. They learn about Korean food. They let them tag along at work or attend professional meetings. Master parents will help their child develop the signposts of culture that are necessary to win over other people. They help them communicate about their goals in a real way. If your child wants to be a stockbroker, you will have them hang around stockbrokers to acquire the language of a stockbroker, to know what the job actually entails.

(5) The philosopher: This comes back to the idea of having a purpose. The master parent will talk to their kids about what a life well-lived would involve. What they value and why.

(6) The model: The master parent behaves the way they want their children to behave one day.

(7) The negotiator: The master parent has to prepare their children to be effective advocates for what they want in the world. This means allowing children to have a role in determining how their household operates. It does not mean allowing children to do whatever they want, failing to discipline poor behavior, or rejecting objectively bad life decisions. Children need to have space to test their skills in argumentation and persuasion, and the best way to do that is to have real things at stake in succeeding or failing.

(8) The GPS: The master parent has to help their child build a sense of direction that is consistent with their sense of purpose. There’s no advantage in having a sense of agency if the child cannot see where they can manipulate their own circumstances to advance their own philosophy of what living a good life involves.

I have very much enjoyed reading this book and would highly recommend it to new parents.

A brilliant weekend in St Augustine

We have had some hectic weeks with work projects lately. We decided that we would have a bona fide weekend and get out of the house and away from the computers. We ended up spending a lot of time in St. Augustine, which is one of our favorite cities.

Friday night, we drove up to St. Augustine to visit a bookstore there. Elise was in need of some more challenging chapter books to read. I have written before about how she’s something of a kid naturalist, so I have been trying to find books that play to her interests. I highly recommend Jane Goodall’s My Life With The Chimpanzees for children. It talks about being an ethnologist in an extraordinarily conversational and engaging tone, and she provides a lot of details about her childhood that children would love (living in a creepy old manor house, her uncle allowing her to ride his racehorses, her grandmother “giving” her her favorite tree in their backyard for her birthday, her dad’s Aston Martin). I think I am going to try to read The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle to Elise sometime, which Goodall says was the first book she fell in love with as a child. She read the book three times after checking it out from the library, and then was given her very own copy for Christmas. It was then that she decided she absolutely must go to Africa.

I also found Deborah Hopkinson’s The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, which is a story about learning to control a cholera outbreak. It should be a fun introduction to epidemiology and a transition to our next science book, which is on the history of medicine.

After we had done our damage at the bookstore, we went to Elise’s favorite restaurant on the A1A in St. Augustine Beach, which is Tide’s Oyster Company and Grill. Elise loves, loves, loves oysters, and Tide’s gets these positively enormous oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. They remember her there, the seven-year-old who can put away a dozen raw oysters on her own. The oysters at Tide’s will separate the people who genuinely like to eat oysters from the folks who ritually choke them down “when in Rome.” They are so big you have to consume them in multiple bites. Our server told us that she’s had tables get upset before because they were so freakishly large.

It was the perfect evening to sit outside at Tide’s. There were storms all around us, but they stayed away from the restaurant’s patio. We were able to enjoy the constant, cool ocean breeze and an incredible lightning show in the distance.

Driving home from St. Augustine on the A1A, we saw an amazing moonrise over the water. We pulled the car over and walked out onto the beach at Marineland, in the dark, with only moonlight on the whitecaps.

We often refer to a line from the movie A Good Year, where Russell Crowe’s character talks about how all of his childhood memories take place at or around his Uncle Henry’s vineyard in France. “Are they good memories?” he is asked. “No,” he replies, “they are grand.” I hope this is the way Elise talks about her childhood when she is an adult. She had the kind of parents who would take her to dance on the beach under the Moon at close to midnight, because that’s important to do.

We had so much fun sitting by the beach on Friday that we decided to do it again on Saturday. In the evening, we headed over to Flagler Beachfront Winery, along the A1A in Flagler Beach. To be honest, we went there with very low expectations. Boutique wines almost always taste like Hawaiian Punch to me, and seriously… a vineyard in steamy, hot Florida? But we found a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay that were actually quite fantastic. For dinner, we had plates of meats and cheeses and toasted baguettes. It was wonderful. Elise, obviously, could not enjoy the wines, but she had a grand time tasting and critiquing the array of cheeses. Surprisingly, I think her favorite had been rolled in ground espresso. I am constantly surprised by her palate.

The party behind us on the patio at the winery was there to celebrate a lady’s 29th birthday. It would seem more than a few of the people who showed up to the party were not, in fact, her friends and were simply there for the wine, based on some of their (rather loud) exchanges. She did not seem to be enjoying her birthday at all. Although I initially begged her not too, Elise insisted on walking up to the lady’s table and singing “Happy Birthday” in her sweet, little voice (albeit at the top of her lungs). Everyone around her whipped out their phones to record the kid serenading a total stranger for her birthday. The lady, who turned out to be a school teacher here, was so moved by all the attention that she looked like she was going to weep. “You don’t understand,” her friend leaned over to tell me, “your daughter just made her night. Probably even her year.” Here I thought we were going to be humiliated by the whole thing, but it turned out to be a wonderful act of kindness. We were joking that with Elise’s love of languages and her love of people, she’s probably going to end up an ambassador.

On Sunday, we kept the bona fide weekend going by heading back up to St. Augustine. This time, we went to the A1A Ale Works in historic downtown, overlooking the harbor and the Bridge of Lions. (The lions are a reference to Ponce de Leon, who is ubiquitous in St. Augustine.)

The restaurant/brewery has an upstairs balcony with ornate wrought iron like one might find in New Orleans. It’s sufficient shelter on a stormy night, so long as the storms are coming from the west and not from over the ocean. We enjoyed watching the city and the boats in the rain. (Though not as entertaining, a bride who was posing for pictures with her wedding party on the bridge ended up drenched and fled the downpour over muddy city streets. She will probably have to have her dress emergency cleaned before the big day. Summer storms in Florida are no joke, y’all. You have to watch the sky.)

We had a neat conversation about what kind of communications equipment to get for our future boat with three chaps who had sailed down from Savannah that day. They seemed to be contractors with the Coast Guard, as they were talking about their efforts to locate a missing boat.

Putting away the paella at the A1A Ale Works.

Walking back to our car, the Cathedral of St. Augustine was all lit up for a nighttime service. We had a wonderful view of all their stained glass windows in the darkness. I feel like we are constantly finding new and unusual spots in the Ancient City.

A wonderful weekend playing in the most beautiful corner of the world. We need to do this more often.

A beautiful evening on Flagler Beach

We are blessed to live on a stretch of pristine beach here in Florida. Sometimes it blows my mind that there are still places in the United States where you can walk for miles and miles along the ocean without seeing many people at all, but dozens of sea turtle nests. I love how serious about conservation this state is.

Tonight we saw something I have never seen before – a mother-of-pearl sunset. I have seen many sunsets, but never one that included an iridescent green color. There was a massive storm in the west this evening that I believe was responsible for colors that truly looked like the Northern Lights. (On the radar, the storm had a black-purple center. ‘Tis the season… the lightning crashes from the storms we’ve had this week would just about give you a heart attack.)

We waited until after 6 pm to hang out on the beach because the heat index has been so intense. But even in the evenings, the water feels like taking a warm bath. Here’s a shot of Elise capturing crabs.

Our rough-coat Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, is now totally accustomed to the ocean. I figure this will be the year that he learns to sail with us. I feel like we can trust him on a sailboat now. He was afraid of the waves as a young pup, but now he wants to play in the surf.