The Short Term

Some years back my wife and I attended an informational meeting in a nearby town where the plan was to build a new coal-burning plant to generate electricity. There were many questions following the presentation — which was clearly designed to let people think they were a part of the decision-making process (which we all pretty well knew we weren’t). At one point a farmer asked what would happen to the large area where the plant was to be built after it had run its course and was shut down. The representative from the company smiled paternalistically and noted that his models didn’t allow them to predict what would happen more than, perhaps, five years down the line.

At that point the farmer rejoined that he didn’t need models; if they didn’t build the plant he knew exactly what would become of the land, to wit, it would still be producing corn and beans! He received a well-deserved round of applause and the representative from the company that was proposing the plant was silenced. Silencing a bullshitter is a good thing, which is why the farmer received well-deserved applause. There needs to be more of that sort of thing.

In any event, I have been going on for many years about the value of a broad, liberal education to teach young people how to use their minds rather than to simply learn a trade — or what we now call a “profession.” I noted in a recent post that data show that in the long term young people will make more money if they do at least combine liberal courses in the arts and sciences along with their more “practical” major. I also noted a recent study that shows that increasingly parents encourage their kids to take practical courses of study and avoid the liberal arts as a waste of money. In a word, their parents are focused on the short term.

One of the comments I received was from a mother of several children who is rightly concerned about the high costs of higher education — now leaving young people with huge debts after graduation. They need to find a job and start paying back the loans they required to attend college in the first place. No question. I am not blind to the fact that many colleges now cost more than most families can afford and that debt is the name of the game. But my point in that post was that short-term thinking has become pervasive in this country and it has affected the way we think about such things as education.

The worry about that first job after graduation is understandable, but the notion that one must take a course of study that promises immediate employment (if there is such a thing) ignores the fact that people change jobs several times before reaching their forties and in many cases they must return to college and be retrained for a new job. It also ignores the critical fact, noted above, that the students who take a broader approach to education — at least combining liberal courses with their narrow major field of interest — will make more money in the long run.

But that’s the point: we have lost sight of the “long run” because we have been convinced by the business world — the world of coal-burning plants that generate electricity — that we must focus on the short run. In the business world, of course, this is profit and loss.

But, as I noted previously, business has no business determining the paradigms for education at any level. Indeed, even in business focus on the short term is not always the wisest course of action. We all need to think about the long term effects of decisions we make today. This includes such things as concerns about global warming which is not so long-term as it was a few years ago, and, of course, education where the long term — the young person’s entire life — is at issue.


8 thoughts on “The Short Term

  1. Farmers ask the best questions. The biggest direct cost of coal production is the maintenance (and resulting litigation) of the coal ash well beyond the life of the facility, so long run questions are very important.

    I am reminded of a young teen speaking in front of the Charlotte City Council earlier this year over a contentious express toll lane run by a private company that the state wanted to build, that would not solve the problem. The contract was to be for 50 years.

    The girl said to the council, in fifty years you will all be dead and we youth will have to deal with your decision. It did not help, but no better line could have been spoken.

  2. Hugh, I think this needs to be a joint campaign where we make a priority of reducing or eliminating the cost of college AND renewing emphasis on liberal arts degrees. Not one or the other, but one with the other.

    Doing away with the cost would benefit your absolutely necessary crusade for a return to liberal arts educations and draw many more allies to your cause. It would remove the fear/anxiety students (and their parents) have over the need to immediately make good money after they graduate – not only to “justify” the investment of the past four or five years, but to ensure they can pay back their student loans and actually afford to live, too.

    Students graduate with between $60,000 and $100,000 in debt for an undergraduate degree. That so quickly paralyzes them economically. I’ve argued in print for a long time (long before Bernie Sanders made it a staple of his campaign) for serious college-funding reform. I take the perspective that it is perhaps the best form of economic stimulus we would have – better than tax breaks for companies to build new offices or factories, better than the 2008 Wall Street bailouts, etc.

    College graduates should be the prime spending group in the American economy, wanting to buy a new car, their first house, raise families. But their college loans ARE a home mortgage, or close to it, or at least half a mortgage in some bigger cities. So they are proving much more reluctant to spend, choosing instead, in cities all over the country, to continue to live with roommates or in smaller housing options. Or, alternatively, they feel huge pressure to find that big-paying job right away and steer toward careers (and educations) that are not in the liberal arts.

    I know Sanders was ridiculed or criticized by Clinton and others for his free-college proposals: where would the money come? Well, we need to find a way. Take it from that ugly, Soviet-percentage-sized slice of the American federal budget pie that is defense spending. Increase taxes to pre-1970s levels. Tie corporate tax incentives to corporate underwriting of tuition (companies love to bitch about how their workers can’t think for themselves, and how they need more leadership candidates: well, duh, liberal arts). We have options, but we need the courage to act on them.

    But I think if the two are made a hand-in-hand pairing, it can become an effective cause and a larger movement, with a cross over of support. You’re going to get a lot more parents saying, yes, let’s push liberal arts, if you can tell them their kids will not graduate without massive debt. There is a better chance of getting politicians and business leaders embracing the idea of reducing college costs if they can see they’ll get better-rounded, better-thinking employees and community citizens as a result.

    • Excellent point. If we taxed the wealthy as we should and stopped the tax breaks to the large corporations — and, as you say, cut a big piece of the “Defense” budget we could have free education. The two need to go together. You have buy nomination for next Secretary of Education.

  3. The more I look around at people with college degrees, yet who lack the ability to think, to reason, the more I am convinced that you are quite right about the failure of institutions of higher learning failing to do their jobs. Most who are entering college at age 18-19 have no idea what they really want to spend the rest of their lives doing, and a broad range of courses gives them the opportunity to see what is out there, to find their passion. Equally important, it gives them a broad world view, rather than the narrow scope that seems to be rapidly becoming the norm in this country. Very good post, Hugh … permission to re-blog?

  4. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Of late, I have looked around at people, and what I see is not encouraging. I see college-educated people who may be very smart in one field or another, but what they lack is the ability to think, to reason, to apply logic to a wide variety of situations. I have always thought that the single greatest take-away of my education was the ability to ask the question “why” and find the answers. There is no single fact, date, name, or place that stuck with me long, but the thing that has had the most value was that I learned how to ask the right questions and how to find the answers by combining intellect, logic and knowledge. That skill, seemingly, is no longer being taught in our colleges and universities, which in the long run will have a seriously debilitating effect on our population! My fellow blogger-friend Hugh Curtler, a retired professor of philosophy and the humanities, as well as a writer, has written an excellent post that explains the failure of higher education today to turn out well-rounded students, students prepared for the real world they will be occupying. Please take a few moments to read his post and think about what he says. And as always, leave him a comment to let him know your thoughts!

  5. Pingback: Hillary Clinton – On The Issues (Part VIII – Early Childhood Education) | Filosofa's Word

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