Charles Hugh Smith: The education system is doomed

Why the Higher Education System Is Unsustainable (i.e. Doomed)

Here is an excerpt:

Before we start, it’s important to stipulate that the industry’s failings are systemic, and do not reflect the positive intentions and efforts of those working in higher education, any more than the systemic failures of U.S. healthcare reflect the good intentions and efforts of those employed in that industry. Despite the good intentions and hard work of individuals, these systems are broken.

Due to their size and structure, large systems such as national defense, healthcare and education limit the impact of individual initiative. This has several consequences. One is that individuals feel powerless to change the system and so they relinquish responsibility for changing it. As Voltaire observed, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” A second consequence is psychological. Even if the system is visibly flawed or failing, insiders feel obligated to defend the system and their role in it, for two compelling reasons: self-preservation and the psychological need to believe in the value of one’s place in the institution.

In other words, don’t expect that anyone who derives their livelihood from the education system to be able to fix the problem.  In my view, however, when the education bubble pops, then the broken system will experience creative destruction but only by necessity.

Society of Biblical Literature pro-union

I’ve decided that the latest decision by the Society of Biblical Literature, save someone from SBL apologize, is the last straw for me.  SBL has become a pro-union association not a professional association.  Consider this e-mail that I received:

Friday, March 4, 2011

Dear SBL Members and Annual Meeting Participants,

We write today for two reasons. First, we want to share our excitement about our upcoming Annual Meeting inSan Francisco. This meeting marks an important moment in our history, as we resume holding concurrent Annual Meetings with the American Academy of Religion and several other affiliated and related organizations. These concurrent gatherings will maintain the “traditional” meeting dates – the weekend before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, this year November 19-22. The Call for Papers has been issued, proposals are being submitted, special sessions planned, the layouts of the Exhibit Hall and Employment Center are being finalized, and registration is soon to open. At this point, it looks to be not only another excellent Annual Meeting but a momentous one.

Second, we want to share some information about one of the hotels selected six years ago for our meeting. The labor contract between the hotel workers at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square as well as a number of other San Francisco hotels lapsed in August of 2009, and they are in the process of negotiating a new agreement. While the negotiations are pending, the hotel staff, represented by Unite Here, continue to work under the terms of the expired agreement. Service at the Hilton Union Square has not been affected and the hotel advises us that they are confident a new agreement will be in place prior to our Annual Meeting. It is our hope that the hotels and the union come to terms soon and ratify a new contract that is fair to all parties.

In the meantime, Unite Here has urged a boycott of the Hilton Union Square until a new contract is ratified. Our Council, sensitive to the SBL’s respect for the rights, dignity, and worth of all people has considered how to respond to this boycott. After careful reflection, we have concluded that we will continue our arrangement with the Hilton Union Square but on a modified scale. In addition to the fact that cancelling the contract with the Hilton would be a significant financial liability to SBL and AAR, the Hilton will serve to provide much needed sleeping rooms for our growing meeting. It is important to note, however, that out of deference to the union’s position, SBL and AAR have agreed to move several functions to other nearby hotels.

Again, our hope is that the union and the hotels are able to ratify a new contract well in advance of our meeting. We are closely monitoring this situation and will keep the membership posted on any new developments.

The SBL Council

Well, in consideration of the struggle that wage earners in the private sector have to pay their taxes so that unionized public employees can have high paying salaries with excellent health care benefits and pensions, I am in solidarity with those folks, going to allow my membership to SBL to lapse.  I calculate being able to save roughly $2500 in conference fees, airfare, restaurants and book buying.

Craig Carter has some interesting comments.

Education bubble XII: Hiring policy, nothing to do with your merit

I was once interviewed for a job in Georgia.  It was a no brainer.  It was a small pentecostal college that had am academic dean with a master’s degree–it paid probably 30k, and so the money wasn’t anything special.  I waited weeks afterward and only to find out that they gave the job to a guy studying at an American seminary who ABD–nobody bothered to inform me.  The academic game had surprised me.  In today’s analogy, I was Lebron–I studied at prestigious university, my PhD was all but in hand, and to top it off, I could speak three modern languages, and had proficiency in Greek, Hebrew and Coptic.  It was a no brainer.  But in the end, the other guy received the call, and I was still out of job.  How could this happen?  I did everything right and I was ready to step into a job, and they give the job to some guy still working on his PhD!  Well, in the end, I determined that merit often has little to do with who gets a job in academics.  Here are the real criteria:

(1) Ethos:  Who fits into the reigning ethos of the school?  A recent graduate from an expensive school is not likely to fit in well at a small school in Georgia that puts no priority on research or writing.  Such a person has to be used to deprivation and self-sacrifice and must be satisfied with the small wage the school has to offer.

(2) Politics:  a recent informal survey of social psychologists at an academic conference showed that their profession is dominated by those on the Left side of the political spectrum. Only an extremely minute number were self-identified conservatives.  This sort of difference can only happen when the admission policies to graduate programs and the hiring policies intentionally weed out those of conservative persuasion, since the conservatives in the American general population greatly out number liberals.

(3) Diversity (=Affirmative Action):  Michael, who reneged on his obligation to return to Africa, was one of 160 candidates for a job at a Christian University.  When I pointed out that the reason he received the job offer was that the school was implementing a policy of diversity, he was offended, but I was able to point out the page on their website that showed that they were trying very hard and had even offered a job to Botswanan the year before.  Adjuncts who had been working their butts off at one seminary I taught at were passed over as white males to hire full-time females; the next three biblical studies appointments were women.  This wasn’t about their relative merit as professors but about increasing the number of women in the faculty.

(4) Old boys’ school:  J. F. K.’s essay explaining why he wanted to go to Harvard was lamentably lame, but he happened to mention that his father was a Harvard man, and he would like very much to study there too. [BTW, old boys could now be a bunch of liberal woman for all I know–I don’t belong to the club–in fact, I’ve never seen the inside of the club either].

Ok.  So lets consider this question from the standpoint of how good the education is, given that merit is not usually the reason why people get hired.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reviews a recent book by researchers of the products of university education in America:

Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent. At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA] performance during the first two years of college. [Further study has indicated that 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years.] While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA, in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift. They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master. These findings are sobering and should be a cause for concern.

A cause for concern indeed!  You mean you can send  18-22 year-olds to school and they aren’t one wit smarter after four years of partying and learning about diversity and multiculturalism?  Wow! Who woodda thunk?

I have heard the dogma that if schools become indoctrinators instead of educators, strongholds of political correctness and diversity, that that makes them better places, richer and superior to the monolithic schools (read: professors are all white males) that prioritize academic achievement.  Yet after 30 or so years of this crap, we now have schools where large swaths of kids come out no smarter than they were before they entered.  So what does a BA mean today?  It means a huge debt without necessarily any usable or productive skills.  It means that a university education for something like a third of graduates is a waste of time and money.

Theological education bubble VI: blowing bubbles overseas

Theological education overseas is a marvelous idea.  Basically it goes like this:  rather than send people overseas to do mission work, why not train the native leaders in local schools of theology and they will do the mission work in their own countries?  My experience is that these schools are expensive, rarely self-sustaining but in need of constant  stream of revenue from the West in order to survive.  Furthermore, the leadership is often compromised by the strings that control the foreign money.  But this is just the beginning of the woes.

The problem is even more profound in that the product of such schools is dubiously qualified to serve the church.   Why?  Because the focus is too often head knowledge and not issues of character.  Who is promoted in theological education, the most virtuous person or the most clever?

My own experience as an instructor is to try to teach people to be clever because I don’t know, especially in cross cultural context, how to teach virtue in a theological course.  Virtue must be caught, and it can rarely be taught.  So I can only really teach virtue by practicing it in front of others who are learning from me and with me.  But the classroom model is not adequate for this kind of learning.

I had the experience last year of a doctoral student explaining to me that he wouldn’t  return to Africa, despite signing a detailed contract agreeing to do so, and that he was just going to take a job here in the US which would then be his base of ministry.  Then he explained that his PhD had taught him to be an academic, a person that does high level theological research, and that he would not be able to carry out such elevated thinking and writing within the pressures of his African context.  This is symptomatic of the problem in academics generally, as Thomas Benton has written:

Also, remember that most grad students start out as dilettantes, thinking they’ll just hang out for a few years on a stipend. But eventually they become completely invested in the profession, unable to envision themselves doing anything else.

I told this man that his donors paid him to study at the PhD level so that he could go back to Africa and train leaders there, not so that he could teach undergraduates in America.  But to no avail, he would not give up the idea that it was ok for him to break his agreements.  We had trained someone who had no virtue but his cleverness had led him to think he could only be useful doing research like our funding had enabled him to do during his studies.  So the church in Africa has again been deprived of a great talent, and our North America scene has another developing world academic who probably won’t  return to work in his own context where such talent is actually needed.

But the problem does not begin at the level of doing the PhD in America.  It starts at a much earlier level.  Perhaps his own PhD supervisor was partially to blame; he wrote to me:

The ministry opportunities that are open to Michael [not his real name] in his home country would not enable him to use his gifts and training. Michael is a gifted scholar and writer; his dissertation is very well-done, indeed. He has spent many years working hard to polish his skills as a scholar. I would hate to see them “wasted.”

So there we have it:  a full time North America scholar at an evangelical seminary could not see how his doctoral student, with the training that he had received from him, could work in his own country given his skill set as a fine researcher and scholar.  Whatever occupation this man would find there working in his own church would be a waste. So says the man that supervised his very fine dissertation work, a very well-respected and well-known evangelical scholar who himself is the best product of Western theological education.  In my view, the only waste in this matter was the money spent training Michael at this particular supervisor’s school of theology!  Michael had learned to be clever, but he had not learned virtue: certainly not the virtue of keeping one’s word.

But I find that this is the problem with theological education in general.  I was promoted through the ranks and yet not for any particular virtues that I practice, whether goodness, generosity or gentleness, but because I was smart.  It has always been this way.  But shouldn’t theological education teach us to be people of our word.  What kind of God would we worship if He did not keep his promises?  Yet we are called to be imitators of God.  And to what suffering did our Lord Jesus Christ not submit?  Shouldn’t we be willing to suffer like Jesus Christ, who was obedient even unto death–and yet the only suffering we asked this African scholar to endure was to keep his word and return  and to use his training and skills to help the African church, because that is what his donors required of him before they gave him the scholarship to study in the US.

I wrote about the difficulty I had working in an evangelical setting because of the exploitation of desperate PhD labor.  In my opinion, theological education which is caught not taught is more profound than classroom training.  By mistreating adjunct labor, the theological school was actually teaching the students, without realizing it, that it was ok to be a bad employer and to exploit a glut in the PhD market.  First the theological schools create the glut by promoting too many people to the PhD level, then they exploit their labor by using them as part-time workers.  It is a vicious problem of exploitation, and yet this is what is modeled in many evangelical seminaries.

I have written that I question the efficacy of school as a model for theological education. But this model which is ineffective here in North America has been exported to the church overseas.  What can we do to resolve such issues?

Theological Education Bubble V: On the payment of adjuncts

Fourteen years ago, after finishing a PhD at Cambridge, I managed to land a part time job at a seminary as an adjunct instructor.  The pay was $2700 per course, and I taught a full-time equivalent load (6 courses) in the year that I was there.  The salary was thus about $16,200.  But as a first-year instructor, I had to work essentially full time, despite having no committees or other administrative responsibilities.  One of my students was making more working at MacDonalds, with benefits.

I left after realizing that the seminary had no plans to regularize my appointment.  I made known my complaints, which were actually more about working conditions than it was about pay.   Afterwards, I taught at an African seminary for eight years on short term mission trips for no pay at all–in fact, we paid out of our own pockets to make it happen.  It really was more about working conditions (no office, no email, no key to building, no parking spot, etc.)  and the lack of any real status or respect that there is for the poor guy who can’t manage to find full-time employment in a field with an extremely limited number of job prospects.  I’ve known other adjuncts who have felt exactly the same way.  And you can read about these people and their stories all over the internet and in such distinguished publications as the Chronicle of Higher Education.  But when you are going through the experience, you feel isolated and like you are going to go insane.

The former dean who hired me wrote to me in an e-mail the following comments:

You may feel that they have treated your poorly, but …  I, as former Dean … , certainly do not agree …. I was giving you an opportunity to teach in a graduate seminary. This was intended to open the door to you to find long-term employment in the area, eventually.

There are dozens and dozens of young and older men and a few women who have PhD’s in biblical and/or theological studies who would love to have had the opportunity that I gave you. You had an inside track because I knew you from [before]. The fact that you had a PhD from Cambridge was of marginal value in securing this opportunity. During my time at [as dean], six of your colleagues were willing to teach without any pay at all, and one of them continues to teach regularly without pay. And there were dozens of others who were in regular contact with me asking to teach who were willing to take whatever we had to offer, or even teach for free, whom I could not, or chose (for a variety of reasons) not to, invite.

You have every right to set whatever salary you would like for your gifts and skills, but each of these institutions has every right to offer you whatever it thinks it can afford to pay you. If you do not come to an agreement, then each will have to go its separate way. This is the way the world works economically (and this is also the way the church and the non-profit world, which has much more limited resources, works as well).

He very kindly warned me not to make such a protest when deciding to leave, because in doing so I would give myself a negative image in the Christian community.  He was undoubtedly correct.

I write because many people who might stumble across this post, even some whom I know, might be spared this agony.  The academy is a ruthless place for scholars–Thomas H. Benton compares graduate school to a cult.  If you don’t act just the right way, you become branded and since there are so many other candidates for any position you might be competing for, you may as well kiss your career good bye.

In this post and my previous posts, I describe the bubble in academics and theological education which is so bloated and out of control that it seems irresponsible for educators to continue down this destructive path.  And yet I think they will not heed these kinds warnings because every institution seeks to survive, and every employee to preserve his own position.  Education in general is a bubble:  students on average get little out of it, its costs are escalating out of proportion, and afterwards, graduates experience the pain of  inescapable debt with few job prospects.  The bubble is there but few employed in it can admit it, nor are they necessarily well positioned to determine how to address the problem.