The Cost of Education

24 April 2011

The nabobs run around, tearing their hair about America’s weakness in education.  Specifically, in physics, chemistry, biology, math and engineering.  “How,” they ask, “can we ever compete with the hard-rumped folks from China, India and Japan where youngsters are rigorously drilled in these subjects?”  (In the next breath, they take a meat axe to the education budget, driving tuition up to the point where education is unfordable.)

It’s a good question.  There are, I believe, two answers.

ONE.  A few years ago, one of our nephews (a high school student at the time) came out for a visit.  He’s a pretty smart kid and so the subject of education soon arose.  He volunteered his opinion that high school was, as he put it, “crap.”  His beef?  That the first half of every year was spent going over what was covered in the last half of the previous year.  “If we didn’t have that three-month summer vacation every year, I’d have been out two years ago.  Maybe three.”

“Well,” I replied, “don’t you need some time to kick back and just loaf?  Maybe do some grunt work to earn pin money?  Have enough time to let your girlfriend learn to put her tongue down your throat?”

“Sure,” he said.  “So how about the school divide the year into three equal segments with a month off between each?  That way, we still get some needed relief from the grind, but won’t have to waste all that time going over old news?  And if a month is too long to retain all the stuff we learned, how about two weeks?”

When I asked, “Wouldn’t one-month vacations scupper students’ plans to make the pin money — or help hard-up families pay the bills,” he said: ‘Who cares?  If we didn’t spend so much money an a protracted and mostly useless high school program, the school board could use the money saved to subsidize those who are in a pinch.”

I think the nephew has a good point here.  For one thing, students will be done with high school sooner and be able to get to work or go on to some sort of higher education, both of which will help our young people be more “competitive.”  For another, we could afford to let kindergarten kids start later than we do, which will let more developed brains handle the course load more effectively.

TWO.  The state of Washington has several public colleges and universities offering four-year Bachelor degrees.  It also has a whole slew of community colleges offering two-year Associate degrees.  The four-year outfits are over-crowded and their tuition is going through the roof.  On the other hand,the two-year outfits have lots of room and their tuition is affordable.  So why don’t we upgrade the community colleges and let them offer Bachelor degrees too?  Doing this would take the pressure of the four-year institutions, thereby reducing annual tuition for everyone.  As for the MBA and PhD programs, as well as post-doc and advanced research, most of this would still be handled at the existing four-year institutions.

And then there is the subject of the curriculum.  The four-year Bachelor program was originally established in the Middle Ages for fops and swells from the landed gentry.  They dwelt on such subjects as Latin and whatnot — the so-called “Liberal Arts ” — which are useless in today’s world where physics, chemistry, biology, math and engineering are so desperately needed.  If we eliminate all the pedantry, the kid who wants an education in physics, chemistry, biology, math and engineering, can probably bang out a degree in two years, then go to work.  (Of course, if a kid wants to drag it out for four years, and can afford it, he or she will be free to do so.)

Such compressed educational programs can be done, and they work.  A lifetime ago, I was in the U.S. Air Force and was given the equivalent of an AA degree in mechanical engineering in a little over three months’ time.   We went to school eight hours a day, five days a week and had homework that chewed up most weekends.  There were only twelve of us in the class with one teacher, so each of us got the kind of individual attention kids need to make successes of their learning experiences.

What’s not to like?  America will start cranking out the technologists we need without wasting their time — and money — learning a bunch of crap they’ll forget inside a year anyway.

Let’s make American education worthwhile and affordable.


John Barleycorn

5 April 2011

Not wanting to talk about Libya and all that sort of stuff, I thought I’d relay an experience of many rears ago.  I was reminded of it when someone I know had a hangover this past week.

On a warm Saturday evening, many years ago, Jo and I went to the stock car races at the county fairground.  We were in the company of some close friends.  Having paid our admissions, we spent a while looking at all the pigs and sheep and tractors and other accouterments of the rural lifestyle.  Hearing the sharp blat of a small-block Chevy, we knew the races were to soon begin so we headed into the grandstand.

The grandstand was built atop a display hall with toilets and a snack bar against the far wall.  The vendors were selling everything from meat grinders to rain gutters and cotton candy.  The toilets had lines stretching out their doors and the snack bar was doing a land office business selling the usual stuff — peanuts, red vines, sodas, etc. etc. etc.  The broad staircases leading up into the stands was packed with people, the kind you’d expect to see at car races — sluttish young women in skimpy shorts and deep-cut blouses, young men in shit-britches with ugly tats on their calves and metal junk stuck in their faces.  There were, of course a contingent of blowsey middle-aged women followed their pot-bellied men wolfing down huge cheeseburgers topped with heaps of onion rings, belching and farting as they went.

But one character stood out.  A young man full in his cups was standing in a small clear area, waving his arms, calling everyone he saw a “gutless puke” and challenging them to fights, right there and then.  “I’ll kick your asses”, he snarled with an out-thrust jaw as he tried to look everyone in the eye.  Everyone thought him a fool and simply walked past.  As we ascended the stairs to the grandstand, he could still be heard bellowing insults and raging about a fight.

Eventually, a yen for snacks set in.  “Hey, I’m going down for some popcorn or something.  You guys want anything?”  Of course they did, so I took their orders and down I went.  The timing was right, for we were in between race categories and it would be a few minutes before the festivities resumed.  It took a while to wend my way through the throng of sweaty bodies but I finally found the end of one the half-dozen or so lines and took my place.

When I was second from the front, I heard, “I’ll kick all-a your asses, ya motherfuckers!”  It was the self-same boor I’d observed earlier on our way in; he was in the line next to mine.  He and I worked our ways up to the counter together as he raged and bellowed.

A young woman came up to take his order and he called her a cunt and wanted to know if she’d like him to beat the shit out of her.  Maybe her old man too, while he was at it.  And so on and so forth.  Everyone was giving him wide berth and the young clerk was plainly unnerved.  While he was spewing his bile, another young clerk came up to me and asked what I wanted, keeping a fearful eye on the lout.

“Yes”, I said, “Id like a cheeseburger, onion rings, a Coke and” holding up my index finger to gain her attention, then slowly turning and pointing it at the blithering yob on my left, raised my voice and said, “and a bag of peanuts for the little monkey here.”  Her face went white but she couldn’t help a small nervous laugh.

The loudmouthed bozo heard it too, paused in his string of imprecations, fixed me with a bleary eye and asked, “What the fuck you say??”

Turning to him I said, “Oh, you want a fight?”

“Fucking-A right”, he thundered.

“OK, then”, I said, “follow me”.  Turning as an aside to the little clerk, I said, “I’ll be right back”.  With the belligerent oaf close behind, I walked away from the snack bar toward . . .

Toward three county deputies who were standing off to the side.  “Gentlemen,” I said as I approached, gesturing over my shoulder with my thumb, “The young fellow right behind me wants to fight.  I, however, want to watch the races.  Perhaps you could oblige him?”

As one, they turned and saw the two of us drawing near.  “I suppose we could”, said the first deputy.

The clod was beside me and, stewed though he was, knew he’d just stepped in it.  “Hey, mishter”, he slurred as he grabbed my arm, ” I was . . .”

He didn’t get to finish.  The first deputy whipped out a small leather sap and smacked my antagonist across the forearm.  With a yelp of pain, he let go.   With that, another deputy moved in and the two of them grabbed his arms, wrenched them behind his back and frog-walked him out the front door.

As I watched the clown disappear, I noticed a young lad of six or seven standing there, jaw agape and wearing an expression that said What the fuck just happened? He looked at me, blinked, looked at the third deputy and blinked again.  It had to be the guy’s kid.  “Son”, I said, “I’m sorry you had to see that, but your father is a drunk”, with heavy emphasis on the word “drunk”.

The boy, the deputy and I were silent for a few seconds, then I said to the deputy, “Can you . . .” letting my voice trail off as I nodded in the boy’s direction.  The deputy gave a quiet nod.  I tossed a salute of thanks and headed back to the snack bar.

I was greeted by smiles from those in line and a “thank you” from the clerk.  I paid my tab, took my food and went back to the races.

I think — I hope — what happened made enough of an impression on the kid to where he promised himself he’d never, ever, have the kind of love affair with John Barleycorn that he father has.  As for the old man, when you’ve got it as bad as he did, well, he’s probably turned his liver into a gherkin and died.

One can hope.