Archive for July, 2014

Something caught my eye this week as I was surfing around, this time from a mostly abandoned classical music criticism blog I used to read (with some frustration). I reproduce in full a post called “Top Ten Music School Rankings” because it’s content-lite (perhaps not original to the blog):

10. The school where you did your undergrad.
9. The school where you got your Master’s, and to which you are indebted for the gigs it helped you get to pay off the student loans for the school where you did your undergrad.
8. The place where you wrote your DMA dissertation on your teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s pedagogical methods (or lack thereof).
7. Juellerd. Julleard? Julliard. Jewelyard? Whatever.
6. Harvard.
5. The place you wanted to go for undergrad, but you fracked one single note in one single excerpt and then you panicked and broke down and called the trumpet professor “Dad” and then Dave got in even though he couldn’t play Petrushka in time and he’s always been kind of a dick about it and now he’s subbing like every weekend in the fucking BSO.
4. Royal Something of Great British Academy I think? I hear they never let Americans in. Or maybe that’s the other one?
3. The school that everybody knows isn’t as good as the school where you did your undergrad, but is “up-and coming.” Featuring a lauded entrepreneurship initiative that trains barista skills at one of the three coffee shops housed in its new state-of-the-art building, named for an alumnus of the university’s business school currently facing indictment for fraud.
2. University of Phoenix.
1. The school that has paid to have this list promoted on Facebook.

It’s funny (I guess) in ways that register mostly on music school grads, whose experiences and concerns over musical minutiae diverge from the mass of college graduates who majored in business, English, or any number of professional studies (premed, prelaw, journalism) that lead more consistently to employment in those professions. (Music school, BTW, is an unacknowledged type of trade school.) But the jokes are also somewhat ghoulish in ways that are becoming increasingly familiar to everyone seeking employment after completion of the formal phase of education. Mentions of Univ. of Phoenix and Facebook ought to be struck from this particular list except that they’re too emblematic of the systemic fraud that now passes for higher education. So it was curious to read, after the hooting and self-recognition in the comments section, a veritable cry in the wilderness:

I graduated from Oberlin, Michigan and Wisconsin and am currently a custodian in an apartment complex. I even won the concerto competition at 2 of the 3 schools and am in debt up to my eyeballs. I wish music schools would emphasize alternatives in the field of music, offer apprenticeships and internships and even require students to double major or double on a secondary “gig” instrument, so they could do well in the field.

Despite robust demand for education in performance fields (e.g., music, dance, acting) and other fine arts, there have never been waiting jobs anywhere close to the number of (presumably skilled) graduates churned out by schools. Obviously, one can invert the supply-demand nomenclature to oversupply of skilled performance labor vs. minimal market demand for those skills. Offering such degrees by every second- and third-tier school is undoubtedly a money-making enterprise but is nonetheless tantamount to intellectual dishonesty of a type distinct from what I blogged about here. Faculty and administrators are certainly hip to the fact that they’re often selling a bill of goods. After all, they’re paid for that expertise. This is why some parents (and some professors, too) do everything in their power to discourage students from pursuing performance studies, but to little avail as enrollments and selectivity continue to rise even if skill levels and accomplishment don’t.

As the “debt up to my eyeballs” comment above exemplifies, the cost of higher education has mounted far faster than inflation, and crushing student debt (unlikely to ever be repaid) now accompanies attendance at most top-tier schools except perhaps to trust-fund students. And even those top-tier schools find it difficult to deliver graduates into waiting jobs. It’s not that no one gets employed, mind you; it’s just that majoring in performance studies of one sort or another is akin to (essentially) majoring in football or basketball with dreams of joining the NFL or NBA after school. The numbers don’t bode well for graduates without extraordinary talent and/or connections, and unlike sports franchises, the arts don’t operate as pure meritocracies. Scoring ability if far more measurable than artistic expression, making it worthwhile to tolerate the misbehavior of thugs and cretins with speed, power, and attitude. I’m still waiting for the meme to establish itself that perhaps the considerable risk of tens of thousands of dollar in debt to attend music school is not worth the reward. This would clearly be a case of “do as I say, not as I do,” as careful readers of this blog must surmise by now that I, too, went to music school, though some while back before tuition hikes put it out of reach for me.

I don’t normally concern myself overly much with B movies. I may watch one while munching my popcorn, but they hardly warrant consideration beyond the time lost spent plopped in front of the screen. My first thought about World War Z is that there hasn’t been another case of a special effect in search of a story since, well, any of the films from the Transformers franchise (new one due out in a couple weeks). WWZ is a zombie film — the kind with fast zombies (running, jumping, and busting their heads through glass instead of just lumbering around) who transform from the living into the undead in under 20 seconds. None of this works without the genre being well established for viewers. Yet World War Z doesn’t hew to the implicit understanding that it should essentially be a snuff film, concocting all manner of never-before-seen gore from dispatching them-no-longer-us. Instead, its main visual play is distant CGI crowd scenes (from helicopters — how exciting!) of self-building Jenga piles of zombies.

Two intertwined stories run behind the ostensible zombie dreck: (1) an investigation into the origin of the viral outbreak that made the zombies, leading to a pseudo-resolution (not quite a happy ending) Hollywood writers apparently find obligatory, and (2) reuniting the investigator with his family, who has been separated because he’s the kind of reluctant hero with such special, unique skills that he’s extorted into service by his former employer. Why an A-list actor such as Brad Pitt agrees to associate himself with such moronic fare is beyond me. The character could have been played by any number of action stars aging past their ass-kicking usefulness as we watch: Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Wesley Snipes, Keanu Reeves (who can at least project problem-solving acumen), and Sylvester Stallone, just to name a few. This list could actually go on quite a bit further.

This is the kind of film for which the term suspension of disbelief was coined. The implausibly fortunate survival of the hero through a variety of threats is assured, tying the story together from front to back, which is a cliché that drains dramatic tension out of the story despite everyone around him perishing. I was curious to read P.Z. Myers’ rant discussing the awful science of World War Z, which also observes plot holes and strategic WTFs. The bad science doesn’t stick in my craw quite like it does for Myers, but then, my science background is pretty modest. Like so many fight scenes in action movies where the hero is never really injured, I just sorta go with it.

What really interests me about WWZ, however, is that it presents yet another scenario (rather uninspired, actually) of what might happen when society breaks apart. Since the film features a fast crash where everything goes utterly haywire within hours — yet the electrical grid stays up — the first harrowing scene is the family fleeing, first in a car and then a commandeered mobile home, before seeking temporary refuge in a tenement. The main character states early on that people on the move survive and people who hunker down are lost. That may be true in a theater of war, but I can’t judge whether it’s also true with a virulent contagion scenario. In any case, the investigator alternates between movement and refuge as his situation changes.

Because the zombie horde is a functionally external threat, survivors (however temporary) automatically unite and cooperate. This behavior is borne out in various real-world responses to fast-developing events. However, slow-mo threats without the convenient external enemy, such as we’re now experiencing in the real world with protracted industrial collapse, provides a different picture: dog eating dog and fighting to survive another day. Such alternatives cause many who foresee extraordinary difficulties in the decades ahead to wish for events to break over civilization like a tsunami, taking many all at once and uniting those unlucky enough to survive. But until that happens, we’re faced with slow death by a thousand cuts.

Fools Rush In

Posted: July 1, 2014 in Culture, Economics, Education, Literacy
Tags: ,

Several highly publicized inventories of OECD Skills Outlook 2013 hit the media last fall and then promptly fell off the radar. They stayed on my radar, waiting for the propitious time to sort my thinking and develop a blog post. (I’m always late to the party.) The full report is 466 pp., including blank pages, extensive front- and back-matter, and a writing style that positively discourages reading except to pluck quotes or statistics, as I do below. Such reports (e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also released in Fall 2013, which I also blogged about here) take considerable effort to compile, but they always leave me wondering whether any of them are actionable or worth going to such lengths to assess, compile, and report. Even the executive summaries expend more effort saying what the reports are rather than offering a cogent conclusion and/or recommendation. This style may well be a requirement of advanced bureaucracy.

Skills assessed by the OECD Skills Outlook are described here:

The Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), was designed to provide insights into the availability of some of these key skills in society and how they are used at work and at home. The first survey of its kind, it directly measures proficiency in several information-processing skills — namely literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.