Vision matters

To reflect some more on the Oren Cass / Scott Winship debate…One way of reading Cass’s book is: my analysis of the data show that Americans without any college education have been socioeconomically declining declining for decades. This is a really big problem we should all care about. Here are some solutions to this problem.

I believe Winship, even though he disagrees with the premise, sees the book in this light. I think Cass himself views the book this way, which is why he has devoted so much effort to defending the idea that the working class is in decline.

While academics should continue trying to resolve this dispute, for me Cass’s main contribution is his vision for how conservatives can approach politics and policy. Cass’s focus on the centrality of work and creating an inclusive economy is a blueprint more conservatives should follow. That’s the big takeaway whether or not the working class is really stagnating.

Seen in this light, Winship’s fixation on a narrow technical point seems misplaced. I think Cass’s vision is largely correct. I suspect Winship agrees, but I’m not honestly sure since he barely addressed it.

And if Winship disagrees, I’d gently challenge him to offer something else. As reformocons, what should our narrative be?

Thinking differently, acting alike

The goal of politics is not to get people to think alike. The goal of politics is to get people who think differently to act alike – Walter Lippmann

I’ll take a break from reforming college to interject myself into a debate between Scott Winship and Oren Cass on the fortunes of the working class. For years now Cass and others have stressed that Americans with just a high school degree have been socioeconomically stagnating. Winship disagrees. You can go here, here, here, here, here and here to judge their arguments for yourself.

The exchange reminded me of Dan Sarewitz’s ‘Excess of Objectivity’. In many areas of environmental policy, there’s enough data and uncertainty to reasonably support different positions. This dynamic applies any complicated policy debate, the status of the working class included.

Two comments from Winship’ from his first and last post respectively, stood out for me (emphasis added):

But despite the fact that I agree with most of his policy proposals, I’m still uncomfortable with Oren’s analysis of the roots of the discontent that we both see among the working class/Trump voters/the “forgotten Americans.”


In closing, I want to reiterate that Oren has written a profoundly important book, which contains some of the most innovative conservative-minded policies to expand opportunity ever proposed. Many of them — wage subsidies at the top of that list — are great ideas regardless of whether or not one agrees with the narrative of The Once and Future Worker.

So Winship is saying he wrote thousands of words arguing with Cass even though they both support the same policies! Cass strongly believes in working class decline, and thus advocates for a wage subsidy and vocational path in education. Winship strongly doesn’t believe in working class decline…and advocates for a wage subsidy and vocational path in education!

Given this broad agreement, I’m confused why they chose to debate what they did. I’m also not sure what it accomplished. Their positions were the same at the end as they were at the start: Cass and Winship disagreed on premises but agreed on policies.

I would have preferred to see Winship critique or improve upon Cass’s specific proposals: how should a wage subsidy be structured? How much / how should immigration be restricted? How should these policies mesh with other Republican priorities?

They could have started off with: “We’re probably not going to agree on whether the working class is in decline. So let’s spend time improving on your suggestions and figuring out any policies you may have missed.”

A practical focus on the end goals would have, IMHO, been more fruitful and illuminating than attempting to construct a grand unified theory. We don’t have to think alike to act together.

Reforming college vs. vocational pathways

In an over-qualified labor market, employers will fill the “highest” jobs with those who have the “highest” credentials. Since over-schooling means there are too many workers who are highly educated, some of these workers are necessarily allocated to “mid-level” jobs. This process is repeated  for those with mid-level qualifications, where, since there are not enough mid-level jobs, many are forced to compete for low-level jobs. – Quoted in Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education 

An email exchange with Oren Cass made me want to answer a few questions for myself: Why should we even try to reform how college works? Won’t focusing on college detract attention from the “other half” students who most need a vocational path?

I’ve hinted at the answers to these questions in some of my other posts. But, mostly to help me clarify own thinking, I thought I’d try to summarize. In order of decreasing importance, here’s why we should include college in these discussions:

  1. Credential inflation: As the quote at the top illustrates, credential inflation will eventually infect all jobs. We’ve already reached the point where file clerks need a college degree. I worry that at some point we’ll require everyone have some college education and there will be no true blue collar jobs left, a situation both Cass and I want to avoid. And so we have to fight the education obsession head on.
  2. Higher ed is ignored: I’ve been working through (and enjoying!) Oren Cass’s book. While I find his overal framing and analysis novel, the notion of a vocational track itself isn’t that new.  Presidential candidates routinely call for more of it. But all these essays and public exhortations imply that the academic approach to learning (aka college) is perfectly fine for white collar workers. I disagree. Many college students would benefit from a greater work emphasis, and it’s a neglected line of analysis.
  3. Forming a broad coalition: From a purely strategic standpoint, we have a better chance of rethinking education with as broad a coalition as possible. Since most kids in college want a job at the end of the day, it would be politically wise to include them. A work track does a better job on that point, and I suspect it would get more buy-in than a CTE track. I concede, however, that I am making an empirical claim that might be wrong. While my personal bias says a work track would be more effective in helping push the reforms both Cass and I support, it might not be. It’s possible that a large coalition would only detract attention from the CTE students who need the most help.
  4. Devaluing the idea that education is intrinsically good: Regardless of whether a work frame is a more effective political strategy, I think it’s important to support it for philosophical reasons. There seems to be this widely held belief that education has some intrinsic worth. Beyond ~10th grade, I’m not sure it does. Work is more valuable for both individuals and society, and that’s what we should collectively promote.

All EEs don’t need to learn Laplace Transforms

Image result for laplace transforms

Electrical engineers at Penn State have to take EE350, a course on Laplace transforms. It’s notoriously difficult–abstract and math intensive with tough assignments and tests. People often fail multiple times, and many drop out of electrical engineering because of the class.

The professor once explained why he made the class so hard. He said something like: “One day someone in this class will have to design air traffic control systems using Laplace transforms. If I pass you when you can’t do the work, then you’ll cause a lot of harm.” I remember agreeing with that basic logic.

I now see that my agreement was self-serving. I’m just lucky that I was able to do well in classes like that, and I supported a stance that privileged people like me.

The fact is that the EE350 coursework was much more difficult than what you’d encounter in most jobs. I’m guessing that in most cases you could get away with some pre-packaged software that requires only basic knowledge of LT. You definitely wouldn’t need to solve problems under time pressure.

The disconnect between EE350 as a course and its practical use isn’t surprising because it wasn’t designed for students to use the content. If that were the goal, we would have focused much less on theoretical concepts and mathematical wizardry.

EE350–like all of higher education–was designed by and for academics. They like the problem sets and theorems approach to learning, which is why the course exists as it does. Students who might make great engineers but don’t have the skill-set to pass EE350, or who don’t do well with the academic approach to learning, are simply out of luck.

For my senior design project, I worked with someone I’ll call J. He was one of the best engineers I’ve ever met. He had a special knack for debugging what was wrong: more capacitance in one part of the circuit, overheating in another, etc. In one of the few classes that attempted to replicate on-the-job engineering, he excelled.

But he also failed EE350 multiple times, delaying his graduation. Although I suspect he eventually passed, I don’t know what he, or anyone else, gained by forcing him to take the class. I’m not sure why should have had to.

There are many people like J–those who would succeed in white-collar careers but are hampered by the academic approach to learning. They too would benefit from rethinking college and work pathways, and reform efforts shouldn’t ignore them to focus solely on vocational students.

Academia was built by and for academics

A genuine commitment to [an] inclusive society requires a willingness to shape institutions to that end, even when doing so is for the benefit of others or when it creates tension with other values – Oren Cass

As a conservative who’s written extensively on diversity, I appreciated Cass’s emphasis on creating an inclusive society. In higher education, diversity and inclusion understandably focuses race, gender, sexual identity, etc. It’s common to hear phrases like: “An institution built by and for white, cis-gendered males has to be redesigned if we want it to be welcoming to women, minorities, etc.”

Although I may quibble with how diversity programs are implemented (intellectual and viewpoint diversity should be a bigger component), in general I sympathize with those arguments. I’m married to a professor of engineering, and so I appreciate how corrosive sexism in academia can be.

But at least with gender, many administrators recognize changes need to be made and have some ideas on what to do. Not so with Cass’s “other half”–students who might be better off on a vocational track. They are rarely, if ever, included in diversity dialogues. Unfortunately, they probably won’t be anytime soon.

For all the changes in higher education over the centuries, it still has the same basic premise: the only way students learn is for a professor to teach them in a classroom setting. I call it the academic approach to learning.

Sure now we may have the occasional project-based course, and many professors also do try to use practical case studies in their teaching. And some majors may require a few semesters of work to graduate.  But all of these examples still exist within the paradigm that learning primarily occurs in a classroom. Even majors like engineering or accounting rely on the academic approach.

This approach, needless to say, works best for those who enjoy formal learning, advancing scholarship, and pursuing knowledge for its own sake: i.e., academics. More than a particular race, gender, or sexual orientation, academia was designed by and for academics. The neglect of non-academics is the major inclusivity deficit colleges face.

But meaningfully changing this property would negate colleges’ reason for being and undermine their own existence. If learning can meaningfully happen outside a classroom, then why would we need colleges?

Which is why higher higher education will never be able to truly welcome vocational students. They almost always need the opposite of what colleges offer–practical experience rather than academic knowledge. Institutions that catered to them wouldn’t look anything like higher education as we know it.

Even stronger, institutions that catered to students who just want a job wouldn’t look anything like higher education as we know it. It’s not just vocational students who are short-changed by the academic approach to learning. The overwhelming majority of students who simply want to work are poorly served by this model.

Which brings me back to the idea of a working, rather than just vocational, track. Almost all students need practical experience over academic knowledge. That’s what we need to be pushing. My next few blog posts will go into a few concrete examples of how the academic approach fails students even in engineering and business.

College is for jobs

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Before I get into more details of the working track, I want to lay out my core premise when it comes to college education: college is for jobs, and work is better than education. Put another way: mass college education exists to help people become more productive workers, and thus working is better than education for its own sake.

I know us over-educated types often believe that education is intrinsically worthwhile, and that college is to learn how to think or expand your horizons or study the classics or whatever. Maybe you could have made that argument a hundred years ago when higher education was a bunch of white dudes studying gibberish like plasma physics. But not anymore.

Don’t believe me? Just ask the people in college why they are there. Better yet, ask their parents why they want their children in college. Also ask college administrators and department heads why more people should attend college.

I’d bet that almost everyone’s response ultimately connects to getting a job. Whatever the historical reasons higher education exists, in the 21st century it’s about work. I might actually even go a little further and say that after ~10th grade, formal education of any kind is to help people become more productive workers.

I get that there are philosophical, non-job related reasons for primary school education (basic literacy and numeracy, social cohesion, a civic culture, patriotism, etc.). But beyond a certain point, formal education should primarily be about helping people succeed in the labor force.

I suspect many academics, and especially those in the pure sciences and humanities, will protest because many of them believe their jobs are special. They’re not. Knowledge-producing jobs are just another type of job, albeit ones that happen to require lots of formal education.

So whether we’re talking about construction, mechanical engineering, cancer research, or philosophy, we should judge college education on how it prepares people for work. It is a brutally utilitarian calculation.

Again: we would be having a different discussion if higher education were still reserved for the elite. But if we’re asking basically everyone to go to college, and allocating hundreds of billions of public dollars to it, then we have no choice but to be utilitarian. And we should do so for everyone, working in all types of jobs.

Oren Cass’s How the Other Half Learns almost gets there. But since his analysis sets up a dichotomy between vocational and college tracks, it doesn’t rethink education as much as it could have. If the central focus of public policy is a strong labor market for all Americans, and if education is to play a role in that goal, then we need to focus on how both halves learn.

The working track

Oren Cass has a couple essays out that previews arguments he’ll expand on in an upcoming book. He discusses many of the themes I’ve touched on: the purposes of education, skills and job success, education standards, and the fact public education should cater to different types of students.

I sum up Cass’s core argument as: the US education system’s strong bias to college attendance does a profound disservice to the overwhelming majority of students. We thus need a vocational / Career and Technical Education (CTE) track: “We need a pathway to prepare young men and women for productive participation in the labor force that relies less on academics and more on concrete skills and real-world experience.”

As much as I love this point, my main criticism is that Cass doesn’t take this line of reasoning far enough. It’s not just CTE students that need less academics and more concrete skills. All students do. I’ve made similar points myself in the context of science literacy and education (see here, here, here, here, here and here).

A separate CTE track doesn’t address the disturbing trend where many white-collar jobs–from receptionists to doctors–require more education than needed. That’s the problem we need to fix–we’re overeducating across the board, not just the kids who ultimately end up as welders or hospital techs.

A vocational-only track will also probably worsen the “cultural imperative to push more people into the college pipeline” because–regardless of pay–the CTE track is where blue-collar workers would end up. And however much my peers praised Geoffrey “All Jobs are Worthwhile” Owens for working at Trader Joe’s, the ugly fact is that we in the educated elite don’t want our children to end up in blue-collar jobs. We’d ensure that CTE never becomes “co-equal.”

So instead of a CTE/college binary, I propose the working track and the college track. The working track would still offer “close partnerships between school systems and employers that get students in the workplace, earning money and industry credentials, while they are still completing their formal education.” But these partnerships and credentials would be for jobs in sales, marketing, engineering, as well as CTE.

Any non-college educational track would enjoy much more support if it included white-collar work and appealed to children with a range of career interests and cognitive abilities. Since people like Cass (and me!) are ultimately talking about overhauling how we think about education, we should aim for as broad a coalition as possible.

I’m going to flesh out this argument over several blog posts. But I’ll basically be expanding on what Cass wrote, and trying to explain why I think almost all jobs ultimately come down to “concrete skills and real-world experience.” That is: most jobs have a very strong vocational component, a fact our educational system should acknowledge.

A nation ruled by science, part 2

Via Rod Dreher, here’s another essay on why it would be terrible to have a nation ruled by science. Greer argues scientists are terrible at political reasoning:

To make a political decision, you sort through the evidence to find the facts that are most relevant to the issue—and “relevant,” please note, is a value judgement, not a simple matter of fact. Using the relevant evidence as a framework, you weigh competing values against one another—this also involves a value judgment—and then you weigh competing interests against one another, and look for a compromise on which most of the contending parties can more or less agree. If no such compromise can be found, in a democratic society, you put it to a vote and do what the majority says. That’s how politics is done; we might even call it the political method.

That’s not how science is done, though. The scientific method is a way of finding out which statements about nature are false and discarding them, under the not unreasonable assumption that you’ll be left with a set of statements about nature that are as close as possible to the truth. That process rules out compromise. If you’re Lavoisier and you’re trying to figure out how combustion works, you don’t say, hey, here’s the oxygenation theory and there’s the phlogiston theory, let’s agree that half of combustion happens one way and the other half the other; you work out an experiment that will disprove one of them, and accept its verdict. What’s inadmissible in science, though, is the heart of competent politics.

I love the term political reasoning. I’ll try expand on it in an upcoming post.


A nation ruled by science…

Happy summer folks! I’m trying to resume blogging after the big move. There’s still much to unpack…but I’m relaxed enough to start focusing on my writing again. With that, here’s a nice quote from a recent Slate essay on how much it would suck to have a country ruled by science:

My work with creationists shows how impossible it is for humans to behave rationally. We are always informed by our biases. For example, a careful analysis of creationists’ scientific knowledge shows they know as much science as anyone else. It’s just that they deny scientific claims. In my fieldwork in one creationist evangelical high school, I found students perfectly capable of answering correctly every question about evolution in their AP Biology exam. They simply used phrases like scientists believe in their answers so as not to betray their creationist bona fides. This is actually an extremely rational way for them to handle the discrepancy between their faith and mainstream science.


Moving on up to the east side…

Hello readers. I know you’re used to long absences from me. But I still feel compelled to apologize and explain. My wife and I decided to take the plunge and buy our first house. So we’ve been busy figuring out this crazy world, and planning our move. You can say we’re movin’ on up.

I hope to resume more frequent blogging in July.