The American Educational Standard: Up For Debate

Yes. There was another debate. This time hosted by CNBC on the campus of  in Rochester, Michigan. And I’m doing this post a little differently, because… well, frankly, I feel like it. I’m going to mostly just rant about one particular topic they discussed, and the reaction thereto, which made me wonder if I was having a stroke and just hallucinating what they said. Turns out… nope.

This debate focused almost entirely on the economy, and when I say almost entirely, I mean there was only one question that wasn’t about the economy. It was the question Herman Cain got about sexual harassment allegations. The moderator tried desperately (and pathetically) to link it to economic subjects by talking about CEOs and character, but the question was still about scandal. Cain responded that the American people deserve better than someone who gets tried in the court of public opinion on (he says) false allegations.

The audience booed when he got the question and cheered raucously when he answered it. As usual, the crowd really got fired up a lot in this event. I have to remember that they’re going to be oriented to the right of political medians since they’re attending a GOP debate, so maybe they’re just more likely to cheer for things like Newt Gingrich basically telling an entire generation of Americans (while standing on a college campus) that they’re a bunch of bums who expect too much from their education.


"Oh, you academic elite, you just don't get it."

Fine, I’ll be more specific: about 2/3 of the way through the debate, the candidates got a question on the burden of student loan debt. Among the answers: suggestions that maybe everyone should just go to college online instead of at institutions with actual brick-and-mortar buildings. Sure. Who needs the formative social and intellectual experience of college? Just do it over the web, alone, in your basement. Like porn.

Ron Paul, not surprisingly, began ranting about the Fed creating a bubble, audit the Fed, now the government holds a bunch of debt for an education system that isn’t working and is spitting out kids who can’t get jobs. On its face, that’s hard to argue against. But here’s where it started going to the zoo: Paul said he wants to get rid of the department of education and give tax credits to students if you have to. So the moderator asked how kids are supposed to pay for school if they can’t get government-backed student loans, and Paul said, “The way you pay for cell phones and computers!”

"Cell phones and computers! Ahh, that was a good one!"

Um… what?

I think what he was trying to say is that the market principles of supply and demand will eventually lower the price of tuition, but it’s a totally unequal comparison that left him looking absolutely clueless about how much it costs to go to college. As usual with Paul, I think there were thoughts in his head that had to go unexpressed due to time constraints, and he couldn’t congeal a coherent response, leaving viewers to take their own cognitive leaps.

"I crack myself up! They bought it! Can you believe it?!"

And then we proceeded to the next zoo exhibit when Newt Gingrich curmudgeonly blurted that these little rat bastards are just going to have to work for it. He cited the Johnson administration’s investment in student loan programs that eventually ballooned, he said, to allow kids to go to school longer because they don’t see the cost; take fewer hours per semester; and tolerate absurd rises in tuition. (“Absurd” is one of Gingrich’s favorite words.) Then he used the College of the Ozarks as an example of what he wants: a school you can’t apply to unless you need student aid, but which has no student aid. Students have to work 20 hours a week during the class year and 40 hours a week during the summer to pay for school, and most of them graduate with no debt. And then he said this:

“It will be a culture shock for the students of America to learn we actually expect them to go to class, study, get out quickly, charge as little as possible, and emerge debt-free by doing the right things for four years.”

The crowd went wild.

And my head exploded.

I don’t even know where to start with this. Does anyone even know a graduate of the College of the Ozarks? But I suppose I’ll start with the ways in which I think they might be right: I agree that tuition goes up absurdly from year to year at most schools. I agree that the federal loan system isn’t really working very well, creating insurmountable debt for students and for the government. And I agree that maybe more tax credits for parents or students paying tuition costs would help.

And that’s about where my agreement ends.

I did not hear anyone talk about how to actually get costs at colleges and universities down while still offering students the best possible competitive education, with highly qualified teachers and well-developed curricula that implements up-to-date resources. That is what is necessary to continue the education of America, which, by the way, is what leads to American business and manufacturing success… which leads to a better economy. Sure, back when American business and manufacturing were booming, a lot of people didn’t go to college, and there are people who didn’t go to college who have succeeded in business astronomically well (Bill Gates comes to mind). But it’s the exception, not the rule, in a changed world and a global marketplace. And in a time when we are hammering away on the American education system and the need for higher learning so that we can be successful as individuals and as a nation, it sort of tweaked me off to hear Newt Gingrich say that college kids just expect to ride through school without a care.

Does he know a college kid?

I worked before college. I babysat as a kid and had a job by the time I was 15. I worked when I was in college, 1995 – 1999. I worked a lot. And my school, my freshman year, cost $16,000 in tuition alone. By my senior year, it was $19,000. That’s incredibly good for a private, small, liberal arts college that has consistently been ranked among the best buys in education by US News and World Report from years before I started all the way through the present day. My four-year scholarship paid $8,000 a year. I was the oldest child and my parents saved for their entire married lives to send me (and my sisters) to college. My school turned out to be the second-least expensive of the four daughters. And I still had a student loan. It wasn’t a big one, but it was there.

Frehsman year I made $50 a week from the school for working on campus, unlimited hours that weren’t tracked; I just worked until the job was done. Spring of sophomore year, I was working without pay in an internship for at least 20 hours a week. By junior year, I was working those hours or more (sometimes 30) with pay, for $7.50 an hour, in the industry in which I wanted to work upon graduation. By senior year, I was working up to 38 hours a week. But I wasn’t paying my tuition or my room and board, because I wasn’t making a salary that was livable. I was just trying to save money so I could be independent when I graduated, get a place and not move back home. I was paying for my car insurance and my gas, and some incidentals here and there, but I was not a wasteful kid. My guy friends bought my beer. My money went to a car and an apartment when I graduated, and health insurance until my employer’s program kicked in. My paychecks through college got me to graduation. My $25,000 salary when I graduated kept me paying my bills and eating. That’s what I worked 20-38 hours a week (sometimes with two jobs) to build up.

And not everyone can work 20 hours a week. Some kids aren’t blessed with the same gifts. They have to study harder, spend more time on things. And by the way, Mr. Speaker: if you want them to work 20 hours a week for pay while they’re in school, you’re leaving them no time to get internships that might give them entry into their field of study.

This is all a bunch of shouting at the rain, because Paul and Gingrich won’t get the nomination. I’m angry about their responses because they reflect what, judging by crowd reaction, is apparently a larger sentiment: you damned kids and your “intellectual endeavors.” Come down off your high horse and stop whining about how much it costs to get the education we’re telling you is essential to your escape from poverty.

I get that some kids don’t appreciate what they have, and some kids don’t realize that maybe they can afford the time to bear some of the financial burden of college. But to call out an entire segment of the American population – the ones who will take care of you when you’re really old, by the way – is just ignorant, careless and a lot of other words I won’t use because they’re blue. I’ve said since I was 19 that my generation will be the first not do to as well as or better than its parents. The generation after mine is in a world of hurt, too. They want something better, and Gingrich made it sound like the problem with the American higher education system is the students. And the crowd seemed to agree.

I’ve been saying for months that I might do a post on debate audiences. I intended it to be funny. But every time they cheer rampantly for things like this, I can’t fathom understanding them enough to do it. To be honest, the way debate crowds cheer for things I find completely objectionable really scares me. It seems fairly obvious that these people are voting with their voices and will probably vote with levers or paper ballots on election day. I have to hope they’re just excited to be there, and that their exuberance is the product of a strange kind of Orwellian group-think that takes over. Because if this many people all over the country really think that a candidate for president should not be questioned about sexual harassment allegations, that college students are lazy golddiggers, that gay people don’t deserve rights and protection from violence at the hands of their own military brethren, that might always makes right, that only white Christian straight Americans deserve food and healthcare and affordable roofs over their heads, that companies always matter more than individuals because that’s where the money is… I don’t understand what we’re doing anymore.

End of rant. Other, semi-impartial debate observations in brief:

"Hey, everybody! I've got you all fooled!"

Herman Cain’s answer to everything is “it’s not true” or “grow the economy” or “999.” That’s all he’s got. I don’t get why he’s still polling a the top. Wake up, America. There, I said it.

Most of the candidates are isolationist when it comes to Europe’s debt crisis. They do not want the US to step in beyond the capacity it holds with the International Monetary Fund.

"How can I convince you? What do you want me to say?"

Romney had a weak answer when questioned about how Americans can be sure he’ll stand firm on his positions if he changes his mind so often to run for office. He said he’s a steady and consistent man who’s been with the same woman for 42 years, in the same church all his life. It was a personal approach to a professional problem and I’m not sure it will work.

It seems the candidates have been scolded by the ghost of Ronald Reagan (and apparently he’s a saint now), so they did much, much less fighting with each other and gave each other much more credit and leeway on positions. Very interesting change from the last two debates.

Nobody won this debate, but Rick Perry had a total mental meltdown when he was asked which departments of the federal government he would eliminate. I can’t even describe it to you, so I’ll link to it instead.

Huntsman embraced the Occupy movement by saying he wants to be president of the 99%… but he also wants to be president of the 1%. Everyone else either avoided talk of the Occupy movement or distanced themselves from the people involved (and Gingrich still thinks they’re all a bunch of bums, like college kids, who, along with the media and “academia,” have no clue about history. He said it. I swear. And once again, the crowd roared in his favor. These people realize they’re on TV, right? They’re part of the media machine at this point. They know that, right?)

Michele Bachmann says freedom isn’t free, so people who are destitute should pay something – even if it’s “$10… the cost of two Happy Meals.” I don’t know whether that example was meant as a way to quantify what $10 is or if it was a sweeping judgment on the poor.

Herman Cain said the previous Congress kept a House bill off the floor because it would have required Americans to send healthcare control back to doctors and patients. He said “Princess Nancy” kept it in committee. He was referring to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi. To call her “Princess Nancy” in the face of a growing sexual harassment scandal was incredibly stupid, let alone disrespectful.

"Ha! Did you hear that?! How is this guy standing here?"

The moderators (who sucked, by the way, and I usually don’t say that) gave Romney the lion’s share of time responding to what do do about China vis-a-vis trade, currency manipulation and the rising possibility that they will overpower the US in the world. I get that this is because he’s the likely nominee, but there’s a guy standing all the way down stage left who was the freaking ambassador to China. You wanna maybe ask him? Romney said he’d slap tariffs on China because they’re manipulating market price with their control of currency valuation. Huntsman (who laughed when the moderator told him he had 30 seconds to answer the same question) said you can toss out applause lines about slapping on tariffs, but that’s only pandering; it won’t work and in fact it will cause a trade war, because they’ll put tariffs on American goods in exchange. He said you have to continue sitting down and talking out trade options, without glamour or flash, but with productivity.

Why isn’t anybody listening to this guy? Oh, yeah, because the crowd wants blood instead of rationale.

Moderator Jim Cramer is completely obnoxious and better suited for a bad sports show than CNBC. Yelling questions at candidates is not helpful. It is entertaining, though.

Going forward: Cain’s got a lot to lose, and I think he’s on minute 13 of his 15. But nobody was particularly impressive tonight, so things might stagnate for a while until this Cain mess is over.


2 thoughts on “The American Educational Standard: Up For Debate

  1. I’ll skip the politics (no surprise) and go for the education…

    I went to high school in an era when there were three college courses: College, Commercial, and General. I’d guess that the split was 40%, 40%, 20% as to the number of students in each. The College students were the only ones who planned to go to college. Commercial students were bound for trade schools. General kids were bound for whatever (interestingly, in my little town, many became cops). Did some potential scholars get lost in that early grouping? Sure. But somewhere the notion of college for everybody became the norm. I believe that in order to accommodate that dubious goal, the education system had to “dumb down,” mainly through grade inflation. It started in high schools and gradually affected colleges. I can’t speak to any specialties other than my own, but it was clear that students coming out of engineering schools with A averages were not only under prepared, they didn’t have the intelligence to do the work. They also came with a sense of entitlement. I have several friends who taught sciences at the university level who quit teaching because of that … and the pressure to inflate grades. So, we have too many college graduates, some percentage of whom can’t really function in their chosen profession, many of whom has student loans. When the economy was good, the country managed. Now, we’re paying the price. I suppose that sounds old fashioned (I am) and elitist (I don’t think I am) but I wanted to reflect some of the passion that may be show in the debate audiences over educational issues. I don’t think all students are lazy bums but I do think some of them are not intellectually equipped for college level subjects and feel entitled to grades. Many of these students gravitate to liberal arts (do they still call it that?) which in a borderline economy often means under-employment.

    Reading your post, I think I can tell that you were a serious student who didn’t feel entitled to the education you were getting … you are not typical of many of the applicants I saw go by in my corporate days or the under-skilled employees I had to deal with. I was probably more like the students I resent when I was an undergraduate … I took it for granted that I was going to college and coasted by on my brains. Anyway, that’s my take. Many of us oldsters … who sometimes tend to be rightsters … have been talking about this for years, unheeded. When The Newt brings it up … as over-the-top and mis-stated his choice of words might be …we may be inclined to say “Finally.” And cheer when we shouldn’t.

    Very thought provoking post, by the way.

    • You? Skip the politics? I can see your points. One of the things I hoped to make clear in stating up-front that I was going to rant was that I wasn’t going to approach this topic from what some may consider to be an objective, even-handed place. I agree that some of education has been dumbed down to cater to the lowest common denominator, and that it started in high schools. Much like No Child Left Behind, educational systems all started teaching what could get a kid a passing grade instead of what he or she really needed to know in order to be successful. I think there are some fields (yours and mine included, though they are not the same fields) in which we only know whether we are well-equipped to work when we get working. Sometimes theory and application are separated by a chasm only those truly fit for the practice can bridge. But I think everyone deserves the opportunity to find out if they can bridge it. I don’t know that we need to fault the “go to college philosophy;” my complaint writ large was that Gingrich seemed to say that these damned kids just don’t try hard enough. If the educational system fails students, they can’t possibly know what’s expected. They’re set up to fail, if they’re not predisposed to academic excellence through the gifts of higher IQ and cognitive ability.

      You’re right; I was a serious student. I was also (forgive what seems like bragging) pretty smart, so academics were largely easy endeavors for me (except math), and for most of my education I went to Catholic schools with tougher grading scales. I did not take my education for granted, but that might have been because I didn’t go in feeling like I would come out a disappointment, like those blessed with fewer “brain-related” gifts may feel. I tend to believe senses of entitlement come from upbringing or attitude, not education. We could default to a “survival of the fittest” approach to education wherein only the best and brightest are afforded the right to higher education and those who have to go into debt or who don’t “apply themselves” enough to get out in four years are passed by. But that doesn’t seem like it would be a benefit to the country or society. There are flaws in the philosophy that everyone should go to college, and some of those flaws may cause problems, but I couldn’t stand the way Gingrich whitewashed it and I was shocked at how the audience encouraged it.

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