"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Seductive mantra of "supporting education"

Who doesn't want to applaud when a politician talks about the need to "support education?"
The political people know that nothing makes them look more virtuous. They talk about expanded educational opportunity. Surely this is a plum or an ideal, right?
We're in the fifth year of a recession so maybe we need to start peeking under platitudes. Do we want to be creative about education or keep propping up a model that increasingly looks outdated?
Heaven only knows how education could be transformed if we just got out of the way and let creative destruction take effect.
There is a specter over discussions about how money is spent at institutions like the U of M. Our U just happens to have been in the news lately.
That specter is the "higher education bubble" theory. Not everyone agrees it's there, hovering in such a way as to cause considerable whistling in the graveyard. But what I read seems to have an awful lot of merit.
A bubble is a speculative boom and bust phenomenon. The rhetoric about the virtues of education covers up a dubious path where huge sums of money continue to get infused in this sector. The bubble has been kept up by government subsidies and to a certain extent foreign students.
Tuition is a burden. And debt loads? We're talking sleepless nights.
Politicians talk about expanding the supply of higher education. We applaud without critical thinking. Fundamentally what we fail to do is separate the virtues of actual learning from the bricks and mortar institutions full of pretentious human beings who demand ever more generous compensation.
This at a time when information systems have been transformed. We are drowning in information today. We should pinch ourselves to see if we're dreaming. How quickly we forget. Knowledge once seemed scarce which is why we needed all these institutions.
That scarcity is gone with the wind, and it's a tremendous blessing. No more need for "paper" encyclopedias. Hats off to those intrepid salesmen - they were pure Americana.
But what if we woke up one morning and realized we simply don't need college libraries anymore? Literally don't need them? Might that time have already come and gone? Have we not smelled the coffee yet?
I think the young people know exactly what's going on. When they're old enough to have power they'll see to it that our institutions are redesigned and streamlined to focus properly. In the meantime we talk about ridiculous largesse at our University of Minnesota.
It's our beloved U of M of course. We're supposed to look at everything through rose-colored glasses. If an institution stands for education it's supposed to be above reproach, right? This is the fog of rhetoric that irritates me.
Yes, I have some friends who smirk a little because they think I'm just so cynical. Have they read Charles Murray? We ignore his insights at our peril. We're all too eager to ignore his insights as we tout whatever alma mater we come from. We wear our college beanies, at least figuratively, and pledge allegiance while ignoring the forces of change that are bubbling up.
The real estate industry tried resisting change. The Internet enabled new and more efficient models that actually benefited home buyers and exposed scam-like flaws in the existing system.
The Texas legislature, as reported in a noted TV documentary, passed laws to try to protect the legacy system with its largesse for the insiders. Those hugging the status quo weren't eager to have media people around. I was heartened when I heard a respected analyst say "eventually the barriers will come down."
The Internet has that kind of effect: It seems to break down all barriers. Kids see this and absolutely cheer for it. They cuss when they see older people try to put up restrictions as with onerous intellectual property rules. The "forces for good" won with the recent retreat of SOPA and PIPA.
Yes, the barriers eventually come down. Only a fool can't see that this transformative democratization of knowledge isn't going to have a big effect on legacy education models. The ivory towers won't just come down, they'll be ignored.
Politicians preach that "jobs of the future" are going to require degrees. Of course these same knaves smiled on the expanded supply of "affordable housing." There is a siren song imploring us on security and insurance against the future. Hence the housing bubble.
And in the future, "education."
I put "education" in quotes because I'm talking about the legacy system of bricks and mortar and the entitled-feeling people who run them and preside in classrooms like they're performers, which they are. We hear the seductive mantra about "supporting education." It seems like a pie in the sky promise.
We once were convinced housing prices would always rise. Similarly we look with an inadequate critical eye on the platitudes about "education" (again, with quote marks, not to be confused with real learning which is nothing but laudable).
Holy cow, we're told the "jobs of the future" will require all this special learning. Our little morning coterie at the Morris McDonald's has discussed this. I have asserted that the "jobs of the future" pronouncement is absolute poppycock.
I have an ally in Paul Krugman (the economist, not a regular Morris McDonald's patron). Krugman is a pariah for those who watch Fox News, and for me this increases his credibility. He takes on the popular wisdom that tech progress puts refined knowledge at more of a premium.
Shouldn't Krugman's conclusion be rather intuitive? Don't we live in a Wall Street-driven culture? Isn't it quite basic that the captains of industry are going to use technology to "dumb down" the jobs they offer? Aren't they judged purely by the bottom line?
Don't they use the likes of Fox News to beat down any notion that we need taxation to lift up our society?
They owe favors to no one. They will salivate as they discover tech shortcuts to trim workforce and make jobs as basic as possible.
Krugman argues that tech progress will reduce the demand for high-end jobs, not just the low-end. We have harnessed computer software to perform tasks that once called on throngs of pretty well-educated and specialized people.
Tom Friedman argues we'll still need "the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker." But can anyone feel safe now?
(BTW it'd be neat if Krugman or Friedman could join us at McDonald's some morning.)
My friend who sells ads for the Willmar radio station says "everyone seems scared." Have you noticed that too?
Post Office jobs were once the epitome of safe and secure jobs. So many postal workers were likable veterans, models with how they lived their lives. But the Postal Service now has vultures circling over it daily.
Can our overbuilt system of colleges dotting the landscape really feel any safer? To their credit, they have weathered the storm thus far. Is there a tsunami coming?
I remember reading a personal thinkpiece by a Star Tribune writer who said "we all know" there's a tremendous amount of waste and duplication between the University of Minnesota and the state university system. Really? "We all know?"
If that's true, hang on to your hats. Even Democrats are going to be comfortable with this (efficiency push).
We thought Steve Sviggum might be of the type with a mission to push austerity with education. He's a Republican and those folks can be like a bull in a china closet - good rhetoric but with a horrible grasp of execution. Sviggum was forced off the U of M board of regents because of a conflict he should have easily recognized.
Democrats know that if large, bulky and amorphous education institutions lose their credibility, as the U of M might, their whole premise of promising a reliable if interventionist government could be threatened. Whistling in the graveyard indeed.
The U of M has been hung out to dry recently. U President Eric Kaler, his honeymoon having been crushed, announced that fossil Joel Maturi will be paid $352,000 in the year after he retires as athletic director. Ten other U executives have gotten a combined $2.8 million as "parting gifts" upon retiring, according to the Star Tribune.
The Star Tribune does have some fight left despite being part of a famously declining business model itself.
The U's Robert Bruininks, a favorite out here on the prairie because of his fondness for the UMM Jazz Festival, unfortunately looks like an insider with the predictable parochial instincts. Having been in the U since 1968, and having concluded a stint as president (a quasi-royal role in Minnesota), he's a good old boy with all the protections and benefits of the doubt that status confers. Up to a point.
The information age makes it much tougher for the entitled-feeling folks. Bruininks - why can't he just spell his name "Brunix?" - has funneled a huge sum to an ungodly bureaucratic monstrosity (it appears) called the Center for Integrative Leadership. Whew.
The people who crafted this entity are of the same stripe that designed our "green community" here in Morris, for our old school property. It has won an award.
I have written that our "green community" is like the rabbit "Harvey" in the Jimmy Stewart movie of the same name.
We are all waiting with baited breath, I'm sure, to see what "integrative leadership" can do for us. Or maybe not.
It's a heckuva career transition plum for Mr. Bruininks and some of the small fish who accompany him. Equally bloated are these "executive transition leaves" that we're not supposed to pay much heed to.
The windfall for that integrative thing came from "presidential discretionary funds." OK, let's call it a slush fund. The gods up on Mount Olympus pull the strings. Not much need to peek around. Well, in the old days that mindset worked. This was back when we had encyclopedias.
All the windy talk about the virtues of a formal education will work to a point, but it's losing potency, I feel, as we speak.
We have indulged Wall Street somewhat up until now. That's partly out of fear. George W. Bush felt we "had" to pass TARP.
Unfortunately the notions of elitism promoted by Wall Street crept into our culture as a whole, so we get these ridiculous compensation packages for a self-defined "elite" at our colleges, ironically at a time when we are drowning in information (i.e. the fodder students consume) due to our new age.
We have the delusion that because certain people seem special, they deserve dizzying compensation packages.
The U says it has to attract top talent. Fine, but if the U is in fact blessed by such genius, why do we have these revelations that are causing such concern by the regents now? Can't these talented people be prudent? Do they need the regents holding their hand?
If so, it's rather scandalous.
The embattled insiders would say only one-third of the U's budget comes from tax dollars.
You could argue that the masses who continue to cover a substantial part of the U's expenses shouldn't have to pay anything to anyone who doesn't have a readily demonstrable need.
"Let's reduce tuition for the non-elite," writes Tom West of "West Words."
The man from Stony Brook (Eric Kaler) says he "expected" the Maturi package to be controversial. Really? He proudly states he didn't "hide" from the controversy. But if he feels his decisionmaking was truly sensible, should he really have anticipated "controversy?"
Who cares if Maturi's role is privately funded? Those private funds could be directed elsewhere. He's a good fundraiser? Is that such an exclusive talent?
The man from Stony Brook says "as promised in July, I'm holding the line on administrative costs." He adds: "Leading a culture change at this or any university takes time."
But my whole point is that time may not be on the side of our legacy education institutions, who likely face an encyclopedia-like future. Shudder? Accept it.
I already have, as I'm a refugee from the newspaper industry.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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