Friday, October 14, 2011

The Devil in the Details

You may be familiar with Occam’s Razor, otherwise known as the Law of Parsimony. If not, this is a “law” that says when you are faced with two or more competing explanations or hypotheses that seem more or less equal you should choose the simplest one, the one with the fewest elements or complications. I don’t think Occam’s law really applies when it comes to economics but if it did what might it entail.

It seems to me that the simplest plan, by far, put forward for creating jobs and helping the economy, is the truly simple and basic plan of the Republicans stated over and over again. It is almost elegant in its simplicity: fewer regulations and more tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations. This is far simpler than 9-9-9, and certainly far simpler than President Obama’s plan. Indeed, it is seductively simple, and would even work, except when you consider the details. It would work because it would in fact give more money to corporations to hire more workers to expand their various businesses, and would also remove restrictions that govern their behavior so they would be free to pursue their primary goal of making profits, simple, no? But stop to consider what their most fundamental business consists of, namely, raping and pillaging both the citizenry and the environment. If left unbridled by regulations and given more resources it would eventually exhaust the resources of the middle and lower classes as well as those of the planet itself. This has undisputedly been occurring already for a long time what with mountain-top and other unregulated mining, oil drilling, timbering, fisheries, credit, mortgages, and Wall Street trading. Similarly, we would eventually drown in our own pollution, die from eating genetically modified crops or an absence of foodstuffs, or perhaps blow ourselves up with unregulated nuclear energy. Occam’s razor does not apply and the devil is, indeed, in the details. Simplicity is not always the best solution, but as Republicans cannot comprehend anything beyond childish delusions they cannot move beyond their basic mantra: lower taxes, eliminate regulations.

The Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, has recently complained that the state should not waste money for funding fields like anthropology because there are no jobs (or need?) for such graduates. His own daughter apparently majored in Anthropology. This, to me, sums up what is probably the greatest problem with higher education in the United States, the idea that the point of going to a University is to get a job (for women, to get a husband). I would not defend anthropology as a means to employment, it is true there are few jobs for Anthropologists, especially without a Ph.D., but I would certainly defend it as the basis for a truly liberal education. It provides an extremely well-rounded background, and provides information, skills, and viewpoints that should be helpful in many different careers. If not anthropology, what about English Literature, Comparative Literature, Classics, Latin, Philosophy, the History of Art, Art itself, Linguistics, even History, there are few jobs for any of these disciplines. Should we just abandon everything except whatever is guaranteed to produce a job, hundreds, even thousands of years of scholarship, knowledge, tradition and “culture?”

One of the major problems with our Colleges and Universities can be precisely traced to the insidious idea that a University is a place to go in order to get a job. Our Universities have been infiltrated by professional schools, Business, Medicine, Nursing, Education, Animal Husbandry, Agriculture, Engineering, and so on. Over time these professional schools have managed to capture most of the available resources at the expense of the Humanities that are routinely squeezed for funds and are slowly disappearing. The idea of a Liberal education, producing "well-rounded" scholars, creative thinkers, artists, writers, philosophers, and the cultivation of the humanities in general has all but disappeared except in a few small, expensive, private Universities and Colleges.

I know from many years of personal experience at several Universities that Professional schools like Business, Medicine, and Engineering more often than not produce specialized individuals who are more than competent at their profession but can also be ignorant almost beyond belief when it comes to basic knowledge about anything outside of their profession. There have, in fact, been attempts in recent years to rectify this situation by adding Anthropologists, Sociologist, and Behavioral Scientists to Medical School and even Business School faculties, but for the most part they remain treated as second class members and make only very minor contributions. One of the worst developments I think has been the emphasis on producing MBA’s, Masters of Business Administration, whose sole goal in life is to get a good job in some corporation or family business and get rich.

I am not opposed to Professional Schools in general, I just don’t think they should be important parts of Universities, especially at the expense of more traditional academic disciplines. They also help, I believe, to encourage some, perhaps many, to denigrate other more basic professions that are more and more in short supply, electricians, plumbers, bakers, mechanics, and so on. European systems recognize that not everyone should be encouraged to enter the University, so they direct students fairly early, on the basis of their demonstrated abilities, into the professions. Here in the U.S. the ability or opportunity to enter a University has more to do with whether you can afford it than with any realistic abilities you may or may not possess, or even sometimes your desire to undertake more education. Colleges and Universities have become places to park young people to keep them out of the labor markets and off the streets, the degrees obtained are often useless except as a basis for whether or not you can be considered for certain kinds of employment, or to make it easier to enter the family business with at least a pretense of respectability. Often degrees in Anthropology, English Literature, History, Physical Education, etc. are of this type, but they don’t have to be, and in a culture that valued them more highly would not be.

The strength of the United States is not the gold at Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of the education and the character of our people. (Or at least it ought to be. M.)

Claiborne Pell

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