Discover more from Vasant Dhar's Brave New World
What’s High About Higher Education
Paragliding Above Gstaad
My Recent Podcast
My most recent guest on Brave New World was Rick Smolan. Rick is an iconic photographer. I’d describe him as a humanist with an amazing sense of observation. His images and stories have appeared in Life Magazine, Time, the New York Times, National Geographic and other major names in publishing. He’s a recent recipient of the Ellis Island medal of honor.
Rick was played by the actor Adam Driver in the movie Tracks, which is about the Australian “camel lady” Robyn Davidson, who walked across the Australian desert with a bunch of camels. Rick was the photographer who recorded her epic trek.
You know you’ve arrived when a famous actor plays you in a movie.
Follow the Show Notes that accompany the podcast to see some of Rick’s work. I spent weeks researching this material prior to our conversation, which was a lot of fun. It was my longest chat so far, at just shy of 2 hours. As my producer Amit Varma suggests, you can train your brain to listen at faster speeds. I find that I can manage 1.5x quite comfortably. Try it.
There are also some great takeaways for young people from the conversation.
Fairness and American Education
June has been family month for me, between India, Sweden, and Switzerland. I went paragliding above Gstaad, which was an experience, floating along the valleys and smelling the sweet mountain air. The hikes were spectacular.
I drive wherever I go. It’s interesting to adapt to the different driving norms in the various countries. India is insane, as in, get out of my way now or else; Sweden is kind, Switzerland is super civilized, and New York is about moving efficiently and not doing anything stupid. Its good to be back home.
The recent US Supreme Court decision against affirmative action has been big news. The majority opinion was that “race-based discrimination is plainly and boldly unconstitutional.” The dissent was summarized by Justice Sotomayor: “In a society where opportunity is dispensed along racial lines, equality cannot be attained through race blindness.”
What do you think? I am sympathetic to the dissent, but I question whether race-based admission is still the best indicator for need. And it is indeed discriminative in a “zero sum game” where the total space is limited. But to be honest, the issue is relevant to a tiny fraction of the roughly five thousand universities/colleges the US, and does little to address the larger problems in American higher education which several of my podcast guests have discussed.
What are these larger problems?
Scott Galloway points to the supply/demand imbalance at the top schools, who compete on the basis of how many students they reject. In his book “Post Corona,” he draws an analogy with a homeless shelter that prides itself in turning away the majority of those who need them.
When I decried the soaring cost of education in America with John Sexton, including at NYU, he drew an analogy to the symphony, saying that it’s expensive, and not everyone needs the whole orchestra that’s provided by a major research university. Figure out what you really need, he suggests, and you can get a good education at a reasonable price. He defends the high cost of a research university, where MRI machines need to be replaced every two years in the medical school, cameras in the film school, and more. Being at the cutting edge requires the best technology, and it’s expensive.
In her book, Indebted, Caitlin Zaloom points to the financial and moral dilemmas that the American middle class faces in finding the right schools and financing higher education, which typically involves the whole family. She finds that families are encouraged to take on large loans in an environment of high uncertainty – about employment as well as the future of their family – over which they have little control. Besides, the very definition of “family” for determining loan eligibility is outdated in an era of high divorce rates and the emergence of new kinds of families. This system for determining loan eligibility and financing is much too complex.
John McWhorter is open to special consideration based socioeconomic need instead of race, believing that his children shouldn’t get preferential treatment just because they are black. He bristles at the idea of different standards for different races, arguing that it infantilizes black people. He also questions the benefit of diversity for education, given that a large part of education is utilitarian in nature: physics, math, and systolic pressure, which have little to do with diversity. Here is a recent article by McWhorter following the SCOTUS decision.
Is There A Better Way Forward?
Education is the ultimate leveler in society. But the US educational system is a complex one and out of reach for too many. The top schools – the symphony orchestras – have lofty missions and high costs. Harvard’s mission statement is to advance new ideas and promote enduring knowledge. NYU’s is to be a top quality international center of scholarship, teaching and research. As Sexton points out, it’s expensive.
But high cost models are not appropriate for most students, nor is it surprising that the elite schools turn away the vast majority of applicants. This doesn’t have to be the case. It doesn’t consider the possibility of a more differentiated suite of offerings. In the age of AI, there’s no reason quality and capacity should be as limited as it is today. The reality of AI-based information products like Search and Maps, is infinite supply on demand. Google doesn’t skip a beat whether it is catering to a million or a billion people – the product works the same because the technology enables scale at a very low marginal cost.
Can the same be true of education? Can educators amplify their capacity through technology such as AI?
I believe it’s possible. Systems such as ChatGPT can be used for instruction as well as evaluation. Several of my colleagues are already doing this, and I am personally experimenting with such tools as well. As educators, we are limited only by our imagination. But what would it cost to deliver a “basic ed” product to anyone who wants it, and how could it be implemented? Should it be a federal program, or administered by the states?
Education is free in Sweden. In their book “The Swedish Theory of Love,” authors Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh argue that this system protects individuals by disregarding their family circumstances – it doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are or the nature of your family: the government guarantees everyone a free high quality education. Students must pay for living expenses and books, for which loans are available.
America is much more complex and heterogenous, so the federal model is harder to implement, but not impossible if the political will exists. There are roughly 15 million undergraduate students in the US. If the cost of a certified basic ed program is, say, ten thousand dollars, that’s a total cost of 150 billion for the federal government. Critics might argue that such a system would be regressive. However, it would greatly simplify the complex financing system which imposes an unduly high cost and psychological burden on American families. Another implementation option is at the state level, where individual states could implement the program through their state universities.
Another option, which doesn’t address costs but loan repayment, has been proposed by John Sexton in his book Standing for Reason. John proposes a program where loan repayment is contingent on future income of graduates, where you pay as you earn (a simplified version of a program called PAYE). The top law schools in the US are already using such a model, apparently with some success. If you graduate and decide to do social work, you pay back a lot less than you do if you work for a high brow law firm. That seems fair. Indeed, a Federal program could also have a PAYE component to it where students pay it back as they earn, which could make it self-funding.
One thing is clear. The existing system of higher education imposes an unnecessarily high burden on American families. Education is a necessity for leading a dignified life, and increasingly important in creating a workforce that is capable of competing in a globally competitive world.