Category Archives: Education

Who Can Resist the Liberal Brainwashing?

If you are a conservative parent who doesn’t realize that your offspring are subject to a rigorous brainwashing in their local public school, then you are not paying attention. In all red electoral districts and in a surprising number of blue ones, the cultural, political and economic education imparted to the school children is biased sharply to the left. Just to give a few examples, the children are taught that:

  • American culture is no more worthy than any other culture. In fact, it has some serious shortcomings in that it is responsible for the nation’s historic maltreatment of women, blacks, Japanese Americans, Native Americans, gays and – for too much of our history – anyone who didn’t fall into the WASP category. The emphasis is on the grievous historic record, not the great progress that has been made in addressing these issues. Moreover, little, if any, mention is made of American Exceptionalism and America’s role as a beacon of freedom to the world. Nor is it emphasized that the US saved the world from totalitarianism twice in the twentieth century.
  • America’s ruggedly individualistic, capitalist economic system has resulted in greed, corruption, discrimination against the poor and excessive wealth to those who navigate the system successfully, even if not legitimately. The advancing welfare state is absolutely essential to check the excesses of the so-called free market system.
  • The destruction of the planet caused by the wantonly excessive abuses of American industry must be arrested. The health of our environment is the most serious problem facing the nation and extreme measures – even if they impinge on the individual rights of the people – are required to return the environment to good health and keep it that way.

Conservatives have been aware of this calamitous situation for some time – although too many do very little about it because of insufficient funds, time or appreciation for how bad it is. But here is a perhaps surprising revelation: liberal brainwashing in public schools has been going on for a very long time. My K-12 education took place between 1948 and 1960; and it took me until nearly twenty years after my high school graduation to understand the perfidious nature of the brainwashing to which I was subjected as a youth. Once again, here are some of the most egregious examples:

  • FDR’s New Deal saved the nation from the Great Depression, a falsity that has been completely debunked in Amity Shlaes’ book, The Forgotten Man.
  • Communism, like representative democracy, was a legitimate form of government. The people of the Soviet Union were entitled to choose their own system; which, in many ways, was a worthy competitor and in some areas performed better than our system.
  • Virtually all southerners were unrepentant bigots; moreover, (without noting that they were all Democrats) the congressmen from the South were the greatest impediment to racial progress in the United States.

I went to school in New York City. Most of my classmates were drawn from one of several ethnic communities that populated the Bronx in 1955: Jews, Italians and Irish. We came from upwardly mobile, lower middle class homes in which our moms were homemakers and our dads were laborers, small business owners, government clerks or service industry employees. Our parents’ politics were mid-twentieth century liberal and so they saw nothing amiss in what was largely a biased education – although they did not recognize it as such.

I have maintained contact with a fair number of my schoolmates over the last 60 years. A few, like me, have come to understand the nature of our childhood school curriculum and have rejected it for the ideological hogwash that it was. Those people are now early twenty-first century conservatives – tea party patriots in many instances, but at the least, GOP voters who believe that our increasingly collectivist, big-government society is destroying the country as they remember it existed in 1950. Well, they often ignore the fact that even during the first half of the twentieth century, America had already started down the statist road – but that is another story.

Now here is the kicker. A substantial majority of my classmates never saw the light. They have remained reliable liberals all their lives. They voted for Obama; think that the “rich” don’t pay their fair share; believe that behind closed doors, most white men do not think of women, minorities, gays or illegal immigrants as their equals; and are confident that all major problems in US society should be addressed by the government. They see nothing biased in the education they (and their children) received, nor in the one their grandchildren are now experiencing. It drives me crazy.

Moreover, it leads to a fundamental question. What happened to me, and to the few classmates who think like me, that did not happen to the larger group who are content that the ship of state consistently tacks to port? Indeed, they don’t even see the port side; they think the ship is on an even keel and people like me are trying to drown everyone by tipping the vessel over on the starboard side. What happened to me that did not happen to them?

I have put this question to conservative comrades and here are the most common responses:

  1. A traumatic event. It could be a mugging, say by an illegal alien. Or a bare knuckles audit by the IRS. Perhaps, because of affirmative action, an unqualified competitor got a job that you coveted. Or your property or business was seized by the government because you inadvertently killed a snail darter. Or perhaps, like me, your kindergarten child was subjected to forced bussing to an inferior school in a rotten neighborhood. You suddenly realize that the government is not your protector, but actually your oppressor. And so you re-examine all the political axioms that heretofore governed your life. And you realize that they were all wrong.
  2. Small business owner. You own and run your own business, or equivalently perhaps you are a mid-to-upper-level manager in a medium to large sized firm. Government rules and regulations are impinging on your business decisions, cutting into your profits and constricting your market. You feel like the government is your unwanted partner. As in #1 above, you come to realize that the government is tormenting you, not creating the level playing field on which you can compete fairly. Again, the political and economic axioms are examined and found wanting.
  3. Selected professions. You are a doctor, farmer, real estate developer or some such profession in which it is impossible to avoid the deleterious effects of unwarranted government intrusion. Your thinking evolves as in the previous two groups.
  4. Independent thinker. There is no natural work or neighborhood or environmental condition that puts you in conflict with the government. You are simply a self-confident person who can objectively assess your surroundings and think for yourself. You come to see how reality dos not match the liberal prescriptions that you were fed in school. You pick up Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. You see the light.

Who are the folks who have not passed through one of the above four portals? Well most are: office grunts, government workers, union types, government contractors and others for whom reliance on the government for jobs, assistance or protection is of paramount importance. Others include various professional types – for example, lawyers, media personnel, educators – who are so co-opted by or invested in big government that they welcome the statist agenda. Finally, there are those for whom the brainwashing was so effective that it never occurs to them that this is not the way America was or is supposed to be. Alas, all together, the number who don’t go through one of the four portals probably exceeds the number that has.

What lesson should we take away from this? The America established by our Founders assumed that most people valued their liberty above all else. People were expected to be independent, resourceful, responsible, religious, fair-minded and proud of their heritage. For the most part, the folks who fall in one of the four categories that account for a conservative outlook are such people. Too many of those in the categories that afford continued liberalism do not. And as I have remarked, there are apparently more of the latter than the former. So if you want to rescue your grandchildren from the brainwashing to which they are being subjected, you’ll have to guide them through a portal. Here are some tips for doing so:

  • pay for tuition for them at a private school;;
  • pay for church or synagogue dues for them and their parents;
  • see if you can make any headway with their parents; for example, give them a copy of Hayek’s book and discuss it with them;
  • gently challenge the grandkids when they reflexively spout the leftist nonsense that they learn in school.

Unless those of us who have passed through one of the portals can begin to cull large numbers from the herd who haven’t, the Constitutional Republic that America has been will be doomed.

This essay also appeared in Canada Free Press.

Bargaining for Grades: College as a Middle Eastern Bazaar

Student Behavior as a Poor Reflection on Societal Trends

“I … worry about the moral health of our undergraduates.” Thus began an email message that I sent recently to several senior administrators and faculty colleagues on my campus. My email message contained replicas of a slew of messages that poured into my inbox from students in a sophomore-level math class that I taught in the just-concluded spring semester. The incoming messages commenced within hours of my posting the course grades and did not stop for ten days. Just to give the reader a flavor, here are snippets from a few of the offending missives:

I worked really hard in this class and still couldn’t get the grade I was hoping for. Is there any way where my grade can be C-. … Please is there any way. [sic] I studied hard for the final, but the last minute I had a death in the family, and my mom still told me to take the exam the day it was. I thought I was prepared enough to take it, but I had too much going through my head. Please can u do something since I am at a D+. 

I just noticed my final grade for your class, is there any possible way for me to change it? Please let me know.

I was wondering is there any possible way I could receive a C- (passing) for this semester. I know I failed the final but is there anything I can do to show you my knowledge exceeds the 48 [[out of 200]] I received. [sic] Retaking this course will set me a year back in graduating due to the strict scheduling blocks … for engineering. 

In my message, I asserted that “Some students seem to think that the awarding of grades takes place in an arena that is either tantamount to a middle eastern bazaar in which everything is open to negotiation, or a setting in which they are free to make demands purely because it serves their interest to do so.”. Thereby ensued an interesting dialogue – some of whose speculations and conclusions I would like to present here. But first a little context.

Three years ago I retired as Professor of Mathematics at a major state university. However, during my final 11 years, I served as Senior Associate Dean in the so-called College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and as such, I did no teaching during that time. Since my retirement, I have returned to teaching (part-time). Perhaps not surprisingly, I noted that quite a few changes in the instructional environment had occurred over the decade in which I was out of the classroom. Most had to do with the pervasive effects of technological innovation. Numerous aspects of the enterprise – including registration, student-teacher communication, presentation of syllabi and assignments, administration of exams and issuance of grades – had been altered due to the advent of advanced technological capabilities. But the change that most surprised me, and about which we are concerned here, is the unwillingness of too many of today’s students’ to unquestioningly accept the instructor as the ultimate arbiter of their grades. Here is another representative example from the email onslaught:

I thought I had done well, but my final grade in the class is less than I thought it would be. Also, if I did do well on the final, will you please consider raising my grade any bit? I am going to take summer classes to keep a certain GPA, but they are very expensive for out of state students so I want to take as little as possible.

The afore-mentioned dialogue raised two questions: What accounts for this change in student behavior and – presuming it is unwelcome – what can be done about it? Few answers were offered for the second question, but many were suggested for the first. These included: a reflection of how children are raised; emulation of parental behavior; spillover from how people see deals are cut when making major purchases; pressure to always “go for it” and to “maximize options”; being overly task-focused at the expense of seeing the big picture.

While thinking about this behavior and in light of some of the other remarks from colleagues, I compiled a list of eight possible causes of said behavior. I have been contemplating all of them as I focus on methods, which I might employ in the future to encourage students to modify their behavior. But more on that below. First, the causes:

1.      Helicopter Parents. One consequence of parents who advocate incessantly for their children are students who recognize no bounds to self-advocacy.

2.      Family Breakdown. The decay in the structure of the American family is well-documented. A concomitant withering of moral instruction is an obvious consequence.

3.      In Loco Parentis. The university long ago shed its role as a moral instructor of the nation’s youth who are between their parents’ home and their own.

4.      College Cost. The cost of an education is so severely high that every bad grade, which is an impediment to obtaining a degree, is seen as a major obstacle to securing the ticket to increased success and wealth, which, statistics prove, a college degree represents. Thus any failing grade is not only a reflection of poor effort, but also a serious blow to one’s chance at material success.

5.      Teaching to the Test. Official policies that result in instruction and examination based solely on a tool that will purportedly measure the acquired knowledge lead to the following, according to one faculty colleague: “a generation viewing life as a ‘sequence of necessary tasks.’  They are generally willing to do the tasks, but they are a little indifferent as to whether the tasks have meaning. In the case of grades … the students … do not understand what it means to have their work ‘objectively judged’.”

6.      Entitled. We are less a society devoted to personal responsibility than to individual entitlement. Young people are imbued with the idea that they are entitled to a higher education. A failing grade interferes with that entitlement.

7.      Liberty. We are also a society no longer focused in individual liberty, but instead on universal equality. Well if we are all equal and are all to stay equal, then we all ought to receive equally fine grades.

8.      Cultural Heritage. Finally, at the risk of sounding chauvinistic, with the change from a relatively uniform Western European heritage into a multicultural society, it may be that the British stiff upper lip is unheard of in vast segments of current American society.

So what might be done about these causes and the unpleasant student behavior that results from them? What can the university do? What can I do? With the possible exception of #3 and #4, these are truly societal or cultural shifts, which the university reflects more than instigates. Regarding #4, there is no question that the cost of a higher education in the US has skyrocketed in recent decades. The university might do something about that, e.g. by: cutting back on bloated administrative staffs; ceasing to build outrageously expensive buildings to house sports or recreational facilities; or by being more selective in supporting the overly extensive academic fields of study that reflect the excessive reach of today’s mega universities.

As for #3, there is again no question that universities have retreated from their historical role – alongside parents and family, church and civic associations, and of course elementary through high school teachers – as molders of the morals of the youth who pass through the portals. Personally, I don’t view this as a healthy trend, but I doubt that it will change anytime soon.

So I am essentially amalgamating #3 in with the remaining six causes, against which I doubt that the university, much less I, will have any influence in the near future. So what shall I do with next year’s students? Well, in the future, on my course web page (which students must consult at the beginning of and throughout the semester), I will explain – as I always have – how the final course grade is determined by a tally that is computed via an explicit formula which comprises scores on in-class exams and quizzes, homework(both written and computer-generated) and the final exam. But I will now also explain in detail that the only way that the grade so formulaically determined can be changed is if either the numerical tally is borderline – meaning specifically within 10% of the cutoff between two grades – or if the final exam score is at least two grades off from the tally. In either event, the deciding factor in determining whether to alter the grade – either up or down – will be completely determined by the quality of the final exam paper that the student writes.

That’s it! No “buts”; no “ifs”; no “special considerations.” Sounds simple and definitive. But alas, as the afore-mentioned colleague pointed out: “Including the narrative may or may not help with the immediate issue; the problem is that the students emailing you believe that the statements in the syllabus are general and do not apply to their ‘unique circumstances’.

The major changes in US society that unleashed the forces, which result in the self-centered and irresponsible student behavior that I have identified, may prove more durable than my feeble attempt to quantify it away. If so, the development does not represent a step forward for the university or for society.


This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative

Who Controls the Campus Agenda: The Faculty or Campus Administrators?

Faculty believe that it is their right and duty to set the campus agenda. Faculty expect to establish – either directly or indirectly – the main thrusts that their campuses will pursue. In particular, they see it as their prerogative to determine:
  •  the standards by which students – both graduate and undergraduate – will be admitted to campus;
  •  the research agenda of the various departments, institutes and colleges into which the faculty organize themselves;
  • which academic programs will be emphasized and which left to wither;
  • who their administrative leaders shall be – from program directors and research institute heads up to chairs, deans, provosts and presidents;
  • the academic and professional criteria according to which promotions are decided, grants are pursued, prizes are awarded,
    appointments are made and support staff are hired;
  • the extra-curricular menu of their campus – e.g., who shall receive official campus invitations to speak, what corporate
    collaborations to seek, which donors to cultivate, even what campus clubs shall receive official sanction.

Historically, the faculty actually did enjoy the capability to do all of these things. This was in part because it was viewed as the natural way to run a university, and in part because there were no countervailing forces to prevent it. The administrative layers that accompanied and facilitated faculty control of campuses were fairly thin. That is, the percentage of professional, full-time campus administrators was small compared to that of the faculty. Furthermore, many of them were drawn from the ranks of the faculty (to which they returned after relatively brief stints in campus administration) and so although these faculty functioned as administrators, they still thought of themselves as faculty and deported themselves accordingly.

All of this has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. The number of campus administrators has exploded. Instead of a single dean of an all-encompassing college of arts and sciences, we see a host of deans spearheading numerous units into which the large college has been split. These deans enjoy the support of a gaggle of assistant and associate deans, dragging in tow scores more chairs, heads and directors. This is accompanied by a proliferation of new academic units on campus – e.g., Urban Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies and countless other ‘Studies’ departments representing ‘compelling’ fields of academic study that we didn’t know existed in mid-twentieth century. These bogus departments are augmented by a slew of ‘indispensable’ administrative support units and positions — especially at the central campus level – all of which has resulted in an explosion of assistants, staff and advisors. The academic pedigree of these lower and mid-level administrators is notoriously weak. They – and, unfortunately too often, their senior level bosses – are not culled from the ranks of the tenured faculty. Finally, the money has followed the growth in size. The salaries of all this new campus uman infrastructure are high – in some cases bordering on the obscene.

The net effect is that while faculty are often under the mistaken impression that they continue to perform the duties outlined in the opening bulleted list, they in fact do not. Increasingly, the setting of academic priorities, the discharge of academic responsibilities and the establishment of the overall academic agenda is under the control of a vast, over-centralized bureaucracy of campus administrators – whose allegiance is often not to objective faculty goals but rather to narrow political agendas.

How did this come about and what are, and will be, the consequences? Here are the means by which this fundamental transformation of American academia has come about:

Societal. The movement toward centralized administrative control of academia mirrors similar trends in other facets of American society. The most obvious is the gargantuan growth in power and scope of the federal government. Americans seem to be losing faith in their society’s ability to solve its problems at the local, community or family level and, over the last 50 years, have been turning increasingly to a powerful, omnipresent, central government to manage the people’s most intimate affairs. Similar trends toward centralization of power can be observed in American corporate life, health care and the media. It’s not surprising, therefore, that a similar movement occurred in higher education. Incidentally, the same phenomenon is prevalent in K-12 education as well.
Specialization. The trend toward specialization in science, technology, even in the humanities has been well documented. The result has been the growth of little fiefdoms all over campus. In order to avoid Balkanization, all of these separate domains have been brought under the control of the all-powerful center.
Universal Higher Education. The American people have come to favor the idea of universal higher education – everyone should go to college and get a degree. It is self-evident how the movement to mass higher education has abetted the dramatic expansion of academic ‘choices’ on campus and the proliferation of specious academic programs – together with the personnel to administer them.
Money. Society has been throwing money at higher education at dizzying rates (large government and corporate grants, rapid and substantial rises in tuition and fees, generous federal and state subsidies, lavish endowments). Well, money always means
power. Often, faculty are too busy or too naïve to devote the requisite time to gain control of incoming funds. Administrators, on the other hand, are most expert at grabbing hold of and directing financial resources to their own liking.
Politics. It is well-documented that the nation’s faculty are overwhelmingly liberal in their politic outlook – especially, in the humanities and social sciences. Well, a less well-known fact is that campus administrators are even more so. This leads to faculty acquiescence toward central campus control since the overall campus milieu created by central administrators meets with faculty approval.
Secrecy and Duplicity. Campus administrators excel at creating structures, which lend the impression that faculty are in control. Universities commonly sport faculty senates, faculty advisory committees, faculty members on the Board of Regents, and various other official mechanisms, which suggest major faculty input into university governance. It’s all window dressing. The real power runs from the President down through the metastasizing labyrinth of campus administrators who make the critical decisions.
Accountability. Suspicion grew over the years that life-time tenure appointments for faculty could lead to abuses (as it sometimes does). Structures were put in place to mitigate. Annual faculty activity reviews, department and program reviews and periodic academic assessments by both internal and external committees – driven by the administrative contingent – has further sapped faculty energy and power.
Hegemony and Fear. As indicated above, the liberal mindset is pervasive on campus. Administrators have devised clever and forceful methods to ensure that it stays that way. Faculty who buck it are ostracized, sometimes even forced out. More commonly faculty dissidents are cowed and silenced by the threat to their career posed by past ostracization of those who flaunted their opposition. Heaven help those, for example, who fail to genuflect to the Diversity regime imposed by campus administrators.
Adjunct Faculty. Another well-documented phenomenon is the startling decrease in the percentage of instructional staff on campus comprised of tenured faculty. A rapidly growing percentage of university instruction is presented by adjunct faculty. The
latter have little interest and virtually no say in campus governance. It is not surprising that the decreasing percentage of regular academic faculty has less influence also.
So what have been the consequences of this transformation of campus power from the faculty to the administrators? Here are four deleterious ones; there are likely others:
    1. Politicization of the campus. There is an almost all-pervasive political bias on campus. Faculty and students who don’t parrot the liberal line – not just on politics, but also in science (e.g., climate and evolution), culture (gay marriage and     abortion) and economics (spending and taxes) – are viewed not only as wrong, but often as crazy. It is intimidating, tyrannical and completely contrary to what the nature of a campus environment should encompass. Education has been replaced by indoctrination.
    2. Lowering of academic standards. Because of the spread of meaningless studies programs, abuses of affirmative action, pressure for grade inflation and the silencing of the faculty, the academic standards of the university continue to slip.      Campuses have degenerated into diploma mills producing clones of the liberal people who run the place, not independent thinkers with innovative ideas – which is of course what universities are supposed to produce.

    4. Prohibitive cost. The explosive growth of the administrative clan has led to an unchecked growth in the cost of the product. Tuitions have skyrocketed; students graduate (or don’t graduate) after incurring enormous debt; increasingly the supposed  payoff in higher income that a university degree is supposed to ensure is disappearing and finally, the worth of the product that the universities are selling is called into question.

    6. Bubble. Which leads to the increasingly widespread belief that higher education is our nation’s next bubble. The situation outlined in #3 above is unsustainable. And as Stein’s Law says: ‘If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.’ A major crisis in higher education is waiting around a nearby corner. One wonders if one of the outcomes of the budding crisis will be a return to a more prominent role for academic faculty in university governance.


    This essay also appeared in The Land of the Free at:

Mass Higher Education: Good or Bad?


Mass higher education refers to the phenomenon, promoted aggressively by President Obama, whereby a tremendous proportion of the eligible population enrolls in the nation’s colleges. It presumes that any American high school graduate who desires a higher education should be able to pursue one. Furthermore, it operates under the assumptions that this is a worthy goal, that such a desire should be inculcated into the youth of America and most importantly, that the vast majority of enrollees are capable – under suitably hospitable conditions – of completing a college degree.

The country has certainly embraced the movement toward mass higher education. When my generation entered college (approximately half a century ago), roughly one third of high school graduates went off to university. And that was more than triple the percentage that did likewise another fifty years earlier. Today, depending upon whether one counts two-year college enrollments, the fraction is somewhere between three-fifths and three-quarters. If the promoters of mass higher education have their way, that fraction will exceed four-fifths and perhaps approach nine-tenths within a generation.

The purpose here is to examine whether this objective is good for America or not. Before defining the phrase ‘good for America’ and then investigating whether mass higher education is indeed good for America, it is worth pointing out that the movement toward mass or universal higher education in the twenty-first century bears some resemblance – albeit with significant differences – to the nineteenth century movement to ensure that all American youth received an elementary education (at least six and often eight years of schooling) and to the twentieth century movement to require all American students to complete high school.

Few would dispute the merit of the nineteenth and twentieth century goals. Therefore, how can the drive for twenty-first century universal higher education not be an equally worthy objective for the United States?

In order to respond, let’s be clear about what it means for a major political/cultural/educational phenomenon to be good for American society. There are two aspects: the nature of the process itself and then its outcomes. To be good for America the process must be: legal, moral, accessible to all and consistent with the historically established, political/cultural mores of American society. More importantly, to be good for America, the process’s outcomes must be characterized by: increased prosperity, a more cohesive citizenry, improved moral health of the body politic and the strengthening of the fundamental principles which undergird the American experiment. If, on the other hand, the phenomenon yields: more poverty, a less competitive country in the global market, a fractured population, moral decline or other deleterious, unintended consequences, then it is hard to see how it could be deemed good for America.

So is mass higher education good for America or not? Here are some arguments in favor of a positive response:

  • Certainly the Founders believed that a well-educated citizenry was essential to the success of the Republic that they created. That’s a view that has been shared over time by the nation’s leaders and citizens. More education produces a population better able to participate fully in the nation’s political processes, better positioned to contribute to its economy and more liable to make important scientific, financial, medical or artistic discoveries that enhance the quality of everyone’s lives. Therefore, how could increasing the percentage of the population with a college education not prove a benefit to America?
  • Statistical analyses repeatedly confirm the direct correlation between the amount of formal education and total lifetime earnings. In short, more education translates into more riches.
  • The nation has passed from an industrial age to a new techno-information age. We need a better educated citizenry to both cope with changes in society the new age has wrought as well as to produce leaders who will take our society down exciting paths to be forged in the new age.
  • Education civilizes the human savage. Better educated people are, in general, less violent, more thoughtful and more disciplined than their less educated counterparts. That assertion might be difficult to justify. But, to pick a perhaps extreme example, in a study done by the National Center for Crisis Management, it was found that only 4% of serial killers were college graduates. (Roughly 23% of the population has a college degree.) Yes, college graduates do commit felonies; but it is a common perception – which probably has substantial merit – that an educated person is likely to be more ‘civilized’ than his less credentialed neighbor. He may or may not be smarter or happier, but he is better behaved.
  • Finally, it is not uncommon to hear the opinion that a well-educated person is, because of his exposure to myriad ideas and narratives, more likely to be tolerant, understanding of cultural differences among people and able to function more effectively in the polyglot nation that is the USA. Once again, it might be that a college graduate is not any happier or wiser than a high school graduate, but he brings a set of attitudes, gleaned from the college experience, that makes him a more open-minded and ecumenical citizen than his less educated counterpart, which helps him to foster a more cohesive, just and fair-minded society.

It all sounds rather impressive. But, alas, there is another side to the story. Applying the second most powerful law of nature (Einstein is reputed to have claimed that the first is compound interest), i.e., the law of unintended consequences, we encounter the following downsides of mass higher education:

  • Dumbing down and flunking out. Once upon a time, in order to earn a college degree, a student needed to have significantly above average intelligence, the willingness and capacity to work hard, healthy doses of patience and perseverance, and the ability to defer gratification. Perhaps a quarter – but likely much less – of the population possesses all those traits. Moreover, it is clear that no more than a third can have the first one – with or without the rest. So if we are going to push 75% (or more) of the youth toward a college degree, then at least one (and probably both) of the following must happen:
    • The course content required to earn a college degree will be significantly dumbed down;
    • There will be an enormous amount of dropping out, i.e., students failing to graduate.

In fact, both phenomena have been manifest for years and they will occur with increasing frequency. These eventualities will, on the one hand, drastically demean the value of a college education and, on the other, seriously demoralize and stigmatize a sizeable portion of American youth.

  • As a consequence, the American college degree is cheapened. But American higher education has been the model of an advanced education for the world . As we degrade its worth, we harm not only our youth, but also our country’s reputation. And of course, the youth we hurt the most are the nation’s most talented students as we dilute the superior product that they deserve and require.
  • We also cheapen the high school degree. We inadvertently signal its worthlessness by implying that its recipients cannot rely on it to make their way in life – it is at best a stepping stone on the path to the gateway that is really important. It is therefore no surprise that the high school dropout rate is the highest it’s been in three generations.
  • Technical and trade schools, and other vocational alternatives to college have been deemphasized in the US. These schools used to train a significant portion of our blue collar workers and para-professionals. Enrollment at such schools has dropped precipitously in recent decades because students who would have normally gone there are now encouraged to go to college.[1] The resultant constriction in the number of suitable workers has contributed to the decline of manufacturing in America?
  • The dumbing down of the American college curriculum has resulted in the proliferation of garbage courses, programs and degrees on campus. (See virtually any program that has the word ‘Studies’ in its title.) The vaunted institutions that were American universities have been turned into something more akin to a reality TV show. Of course, there is still much serious stuff on campus – e.g., in the sciences, but it is tarnished by the garbage that coexists beside it and commands equal respect.
  • In order to service the hordes of students crashing the door, the academic support staff at US universities has exploded in size. These people contribute little to the fundamental mission of the university, i.e., teaching and research. What they do is…
  • Drive costs astronomically higher. It takes a small fortune to pay and house all these useless employees. Thus, the cost for a four-year college degree is now obscene.
  • And because of that cost, students take on crushing debt to pay the freight. It is estimated that the average debt is $20,000-$25,000 per student – whether they graduate or not. One starts life with a car loan to pay off – and no car.
  • So Uncle Sam rides to the rescue with generous government loan programs. Taken together with the fact that – because most universities can’t balance their budgets with just tuition and endowment funds – academia relies critically on government grants tied to faculty research, it can be legitimately claimed that the feds have in some sense taken over higher education.
  • But that goes hand in hand with the overall leftist takeover of the culture of the university – a topic intimately familiar to readers of this journal. The near total domination of leftist thought on the vast majority of American campuses is abetted by the infusion of youthful fodder from the nation’s high schools at which liberal brainwashing is far advanced. One of the most pernicious downsides of mass higher education is that the brainwashing that commences at government schools in grades K-12 is now augmented and perfected at the university.
  • A side effect of which is the blight of affirmative action – whose need is justified by the huge influx of students, many of whom are from minority communities. The one place in American society that should be devoted to diversity of opinion, an open clash of ideas and the search for knowledge is instead dominated by racial preferences, uniform group think and willful ignorance of inconvenient truths.

In summary: five pros, eleven cons. Maybe mass higher education is not such a great idea after all. In fact, the attempt to convert the nation’s universities into diploma mills to service virtually all of the country’s youth is an intended goal of the progressives who control the educational establishment. The attempt finds favor among a large percentage of the population that is blind to the unintended consequences. If instead we retained the high level of academic achievement and personal responsibility that should be required for an individual to complete a higher education degree, then there would be more productive ways (for society) to direct many of the nation’s youth after high school. These include the military, trade schools, internships, apprenticeships, work in the family business or an entry level job in almost any business, or work for religious, charitable or other voluntary organizations. At the very least, we should recognize that too many of our youth are emotionally and socially unprepared at age 18 to seriously pursue an academic degree. Instead, many of the above alternate choices could supply young people with the maturity to pursue a degree later – when they would have a better chance of succeeding and also when they might not be as pliable in the hands of the progressives who control higher education. But I doubt that President Obama would endorse that idea.

[1] This trend has reversed very recently.
This article also appeared in The Land of the Free at:

The Math Gene: A Ticket to Wealth or Nerdiness?

To say that a person has the Math Gene[1] is to attribute to him an unusual propensity to handle numbers and the advanced algorithmic processes by which experts manipulate them. Although, among the people who possess these special talents, there is no biological or neurological evidence for any of it. And yet, those of us who exhibit these traits are easily identified among the general population.

My gene became evident at a young age and has remained conspicuous during all of my professional life. Throughout my journey, I have naturally and consciously surrounded myself with others like me. This is not surprising. Human beings always seek companions and colleagues who not only think and behave like they do, but inhabit a world of ideas, attitudes and habits similar to their own.

In fact we mathematicians stand out. We don’t think and behave like the vast majority of our fellow citizens. John Q. Public knows us when he sees us, and – at the risk of overgeneralization – here are some of the more striking of our singular characteristics:

  • We’re often socially awkward. We generally don’t pay much attention to clothes, fashion, or what’s in or hot or cool. Our homes, cars and bodies are often unkempt, and we do poorly at small talk. We tend to be introverted, soft-spoken and not terribly athletic.
  • We excel at abstract thinking, but are notoriously weak at practical affairs.
  • We are amazing problem solvers, especially those of the abstract or theoretical variety; but please don’t ask us to change a tire or balance a checkbook.
  • We sometimes find it hard to look you straight in the eye, and we are easily embarrassed when we find ourselves the center of attention.

I cannot tell you how many times in my life when, in casual conversation with someone I’ve just met, after I reveal that I am a mathematician, the reaction is: “Omigod, math was my worse subject in school; it was soooo hard. You must be a genius.” But at the same time, the one who has just uttered the confession/paean gives a furtive look at a fellow conversant which screams: “What a nerd! I wouldn’t have been like this guy for my weight in gold.”

However, in recent years, I detect another partially hidden reaction – both in stolen glances as well as in meekly asked follow up questions, like “So do you have a software or consulting company? I bet that you do OK?”

This is a result of society’s increasing fascination with technology and the seeming nerds who have pioneered its development. The names Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergei Brin and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind. Which leads to the question posed in the title: Is the Math Gene a ticket to wealth or nerdiness?

Alas, if there is a definitive answer, it is far closer to the latter than the former. Of the four names cited, only Brin can lay any claim to be a mathematician, and in fact his academic pedigree is more computer science than mathematics. Indeed, I know of only one academic mathematician — a former professor at Stony Brook University – who parlayed his math talent into a fortune. There might be others, but I doubt very many. For the qualities that I have identified, which characterize mathematicians, are not those that equip a person with the skills needed to acquire great wealth.

Although the depiction of Mark Zuckerberg in the opening scene of The Social Network suggests some of the math nerd characteristics that I’ve specified, it would be a mistake to suppose that those traits helped Zuckerberg to attain the phenomenal wealth that he enjoys today. No, the traits that enabled him and the other great modern technological entrepreneurs to do the things that garnered massive wealth for them were otherwise. They certainly include: extraordinary creativity and originality – as opposed to mere problem-solving skills; a willingness, indeed eagerness to take great risks; an aggressive, self-confident and strong-willed personality; persistence and single-mindedness; an ability to read people and gauge their desires; and an inclination to defy convention and a lack of concern about what others think of them.

Not exactly the characteristics of your typical mathematician. But, if I might address a wider audience than just the normal Notices’ readership: Not to despair all ye parents and grandparents of a budding mathematician. Your progeny will not be cool, not trendy, probably not a leader of men and almost certainly not rich. But a life of mathematics will yield: the satisfaction of cracking numerous mathematical puzzles; a professional life of honesty, fulfillment, a sense of doing something worthy and occasional serenity; a camaraderie with others who are similarly endowed; and the respect, if not admiration, from the people one serves.

So if your kid can swing a golf club as well as he can juggle numbers, and if you think that he would prefer riches to the contentment of a life filled with numbers, then take away his calculator and jam a putter in his hand. But if he does have the Math Gene and you encourage it to flourish, then I promise you that he will lead a life in which he enjoys what he does for a living, often feels the joy of solving problems – even if they are theoretical and not practical, and finally, through teaching and research, he will take pride and pleasure in his role in the advancement of human knowledge.
[1] The title of this essay The Math Gene is the same as the title of Keith Devlin’s fascinating 2001 book.  But the essay takes a different point of view. Whereas Devlin’s book deals with the nature of mathematical thought, the workings of the human mind, and an intricate comparison of innate mathematical ability with innate language ability; this essay deals solely with the nature and behavior of mathematicians themselves — in particular, their social manifestations and economic motivations.

This essay also appeared in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society at: