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Can’t buy me love — how about education?

February 14, 2014

It’s Valentine’s Day, and even though it’s a holiday no less commercialized than most, and stores are suddenly filled with flowers, champagne, and chocolates, we all know you can’t buy love. (Actually, the chocolate might help, or so early modern physicians believed, according to an op-ed on “Sex and Candy” in today’s paper.)

What about education? Many of us in the liberal arts tend to see education as inherently non-economic, as fundamentally opposed to economic ideas, values, and interests. The liberal arts have intrinsic value, we say, good in themselves and not (only) for their instrumental benefits. And even if liberal arts students actually have better economic prospects than most assume, I think there’s a tendency in the liberal arts to draw a sharp line between economic and intellectual concerns. Maybe that’s why so many faculty continue to have an ivory tower view of our profession, finding little time for the mundane work of participating in university politics, engaging the general public, or actively promoting public support of higher education.

To be sure, university life depends on intellectual curiosity, autonomy, community, and other values and activities that are easily undermined by commercial thinking. But it’s not a black-and-white issue, as critics of the commodification of academic work sometimes suggest. It’s possible to think in terms of what legal scholar Margaret Radin calls “incomplete commodification.” I wrote about this issue in an earlier post, and in a book chapter that I’ll excerpt here (citations removed):

When giving someone a gift, it is indeed “the thought that counts,” but expressing that thought by purchasing a gift with money need not denigrate the thought. Similarly, most people must work for pay, and yet most hope to have jobs they would enjoy doing for free. And anyone who takes pride in “a job well done,” does the job in a manner that is not fully captured by its market price. Rather than simply banning certain things from being sold, society might resist universal commodification by finding ways of protecting and promoting the non-market dimensions of things exchanged on the market.

Today the non-economic dimensions of higher education are especially threatened by a lack of economic resources. Deep cuts in public funding have led to skyrocketing tuition and student debt, increased reliance on contingent faculty, and reductions in faculty positions, course offerings, and library services, among other things. Many taxpayers seem unwilling to spend money to educate “somebody else’s children,” otherwise known as the future of our society.

Fifty years ago the Beatles released the film “A Hard Day’s Night,” which includes a scene of the band frolicking on the grass during the song “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The song is a joyous embrace of love over money. The scene ends with a grumpy man saying to them, “I suppose you realize this is private property!” George replies dryly, “Sorry we hurt your field, Mister.”

Just because something has economic value, such as a field, doesn’t mean it will be hurt by non-economic uses, such as frolicking. And just because university education depends on non-economic values doesn’t mean nobody has to pay for it. The question is who.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Liberal arts, the job market, and Pete Seeger

January 31, 2014

  mini graduation cap on money, by SalFalk

This was the first week of the new semester at Sacramento State, and my courses seem to have gotten off to a good start. Unlike last semester, I didn’t have students sitting on the floor, telling me that they couldn’t find a spot in the classes they need to graduate. I don’t know to what extent that’s due to the recent modest budget increases for public higher education, but for now at least everyone has a chair.

That makes this a good time to consider the latest flurry of fretting over the employment prospects of liberal arts majors. Yesterday President Obama stoked the job market anxieties of art history majors. Such anxieties are pervasive, and many students these days decide to major in business, nursing, and other professional degree programs in part because they assume those degrees promise more income than a liberal arts degree. And that’s no surprise, given the messages conveyed by many administrators and faculty, as well as our culture as a whole. Especially in tough economic times, students constantly hear that they should choose a “practical” major.

There’s nothing wrong with figuring out how you’re going to pay the bills, but the assumption that liberal arts majors will end up on the streets has been repeatedly debunked, most recently in a report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment. The report confirms other recent studies showing that liberal arts majors actually have higher long-term job earnings than those with professional degrees.

Median Annual Earnings by Age-Group and Undergraduate Major (2010-11)

Median Annual Earnings by Age-Group and Undergraduate Major (2010-11)

Humanities and social science majors do best when they go on to graduate school, and if you only consider those who don’t get a graduate degree, humanities and social science majors are at the bottom of the income scale, but by less than most people assume:

Median earnings for graduates with only baccalaureate degrees (2010-11)

Median earnings for graduates with only baccalaureate degrees (2010-11)

The report also makes a point confirmed by other studies: employers like to hire liberal arts majors. As reported by Inside Higher Ed:

Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically . . . all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.

And in the end, of course, as Jordan Weissmann argues, “Money Is a Terrible Way to Measure the Value of a College Major.” Students should expect much more from college than a high salary. Among other things, they should expect to learn how to think critically, write clearly, and speak publicly about issues that matter to them — regardless of their major.

All of this gives me one more reason to take a break and listen to some of the songs of Pete Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94. One of the best in this context is the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes,” which Seeger made famous, and which my parents used to sing with my sister and I in the car whenever we drove past Daly City on the way to the beach. (Today people might know it from the opening segment of the television series “Weeds.”) Like most people, I thought it was just about suburban conformity, and the cheerful tune might have motivated Tom Lehrer to say (according to Christopher Hitchens) that it was “the most sanctimonious song ever written.” But listening to it again now, it seems broader than that, more chilling, even downright Orwellian:

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same.

Nowadays a lot more people go to college than when the song was written, and maybe some students see the pressure to conform less in the suburbs than in the universities.

Meaning and the Economics of Science

December 1, 2013

Commentators have often described the current batch of twenty-somethings as narcissistic materialists, and the growing number of university students majoring in business may seem to confirm that. In the United States, more than 20 percent of college students now major in business, up from 13.7 percent in 1970, and more than twice the number of any other field. But an article in today’s New York Times, “Millenial Searchers,” cites a recent study that shows most young people today — so-called millennials — actually want something more than money:

the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”

Of course, “meaning” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but a sense of meaning generally involves the feeling that a person’s life has purpose and value for both oneself and others. “People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”

Unfortunately, the economy today rewards only certain kinds of meaningful work. In another thoughtful piece in today’s Times, “The Real Humanities Crisis,” Gary Gutting distinguishes among three sources of meaning: material goods, social connections, and cultural development.

Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.

If you’re a young person who wants to get rich or help those in need, you can probably find a job. But if you want to be an artist, writer, philosopher, historian, or cultural critic — if you want to be part of the humanities — you have a long row to hoe. The extremely talented and very lucky can do well for themselves, but the vast majority of cultural workers find the economic deck stacked against them. Gutting writes,

We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class . . . But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work.

Many cultural workers struggle to get by with adjunct teaching appointments, and one promising avenue for reform appears in efforts to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty. As Gutting writes, “If adjuncts don’t meet the standards to be part of the regular faculty, they shouldn’t be hired. If they do, they should be treated the same.”

Another reform that Gutting mentions would be to give the humanities some of the public funding that currently goes to college and professional sports, which in the United States enjoy enormous government largesse.

The online journal Spontaneous Generations recently published an issue on “Economic Aspects of Science” that addresses many of these dilemmas. It includes a piece of mine on “Public University Funding and the Privatization of Politics.”

High Tech Babies

October 12, 2013

Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility, and the Pursuit of High-Tech BabiesOn Monday my class on Science, Technology, and Politics will host a public lecture by Miriam Zoll, award-winning author of Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies.

The book is an engaging, intensely personal memoir of Zoll’s five-year odyssey of using various assisted reproductive technologies to try to have a baby. Beginning when she was forty, Zoll and her loving husband go through several cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Three attempts fail completely and one ends with a miscarriage.

Their next step is egg donation, and they worry about the ethical issues it raises. Ads in campus newspapers at Ivy League colleges have offered up to $100,000 for eggs from blonde women with high SAT scores and musical talent. And egg donation is a physically taxing process with potential risks to the donor. But having become “fertility junkies,” Zoll and her husband work with a clinic to make laborious arrangements with two egg donors, both of whom turn out to be infertile.

In the end, they happily adopt a child. Zoll makes clear, however, that her odyssey has left a mark. Many women who go through failed fertility treatments, she reports, experience symptoms that meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Assisted reproductive technologies have helped millions of people. But in the United States they are largely unregulated, and fertility clinics often seem driven more by financial interests and technological optimism than genuine medical concern.

One of the book’s main messages is that many young people lack basic information about human fertility and the success rate of IVF techniques.

According to a 2012 survey of undergraduates in the United States, Zoll reports, about half intended to have their last child between the ages of 35 and 44, but over two-thirds thought that female fertility does not significantly decline until after age 40. And well over half overestimated the chances of a woman conceiving after one IVF treatment. According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, the rate of live births for women age 35-37 is about 30 percent, and for women 41-42 it’s about 12 percent.

Zoll’s mission is not to demonize assisted reproductive technologies, but to foster realistic public discussion about them. As she proceeds though the “fertility casino,” she learns that such discussion isn’t easy.

I was discovering that many couples whose treatments had failed never wanted to talk about it — and who could blame them? There was a cultural taboo, reinforced by the clinics themselves, that said we shouldn’t talk about our infertility or our miscarriages or the inability of science to solve our reproductive health challenges. It was this absence of truth telling that made the success stories sensationalized in the media so dangerously misleading.

For more on these issues, also see Zoll’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times.

If you’re in Sacramento, Zoll will be giving a public lecture on Monday, October 14, 3:00 – 4:15 p.m. in Mariposa 1000 at Sacramento State.

And she is scheduled to speak at the Avid Reader bookstore in Davis on Sunday, October 13 at 4:00 PM.

Students alone together?

September 20, 2013

This week in one of my classes we read part of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Turkle argues that social media have led to more connection but less conversation, more information transfer but less mutual understanding.

I was half-expecting many students to scoff at such hand-wringing, but they’ve actually responded with genuine interest and concern about how digital technologies have come to dominate their everyday lives.

I also asked my students to complete an informal Electronic Devices Survey. Out of 43 students surveyed:

  • 2 do not have a computer at home
  • 3 do not have a cell phone
  • 7 believe laptops should be entirely banned from the classroom
  • 9 check their emails or messages 5 or more times per hour
  • 24 tend to check email, texts, or other social media while reading for their courses
  • 36 sometimes feel that electronic devices distract them from other activities.

Several students have posted thoughtful reflections on their relations with cell phones on the public course blog. One student shared this brilliant and rather disturbing video:

Another student said that at the Starbucks where he works, it’s increasingly the older customers who annoy everyone by trying to place an order while texting.

The younger folks are realizing that “continuous partial attention” not only leads to superficial relationships, bad grades, and car accidents. It’s also just incredibly obnoxious.


Electronics in the classroom

September 12, 2013

A Sea Laptops During a Lecture

The summer is a memory, the new semester is well underway, and among other things, I’ve been pondering my approach to laptops and other electronic devices in the classroom. For several years now, I’ve banned laptops in my classes (with some exceptions), due to the many distractions they create. Whenever I polled my students, most said it was a good policy. And a lot of research suggests that multitasking is a myth.

But during the past year or so, many of my students have been turning to e-books for their course texts, and many no longer print out the assigned articles but read them online instead. One student last semester even did all her reading on her smart phone.

So I had to either stop asking them to have the reading in front of them during class, which is often useful for discussing difficult passages in philosophical texts, or I had to give up my laptop ban.

I talked with several colleagues about it. One colleague bans all electronic devices and asks students to leave if they sneak a look at their phone. Another waits until he sees students checking email or texting and them asks them to stop. Another says students are becoming more disciplined and it’s not really a problem anymore. Yet another takes a laissez-faire approach, saying that if students distract themselves or each other, that’s their problem.

I got out my laptop, of course, and went looking for further input, and found useful articles here and here.

For better or worse, here’s what it now says in my syllabus:

Wireless Devices

Some students like to use a laptop, tablet, or smart phone to take notes during class, and some students use wireless devices to read assigned articles and books. But in a classroom, wireless devices can be extremely distracting, not only for the person using the device but also for other students and the instructor. Several studies have shown that wireless devices may reduce student learning. The general policy of this course is that wireless devices may be used to take notes, but the wireless receiver must be turned off. Cell phones must be turned off or set to vibrate or mute. I will also ask students to close or put away wireless devices at specific times, such as during class discussions or when students are working in small groups. And of course students may not use wireless devices during exams, and not at any time for surfing, shopping, texting, playing games, checking email, or any other activities not directly related to the course. Violations of this policy will affect your grade. If you require special accommodation in this regard, please let me know.

So far it’s working out alright.

And although my students disagree on the policy itself, they have been eager to talk about it, which suggests that civilization may not be doomed after all.

Jeff Lustig Symposium

May 2, 2013


Today at Sacramento State we’re hosting a symposium to honor our friend and colleague Jeff Lustig who died last June. Short talks by distinguished speakers will address the themes of Jeff’s work, focusing on California political ideas, history, and culture. The event is from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Sacramento State Alumni Center.

We’ll also announce the winner of the first Jeff Lustig Memorial Prize for an undergraduate research paper on social and political theory, university politics, and/or California politics.

Speakers include:

William A. Dorman, Professor of Government, Emeritus, Sacramento State

Pia Lopez, Associate Editor, Sacramento Bee

Steve Lustig, Associate Vice Chancellor Emeritus, UC Berkeley, and Jeff Lustig’s brother

Charles Postel, Professor of History, San Francisco State

John Syer, Professor of Government, Emeritus, Sacramento State

Richard Walker, Professor of Geography, Emeritus, UC Berkeley


Update: A video of the event is available here.