Slacker Friday

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Eric has a new "Think Again" column here called, "Investigating an Outsourced War."

Now here's Siva, Pierce, and Slacker Friday:

I suppose I could collect my books and get on back to school. Or steal my daddy's cue and make a living out of playing pool ...

Hi. It's Siva Vaidhyanathan again. Doing Altercation recently has been a pleasure. It got me back into the writing groove as I was struggling to get everything in order for my new job at the University of Virginia, which began this week. I have the greatest job in the world, as far as I can figure. It's rather stress-free unless you want to make it stressful. It's self-paced and thus family-friendly. It's never boring. I earned a rare measure of job security that is the envy of the American economy. And every year, I get to meet another flock of earnest, optimistic, committed, driven, intelligent, and impressive young people.

There are few feelings better than those little moments in a semester when a young person who has so many talents and is already successful at many things expresses gratitude for some small piece of knowledge or insight that she took away from my course. I am in awe of most of my students, and I take great satisfaction in knowing that many went on to do amazing things and almost all of them have begun solid and successful lives.

The streets of Charlottesville and every other college town in the United States are filled with eager young people who are determined to do this semester right and avoid that particular person or concoction that caused so much GPA damage last spring. Among these are the first-years (as we call them at this exceedingly eccentric university founded by Mr. Jefferson). The new students just went through an expensive and stressful senior year of high school during which they weighed the strengths and weaknesses of the various universities that invited them to attend. As they prepare to borrow more than a $100,000 (much less if they were smart enough to choose one of America's outstanding public universities, such as this one) for the pleasure of experiencing all that a university has to offer, they can't help but believe that they made the right choice.

The thing is, many of them did not. After more than a decade teaching in higher education at both elite private institutions and big public ones, I can safely say that many students and their parents are misled by the hype surrounding a small set of expensive schools that are outstanding places for some students and horrible wastes of time and money for others. I blame U.S. News & World Report and The New York Times for amplifying the hype around elite private schools. But we generally commit a major error of thought when trying to assess which college or university is "the best," or at least better than the affordable one down the road.

The error we make is assuming that something as rich and immersive as a university education is quantifiable and rankable.

Let me dispose of the second part first. Whether you attend Northwestern University (ranked No. 14 by the 2007 U.S. News survey) or the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (ranked No. 38), you will use a biology textbook by Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reece. Your professors will all have degrees from one of the 100 or so outstanding graduate schools in the world. Most will have degrees from one of the 10 best graduate programs in their fields. They will all have learned the same research techniques as those at MIT and Stanford. They will have read the same books and submitted their work to the same journals. You will be taught in some large lectures (which are the most underappreciated forums of learning) and far more small classes and seminars as you progress through the years.

As an undergraduate pursuing a general course of study in the arts and sciences, you will not be able to sense a curricular difference between Northwestern and Illinois. Sure, the basketball arena will feel MUCH different. But the classroom will not.

U.S. News gives us the false impression that there is some meaningful, quantifiable difference between the undergraduate experience at Northwestern (which costs nearly $36,000 per year in tuition alone) and Illinois (which state residents can attend for a mere $10,500 in tuition) that justifies Northwestern's enhanced rank. The big difference seems to be class size. Well, that is a highly misleading statistic. If you are an English student at either university, your large lectures will be rare and generally in subjects that everyone takes, like biology or U.S. history. If you are a biology major, you will take more large lecture courses, but most of those will be done by the end of your second year. This is true everywhere. But basically no one has demonstrated that in higher education, smaller classes are better than big ones. In fact, for core courses that change very little, you are better off taking a 300-person lecture with the finest teacher in the department than a small seminar with a mediocre or unmotivated professor who tends to spit when he talks.

How can you tell whether one university has more spitters than another? You can't. Once enrolled, you can learn reputations and avoid the spitters. But no amount of research and no system of rankings can limit your exposure to bad teachers. Northwestern has them. Illinois has them. Even the University of Virginia has them. But all of these institutions (and every one) has some amazing teachers as well.

So, as I said, the differences among faculty from the point of view of undergraduates are so slight among major institutions as to be irrelevant.

So what matters? All schools are not the same, of course. No one should EVER confuse the beautiful University of Texas at Austin with the stark and troublesome Texas A&M University. But I will tell you that my Aggie friends and I had about the same classroom experiences. The difference was, of course, that I never had to live in College Station, Texas, or attend a bonfire to pray for a football victory. In Austin, we had more than two bars. And none of them were called "The Dixie Chicken."

My point is that what happens out of class matters much more. When choosing an institution of higher learning, price and environment should guide you. Ignore the hype generated by meaningless rankings.

There is one more problem with the ranking culture. The variables U.S. News uses are corrupting higher education. That's a long story that deserves more detail and evidence than I can present here. Just trust me on this. Deans and provosts pay way too much attention to these rankings and alter resource distributions to tweak their ranks. It's pretty ugly.

OK. On to the slacker part of Slacker Friday.

Thanks again, and have a great fall.

Slacker Friday

Name: Charles Pierce
Hometown: Newton, MA

Hey, Doc --

"At the graveside of Cuchulainn we'll kneel around and pray/And God is in his heaven, and Billy's down by the bay."

Weekly WWOZ Pick To Click -- "Up On The Mountain" (The Magnificents). Once again, I have neglected to invent a band of lifelike androids who would travel this earth singing in many tongues how much I love New Orleans.

Apropos of that, it should be noted Tom Joyner did a first-class radio broadcast from the Ninth Ward on Wednesday morning. Things got so heated about the presidential photo-op later in the day that Mayor Ray Nagin started to sound very uncomfortable. (He does, after all, still have to deal with this pack of thooleramawns for a living.) Excellent radio all the way around. Meanwhile, here's some of the latest from the indomitable Times-Picayune. The numbers are mind-blowing, at least to me -- I mean, 105,000 buildings lost -- most of them residential structures -- and $14 billion-with-a-B in damages. In an American city. In my lifetime. And not just any American city, but one that is more important to the cultural identity of this country than any other except (maybe) New York. My favorite word in all the world is "self-evident," as in, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Mr. Jefferson is saying that the monumental heresies to follow -- all men created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienables, etc., etc. -- are so obvious that they almost don't need to be explained, but that he will explain them anyway. That word set freedom itself free, which was the case in New Orleans more than it was in any other place I can name. An America without a New Orleans is just Great Britain with better beachfront property.

This, I believe, is in no small part why an administration with a cramped and vicious vision of the country, an administration dedicated to the depths of its rotted, vestigial soul to making this country less free, an administration that has us seriously debating how much torture is enough and whether the president should be forced to abide by the laws he signed, an administration that would sell the entire constitutional order down the river for a three-point bump in a poll full of fools, would allow this particular city to be so grievously wounded and then die in recovery. What are we to make of a country that allows these soulless, vacant fools to govern it with impunity? We are all in New Orleans, now, standing in the wreckage of a graveyard. The sun rises hot and merciless. The help never comes. And New Orleans, the birthplace of our national soul, just turns out to be the place where they took our national soul to die.

105,000 buildings.

Jesus wept.

BREAKING! DEVELOPING! The first meeting of the Bateman/Pierce '08 Altercation Party presidential ticket was held this past Tuesday evening in a secure location on Capitol Hill. The two candidates had a cordial discussion, mostly discussing cordials, and agreed on the crucial issue of whether or not they would have another Scotch. Mendacious fundraising appeals to follow.

P.S. -- "Literature's team"? Never again, do you hear me?

P.P.S. -- All things being equal, I'd tend to believe my running mate on the subject of General Petraeus. But all things have not been equal for a very long time, and allowing the White House to tailor your report, going out of your way to appear with a partisan hack like Hugh Hewitt, and now yapping about domestic gas prices to a recent codel makes me wonder whether or not the general is going to show up on my doorstep in a couple of weeks and offer to sell me new siding for my house.

P.P.P.S -- The competition for Coolest Political Video is now officially over. I'm on the pavement, thinkin' 'bout the government.

Name: Brian Geving
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

Eric,

So you wondered why the military rolled over for the president when they didn't for Reagan or Clinton? I've often wondered the same thing, and only one thing comes to mind....September 11, 2001.

It is arguable that if 9/11 never happened, it would have been immensely more difficult for Bush and his gang to get us into this mess. Even though they had Iraq in their sights from the beginning, they knew that it would take something like "another Pearl Harbor" to make it possible. (Unfortunately, this also is fodder for the conspiracy nuts.)

Even though it's nice to think of the military as a separate entity (which it is in many ways), they are influenced just as much by world and national events as civilians. In the atmosphere after 9/11, it would have been incredibly difficult for anyone in the military, much less a civilian, to come out against the war. This is not meant to defend their inaction, and when plenty of civilians were against the war from the beginning there should also have been more than a few military officers with that kind of courage. It just seems logical that the military is as likely to be swept up in the patriotic nationalism after an event like 9/11 as was the rest of the country.

Name: George Klos
Hometown: Austin, TX

You ask, "Why did they roll over for Iraq...." and not show the backbone the senior command did in the '80s over invading Central America. I suspect it's because the brass of the '80s had firsthand Vietnam experience and learned from it. (I'm leaving out, for the sake of avoiding an extended tangential argument, that US military intervention in Central America was greater than we think, done primarily through special ops like the SEALS, etc.)

Name: Karen Abrams
Hometown: Encinitas

Hey bub, maybe the reason the NYT covers the Yankees more than they do the Mets is because, on a national level, there are more Yankee fans than there are Mets fans.

Did you happen to catch any of the Little League World Series on ESPN? Probably not. But if you did, you would have seen the pre-recorded segments at the beginning of each game during which the kids introduce themselves. It goes something like this: "My name is Eric Alterman. I play pitcher, and my favorite player is ... "

Go ahead and blame it on the Times, but the majority of those kids picked Derek Jeter as their top player, followed closely by A-Rod. (Ortiz came in a distant third, edging out Pujols by a hair.) Other than a few stray votes for Wright or Reyes, I'm afraid I didn't see a whole lotta swooning going on over the Mets. Sorry.

(Sorry, too, about the Yankees sweeping the Sox. Not.)

Name: Jim Hassinger
Hometown: Glendale

Your letter from Jim Carlile about how -- let me see -- having undercover cops in public washrooms, policing, among other things, gay men soliciting each other, had some curious ideas. We've decided we don't want "lewd behavior" in public, and I think that law would stay in the most gay-friendly society there is. It's just like the law against street prostitutes soliciting customers: even if you had legal cathouses, and professional status for call girls, you'd still bust street pros, for good reason: they bring down the neighborhood. You don't want a kid to go to the bathroom in an airport and have to deal with suspicious behavior in the stalls.

And the way to apprehend this behavior is by using undercover cops. They don't have to have sex to show the badge. A prostitute just has to name a price and she's going downtown. A man in a bathroom just has to solicit for the unwanted behavior.

I don't think it's oppressive in any case for the law to say, in effect, do what you want, just take it behind doors.

Name: Kim Viner
Hometown: Laramie, WY

IRT Dale: While not commenting on the man portrayed or the movie, I will say that Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack for the movie "Patton" may be not only his best work but one of the best movie soundtracks ever!!

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.