Elusive Equality

Back in my early 20s, after two years in the workforce and two years of gazing out the window at all the people jogging in the middle of the afternoon in Central Park, I decided that I wanted to go to grad school.

I decided on a terminal masters program at the University of Chicago in the social sciences. Looking back on it, it was a shockingly bad decision. It was a masters program, after all, no benefit in that. Masters programs are never funded, so I had to pay for the first trimester on my own before a dean saw my A’s and gave me money. And I had been doing really well in publishing. They were about to give me another promotion. Ugh.

Going to the University of Chicago may have been a terrible career move, but it was an amazing intellectual opportunity. I’ve never read so much, been so challenged, been so scared shitless of smart people. I mean it was an intense place. I knew people who totally lost their minds there. But it was also a brain-feast.

I took one class from an old German Jewish guy, who spent half the year in Israel, about revolutions. We compared the causes and outcomes revolutions in the US, France, China, and Russia.

I remember reading one paper that said that the French Revolution ended up with headless aristocrats and blood in the gutters, while the US was relatively less crazy, because Americans never had the goal of égalité. Americans wanted the equality of opportunity, but never thought that everybody should have the same piles of money. Equality of opportunity is a much more sober goal than perfect equality.

There was a lot of talk here and on twitter this week about whether schools can truly provide equality. (I can’t insert links right now, because I’m typing this up on an old iPad at my mom’s kitchen table as I wait for Ian to get out of his science exam.) On their own, schools can’t do much to move the needle on inequality, which shouldn’t be a huge shocker.

My comment section has had a fascinating discussion about inequality this week. Everybody seems to agree that inequality has risen. Causes discussed include tax changes, de-unionization, declining wages for certain jobs, and regional abandonment. (What did I miss?) Check it out.

So, how nihilistic should we be about schools? Can schools alone make up for all those changes in society and make things more equal? Can they at least create conditions for the equality of opportunity, so the most talented, hardworking people can rise to the top? Some schools do. I’ve seen it. But these are amazing, remarkable places led by charismatic crazy people who work like missionaries to change the work.

Ideally, I would like everyone, who is interested in a brain-feast like I got at the University of Chicago, to get it. It was transformative for me. While my parents didn’t pay for the program or help me in any way get in, they did all the groundwork from ages 0-18, so I that as a young adult, I could apply, figure out costs, and succeed.

And this is why there will never be true equality or even equality of opportunity. You can’t force families to be equal. And with such inequality baked into society, children are already vastly unequal before they even get to kindergarten. Schools can’t fix that.

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SL 757

This weekend at the Jersey shore by Ian N.

I have 3-1/2 articles in various stages of disrepair. I’m inching them towards completion, but right now, the parts are scattered hither and yon. The engine on one article needs a complete reconstruction.

Thursday, Ian starts his Finals Week. For you and him, that means tests. For me, that means half days of school, a lot of driving, and no more full days of uninterrupted work until September.

So, I’m in crunch mode trying to finish off some articles. Just some links tonight:

Nick Hanauer: “What I’ve realized, decades late, is that educationism is tragically misguided. American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me.”

After reading Dreyer’s English for an hour at the Jersey shore this weekend, Laura spotted this.

A fascinating article about paint. Really! I followed Farrow and Ball on Instagram after reading the article, and changed my mind about painting the bedroom white.

I’m reading Dreyer’s English as I tinker with the draft that furthest along. It’s really a fabulous read. When one is writing, one should always be reading an excellent book. I ape good writing the same way as I lapse into a Southern accent when I talk with my friend from Alabama.

Disruptive Technology: Can the computer and tech crowd disrupt higher education?

ABCs in ordinary objects in a school

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.

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.

SL 756

I have a handful of annoying tasks to do this afternoon, so no long post today.

How do you guys like the new longer, regular posts? Is it working? I’m thinking through a book project by free writing on the blog. I hope I’m not boring.

***

This is hands down the best profile of Cory Booker yet. And it’s a sad tale.

***

I first met my best friends over thirty years ago at our first jobs after college. We were all editorial assistants on the 16th floor of Simon and Schuster at the Gulf and Western Building (now Trump Tower) in Columbus Circle. We’ve gone our own ways, but we talk on the phone weekly and get together every other month.

Typically, we aimlessly roam the streets of Manhattan window shopping and talking for two hours. Then we find a pub to drink and eat before getting on public transportation home. This Saturday, we’re going to start here and then explore that lower tip of the island. Check out the website for a little video about the downtown experience. Steve works in that building several floors up.

***

I really love this video that shows psychology students overcoming their prejudices over autistic people. They learn that people might be listening to them, even though they don’t look like they are listening.

***

Enjoy the weekend folks. Tonight at 11D, we have a high school percussion performance with Ian’s drum group. Tomorrow, I have run club and then friend/roaming/drinking club. Sunday, we have an extended family gathering for a niece’s high school graduation. At some point, Steve and I will find a moment to recognize our 22th anniversary.

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.

Walking through Storm King with the family

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.