Monday, August 12, 2013

Education, Economics, and the American Dream

Education like so many other things, is evolving and so it seems is the American Dream. This past weekend, both were featured in opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal - and together prompted my addled brain to come up with this post.

The American Dream was discussed by Peggy Noonan (more below) as she related it to Dan Balz's book Collision 2012 about the thinking processes behind the 2012 campaigns. There was also the Weekend Interview with Ben Nelson, founder of the Minerva Project "e-lite" college.  Minerva hopes to give Harvard a run for its money - literally and morph the "college experience" into the 21st century. The Minerva Project describes itself as "a reinvented university experience for the brightest, most motivated students in the world" with the hope of their first class entering in 2015.

Nelson's Minerva seems to encompass both the subtle and not-so-sublte changes in education and of the American Dream (for better and worse). So let's first take a quick look at Minerva, before looking at the more general trends in education and the changing American Dream. 
Courtesy: Ken Fallin, Wall Street Journal

First, under the Minerva Project:
  • There will still be majors and semesters, and admissions requirements will be "extraordinarily high;"
  • The college 'experience' will be abridged to six semesters;
  • Residences and classrooms will be "high-tech;"
  • To reduce costs (estimated at $20.000/year versus Harvard's $50,000+/year) there will be no campus, no student center, no sports center or sports programs.  Students will live and learn in a residence hall in selected cities (San Francisco the first year, with successive years - hopefully- in San Paulo, London and/or Singapore "details to come"). Students can borrow books from the city's public library and can mingle at local coffee shops.
  • To reduce the experience to three years (further reducing costs), there will be no introductory courses. Students will be responsible for taking them as AP's in high school or through MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) on the Web;
  • As noted in the Wall Street Journal Interview, "all incoming students take the same four yearlong courses. His common core wont' make students read the Great Books. "We want to teach  you how to think," Mr. Nelson says. A course on "ultimodal communications" woks on practical writing and debating skills. A "formal systems class" goes over "everything from logic to advanced stats, Big Data, to formal reasoning, to behavioral econ."
Minerva, however, is still in the planning stages, and while I am glad my kids took the more traditional college route (see below), Nelson and his colleagues give us food for thought.

Below I link Minerva and it's approach to life and education with Noonan's changing American Dream, but first let's look at ...

How your kids' classrooms might  be changing this school year:

  • Students have a choice of traditional and/or on-line classrooms. Many public schools, for example, to help meet student needs are offering the K12 online teaching program in conjunction with their own classes or instead of them.  This arrangement has lowered their overhead costs.
  •  MOOCS are making a college education more accessible to students.
  • New Common Core State Standards hope to raise educational - standards -  focusing a lot more on kids' critical thinking and general knowledge while raising test scores and our schools' and students' international rankings. While their classroom applications are controversial in some cities and states, they are being implemented either this year or next year in schools across the country. Some changes:
  • From:
    • Teachers across content areas and grades must integrate multi-media, multiple-literacy content  - incorporating fiction and non-fiction, poetry, prose, digital and graphic texts throughout content areas in an effort to make learning more accessible to all kinds of learners as well as more meaningful.
    • So, you'll be seeing more non-fiction reading; more diverse reading; more high tech in the classrooms; diverse student projects.
Feel free to share new changes you and your kids will be having this year in the comments below.

Now let's move to the American Dream.  But before you look at what Peggy Noonan writes and thinks, take a second, pause...what is the American Dream to you?

The American Dream?

Courtesy: Martin Kozlowski and the WSJ
Peggy Noonan (8/10-11/13) discusses Dan Balz's Collision 2012" a book chronicling the thought processes and research done for the 2012 campaign. At one point she relates findings from the Obama 2012 focus groups:
" which members, according to an aide, "shared a strong sense that America was changing in a way that was out of their control." They felt the old rules of the economy no longer applied. They didn't know how to get ahead anymore, and they feared sliding behind.
"...There is pervasive confusion about what the American dream is. We seem to have redefined it to mean the acquisition of material things—a car, a house and a pool. That was not the meaning of the American dream a few generations ago. The definition then was that in this [was] a wonderful place...  you can start out from nothing and become anything. It was aspirational...
"...When we turned the American dream into a dream about materialism, we disheartened our young, who now are forced to achieve what we've defined as success in a straitened economy."
The intersection of Education and the American Dream:
In my opinion, this 'modern' version of the American Dream is influencing where we're taking education, and I think the Minerva Project is one example.  To help young adults and their parents, many advocate cutting the classics -who needs them. They believe our kids need jobs so why waste a year or even a course choice? Why have student centers, sports complexes and programs? Just teach them what they need and let them go out and fly.

This perspective saddens me from three perspectives. 

  1. Childhood is too short, so why are we trying to shorten if further (IF we can financially avoid it)? Why shouldn't there be sports, and a social center - where kids of all different backgrounds, cultures, shapes and sizes can meet and explore their expanding (and contracting) worlds. Also, I like the option of choosing from a list of courses and not having all coursed within 'higher education' dictated by a committee. Adulthood is all about making choices and college course options provides an important hands-on experience with all sorts of choices.
  2. While teaching "practical writing" and "debating skills" is critically important to all adults, the option of  a more liberal arts approach offers our young adults an opportunity to grow and explore beyond their expectations.  Who knows where they'll end up in 10, 20, 30 years. They may need to change careers, goals and expectations and providing them with a broad knowledge base and extensive skill set empowers them with options for more flexible life choices.
  3. Nelson fails to understand the role studying "The Classics" or Great Books plays. He is, in a sense, setting up an "e-lite" vocational experience. We study "Classics" not to "teach us how to think." That should be done in every course kids take from Kindergarten on up (granted on different developmental levels). We study classics, like The Federalist Papers, to better understand where we've come from -  and what the underlying and founding thoughts, expectations, and cultural dreams were in past cultures and societies - as we continue to shape our culture and communities as we move forward.  The Classics are the roots of our cultural thought and history, and we need to understand them as we hope to grow.  Not everyone, however, needs or wants this. And that's the good news.  But, don't compare Minerva to the Columbias and Universities of Chicago.  They are more like the Wharton BA programs, tech and vocational schools.
Personally, I worry about the more subtle trends I see in higher education as we move more towards vocational education and away from the classic 'higher' education. The good news is we need both, because not everyone needs to study classics and not everyone needs or wants to just focus on vocational training. I just hope these two approaches can live cooperatively together where one offers options the other does not - that instead of competing with each other they offer the opportunity of CHOICE. We need both.

What do you think?

Please let us know what the American Dream is to you and what you think of some of the changes I've discussed above in the comments.

Thank you as always for your visit.


  1. I tend to agree. Love the comic strip bit at the end!

  2. Being only job trained leads to people who are specialists but we lose the global thinkers required to innovate and create then.

  3. Peggy Noonan, who I sort of like in her patrician sort of way, was totally not credible when it came to the 2012 Presidential election. Ignoring the polls in favor of her "feeling" that things are off in America in the way you describe, she felt that was going to translate into a big win for Romney.
    At least a large reason people feel they're going backwards is that, for all but the wealthiest, we are over the past 30 years or so. The deck is stacked against the middle class -see the financial crisis, stagnant wages, a minimum wage which is lower after inflation than it was in 1967, or 1993 - pick a point in time since WWII.
    Some seem to want to commoditize education so that only the things they can use on the job immediately are useful, failing to teach them how think.
    I better quit, because this stuff ticks me off...

  4. We have a government that keeps tinkering with the educational system but not in a thought through kind of way. Not a good environment for either teachers or pupils. The American Dream I always think of as from the log cabin to the white house but could this still happen?