The Idea of the “Worthless” College Degree

new york public libraryI keep seeing stories about “worthless” college degrees. That’s hard for me to understand when I look at the comparisons between the economic lives of those who have a college degree and those who don’t. College is obviously worth something on the market.

Now, is the college graduate always going to have a better economic future than a technically trained person (such as Rubio’s welder or a plumber or what have you)? No. But in general, the college educated person has a much easier time navigating the job market than those who don’t have such a degree. To choose one indicator, those who have college degrees experience a much lower unemployment rate than those who don’t.  It’s silly to keep arguing that college is worthless.

But let’s go a little deeper.  Let’s assume that you think the content of the learning at college is worthless.  So, take a history major and assume that you believe the information transmitted is of zero worth.  I disagree strongly, but let’s assume it, anyway.  The student who majors in history spends four years showing up on time to class, learning how to take notes, reading, writing, observing how professors think and work, and hanging out with a group of people who are pursuing their education.  At a minimum, the habits and raw skills picked up in the course of such an experience are worth something.

This is where grades come in to some extent.  If you take a student who has majored in something unrelated to the job for which they are applying, I would ask about their grades.  If they have proven they can satisfy their professors through on-time performance, following instructions, and showing up (which is a big deal), then that means something to me.  It means they are willing to learn, can do what they have been asked to do, and can do it successfully.  That’s a person who can function well in the workplace.

Let’s take it further again.  I double majored in economics and political science as an undergraduate.  My learning in those subjects have enriched my life in many ways.  My life as a citizen is better.  I know more and understand more than I otherwise would.  I have a broader range of things I enjoy reading and watching beyond just popular entertainments.  I encounter the world in a more sophisticated way.  The way I evaluate institutions, the things I think about when interacting with a salesperson, the way I think about incentives . . . these are all things that are positively influenced by my education, whether or not I ended up using it in a direct, professional way.

We could go on.  Education is good.  It just is.  The only reason we are getting these stories about it being “worthless” is  because tuition prices are high.  That’s a valid complaint, but don’t make the mistake of turning a dissatisfaction with price into a critique of the substance of higher education more broadly.

But you know what worries me?  The people who write these stories about “worthless” college degrees appear not to appreciate their own education.  But that’s okay.  They’re in good company.  Peter Thiel (who co-founded Paypal and was an original Facebook investor) pays young people not to go to college.  He doesn’t seem to recognize the good his philosophy degree at Stanford did for him.

Socrates at Sportsclips

I put my glasses down on the counter and sat down in the barber’s chair.  Sometimes, it feels as though that act will preclude conversation, as though I had removed hearing aids instead of eyewear.  The young woman cutting my hair in this case felt like chatting.  She asked the standard question about my occupation.  I answered that I teach politics at the local university.  And when you say politics, they tend to get interested.  Everyone has an opinion about politics.

She observed that now must be a big time for me because of the upcoming presidential election and the debates.  I told her that’s true, but that most of my teaching these days has to do with political thought from another age.  One of my colleagues took a job in another city.  Now I find myself teaching Plato and Aristotle.

“How is that different?” she asked.  As an example, I told her about Plato’s proposal for a community of wives and children for the guardians of his city.  He thought it would create greater love and unity.  Every boy will have many fathers.  Fathers will have many sons.  I followed that by explaining Aristotle’s objection to the idea.  He said that a son in such a community would not really be a son, but more like 1/1000th of a son.

Most people I know react by agreeing strongly with Aristotle.  But this woman surprised me.  She said, “I’m a single mom with five kids.  I think I like Plato’s idea where everybody takes care of each other’s children.”  I didn’t stop her to clarify that nobody in Plato’s proposal really has their own children because her admission hit a nerve.

I thought about what it must be like to be a woman with five children, a job, and no husband.  From where she’s standing, a society pulled in much closer by government plans and ideology seems like a good idea.  I don’t blame her.  She’s going to want the government daycare, the public after-school programs, the universal healthcare, and the rest of it.  She feels alone and is looking for allies.  Government is one answer to her vulnerability.

If you are a person who prizes liberty and who wants to keep the government limited (which is where I have always been), it is important to realize that there are a lot of people like the woman who cut my hair.  The challenge she poses is a serious one.

Don’t write her off.  She’s out there working and striving.  The question is whether both sides have something compelling to say to her . . . or only one.

Chubby 44 Year Old Goes to Yoga

Yesterday, after hearing a colleague extol the experience of yoga at Gold’s Gym, where I am a member, I decided to attend a class.  My wife, Ruth, was going to meet me there at 5:30.  Somewhat assured by the idea of having Ruth and a colleague in the class, I decided to commit to the venture.

Upon arriving, I quickly learned two things.  First, this would be HOT yoga (with the thermostat turned way up).  Second, every other person in the class (Ruth didn’t make it and neither did the colleague) was a prime physical specimen.  No body fat on the men or women and bulging muscles on the men.  That left me to serve as the “before” picture in the group.

Nevertheless, I was there and wasn’t going to back out, even if I did look silly in my pleated khaki shorts with a big leather belt.  I forced myself to abandon my reserve just enough to remove my white athletic socks.

The teacher turned down the lights and turned on the soft, global  village sounding music.  I prepared for an experience that I hoped would be relaxing and would help my chronically sore lower back.

Our instructor led us through a series of poses.  With each one she offered us four options.  The first option was the easiest.  I adopted that pose each time (and did not find them all that easy).  Every other member of the class went for the fourth and most difficult pose.  I was generally okay with that dynamic except when it came to our default position.  The rest of the class returned each time to downward dog.  I had to be content with what the instructor called “the child’s pose.”  I must have adopted the child’s pose 20 times or so during our class, which lasted for a hot and difficult hour.  I spent a lot of time as a 44 year old child.  I kind of thought that they should call it “the rickety, stiff, middle-aged person’s pose.”

As a political scholar, I reflected on what we were doing.  It seemed to me that the positions involved a lot of subordinate-seeming bowing and scraping along the floor.  I wondered whether yoga related in some way to the tendency of people in the east to go low before some mighty ruler who commanded worship.  But then we began going through the various warrior poses  in a standing position and my theory was shot.

The verdict was ultimately positive.  My back pain was gone, though temporarily, after we finished.  The resting time at the end of the hour was truly blissful and would have been more so if I’d been less self-conscious.  And I noticed that for at least a couple of hours after the class, I seemed to have a bit of a vibrant buzz.  I wondered if some magical alignment of the spine had plugged my brain into a new power source.

An Open Letter to Christians in the Wedding Trades

Also available as part of a double essay presentation at The Federalist.

Dear fellow Christians in the wedding trades,

I write first to let you know that I understand your plight. You have derived joy and satisfaction over the years by providing cakes, flowers, and photographs for couples getting married. In the rare circumstance that a same-sex couple came to your place of business, you simply politely declined and knew that other providers would happily take the work.

Unfortunately for you, you happen to be trying to make a living during the exact tiny slice of the history of world civilization when gay marriage has become the laser focus of our culture (and especially our cultural elites). In 2008, the current president shared your view. Now, he stands with the folks on the other side of the issue looking askance upon you and your convictions. Hillary Clinton also endorsed traditional marriage. She, too, takes a new view today. The really tough part is that everyone who has changed their opinion, which is a lot of people in just a short time frame, seems to expect you to perform the mental flip, as well. They don’t want to hear your reasoned explanations about the biblical text or about how you will serve gay customers in any regard other than a wedding. They just want you to shut up and adopt the new consensus. Despite their constant complaints over the years about soulless corporations, they deny that your personal convictions and morality should have any application to the way you do business.

You would expect some solidarity from your fellow Christians. And many have chosen to stand with you and to try and protect you from having your faith and conscience trampled. But others have done everything they can to rationalize why you should get with the cultural program. They say that Jesus would bake the cake or that you are simply wrong in thinking that you should abstain from same-sex wedding work. Somehow, they fail to understand that they are effectively establishing themselves as the equivalent of some kind of pope who infallibly interprets the faith for others. There must be more chairs at the Vatican than you think there are. I suspect the reality is that they are embarrassed by you. They are tired of looking out of step. It doesn’t help that here you are trying to be faithful. You’re preventing things from going more smoothly. What are you, some kind of fundamentalist?

At the same time, you are the perfect target for petty bureaucrats looking to make a mark and for policymakers who would rather focus on anything other than balancing budgets, solving pension crises, improving schools, and other difficult and energy-draining tasks. Better to do something that might get a mention in the latest Profiles in Courage volume. And it really doesn’t cost anything. Well, it won’t cost the taxpayers. It will cost you, sure (maybe $135,000 or more), but you’re just a bigot!

The good news is that many people do care about your plight. They rally into crowdfunding opportunities and even find new ways to help when some fundraisers are hounded into dropping you by zealous opponents. But I doubt that there is enough crowdfunding to protect all of you, especially if the witch-hunt attitude continues. These neo-Puritans in the service of a new kind of religious zeal probably occupy enough regulatory and judicial positions to generate extraordinary costs and punishments relative to the “offense” of which you have been or will be accused.

Some of you may already be looking to sell your business or are thinking about simply finishing the current lease and choosing a new occupation. Before you do, I would like to suggest an alternative. It doesn’t seem right to accept that one cannot be a baker, florist, or photographer unless you compromise convictions that were well-accepted and widely shared until about five minutes ago.

The easy way out is to simply stop doing weddings. But I think you can probably be a bit more subtle than that. The problem for you is that you believe it is wrong for you to participate in a same-sex wedding. Here’s an alternative to getting out of the wedding business. I propose that if you are a baker, you no longer offer “wedding” cakes. It doesn’t mean you won’t make cakes that are suitable for weddings, but to you it will just be a cake and the client can use it in any way they like. Since you are not offering it as a wedding cake, you can say with integrity that you are not selling a “wedding” cake for a same-sex ceremony. The same logic applies with regard to florists and photographers. Just stop marketing packages as wedding packages or offering wedding arrangements.

Perhaps this strategy seems a little too clever to you. Maybe that is the case, but I believe that if no one else cares about your conscience or integrity, then you are obliged to take steps of your own. This strategy may resonate with the biblical injunction to be “wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.” Many of us in a variety of occupations may eventually be in need of such stratagems.

Of course, it would be better . . . AHEM (let’s hope some others are paying attention) . . . far better if our fellow countrymen were to decide that conscience is important. Perhaps they could realize that Sweet Cakes not baking a wedding cake for a same sex wedding is hardly Apartheid or Jim Crow at work. Maybe they could distinguish isolated objections based on conscience and faith from massive, formal, and systematic systems of oppression. Maybe they could come to that conclusion. But in the meantime, I offer you my sympathy and my advice. Some people like throwing the book at you, you know? It’s tough when you’re up against someone with a little authority who enjoys their work.

With my prayers and friendship,

A fellow citizen (and a brother) who shares your burden

Forget Grover Norquist. Here’s the Pledge Every Candidate Should Take.

I offer the following language for every candidate for office.

I hereby pledge that I will not accept speaking fees or any other kind of payment for services related to the fact that I held office.  I will also not set-up a personal foundation to which contributions that might benefit me or my family can be directed. Neither will I become a professional lobbyist.

Americans and others should be rightly suspicious if office holders can be tempted through speaking fees, payments for services related to politics, or “charitable” contributions.  If those payments are made in the time after a politician has exited office, they remain potentially tainted.  Holding office is an honor and a privilege.  The work of a public official is intended to be a service performed for fellow citizens and the republic.  It should not be an on-ramp to wealth generated by the hope of courting favor or access.  I will not participate in a culture that perverts the elected and appointed offices of our country by turning office-holding into a business.

Reflections on a Week in Colorado: Baker Family Vacation Version

Ruth Baker doesn’t insist on many things, but she was determined about this trip.  “We are going to go on a real vacation.  And this time I don’t mean another place within eight hours of our house.  This time, I want to take the family to see the Rocky Mountains.”

I grew up with trips of 3-4 days within driving distance of our home.  We mostly visited relatives or went to the Gulf of Mexico.  Those experiences, which I loved, formed my feelings about travel.  I begin to get nervous after more than a long weekend away.  I hate spending time in airports and worrying about rental cars.

It didn’t matter.  We were doing this.  After all, my bride had only been asking for a couple of decades.

We packed up four suitcases and at least four backpacks and headed for a Southwest flight out of Nashville.  Ruth and the kids managed to tolerate my need to get to the airport nearly three hours ahead of time.

I sat in an exit row.  Ruth and the kids sat nearby.  I put in my earphones so I wouldn’t hear the engine noise, which tends to fill me with anxiety.  My usual eclectic mix of Christian, electronica, and eighties rock drowned out the ambient sound while Ernest Cline’s novel Ready, Player One distracted me from thinking too much about being many thousands of feet in the air.  (Short review:  Good story with non-stop eighties and nerd nostalgia.  I found that I dreamed about it at night. Fair amount of philosophical and religious disagreement on my part.)

Uneventful flight.  We arrived in Denver.  I was about to go on a forced oxygen diet for the next week.

Baggage claim.  Avis rental car.  The agent asked if we wanted to upgrade from our Buick Regal.  Ruth insisted we did not.  We took all our luggage to the car and filled the trunk.  Not everything would fit.  By the time I sat down and got my seat the way I like it, our daughter had become a sardine in the back seat.  She doesn’t normally speak up for herself, but actually decided to express dissatisfaction.  Ruth went back to the desk and returned with a brand new Ford Explorer (at an increased rate, but who cares!).  (Short review: The new Ford Explorer is the best Ford I have ever experienced.  And this one had seat coolers.  SEAT COOLERS!  My rear end was cool throughout our journeys.)

We made our way into Denver.  Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we began with a meal at a Mediterranean place in one of those hip parts of town.  You know.  Run down buildings.  Nifty, well-aged neighborhoods.  Creative vibe.  The restaurant featured grape leaves, kebabs, pita bread, all kinds of other wonderfulness.  The dry, rare air and the delicious water caused us to drink about twice as much as we usually would.  As we enjoyed the meal, a freak hailstorm pelted the world outside.  We took it as a good omen.

The next day we went to the Denver Botanic Garden.  It is typically beautiful.  I found myself surprised to see that there was a scripture garden with a Judeo-Christian emphasis.  I wasn’t sure whether something like that would still have a place in Denver.

After the gardens, we went to a doughnut shop that has been discovered by the Food Network.  Voo-doo Doughnuts.  Parking was a semi-nightmare as I had to find a parallel spot for our rented Explorer.  We got inside and waited in a long, snaking queue.  The bottom line is that they do the standards well.  Glazed doughnut.  Good.  Raspberry filled.  Also good.  But they encourage you to pay big bucks for a mixed box that they choose.  You end up with very attractive doughnuts with a ton of icing and toppings like Captain Crunch, bubble gum, bacon, etc.  We didn’t really like any of the jazzed up doughnuts with enough icing to be cupcakes.  Though we are all big fans of doughnuts, the truth is that we pitched most of the souped up versions into the garbage can at a local park.

That evening we encountered something wonderful.  Denver’s City Park is a treasure.  Acres of gorgeous, soft, green grass.  A delightful lake at the center.  We made our way around the water to reach a central grandstand which emanated jazz.  It was interesting to walk through the crowd, which got a little rough-looking at times.  We saw a motorcycle gang.  One guy’s jacket said “Enforcer.”  And it didn’t seem like a joke.  Some of the women had vests that said things like “property of Jack.”  Again, didn’t seem like a funny thing.

We kept making our way through the crowd.  I noticed signs forbidding the use of marijuana in the park and figured that’s probably a pretty serious issue given Denver’s legalization of the drug.  I had seen at least two “green cross” dispensaries offering medical and recreational marijuana.  The biggest thing I noticed as we continued around the lake was the predominance of dogs over children.  Lots and lots of dogs who were clearly treasured and adored.  Not so many kids.  Draw the conclusion you will from that.

The next day we left for the YMCA camp in Estes Park just outside the Rocky Mountain National Park.  It was extraordinarily picturesque.  Just driving from Denver to the area was a spiritual and emotional experience.  As a lifelong southerner, my view of mountains comes from the Appalachian chain.  There is just something about the scale of the Rockies that induces a sense of awe, especially the sheer size of some of the rocks.

Estes Park has the Stanley Hotel, which I will always think of as the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining.  In the film, the Overlook appears to stand alone and foreboding in the wintry mountains.  Today, it sits just above a semi-schlocky tourist area.  McDonald’s is at its base.  You can’t drive up and check the hotel out.  They have a guard shack to keep out the sight-seers.  I was a little bummed about that.  If the movie were made today, Jack would never go crazy.  He’d just amble down the hill for a combo meal at Taco Bell.

The YMCA camp was much more than I’d hoped.  Maybe the first thing to say is that despite the seeming full secularization of the YMCA as an organization nationwide, the camp we encountered in the Rockies was truly a Christian camp.  There were large numbers of Christian campers eating, praying, praising God, and having a great time.  We saw Josh McDowell at breakfast one morning.  He was clearly there as a speaker.  I watched as he worked on a powerpoint presentation with an assistant.  Though I wanted to talk to him, I am constitutionally opposed to bothering celebrities and appearing like a fanboy.

What happened next is a matter of controversy between me and my son.  Andrew got up from our table and went to the bathroom shortly after McDowell did the same.  He returned to say that he had spoken with the author.  He told him that his father was Hunter Baker, an author and a professor at Union University in Tennessee, and that his dad liked his books.  Andrew claims that McDowell responded that he had read my work and likes it.  As all of this dialogue happened off-stage, I have trouble accepting it.  But I do believe they spoke.  And if I apply the professor’s test in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I should believe Andrew.  Enough of that.

The camp was uplifting and fun.  There was praise and worship.  There were outdoor concerts (with proper homage paid to John Denver).  We hiked and learned fly-fishing.  The whole time I felt astonishment at the natural beauty.  Anytime I wanted to, I could look up and see something breathtaking.  I also got my first view of a coyote and an elk in the wild.  The elk stunned me.  We don’t get a lot of fauna that size in our part of the world.  We also played a fair bit of bingo.  Simple pleasures.  It was a nice detox from the usual routines of electronics, electronics, and electronics.

After leaving the camp, we drove into the Rocky Mountain National Park.  Ruth had been there before and was determined to get above timberline.  I struggled with the thin air all week, but it was at its worst at the high point in the park.  Denver’s mile high air is tough enough, but try 10,000 feet and above.  As I write this blog post, I am drinking in the rich, humid, oxygen soup of West Tennessee.  It is glorious.  Despite the clean, dry, thin air which I felt was slowly suffocating and dessicating me, I loved seeing the tundra at the high altitudes.  We hiked on special paths and climbed boulders.  It felt like being on top of the planet.  The wind was so fierce at points it was almost as though you might get blown into space.  One young man was up there in a wheelchair and had an oxygen cannister.  While I wondered if he should be there in his condition, I also thought that it was a great thing that he could see the same things I was seeing.

Hiking above timberline was the high point (pun intended).  We eased out by stopping in Winter Park where we rode the alpine slide and saw what a ski resort looks like in the summer.  Then, we went through Golden, Colorado where Coors is made.  They are in no danger of losing the massive brewery because Coors depends on the Rocky Mountain spring water for its beer.  The Coors complex was one of the largest commercial operations I have ever seen.  It was like a huge appendage attached to the quaint downtown of the city.

The Baker clan finished by staying at an airport hotel and returning to Tennessee the next day.  Andrew, who likes his predictable world, went on and on about how much he missed all the good things waiting for us at home.  He promised to kiss the ground upon our return.  I suddenly understood all the old newsreel footage of politicians as they pressed their lips to the tarmac upon returning to their native lands.  I’m happy to be back, too.

Learning from a Life Under Communism

I had the pleasure of eating lunch with a new friend today.  He lived the first three decades or so of his life under Communism in Romania.  As a person who writes about politics, I took full opportunity of the chance to pick his brain.

When we began, he told me about how poor he thinks American public education is.  As a parent, he felt his daughter was receiving an education inferior to the one she would have gotten in Romania.  That interested me.  I asked him whether he would say that American society is otherwise superior to what he experienced in the Soviet satellite.  He was quick to affirm that it is.  We talked about shortages of goods, inferior goods, forced adherence to Communist ideology, and other things.

Okay, then, if that is all true, I asked him, then why do you think Romania and its superior educational system came up so short of the U.S. overall?  He responded indirectly by describing life in his former country.  It amounted to a society in which the ultimate goals are political goals.  In other words, politics sets the agenda for the society and for individuals in the society.

If political goals are the most important, I suggested, then it may be the case that some of the things that come with freedom, such as technological progress, would be stunted.  He thought about that.  He said that I was using the word politics, but he would rather speak of corruption.  For him, politics are the occasion for corruption.  If everything requires permission from the state and its functionaries, then the system creates seemingly endless replicas of little political tollbooths.  Each occupant of a tollbooth (and this could be a state official, a doctor, a nurse, a manager, a utilities worker, etc.) recognizes the opportunity to collect a little fee in order to allow you to pass through to the other side.

I said politics.  He said corruption.  There is an interesting relationship there.  Politics is not synonymous with corruption, but politics possesses incredible potential to create opportunities for corruption.  Don’t be too quick to ask politics to do the job that we can do otherwise lest you multiply those little tollbooths.