Disruptive Technology

Last summer, I got a desperate email from the guidance counselor at Ian’s high school. The elective that he signed up for was cancelled, so she needed to find another elective for him pronto. The only opening was an Advanced Photography class.

I wasn’t totally pleased. He had never shown an interest in photography and hadn’t taken the Beginning Photography class. But I wanted to be a good sport, so I said okay.

And then I totally forgot about that class. I would ask him about it from time to time and he would say great, but I didn’t hear anything more, and I didn’t ask anymore questions.

Then a couple of weeks ago, we visited the school to see his percussion ensemble and was surprised to see his artwork pasted up on the hallway to the band room. There was one project where he combined three faces into one composite fictional face. And another one where he made a mock-up of a magazine cover. It looked fabulous.

And then on Wednesday, his photography teacher sent us an email saying that Ian was spectacular at Photoshop, the best in the class. He suggested that he take a video effects class next where he would learn to do Game of Thrones types of special effects. Burning castles in the background and dragons in the sky. He wants to write Ian’s college recommendation. Nice, right?

Ian can spend 18 hours a day working on his projects at home. And has endless patience for manipulating pixels and music notes. Some of his electronic songs on YouTube have gotten tens of thousands of hits, but he hasn’t posted anything online in years, because of weirdos on the Internet.

I know nothing about special effects and art technology, so I spent hours googling information over the past few days. What local colleges offer degrees in that program? What skills do employers look for? Are there jobs on the East Coast? Are there places that employ people with poor social skills? (Yes.)

The gossip on places like Reddit is that these skills are so new that colleges haven’t really set up degree programs yet. And the geeks that run these companies don’t trust college classes anyway. They said that portfolios that come from college programs are often group projects, so it’s unclear which students really completed the work. They prefer self-taught workers who have a solid portfolio of projects that they create themselves. They will even hire people who have taught themselves these skills through YouTube videos.

We were talking about alternatives to college a few days ago in the comment section. Has credentialism gone too far? Do people have to get degrees in fields that are totally unnecessary, which end up filtering out people with irrelevant learning disabilities or financial difficulties? Well, it seems that at least in computer/tech fields, at this moment in time, a college degree is unnecessary.

I wonder if that ethos will carry over into other fields. Do accountants really need a full liberal arts education with Introduction to Sociology and Philosophy 101? Don’t they really just need to add up columns of numbers and manipulate formulas on Excel? Does a stock broker need those classes? I mean it’s probably a good thing for all people to take those classes and broaden their horizons, but should it be mandatory?

The computer and tech crowd has tried to disrupt higher education before (hello MOOCs!) and hasn’t gotten anywhere, so some doubt is warranted. But, still, it’s interesting.

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For Things You Don’t Need

On Saturday night, my buddies and I rewarded ourselves for a long walk – my Fitbit was already way past 20,000 steps – with a beer and a burger at Fraunces Tavern, which is one of the oldest pubs in Manhattan and worth a visit if you’re in town.

After several hours of talking, which included such lovely topics as the new studies that found a connection between menopause and Alzheimer’s Disease and flaky college students, we started talking about politics.

I asked, “So, what do you think about the proposals that Democrats are starting to float about student loan forgiveness and free childcare?” Two of us have kids who are nearly done with high school, and the other never had kids. “Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?”

Our town pool has a special section that is just for older people. Nobody under 18 is allowed to be there. Every couple of hours, the life guards blow a whistle and everyone under 18 has to get out of the pool for 15 minutes, so the older people can do the side stroke in peace. The public library has senior reading clubs, introductory classes on email, and daytime movies. Without the buy-in from older citizens in the community, there’s a fear among local politicians that old folks will vote for people to defund those services. I’m sure those fears are justified.

People care about schools for a relatively short period of time. There care from the time that their oldest kid is five to when they’re about a sophomore in high school. Typically, parents are much more involved in schools for their oldest; subsequent kids are on auto-pilot. And then they stop caring about the local schools when they start thinking about SAT scores and colleges for their oldest and after their oldest fails to become the class president or the football captain.

Schools make a lot of enemies. For every kids that becomes the class president and the football captain, there are the parents of the hundred other kids who sit at the unpopular table in the cafeteria who want to throw a pitchfork into the school principal. Parents who aren’t in the audience for High School Awards Nights will never, ever vote for a school bond issue ever again. Screw ’em.

So, there’s only about ten to twelve years, when a person has a real stake in making better schools. And that’s why there are places in the country where teachers are paid around $30,000 per year and students have few chances to make it to college.

Childcare affects a family for three or four years, if you have multiple kids.

Student loans can haunt a person for ages, but for every person that defaults, there are nine others who paid off their loans working boring jobs and doing overtime.

And let’s be honest. Our grandparents didn’t have the material comforts that we have today. I mean we put in more hours at an office and have invested more in education, but that generation cut coupons and never bought prepared meals at Whole Foods. So, when they look at younger folks complaining about childcare costs, they’re thinking about how they survived on one income and never ever went on a vacation that involved an airplane.

So, really the question isn’t “”Would you vote for someone who was putting forward proposals that wouldn’t benefit you at all?” Instead, the real question is “would you vote for something that you worked really, really, really hard to pay for on your own, making lots of personal sacrifices, and destroying your own health in the process. And then the benefits went to people who you perceive to be privileged, entitled, smug, and unwilling to help you?”

My generation is in the middle. Gen-Xers have a foot in both worlds. We can remember the difficulties of juggling childcare and work, but we’re also done with it. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

Self-interest is a basic component of human nature. The founders knew that and created a democratic system based on that notion. With a system of checks and balances, ambition would counterbalance ambition. A large nation, divided up with federalism, would create a large state with a multitude of interests, all checking each other, so no one group would dominate and abuse others.

So, lecturing people that they should vote for schools, student loans, and childcare because virtuous people do that, is pointless. I think we should look to the model of the local town pool and figure out ways to make sure that everyone benefits from childcare centers, schools, and colleges. I’ve always thought that childcare centers and senior citizen centers should be housed in the same buildings. Invite people from the community to give lectures in the high school on their expertises and careers. Colleges could provide job training to people with autism or provide free tickets to concerts to people in the community.

Free childcare and student loan forgiveness might get headlines and tweets from the 30-something crowd, but it’s a tough sell to those who are freaking out about menopausal plaque on the brains and are counting their steps on a Fitbit.

Grooming (Tale One)

I always seem to find out about tasks that I should be doing as a parent way too late.

Last December, Jonah returned from school for a month-long break. He spent the first three or four days mostly horizontal in bed. Which was FINE by me. Every college kid needs a bit of recovery after a long semester. Then there were the holidays and grandparents to entertain, so he was busy with family stuff.

After that, he had almost three weeks of nothing to do other than hang out with friends, go to the gym, and get in my way while I was doing my work. There wasn’t enough time to get a job. Maybe I yelled at him to clean his room or read a book, but it was mostly just downtime. I wasn’t terribly concerned though. I seem to remember that I spent my winter breaks from college being mostly slothful.

Turns out college kids around here don’t waste time anymore. Around the last week of that break, my friends starting asking me whether Jonah had used the break to find a summer internship or was taking a quick online class. Uh… what?

One friend told me that her daughter had used that time to line up interviews with alumni from her school. Every college now has a website of alumni who are open to giving students informational meetings. They host groups of students, tell them about their jobs, give tours, and then the students discretely leave their resumes on the worker’s desks with the hope — fingers crossed — that someone will call for an unpaid internship over the summer.

When I was in college, I worked as a secretary’s assistant in a local solenoid valve company. No, no, that’s not done any more. Your first job has to be at a fancy company in Manhattan. Jonah’s summers spent waiting tables are not resume-worthy. And in order to get those jobs, it’s necessary to pound the pavement all through January.

Now, I don’t mean to be judgy about kids getting internships and having a fully professional resume before they graduate from college. That’s just the new normal. But you know what was interesting about all those conversations with my friends? They all helped their kids with the task.

The parents found out about the alumni websites through the college’s parents newsletter. They told their kids to look on it. They helped them navigate the websites. They helped them create resumes. They nagged them to get out of bed and find an internship. They told them that they didn’t need a job to bring in spending money for school. The parents arranged the whole thing.

Grooming children to become UMC professionals is a Herculean task. It starts in utero and doesn’t end until the mid-20s. (This is just one tale. I have more.) How much of it is bullshit? I’m not sure. Maybe in ten years, I can line up Jonah with his friends – some have parents who are more clueless than we are and others have parents who actually read the parent newsletter — and see who’s successful and who’s happy (not necessarily the same thing.)

I’m a little suspicious about over-prepping kids for a career. I’m a huge believer in the benefits of downtime and exploration and random goofiness with friends. I think it’s good to be bored for a while. But do I believe in those values enough to let my kid sit on the sideline again next January break? Or will I also be surfing the God-damned alumni website for potential job prospects for my kid? I’m not sure.

School-Whipped

Schools dominate my life.

It’s been decades since I’ve been in a classroom as a student and many years since I’ve been in the classroom as a teacher. But I have never been able to detach from education institutions, because of my kids. Classrooms, homework, grades, the school calendar command my time and brain space. Writing about schools is an effortless task, because they are on my mind all day long.

Ian’s school turned Memorial Day into a five day holiday. Which is fine. But it meant that I couldn’t quite get into the writing zone and get my crap done. I got some minor e-mail tasks done yesterday, but after three hours of him playing Plants v. Zombies, I felt guilty and took him to the mall. My work day was finished. On Monday, he had to be at the school at 8:00am to perform with the school marching band in the town parade.

Other chores for Ian today include a phone call to his case manager to discuss how we would go about bumping him a year ahead for math. I have to figure out what I’m going to do with him for a two week gap between camps in August. Is there enough money in the Ian slush fund for extra tutoring in the summer?

Even though Jonah is a college kid, he’s not quite baked. His sloppy work habits and poor “soft skills” came back to bite him in the ass last semester. Distracted by the demands of pledging for a frat, he did stupid things like not making sure that his assignments in an online class were properly submitted and was generally disorganized. So, I’m making him take classes on organization at his college over the summer. We’re talking through various lifestyle changes and basically scaring the shit out of him.

I don’t think there’s another government institution that has a bigger impact on me on a daily basis. There’s definitely more brain space in my personal life for non-school stuff that there used to be. I joined a running group this spring and ran a 5K on Monday. I have a couple of harmless hobbies. I read a lot and see friends on the weekends. But school issues, which are so integral to my kids’ lives, still dominate.

Other parents are even more driven by schools. Ian doesn’t spend over twenty hours per week doing a varsity sport, like Jonah did. He’s not in honors classes, so he comes home with no homework. And Jonah’s missteps only become known when the semester ends, so we can spend months in la-la land thinking that he’s taking care of his shit.

Last week, a neighbor told me about her weekend schedule driving her two young boys around the state for various sporting activities. One kid had to be an hour away for a full day Lacrosse tournament. The next day, the other kid had a full day of swim meets. Between reading tutors and school dances, her schedule was packed. She couldn’t grasp what we did with our lives without a kid in sports. Because I couldn’t gossip with her about teachers for next year or the school play, we quickly ran out of conversation topics.

Ian’s life is a lot more simple, so we drag him around to do our various interests, rather than living our lives on the soccer sidelines. We took the boys to an art park over the weekend. It feels somewhat rebellious to craft our own schedule, rather than have one dominated by sporting activities and schools. We could be even more whipped by schools than we are.

Being whipped by schools is both a privilege and a burden. Parents in towns like ours demand these services and are able to pay for it with high taxes. Three quarters of our local property taxes go to schools. The superintendent is more powerful than the mayor.

But it also means that schools oversee our lives. They control our children’s destiny. They structure our social lives. The school panopticon’s oversight is totalitarian in communities like ours. While schools are broken elsewhere, the system is still rigid in its own ways making it difficult for individuals to take alternative paths.

I think when my kids move onto the work-world and schools are a thing of the past, I’m going to stop writing about education. I fantasize about reinventing myself as a travel writer. Maybe I might write about my weird hobby of selling used books. Who knows? But I would love to break the school chains someday.

Educated: A Book Review

Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir was in my mental folder: “Books that I should read, but really don’t want to” for the past year. I thought it would fit into the poverty porn books that I’ve already read, like Hillbilly Elegy.

Not that I disliked Hillbilly Elegy. I know that that liberals don’t like it’s pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps message, but it was a good read. Anyway, I thought Educated was going to be another Hillbilly Elegy, so I didn’t feel compelled to run out and buy it even though it was on every Best of 2018 book list.

That was an error. Educated was a page turner. I read the whole thing in two marathon reading sessions over one weekend.

Westover’s family struggles with the similar mental illnesses that plagued Vance’s family. Out in the woods in Idaho, the Westover family is led by a bipolar patriarch. He turns religion into a vice, which damages the family. The kids are supposedly home schooled, but really aren’t educated at all. The mom is forced to become a midwife, so they and their neighbors will never have to enter a hospital where the government will take away their rights. The kids don’t have birth certificates, and nobody is really sure what day Tara is born. The family compulsively cans peaches and hoards guns and gasoline waiting for Judgement Day or a massacre by the government, whatever comes first.

Family members keep getting seriously injured, because the father makes really bad decisions and because one of their jobs is salvaging metal from large broken cars. When a person got injured, medical help was some homemade pot of salve, rather than a doctor in a lab coat. Most of Tara’s family was permanently disfigured from untended medical injuries.

Westover’s family is a toxic combination of mental illness, extreme religion, and bunker-style libertarianism. She manages to teach herself math to get through the ACTs and then get scholarships to go to BYU. She meets the right people who take care over her. Boom. She’s got a PhD, travels the world, writes best selling books, and lives in New York City. Which I know, because I googled her and her family for an hour or two after reading the book.

All that salve that the mom cooked up to put on the burns and gashes on her family turned out to be very lucrative. She has a huge business selling that crap on Amazon now. She employs half the county.

Tara’s dad is a really interesting character. I mean he’s clearly off his rocker, but he’s also compelling. In someways, he’s more interesting than Tara herself.

The family’s poverty had nothing to do with his work ethic. In fact, the man works himself and his kids super hard building sheds and cutting sheet metal. The kids, while not formally educated, must have been getting knowledge from somewhere, because three of the six of them got PhDs. And Tara herself doesn’t really complain about the poverty. Her issues were the lack of schooling for the kids, the lack of medical care for the family, and an abusive brother, whose problems stemmed from an untended head injury.

I’ve met people who have escaped from that world — parents with too many kids to properly supervise, a weird fatalism that comes from believing that God takes care of all things, roving bands of angry teens who do bad things. I’ve heard about worse situations that Westover’s.

I couldn’t possible live in a more opposite world than the Westover family’s rural Idado. Hyper-educated, over scheduled kids don’t even the freedom to get a paper cut here. They are escorted fifty feet to the bus stop until they are ten. Thirteen year olds put in longer days than many Wall Street brokers. Six-year old girls are professionally groomed before their first communions.

Sometimes when the high pressure world around here gets on my nerves, I day dream about packing up my family for a farm in Vermont. Something quiet and simple. In my day dream, we’re doing some nice gentlemanly farming, making artisanal goat cheese or something. This book shatters those illusions by showing how rural isolation allows craziness to go unchecked with real damage to the individuals trapped in those situations.

Why Parents Help Their College Students

At Saturday’s luncheon to celebrate my niece’s Confirmation, my brother-in-law discussed a recent business trip to check out a building in Florida that had been designed by his firm. “Boy, do they do shoddy construction work in Florida,” he said.

“How can you tell that the construction is bad”, I asked. “Don’t you have to look behind the sheet rock to really know if the building is badly built?”

“Nah, I can just walk through the building and see all the problems.”

My brother in law has been an architect at one of the top companies in the world for nearly 35 years. Something like a misaligned electrical socket, which would totally slip by me, speaks volumes to him.

I was a student, a researcher, and a professor in higher ed for 25 years. My husband, my father, and nearly all of my friends are or were in the business for years. I, too, can spot shoddy work a mile away; instead of misaligned electrical sockets, I see adjuncts.

In my last post, commenter “scantee” speculates that UMC parents help out their college-aged children because of economic panic. That is very much true. There are a host of other reasons, too, including better technology. I wrote an article about parent involvement in college for The Atlantic a couple of years ago. Another reason that I didn’t write about in that article and didn’t realize until I sent my kid away to college is that college ain’t what it used to be.

I send my kid to one of those massive, 30,000 undergraduate public colleges. The college is ranked very highly, and it’s nearly 1/3 of the price of the similarly ranked private schools. All good things. But the way that the school keeps that price low is by skimping on workers.

My kid is finishing off his second year of college. He’s had almost no classes yet where he’s had a tenured or tenured track professor who is able to remember the students’ names. Most of his classes have been in large lecture halls with hundreds of students with a big name in the front of the room. The discussion sections are led by rotating grad students and adjuncts who are intellectually and financially insecure. A few of his classes have been small classes led by adjuncts. One was so bad that she was fired in the middle of the semester. Two of his classes have been hybrids, meaning that they mostly happen online.

Most of the classes have been very academically rigorous. I have no complaints with the material that he’s been covered in his classes. Expectations for the students are very high. The problem is mostly the lack of connections between teachers and students. No chit-chat in the hallway about books or the weather. No role models. I hear that those connections happen in one’s senior year when the students take seminars, but that’s a long way away.

Administration is even worse. The first semester, he went to academic advisement to help him register for classes. They put him in the wrong Physics class, so that first week, he had to scramble to add/drop a class and return books.

They’ve set up such a complicated system for gen ed requirements that going to advisement is almost mandatory. So, the next time he needed help with knowing which classes would satisfy the gen ed requirements, I drove down to the school to see what was what. I let him lead the meeting, but I wanted to be there to make sure he asked the right questions and to make sure that mistakes didn’t happen again.

Ugh. The woman was adept at telling my kid which class satisfied which requirements, but she couldn’t go beyond that. Jonah said he was interested in combining his interests in science and politics. What did she suggest? She couldn’t tell him the difference between the majors of public policy, political science, and environmental policy. She told him to talk with three separate advisors in those three different departments in three separate schools within the college.

Setting up times to talk with those advisors was also a hassle, because they were each located on different campuses there. (There are five campuses at his school, which can only be reached with a twenty minute bus ride.) And then each needed an appointment. It could take two weeks for Jonah to get the answer to his very simple question about majors, so I called a buddy in the policy department at his school, and she told me what was what.

I’ve decided that his school has shoddy construction, but we like the price. So, I step in when needed to handle the problems with instruction and advisement. And it’s not only my kid who has had problems. I occasionally am put on the cellphone to answer pol sci questions from his friends and housemates. Only about half of boys at his school graduate in four years. It takes a long time to navigate that system.

Well, this blog post is long enough and I want to get to the gym. More tomorrow.

Parents and Privilege

Jonah is in the midst of high misery and despair that is Finals Week. He’s a smart kid with bad study skills, a cellphone of distractions, and a mediocre public school education. Sometimes just being smart is good enough for him. Sometimes those other issues bring him down.

This semester, he’s been trying out a new major, political science. He took Introduction to International Relations last semester and got a good grade without any help from me, so we were playing around with the idea of combining his interest with science with political science. So, he signed up for two more pol sci classes this semester. Turns out that I’ve taught both of those classes before.

As I’ve said, political sciences classes are pretty much the same from school to school, and haven’t changed much since my dad started teaching those classes back in the mid-1960s. Plato is always Plato. The powers of the presidency have been the same since FDR. So, when he called to share his review guide for the American final, I looked at it and told him what to study. I told him what the final essay question was probably going to be.

I spent some time worrying about whether I should be counseling him on his classes or how much I should edit his essays for political theory. In the end, I gave him as much as help as I would any student coming into a professor’s office hours. I wouldn’t write his introduction to his paper on MLK for him, but I did make the sentences clearer and told him when he had misunderstood the essay prompt. I certainly couldn’t go into the exam room and take his final exam for him. He had to do all the readings. He had to do all the memorization. His essays had to be his own work.

Still, I helped. And I worried that it might be wrong. What about all those kids in his classes who didn’t have parents with PhDs? Did he have an unfair advantage?

One of the concepts that he has to tackle in his theory exam tomorrow is the notion of fairness. The idea that all humans should start at the same place on the starting block and that the person who crosses the finish line first is the person with most talents and who put in the most effort. But it doesn’t really work that way, does it? My kid is starting a race about 200 yards ahead of the other students.

Ian has been doing really well with math. In the past couple of years, he’s gone from the lowest level of special ed math class to the medium level to a regular class. This never happens, and the public school doesn’t quite know what to do with him.

He’s in Algebra I right now, but he’s so far advanced that we hired a tutor to teach him Algebra II at our dining room table on Saturday mornings. I’m sure the school won’t let him skip a grade, so he’ll have to study Algebra II with the other kids next year, and I guess his tutor will keep going onto Trig or Calculus.

Again, Ian is advancing because of us. Yes, he has a talent and an incredible work ethic, but he’s getting this opportunity and bypassing the regular hoops that other kids have to deal with, because we can afford to make our rules.

It’s impossible to equalize parenting. Even if every child in the country attended the exact same school with the exact same curriculum and resources, the secret sauce of education — parents with time, money, and education — can never be equalized. I can’t stop helping my kids with their homework or showing up at their band concerts or reminding them that a paragraph can’t have twelve sentences. I stop myself from crossing a line that I’ve set for myself, and my kids certainly tell me to back off when I go too far, but I’m still there.

The elite high schools in New York City are in the midst of a rebellion, because only seven African-American kids were admitted to elite science schools for next fall. School admissions are based on the results of one standardized exam. Kids with parents who get them to the test prep classes are doing better than everyone else.

NYC schools are trying to figure out how to make the system more fair. Do they get rid of the test altogether? Do they create quota-system? Do they dismantle the whole system of elite high schools? And it’s all because of the parents and the test prep classes.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know that it’s impossible to tell a parent not to help. While I worry about equity, at the same time, I’m going to drill Jonah on the social contract in Rousseau, and I’m going to get Ian extra math help.