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.

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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.

District 75: ‘The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love’

Almost 30 years ago, I walked into my class of 12 teenagers with acute disabilities in a District 75 school in the South Bronx feeling young and nervous. I had no formal training as a special education teacher, just a master’s degree in political theory and an emergency teaching certificate from New York City.

My students included Jason and Jorge, both of whom had learning disabilities and degenerative neurological disorders. They have likely passed away by now. Vanessa was a sassy 18-year-old with Down syndrome. Nearly blind and in a wheelchair, Robert loved to show off his autistic splinter skill of calculating which day of the week your birthday would fall on in five or 10 years. Sharonne, who wore a helmet, was so rattled by daily grand mal seizures that she was never able to remember my name.

My class was the highest functioning in the school.

On top of severe neurological, cognitive, and physical disabilities, my students also had all the challenges that go along with living in a high-poverty urban community. Every Monday morning, we fed children bowls of cereal we brought from home because many didn’t get enough food over the weekend. Classroom books and supplies were decades-old hand-me-downs from the previous teacher. Sometimes Jorge, who was in a wheelchair, couldn’t come to school because drug dealers had knocked out the elevators in his high-rise public housing building.

More here

Pie-in-the-Sky Proposals for College

Today, the buzz among the education folks that I follow on twitter is Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for student debt forgiveness. From the Daily Beast:

According to a Medium post detailing the policy, the debt cancellation would also apply for every person with a household income between $100,000 and $250,000, with the cancellation amount declining a dollar for every three dollars in income above $100,000, so that a person earning $130,000 would have $40,000 in cancellation. It would not cancel debts for people earning more than $250,000.

The immediate reply was from Phillip Klein at the Washington Examiner, who said that this plan was a cash handout to millennials and wouldn’t help Gen Xers who have already paid off that burden. His article then led to more angry tweets.

Whenever I interview a college student or a recent grad, the number one thing that always comes up is the cost of college and the noose of student loan debt. It is the rare family that has enough saved to choose the college of the choice for their kids without the concern about price.

I’ve talked with recent grads with over $100K in student loans. I’ve talked with others who worked three jobs to pay for school. I know people who will never, ever own a home, because they took out too many loans in grad school for a PhD program.

I talked with a student a few weeks ago (for an article that hasn’t been published yet), who had no clue that her family couldn’t afford a four-year college until she got her acceptance letter. Nobody is really sure how much money they’ll receive from a college until that final letter arrives.

This young woman’s family couldn’t contribute anything towards her college education, while colleges expected that she could find $50K per year. She could get about $7K in federal loans, but the rest would come from horrible private loans. But since her parents wouldn’t co-sign for the private loans, the point was moot. She went to a community college for two years before transferring to a local four-year school.

But she was exceptional kid. Most students like her wouldn’t have made it.

Making college affordable must be a big part of any 2020 Democratic platform. Student loan reforms are only one part of the problem and do nothing to stop that process that creates them. There has to be more money for lower-middle class families, easier transfer process between community colleges and four year schools, more social supports on the college campus, more inclusion for people with different learning styles, better pay for the majority of professors who don’t have tenure jobs, and great support for various career goals.

Dreary January

January always sucks here in the Northeast. It’s grey and cold. We’ve all had the same virus for the past three weeks, trading germs back and forth. I need to give the entire house a Clorox bath to get rid of these lingering evil bugs. Faded Christmas trees lay sad and lonely waiting for pick up by the garbage truck.

A story that I did in December was just published. I posted it here. Happy to talk about it in the comment section. I’m working on something totally different right now. It’s an upbeat story about a school in the South Bronx for emotionally disturbed children. (Yes, it’s a happy story.) I’m also editing a document right now for a long term project. So, there’s a lot of work to do.

I was at that South Bronx school earlier this week and had a great time, except for the horrible drive through the Bronx. With streets full of pot holes, sudden turns, unmarked roads, and drivers who don’t obey normal traffic rules, I was having anxiety attacks as I navigated my way there. But I did it. Yay me.

Jonah’s home still, which is awesome. Sniffling like the rest of us, he’s been looking at the career development website for school and trying to figure out what he’s going to do after graduation. What a bucket of stress!

Other kids in town are using their winter break to do informational interviews with alumna from their schools at various companies around New York City. I’m just hearing about this from other parents. Neither Jonah nor myself got the memo that this is what kids do during winter break now, until it was too late. So, he’s surfing websites about careers, rather than sitting in an office with a suit. Sigh. Parent fail.

There is a RIDICULOUS level on stress on kids about jobs. Here’s an article in Vox describing it. And this stress isn’t totally crazy. Millennials are burning out in their jobs. College graduates aren’t finding work.

I’m moving my family to a bunker in Vermont where we’ll make artisanal goat cheese.

When College Isn’t Enough

college-campus-Harvard.jpgWith a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University, New Jersey’s flagship public college, 22-year-old Rachel Van Dyks expected to have a good job by now. A professional job with a proper salary and benefits would enable her to move out of her grandfather’s house, where she lives with her parents and her brother. Instead, the 2017 graduate works 46 hours per week at two jobs — scooping maple walnut ice cream at the local ice cream parlor and taking orders at a high-end steakhouse — while paying for an associate’s degree in cardiovascular sonography at a for-profit technical school.

Van Dyks is not alone, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. A majority of college graduates require additional education in order to qualify for a good-paying job, Carnevale said — though many might not find that out until after commencement exercises are over. While colleges are expanding their career development offices and providing students with opportunities for internships, few students take advantage of those resources. For those young graduates, the realities of the job market come as a surprise.

More here.

Jobs and Kids

I’m taking a brief hiatus from holiday consumerism to write a brief blog post about college kids and jobs. I finished an article last week on the topic. I’m not sure when it will come out, but I’ll puff it here when it does. In the meantime, let me just pass along advice that I picked up when doing the article. This is advice that I’ve been hounding my own college kid about this past week.

The job outlook for college grads isn’t wonderful, especially for kids who have just concentrated on finishing their degrees without much thought beyond getting the BA and for kids who don’t have parents to grease the wheels of the economy with connections.

I spent a few hours doing keyword searches on the online job boards for college BAs with a liberal arts and no experience. Most of the jobs that turned up were Dunder Mifflin type jobs selling random stuff for about $15 per hour. That might be fine. It’s a way to move up in a company. Research shows that most kids with liberal arts degrees start off in sales positions; some move into Human Resources or marketing. But college grads should know what those kinds of jobs are and be aware that that’s where they’re going to end up with a major in History.

30 percent of kids don’t make it past their first year of college. A huge chunk fail out their first year, or they leave because they can’t handle the independence of a school or they hate the chaos of a dorm. I see this among the kids that graduated with Jonah. Some are honor student kids. One had a big running scholarship to a fancy school. College is tough, and many can’t handle it. They end up at community colleges or trade schools. Two of Jonah’s classmates are now selling stocks at Boiler Room-type places.

I’m hearing anecdotal stories about massive student loan debt. Like $100K to $200K. I think those numbers are super high in the Northeast, because working class families around here make too much to qualify for Pell grants. Then they have to go to grad school, because 65 percent of all jobs now require advanced degrees. And they can’t afford that next step, because they owe too much from undergraduate education.

Internships are the new normal for college students. But internships are for rich kids. Kids who have to work in the summer to help pay for college can’t afford to work for free. And many of those internships at the fancy colleges actually cost money, because they are in foreign countries or in other cities. Families who are struggling to just pay for college can’t take on that extra burden.

Colleges have dumped a ton of money into career development centers, which is great, I suppose. Some are better than others. Some offer real help; others hand the students a pamphlet on writing resumes. And only a small percentage of students are going to the centers, because it’s not required.

Guys are choosing very different majors than girls and are having much different outcomes on the job market.

Students, especially the dudes, are choosing large public colleges over small liberal arts colleges. In some ways, this is a good thing. The large public colleges are cheaper and have more resources. But many students can get lost in the system. The kids who survive the big school experience learn how to manage the system. They learn how to tap into the resources. Others get in the bubble of student life and have little contact with adults who can help them.

Alright, done with the brain dump right now. More later.