Sunday, August 25, 2013

Success in the Age of Superficialty: Colbert, Andrew Hacker, Stephen Colbert

Professor Andrew Hacker

"Why is the crushing debt [from Princeton] any better than the crushing debt from the on line colleges?"
      --Stephen Colbert to Andrew Hacker

Here is the link:

Apparently, Stephen Colbert has a smart staff--they found exactly the right man to ask that question. Hacker, the professor of government at Cornell, then Queens College, a graduate of Amherst, Princeton and Oxford has, for years, been asking what the elite universities offer in terms of success that other, less exalted colleges do not.

For years, Hacker attempted to track the lives of the graduates of Princeton, class of 1962 to see whether  they really did get their tickets punched or whether the promise of that catapult into fame and fortune fizzled.  Princeton, of course, was not cooperative. Administrators there likely saw no benefit to themselves from such an inquiry. The outcome, if positive would support a claim they could make without the inquiry, but if negative, it would not be good marketing.

Of course, Hacker pushed on any way and he found what he was looking for--graduates did no better, in terms of money, careers than graduates of Queens College. Or so he says. Princeton can challenge him on that, but certainly will not. 

Mr. Obama has proposed directing government aid only to those colleges which can demonstrate by objective criteria that the outcome of graduating from their institutions is better than not having attended college at all and hopefully, the better the outcomes the more money the colleges would get.

The problem is, what outcomes? How do you measure success? How much of a person's success in life is attributable to the education they got in college? 

 Hacker pointed out there is a clear divide in lifetime earnings between college grads and those without B.A. degrees, but that does not mean this is a result of what happened in college. Kids who go to college come from ambitious families, families with resources to help them after college, resources which may open doors to careers. Kids who go to college may be more ambitious, possibly in some ways brighter and more self motivated and with those qualities, they would have done well, with or without college. Or, the BA degree may be used by big companies as an arbitrary "qualification." Thus the welder at the GE airplane engine plant who as a BA degree from the University of New Mexico gets moved up to management over the more talented, smarter guy who has no college degree. 

It is probably a different question to ask whether a BA is worth it, versus whether or not a BA from Princeton is worth any more than a BA from Queens College. 

A graduate of Sidwell Friends School (SFS) recently observed, "In some ways the hyper competitive schools waste talent. There are outstanding people who look just average and are pretty much dismissed at Sidwell who wind up digging themselves out of a hole."

He noted that most of his friends at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons who had come from  Princeton, MIT or Yale were admitted off the waiting list. They had been competing for their A's in organic chemistry and only the top 10% were going to get those A's. At Bowdoin or Hopkins, they would have been in that top 10%. 

He points to his friend who was thought to be something of a failure at SFS, wound up at University of Wisconsin, from which he got into Harvard Law and launched a very impressive career at Covington and Burley in Washington, DC.

Another SFS student, who slumped off to University of Maryland, rebounded to Yale Law, and is now a master of the universe in silicon valley.

 Another, who was thought to be feckless at SFS, went off to Vanderbilt, where he slept through most classes, majored in economics and philosophy and thought neither was worth much, but he stayed up nights, learning programming and he now runs an exploding start up, Simply Measured, in Seattle.  He learned nothing of any ultimate value from his teachers at SFS (which a few exceptions), nothing of any value from his professors at Vanderbilt. They were masters of their own fields, but their own fields had nothing to offer this student. This SFS semi failure had an idea:  Billions are spent on advertising every year in this country, but how can you know if any of that advertising results in sales, or even in brand recognition?  He devised a way of using software to assess these outcomes. None of his professors would have had a clue.

The teachers at SFS were disappointed in  his graduating class, because only 4 of the 100 graduates got into Yale. Two of these four graduated #1 and#2 at Yale--one went to Google Inc the other to a PhD in biology.  They look like successes. But what of those other students, who disappointed the SFS faculty--the lawyer in Silicon Valley, the Washington lawyer, the Seattle entrepreneur?  It might be argued the kids who went off to Yale were so obviously bright, they didn't need the SFS faculty--the other kids, not as obviously bright were failed by the school.

Or maybe the experience of failure at SFS put fire in their bellies--they had more to prove.

Mad Dog thinks of his own brother, who did not get into Yale. His best friend did. They graduated from the hyper competitive Bethesda Chevy Chase High School and the Yalie majored in physics, started his physics career,  hated it, and wound up running a lawn mowing service in Florida. The brother, who had to "settle" for Cornell, went on to medical school, became chairman of an academic department at Duke School of Medicine, and by all measures had a stellar, productive career. 

Mad Dog's senior prom date could not get into Wellsley  or Smith or Mount Holyoke, and had to go off to Carnegie Tech,( before it became Carnegie Mellon.) Mad Dog  knew, from years of conversations and classes with her, she was one of the brightest people he had ever met. But the teachers at the hyper competitive Walt Whitman High School (Bethesda) missed that. They also missed her burning ambition and likely that rejection spurred her on--she excelled at Carnegie, transferred to Barnard, went to Columbia Law, became chief counsel for a major film studio, then for a financial Goliath,  and in terms of sheer dollars accumulated, she is worth more than all the graduates of Ivy League schools from her Walt Whitman class combined. 

So what do all these stories mean?  

Today, the fashionable question is: "Sum it up in six words."  (Where did they get the number six?" ) If you can't tweet it in 140 characters, forget it. We are not listening.

What is means to Mad Dog is that our processes for evaluating "Human Resources" are very flawed.  In fact, one might argue, what the faculty at SFS, B-CC High and Walt Whitman, not to mention Princeton and Yale can identify are the people who will be excellent worker bees, supporting the really successful people who were dismissed as irrelevant, for whom the worker bees will be working.

Of course, there are other stories, the meaning of which is not yet clear to the Mad Dog's son, clearly the most academically talented member of his clan, looked around at his classmates at Walt Whitman and declared he was not going to go to a "snob school" for college. He went off to NYU, the Gallatin School within that NYU, where he was allowed to create his own major. ( People there created majors like "Chemistry and Dance" and it was never clear to Mad Dog what exactly his son majored in. He seemed to take a lot of music theory.)  He was required to read a list of "great books," or a central canon, and walking down the street in discussion, he listened so some remark the Phantom made, and he said, "Oh, well, that's just Freud."  Mad Dog had never read Freud, but the son explained the point Mad Dog had made was well elaborated in Civilization and It's Discontents. So, NYU had exposed this student to something. He graduated, worked for a Nielsen company, took piano lessons, quit his job, makes a living today teaching piano in New York City.

Whenever Mad Dog expresses concern for his son's long term financial prospects, his wife reminds him--Well, he could have gone to Stanford.  That is an allusion to his son's good friend from Whitman, who worked hard, got into Stanford where he  realized he would have to grind away another 4 years of his life doing work he hated or, at best, found irrelevant. So he dropped out, considered himself a failure, died of a heroin overdose at age 28. 

What can one conclude from all these life stories?  Mad Dog does not know.

Maybe George Packer (The Unwinding) is right to suggest there is something rotten at the core of a society which doesn't know what good is.


  1. Mad Dog shouldn't have written this when Maude is out of town and out of touch. That will cut way down on the number of thoughtful responses (especially since I suspect Maude is/was a teacher - and should have something meaningful to offer on this topic).

  2. Anon,

    Ah, but it will be awaiting her on her return.
    In any case, Mad Dog writes for the world.
    The world, alas, does not respond.
    Just Maud, and sometimes Anon.

    Mad Dog