College Takes Four Years. Education Takes a Lifetime

Photo by Heather Schwartz,

When we think about the value of a college education, it is usually in the context of making a living. We expect that a college education will result in higher earnings over the course of our lifetime. This idea has been drummed into us for the last thirty years. For decades, the education industry has been repeating the mantra that ever more education means ever more income.


There might be some truth to that, but it a relatively new view of the value of education. My parents and grandparents didn’t see things that way. Sure, higher education contributed to a higher standard of living, but that was not really the point of going to school. My parents put me on the college track when I was elementary school, not for the promise of a high income, but because an education built character and made individuals better citizens.


In their view, smart people have a civic duty to get an education because of the benefits it returns to society.


This wasn’t an idea created by the generation before mine. The Founders of the United States had a reverence for education. Concepts like equality, liberty and democracy are abstractions – they are intangibles, sometimes called metaphysical because we cannot see or even visualize them in our imaginations. Without an education, it is very difficult to understand sophisticated arguments about political theory and the rights of man.


Graduating from college meant I was educated and ready to contribute to moving my country past the convulsions of the 60’s and 70’s that was tearing it apart. I was very proud of myself for earning a bachelor’s degree.


That is, until I read the newspaper.


About a week after the formalities of the graduation ceremony, I was sitting on my parents’ couch reading an editorial. I don’t remember what the editorial was about, but I vividly remember a reference to The Scarlet Letter and having no idea what the editorial was trying to say because I had never read the book.


I was stunned.


Here I am, I thought, a week out of college with a newly minted diploma attesting to my new status as an educated American, and I don’t know what a newspaper editorial means because I have not read a well-known classic American novel.


I resolved to plug that hole in my education.


I began going to the city library, working my way through canyons of bookcases packed with classic works of fiction and highbrow literature that I had avoided in high school and college. I’d pick out a book I had heard about but never read, head to the overstuffed chairs at the ends of the bookcases, and start reading.


Some books I just could not manage.


Anything by Dickens or the Bronte sisters are just too slow and boring. And who would want to go to the trouble of writing a book and then title it The Scarlet Pimpernel? I never got far enough in that book to find out what a pimpernel is or why a scarlet one is noteworthy.


The unfamiliar names of characters in War and Peace confused me no end, but I made index cards with mini-biographies to keep everyone straight. Even then, I found the book just plodding along. Just the same, it brought the Russian history courses I took in college to life.


This got me excited about Russian history and I read biographies of Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. I even got to Nicholas and Alexandria, the story of the last Tsar and the revolution that brought communism and half a century of untold suffering to the Russian people.


That got me started on Russian dissent Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works.


I read For the Good of the Cause and found out how the human need for social hierarchy combined with an imposed inhuman bureaucracy creates institutionalized abuse. This is very relevant in an era of Bong Hits for Jesus and school districts reporting sexually active students to law enforcement. Anyone advocating progressivism in education should read For the Good of the Cause to see how a too much of a good thing can undermine human and civil rights.


The relevance of old stories to modern concerns was something else I discovered.


St. Elmo is one of the first romance novels. It was written in the 1880’s, I think, and is so full of archaic words that I kept a dictionary nearby as I read the book.


The plot was follows the formula of modern romance novels. Some things never change – and our appetite for romance novels is one of them.


The main character was a young woman nursing a broken heart who meets a mysterious wealthy stranger, who also lost at love. St. Elmo was the grief stricken mystery man and the narrator was the governess – the nanny — of his children. I found out that back in those days a “bluestocking” was an older, conservative woman who thinks young people have no discretion, decorum or respect for propriety.


Sound familiar? Human nature is very slow to change and books like St Elmo reminds me how similar we are to generations long past.


The Iliad and The Odyssey, both written by Homer almost a thousand years ago, might be the first novels ever written. In the last few years archeologists have found that people and events described in these books really existed. Homer describes the Trojan War in some detail, as well as the duplicity that spawned the famous wooden horse. Helen of Troy makes a series of appearances as well, and Homer explains her role in the conflict.


Something in The Odyssey frequently comes to mind when I see people openly wearing guns in public.


In the book, the main character, Odysseus, finally returns to his hometown after 20 years of adventures. He finds that although his wife had remained pure and true to him, men vying for her bed and her fortune surrounded her. He reveals himself to his son who wants to grab swords and axes to intimidate and scare off the interlopers. The old man immediately rejects the idea saying,


“Bare steel in sight draws men to fight.”


Instead of inviting a bloody confrontation, they hatch a plan to discreetly keep their weapons under their cloaks and use their intelligence and ingenuity to achieve their goals. That part of the book always comes to mind when I see people openly toting pistols in public. If Homer was to reincarnate in Walmart his modern advice might be, “Carry your gun discreetly and like Odysseus and his son, use your wits to avoid using it”.


Something truly amazing about The Odyssey is that the plot of 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on it, although it is set in Depression era Mississippi and the main characters are prison escapees. Imagine, a poem written almost a thousand years ago made into a modern motion picture!


Finally, there is Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, the book is now the focus of racial conspiracy theories. Historical revisionists claim the books’ purpose is to glorify slavery and the antebellum South, but that simply is not true. Most people advancing that assertion have likely not read the book, although they might have seen the movie.


The famous move limits itself to the love story between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, but their romance is just a superficial subplot in the book. The real story is more complex and very relevant to what we are now experiencing in the wake of the collapse of the industrial economy in 2008. It’s as if the southern survivors of the Civil War left a time capsule detailing their struggles creating a new economy from the ashes of an old one.


The book actually explores the question of why, in the aftermath of the destruction of an economy, some people achieve success and others do not. In the beginning of the book author Margret Mitchell tells of listening to adults who were alive during the Civil War incessantly discussing this question.


Some people who were wealthy before the war were able to rebuild their fortunes afterwards, but many of their peers did not. At the same time, there were people who were very poor before the war, yet afterwards did quite well for themselves.


What is it that determines an individual’s financial fate when they live in the ruins of a formally vibrant economy? It not just the ability to work hard – Americans are notable throughout the world for their work ethic. Plenty of people work very hard, but never achieve much material success. We call them the “working poor”.


Why is it some do so well and others do so poorly? This is an especially relevant question today as we move past the collapse of the industrial economy of the 20th century and begin building a new economy.


Individually we are facing challenges very similar to what Mitchell heard her elders discussing when she was a child. Like them, now there are people who struggled in the old economy who are doing very well in the emerging one. On the other hand, some people who were doing quite well in the late 20th century are now living like Tom Joad, a character in Grapes of Wrath, another book, (and movie), examining the plight of people facing the aftermath of a collapse of a national economy.


Education is not just about getting a college degree and making more money than you would otherwise. It is about amassing a wealth of knowledge that makes the world more understandable. A broad wealth of knowledge helps us see important nuances and reveals connections and insights others have experienced.


I found out that in order to learn new things it is essential to have a foundation that new knowledge can build upon. Learning a new language or musical instrument is a good example of this. In the beginning, learning is very slow and difficult because there is no context for the new knowledge. As learning takes hold it becomes easier to add new knowledge to what we now understand. Every morsel of knowledge is a foundation for more knowledge. Every bit of new knowledge has a relationship with previously learned knowledge.


Education is the antidote to “fake news”, conspiracy theories mascaraing as insight, and emotional catchphrases that subtly undermine principles of justice and equality.


Education leverages the value of the struggles and victories of people who came before us. Their knowledge and experiences strengthen our cognitive insights and understanding as we grapple with our challenges and struggles.


A college degree is just the beginning of education. It is a foundation for the real education to come – a lifetime of intellectual excitement and exploration.






If You Want Social Mobility, Choose Your Parents Well!

A few years ago, I was researching the value of bachelor’s degrees and discovered a research study for the Department of Education called Baccalaureate and Beyond (Cataldi, Siegel, Shepherd and Cooney 2014).

It is a longitudinal survey – one that follows a group of individuals over a long period. In this case, researchers looked at subjects four years after earning a bachelor’s degree. The thing I found interesting was that about 30% of the subjects did not have a single full time job.

This caught my attention because the education industry insists that the more education one has the better job prospects become and the more money made. That promise implies that college graduates would have “good” jobs – traditional 40 hour per week positions with some degree of job security.

This study certainly did not support that claim.

Of the thirty percent who did not have a single full time job, about half, or 15%, were working one or more part time jobs and the other half were unemployed. The other half had dropped out of the labor force, either returning to school or becoming a housewife/husband.

I found this so stunning that I called up the lead investigator of the study and asked him, rather bluntly, “If a bachelor degree is not a good predictor of socioeconomic success, what is?”

He didn’t skip a beat.

“Zip Code”

The best indicator of future social status is the social status you happened to have been born into, even more than education. socio-economic status is inherited, it seems.

In his still very relevant and interesting 2003 book, Somebodies and Nobodies, physicist and college president, Robert Fuller argues that social hierarchies are natural and needed but takes special aim at the unfairness inherent in them.

In one passage he shares the divergent life courses taken by him and his childhood friend, Gerald, whose family owned a chicken farm. Both boys were interested in math and they enjoyed a friendly competition for twelve years that sharpened their math skills.

“At a high school reunion a few years ago, I asked Gerald whether he regretted not developing his talent for math…With an unmistakable wistfulness, he explained that it had always been assumed he’d work the farm. None of his teachers took his mathematical talent seriously. No one ever encouraged him to aim higher. He never even considered anything beyond high school. I’m sure he could have become a college math professor…” (Fuller 2003, p. 36).

Both men started at the same place with the same interests and talents, one becomes a physicist and college president, while the other spends his life driving an egg truck. The only difference between the two was the social status of their families.

If your parents were wealthy and went to elite universities you will likely follow that path. On the other hand, if your parents went to land grant colleges and end up in the working class that is probably your fate as well.

That just rubs me the wrong way. So I started researching academic studies in order to bring some sense and clarity to the issue of the value of education.

Here is Alison Wolf, (2009), a leading UK professor writing in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning:

“In Britain, returns to degrees have already dipped badly for specific groups, especially those majoring in the liberal arts or attending low-status schools… You earn more…if you go to a highly selective institution, particularly if you go on to advanced academic or professional education and even more if is a world-renowned university (Harvard, Oxford).” (Wolf, 2009, p. 14).

There is no doubt that the choice of major has a lot to do with earnings, but notice that Wolf has added something new – the status of schools.

So, if the status of schools influences future earnings, what happens when aspiring students compete for entry into highly respected schools?

Just this month the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis released a study asking this very question. Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, (July 2018), performed a meta-study of 42 previous research papers and data sets going all the way back the early 20th century.

A meta-study does not involve any original research. The investigators combine all the data from previous studies and subject it to statistical analyses. The goal is to aggregate data from a range of previous studies to look for long-term trends or consistent results.

Here is what these investigators say about how intense competition for high quality education affects US colleges and universities:

“The key intuition is that although the rising demand for college accepts all types of students equally, it sets off a chain reaction …”

“…The result is a transition from an equilibrium where all students had access to colleges of roughly the same quality to an equilibrium where high-ability students had access to better colleges but low-ability students had access to worse colleges…” (Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, July 2018, p. 36)

In other words, the competition between colleges for good students has created a hierarchy of school quality. People aspiring to college try to get into the best schools, but the schools are “sorting” students by ability. Elite schools accept people with the best student skills, while people with lesser student skills go to less respected schools.

The path one takes to a bachelor’s degree signals social status to employers and graduate programs. A path starting with community college and transfer to a land grant college signals something much different from four years at an elite university or notable local institution.

This starts making sense.

If you know anything about social psychology or sociology you are aware of one very basic truth about human beings – we always arrange ourselves in a social hierarchy. It is such an automatic and inherent ability that we barely take notice. Our social circle usually consists of people very much like us – and that means people with similar socio-economic status.

So, what is it about our family of origin that anchors us so permanently into its socio-economic status?

Annette Lareau tells us all about it in her eye-opening book, Unequal Childhoods (2003). Lareau is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who took on a monumental study of how parents transmit social values related to class their children. She and her graduate student assistants observed interactions of poor, working class and middle class families over a period of years and came to some sobering conclusions.

Lareau identified two general differences in the way parents socialized their children, “concert cultivation” and “natural growth”.

Middle class families and “concerted cultivation”.

According to the observations Lareau and her team made, middle class families tend to see their role as nurturing their children. They have the resources to dominate and control their children’s lives with all sorts of structured experiences intended to enrich their lives. These parents are highly involved in managing their children’s after school time, with organized sports, music and dance lessons and other highly structured activities.

They interact with their children much like adults, explaining why things are best done in certain ways, reminding the kids about chores and homework, and negotiating conflicts with reason, logic and compromise rather than using their authority to end them.

According to Lareau, these middle class children tend to develop a sense of entitlement, but also learn sophisticated methods of interacting with adults who are in positions of authority, such as teachers and doctors.

Middle class children, even in the fourth grade, frequently succeed in requesting special attention and privileges from teachers and other adults in positions of authority. They learn this from seeing their parents reminding teachers to respect their children’s learning style, or encouraging their children to ask doctors or dentists specific questions. Lareau contends this grows out the sense of entitlement middle class children develop.

They learn middle class “rules of the game”.

Poor and working class families and “natural growth”.

Lacking the resources of middle class families, poor and working class parents see themselves as authorities keeping their children on the proper path to adulthood. They are less concerned with feelings, opinions and thoughts, and more concerned with compliance and respect.

Their parents are working overtime, or on a second job or using time consuming public transportation and do not have the time or resources to closely shepherd their children. For these families the focus is on simply staying on top of things such as jobs and transportation instead of teaching the “rules of the game” like middle class.

Poor and working class children have far more unstructured time. They spend far more time playing with other children, interacting with extended family like aunts and cousins, and considerable time in cooperative activity with siblings and other children.

School structure is very rigid compared to structure found at home. Poor and working class children very quickly developed a sense of constraint in schools. They readily accept directives by adult authorities such as teachers, but resent the loss of autonomy and self-direction they enjoy at home.

The result is “neck down compliance” – going through the motions of compliance, but not integrating into the education system. For these kids there is no value in school and the point of learning is lost to them.

According to Lareau, poor and working class parents teach their children powerlessness in the face of schools because they don’t know how to assert themselves to authorities any more than their children do.

Putting it all together

So what does all this mean?

First, we find that bachelor’s degrees don’t return the level of value promised by the education industry, at least not for everyone. A researcher reveals a variable – zip code – that seems to influence the outcome of education.

Next, Robert Fuller, physicist and college president, shares a story illustrating how powerful the socio-economic status of the family of origin can be in determining the course of ones life.

After that, an observation from a UK academic about how much more valuable a degree from an elite university is than a degree from lesser-valued schools.

Next, the meta-study from scholars at Minneapolis Federal Reserve supporting the observation that universities have a hierarchy of value. Further, they conclude that schools and students “sort” themselves into hierarchies with poor students attending poor schools at the bottom and excellent students attending excellent schools at the top.

Finally, Annette Lareau identifies the mechanism parents use to transmit assumptions of how the world works into values that determine socio-economic status.

If any of this is an accurate explanation of how socio-economic status passes from one generation to the next, it brings in to question how much influence we have over the course of our lives. See what Robert Sapolosky thinks here, and share a comment.

Here are the sources cited in this article:

Cataldi, E. F., Siegel, P., Shepherd, B., & Cooney, J. (2014). Baccalaureate and Beyond: A First Look at the Employment Experiences and Lives of College Graduates, 4 Years On (B&B: 08/12).

Fuller, R. W. (2003). Somebodies and nobodies: Overcoming the abuse of rank. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Hendricks, L., Herrington, C., & Schoellman, T. (July 2018). College Access and Attendance Patterns. Minneapolis, MN: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wolf, A. (2009). Misunderstanding Education: Why Increasing College Enrollments Can’t and Won’t Fix the Economy. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 41(4), 10-17.

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Why Your Kid’s School Doesn’t Teach And How It Got That Way

The Supreme Court has ruled that the nonsense phrase “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” is so threatening to schools that it is illegal to speak or display the words anywhere students might see or hear them. Really.

But that’s not all.

The community college where I work spends around $15 million dollars annually on remedial classes for high school graduates who cannot read or write well enough to participate in introductory classes. Every term I return email messages to students because their writing skills are so poor, I have no idea what they are trying to tell me.

Are public schools addressing their failures?


Instead, they are preoccupied with bullying students about nonsense phrases and monitoring them for signs of sexuality.


Oregon School District 24j contacts police if they suspect a student are sexually active. Why? Because under Oregon law it is illegal for people under the age of 18 to have sex, so school administrators have added this to their list of responsibilities. They have taken upon themselves to police their student’s sex lives, while issues like illiteracy and math anxiety flourish.

To understand why public school are failing to teach basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic in favor of concentrating on their students sexual activities we need to review just a little history and public policy.

First the public policy.

When government makes a law, it designates a bureaucracy to enforce it. Anything to do with vehicle registration or driver licensing goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and tax collection goes to the Revenue Department. Laws concerning public education go to public schools. These agencies then write the rules and procedures they will follow when they enforce the law. These are called Administrative Rules and are on the web sites of state attorneys general.

Elected political bodies pass statutes, or laws, and the agencies administering them write their own rules explaining how they will execute the laws.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the 1880’s or so, state and local governments administered laws in any way they wished. This led to widespread political corruption, especially in state and local government. It was said that an honest politician was one who stayed bribed, that is, he didn’t continue to accept graft after already selling his vote.

In 1904 muck raking reporter Lincoln Steffens was so outraged at the obvious buying and selling of political favors that he wrote a book called The Shame of the Cities. The book came out at the height of the reform movement and strengthened the argument for applying new management methods to fight corrupt government.

The blueprint for bureaucracy came from Fredrick Taylor, who wrote Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, the first book to describe how to run a mechanized factory.

There had been factories before, of course, but they were generally assembly lines of workers assembling products by hand. This was the method of manufacture for Civil War pistols, rifles and muskets, for example.

The turn of the century saw huge factories in which machines did much of the work, but required workers to keep the machines running. This was the era of steel production, stamped sheet metal and automated production lines. Raw materials went in at one end of a factory and a finished product came out the other. For the first time in history, thousands of workers came to work at the same time and the management challenge was overwhelming.

Principles of Scientific Management solved that problem with regimentation, and gave us the concept of a worker being just an extension of the machine. The role of workers was to obey instructions to the letter, while supervisors’ role was to think and issue orders.

In 1880, Woodrow Wilson, future President of the United States, was a political scientist at Princeton and wrote a paper arguing that public policy was the proper topic for political scientists. That might just be a minor side note in the history of academia, except for the fact that Wilson became President of the United States at the height of public outrage over political corruption.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, combined Wilson’s 1880 paper defining the new idea of public policy with Taylors work on managing factories and came up with the modern bureaucracy. He applied methods described by Taylor for running a factory to running an office. Weber’s ideas were included as a chapter simply titled Bureaucracy in a sociology book, but it became famous as the solution to political corruptions.

(If you are interested in reading Weber’s essay On Bureaucracy, it is included in Classics of Public Administration.)

The most prominent characteristic of a bureaucracy is process orientation. This means that the organization repeats a process or procedure repeatedly without deviation, like a machine. Results are not as important as process; in many cases results are irrelevant. The only concern is the procedure. Very quickly, the metaphor “machine bureaucracy” came into common use because office workers were acting like mindless machines.

Maintaining the status quo is one of the purposes of bureaucracy. There is little tolerance for anything new or different.

That might sound strange to our 21st century ears. We constantly hear about new ideas and innovation moving the economy ahead, but it is important that our institutions resist change. Imagine what life would be like if laws changed every day, or banks and lending institutions frequently experimented with different formulas for calculating interest.

Credit card companies are good examples of the need for clear rules governing a process. Rules for calculating interest and penalties are including in every credit card statement. It is important that credit card companies are consistent with the way it calculates interest.

We prefer it that way because it guarantees equal treatment of everyone.

Consistent procedure requires rigid rules. If the procedures are to remain consistent, we need to have rules that are also consistent. This means that inflexible rules drive bureaucracies. Clear, unambiguous rules are necessary to make sure that everyone performing the process does it the same very every time.

Employees within the organization are all subject to the same rules and procedures, as are customers, clients or service recipients.

So bureaucracies are rule driven, procedure oriented organizations with hierarchies of authorities acting as enforcers. Motivation is through coercion – workers do not receive rewards for doing what they are supposed to do, they face punishment for not following rules and procedures.

Obviously, bureaucracies are not the ideal organizational model for all things. They work best with simple tasks in a stable, predictable environment when exactly the same service is repeated indefinitely, and all inputs are identical.

Think for a minute about the work values people need to believe in bureaucracies.

First, unflinching respect for authority. That means never questioning anything the bureaucracy does. To do so is seen as disloyal and an attack on the bureaucracy.

People working in bureaucracies must also have a high belief in conformity and obedience. This leads to mindless unquestioning compliance. This is why one of the criticisms of bureaucracy is that it is undemocratic and lends itself to Fascism.

Social progressives believe that government is the proper vehicle for advancing social good, but since government uses inherently undemocratic bureaucracy to implement laws and policy, things can run amok.

This is why school administrators so easily slip into the role of adolescent sex police. If it’s a rule is has to be enforced. Never mind the results; the focus is on teaching obedience and conformity.

One of the things you might be asking yourself is how bureaucracy came to be the organizational style of choice for schools.

According to New York Teacher of the Year and outspoken education critic John Taylor Gatto in his book The Underground History of American Education there were three reasons:

Taylors Principles of Scientific Management were gaining popularity in industry, and Weber’s bureaucratic principles were spreading to public policy, so schools were not long to remain independent.

Second, one of the features of bureaucracy is specialization. A move was afoot to replace non-professional parents and local leaders with educational specialists. “Professionalizing” the management of schools with superintendents, school principals and teaching specialists would improve education.

However, one challenge to specialization and professionalization was the social status of teachers. At that time even teachers of one room schoolhouses, (of which there were still 149,000 in America), were seen as socially elite professionals. “School marms” had a reputation of assigning rigorous academics to their students.

The movement to bureaucratize schools first diminished the power of teachers by infusing school management with administrative professionals. Professional school superintendents, principles as supervisors, and curriculum development specialists quickly displaced teachers as professionals.

Finally, the introduction of standardized tests was the end of the iconic one room schools house educator.

In 1915 teachers made up 95% of school personnel, today teachers make up less than 50% of personnel at most school districts. The school district where I live – Tucson Unified School District, (TUSD) – lists 3505 certified teachers on the payroll for a teacher student ratio of 1:12, and non-certified employees at 6816 for a non-teacher to student ratio of 1:6.

(For an absorbing first person account of teaching in a one room schoolhouse at the turn of the century read Elsie – Adventures of an Arizona Schoolteacher 1913-1916.)

Between 1960 and 1990 the number of American public school students increase by 61% while school administrators had grown by 342%. Public schools have become a refuge for highly educated public education bureaucrats who had no place else to go besides school districts.

Teachers did not go quietly.

Dana Goldstein traces the rise of teacher labor organizing and the emergence of modern education and teacher organizations in Teacher Wars. Her book illustrates the lengths to which administrative control of the classroom under the guise of efficiency and standardization will go – the central ethos of Taylorism and bureaucracy.

She focuses on large cities on the east coast and traces the relationship between teachers and unions. She reveals how efforts to improve school instructions quickly become politicized, and explains the endless controversies of assessing teaching skills.

This should be no surprise given what we’ve learned about bureaucracies. The focus of bureaucracies is not on output, or the results of all the procedures, rules and polities. The focus is on the procedures, rules and polices themselves.

This is why graduating high school students often have such poor basic skills. High school focus on compliance and obedience and have little interest in education.


Sources mentioned in this article:

Goldstein, D. (2015). The teacher wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession (First Anchor Books edition. ed.). New York: Anchor Books.

Shafritz, J. M., & Hyde, A. C. (1997). Classics of public administration (4th ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.