Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
5Jul/130

The Moral Roots of Income Inequality

ArendtWeekendReading

Inequality is not simply a matter of numbers and economics. Thomas Edsall explores at the moral and cultural roots of income inequality last week in the New York Times. His essay takes as its basis a recent speech by Alan B. Krueger, President Obama’s Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, entitled “Fairness as an Economic Force.” Here is one excerpt from Krueger’s speech:

In considering reasons for the growing wage gap between the top and everyone else, economists have tended to shy away from considerations of fairness and instead focus on market forces, mainly technological change and globalization. But given the compelling evidence that considerations of fairness matter for wage setting, I would argue that we need to devote more attention to the erosion of the norms, institutions and practices that maintain fairness in the job market. We also need to focus on the policies that can lead to more widely shared – and stronger – economic growth. It is natural to expect that market forces such as globalization would weaken norms and institutions that support fairness in wage setting. Yet I would argue that the erosion of the institutions and practices that support fairness has gone beyond market forces.

While globalization, outsourcing, and the rise of robots certainly are part of the reduction of wages and the hollowing out of the middle class, they do not tell the whole story.

peanuts

At a time when real wages are stagnant, CEO pay is skyrocketing, income at the highest levels of society is increasing disproportionately, and corporate profits as a share of Gross Domestic Product have reached record levels.

Importantly, Edsall notes that conservatives and liberals both have focused a light on this disintegration of the moral fabric of our society, though they often do so in very different ways. He begins his essay with a discussion of Charles Murray and David Brooks, each of whom argue that the economic and political problems we face have their roots in “disintegrating moral norms.”

While Krueger’s analysis is very different from Charles Murray’s or from David Brooks', all three share an interest in what they see as disintegrating moral norms. And there is something else that binds them: the trends that Murray, Brooks and Krueger deplore continue with unrelenting force. From Murray’s perspective, social decay and irresponsible behavior have spread into the broad working and lower middle class.

Liberals and conservatives often reject alliances on moral questions, and their analyses of the moral decay are meaningfully different. And yet, Edsall does well to bring them together and to remind us that radical inequality and political paralysis may have cultural and moral valences that transcend political affiliation.  His essay on “Our Broken Social Contract” is your weekend read.

You might also look at Alan Krueger’s speech, “Fairness as an Economic Force.” originally given at Oberlin College. I have written about Murray’s book Coming Apart, here and here.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
31Jan/133

Say Goodbye to Law Schools: and Credentials More Generally

Law school applications have gone off a cliff. Just look at this statistic from today’s NY Times.

As of this month, there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease from the same time last year and a 38 percent decline from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. Of some 200 law schools nationwide, only 4 have seen increases in applications this year. In 2004 there were 100,000 applicants to law schools; this year there are likely to be 54,000.

This radical drop in law school applications is not because people are suddenly reading Shakespeare. The reason is clear. Lawyers aren’t getting jobs. For law school grads in 2011, only 55% got full-time jobs working as lawyers. That means 45% did not get jobs they were trained to do. No wonder students and their parents aren’t lining up to take out debt to get a legal education.

Just as journalism has been upended by the Internet revolution, so too law is changing. The changes are different. Lawyers are still needed and law firms will exist. But more of the work can be done more cheaply, off-location, and by fewer people. Quite simply, we need fewer lawyers. And those we do need, don’t command the salaries they once did.

Finally, law school was for years the refuge of the uncommitted. For liberal arts grad unsure of what to do next, the answer was law school. But now with tuitions skyrocketing, debt ballooning, and job prospects dimming, law schools are out of favor.

What is more, these changes coming to law schools will be coming to other professional and graduate schools as well. All those Ph.D.s in hyper-specialized disciplines ranging from Italian studies to Political Theory are in for a really tragically rude awakening? There are no jobs. And those jobs are not coming back. For academics to keep bringing young scholars into Ph.D. programs now is really deeply wrong.

This retreat from law school is a good thing. My J.D. was hardly an educational experience worth three years of my time. Law schools are caught between being professional schools training practicing lawyers and the desire to be also to be something more. The result, they largely do neither well. They don’t produce lawyers ready to practice. Nor do they produce deep legal minds. Little would be lost if law school were reduced to 2 years (or even less), which is why legal academics are pushing an experiment to offer two-year J.D.s.

Education does matter and will continue to distinguish people who pursue it and excel at it. Liberal arts majors who combine a love for the renaissance with an interest in dance will succeed, whether they create new works of art or found a business curating Italian wines, these students learn to pursue their dreams. Education will survive because it raises people from their daily lives to the life of the mind. Education, as opposed to factory schools and large lectures, fosters creativity and daring, leading people to invent lives for themselves in pursuit of their passions.

While education will survive, schools and universities that have become credentialing factories will be increasingly challenged. When what matters is measureable performance, credentials will become ever less important. Law schools—at least many of them that do not offer an elite status—are credentialing institutions. So too are many of the colleges and universities around the country, where students sit in large lectures for four years so that they can get a degree that stamps them employable. Such credentials are ever less valuable in an age of cheap Internet driven education. That is why these institutions are under pressure.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
23Jan/130

The Higher Education Bubble? Not So Fast.

We have a higher education bubble. The combination of unsustainable debt loads on young people and the advent of technological alternatives is clearly set to upend the staid and often sclerotic world of higher education.

In this month’s The American Interest, Nathan Hardin—the author of Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad (St. Martin’s, 2012) and editor of The College Fix—tries to quantify the destructive changes coming to higher education. Here is his opening paragraph:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

Step back a second. Beware of all prognostications of this sort. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow let alone 50 years from now. Even today the NY Times reports that the University of Cincinnati and the University of Arizona are turning to online courses as a way of increasing enrollment at their residential campuses. Whether this will work and how this will transform the very idea of a residential college are not yet clear. But the kinds of predictions Hardin makes can be provocative, thus inducing of thought. But they are rarely accurate and too often are simply irresponsible.

Beyond the hyperbole, here is something true. Colleges will exist so long as they can convince students and their parents that the value of education is worth the cost. One reason some colleges are suffering today is clearly the cost. But another reason is the declining perception of value.  We should also remember that many colleges—especially the best and most expensive ones—are seeing record demand. If and when the college bubble bursts, not all colleges will be hit equally. Some will thrive and others will likely disappear. Still others will adapt. We should be wary of collapsing all colleges into a single narrative or thinking we can see the future.

Part of the problem is that colleges offer education, something inherently difficult to put a value on. For a long time, the “value” of higher education was intangible. It was the marker of elite status to be a Harvard man or some such thing. One learned Latin and Greek and studied poetry and genetics. But what really was being offered was sophistication, character, erudition, culture, and status, not to mention connections and access.

More recently, college is “sold” in a very different way. It promises earning power. This has brought a whole new generation and many new classes into university education as they seek the magic ticket granting access to an upper middle class lifestyle. As the percentage of college graduates increases, the distinction and thus market value of college education decreases. The problem colleges have is that in their rush to open the doors to all paying customers, they have devalued the product they are offering. The real reason colleges are threatened now—if they indeed are threatened—is less financial than it is intellectual and moral. Quite simply, many of our colleges have progressively abandoned their intangible mission to educate students and embraced the market-driven task of credentialing students for employment. When for-profit or internet-based colleges can do this more cheaply and more efficiently, it is only logical that they will succeed.

For many professors and graduate students, the predicted demise of the residential college will be a hard shock. Professors who thought they had earned lifetime security with tenure will be fired as their departments are shuttered or their entire universities closed down. Just as reporters, book sellers, and now lawyers around the country have seen their jobs evaporate by the disruption of the internet, so too will professors be replaced by technological efficiencies. And this may well happen fast.

Gregory Ferenstein, who describes himself as a writer and educator and writes for Techcrunch and the Huffington Post,  has gone so far to offer a proposed timeline of the disappearance of most colleges as we know them. Here is his outline, which begins with the recently announced pilot program that will see basic courses at San Jose State University replaced by online courses administered by the private company Udacity:

  1. [The] Pilot [program in which Udacity is offering online courses for the largest university system in the world, the California State University System] succeeds, expands to more universities and classes
  2. Part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?)
  3. Graduate programs dry up, once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes
  4. Competency-based measures begin to find the online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses
  5. A few Ivy League universities begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates
  6. In the near future, learning on a college campus returns to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty

I put little faith in things working out exactly as Ferenstein predicts, and yet I can’t imagine he is that far off the mark. As long as colleges see themselves in the knowledge-production business and the earnings-power business, they will be vulnerable to cheaper alternatives. Such quantifiable ends can be done more cheaply and sometimes better using technology and distance learning. Only education—the leading of students into a common world of tradition, values, and common sense—depends on the residential model of one-to-one in-person learning associated with the liberal arts college. The large university lecture course is clearly an endangered species.

Which is why it is so surprising to read a nearly diametrically opposed position suggesting that we are about to enter a golden age for untenured and adjunct faculty. This it the opinion of Michael Bérubé, the President of the Modern Language Association. Bérubé gave the Presidential Address at the 2013 MLA meetings in Boston earlier this month.

It is helpful and instructive to compare Hardin’s technophilic optimism with Bérubé’s recent remarks . He dedicated much of his speech to a very different optimism, namely that contingent and adjunct faculty would finally get the increased salaries and respect that they deserved. According to Bérubé:

[F]or the first time, MLA recommendations for faculty working conditions [are] being aggressively promoted by way of social media…. After this, I think, it really will be impossible for people to treat contingent faculty as an invisible labor force. What will come of this development I do not know, but I can say that I am ending the year with more optimism for contingent faculty members than I had when I began the year, and that’s certainly not something I thought I would be able to say tonight.

Bérubé’s talk is above all a defense of professionalization in the humanities. He defends graduate training in theory as a way to approach literary texts. He extols the virtues of specialized academic research over and above teaching. He embraces and justifies “careers of study in the humanities” over and against the humanities themselves. Above all, he argues that there are good reasons to “bother with advanced study in the humanities?” In short, Bérubé defends not the humanities, but the specialized study of the humanities by a small group of graduate students and professors.

I understand what Bérubé means. There is a joy in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge even if he eschews the idea of joy wanting instead to identify his pursuit work and professionalized labor. But to think that there is an optimistic future for the thousands of young graduate students and contingent faculty who are currently hoping to make professional careers in the advanced study of the humanities is lunacy. Yes advanced study of the humanities is joyful for some? But why should it be a paying job? There is a real blindness not only to the technological and economic imperatives of the moment in Bérubé’s speech, but also to the idea of the humanities.

As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. What we need is not professional humanities scholars so much as educated and curious thinkers and readers.

As I have written before:

To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

If humanities programs and liberal arts colleges go the way of the duck-billed platypus, it will only partly be because of new technologies and rising debt. It will also be because the over-professionalization of the humanities has led—in some but not all colleges—to a course of study that simply is not seen as valuable by many young people. The changes that Hardin and Ferenstein see coming will certainly shake up the all-too-comfortable world of professional higher education. That is not bad at all. The question is whether educators can adapt and begin to offer courses and learning that is valuable. But that will only happen if we abandon the hyper-professionalized self-image defended by scholars like Michael Bérubé. One model for such a change is, of course, the public intellectual writing and thinking of Hannah Arendt.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
4Jan/130

The “E” Word, Part Two

This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,”  a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.

Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.

The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of  obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.

At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.

Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.

To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education. 

The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.

The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.

Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.

Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take  a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.

What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and  cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!” 

At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:

To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!

At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.

Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.

It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.

Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.

That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?

According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand.  Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet.  Build a personal website.”

None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.

What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.

Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.

We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.

One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.

I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,

The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.

Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.

I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
10Sep/121

The Gap in American Skilled Labor

I flew back from Germany Friday and sat next to a young woman from Berlin. The young woman was attending Humboldt University and was studying to be a teacher. Like many in Germany, her undergraduate education was a professional one. On another plane between Zürich and Berlin I met a young man in a technical university, studying to be an electrician. This is one of the things that most strikes one about the differences between young people in Germany and the United States. In the U.S. both these young people would be pursuing liberal arts degrees, delaying concerns about a job or a career until after college. In Germany, they are aiming at a technical education preparing them for specific jobs.

The liberal arts can be and often are an extraordinary opportunity for young people to embrace the complexity and richness of human life on earth. A liberal arts education can transform one's life, helping a young man or woman to find meaning in life, in art, and in nature. As someone who dedicates himself to liberal arts writing and teaching, I have an enormous faith in and love for the determination to teach young people broadly and widely.

And yet, as much as I value and believe in the liberal arts, we should not think that it is a necessity for everyone. This has been one of our mistakes, to insist, against all good evidence, that a liberal arts education is the path to being both a good citizen and a successful person. Many have come to think that only someone with a B.A. or a liberal arts degree is educated, a prejudice that defies human history as well as our own experience.

I had a good friend who grew up in Switzerland and learned to build organs. He could walk through a forest and hear the wood play in the wind and pick precisely that tree whose fibrous inners would produce the most vibrant tones demanded of professional organ players. To think such a person uneducated would be folly. He was in tune with the natural world and with music in a way that few musicians ever would be. And yet it is precisely people who are skilled at doing things—from building organs to fixing pipes, from fixing electronics to growing food, and from cooking dinner to building a deck—that are increasingly absent in our modern society.

A number of years ago Matthew B. Crawford wrote a book Shop Class as Soulcraft. The book had two simple theses. First, that skilled work was deeply important. It teaches judgment, mastery, and engagement with the world around us, with the things that in Hannah Arendt's sense, make up our physical world. Second, that American high schools increasingly do not teach shop classes or home economics classes or auto repair classes, classes that used to instruct young people in the art of fixing and understanding the mechanical world around us. Crawford argued that while high schools were ditching shop class in favor of college prep, it was actually the case that more and more of the jobs available in our society were ones that required a physical skill at building and fixing things. Not only were we losing out economically, but also our educated elite was increasingly separated from those who know how to do things.

Crawford is right. And one result of the bias against skilled labor he highlights is the persistent disconnect between sky-high unemployment and increasing job openings. Businesses report a shortage of qualified workers. There is, in other words, a skills gap. Jobs are available, but they are not the jobs young people want to do.

Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel, has written open letters to both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama expressing his thoughts on the grounds for the skills gap.  (Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds) This skills gap is but a symptom of what Rowe believes to be a fundamental problem facing this country – the growing emotional disconnect between the general American population and skilled labor.

“We have embraced a ridiculously narrow view of education,” wrote Rowe in his open letter to Governor Romney this past Labor Day."

Any kind of training or study that does not come with a four-year degree is now deemed ‘alternative.’ Many viable careers once aspired to are now seen as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ and many of the jobs this current administration has tried to ‘create’ over the last four years are the same jobs that parents and teachers actively discourage kids from pursuing.

The irony underlying the emotional disconnect with skilled labor is that these jobs are just what they claim to be – skilled – and require diverse education across a number of fields, a far cry from the bleak picture transfixed in the minds of many parents and teachers concerning these careers. In the manufacturing industry, for example, machinists are typically required to be adept at computer programming and geometry. These jobs are not avenues for opting out of an engaged and intelligent lifestyle, rather, they represent in many ways the beautiful symbiosis that may exist between education and practice.

Far from the “alternative” label given careers in skilled trades today, these professions were once described as possessing qualities uniquely apt for democratic peoples. Alexis de Tocqueville has a chapter in Democracy in America dedicated to the question of why Americans are drawn to the practice of science (such as skilled trade jobs), and writes that “In America the purely practical part of the sciences is cultivated admirably, and people attend carefully to the theoretical portion immediately necessary to application; in this way the Americans display a mind that is always clear, free, original, and fertile…” A far cry from the “vocational consolation prizes” these professions are deemed today.

Hannah Arendt also decried the "lost contact between the world of the senses and appearances and the physical world view." And Arendt understands that it is practical persons—plumbers and technicians—who will better be able to re-establish that lost contact that many educated people and scientists feel in the face of the physical world.

There is no doubt about our disconnect from physical and skilled labor, there is only the question of what to make of it. Mike Rowe writes,

Forty years ago, people understood that sweat and dirt were the hallmarks of important work. Today, that understanding has faded. Somewhere in our economy’s massive transition from manufacturing to financial services, we have forsaken skilled labor, along with many aspects of our traditional work ethic.

Skilled laborer positions are still financially lucrative. Many machinists, for example, make about $60,000 a year and some have the opportunity of making as much as $100,000 a year with overtime, but these jobs are no longer celebrated as worthwhile and honorable positions, and this, Rowe argues, is why so many Americans fail to consider these careers.

Rowe argues that we need to confront the social stigmas and stereotypes attached to skilled-labor so that we may begin to reevaluate the jobs which for years now have been underappreciated despite their necessity. There was “a time when Work was not seen as a thing to avoid,” Rowe wrote in his concluding remarks to President Obama, “When skilled tradesmen were seen as role models, and a paycheck was not the only benefit of a job well done. We need to recapture that sentiment. We need to celebrate, on a bigger scale, the role models right in front of us.”

—RB (with assistance from David Breitenbucher)

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
4Jun/121

The Pension Crisis Blame Game

Two articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times this weekend show the grave threats to two great institutions, both of which I care deeply about.

The Times has a story on the threatened cuts looming over the University of California and the State University of California system.

Class sizes have increased, courses have been cut and tuition has been raised - repeatedly. Fewer colleges are offering summer classes. Administrators rely increasingly on higher tuition from out-of-staters. And there are signs it could get worse: If a tax increase proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown is not approved this year, officials say they will be forced to consider draconian cuts like eliminating entire schools or programs.

To get a sense of the problem, just consider this:

While there are more students than ever, the number of academic advisers has dropped to 300, from 500 a few years ago, for more than 18,000 undergraduates. Courses that used to require four writing assignments now demand half that because professors have fewer assistants to help them with grading papers, something other campuses have implemented as well.

Meanwhile, the WSJ reports that policemen and firefighters in San Jose, California are being insulted, flipped off, and outright despised. One officer was recently criticized at a supermarket checkout line for buying steaks. A firefighter reports being given the finger while in his truck. This is sad. These are people who are prepared to risk their lives to protect us. They do so for salaries that allow them to live well, but not well enough to actually afford a home in San Jose, where the median house price is over $400k.  Are these officers and heroes really the blood-sucking vampires that they are being made out to be?

Clearly the answer is no, and yet the officers do make very rich pensions. As the WSJ reports:

In the current fiscal year ending June 30, San Jose's retirement obligations soared to $245 million, up from $73 million a decade ago, according to the city. For police officers and firefighters who have retired since 2007, the average pension is $95,336, making them among the most generously compensated in the state.

The threat to the California public universities and the animosity to public-safety officers who make up an important part of the middle class are two sides of the same problem.  As pension costs soar, governments are taking away middle-class services like education, park playgrounds, and libraries. As middle-class taxpayers see their services cut, they blame those whose middle-class lives they are supporting. We are in for lots of this over the next decade.

The Arendt Center continues to follow the pension crisis because it is another example of the way that facts staring us in the face can simply be denied and ignored by those who don't want to see them. We also are following the pension mess because we care about politics and government. The attack on government today too often takes the form of a rejection of all public activity and the claim that all services and all valuable activities are private, not public.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.