When Systems Design Themselves

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Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Two quick anecdotes:

    – Because we were low-income at the time, my daughter did both Head Start and Jump Start. I worried a lot about her losing that progress when she joined the other kids who didn’t go through those programs. She loved learning though and self-augmented the education she was getting at school by reading everything she could get her hands on. I also tried to give her lots of other learning opportunities at home, taking her to museums, science centers, whatever. She was light years ahead of her high school classmates in some areas like reading, but right with them in other areas she hated like math. The lesson I learned was that it’s totally possible for kids to thrive in a mainline education if they are motivated to put in the extra work.

    – Also, I was a very average student all through grade school and high school. At the Catholic prep school I attended I felt very mediocre. But I did pretty well on the ACT and started community college and was shocked by what I found among my classmates there. Turned out that mediocre at my school was still above average and so I gained this huge confidence boost that carried me through college. Along the way I met lots of people smarter than me, but mostly people of equivalent or less intelligence that were just grinding through college to try to better their lives. It was good prep for the real world. Sometimes I am in work meetings and I feel like the genius in the room and other times I keep my mouth shut so i don’t look like a dummy.

    All of this is to say that probably the biggest thing to watch for when choosing schools for the Littlest Truman is how many school suspensions they have, what is the attendance like, how robust is their PTA, etc. Those are real factors that can lead to good or bad outcomes. The academics will sort themselves out.Report

    • Avatar pillsy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Because we were low-income at the time, my daughter did both Head Start and Jump Start. I worried a lot about her losing that progress when she joined the other kids who didn’t go through those programs. She loved learning though and self-augmented the education she was getting at school by reading everything she could get her hands on. I also tried to give her lots of other learning opportunities at home, taking her to museums, science centers, whatever.

      The fact that gains from programs like Head Start tend not to be durable always struck me as both less surprising and less problematic than a lot of people make them out to be. Skills can atrophy if you don’t use them enough, and nobody would be surprised to learn that running five miles a day isn’t tremendously helpful 10 years after you stop.

      Along the way I met lots of people smarter than me, but mostly people of equivalent or less intelligence that were just grinding through college to try to better their lives. It was good prep for the real world. Sometimes I am in work meetings and I feel like the genius in the room and other times I keep my mouth shut so i don’t look like a dummy.

      I went through a pretty different academic track, but one thing that I’ve come to believe is that there’s no education credential so lofty that an absolute numbskull can’t get it, and no credential so basic that you can’t find a really brilliant person that doesn’t have it.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to pillsy says:

        I had a manager once that was absolutely brilliant when it came to managing his account and managing our relationship with our customer. he was an ex-Marine, never went to college. I still work with him from time to time on projects and he still impresses me in that environment. On the other hand, when I discussed other topics with him it was startling how ill-informed he was. Not just lack of knowledge, but just clueless about topics that I thought most people had a basic understanding of.

        And then I also work with people who have degrees and I can’t figure out how they graduated from high school.Report

        • Avatar pillsy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          There are some people who are extremely good at the things related to their job but have no interest in even basic-ass knowledge if it isn’t immediately useful (or maybe is associated with some hobby of theirs).

          Quite a few of them are research scientists IME.Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to pillsy says:

        one thing that I’ve come to believe is that there’s no education credential so lofty that an absolute numbskull can’t get it, and no credential so basic that you can’t find a really brilliant person that doesn’t have it

        This.Report

  2. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    Charles Eliot, not Chris. Eliot was president of Harvard more or less forever, and a very influential public intellectual through the late 19th century and into the 20th.

    As for humanities versus business degrees, there are three types of university degrees nowadays:

    (1) The ever-popular minimum-effort degree that serves to check of that box. This has been around forever. It is pure signalling, mostly of social class. There is little or no educational function, so students taking these degrees typically arranges their classes so as to minimize their impact on their social life.

    (2) The high-end vo-tech degree. These are, most prominently, STEM and to a lesser extent business degrees. These serve as specific training for your first job. These students tend to be serious about their studies (STEM more than business) but regard any classes not directly relevant to that job to be a waste of time.

    (3) The traditional liberal arts degree. This is by far the least popular. It used to be that the (1) type of degree was a liberal arts degree, but aiming for the gentleman’s C. Since at least the late 20th century there have been easier alternatives. At school it was anything with “communications” in it. I don’t know if this is universal. This has the benefit that liberal arts departments generally have (not counting their general education classes) students who are interested in the subject, but this turns out to be a small group.

    The thing about the liberal arts degree is that while its traditional justification is (arguably airy) talk about producing a well rounded person, it incidentally emphasizes skills that are really useful in the real world: reading and understanding a text, and writing intelligibly.

    That business degree might help you get your first job, but that English degree will help you get your second. And reading and writing are skills most easily learned when young. If you find you need a business degree to advance, it is pretty easy to go back and check that box off later.

    My advice to kids: If you want to work in tech, choose your college and major with that in mind. If you haven’t a clue what you want to do with your life, you absolutely shouldn’t choose a STEM major. You will hate life, and probably fail. If you are academically minded–if you voluntarily read books–then get a traditional liberal arts degree. It’s fun, and will serve you well in the long run. If you can’t imagine voluntarily reading a book, but you come from a socio-economic class where college is expected, or you have aspirations to enter that happy state, then go a college appropriate to your background and get that minimum-effort degree. Don’t be too obnoxious to the kids who are trying to study.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      “The thing about the liberal arts degree is that while its traditional justification is (arguably airy) talk about producing a well rounded person, it incidentally emphasizes skills that are really useful in the real world: reading and understanding a text, and writing intelligibly.”

      Amen to that. I know I have mentioned this on OT before but my boss will only hire liberal arts majors into our Quality department. He just believes we are more well-rounded and he thinks its invaluable to have that outside perspective when trying to solve problems. We also have to write a lot more than the average operator does. We also do a lot of silly thought exercises just to keep us thinking critically. One time we spent at least an hour white-boarding who would win in a fight between a grizzly bear and a gorilla. It keeps us sharp and helps us think as a team. The business majors in other groups just think we are weirdos.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      I don’t want to search for it now but my brother posted an article that made an economic argument for the liberal arts degree, without it there would be no entertainment and arts industry. These add billions of dollars to the economy. I think the aim was showing that humanities does have a pragmatic real world effect beyond well-rounded person.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I would add that the most valued and lucrative job positions in any industry are not the technical STEM sort of skills, but management and subjective decision-making, of the sort that require people skills.

        Notice how all these management guru type books are essentially liberal arts texts in disguise, advising us of how to move someone’s cheese or reconceptualize their paradigm without them causing strife or rebellion.

        In other words, stuff that Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Dickens could have told us.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          “I would add that the most valued and lucrative job positions in any industry are not the technical STEM sort of skills, but management and subjective decision-making, of the sort that require people skills.”

          Which is why I would rather have a manager with an English degree and the right Myers-Briggs score than a guy out of Business School that can spot the missing decimal in a report but should not be allowed around people.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        without it there would be no entertainment and arts industry

        I’m somewhat under the impression that the entertainment and arts industries predate university educations.

        While I will defend the humanities to my dying day, defending the humanities does *NOT* *ABSOLUTELY* *NOT* require defending liberal arts degrees.Report

    • “Charles Eliot, not Chris”

      Chris Eliot is a deep thinker in his own right.Report

  3. Avatar George Turner says:

    If the problem worsens, there are special schools for freaky smart kids so they can properly socialize while staying on track to finish a college degree in their teens. Duke University has an outreach program for the parents of children whose age and ACT or SAT scores put them on the far edge of the Bell curve. One of my coworker’s children, while a 7th grader, got a 32 on the ACT, so the family ended up going to the two-day get-together at Duke, where thousands of families in the same boat discuss all the options. I think he and his wife settled on a special boarding school in Western Kentucky that is set up for such kids.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The future is going to be weird. I don’t think that college works as a signaler like it used to. Lambda school is likely to be a far greater signifier in the future than it is today (and it’s a *HUGE* signifier today).

    The huge amounts of debt for graduates (and the gargantuan amounts of debt for those who have “some college” before dropping out) are not sustainable. The more that college is seen as a 4 year party, the more that degrees that don’t have weed-out courses will be seen as signifiers for things other than employability and suitability for OJT.

    Hell, they could try to fix this by making college “free” and turning high school into an 8-year program.

    And then wondering why employers don’t care about college degrees in the same way that they don’t care about high school diplomas now.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Jaybird says:

      My co-workers and I often joke about how stupid we were to put the college’s we actually went to on our resumes. I have been asked to provide a transcript exactly one time in the 16 years since I graduated.

      Just playing the odds, I think someone could lie about their degree and probably make a lot more money over the course of their career. If they got caught once in awhile, no big deal, there are very few industries that are cohesive enough to actually black list some one.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        The only time anyone ever cared about my college was when I was applying to a job that was, in retrospect, clearly intended for fresh-outs who didn’t actually understand how much an engineer was supposed to be paid for their work.

        (“Well my college experience was 22 years ago, do you really consider it relevant?” “yes, we ask everyone.” “So, how does compensation go here?” “Well, we mostly pay in stock options.” “What’s the actual salary?” “We don’t really put things in terms of salary, we consider this more of an investment position…”)Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Jaybird says:

      There are a lot of jobs today, especially entry level jobs, that have no real reason to require a college degree today, except as a socio-economic signifier. And I can attest that a lot of undergrads in the 1980s regarded college as a four year party. So I don’t see what here will change. What may change is a better understanding of what positions need an actual college education, whether STEM or business or liberal arts.Report

      • I imagine that jobs will start requiring degrees that required passing a number of weed-out courses.

        People with BAs Need Not Apply.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        I’m not sure if “socio-economic signifier” is really getting at the cause.

        For example, what forces cause companies to demand that a receptionist have a college degree?
        Its not like the clients who come in the door have any way of knowing.

        I keep coming back to the general labor surplus, where buyers of labor can demand almost any qualification, and get it.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          I keep coming back to the general labor surplus, where buyers of labor can demand almost any qualification, and get it.

          If there were a way to force the labor market to tighten, this might result in the buyer’s market becoming somewhat less of a buyer’s market.

          Enough tightening and it becomes a seller’s market.Report

          • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

            Your ideas intrigue me, etc.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

              Eh, it involves having more solidarity with union members than scabs.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

                I know you’re teasing, since when we talk about the minimum wage I am usually all in for forcibly distorting the market.

                But I think conservatives do have a point in that government control over the marketplace can only go so far before it loses effectiveness.

                If we were talking about some labor surplus that was localized to a region or sector or time, some sort of government intervention could probably work.

                But (IMO) labor all over the globe is slowly becoming less valuable as machines supplant not just physical labor but mental labor as well.

                And it doesn’t require vast wholesale changes in demand to make a drastic change in value.

                Like the way a change from 5% unemployment to 10% unemployment is a small change numerically, but is drastic enough to swing presidential elections.

                In the Great Depression it was 25% and that created real fears of violent revolution.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                Douthat has a good insightful tweet about this.

                Now, I *PERSONALLY* am of the opinion that if we are to hike the minimum wage, doing it when unemployment is hovering around 4 percent is probably the best time to do it.

                But I also know that tight labor markets will eventually lead to higher wages all by themselves without prompting (assuming that there is no release valve).

                Indeed, we see employers complaining about such things all the time.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

                Builders “can’t find laborers” to fill those positions.

                Is there an economist around here who can put that sentence into English?
                Isn’t this like how I can’t find a Lambourghini for sale anywhere, even though I offer a hundred dollars?

                OK, so maybe if immigration is restricted, builders will be forced to offer more money?

                “builders are now scrambling to file H-2B applications, and they are lobbying Congress and the administration to get the Department of Homeland Security to double the allocation.”

                Ah, but since Trump is so well known for being hostile to immigration, he is sure to cut off the supply of H-2B visas…

                Oh. Nevermind.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                Oh, indeed. What’s most likely to happen is that Trump is not going to enforce the law against those who employ undocumented laborers.

                This way they’ll get their labor, the laborers will be here and “scary”, the manual laborers in this country who have papers will have to compete against people who don’t have documents, and everybody’s happy.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

                And honestly, I don’t think immigration is even germane to this essay.
                The temp workers, the gig workers, the Precariat aren’t competing against field laborers.

                They are- we are- competing against automation which is always the final trump card in any discussion of labor.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                I have no doubt that you don’t.

                But the employers sure as hell do.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

                Employers demand college degrees from baristas because of immigration?
                That seems…farfetched.

                Part of the problem is the temptation to search for One Big Problem for stagnant wages which is like looking for One Big Problem for the damage done to the vast ecosystem.
                You could for instance say that absent immigrants, construction labor wages would rise.

                OK. But did immigrants cause the steel industry and textile industry and manufacturing sector to flee America?

                The downward pressure on wages is coming from a lot of different sources.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                The downward pressure on wages is coming from a lot of different sources.

                So long as we’re willing to acknowledge that employers think that more immigrants is one of the sources of downward pressure, I’m good.

                Heck, I’m down with saying “I have more solidarity with the poor Mexican laborer than I do with the American lazybones!”, so long as we acknowledge that employers see immigration as a release valve.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

                So we would then agree that a massive draconian intervention in the marketplace is needed to boost wages?

                That conversation could lead to some really interesting place.

                Your newsletter is sounding more and more intriguing.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                So we would then agree that a massive draconian intervention in the marketplace is needed to boost wages?

                Using what definition of “draconian”?

                The one that involves reading the laws that we have on the books and then enforcing them?

                While I agree that that would be a massive intervention, it’d be massive on the same scale that not enforcing the laws is.

                It’d just have different winners and losers.

                But this goes back to who you have solidarity with.

                Is it employers?Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

                If the word “draconian”” sticks in your craw, lets just agree that the amount of government power and scope needed to restrict immigration is massive.

                Massive for all the same reasons we have discussed about the drug war or speed limits.

                And if this can bury “free markets” as a rallying cry once and for all, I for one, welcome our new socialist overlords.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                It’s not sticking in my craw. It’s a word with a definition.

                It’d be like saying “It’s not like the group of folks was decimated or anything like that. Only 10% of them were killed.”

                I’d assume that the person making the statement was making a joke. When I point out that “I see what you did there”, I’m accused of being hung up on words.

                lets just agree that the amount of government power and scope needed to restrict immigration is massive.

                Oh, yeah.

                My take is that it already has this power and people who pipe up and say “the government shouldn’t have this much power” get called “libertarians”.

                If the choice is between the amount of power the government has now and the amount the government will have tomorrow, I guess I’d pick today.

                But, seriously, we need to stop expecting that if we give the government that much power over every nook and cranny then it will use those powers for what people like us think is good.

                Because it won’t. People like them are in control of it.Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                @chip

                You can’t possibly think that if only builders offered more money applicants would come running? It’s not a wage issue, it’s a I-don’t-want-to-work-with-my-hands issue. Folks like Jesse or Saul consider construction to be a ‘shit job’ and I think they are a representative sample.

                And it’s not just construction jobs. My company has continued to raise hiring wages in the 19 years I have worked there and our health benefits are really good. We are desperate for warehouse workers. The Americans we get have zero interest in advancing, are frankly crap workers and more trouble than they are worth most of the time. We get lots of legal immigrants and they knock it out of the park.Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Why do you hold such a moralizing view of manual labor, that you don’t hold to say, executive or managerial labor?

                If a CEO says “I refuse to work unless you meet my price” we applaud him as a savvy negotiator.

                When a barista says “I refuse to pick lettuce unless you meet my price” they are somehow an immoral effete dandy.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                When a barista says “I refuse to pick lettuce unless you meet my price” they are somehow an immoral effete dandy.

                Because we can hire Juanita over here and she’ll work the same wages without complaining and be in fear that we’ll out her to the INS. Bryce Hypenated-Lastname won’t. So we hire Juanita. And Bryce gets to work on zher screenplay.

                If a CEO says “I refuse to work unless you meet my price”, it’s a lot closer to something like works in Hollywood.

                Sometimes the CEOs are Pierce Brosnan and, seriously, nobody else can possibly play that role in The Thomas Crown Affair. Sometimes the CEOs are like Eric Stoltz in Back to the Future and easily swapped out with another vaguely charismatic guy.

                When you think of CEOs, you probably think of people like Bezos or Gates or Holmes or Zuckerberg. For what it’s worth, the CEO of my company does light janitorial. Vacuums, takes the trash out, that sort of thing. Because it’s *HIS* company.

                Labor where it’s easy to find someone else to do the job will always be held in less esteem than labor that seems to be able to have only one person who can do it… whether that be an actor, a musician, or a CEO.

                How long would it take to train you to become a serviceable barista, do you think?

                How long would it take to train a serviceable barista to do your job, do you think?Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                @chip

                In my company probably 98% of our management, including me, started out as hourlies, kept our heads down and worked our way up. I was driving forklifts with two college degrees at one point, waiting for the right opportunity. So, I also believe in management taking their lumps to advance.

                Now we get Americans coming in that either A) just want to toil at the bottom and actively avoid promotions or B) if they have a degree they think they should start in middle management. They no longer believe in working your way up.

                So…I will take the immigrants who still believe in hard work and steady forward progress and if the other folks want to vote with their feet, as Jaybird says, they can work on their screenplays while they wait for companies to change their hiring strategies.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                “We get lots of legal immigrants and they knock it out of the park.”

                Legal immigrants are Americans, sir.Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to DensityDuck says:

                They will be, and good for them. I’m thrilled to have them.here.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well, I’ve told the story a hundred times of my manager friend who would rather hire someone who has spent the four years after high school being the assistant manager at Domino’s or McDonald’s than a humanities grad… but that’s an anecdote.

                I’d just say that, if you’ve got a position to fill for a barista job, what would *YOU* look for in the ideal candidate?

                And then… wouldn’t you try to hire someone like that?

                (Personally, if I were hiring a barista, I’d want someone capable of showing up on time, capable of working hard, and relatively certain that they wouldn’t quit 20 minutes after they were trained… and I don’t know that a bachelor’s holder would give me that… not at a coffee shop, anyway. For a receptionist? Yeah, I could see wanting someone with a degree in communications or graphics design or something. Give the receptionist the Instagram for the company or the twitter account and ask for something company-related every day.)Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          “what forces cause companies to demand that a receptionist have a college degree?”

          if you have a college degree you’re probably not black

          Oh, what about the people whose parents bought the degree? lol, that’s even more an indicator of Probably Not BlackReport

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        My understanding is that employees used to be able to administrate IQ tests and general skills tests to employees but this stopped for various reasons during the late 60s and early 70s. The college degree replaced the employee administrated test for these positions.Report

  5. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    Somewhat on topic, Caitlyn Flanagan’s article about the college admissions scandal in The Atlantic had a perceptive comment:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/04/what-college-admissions-scandal-reveals/586468/

    “The collapse of manufacturing jobs has been to poor whites what the elite college-admissions crunch has been to wealthy ones: a smaller and smaller slice of pie for people who were used to having the fattest piece of all.”

    As the pool of good paying jobs slowly dries up, there is a mad scramble for the remaining pockets and parents become increasingly desperate to escape the harsh desert that others have lived in all their lives.Report

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