Tag Archives: Robert Reich

Rubio’s philosophy on higher education

21 Aug

I’ve written before (see 16 Feb 2014) on the new and dangerous trend in higher education policy in the U.S., which is to suggest that “college is not for everyone,” as if that general shaking out takes place meritocratically, independent of class and race.  Even the liberal wing of our mainstream political spectrum, in the form of President Obama, is comfortable going to high schools (but not affluent ones) and bringing this message.  The economist Robert Reich, to his credit, shows that a four-year college degree is currently the best predictor of higher income, and while he does argue that college shouldn’t be the only route to the middle class, he also says, significantly, “I don’t believe the main reason to go to college – or to choose one career over another – should be to make lots of money.  Hopefully, a college education gives young people tools for leading full and purposeful lives, and having meaningful careers.  Even if they don’t change the world for the better, I want my students to be responsible and engaged citizens.”  Let’s not forget the argument that more, and more critical, education is beneficial, if not necessary, to a functioning democracy, especially in countries that wield tremendous global power.

But this idea that expanded vocational training is the best way to reform higher education in the 21st century, and open up the middle class to more people, is much stronger on the right side of the spectrum, including leaders and presidential candidates who have gone after their state university systems, for example Governor Walker of Wisconsin.  This point of view bears examination.

Several days ago (18 Aug 2015), Senator Marco Rubio made a stump speech at the Iowa State Fair in which he reiterated several themes and policy suggestions about higher education that he had been making in previous speeches.  And yet, two nights of Google searches turn up no transcripts of his speech in any newspaper articles.  When I heard an excerpt on NPR, I wanted to stop in my tracks, because even the sound bite revealed so much about how conservatives see the need and potential for higher education.  But the speech itself warrants detailed, critical examination because it reveals not only what Republican conservatives (and economic neoliberals) think of the value of higher education, but how higher education can contribute to extending greater economic inequality, not ending it.

As a public service, I have transcribed several sections of the speech.  Early on, he says,

I want this to remain a country where parents can do for their children what my parents did for me. My parents were born on the island of Cuba, they came to the United States in 1956, they barely spoke the language at the time, had no money and very little education…. They were able to leave all four of their children better off than themselves…

This is a significant opening, because not only does he reveal that his parents came before the Cuban Revolution, but what his parents did for him – to his and their credit – was to enable him to graduate from a four-year college after transferring twice, first from a small college (just before it went bankrupt, by the way) where he went on a football scholarship, then from a community college before graduating from the University of Florida and then law school.  So in a way, even though the market failed him, he and his family had the means for him, with scholarship assistance, to go from community college through a post-graduate degree.  The question that lingers is whether he wants, as he claims, to be able to do this for young Americans as it had been possible for him.

But curiously, his speech takes a different turn:

We have to modernize higher education. We cannot continue stuck with a 20th century higher education system, that tells everyone you either get a four-year degree, or you get nothing at all… The first thing we have to do is more vocational training. We need more people trained to be welders, and airplane mechanics, and machinists. These are good-paying jobs… A welder makes more than a political science major, and we need to train more young Americans to do it…

Does he speak of more young people having access to a four-year political science degree (like the one he received) or more access to law school?  And when he says that “A welder makes more than a political science major” (which may, according to Reich, be factually untrue), I would ask, More what?  More money, or more decisions that affect other people’s lives?  There is the false dichotomy of the bachelor’s-or-nothing, which doesn’t even exist now, and then there is this fallacious promotion of the idea that most young people are better off with vocational training because their income will be higher.  Not only untrue in the aggregate, but also because it overlooks the value added of being in a position of social and political influence that a college degree makes more likely.

Then he continues,

For example, a single mother raising two kids, who works full-time for nine dollars an hour as a home health aide, the only way she’s ever going to get a raise is to become a dental hygienist or a paralegal, but to do that she has to go back to school. And she can’t, because she has to work full-time and raise a family. I believe we need to have alternative accredited programs that allow people to get the equivalent of a degree, from alternative institutions that allow them to package learning, no matter how they acquired it. Let people learn online for free. Give them credit for what they’ve learned on their own. And suddenly that receptionist, instead of making ten dollars an hour or twelve dollars an hour can be a paralegal making $65,000 a year. I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of four-year colleges, they’re going to remain part of our program – after all, how are we going to get college football without them? I am saying this: We can’t keep graduating people with degrees that don’t lead to jobs. That’s why I believe that before you take out a student loan, schools should tell you how much people make when they graduate from that school with that degree. So you can decide if it’s worth borrowing $50,000 to major in Greek philosophy, because after all, the market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for two thousand years.

Let’s just ignore the complete denigration of the use-value of basically all of the Western intellectual tradition at the end there, shall we?  More important, to our argument, is the disingenuous wiggling that at first suggests vocational training is not only the most cost-effective but the only available opportunity for working adult students, and then goes on to suggest that people should be able to get credit for watching online videos (or whatever “learning online for free” means) and what they’ve learned on their own – essentially no formal education whatsoever.

This is also incredibly insulting to the working four-year college undergraduates whom I teach, those who do manage to find the time to work towards a Bachelor’s degree (and sometimes a Master’s degree) while managing jobs, careers, children (sometimes grandchildren), spouses (or children without spouses), and loans because they want something more fulfilling to them than just a manual trade or unskilled labor.  I would never have the nerve to suggest that they settle for a career they don’t want, nor would I be so patronizing to assume they don’t want to know about Greek philosophy or film history because they don’t “need” it to discharge their work duties.  As Professor Reich says, I want them to have fulfilling lives, where dignity is worth a lot more than simply bringing home and spending a paycheck.

So there are clearly two tracks in Rubio’s educational vision for 21st century America.  Those who can afford to can attend college and support those college football games, preferably without loans unless the students have a guarantee their majors will get them good jobs, which as we know in fact is not the only thing majors are good for.  (And preferably not at colleges they have to leave because the schools go bankrupt or can’t afford to keep academic or even athletic programs funded.) Those who can’t afford school without costly loans can go to vocational schools, or even better, can “learn online for free,” and then go into the workforce in well-paying jobs, but jobs that, regrettably, have little social, economic, or political influence. It’s “the only way they’re going to get a raise,” as he says.  I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t become welders or dental hygienists or paralegals if they want or need to, only that if they want to enter a career where they will have more influence in the democratic process and the economy, or they want a career that they themselves find more fulfilling, they should be able to choose that path and have access to the funds to make that possible – rather than be ruled out because they come from a low-income background or went to an under-resourced high school.  Following Rubio’s logic, there will be less need for federal aid both to universities and colleges (whose enrollment base will provide the necessary revenue), and to students because there will be low-cost options available like vocational schools, training programs, and of course free Internet, so that they shouldn’t have to depend on the government to pay for degrees that won’t pay off financially.

This is not doing for America’s children what his parents did for him.  Maybe a little Greek philosophy would help him understand this.

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On Labor Day

1 Sep

Somehow the summer came and went, I got nothing written or revised (not on this blog, not in my professional life), and tomorrow I start a new full-time job, my first in over three years. I’ve written a little bit in informal comments on Facebook about my life as an adjunct, but I was inspired to say more after reading Robert Reich’s post this morning. I don’t know how to link to a Facebook post, but the operative quotations are these: “The official unemployment rate is 6.2 percent but if you include everyone working part-time who’d rather be in full-time jobs, and all those too discouraged even to look for work, the real rate is closer to 12.5 percent… A higher proportion of jobs are part-time, temporary, contract, or otherwise with unpredictable wages and hours than at any time on record.” I’ve been through all that personally the last three years. So I am setting this down in public as a kind of baseline post as I begin the next chapter in my career – an academic career at this point, having working in non-profits and museums for the first 16 or so years of my professional career, followed by five years of academic employment, with some consulting. Then three years of part-time research, adjunct positions, and summer school, while looking for something full-time in my field.

Here are my two operative facts and figures: In all that time, I tried to keep my employment record with no conspicuous holes or gaps, I applied for over one hundred positions, and I managed to only have 1-2 months on unemployment. The rest of the time I had some form of underemployment – not much money coming in, no health insurance (for 38 months), and no position that lasted longer than an academic year. I didn’t go on food stamps, qualified for the new Medicaid under Obamacare (though I ended up then making just too much money by the time I had to submit the application), and got to the point where if I hadn’t found something full-time in the last application cycle, I’d have had to have changed careers, or taught high school full-time. Over the last four years I applied for 131 full-time positions in universities, museums, and non-profits. I got rejected 130 times. And while I can’t say I have empirical proof that if you never give up you will eventually get something, I can say that had I given up at any point along the way, instead of coming back week in and week out, then I would have lost for sure. In the end it was not just persistence: I learned from my mistakes and shortcomings, I adjusted my search accordingly, re-worked my application materials and my interviewing skills. Though luck undoubtedly played a role, it was a combination of persistence and adaptability that set the stage. And in the end, I ended up with a wonderful position that offers all that I want, in a location where I want to be – I did not have to “settle” at all. It’s even a union position. And no, I did not know anyone on the hiring committee; it was a clean search. I am a statistic in so many groups: underemployed, overqualified academic, long-term without a position or health insurance, and this economy is not kind of any of these. There aren’t even enough positions for people in my situation, so we even can’t all be “lucky” (the worst I heard about was a job that attracted 450 applicants). I’m glad I ended up in the right column of the statistics, but I have many friends and colleagues who have not, and this Labor Day I hope they find subsistence and fulfillment in whatever field they end up in. These are bleak times. Not only are “good” jobs falling by the wayside (see Reich’s columns), but meaningful jobs that are tenable are becoming rarer still.

I heard a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman on NPR this afternoon. I find him naive in the extreme – nowhere does he attribute any of these changes to the structure of the job market to forces like global consumer capitalism, the calculated ruthlessness of the ‘free’ market and its protectors, or the pressure of widening economic inequality. He suggests that entrepreneurship is going to be a vital skill for building a career, which suggests an extreme survival-of-the-fittest-go-getters, but also that higher education itself may go the way of the newspaper because the investment is getting larger but the preparation for the job market is even less certain. (He says this, without any examination of the question whether the purpose of higher education should be employment training, what it means to have an uninformed populace voting (or not) in a democracy, or the fact that we can’t all start global industries on our laptops and be hugely successful; someone is going to have to have the funds to purchase all the goods and have the money to invest. At least Jaron Lanier points out that if we minimize the number of professional jobs that pay a living or middle-class wage, we won’t have enough consumers with the disposable income to buy all the products that consumer capitalism has to sell to stay afloat. All of these “thinkers” and “futurists” fall into the new unquestioned belief of the age which is that the purpose of higher education is job readiness, and learning “just enough” to get a job and compete in the global marketplace, or to be an “innovator” (for the sake of innovation, or making money, or making things), which is how MOOCs will replace humanistic teaching and learning, critical literacy skills. This fails to recognize the essential link in a democracy – which Jefferson realized – which is that the people are ignorant (not informed, and not knowing how to question the concepts that are fed to them). Otherwise they vote what they think is their short-term self-interest, and this perpetuates empires and global environmental destruction. Hell, I even heard a TED talk (again on NPR) yesterday in which the lecturer – a million-dollar TED awardee! – says we really need nothing more for our education than access to the Internet and a grandmother to encourage us. These people are trying to scuttle higher education, and retool education merely to be preparation for working in someone else’s factory, and the odd Jeff Bezos will come along here or there and ‘save’ us. Friedman doesn’t acknowledge the gutting of higher education is already taking place, with the shift over the last 20 years from 70% of college courses being taught by full-time profs, to two-thirds being taught by part-timers with no benefits and 1/6 to 1/4 of the salary.

But back to Labor Day itself. The other story that has slipped up on us is that Labor Day used to mark the end of the summer and back to school. My father, a tax accountant who never got more than two weeks vacation any year in his working life, used to take the last two weeks of August off religiously every year, and go back to work the day after Labor Day. School didn’t start until then, and the school year ran from September to June. But this year, even more than before, I noticed more and more school districts and universities are now beginning in August. The Ferguson, Missouri school district had to cancel the first days of classes in the middle of August, while on the East Coast, which starts later, it feels like New Jersey may be the last state in which the school year begins after Labor Day. Most colleges and universities start the week before now, too. Labor Day weekend used to be the end of summer vacation and was a big tourist weekend, but as one friend pointed out to me in New York this weekend, really everybody is back to school or work in August these days. So even the concept of ‘summer’ itself as time off has been taken away from the American worker and the American student. One of the most pernicious ways in which Americans have perpetuated their own oppression is in allowing themselves to have so little vacation time, less than any other country. And that’s for people with paid vacation. Many American workers don’t even get that anymore. So instead of Labor Day marking the psychological end of summer, even if it ever did honor the American worker, it now is just another Monday holiday. And many districts want to move to year-round school anyway, which would strip teaching – the last of the professions to over a reasonable annual leave policy in the U.S. – of its humane vacation policy. I am lucky my new job will be at a university that, for now, begins after Labor Day (which means that, in theory, I will still be able to attend the Montreal World Film Festival even though I could not afford to do so this year). But we’ll see how long that calendar survives the attempts to shorten summer and force the school year to bear more similarity to the working world, since that is all it is seen to be good for anymore, anyway.

There is no IRS scandal

31 May

I was beginning to think I was the only person who was upset by the so-called IRS scandal that they supposedly discriminated against “conservative” groups seeking tax-exempt status. Why are all these people resigning for doing their jobs? Glad to read Robert Reich’s post on his Facebook page on May 28 in which he says that “The more I understand what actually occurred at the IRS, the more it appears IRS agents were doing their jobs. A close examination of the conservative groups allegedly targeted by the IRS — reported in yesterday’s New York Times — revealed a wide set of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials say provided a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.” He wrote a similar post on his blog, www.robertreich.org, on May 17. There is also an excellent article in The New York Times detailing what kind of organizations were targeted and the rationale behind this.

Several IRS officials have been driven to resignation because it came out they were directed to pay special scrutiny to the applications from Tea Party organizations and for tax-exempt status by virtue of the 501(c)(4) exemption for – and this is the actual statute –
(A) Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, or local associations of employees, the membership of which is limited to the employees of a designated person or persons in a particular municipality, and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.
(B) Subparagraph (A) shall not apply to an entity unless no part of the net earnings of such entity inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve worked in nonprofits all my adult life. The way I interpret this, in ordinary English, is that these organizations must meet certain criteria:
– They must be organizations operating for social welfare (or be employees in one municipality)
– All their net earnings must go “exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes”
– No part of the net earnings should benefit any private individual.

How does any organization devoted to electoral politics, whether it’s the Tea Party or any offshoot of the Democratic Party or any other party, fit this definition? Apparently the legal loophole is that any activity devoted to telling the public about issues or candidates is now deemed to be “educational.” So, by this logic, we would say that any kind of advertising is now “educational” about the products being sold.

These organizations have become so powerful, and in some cases rich, that when their classification was challenged by the IRS, they went on the offensive, howling that they were somehow victims of partisan discrimination. But the onus is on them to show how their earnings are going to “charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.” In doing so, they have so cowed the Obama Administration that the IRS is backing down without a fight. Isn’t anybody in Congress going to say, as is their oversight responsibility, “Wait a minute, how are these organizations charitable or educational?”

In my most charitable moments, I might concede that information about any candidate – whether or not it leads to their election – is “educational” (especially if it is true), but even so, any policy or candidate whose work results in either economic redistribution from the poor to the rich, or the prevention of vulnerable populations to achieve their rights or overcome the ways they are socially disadvantaged (which is to say oppressed), is by definition working in a way that is the antithesis of “charitable.” An organization that lobbies to cut taxes resulting in the underfunding of schools, cuts to education and nutrition, health care, prenatal or neonatal care, women’s health, job training, and the arts, is acting in a way that is categorically the opposite of “charitable.” That’s the real scandal.

But then I read articles like this one in The Washington Post in which the Tea Party is actively involved in opposing educational standards. This should give the IRS pause. Not only is the Tea Party’s work not going to education, as required to maintain their non-profit status, but they are using the status to oppose stronger educational programs on a national level. So, “charitable” now means taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and “educational” now means blocking stronger school standards nationally. The IRS not only should have questioned these groups’ missions, they should have gone further and stripped them of non-profit status, for they are in violation of the code. They can still operate as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) but our tax law is quite explicit, and these NGOs are not entitled to tax exemption under the law.

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