July 10, 2010

It's the end of higher ed as we know it, and I feel fine?

I'm not much of a book person, but one of the most influential I ever read was The Big Test, by Nicholas Lemann.

I was a big-time test nerd growing up (and I still remember my SAT scores: a very good 740 on the math, a decidedly OK-to-good 530 on the verbal), and so a book that on its face was about the development of the SAT and the ideal of an American meritocracy was deeply appealing to me. I was absolutely in favor of the construction of a society that only rewarded talent and where anyone regardless of race, creed, or gender could have access to the American elite, and the test nerd in me loved the idea of setting up this Scholastic Aptitude Test to separate those type of people out. (And the fact that I thought - and many people around me told me at every opportunity - that I could beat this system and gain access to that elite myself? I was all for that noise.)

I thought I was getting a book that told the story of how that system put itself together, and I did get that; but I made the mistake of reading the book through to the end, and what I wound up getting was the story of Molly Munger.

The initial encounter with the person of Munger - middle class, ultra-high achiever (Lemann called these people "Mandarins" for reasons that I never really understood) who graduated from Harvard both as an undergraduate and as a J.D. - was compelling enough. She married a fellow Harvard Law graduate, both pursued legal careers with great gusto, required au pairs to help with the raising of the children. And when she met those au pairs, young women of mixed race (but culturally black), she began to realize how little access to the quality of education they needed they actually had; and, in turn, how little access to elite society they would have without intervention.

Like any good liberal, Molly Munger intervened, and was a matron to both women in their path through academia. But that was merely an intervention in two people's lives; there were so many others in Southern California who needed that kind of support, and no one person can be that for that many people; so what to do in her life then?

I won't spoil the story; if you're interested in higher education and mobility in American society, you should read the book. (Or, if you're lazy and/or cheap, a ten-year-old Reason book review - critical but fairly so.) But it's even more compelling now that I read it again and I have a better grip on my modern American history. (Example: I didn't think anything of it, the first time I read the book, that Molly was a daughter of Charlie Munger. Now, though, I actually know a little bit more about Berkshire Hathaway, and realize that even if Charlie Munger didn't join Warren Buffett during Molly's rearing, this still wasn't your garden-variety middle-class home she was raised in.)

And what it convinced me of, beyond anything else at the time, was very unexpected: not only was the SAT not my friend, as I thought nearly a quarter-century ago, its use in the interest of advancing meritocracy was nothing short of an abject failure.


The stories about the many ways the American educational system is seriously beyond messed could, and have, filled many books. Grade inflation has not only its own Wikipedia article, but its own domain. Equity in funding for public schools (and the extent to which such formulae are tied to property taxes) is an issue across the country, in both K-12 and in higher ed. And of course, there is the always-explosive issue of race.

I don't think I have to build much of a case that poorly-funded, rural and minority school districts in the United States have been generally spiraling downward in terms of quality of education, and that this has been going on for some time. It's my belief - and I may need to find a little more support for the idea than I've got right now - that while individual students of privilege may find ways to take advantage of opportunities they're provided, the vast majority of students in ALL educational situations have proceeded to regress to the mean, because of the lack of competition from all corners of society. There may be a greater competition for places in elite colleges and universities, but the competition is not of a greater quality than it was in the 60's and 70's, when Molly Munger was on her way to a J.D. from Harvard.

(Please note - that's only a hypothesis, it's my hypothesis, and I've been singularly horrible at supporting it. I'll gladly take further support from whoever wants to give it.)

If you accept that hypothesis, articles with titles like "What happened to studying? shouldn't be surprising. Of course undergraduates aren't studying; they've never been genuinely shown how to study, and the pressure to perform in this time is not what it might have been long ago. And the temptation to blame these infernal internets and talk about how much damage the MTV generation did to the cause of higher education winds up falling shy of the research mark:

According to time-use surveys analyzed by professors Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours.

The decline, Babcock and Marks found, infects students of all demographics. No matter the student’s major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less…

But according to their research, the greatest decline in student studying took place before computers swept through colleges: Between 1961 and 1981, study times fell from 24.4 to 16.8 hours per week (and then, ultimately, to 14). Nor do they believe student employment or changing demographics to be the root cause. While they acknowledge that students are working more and campuses attract students who wouldn’t have bothered attending college a generation ago, the researchers point out that study times are dropping for everyone regardless of employment or personal characteristics.

It's my suspicion that, over the course of the past 50 years, most metrics are going to give you the same sort of problems, and the decline isn't going to be connected to one technological advance or specific societal shift, but is going to be broad over long periods of time.


Every time there's this burst of thought on my Facebook wall and on the walls of these friends, past and present colleagues, and past and present students, I'm incredibly grateful for what's happened to me over these past 20 years. I have this unique core of people who are in my life, and who share these ideas with me and allow me to share ideas with them, and outside of any formal realm of scholarship I get this feedback and feel intellectually fulfilled in ways that the formal structures of academia have not provided for me in my lifetime.

(The fact that these wonderful 20 years have neatly overlapped my 20 years as an evangelical Christian is a coincidence deserving of reflection…but another time.)

I honestly feel like I'm a participant in the end of the traditional liberal arts education. Please don't hear what I'm not saying; there's nothing about the end of the traditional liberal arts education that makes me happy. The weaving of the liberal arts throughout my hard-science education was very much responsible for making me the teacher I've become, and something of that system needs to be preserved because, for a student of a strong preparation, that development of critical thinking is every bit as relevant and valuable today as it was when it first developed.

Further, the ideals of the liberal arts education - the importance of higher education not merely as training for a job, but as exposure to many different ways of knowing, and the development of a young mind's ability to think in all of those different ways of knowing - doesn't need to go away. When it's done right, liberal arts education changes lives, and makes people who otherwise would cynically chase after the money (hi, yeah, that was me) believe that the world is much bigger than just the job you'll have after graduation, and that greater things are possible in this world.

But there was a bargain that was implicit in my effort to participate in providing this liberal arts education, and that is that the secondary education system would provide students that were prepared for the learning I would provide. As a general rule, I have not received those students, regardless of the supposed quality of their high schools, regardless of the SAT scores on the books, regardless of the supposed privilege in their life. The complaint of the article is valid; the students don't study. But we haven't convinced them that this study, this formal academic knowledge is valuable.

Something else is going to take its place. The good news is, we have the tools in front of us to create something else. With positive effort, as we mourn the passing of the liberal arts as we have known them, we can develop a new philosophy of learning that meets the needs of this society better.

I've long said that the best education is education that teaches the students that we have now, that meets the needs of the students now, and that any lamenting that they're not the students we wish we had misses the point. There are so many things we can say and so many complaints we can make about where we've wound up in 2010. I'm tired of the laments and complaints. What do we do about what we've got?


This effort is far shorter on answers than I thought it would be when I started, and at this point I probably ought to close it.

But there was an extremely impressive flurry on my Facebook page this week, and it started this thought process. I've tagged (hopefully) everyone who participated. Consider that my thanks for continuing to have this role in my life, for continuing to ask these questions of me.

Posted by Chuck at 10:37 PM | TrackBack (0)

June 26, 2010

A few words on the USA World Cup run

I want to be a contrarian here for a bit, and - from the perspective of a guy that remembers 1998 vividly, and remembers a team that shut it down during their third game of an 0-3, one goal scored, five goals allowed campaign - make some key comments about these past for USA games, and where this deal goes from here.

I think the genesis of how we need to take this World Cup - and why, regardless of the massive PR success the whole deal was, we have to hope the USSF takes it as a massive missed opportunity - can be found in two games in five days almost exactly one year ago. Over two games, the United States demonstrated - comprehensively - that they could play with, and at times overrun, a genuinely elite international team. So much of the expectation - perhaps even the legitimate expectation - for this tournament came from the fact that we watched what may become a classic USA core of Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore and Howard play Spain off the field and come out flying against Brazil. Slovenia and Algeria don't seem like a threat when compared against that evidence.

But when Brazil came roaring back to lift the Confederations Cup, it was a singular and final turning point in the history of US Soccer: the moral victory to end all moral victories, literally. Once you've had Brazil two goals down, and you let that slip, there's only one thing left to do on the world stage: win the big game. Consistently. That is the only result that will satisfy, that is the only result that will leave the nation coming back for more.

So we come back to South Africa 2010. We played a thoroughly underwhelming draw against England, the only team of pedigree we played in the entire tournament, and we were saved by a very typically English goalkeeping howler. We made the storyline all about the goal at the death that was disallowed, forgetting the fact that we played absolutely shocking defense - against Slovenia! - and found ourselves 2-0 down and in need of a desperate fightback. We made the storyline all about the dramatic winner that galvanized a nation, forgetting the fact that it took 91 minutes for us to score - against Algeria! - and were dangerously close to equalling the three-draw World Cup experience of that vaunted world power New Zealand. And we're sent packing against the very same Ghana team that sent us packing in 2006. We just were fortunate to not be drawn into a group with the Czech Republic and Italy this time.

And please don't get me started on Bob Bradley's selection against Ghana. For the man who supposedly carried the Midas touch all tournament long, the two starters from the horrible England opener that Bradley insisted on recalling - Clark and Findley - were gone by the second half kickoff, replaced with Edu and Feilhaber, players who had been so influential in the tournament to date. Clark in particular was badly abused in his 30 minutes, was directly at fault for the giveaway that led to Ghana's first goal, and absolutely had to be yanked from the match early. Bob Bradley may have outsmarted himself out of a job today - if Juergen Klinsmann (the USSF's first choice for this cycle all along) wants to make himself available, the Fed absolutely has to chase him, and I can't help but think that Sigi Schmid is overdue a chance to see what he can do in this job.

At this point, I hope the Americans are bitterly disappointed. There was so much more to be had in this tournament, there was so much potential in this team. For a North American team, there is no European Championships, there is no Copa America, and the Gold Cup just doesn't get it. There is the World Cup. When this is over, we go into a two-year wilderness of meaningless and half-meaningless matches. This is our one opportunity to assert our worth on the world stage - and our worth is maybe top-16 in the world, but certainly not top-eight, certainly not a team to genuinely challenge the world powers, developing but still not ready for the ultimate stage.

And yet.

Say this one thing about the Yanks, say it frequently, say it loudly: they never gave up. They played every match to its end. So much of the story of this tournament has been the grossly underwhelming performance of richly talented African nations like Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon; the constant turmoil in the England camp that reached its nadir in England 0-0 Algeria; the listless play of Italy that saw them finish bottom of their group, and of course, of COURSE, the complete capitulation of France.

There is a small measure of sympathy I have there, because I still remember the tournament that was supposed to be the high point of the USA's first classic core of players, the likes of John Harkes (the "captain-for-life"!) and Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa and Claudio Reyna and Kasey Keller. Our group might have been difficult, but we would get the biggest challenge out of the way early against Germany, and then surely we'd get a result against Iran, and Yugoslavia would surely be a winnable match at that point and our chance to make the final 16.

If you haven't studied your Yanks history and you don't know how that turned out, start with searching "John Harkes" "embrace the position" on Google. (Actually, if you search "John Harkes" on Google, the first hit comes up "Amy Wynalda", which might be more recent news but might also explain just a bit more.) Suffice it to say that I've seen Yank teams throw in the towel before, and the only thing positive that I'll remember about the 1998 World Cup is seeing Brian McBride score late to save face against Iran, when most of his teammates were sleepwalking, and praying that would mean something in the future, not quite knowing just how much it would mean.

Knowing that we were able to build on even 1998, when the program was a shambles, is one thing. This program is not a shambles. Bob Bradley is not the epic pile of fail that Steve Sampson was, and never will be. The character in this team is strong. Even with the hideous defensive lapses that will be this tournament's negative, the will to attack and to push for a result never - NEVER - left this team. Witness the late equalizer against Slovenia, to say nothing of Edu's "goal" that may have been the biggest what-if moment if it hadn't been for - also witness - the even later winner against Algeria. And even today, even after 120 minutes of soccer, even after falling behind twice, still the Yanks attacked in waves, desperately seeking the equalizer that, in the end, they were just too spent to deliver.

The youth is there. Donovan, Dempsey, and Onyewu, for all their experience, still have at least one more World Cup cycle in them. Bradley, Altidore, and Howard (remember how long Keller's career went!) have at least two. One of Buddle, Gomez and Findley will be heard from again at this level. So too with Feilhaber, Holden and Edu. We may have even cussed Bornstein in the runup, but he grew up in this tournament and will be a far better defender going forward.

And what of the players left behind? Charlie Davies was such an important part of this Confederations Cup team; if you want a moment where we lost the quarterfinals, look back to that car crash as qualifying was reaching its climax. What about Jonathan Spector and Sacha Kjlestan, who also had a part in that tournament run but who have lost their way since? What about José Torres, who showed so much promise but never got off the bench after the disastrous Slovenia first half? What about the young players like Chad Marshall, Heath Pearce and Robbie Rogers, who showed promise before getting run out by Mexico in the Gold Cup last year? And who is lurking in MLS who will start to get their national team time come 2011?

Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo may be nearing the end of their international careers (although neither should be ruled out for 2014), but the core of this team are not only good candidates to return, but improve going forward. Sakes, Eddie Johnson (who - lest we forget - holds 12 goals for the USA and was a key part of the qualifying for 2006) isn't even that old yet.

You type all that up, and this is what it all says: DEPTH. Something that we didn't have in 1998. And, for all my criticism of Bradley's management on the day, for the long haul, he has had a lot to do with the growth of the pool.

So, at the end of the day, there is disappointment, but there is also pride. There are no moral victories in this tournament - we simply weren't good enough. But, as cliche as it sounds, we do emerge from this tournament with our heads held high.

And we also emerge with the biggest PR win we could have possibly had. It wasn't BigSoccer anger I heard over the phantom foul that robbed Maurice Edu of a World Cup goal - it was PTI anger. That wasn't soccer-geek euphoria over Landon Donovan's desperate winner - that was sports-fan euphoria. That wasn't just Sam's Army overconfidence going into the Ghana match - it was Joe Sixpack overconfidence. I know I had at least one friend who never took soccer seriously in his life text me a simple "OMG!!!" when Landon scored THAT goal. I know I had one friend who told me today he's been meaning to go to Crew Stadium to take in a match and now he absolutely has to. You, the guy who's been with us since '94 or '96 or '98, you probably have a friend like that too. The game grew these past two weeks.

And this is how I have to end this:

We really weren't that great. Imagine what happens in four years if we rediscover that form we had in June 2009. Imagine what happens if we demolish Spain when it matters most.

Imagine what happens to the American sports fan THEN.

Posted by Chuck at 11:09 PM | TrackBack (0)