Student Debt — a View from 2008

President Biden recently issued an Executive Order forgiving some student debt. The opinion channels are full of cheers and boos. Speaking for myself, I’m glad he did it, though I hope there will be serious attention given to how we got in the mess of too much student debt in the first place.

The controversy has put me in mind of a speech I gave in 2008, fourteen years ago, to a group of consumer bankers, towards the beginning of the emergence of this mess. I was on board of NAICU at the time, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, or I had just rotated off that board after having served as Chair. NAICU had been contacted by the Consumer banker’s group to find a speaker for their gathering. I volunteered. What I said at the time is here. It’s more of a big picture view than what I’ve been reading this week.

The financing of higher education has been broken for a long while. It needs to be fixed. This debt forgiveness isn’t the solution we need but it will provide some relief to some of the wounded.

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Training vs. Education

An organization on whose Board I serve has passed along to me an invitation from another organization to a ‘training.’ That’s a term that doesn’t sit right with me in most cases. I sent along the following:

I want to say something about the word ‘training’ or ‘trainings’ — a word about the reservation I feel every time I am invited to participate in a ‘training.’   

The invitation from [organization] speaks of these sessions as ‘trainings.’  I want to say clearly that I think we should let [our] Board members know about these sessions and encourage us all to participate.  But I also want to voice this reservation. 

By profession I’m a teacher.  As I practiced that vocation over several decades, I settled into an understanding of what it meant to be a teacher, an understanding that turned away from the idea that I (or anyone) knew the truth and that a teacher’s role was to impart that truth.  Instead, I came to think, to teach was to work with others to explore the answers to difficult, important questions.  That usually involved encouraging students to read things that presented divergent understandings and to ask them to think through why they might agree with one more than another.  That was education; it was not training. 

Learning/teaching understood in this way is a kind of journey that people go on together. And so I’m glad that the folks [offering the training] also describe what they’re envisioning as a learning journey. That’s what I’m hoping we’ll find. But still, they use that word ’training.’ (The 2021 sessions we did with [another organization] were described as ‘trainings’ and they felt very much like ‘trainings’ to me.)

I do think the word training is well and appropriately used for certain skills, like learning to use Excel or learning how to weld.  But I don’t think it’s the right word when we’re considering which way justice lies.  The issues in thinking about justice (or any big, moral issue) are just too deep and complex to think that anyone ever has them all figured out

This is not to suggest supporting a ‘whatever’ understanding of good thinking.  I do think there are wrong-headed or objectionably shallow views that should be avoided or discarded in thinking about justice.  But about nothing truly important do I think anyone has it all sorted out, or that anyone or any group has achieved a recognizably superior understanding than anyone else.  Those oppressed often have unusual insight into the failings of current arrangements, but that’s not to say that the oppressed have the rightness of things completely figured out.  We have to listen carefully to those who have been wronged, but I also believe we have to do our own thinking.   

I began hearing the word ‘training’ used in social justice contexts some time in the 1990s.  I bristled then and I bristle now when I hear about a learning initiative described as a training.  Sometimes it’s just a word, and when I look into what’s being planned, I realize it is an invitation to education — in the good sense.  But just as often I see things that look like this: ‘we’re going to tell you the right way to think about this.  We know the truth; you need to deepen your understanding as we already have.’  On such occasions, I want to head the other way. 

I haven’t really said anything about why I think learning/teaching is better than training for difficult, important matters. Perhaps it suffices to say this reservation about training in such matters has a very long lineage. Just look at how Plato teaches about justice in The Republic. I do want to add that one important reason I settled into this teaching/learning approach as I became a teacher was the realization that it is more effective, more long-lasting, more life-changing. Why? Because the learner is taking responsibility for his/her own learning, not giving over that responsibility to someone else.

So I’ll have reservations every time someone invites me to a ‘training.’

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Letter to the Washington Post on Senator Collins

Below is a letter to the editor I had published in the Washington Post on June 9. Here’s a link to the letter and also the comments on the letter. Here’s a link to the original article (an opinion piece) I wrote about. Below I’ll add some comments about what happened after the letter was posted on the Washington Post website.

After the letter appeared on the Post website, in the afternoon of June 10, I received this email from Chris Hanna, an editor at the paper.

A few hours later, I spoke with Michael Duffy, another editor. I explained to him what I meant when I wrote that “Ms. Collins enabled his not even getting consideration.”

Yes, she had publicly urged Garland get a confirmation vote. But who made the decision whether he would or wouldn’t receive consideration? Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. (Yes, the Senate majority leader has that power in his hands alone.) And Collins had voted for him to hold that position. McConnell’s reason: that the nomination came too close to an upcoming national election. President Obama nominated Garland on March 16, 2016, eight months before the 2016 presidential election.

Collins voted for McConnell again as the leader of the Republicans in the Senate after he showed that his “reasons” for denying Garland a vote were a tissue of lies when he subsequently made sure a Trump nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, got a confirmation vote when her nomination to the Court was made (by Donald Trump) much closer to a national election. Barrett was nominated by Donald Trump on September 26, 2020, just six weeks before the 2020 presidential election. McConnell made sure Barrett received a confirmation vote, and she was confirmed. Garland never received a confirmation vote.

In voting for McConnell to lead the Republican caucus in the Senate, and in voting for him again after he blocked a vote on Garland and assured a vote on Barrett, Collins “enabled Garland’s not even getting consideration.”

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How Honorable Are Honor Societies?

A younger friend writes, “I have a question about honor societies and colleges. … I’ve been invited to several different honor societies, but at this point I only joined [one]. I keep getting emails from others about deadlines to join, and it occurred to me that I should just double check with someone about whether there is a reason to join more than one. [The one I joined] seemed like it was the most legitimate with the most benefits, so I joined that one. I’m not sure others are not mostly just money making opportunities or not, so I’d skipped them.”

My response: Well, it depends.  That’s the short answer.  It’ll take me a few more words to say what it depends on. 

Ask yourself why your degree from a college or university has value or meaning.  Well, for one thing, you learned something; you’re a more capable person.  But why should others trust this?  Anybody could give you a degree.  (Really! And scams abound.) Colleges and universities are accredited by agencies that do that: they check out and affirm that particular colleges and universities are worthwhile places; that if you get a degree from an ‘accredited college or university’, there’s something substantial there.  (And yes, there are unaccredited colleges and universities.)  Accrediting agencies may do a good job or a bad job, but they’re there and they’re trying.

Well, how about honor societies?  Anyone could start one, and lots of people have.  But no one accredits these honor societies to say whether the honors they confer have any substance behind them.  So how can you trust an honor society?

There’s an old Smothers Brothers routine (you’re probably too young to remember this) in which the brothers sing “The Streets of Laredo,” or at least say that’s what they’re doing.  Tom sings “I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,” and Dick sings “I see by your outfit that you’re a cowboy, too.”  Then they sing together “We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.”  And then Tom sings “If you buy an outfit you can be a cowboy, too.”  Laughter ensues.  Anyone can look like a cowboy, but no, wearing an outfit doesn’t make one truly a cowboy.  So an honor society could be like that, just conferring ‘honors’ willy-nilly.  How do you know an honor society is legit? 

One test is whether the honor society really has standards – whether they let graduates of any college or university induct people, or whether the place has to be accredited.  And beyond that, whether it has a ‘good’ program, in whatever subject field is being recognized.  To find out whether a program is ‘good’ the honor society would have to do something like accrediting work – they’d have to look into the substance of the education being offered.  Some honor societies do that; others are more like the Smothers Brothers riff.

Another test is whether the honor society does more than confer honors.  Does it work to strengthen the professional standing of the subject field in which it confers honors.  Does it raise money for scholarships? Recognize outstanding professionals in the field? Lobby Congress for good legislation in matters about which its professionals have expertise? Again, some honor societies do, and some don’t.  (Some are just interested in you paying dues.) 

Finally, it’s worth adding here that Quakers have had a kind of skepticism about honor societies.  They looked to many Friends like they were in the business of creating inequalities for no good purpose.  So just like many Quaker colleges refused to allow fraternities and sororities because those organizations existed to diss some people and privilege others, they didn’t allow honor societies, either.  Most Quaker colleges have now softened that stance and allow a few honor societies to exist on their campuses – those that have real standards and those that do real good works. 

So, as I say, it depends.  You have to kick the tires.  That may be more trouble than it’s worth. 

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The Constitutional Amendment(s) We Need

George Will has an opinion piece in today’s Washington Post titled “Amend the Constitution to bar senators from the presidency” He argues that the Senate has become a place that is “increasingly a theater of performative behaviors.” His prime example: Josh Hawley (R-MO), who Will says “might not be worse than all the other 327″ Senators of the past 50 years, but who “exemplifies the worst about would-be presidents incubated in the Senate.” As a counter, he holds up Mitt Romney, whose presidential ambitions are behind him — and thus wants to be a Senator.

Not mentioned: Joe Biden. Not mentioned: Barack Obama, the two most recent democratic presidents who also served in the Senate. Also: think Kennedy; think Truman. Nor does he mention Donald Trump, who never served in any public office and was the worst of the worst. Nor George W. Bush, a poor governor and a worse president. Etc.

I know I should pay little attention to George Will these days, but this piece is truly of a different universe. Forget how stupid this actual argument is. Much could be changed about the behavior of the Senate if we eliminated the filibuster for once and for all, and did away with many of its quaint old rules that allow individual senators to hold up votes on presidential appointments or proceeding to a vote. We wouldn’t need a constitutional amendment for those changes.

Think, rather, of the constitutional amendments we do need. How about one that eliminates the electoral college? Will supports the electoral college. How about one that allows a real voting rights act? Will makes no mention. How about an amendment that allows campaign finance reform? Will has long been against any campaign finance restrictions. How about sensible gun regulation? Will has long been against that, too.

No: in Will’s world, it’s an amendment to prevent senators from serving as president; that’s what he thinks we need. George Will is not someone to take seriously today.

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