Entries Tagged as 'academia'

Which is More Useless? Limbaugh or a Classics Major?

November 2nd, 2011 at 1:48 pm 87 Comments

Dear Mr. Rush Limbaugh,

I see you have let your own educational insecurities shine through in your latest rant in which you “bravely” attempted to decipher the “sad-sack story” of a Classical Studies scholar. Bravo. If only you had taken a philosophy course about the Sophists, you might have been better at debating your point. Unfortunately, your rhetoric fails you and you blunder through your argument, proving the limited grasp you have on the concept of higher thinking.

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Can Students Focus on Self-Development?

July 1st, 2011 at 3:52 pm 2 Comments

This is the third part in a FrumForum series on the value of college written by FrumForum’s summer interns.

I spent my first year of college with no unique desires to learn – but simply with the goal of getting a degree and eventually a job. I was a part of the many who flock to college and routinely proceed through the requirements because it is expected – and because a degree was thought to be a first-class ticket in the “real world”. But as I approach my senior year, I’ve come to realize how little a degree will do for me.

This formerly golden document has decreased in value as it became more common. A bachelor’s degree seems to have the same value that a high school degree had 100 years ago – but it costs $200,000 more.

The past few years led me to a realization: college is not about grades or degrees – it’s about self-development. Unfortunately, few people strive towards that anymore.

Those with a will and passion to embrace their textbooks and study what they are given will receive a meaningful degree, while those who spend their undergraduate years at frat parties will leave four years later with empty pockets and a mountain of debt.

My philosophy professor advised his students to use college as a rare opportunity to “think about the great questions of life” – using resources that will only be available during that short four-year period.

I eventually acquired the desire to learn as much as possible – and actually enjoy soaking up every bit of information that comes my way. At first, I thought it would increase my value after graduation – but now, I’ve come to enjoy it, and would often much rather spend my time reading an interesting book than mindlessly attending a social event. Perhaps my degree will hold more weight when I walk off that stage next May.

College rankings don’t matter. People are given information, and whether they choose to receive it is a choice defined by character. It’s ones character that will pave the path of the future – not one’s degree.

What a degree will do is open doors to opportunities – which someone who wasted their four years will not be able to step through.

An Ivy League school may brand students with a name that will give them more chances – but it won’t make its students any more skilled.

So is college worth spending $200,000 on? Yes – but only for those who embrace the tools they are given. It can be an investment – but only for those who know how to invest.

Not All Students Are Equally Studious

July 1st, 2011 at 1:19 pm 5 Comments

This is the third part in a FrumForum series on the value of college written by FrumForum’s summer interns.

I am currently a student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (SFS), a vocational-leaning program embedded in a liberal-arts dominated institution.  The arguments made by Daniel Smith the New York Magazine do not suggest to me that college lacks value.  They suggest, and my experience confirms, that students do not derive the benefits of college just by paying and showing up.  Like most things in life, they must be earned.

SFS is notorious at Georgetown for being the most difficult of the undergraduate schools.  To graduate, SFS students must demonstrate proficiency in a second language, take a wide range of economics and political science courses, and are strongly encouraged to study abroad and find internships within the city.  Many go on to work for the State Department or for other government departments or NGOs.  That does sound like it’s worth the price tag and the time.

But, rather predictably, the fact is that the graduates who have the most success tend to be those who did the most work and took advantage of the opportunities they were given.  For those who didn’t, it’s a mixed bag.  I have a number of friends who simply go through the motions of college.  Like most college students, they attend class, do the majority of their homework and manage to pull decent grades.  But there are also a great many students for whom college is more than a four-year slog toward a degree.  For them, college is a chance to pursue a wide range of interests without the pressure of paying a utility bill.  Young adults who forgo college to work may be free of the accompanying mounds of student debt, but they do not enjoy the freedom to fail without major consequences.  I am working this summer as an intern at an internet blog, but I doubt I will ever be a journalist.  I do think I will be able to acquire some important skills and gain valuable “real-world” experience.  But I can only spend my summer this way because I know I will be safely back on the Hilltop at Georgetown in September, whether I write like H.L. Menken or Charles Barkley.

This is why it is so frustrating for me to read articles like Smith’s.  It is not that college lacks value.  It is that the value of college is completely dependent on the student. By being enrolled at an American university, students have the opportunity to essentially choose the level of prosperity for which they are willing to strive.  And the path to prosperity is hard but by no means secret.  Every student knows that an engineering major is more rigorous than degree in history, but we are also well aware that it projects far greater lifetime income.  Now, I am not accusing history majors of indolence.  My point is that higher education offers a range of outcomes, which, unlike the outcomes of primary education, are almost completely dependent on the student.

Unfortunately, all graduates are counted equally in statistics, regardless of how many internships they applied for or how often they went to office hours.

When taken as a uniform bloc, college students may understandably give writers like Smith the impression that they are wasting time and money.  This is akin to saying that a gym membership is “not worth it” because only some percentage of all buyers experience results.  Clearly the numbers would be different among those who showed up and worked. The American university is still a vehicle to the middle class and beyond. But like any vehicle, it won’t drive itself.

College is About Skills, Not Wages

July 1st, 2011 at 10:55 am 9 Comments

This is the second part in a FrumForum series on the value of college written by FrumForum’s summer interns.

Once, a great professor of mine, said, “College has nothing to do with what you learn here.  You’ll forget most of it before you graduate anyways.  You’re here to be inculcated with the norms and expectations of a professional lifestyle.”  If anything, that is where I see my college worth.

College has nothing to do with academic retention.  Well, it does — but not to the extent that it is popularly emphasized.  In college, young people (who are pampered throughout high school) finally get to see the real world.  For many, it is the first time we are treated as adults and given the opportunity to excel — or fail.  In a world that plays by these same rules, this is a fundamental experience.  It shows us how to get a job.

Critics of the ever-popular college scene claim not everyone needs college — not everyone benefits very much from earning the degree.  In fact, Daniel B. Smith’s article, “The University Has No Clothes” in New York magazine depicts college degrees as dwindling in significance (and this is seen in scores of other media outlets); they even assert that college debt is too cumbersome for a growing number of graduates.

They are looking in all the wrong places when they refer to the benefits of college.  Graduates leave their campuses with hardly any concrete evidence of their growth and development.  The skill-set that allows us to navigate the real world and the careers within it are much more important than a bump up on the wage bracket.  It doesn’t really matter if I have a lot of student debt because I can manage that now that I know what proficiency really boils down to. We hear of plenty of people going into debt for many years after college, but it is rare to hear of a case where someone is bankrupt due their investment in an education.

And while I discount people like Smith’s take on college, I don’t fully agree with collegiate  defenses such as Kevin Carey’s article posted a few weeks ago in The New Republic.  To me, neither side understands it, so the truth lies in the middle.

Obviously I lean more toward the academic persuasion.  As Carey points out, some people graduating college may face obstacles at first (bartending, waiting tables, etc.), but they also typically end up in their intended professions — like Sally Cameron working in an international development consulting firm.  And he even makes a better point: “There are a lot more law firm partners out there who used to be bartenders than bartenders who used to be law firm partners.”  People with degrees tend to achieve their goals, it just may not be on a convenient timetable.

A close friend of mine from high school graduated two years ago with a Spanish degree and has been searching this entire time for a job — anywhere in the country.  It seemed like every time I spoke to him he was finishing a cover letter or job application.  Just a month ago he finally got an offer as a sales representative in Boston, and he is finally doing something he enjoys with his degree.  While I know there are plenty of others who haven’t been as fortunate, his situation shows that with the drive and initiative, a college degree will get you where you want to go.

Is Larry Summers a Scientist or a Politician?

May 14th, 2011 at 3:54 pm 10 Comments

A couple things in this interview by Andrew Goldman of Larry Summers currently irritated me. I’ll give the quotes and then explain my annoyance.

1. Goldman: What would the economy look like now if $1.2 trillion had been spent?

Summers: I think it’s an artificial question because there would have been all kinds of problems in actually moving $1.2 trillion dollars through the system — finding enough bridge projects that were ready to go and the like. But the recovery probably would have proceeded more rapidly if the fiscal program had been larger.

. . .

2. Goldman: You’re aware of — and were making light of — the fact that you occasionally rub people the wrong way.

Summers: In meetings, I’m more focused on trying to figure out what the right answer is than making everybody feel validated. In Washington and at Harvard, that sometimes rubs people the wrong way.

OK, now my reactions:

1. Not enough bridge projects, huh? I don’t believe it. We’ve been hearing for decades about America’s crumbling infrastructure. Summers (and, more generally, Obama’s economic team) had a staff, right? If they had put in the effort I think they could’ve found lots of bridges, water pipes, etc., that needed repair.

I also find it a bit annoying that Summers tries to have it both ways on this: (a) there weren’t enough projects on which to spend the money, (b) a bigger stimulus plan would’ve been better. It’s no surprise that people were skeptical of (b) given that the government’s most prominent economist was claiming (a)!

2. I think Summers is missing the point here. If everything had gone OK with the economy, nobody would be complaining about his style in meetings. But the economy has not gone so well so it’s natural to think that maybe he and the rest of the Obama team could’ve done better. And given the financial crisis of 2008, it seems reasonable to wonder whether Summers, Greenspan, et al. really “figured out what the right answer is.” Even at the time those policies were enacted there were many dissenting voices.

If being “focused on trying to figure out what the right answer is” actually gets you the wrong answer, then maybe you question your strategy.

Why does this bug me?

Politicians and pundits say silly things all the time and I usually just let it go (unless it happens to hit one of my pet peeves). But I hold academic social scientists to a higher standard.

It seems to me that Summers is torn between his two roles. As a researcher, he wants to admit his uncertainty and think about how to do better. As a politician, it’s all about Never Surrender, Don’t Give an Inch, etc.

I don’t know the best solution here, but if I were in this position, I might limit my public pronouncements to my area of expertise and defer to others on theirs. For example, Summers could say, “As a macroeconomist, my judgment is that a stimulus plan of $1.8 trillion would’ve been best. But other government experts told me there weren’t enough bridges to repair etc. Even so, etc.” Whatever credibility Summers has on the macroeconomics is diluted by his willingness to express certainty on any other topic that he’s asked about. Again, this looks to me like a worst-of-both-worlds combination of the academic’s freedom to speculate and hypothesize and the politician’s air of certainty.

P.S. Goldman has a talent for getting people to say things that make them look bad, as did Deborah Solomon (his predecessor in this NYT magazine column). Or could you make anybody look bad by taping them for long enough and then stringing together some of their more embarrassing statements? An interviewer could probably make me look pretty foolish in that way.

Originally posted at The Monkey Cage.

Anti-Israel Critics Want More Attention

David Frum May 14th, 2011 at 7:13 am 28 Comments

In a world full of problems, we all must make choices about where to invest time and energy.

There are so many different tragedies. So many diseases. So many environmental challenges. No individual human being can take action -or even pay attention -to more than a very few. But which?

Well, how about this one: “Too few people call for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. And those who do call for Israel’s extinction receive too few academic awards and literary honors.”



Myself, I am far more concerned about threats to the world’s coral reefs. But let me present the facts behind a controversy that has roiled the New York media world over the past week, and you can make up your own mind.

Perhaps you have heard of the playwright Tony Kushner? Kushner is the author of Angels in America, a seven-hour-long play that combined ideas of gay liberation with ideas left over from 1950s-vintage Communist fellow travelling. The play gained immense praise in the 1980s. I won’t debate the merits of the play here, but I will note for the record that in a quarter-century of spending a lot of time with literary types, I have never heard anybody quote a memorable line from the play or spontaneously mention the names of any of its characters. Kushner has always seemed to me the 20th-century equivalent of those 19th-century academic artists who painted huge scenes from history: like, say, Henry McArdle, whose vast depictions of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto hang in the Texas legislature. Kushner may not have much to say, but he needs a lot of space in which not to say it.

One subject on which Kushner has pronounced is the state of Israel. Briefly: He thinks its creation to have been a mistake. That’s far from a unique opinion of course. It’s an opinion shared with many millions of people, many of whom have been willing to back their view with war and murder. Kushner goes only so far as lending his name to those who would wage economic warfare against Israel: He serves on the advisory board of Jewish Voices for Peace, a group that accepts boycotts, sanctions and divestment of Israel as legitimate tools of politics.

Kushner has collected a great many honors and accolades over the years. This year, the City University of New York (CUNY) offered him one more: an honorary degree. One of the university’s trustees objected. The degree was withdrawn. Protest ensued. The degree was reinstated. Now there are demands for the objecting trustee to resign.

An event of minor significance to those outside the CUNY community, or so you’d think.

You’d think wrong.

Kushner + CUNY pulls up 711,000 references on my Google search. The common theme? The need for North American Jews to make more space for people to criticize Israel. You might think there was already plenty such space? You haven’t noticed any shortage of criticisms of Israel, raging from the merely paranoid to the outright genocidal? Again, you’d think wrong. However much there is, we need more, much more. As Kushner himself told New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, there is “a terrible need for a dose of debate” on Israel.

It’s strange. The world is full of failed states. Yet nobody ever suggests a debate on whether it was a good idea to create, say, Sierra Leone.

Barely half the population of Iran are ethnic Persians. When do we debate the redrawing of Iran’s boundaries so as to show respect to the aspirations of those of its people who speak Turkish languages, or Kurdish, or Arabic? Day after never?

Or look at Libya. Modern Libya is an amalgamation of three provinces of the Ottoman empire. Can we have a debate on an independent Cyrenaica? Too explosive? Too boring? Or just too … never to be thought of?

Kushner describes his critics as people “whose politics are based substantially on fantasy and theological wishes.” Personally, I think that’s a much more accurate description of those who place faith in peace negotiations with a Hamas-Fatah Palestinian unity government – or those who fix blame on Israel for the terrible problems of the whole vast Middle East – or those who regard Tony Kushner as a great artist of the age.

But the immediate question before us is the one raised by Kushner supporter Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times. Will Jewish vigilantes shut down brave critics like Tony Kushner? Cohen reminds us of the tragic case of the late Tony Judt, a historian who likewise urged the dissolution of Israel into a united Palestine. Judt held a named chair at New York University. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Yet in one instance, Judt was disinvited from giving a lecture at the Polish consulate in New York City. In the face of such fearful persecution, how can the human mind hope to remain free? Or so the question is put.

As for me: Well I’m going back to those coral reefs.

And with any leftover time, I’ll focus my concern on the millions of Jews whose very lives are daily threatened by people eager to accept in all its full literal horror the careless speculations of the Kushners and the Judts about the benefits of the erasure of the Jewish homeland.

Originally published in the National Post.