Category Archives: education

I don’t work at a finishing school

David Brooks, in the New York Times:

On the left, less viciously, we have elite universities that have become engines for the production of inequality. All that woke posturing is the professoriate’s attempt to mask the fact that they work at finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent. Their graduates flock to insular neighborhoods in and around New York, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities, have little contact with the rest of America and make everybody else feel scorned and invisible.

It’s fun to track down a fact. More from the top 1% than the bottom 60%! That certainly makes professoring sound like basically a grade-inflation concierge service for the wealthy with a few scholarship kids thrown in for flavor. But it’s interesting to try to track down the basis of a quantitative claim like this. Brooks says “more students often come,” which is hard to parse. He does, helpfully, provide a link (not all pundits do this!) to back up his claim.

Now the title of the linked NYT piece is “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60.” Some is a little different from often; how many colleges, exactly, are that badly income-skewed? The Times piece says 38, including five from the Ivy League. Thirty-eight colleges is… not actually that many! The list doesn’t include Harvard (15.1 from the 1%, 20.4 from the bottom 60%) or famously woke Oberlin (9.3/13.3) or Cornell (10.5/19.6) or MIT (5.7/23.4) or Berkeley (3.8/29.7) and it definitely doesn’t include the University of Wisconsin (1.6/27.3).

We can be more quantitative still! A couple of clicks from the Times article gets you to the paper they’re writing about, which helpfully has all its data in downloadable form. Their list has 2202 colleges. Of those, the number that have as many students from the top 1% as from the bottom 60% is 17. (The Times says 38, I know; the numbers in the authors’ database match what’s in their Feb 2020 paper but not what’s in the 2017 Times article.) The number which have even half as many 1%-ers as folks from the bottom 60% is only 64. But maybe those are the 64 elitest-snooty-tootiest colleges? Not really; a lot of them are small, expensive schools, like Bates, Colgate, Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt — good places to go to school but not the ones whose faculty dominate The Discourse. The authors helpfully separate colleges into “tiers” — there are 173 schools in the tiers they label as “Ivy Plus,” “Other elite schools,” “Highly selective public,” and ‘Highly selective private.” All 17 of the schools with more 1% than 60% are in this group, as are 59 of the 64 with a ratio greater than 1/2. But still: of those 173 schools, the median ratio between “students in the top 1%” and “students in the bottom 60%: is 0.326; in other words, the typical such school has more than three times as many ordinary kids as it has Richie Riches.

Conclusion: I don’t think it is fair to characterize the data as saying that the elite universities of the US are “finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent.”

On the other hand: of those 173 top-tier schools, 132 of them have more than half their students coming from the top 20% of the income distribution. UW–Madison draws almost two-fifths of its student body from that top quintile (household incomes of about $120K or more.) And only three out of those 173 have as many as 10% of their student body coming from the bottom quintile of the income distribution (UC-Irvine, UCLA, and Stony Brook.) The story about elite higher ed perpetuating inequality isn’t really about the kids of the hedge-fund jackpot winners and far-flung monarchs who spend four years learning critical race theory so they can work at a Gowanus nonprofit and eat locally-sourced brunch; it’s about the kids of the lawyers and the dentists and the high-end realtors, who are maybe also going to be lawyers and dentists and high-end realtors. And the students who are really shut out of elite education aren’t, as Brooks has it, the ones whose families earn the median income; they’re poor kids.

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No matter what new problem it sets for parents

The nursery school, therefore, appears as a counter influence against the almost hidden processes by which society through the parents undertakes the premature exploitation of children’s interests in behalf of its own conventionalized and not very natural program of life.  It thus happens that one of the first considerations in a nursery school program is that after satisfying the expectations of the family with regard to the physical care of children it should keep its further thinking in firm alignment with biological rather than social understandings with regard to the present and future welfare of the child, and this no matter what new problem it sets for parents, and no matter what amount of diversity of opinion may arise between them and the school.

(Frederick W. Ellis, introduction to Harriet M. Johnson’s Children in the Nursery School, 1928.)

i, you sneaky bastard

Childhood memory:  I learned that i is formally defined to be the square root of -1.  Well, I thought, that worked well, what about the square root of i?  Surely that must be yet a new kind of number.  I just had to check that (a+bi)^2 can never be i.  But whoa, you can solve that!  (sqrt(2)/2) + (sqrt(2)/2)i does the trick.  I was kind of bowled over by this.  i, you sneaky bastard — you anticipated my next move and got ahead of me!  I had no idea what “algebraically closed” meant, or anything like that.  But it was one of my first experience of the incredible power of the right definition.  Once the definition is right, you can just do everything.

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Strawberries and Cream

I discovered yesterday, three nested directories down in my math department account, that I still had a bunch of files from my last desktop Mac, which retired in about 2003. And among those files were backups from my college Mac Plus, and among those files were backups from 3 1/4″ discs I used on the family IBM PC in the late 1980s. Which is to say I have readable text files of almost every piece of writing I produced from age 15 through about 25.

Very weird to encounter my prior self so directly. And surprising that so much of it is familiar to me, line by line. I can see, now, who I liked to rip off: Raymond Carver, a lot. Donald Barthelme. There’s one poem where I’m pretty sure I was going for “mid-80s Laurie Anderson lyrics.” Like everyone else back then I was really into worrying about nuclear war. I produced two issues of a very mild-mannered underground newspaper called “Ground Zero” with a big mushroom cloud on the front, for the purpose of which my pseudonym was “Bogus Librarian.” (I really liked Bill and Ted’s. Still do, actually.) Anyway, there’s a nuclear war story in this batch, which ends like this: “And the white fire came, and he wept no more.” Who is “he”? The President, natch.

But actually what I came here to include is the first thing I really remember writing, which is a play, called “Strawberries and Cream.”  I wrote it for Harold White’s 9th grade English class.  The first time I met Mr. White he said “Who’s your favorite author?” and I said “I don’t know, I don’t think I had one,” and he said, “Well, that’s terrible, everyone should have a favorite author,” and I probably should have felt bullied but instead felt rather adult and taken seriously.

A central element of his English class was writing imitations of writers, one in each genre.  So I wrote an imitation John Cheever story, and I think an imitation Edna St. Vincent Millay poem (I can’t find this one, tragically.) But the thing Mr. White asked me to read that really sang to me was The Bald Soprano.  Was it that obvious, from the outside, that it was mid-century Continental absurdism I was lacking?  Or was it just a lucky guess?

Anyway:  below the fold, please enjoy “Strawberries and Cream,” the imitation Eugene Ionesco play I wrote when I was 15.

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August linkdump

  • The company that makes OldReader, the RSS reader I fled to after the sad demise of Google Reader, is from Madison!  OK, Middleton.  Still part of Silicon Isthmus.
  • I never new that Mark Alan Stamaty, one of my favorite cartoonists, did the cover of the first They Might Be Giants album.
  • Hey I keep saying this and now Allison Schrager has written an article about it for Bloomberg.  Tenure is a form of compensation.  If you think tenure is a bad way to pay teachers, and that compensation is best in the form of dollars, that’s fine; but if California pretends that the elimination of tenure isn’t a massive pay cut for teachers, they’re making a basic economic mistake.
  • New “hot hand” paper by Brett Green and Jeffrey Zweibel, about the hot hand for batters in baseball.  They say it’s there!  And they echo a point I make in the book (which I learned from Bob Wardrop) — some of the “no such thing as the hot hand” studies are way too low-power to detect a hot hand of any realistic size.
  • Matt Baker goes outside the circle of number theory and blogs about real numbers, axioms, and games.  Daring!  Matt also has a very cool new paper with Yao Wang about spanning trees as torsors for the sandpile group; but I want that to have its own blog entry once I’ve actually read it!
  • Lyndon Hardy wrote a fantasy series I adored as a kid, Master of the Five Magics.  I didn’t know that, as an undergrad, he was the mastermind of the Great Caltech Rose Bowl Hoax.  Now that is a life well spent.
  • Do you know how many players with at least 20 hits in a season have had more than half their hits be home runs?  Just two:  Mark McGwire in 2001 and Frank Thomas in 2005.
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Conservative commentators on education are mad about the new AP US History standards.

The group’s president, Peter Wood, called the framework politically biased. One of his many complaints is about immigration: “Where APUSH sees ‘new migrants’ supplying ‘the economy with an important labor force,’ others with equal justification see the rapid growth of a population that displaces native-born workers from low-wage jobs and who are also heavily dependent on public services and transfer payments.”

Here’s the full text of the relevant bullet point in the standards.

The new migrants affected U.S. culture in many ways and supplied the economy with an important labor force, but they also became the focus of intense political, economic, and cultural debates.

You can decide for yourself whether the standard sweeps under the rug the fact that many people wish there were fewer immigrants.  But shouldn’t Newsweek print the whole sentence, instead of letting its readers rely on selective quotes?  Why do I have to look this stuff up myself?

Why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

Great open from Chris Hayes:

Imagine you’re a scientist in some sci-fi alternate universe, and you’ve been charged with creating a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths more or less willing to do anything.

There are two main traits you’d want to cultivate in your recruits. The first would be terror: You’d want to ensure that the experimental subjects were kept off-­balance and insecure, always fearful that bad things would happen, that they would be humiliated or lose their position and be cast out. But at the same time, it would be crucial that you assiduously inculcate a towering sense of superiority, the belief that the project they happen to be engaged in is more important than anything and that, because of their remarkable skills and efforts, they are among the select few chosen to be a part of it. You’d want to simultaneously make them neurotically insecure and self-doubting and also filled with the conviction that they and their colleagues are smarter and better and more deserving than anyone else.

He’s writing about young investment bankers, whose lives, such as they are, are described in Kevin Roose’s new book “Young Money.”  But doesn’t this boot camp actually describe the Ph.D. experience pretty well?  And if so, why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

I can think of one reason:  in finance, the thing you are trying to do is screw over somebody else.  If you win, someone has lost.  Mathematics is different.  We’re all pushing together.  Not that there’s no competition; but it’s embedded in a fundamental consensus that we’re all on the same team.  Apparently this is enough to hold back the sociopathy, at least for most of us.

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We are all Brian Conrad now

The quality of streaming conference talks has improved a ton, to the point where it’s now really worthwhile to watch them, albeit not the same as being there.  Our graduate students and I have been getting together and watching some of the talks from the soiree of the season, the MSRI perfectoid spaces conference.  This has been great and I highly recommend it.

One good thing about watching at home is that you can stop the stream whenever anybody has a question, or whenever you want to expand on a point made by the speaker!  We usually spend 90-100 minutes to watch an hour talk.  One amusing phenomenon:  when we have a question or don’t understand something, we stop and talk it out.  Then, when we start the stream again, we usually see that the speaker has also stopped, because someone in the audience has asked the same question.  This is very reassuring to the graduate students!  What’s confusing to us is invariably also confusing to someone else, even to Brian Conrad, because we decided to always presume that the unseen, unheard questioner was Brian, which is pretty safe, right?  (One time we could sort of hear the question and I’m pretty sure it was Akshay, though.)

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Proof school: it’s not just for math kids anymore

A while back I complained, I hope good-naturedly, about Proof School’s self-description as “a school just for math kids.”  A little Ravi told me that the website has since been revamped, and the new version, with tagline “For kids who love math,” is much more to my liking.  The phrase “math kids” is still around, but I think it presents them (us?) as less of a separate species, and more of an tribe bound by common culture:

By “math kids” we mean children who are truly talented and passionate about math. We say we’re looking for students who are internally pulled by math, not externally pushed into it. Of course, math kids have many interests beyond math or computer science–it’s more just a term of convenience and endearment, really–not an absolute. Almost a nickname. If you know any math kids, you know what we mean. Maybe you were one, once, too.

I’m OK with this!

I will say, though, that 6 occurrences of the words “passion” or “passionate” in the FAQ is too many.

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Is online education good or bad for equality?

It seems like it would obviously be good — now kids who don’t have money and don’t live near universities have, in principle, access to much of the world’s knowledge as long as they have a cheap computer and an internet connection.

But in math, I’ve heard anecdotally that this isn’t really happening.  I thought we were going to see an influx of mathematical talent, smart kids from Mississippi who couldn’t get any math past calculus from their peers, their local high school, or the public library, but who trained themselves hardcore on Art of Problem Solving or Mathematics Stack Exchange.  But I don’t think this is happening so much.  (Correct me if I’m wrong about this!)

I thought about this when I read this article about MOOCs, which says that they’re primarily used by wealthy people who already have college degrees.  What a depressing outcome that would be, if a platform meant to make elite education available free to everybody and help undo the student-loan disaster instead mostly made life easier for people whose lives are already easy, and saved money for people who already have money.

 

 

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