Friday, May 31, 2013

What the hell is education anyway?

I found out recently that my university plans to integrate massive open online courses (MOOCs) into the curriculum in the coming years, which has created a bit of a stir among the faculty. Part of the fear is that the quality of learning in such a large and often asynchronous environment does not compare to the traditional classroom. A larger fear, I believe, is that easier access on the part of students combined with increased reach for the most gifted instructors threatens job security.

As a future professor, I share both of these fears. But amidst the uncertainty and my desire to claim that MOOCs have no place in higher education, I found myself trying to figure out what the hell education is anyway.

A continuous (and perhaps inevitable) push and pull between the idealistic and the realistic aspects of education are a recurring theme in my mind. In an idealistic world, education is important for its own sake. Moreover, in a nation of the self-governed, a more intelligent citizenry is key for a functioning civil society (whatever that looks like).

Realistically, some people are just plain stupid. We can't all be Harvard graduates, and if we were, the McDonald's cashier down the street would understand why I gave him $10.41 for a $6.41 order. I firmly believe that college isn't the best investment for everyone, but culturally we accept that truism.

Education -- or at least the certification a diploma brings -- has become a point of differentiation. Simply put, there is value in education.

But how is this value quantified? I have always found the language I hear around universities interesting. For example, students are "getting" a degree and graduates already "have" one. Despite being more accurate, I less often hear of people "pursuing" a degree or "working toward" something in their given fields of study. Education has become more valuable as a possession than as a process, but all the idealistic merit is in the latter.

Graduates possess only a diploma, which may or may not reflect how educated they are. We have subjectively and arbitrarily decided that four years of classes certifies graduates to work "better" jobs. I'm not necessarily opposed to such a system because it does require work to earn a degree, university systems provide some means to evaluate skill, and liberal arts educations typically brings some level of enlightenment to students -- even if by happenstance. But to conflate such a system with education often amounts to little more than a bait and switch necessarily perpetrated to keep university lights on nationwide.

So are MOOCs a form of higher education? In the idealistic, process understanding of education: maybe. In the realistic, commodified sense: depends on the university ROI.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The appeal of austerity...and why it doesn't work

Photo by Pen Waggener
Reducing the debt is undoubtedly important. Roughly 6% of the federal budget is allocated each year to pay interest on our national debt. As deficits and debt increase, so too do our interest payments, which in turn limits resource allocations to other important areas (education, which is about 3% of the federal budget, comes to mind).

Austerity is an intuitively pleasing policy agenda because it relies on the simple mathematics of input and output. My issue with austerity isn't the end goal of debt and deficit reduction, it's that austerity is based on false assumptions and, most importantly, it doesn't work.

A recent study by Herndon, Ash, and Pollin entitled "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff" essentially calls bullshit on the austerity endeavor.

In 2010, Harvard economists Reinhart and Rogoff published a set of studies that found when the public debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 90%, economic growth comes to a grinding halt. Herndon and company found a number of issues with Reinhart and Rogoff's study worth mentioning. If your pressed for time or need a laugh, here's Colbert's take on it:

First, there are a number of gaps in data from the countries studied, largely stemming for varying start points for data collection. These gaps led to the selective exclusion of 14 data points at which varying countries experienced over 90% in the debt/GDP ration.

Second, an Excel coding error meant that Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark were completely excluded from analysis. Go ahead and read that sentence again.

Finally, the data was weighted equally by country rather than by combining the country and year, an odd choice that Reinhart and Rogoff did not explain. According to Herndon and his colleagues, "equal weighting of country averages entirely ignores the number of years that a country experienced a high level of public debt relative to GDP."

All of these errors lead to bogus results which Herdon, Ash, and Pollin refute:
Our most basic fi nding is that when properly calculated, the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0.1 percent as RR claims. That is, contrary to RR, average GDP growth at public debt/GDP ratios over 90 percent is not dramatically di fferent than when public debt/GDP ratios are lower.
So a 28-year-old graduate student made respected economists look damn silly, which would be funny except for the fact that so much damage has already been done by Reinhart and Rogoff's work. Again, according to Herndon, Ash, and Pollin:
Reinhart's and Rogoff 's website lists 76 high-profil le features, including The Economist, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, National Public Radio, and MSNBC, as well as many international publications and broadcasts. Furthermore, RR 2010a is the only evidence cited in the "Paul Ryan Budget" on the consequences of high public debt for economic growth. 
The only evidence for the leading economic mind behind Republican fiscal policy, Paul Ryan (and God knows how that happened), turns out to be fundamentally flawed. But the page one story of the Ryan Budget won't be undone by this page 16 retraction.

Moreover, austerity already has taken its toll, and for all the U.S. deficit hawk warnings that "we're headed down a path to Europe," those same European countries have arguably been more eager to adopt austerity policies than the United States -- and it's been disastrous. Even Ireland, the poster child for austerity economics, is having its doubts after budget cuts have wreaked economic havoc.

The problem we have isn't simply one of input and output, its understanding the difference between expenditures and investments. And since austerity minded policies tend to correlate with Republican leanings as do strength of religious beliefs, I'll illustrate my point with the biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and was eventually imprisoned in Egypt. There, he interpreted a dream of the Pharaoh and correctly predicted that seven years of bountiful harvests would be followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advised the Pharaoh to store up grain during the years of plenty to prepare for years of famine, which he did, and all was well in Egypt.

The moral of the story: shortsightedness is idiocy. We are idiots. We spent all our resources during times of plenty and landed ourselves in this proverbial famine. The solution is a Keynesian one: spend money from the public sector when the private sector is unwilling, which in turn spurs the economy.

This solution means taking on more debt, which is unfortunate, but it's the right thing to do. If we fail to make the necessary investments now, we'll be paying for those poor choices long into the future, much like we're paying for past failures now. What we need isn't a shortsighted solution, but rather one that accounts for inevitable cycles of boom and bust that capitalist societies experience.

The only hard thing about enacting such a policy is recognizing our historically poor decision making patterns and realizing that a something-for-nothing culture is not sustainable in the long term.