John Wayne is the Duke. Elvis is the King.

John Wayne's Holster: April 2008
John Wayne's Holster
Visit my main blog at Monkey Wrench Revival. Visit my birdwatching blog at The Birding Nerd.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Diplomas For Sale

The American system of higher education is on a rapid decline. The ongoing fall from grace is as tragic as it is unnecessary. Once the standard by which other international universities were measured by, it is now becoming the example of inadequacy and institutional underachievement. Only our superior financial and infrastructural resources are helping to inflate our academic values, but that is changing as well.

How did this descent occur? What is holding our higher education system back – preventing it from taking up residence on its once lofty perch? In a nutshell, the system is eroding from the inside out. It is imploding. The foundation upon which our education system was founded has been slowly and methodically chipped away by a relaxation of standards and a wholesale sell-out to market forces.

The intended purpose of the university system is not to fill one’s mind with facts to be regurgitated on command. Rather, it is to teach one how to think, as well as how to learn. In addition, an education should contribute to the development of both intellectual and moral excellence.

One need not look far to see that the modern university education leaves much to be desired. Although individual professors teaching at one school or another may hold high educational standards for their students, they are few and far between. Most university employees sent forth as professors are merely masquerading as such.

Ostensibly, a professor’s primary purpose of is to educate his or her students. This is written into the mission statements of the universities, and its part of the propaganda one hears from the university ambassador’s during college visits. However, one only needs to look at how the universities actually operate to see that it’s all just a hollow sales pitch. The “education” that a student actually receives is an over-hyped and diluted facsimile.

A major reason for the watering-down of education is the tenure system. To a wanna-be-professor, tenure is the goal – it means job security! To be granted tenure, a junior faculty member typically is put through a three tier review process whereby he/she is judged on their performance, over a period of five or so years, in three main areas: teaching, research and service. First, a candidate must be approved by his academic department. The department then recommends (or not) the candidate to a faculty review committee composed of senior faculty and college administrators. The final step in the process requires the approval of a high-ranking university official, typically a college dean, the university president or the board of trustees.

On paper, it looks like a thorough and well balanced system designed to separate the wheat from the chaff. In practice, it works quite differently. At most universities, especially those with research programs, junior faculty are saddled with heavy burdens. They are often assigned the most difficult teaching assignments – usually the large, introductory level classes that the senior faculty members don’t want. They must develop syllabi for these classes, prepare lectures, hold office hours, and grade large numbers of exams and reports. In addition, they can expect to be “asked” to serve on numerous academic and administrative committees. On top of that, they are required to establish a competitive research program, obtain extra-mural research funding, and train graduate students. With such an overwhelming work load, it is almost impossible to put one’s best effort into teaching. So they don’t.

Actually, they don’t have to.

Why don’t they have to devote themselves to teaching? To begin with, most senior faculty members won’t hold them to such a high standard. To do so would require that they meet the same standard themselves. Well surely the dean or board of trustees would intervene here to uphold academic standards, right? Ah…wrong. The university brass isn’t primarily interested in teaching quality. Their main interest lies in research. Actually, that is not true either. What they are really interested in is research money.

Top-notch research programs get extra-mural funding. The university itself skims money from this pot. Maybe skims is too delicate a word, shovels more be more appropriate. Universities “tax” these extramural funds at a rate of 40% to 60% on all purchases that exceed a stated nominal value. When one considers that granting agencies like the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) are awarding multi-million dollar grants, this turns out to be a nice chunk of change going into the university's pockets. Big research also attracts corporate sponsorship. This amounts to vast improvements in research infrastructure and lots of capital flowing into the university coffers.

The next time the university president claims that teaching is the priority at his college, ask him why professors with poor teaching records and lots of research dollars are being granted tenure, while those with outstanding teaching records and struggling research programs are routinely denied.

How does the university sell this piss-weak version of education to the public? That is the easy part. They give the public – in this case the students – what they want. The mantra is, “go to college, get good grades, and get a high paying job”. So that is exactly what the university gives them. And they are not shy about it either.

Whether or not a professor is actually an effective teacher or not is insignificant. The professor’s only has to look so on paper. That is, they need good teaching evaluations. In order to assure that occurs, professors have intentionally made tests easier to pass. It is quite common for a professor to hold a review session the evening before the exam, wherein he/she essentially tells the students exactly what they will be tested on. Grade inflation is also a tried and true method for assuring good evaluations. Students who take courses as non-majors are frequently graded on a different scale than majors, or they are taught a dumbed-down version of the course. Curving grades on the skew is also popular among the students.

If college education has become such a joke, why do students continue to go? The reason is that a college diploma still has some weight in the market place (probably due to the fact that high school diplomas are bigger jokes – but that is another issue). In other words, a college diploma has become a commodity. Students treat them as such, and universities sell them as such. Students flock to majors like medicine, engineering or business, not because they have a genuine interest in these subjects, but because careers in these fields have high salaries. Other majors like Philopsophy or English are deemed useless because they pay low salaries - assuming one can find a job in the first place. As such, a student is encouraged by his/her peers to shy away from these majors, unless of course one wants to become a professor and teach others to become Philosophy or English professors.

Penn State’s Smeal College of Business recently ran a public promotion campaign under the slogan, “The Next CEO: Smeal Today. Corner Office Tomorrow”. Banners bearing the slogan were draped all over campus. What message are they sending to prospective students? I think it is quite clear. A Smeal education will land you a high paying job.

It would seem to me that a supposedly well-respected institution of higher learning like Penn State would be more interested in promoting itself by touting the quality of it education or the virtues of its graduates, rather than boasting about the market value of its diplomas.

I guess that is how they set the sale price!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

BioWillie Runs Off the Road

Burning the Rainforest - Photo Credit: NASA

Global warming! That seems to be the modern buzz word (or words). Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention these days has certainly heard something about this problem. While the causes of global warming may be multiform, there is an undeniable link between carbon dioxide emissions and the temperature increase. As such, most of the solutions being put forward are centered on decreasing the amount of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere.

Consumption of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil are among to major industrial sources of CO2. As it now stands, fossil fuels are the major power source that keeps our economy running and helps to maintain our lavish standard of living at its current unsustainable level. One only needs a few cerebral sparks to figure out that we could reduce our CO2 output by limiting or eliminating the use of these fossils fuels. To do so would require an alternative source to take its place.

One of the most popular alternatives lies with the sprouting bio-fuels industry. In a nutshell, biofuels are essentially combustible forms of biomass-derived energy such as ethanol or bio-derived oils (biodiesel). On paper, these fuels have some advantages over fossil fuels, the main one being that they are so-called carbon neutral. That is, the CO2 released on combustion is equal to the CO2 the plants absorbed during their growth. That means - or is supposed to mean - no net carbon increase.

Sounds great! Right? Ah, not so fast Willie…

BioWillie Fuel - Photo Credit: MSNBC

In reality, biofuels are not all they are cracked-up to be. For example, biofuels are not carbon neutral. To say that they are is to ignore all the petroleum-based fertilizers used to grow the plants, it ignores the energy required to harvest plants, and the energy used to extract and process the oils. And these energy inputs are significant, as reflected in the cost of the biofuels produced.

Price competitiveness aside, one could validly argue that any additional cost of these biofuels would be more than compensated for by a decrease in carbon emissions. After all, that is one of the goals. For this reason alone, we should continue to promote their use.

Again, things are not as they appear.

A recent report in the journal Science shows that land-use changes, ironically encouraged by biofuel production, have actually resulted in an increase in carbon emissions. That’s right, an increase!

It seem fair to say that Biofuels Cause Global Warming!

As the price in the marketplace for biofuels has continued to increase, farmers have responded by converting forests and grasslands (which absorb CO2), into biofuel croplands. These biofuels “farms” absorb less CO2 than the grasses and trees they replaced, and the CO2 they do absorb will be released into the atmosphere upon combustion. And let’s not forget the CO2 released as a result of energy inputs during production. All told, it is now predicted that the so-called carbon neutral biofuels will lead to an unanticipated increase in carbon by 50%, if not more.

But that is not the whole story. Not all the source material for biofuel production is coming from newly converted forests and grasslands. Some is coming from farms that previously produced food crops. As a result, there is less food available as animal feed and food for people. And the food that is available is increasing in price to the point where it is becoming unaffordable. Just take a look at the commodities market over the last year, as the prices of soy and grains have sky-rocketed. People are going hungry and they are rioting in the streets. Most of the starvation and rioting is occurring among the poorest, who are affected the most. But I guess that is OK, as long as someone is making a profit. At least, that seems to be the standard in the west. And at least we don’t have to conserve.

Theoretically, biofuels seem like a good idea. I for one am for anything reasonable that will cut carbon emission. Realistically, biofuels are not a solution. They are like a patch or facade that simply hides the problem but does not fix it. Similarly, other alternative energy sources, like solar or wind power, also seem to have advantages. But they too have their inherent problems which I will discuss in a later blog post.

When you boil it all down, the real problem is one of gluttony and irresponsibility. I think we need to take a step back and look at ourselves in the mirror. Technology and our selfish consumptive habits got us into the energy/environmental problems we face today. Somehow, we blindly beleive that newer technologies will get us out. Experience proves they won't. What we really need to do is to begin to conserve energy, and live within our means.

So before you hop on Willie’s BioDiesel bus, make sure you know what road you are going to be driving on. Most of the roads look pretty bad. There's a good chance that Willie's Biodiesel bus is going off the road...especially if Willie is driving.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Front Porch is Gone

Its springtime! Or nearly so. Birds have begun their annual migration - returning to their summer nesting sites. Hoping to catch some of my feathered friends on their way home, I went out bird watching. We recently had quite a bit of rain which helped to accelerate the melting of the snow. As a result, there is lots of water on the ground. Streams are overflowing, fields and meadows are temporarily masquerading as ponds. All in all, it makes for attractive stop-over points for birds, especially waterfowl and shorebirds, on their way through town.

Hoping to catch a glimpse of some migrating shorebirds, I drove through the Elk’s Club – the local country club - to get a closer look at the banks of Spring Creek. Unfortunately, luck was not with me that day. No shorebirds. Oh well…maybe next time.

Upon exiting the country club, I saw a relatively new development on the other side of Rt. 45. I decided to take a drive through and look around. The homes were HUGE, each having four or five bedrooms, and a similar number of baths. The homes were each garnished with cable TV, central air, finished basements, Jacuzzis, and natural gas fireplaces on each floor. Many even came with in-ground swimming pools in the back yard.

In all, there were about 20 or so houses, each on a lot that I estimated to be about two acres. As I was looking around, it struck me that there seemed to be something wrong or unnatural about this neighborhood. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what was awry. Then it dawned on me. The houses had no front porches. And I didn’t see any people walking around. Even more striking was the fact that there were virtually no trees, other than a few carelessly scattered saplings left by a landscaper. The houses looked really far apart and isolated.

Over the next few days, I happened by several new developments in the State College area. Although each new development had its own unique features, they were all more or less the same - big houses with tons of amenities, and no people walking around. And no front porches either. To be fair, some did have back decks, but those decks were fenced in and often were surrounded by some sort of trellis work and nifty landscaping to conceal their presence and to minimize the chances that one occupying the deck would have to interact with another person.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that this sort of self-imposed isolation is really the norm, rather than the exception. It seems that people nowadays are so caught up in their own lives and their own entertainment that they have lost touch with others. There is no sense of community.

My neighborhood - if that be the correct term - is no different. I live on a cul-de-sac with only about eight houses. I don’t even know the names of half of my neighbors. I have even bumped into some of them downtown and did not recognize them until my kids pointed them out to me. This is quite different from the way I grew up. As a child in the 70’s, I lived in Yeadon, a suburb of Philadelphia. We lived in a street of twin homes, with about 40 or so residences on our street. It is no exaggeration to say that I knew the names of virtually everyone who lived there. I even knew most of the people living on the adjacent streets, as well as streets clear across town where my friends or family lived. And everyone had a front porch. And they used them!

The best part about my childhood neighborhood was that people talked. Sure, sometimes it was gossip, and other times it was just shooting the breeze, but most times it was about life and families. We all knew each other intimately and cared about each other. We drank coffee together. We celebrated weddings together. We had block parties on the 4th of July when we closed the street, dragged out the grills (the old charcoal kind) and partied all day (and sometimes all night). We also were there to support each other when things were not so good. We helped neighbors mourn at funerals and supported them in their aftermath. We provided a shoulder to cry on when relationships went south. We lent financial support when people hit hard times.

Today, these kind of relationship do still exist, but they are few and far between. In most cases, the neighborhoods these days are not organic or home-grown. Most of the people living in my neighborhood, including me, were not born here, or even anywhere close by for that matter. We all came to Happy Valley from somewhere else - typically for a job. And many will pick-up and leave should a better job prospect present itself. When we retire, we will probably move out again and find someplace else to live where we don’t know anybody. After all, who needs people when we have all these fancy techno-gagdets around to distract us. Gadgets like computers, big screen TVs with 200 channels, DVD players, iPods, hot tubs, air conditioning, etc. We can order out for dinner. We can hire a landscaper to cut our grass. There is no need to go outside. We are self-isolating. Rather than building relationships, most people are more likely to have a response similar to one of these examples:

Who has time to go to Joe-what’s-his-names funeral? I never liked the bastard anyway. Besides, I have to go to work on Tuesday.


No, I am not going to the Jackson’s party. That dude is weird. He never says hi.

People seem content with the idea of not having to build relationships with their neighbors. And they seem equally pleased at not having to live up to the responsibilities that go with such relationships.

This is a tragedy in the making. The disintegration of community has led to many problems in our culture, such as loneliness and depression. Although we have more stuff to distract us, and more gadgets to make our lives easier, we are becoming more and more unhappy and discontented. Even worse, we are becoming disconnected from life. Divorce rates are high. Substance abuse is becoming commonplace. Our lack of respect toward each other is becoming acceptable. Rather than work our differences out, we fight or litigate. Our kids see us and they fight too. And they shoot each other and sexually assault each other. We pollute our environment like pigeons fouling their own nest. No one seems to like it, but we accept it as inevitable. Our culture is on the decline, as is our nation. If we don’t right the ship quickly, it will be dashed to bits on the rocks.