Day 2: That’s What They Say

I could continue working on Lingering today, but this is the song that I intend to perform on Tuesday that is still not quite fully formed. If you are in/around Berkeley, another participant of NaCreSoMo, Robert and I are planning to perform at the Freight & Salvage Open Mic Night this upcoming Tuesday… so in two days.

That’s What They Say

Started to say, words unafraid
To jump out the side of a taxi
And into some horses mouth

Tried your hardest, went to school
Studied hard, pad the resumes up up up
Took the student loans up up up
Done everything right, or so they say

But now, called back home,
No other choice to be had
Got no money and got no skills
That’s what they say

Oh the children today
That’s what they say
That’s what they say
Oh the children today
That’s what they say
That’s what they say

On the way home, the words slip out
Unbounded, patience flagging
Sorry, but still, out there
No taking it back, now

Took the long way back, arriving in dark
Windows rolled down, feelings
Passed round, there be consensus
Found, about the folks, tonight

What’s the deal with you
Haven’t we brought you up right
You’ve nothing to say
So better stay silent, be muted
So better to stay still
Better to stay still

Holding them in
But the words clamber out
To the sidewalks
The passerbys turn and stare
At the disturbance they hear

Oh what can you do
That’s what they say
That’s what they say
Oh the children today
That’s what they say
That’s what they say

Still staring straight to the distance
Off to the right, end of things
To come down off the clouds
And into stars, no rocks, found
Come tumbling down

And we are gathered here and
There we sit and find ourselves in shackles
Looking at nothing but skies

Blank as if the layers have
Been muted been whited out
Left with nothing but to cry

What can we do, what can be said
It’s the market these days
That we tried our best

What can we do, what can be said
The dream of the generation last, lost
Truly a hope now turned to despair

What can we do, what can be said
Diplomas in hand
And a mountain, a foothold in debt

Oh the children today
What can we say
What can we say
Oh the children today
That’s what they say
That’s what they say

I have been wanting to write something on this topic for awhile, the double standard, the expectation that the current generation live up to the stories of our parents and grandparents. How they went to college with nothing but a suitcase, worked their way through, and settled into a job soon after. How they came from nothing, how hard work equated with success. Leading to the logical perception that if you are unsuccessful, you must not be trying hard enough.

But I went to Cal, one of the most highly respected universities in the world, where the laziest student would still likely be among the hardest working at many other institutions. Where I have met some of the most intelligent, talented, amazing people that I am so happy to be able to share my life with. And yet nearing, upon, post graduation, I find among my intelligent, degree-wielding, talented friends a shared fear, sometimes terror that all of it was in vain. That despite the hard work we put in the past four years and the years before that to end up here, we would be the same as we were before, jobless. And for many, worse still, shouldering debt.

When I was applying for colleges, I remember talking with some teachers, counselors, etc., I remember talking with them after I had decided to go to Cal and the topic of loans came up. They sadly shook their heads and bemoaned that in their day tuition was only a few thousand, that it was completely manageable to work through college. Some of the older teachers told me of days when they went to Cal and the tuition, sorry, student “registration” fees, were actually just registration fees, just a few hundred dollars. Even given that the dollar meant more back then, it was an amount that is not the equivalent of a year’s worth of many people’s full-time pay. And that’s just the in-state not-including-living costs.

And I was one of the lucky ones. I am lucky that I have a family that so values education that I did not have to take loans. Loans that I could not understand. Loans that I were told “were a good idea,” no, “a good investment.” I am lucky that in my family to not go to college is unthinkable and that was so concerned that I should major in something that was economically viable and of interest to myself.  I am lucky in that I am decently good at math and I enjoyed studying subjects that people are willing to pay money to hire. I am lucky that even prior to my last final, I had a job lined up. And among my fellow recently graduated, I can still see that I am one of the lucky ones for my generation.

Education in the United States is something that desperately needs addressing, yet while the nation agrees that something should be done, there is no agreement on what it should be. You have the “conservatives” who want the voucher system so everyone can go where they want (or where they are already going) and not have to contribute to the larger educational system. The idea that competition for students will make good schools better, bad schools become better or disappear. Ignoring that in this transitory process to this new magical land of better education, there will be children who are left unaccounted for. Their public school closed down and no private school willing to serve or be created in such a low-income environment or unwilling to accept more than just a few unwealthy students to keep shareholders happy.

You have the “liberals” who want teachers to get paid more, more transparency in educational spending, a STOP to all the freakin’ cuts, a return of the estate tax which used to provide up to 40% of educational spending in California and was a tax that went solely into education (sorry that last one only applies to California). The idea that educating our nation’s youth requires personnel, which requires money. That we need better teachers, more teachers in our schools, which again requires money. That we need to provide more pertinent to today education to stay competitive internationally, which means changes to curriculum, addition to staff to resources, which all requires money.

I will not disagree that education, education that would be useful for students especially K-12, desperately needs funding. Desperately needs funding in areas that would be hit the worst by the voucher system. In areas where schooling may be the only reason keeping crime rate lower, keeping children off the street and steering hopefully more away from crime altogether. However just throwing money at a problem is not a solution in itself. More a bandage on a gaping wound.

While using laissez faire economics for analysis may not always lead to an accurate correlation to real life, it is still useful as a framework and I will use it as such. The voucher analysis uses laissez faire analysis to arrive at the conclusion that if individuals have more purchasing power, demand for private schools will increase and more private schools will be supplied. However this uses the assumption that for all those unable to demand private schools there will be public schools to catch the excess and that more private schools is a good idea.

If we approach this from a different angle, view the entire system (the students as the products not just the number of private vs. public schools) with the idea that we are maximizing of educated voters in our nation and not of profit or of cost-savings, the real conclusion that can be drawn from this analysis is that education is too damn expensive (this will be one of the single-digit times I will ever truly swear in writing, probably). Do private schools, private college, public colleges, need to be as expensive as they are? How is it that they are finding ways to pay professors less (ie. using adjuncts who work per class and often do not even get health insurance as it is counted as “part-time” work) while asking students to pay more? And I am not saying along interest rate I mean an around 30% increase per year each year I was in college. And at least I did get a good education.

The problem is this (and I will focus the following on colleges): education is a for-profit business. The goal that colleges have now is not to educate, it is to attract the brightest students and hope that some of them do something worth talking about, or for others, just enough students to turn a profit. Colleges advertise as much if not more nowadays about the experience of college: the dorms, the events, school spirit. College selection as much about the majors offered as it is about the places about to party. Four years of college has turned into a right of passage, an long expensive send your kids to camp for the wealthy that can afford it or a very expensive piece of paper for those who cannot.

swirlylogoFor all those in the University of California system, many of you might recall the UC logo change-they-didn’t-actually-tell-us-about. The logo (loading version shown left) evoking sentiments of “our fees going down the drain,” “flushing toilet,” and “page loading forever” was accompanied by a campaign of “swiping away tradition” and the hip-trendy life of an UC student. While the logo did die a deserved death, the mentality that spawned it is that colleges are more about selling an experience and less on selling an education.

Wait, what?

Think about it, it’s true. Sure, I thought about the campus culture and nearby city environment when I was deciding on colleges. At the same time, my decision was one based upon which school had the most highly ranked programs in all of the majors I was potentially interested in. Just in case I changed my mind, which I did, several times. Berkeley won that qualification.

But how many students sold on loans and led by the dozens upon dozens of glossy college brochures and parents desperate to give their children all the advantages they can, go with the flow and pay the big bucks in return for less than they hoped for?

The problem is that, much like the housing mortgage bubble, students and parents are told that education is a good investment. That everyone should go to college. And maybe they should. With the increased demand, colleges try to increase the supply. Expanding enrollment, new colleges springing up collecting the excess of students who may or not be ready and impacted schools unprepared to deal with the increased numbers. In the end, the students who do not have guidance, who do not know to advocate for themselves, get lost in the shuffle and come out unable to fend for themselves. The problem is that like the in debt homeowners to be, students are being taken advantage of, misled, and given less than they paid for. Difference though, you cannot default on student loans. So this failed investment is a shackle for life.

Yet they are not jumping on the college bandwagon for no reason. As was said before if we think of colleges not as shining towers of learning but as down and dirty businesses out for profit, the picture we see before us is this: increase number of colleges, make college a necessity by increasing supply of college graduates, as a necessity increase college fees at will, if profit decreases, add more students.

So the “conservatives” are right, throwing more money in will not solve anything. But actually because all it would do is increase the profit of the colleges and there is no requirement that that has to be re-invested (there is in some institutions, but across the board this is not required). And here we tie it back to the K-12 system, the “liberals” are right too, the voucher solution is not a solution at all. It simply gives private schools greater control over the market and the poorest students hung out to dry.

This was not obvious to me until recently reading an article about the education revolution in China. Synopsis: More and more families are sacrificing everything to send their child to college, yet the influx of everyone trying to do this means that a college degree does not mean a job to be. Leading to the question of: well if college is not the answer, what is?

Conclusion: Focus on job, apprentice-ship training in high school. Actually we used to do this. This is what shop and wood working classes used to be before they got cut from schools. And it worked very well. It gave not college-bound students a path towards productivity. Gave at-risk youth an outlet, something worth coming to school for. They were the first to go with budget cuts, but greater collaboration with industry, with local shops, businesses could easily be the solution. I met a solar car team in Australia that was formed entirely of apprentice-ship students, their apprentice-ship mentors, mentors for this project as well.

Sure this would necessitate funding, but it solves three immediate problems. 1. At risk youth dropping out of school and possibly turning to crime. 2. Career options for those with only a high school diploma, 3. Decrease the glut of college applicants. In conclusion, make high school and college diploma respectively worth something again and allow the American Dream to breathe again.


11 thoughts on “Day 2: That’s What They Say

  1. I empathize quite deeply with your education rant. And while I could go on for quite a while agreeing with you and bringing up more problems with they way education is run in America, I want to ask you a question: do you think it would be possible for companies to provide K-12 or even K-16 education?

    For example, what if there were a Boeing school of engineering in which top engineers from Boeing got compensated to teach? There are plenty of engineers who love sharing knowledge and skills with the greater community. Perhaps a condition of working for a company-university would be that, like a national defense university, you “serve” for 2 years in that company after graduation. People could come in with useful skills and stay in the area surrounding their university should the university be close to the company HQ (employers are more productive when their work is close to home).

    Similarly, if a larger company were in charge of a K-12 district near one of their offices, it would be in their best interest to make the surrounding community safe and filled with well educated children. There is already industrial involvement in some schools (a pharm company donated supplies for a PCR bio experiment in my HS for example), why not take it one step further and have K-12 where the *majority* of the funding comes not from taxpayers or parents but from companies invested in having their neighborhoods flourish? (Or possibly getting tax breaks from the government?)

    Just a thought. Thanks for inspiring!


    1. I think greater industry participation would be fantastic, however that does not help with the fact that quality of schooling is inextricably entangled with socio-economics and while company participation in K-12/14 education would be helpful/interesting, that in itself is not a very big part of the picture. There are no motivators for businesses to take the chance on low socio-economic regions. Why go to areas that cannot afford their services, has higher crime rates, students with less educationally driven families, where their employees are not already living, etc?

      Not saying that having that happen might be a good thing, but good socio-economic regions already have pretty good schools and are able to maintain those despite economic downturns. They already have low crime rate, etc. Sure having companies more involved in local schools or starting local schools might make education better, but it neglects areas that do not have socio-economics to draw in companies, or employees of companies, or the ability to maintain their own schools.

      It would be nice to say that well, maybe some companies will just be generous and humanitarian and focus on low-income areas, but then how many companies would we need to cover all of those regions. How dependent would our society become on the few with means to spend? In the CS department at Berkeley, I have seen curriculum changed around because of “support” from some company. While I am thankful that the department was very well funded and I had access to a plethora of resources, it still makes me question, what might I have learned if this company had not been involved. Would I have been introduced to more nano, more embedded, more open source? If industry had a larger role in Berkeley CS, would the open source culture eventually be quashed? Replaced by seminars in patent-acquisition?


      1. I’d like to add that being good at something does not necessarily mean you are good at teaching it. This applies to professors too, but I think it could be quite a problem for corporate professionals impressed into education.

        On the flip side, though, the elementary school I went to made a big deal of getting parents involved, requiring them to spend two hours a week (I think) “aiding” in the classroom. Sometimes this was just being a TA and/or minding the classroom, but often it meant teaching “electives” or small group sessions for kids with a common interest. I’m sure it made my elementary school experience richer than it otherwise would have been, and as a side effect it means I have a network of parents I could/can trust in my hometown even though my family moved.


      2. That is true, my elementary school had a different setup but similar idea of parent involvement. I don’t remember if all parents were required to volunteer in some form but we had parents acting as yard-duties and we also had these after school electives half of which was spawned and run by parents, the other by faculty/staff, and a few just from the community. It was really cool, the principal ran one on the origin of words though I didn’t actually take that one. Either way, there were parents that knew all of us and sort of kept track of us all the way to high school. I like the idea though where the majority of the parents/community is all like that.


    2. Slight follow-up: I think company participation should go the way of the apprenticeship programs that I learned about in Australia, where companies collaborate with schools so that students in high school can take on apprenticeships and continue it after high school or graduate with a job lined up. Companies are not responsible for the general education of said students, however they do teach/mentor their actual area of expertise. I feel that company run K-12/14 education have the possibilities of working, but only as an outgrowth of the aforementioned apprenticeship collaboration programs. Many high schools are already set up to accomodate something like this. My school called it Horizon Alternative School (I think, I might be mixing programs up. I never really paid attention to them and there were only ever maybe 10 people in the entire school that did these alternative programs), and you could either do home school and make sure you pass the progress tests or you can attend some classes in high school, prove you are fulfilling other general education requirements, and use the rest of your time for sports, community college, internship, etc.


  2. I can’t pretend to know much about the rant on education, but I do like the song. The lyrics are definitely something I (and I’m sure students everywhere) can relate to. Though I have a bit more time to figure stuff out, the fear I have for the unknown in the future is still great. That being said, it’s nice to know a) I’m not alone in this, and b) people that I know will be fine feel the same as I do. Thanks for sharing!


    1. They do! 2nd and/or 4th Tuesday of most months. It depends on their concert/events schedules, but if there is not a concert scheduled there is an open mic! You should come to the next one!


  3. Haphazard education comments:
    – To me, college education in CS is becoming a Catch-22: you don’t need it, but because there are so many CS majors it’s easy for companies to just dismiss out of hand the non-graduates. Grad school is even worse: you’ll stand out from the crowd, but companies will hire an undergrad because they’re cheaper.
    – Non-technical education is even worse, because the job market in many areas is saturated and/or the degrees aren’t directly applicable to real life and/or the job you get won’t pay for the education. (This is pretty much what you were focusing on, I think.)
    – I did go to college for the experience, particularly in retrospect. Perhaps I’m taking the education part for granted, but I deliberately applied to colleges that had a balanced program, not just top-ranking, and also good college towns and some indication of student life. I certainly became a better programmer and software developer during four years at Berkeley, but I’m not sure how much I’d attribute that to my classes—they were certainly helpful, but I think I could have eventually self-taught my way to my current competency with Clang/LLVM.


  4. Lyric comments:
    – The first stanza doesn’t seem to have much to do with the song, but maybe it’s an appropriate prologue and I’d get it if there were proper sparse instrumentation.
    – As I said on the recording post, I really like the “up up up”. It’s establishing the looming tower of past and future debts in a subtle yet solid way—the image of someone craning their head back higher and higher.
    – This song still has your usual tendency to include images that may or may not orbit a central theme. I would say it’s a little more coherent than usual, and I like the story being narrated: coming home and admitting failure in today’s job market—but is it legitimate failure, or just giving up? Are we really less motivated, less tenacious than our parents?
    – I wonder if more can be done with the ambiguity of “they” in “that’s what they say”. For most of the song I took it to mean “the presumedly disapproving older generation”, but by the end (esp. in the newer iteration) it could also be “the returning younger generation”. (I do feel that the song works better with the narrator staying impartial, i.e. no “that’s what we say”.)


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