Learning Things

Parallels are inexact, but people do see them and argue from them, and this is just like the thirties and the Great Depression – or it isn’t. Yes, in late 2008 credit froze up and we had a liquidity crisis and a classic market collapse – a crash, with investment banks going under, and then major commercial banks and insurance companies, followed by massive unemployment and millions losing their homes, and most of their retirement savings too. The house of cards collapsed. And it hardly matters that this was a housing bubble and not a stock market bubble – the bubble burst.

It was just like the thirties. Not being able to meet the margin call on some hot stock you bought for pennies on the dollar, as its value plummeted. isn’t that much different than not being able to meet the sudden balloon payment on your mortgage, as your home’s value plummeted and your equity evaporated and there was now no way sell the place for a small profit and move on – as you had planned to do when the big bill came due. Now you could only sell at a big loss, and still owe the bank hundreds of thousands of dollars – if you could sell at all. No one was buying anything. You were left holding the bag, faced with paying enormous sums, money you didn’t really have, seemingly forever, for something now not worth all that much. Many could not pay up and the banks to their homes, and others, looking at the math, just mailed the keys to the bank and walked away – what became known as strategic default. Only suckers keep paying big bucks, monthly, for what’s worth relatively little now. And this was like the situation in late 1929, where you might be holding hundreds of shares of Amalgamated Baking Soda, or whatever was supposed to be the next big thing, a dollar stock you bought for dime a share, on margin as they say, thinking you’d sell when it hit a hundred bucks a share and you could cover the ninety-cents-a-share loan and make a killing. And now it was worth a penny a share. And the loan was being called in – the margin call. And you had to come up with that missing ninety cents on each share, right now. And you couldn’t. The parallel is clear enough.

And when the economy collapses like this – where everyone owes everyone money they don’t have and never expected to have to pay out anyway – no one gets paid and no one has any spare change at all. There’s no money to buy things. Consumer demand collapses and businesses large and small fail, as they do need customers. Economic activity thus slows and slows, and then pretty much stops. That happens when no one has any money to spend. The government can pump in money, as they did, and prop up businesses that are too important – or too big – to fail. We decided we needed banks, and AIG and GM and so on, as a basic part of our economy. The government rescued them. But everyone else just had to fend for themselves.

And thus we had misery like we hadn’t seen since the thirties. It wasn’t quite as bad this time – we now have a rudimentary social safety net – unemployment insurance and social security and Medicare and Medicaid and all the rest – and, since the thirties, the Securities and Exchange Commission and such, with rules on margin calls and collateral and capital reserve requirements and who can trade what. Yes, every Republican will tell you that’s all very bad stuff, sapping Americans of any sense of personal responsibility, and destroying our freedom – and that it’s all way too expensive, and they don’t see why they, or anyone else, should have to pay for any of it, as people should take care of themselves. And maybe they should. And maybe markets should be totally unregulated, so there would be an explosive growth in speculative wealth, no matter what the risks – spectacular sudden wealth is worth the price of spectacular failure for some folks. But that would really take us back to the thirties – the Grapes of Wrath with Woodie Guthrie singing in the background scenario, while Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger on the terrace of the Manhattan penthouse – wretchedness and glamour. Brother, can you spare a dime? Sometimes you don’t want parallels to be too exact.

But how do you climb out of this? Those of us who are baby boomers had parents who came of age in the Great Depression, and that scared them. They didn’t want their kids to have to go through what they went through. Maybe the father dropped out of school in the eighth grade to take whatever job was available, to chip in so the family could eat and maybe pay the rent. You did what you had to do. But that meant bad things down the road, as things improved. You had to compete with others who had their high school diploma and many who had college degrees – and they got the job, unless you somehow made yourself extraordinary, which is hard work. So you made your kid stay in school, and if you could, you made sure he or she went to college. You’d find a way to pay for that somehow, because your kid wasn’t going to be crippled by not having a basic education – or by not having more than the basics, as more than the basics would give them an advantage in the world, one you never dreamed you could have way back when. And yes, you were happy the kid would know more about everything in the world than you would ever know – science and technology and the arts and history and math and business and all the rest. That wasn’t threatening at all. That was the whole point.

And that might explain the postwar boom in public education. After the Depression, and the worldwide war that ended it, the pride of all communities was their public school system, which was well-funded, by property taxes everyone paid willingly. And these schools had all the frills – football teams and marching bands, arts programs, booster clubs and all the rest. People wanted to move to communities with the best schools, schools that offered the most of everything. And no one had a problem with the GI Bill – free college for returning vets. That built many decades of rapid growth and wide prosperity in America – we created a culture of professionals who knew things and got things done. That built a solid middle class – most of America finally lived in that big new space between wretchedness and glamour. It wasn’t the thirties anymore. And of course out here in California we built a massive system of state colleges and universities in the sixties, essentially free to all citizens. We built an educated and inventive workforce, and for a time California was the envy of the nation. This was the place to be. It wasn’t just the Beach Boys and the movies.

But something is changing. These are hard times again and no one is saying that the way out of this is to get more people to stay in school or go to college. The parallel breaks down. Now Rick Santorum promises to end all federal and state aid to education – and he would discourage kids from going to college, as that is snobbish – and anyway, those are places where reason was valued over faith, ruining young people. He’s somewhat okay with public schools – he prefers homeschooling of course – but he has said all public schools at least should be local. And you can think of homeschooling as making sure your kid will never know too much, and will certainly never know more than you know about the world. Perhaps that’s a comfort when you’re panicked by the real world. You can limit your kid’s knowledge of that – and anyway, you can never teach what you don’t know and never wanted to know.

But Obama says he wants as many kids to go to college as possible, which is why Santorum called Obama a snob:

There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate him. I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.

He wants to make you black? Maybe many heard that, but that wasn’t the point. But Rick Perlstein suggests something else was amiss here:

Santorum was wrong upon wrong upon wrong. First of all, Obama never said that everyone in America ought to go to college. Second, he manifestly doesn’t believe it: In the quote Santorum is apparently referring to, from the first February of his presidency, Obama asked “every American to commit to at least one more year of higher education or career training” – at a four-year school, or, he specified, at community college or in an apprenticeship or vocational training. In fact, the president is on the same page as Rick Santorum, who in his Michigan speech pointed out, correctly, that “not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands … and want to work out there making things.” And they’re both right; in the coming years, “mid-skill” careers like dental hygienist, construction manager, and electrician will be where more and more of the good jobs are.

So, Santorum’s claim that Obama wants everyone to go to college to become Marxist deconstructionists was wrong. In fact, it was so wrong that it didn’t even survive Fox News, where, presented with evidence that Obama, like him, favored all kinds of educational opportunities, including but not limited to college, Santorum replied, sheepishly, “Maybe I was reading some things” that gave him the wrong impression, and “if it was an error, then I agree with the president.”

But Perlstein also adds this:

Stick to your guns, Rick! The thing is, you exposed a poetic truth: While Obama might not push college education exclusively, like most Democrats he does oversell it, and does shortchange the alternatives. And millions of young Americans pay the price. …

“The administration has done a good job of talking about, and even funding, career training for high-school graduates,” says education expert Dana Goldstein of the New America Foundation. “What they will not do very much is talk about or fund career training for teens, even though there is good evidence that if you don’t offer career and technical training via the public schools, you may lose people forever.” A democracy of the heart that acknowledges there are simply some people who will never step into an academic classroom post-high school, and that this is alright, seems a bridge-to-the-twentieth-century too far for our schooling-mad politicians these days.

But then there’s Kevin Drum:

None of this is an accident, of course. American high schools used to be big suppliers of vocational education. But in the 70s and 80s, the practice of “tracking” – placing the smart kids in chemistry classes and the not-so-smart kids in shop classes came under withering assault. There was pretty good reason for it, too, since tracking really did have some pernicious effects.

And Drum cites Tom Loveless reviewing the critics of tracking:

They pointed out that poor, non-English speaking, and minority youngsters were disproportionately assigned to low tracks and wealthier, white students to high tracks – and concluded that this was not a coincidence. [Jeanne] Oakes’s book helped ignite a firestorm of anti-tracking activity. Tracking was blamed for unfairly categorizing students, stigmatizing struggling learners, and consigning them to a fate over which neither they nor their parents had control. The indictment spread from scholarly journals to the popular press. A 1988 article in Better Homes and Gardens asked, “Is Your Child Being Tracked for Failure?” In 1989, Psychology Today ran “Tracked to Fail” and US News and World Report published “The Label That Sticks.” Although the anti-tracking movement’s left-leaning political base conflicted with that of the movement for rigorous academic standards, parental choice, and other grassroots proposals that gained popularity in the late 1980s, it managed to hitch its wagon to growing public demand for excellence in the public schools.


The de-tracking movement did a lot to undermine vocational education, and people like Bill Gates and others have since been influential boosters of the idea that everyone should go to college. But… not everyone either can or wants to go to college. We never needed to destroy the village in order to save it, and there are ways of addressing the ills of tracking without losing its benefits at the same time. American high schools ought to be as good at turning out plumbers as they are at turning out future English majors.

Maybe so – but your father who came of age in the Great Depression might not agree. And Matthew Yglesias says this is not so simple:

It’s true that we need plumbers, but I don’t think this has the implication that Drum thinks it has. For starters, as Kevin Carey notes it turns out that “most plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters get their training in jointly administered apprenticeships or in technical schools and community colleges.” … In other words, while it’s true that we don’t necessarily need a large increase in people with traditional liberal arts degrees, a large share of the career-focused education we need still has to occur at the post-secondary level. That’s for two reasons, the most fundamental of which is simply that as we grow more technologically sophisticated as a society all kinds of work becomes more complicated, technical, and specialized. The kinds of colleges that offer good training to be policy-focused journalists probably don’t offer great training to fix the automobiles of tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean car mechanics don’t need additional training.

But there’s more:

The other issue is that if you look at countries that have successful high school level vocational training (Germany always seems to come up) you’ll note that kids go into the training with a solid grounding in the basics.

Yglesias then offers many examples, but the whole idea is that you should learn lots, not the minimum to get you by. You’d think we’d know better by now, but Paul Krugman suggests that’s not the case:

One way in which Americans have always been exceptional has been in our support for education. First we took the lead in universal primary education; then the “high school movement” made us the first nation to embrace widespread secondary education. And after World War II, public support, including the GI Bill and a huge expansion of public universities, helped large numbers of Americans to get college degrees.

But now one of our two major political parties has taken a hard right turn against education, or at least against education that working Americans can afford. Remarkably, this new hostility to education is shared by the social conservative and economic conservative wings of the Republican coalition, now embodied in the persons of Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.

And this comes at a time when American education is already in deep trouble.

Of course he is not impressed with Rick Santorum, but there’s the other guy:

Romney’s response to a high school senior worried about college costs is arguably even more significant, because what he said points the way to actual policy choices that will further undermine American education. Here’s what the candidate told the student: “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And, hopefully, you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”

Wow. So much for America’s tradition of providing student aid.

And he says Romney’s remarks “were even more callous and destructive than you may be aware” given what’s been going on in higher education:

For the past couple of generations, choosing a less expensive school has generally meant going to a public university rather than a private university. But these days, public higher education is very much under siege, facing even harsher budget cuts than the rest of the public sector. Adjusted for inflation, state support for higher education has fallen 12 percent over the past five years, even as the number of students has continued to rise; in California, support is down by 20 percent.

One result has been soaring fees. Inflation-adjusted tuition at public four-year colleges has risen by more than 70 percent over the past decade. So good luck on finding that college “that has a little lower price.”

Another result is that cash-strapped educational institutions have been cutting back in areas that are expensive to teach – which also happen to be precisely the areas the economy needs. For example, public colleges in a number of states, including Florida and Texas, have eliminated entire departments in engineering and computer science.

What’s going to be left? And what are the Republicans up to?

Krugman offers this:

It’s not hard to see what’s driving Mr. Santorum’s wing of the party. His specific claim that college attendance undermines faith is, it turns out, false. But he’s right to feel that our higher education system isn’t friendly ground for current conservative ideology. And it’s not just liberal-arts professors: among scientists, self-identified Democrats outnumber self-identified Republicans nine to one.

I guess Mr. Santorum would see this as evidence of a liberal conspiracy. Others might suggest that scientists find it hard to support a party in which denial of climate change has become a political litmus test, and denial of the theory of evolution is well on its way to similar status.

And then there’s Romney and the other captains of industry, who may have other motives:

After all, over the past 30 years, there has been a stunning disconnect between huge income-gains at the top and the struggles of ordinary workers. You can make the case that the self-interest of America’s elite is best served by making sure that this disconnect continues, which means keeping taxes on high incomes low at all costs, never mind the consequences in terms of poor infrastructure and an undertrained work force.

And if underfunding public education leaves many children of the less affluent shut out from upward mobility, well, did you really believe that stuff about creating equality of opportunity?

Krugman ends with this:

So whenever you hear Republicans say that they are the party of traditional values, bear in mind that they have actually made a radical break with America’s tradition of valuing education. And they have made this break because they believe that what you don’t know can’t hurt them.

Maybe they want to go back to the thirties – wretchedness and glamour, and nothing in between.

And David Atkins is bitter:

The underinvestment in public education is very intentional. Thanks largely to Grover Norquist and his buddies it now costs more to attend a public university in California than it does to attend Harvard. The elites don’t really need that many skilled workers in America. They need some, but not that many. A lot of the needed skilled workers can come from overseas immigration. The vast bulk of the American population is much more useful to them as desperate, unskilled labor.

That’s the thirties too.

But even the quite conservative Michael Medved is a bit amazed by this all:

Santorum’s family background shows the profound value of education in lifting the disadvantaged into the middle class and beyond. The campaign likes to leave the impression that he grew up in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, but young Rick actually came of age in a home where the father earned a doctorate and worked as a clinical psychologist while the mother toiled outside the house as a well-credentialed administrative nurse; it was his immigrant grandfather who worked the coal mines.

It makes no sense for the former senator to hide his own family’s success story, because his parents’ progress exemplifies the sort of achievement that all mothers and fathers seek for their children. Sure, it’s important to talk about protecting and increasing manufacturing jobs, because so many hard-pressed people depend on them. But those same workers dream that the next generation may choose educational options that extend their horizons beyond industrial employment.

Maybe Santorum and Romney don’t know about dreaming of a better future for your kids. But if this is our version of the dark thirties, where you vow your kids will never have to go through what you’re going through, you can’t stop people from dreaming just that. Being told that’s it really is best that your kids know as little as possible – and certainly no more than you – and be content to learn to work with their hands – may not be what you want to say in hard times. Think back to the last time we were in such trouble. Parallels are inexact. But sometimes they’re instructive.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Learning Things

  1. David Donavel says:

    Americans have for the past thirty years or so descried the failure of public education in a general way, all the while being perfectly happy with the schools which they children attend. This is good and bad, of course. Some local schools need repair. Others, such as the one in which I worked in Massachusetts, was first rate and over the course of my career well supported by a largely appreciative community despite periodic upwellings of fiscal discontent or labor difficulties. Changing public schools is a daunting task. I am more worried about our public colleges as they do not typically enjoy the same local political support.

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