27 September 2010

Blame... Sweden!

And other things of note lately.

Cyberwarfare is our province.. but if we could make it look like it was Sweden's fault, that'd be funny I suppose. I'm a little confused from the sound of it how a nuclear facility in Iran doesn't have its own hardwired internet or its own security structures such that it wouldn't be so easy to drop a worm on them to visit and foul up the works a little. But to some extent, despite the obvious industrial sabotage angles, I'm kind of impressed with this solution to the realism problem of what to do about Iran and any nuclear ambitions. I'd wish we were a little more trusting of international atomic energy structures that we set up in the first place instead, but I'm also pretty sure nobody really wants Iran to become a nuclear power either. And this was far short of sending bombers over to start blowing things up and risking another pointless, not to mention expensive, war that isn't over any national imperatives and would alienate millions of people who demonstrated at least a modicum of human interest and decency, and even received some of this from Americans, last year during Iran's season of protests, so there's that at least.

Far more interesting was this part of the debate:

College education seems to be largely about signaling at this point, signaling things like diligence and self-starting/self-motivated students rather than the provision and challenge of actually providing someone else an education. This problem of what that means, how to evaluate it, permeates the educational reform debate already at the lower level of primary schools and high school. It hasn't quite crept up to college levels because it's still widely believed and assumed and even known that we have some of the best colleges in the world, especially for graduate school work. So nobody really sits around saying, gee, how can we get better than this because it's not something that we see as a problem. I think two of Drezner's points are interesting to consider here.

1) That the true nature of the actual higher education is coming from the interaction and competition between highly gifted college students and that students get more out of each other when a school is highly selective about who it admits so the professor is almost a backstop anyway. Though in that case, I'd almost have to wonder why they're paying for a professor and not just having each other grade and evaluate papers or something like that. This is true of many classes that the professor is a useless prop who assigns a GPA value, somewhat arbitrarily, and takes attendance or gives pop quizzes. Woo-hoo but that's kind of a waste of money for many people in "regular" colleges rather than at Williams or Penn or Harvard or Oxford.

2) That the experience of learning from some cutting edge person in the field does a little more than learning from a really good teacher. I'm pretty sure this is not true at the lower levels of education. Really good teachers are essential there and there's lots of research to support it (even if there's not a clear path to determine who they are). I'm skeptical that it matters much how knowledgeable a professor is at college as well for the same reason. If their knowledge base translates into a strong and communicable interest in the field and it gets others excited to study it, then that's good enough. If they're just knowledgeable and not actually interested in teaching or communicating a strong interest, than no. I've seen all of these types in my time being in schools at all levels.

What you really need as an autodidactic is someone who seems interested in a different topic than is your normal fields to go off on a tangent and start studying it wild eyed yourself so you can then have interesting discussions and digressions with that person on a new field. I don't get all worked up to read about evolution or evolutionary psychology (well I didn't used to) but seeing people excited to study involved technical and scientific fields made me more interested in a less abstract set of theories than those of international relations or global trade patterns or the history of human conflict resolutions (war and peace). So I studied them myself. I could even say much of my curiosity regarding theology and religion comes from the obvious dedication some people have to it, because it's pretty clear I care not at all about metaphysics and mythology (and don't get nearly as excited about anthropomorphic thinking as most people do when it rains or someone dies. Or someone sneezes for that matter).

So for my money, at the college level a professor needs an enthusiasm for their work really and that's it. If people taking a class are not autodidacts who delve naturally into a subject and absorb it as best they can, then at least they've got someone who likes talking about the subject matter on hand to ask questions of. I don't think that's the most pressing issue relating to college education. The major problem isn't teachers, it's that most people entering college are woefully underprepared to take college courses to begin with, lacking basic knowledge bases and skills that would ordinarily be acquired from a generally better public education system for K-12 students. I could care less about the college education inflation problem by contrast to this. In fact, I think part of the inflation problem is that there are too many people going, there's too much of a demand for college educations relative to a quality supply. Drezner made a related point with kids who need some sort of socializing or psychological assistance, but by and large the problem isn't autistic kids and Aspies who can be made productive in a learning environment. It's the kids who didn't learn how to assemble an essay or solve different types of equations and then got it in their heads that they had to go to college to get a good job.

As with the signaling effect, what this means here is that they're probably not going to benefit from the sorts of things that most college does now, educationally speaking. So we need to come up with something else for them to do, and fix the problem of supplying colleges with more ready made students from primary schools. That's the leak in the dike. We can fix the inflating cost in lots of other ways (fewer subsidies, more emphasis on saving/paying for college than loans or alternative methods of payment like percentages of taxable income rather than fixed payments), and in my opinion, this problem wouldn't exist if there wasn't a huge economic payoff (or perceived signaling payoff) for finishing a college degree anyway. The reason there is such a giant gap is that the high school degree is now considered meaningless. But it doesn't have to be would be my point.
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