Thursday, June 30, 2011

Jumping through Hoops: Why go to College?

In the new flick "Larry Crowne," which I viewed a couple nights ago, the lead character (Tom Hanks) gets downsized from his do-everything clerk job at a big box store--despite multiple "employee of the month" honors and pride in his work--simply because he never went to college.  Later in the film, we see his colleague dismissed because he only completed three years post-high school education.

Besides the development of a sparkless connection with a speech teacher (Julia Roberts) when he enrolls at a community college, the take-away from "Larry Crowne" is that being enthusiastic and competent counts far less for advancement than some arguably meaningless hours in a classroom.

Coincidentally, my fave radio host just spent an hour interviewing John Stossel about whether or not college is worthwhile.  Stossel, on the show to promote a TV special on the topic, emphatically championed "not."

But "worthwhile" was only defined as college's import or impact on the careers of its graduates.  Are most jobs that require a college degree really performed better because their holders possess a sheepskin?  Probably not, if the employee has enough smarts to otherwise pick up the skill set.  Are graduate degrees worth the thousands of dollars of debt they usually incur?  That's getting to be a tossup, with many occupations now overloaded with applicants.  Get a juris doctor from a good though not top school, and you're no longer guaranteed a position in a law firm when you finish.

Vocational schools do an admirable job preparing students for real-world wage-earning.  I hired a young woman to baby sit my children partially because she had a certificate from a "nanny school."  Years ago, when earning my counseling credentials in Los Angeles (yes, at a university--more on that later), I toured and admired a regional vocational center, where high school students took courses on real-life skills, like how to plate meals at restaurants, how to repair a Ford carburetor, how to manage a hotel, and how to organize an office.  The graduates of these programs were immediately employable--if they'd been subsidized by Obama's stimulus, they'd be called "shovel-ready," though these folk won't need to wield a shovel to earn a paycheck.

There are plenty of very clever entrepreneurs who didn't need college classes to put their creativity and industriousness to lucrative work.  Everyone points to Harvard dropout Bill Gates as a premier example.  But lots of dot-com and smartphone app-designers learn how to write code and instantly launch businesses that answer a need or desire, with no need for pre-requisities.  If you're smart, you'll succeed with--or without--a college degree.

If you're not at the IQ or achievement apex, though, college has some benefits--for you and your future employer.  Possessing a four-year degree shows tenacity, the ability to play by the rules successfully to conclusion of task.  Dropping out suggests failure, no way around it; extenuating circumstances must be explained.  Nowadays, those who don't even attempt college are assumed unintelligent or incapable or disadvantaged.  None of those terms describe highly-desired employees.  College completion is a gate-keeper, a screening device simplifying the employee selection process.  Earning a professional degree is similarly the red rope allowing the plucky few through to highest-paid echelons.

So it's true that education is the key to success.  The more educated, the more income and less unemployment.  Here are the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Earning a degree is an achievement. Admittedly it's a very narrow type of achievement, showing short-term mastery of material, compliance with requirements, and the ability to show up at lectures or share notes with someone who has.  With "distance learning" the new trend, now even face-time on campus is optional.

Higher education is also an industry.  Confession: I have a master's degree in...believe it or not, Higher Education. It's an actual major in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA, and I earned an MA in it.  In fact, I was a happy customer for the industry of college for eleven years.  Because what one is prepared for when one completes high school go to school.  For me, and many others, college is an extension of high school where you get to decide when to come to class.

Throughout my college years, I was self-supporting through a variety of lower-paying jobs, and had no help from parents.  And I finally did have to decide what I wanted to do, and it did require the ultimate degree I earned.  But being in college gave me lots of time to figure that out, as my professors urged me to go on to higher levels, to stick around sitting in the front row taking copious notes and memorizing the words that came from their mouths.

College has plenty of perquisites, including fun. Not just in the getting drunk kind of way (wasn't my thing) but in the pleasure of learning stuff and then spewing it back, with the reward of credits, and ultimately, a degree.  And respect.  I didn't really understand why simply continuing to be a subordinate, an older child, earned such kudos, but I also didn't care. The process was excellent.  The campus was beautiful, with exotic botanics punctuating every season, lunchtimes on broad expanses of lawn eating unreasonably cheap meals, a built-in friendship network and exciting events publicized in a free daily newspaper.

Tip to youth: When you don't really want to grow up, collect graduate degrees.

The infrastructure supports it.  Professors want to keep their jobs and, as I implied before, enjoy the ego boost from attentive and interested students. To support their administration and auxiliary services, as well as the faculty, colleges want to attract and matriculate good students. The counselors want clientele; the cafeteria staff wants to keep making delicious soups with free crackers and selling them for two dollars a bowl.  The point is that higher education is an enormous industry that exists to perpetuate itself.  It's invested in its own prestige, and a gullible society buys in.
Because of its historical importance, and the fact that decision makers went there and passed through its gate, and mainly because of higher education's own survival mechanisms, politicians like our president seek to expand the market for colleges and funnel more tax funds their way.  Speaking at the University of Texas, Austin, last August, the President said, "I'm absolutely committed to making sure that here in America, nobody is denied a college education, nobody is denied a chance to pursue their dreams, nobody is denied a chance to make the most of their lives just because they can’t afford it. We are a better country than that, and we need to act like we’re a better country than that."

So, in his view, a "better" country channels everyone into college, in stark denial of the realities of the marketplace.  The new workforce can now design websites from home. It can telecommute and use flat-screen TVs for group meetings.  It can outsource manual manufacturing to China from computers by the pool.  Did Bill Gates need college?

Does America?  If, as Pres. Obama envisions, ours becomes a country where everyone is college educated, who will serve your Starbucks?  Who will deliver the replacement windows that are energy-efficient?  Who will staff the restaurant where you have your raw food salad?  (Answer: the barista, delivery truck driver and waiter with BAs in sociology, psychology and history.)  Truth is, not everyone is academically inclined, and our country would be in trouble if everyone were.

I have three children, two with bachelor's degrees, but my third child is poised to start college this fall.  Would I advise him not to--rather to create another iPhone app? He's computer capable but not code-savvy, not mathematical, not even really academically enthused.  But he knows without my saying it that he will attend and graduate a 4-year college, because in present cultured society it's the minimum acceptable, the first rung on the success ladder.

A college degree is what a high school diploma was perhaps forty years ago.  Adolescence has expanded, and my son knows, having grown up in this overly-diploma'd family, what's honored and expected.  But were he to start his own company, and were it to grow and succeed, and, were he to then come to me and say he wanted to drop out of college to pursue his business...I'm not sure what I'd say.  Probably something like, "Keep working on your enterprise, but you ought to finish what you start."

That's the hoop of college, the jump that requires a smooth execution, not a stumble.  Completion.  I think we ought to drop the stigma for the working person who didn't attend college, but at the same time recognize that we're not returning to the old days when a high school diploma was sufficient.  Success is sufficient. Nobody cares that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, in fact to the contrary, there's something humanizing about it. I think the big box store unfairly axed the Larry Crowne character, because he showed not only competence but superiority in his work; he was successful in his position.

But when you're 21 and heading out to the world, it's still nice to have enjoyed the perks of college at a time of life when you're unencumbered.  And a diploma is still a symbol to the world that you finish what you start.

There are other issues at play--the left-leaning political bias among college professors that gets transmitted to impressionable students eager to please, the social milieu that promotes drinking and fraternizing, the blossoming of "disciplines" (e.g. Women's studies, "Queer" studies, Environmental Studies) that used to be subsumed under standard departments like history and biology, and plenty more--that complicate college's assessment.  Also, not all colleges are equal.  The benefits of attending an elite college are tangible while those for a non-selective institution may be minimal, especially when the financial toll is figured in.

Perhaps the best solution would be to eliminate federal tax subsidies for students, and for states to restructure.  Some of the least financially viable schools would close; those that attract a clientele would remain.  The remainder would become even more selective, allowing the most academic applicants access, and the rest a reason to explore vocational training or entrepreneurial outlets.  In the end, no matter how urgently the administration presses for universal college attendance, the reality of individual differences will prevail.  And because of that, the broader goal should be to honor honest, dedicated effort--hard work, self-sufficiency--rather than a certain number of hours in a lecture hall or a passing score on a final exam.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Every Thug A Star: Vancouver Riot Fueled by YouTube Wanna-Bes

The devastation last week when the Vancouver, BC hockey team, the Canucks, caused a riot by losing the Stanley Cup Final to the Boston Bruins, was shocking--and not just because sports fans can turn so mean.

Though it was appalling: A downtown destroyed, a hundred people arrested, nine policemen injured, 15 cars burned...because of a game?

To my feminine brain, the idea that team supporters could get so worked up that they go on a burning, looting, stampeding, violent rampage en masse--abandoning all morals!--is incomprehensible.  But when you start watching the YouTube videos, you're transported to the thick of it, and the outrageous mob mentality fomenting evil becomes real.

What was different about this monstrous reaction to something inherently minor in the scheme of life?  Canucks fans probably don't think their team loss was minor--after all, Vancouver has no other major sports team, and viewing the Finals' Game 7 was organized to be a city experience, with bleachers and seven huge screens set up on Georgia Street downtown. But sports, while a major business and industry, is merely peripheral to life's necessities, such as food, shelter, a source of income, family connections, and health.

The thing that made this urban outburst unique was that something new, beyond masculine idiocy and selfish thievery exacerbated the destructive mentality:  ubiquitous cell phones.

When you look at the YouTube videos posted, you realize that the mere fact of their availability means somebody was abetting the havoc and mayhem by standing there recording it.  Observers posting their videos undoubtedly felt they witnessed something significant--but failed to join with the overwhelmed police or lone citizens trying to quell the throngs to stop it.  In fact, their actions added to the difficulties.

The second thing you notice when watching is that nearly everyone else on screen not actively bashing or kicking or crashing something is also taking a video or a photo. No longer are news events "covered" by reporters sent belatedly to the scene. Now, when something unusual happens, individuals become device-holders; recording one's surroundings becomes integral to participants' experiences.

What that does, again visible on the posted videos, is encourage criminals' bravado.  You can see the thugs standing on overturned, burning cars, making muscles posing for a friend. You see them running in front of burning stores for the snapshot, then running back into the mob.  You see guys grabbing wooden planks, shoving them through glass into window displays, then raising their fists triumphantly, proclaiming their macho act, posing for the semi-circle of cell phone-holding spectators, heard cheering their subject.

And the hoodlums have no fear that their performances will bring reprisal, even as they show off for the phone-wielding hordes.  Instead of encouraging restraint, since they can be identified and more easily prosecuted, the cell phones seem to make every thug a star, every evening's anarchist a hero.

Rather a famous bad guy on this "reality TV" than a decent person with what used to be considered "normal" values.  Could it be that all the sluts-as-celebs and jerks-as-leading men on cable shows fascinate the public so much their despicable behavior is now seen as compellingly benign? What is it about a dozen cell phone cameras trained on him that makes a guy completely negate his upbringing?

It's true that religion in BC is in retreat, and latest census data shows "no religion" as the most popular option, selected by 35% of the population.  But don't even atheists have a concept of being a "good person"?  Wouldn't that include refraining from bashing in store windows with posts--and then when a singular man protests "What is this? Are you guys insane?" attacking him, kicking him and bashing him until he's a crumpled heap in the gutter?

I gasped when I watched that, a burly guy who'd answered the hooligans, beaten down by six or seven creeps, until he lay motionless in the street.

I was also agog to read the coverage of the riot in the press.  All written in the passive voice--so that nobody's actually responsible. By using that grammatical structure, the perpetrators aren't criminals or thugs or hoodlums or looters but rather, neutral forces:  "Windows were broken..." "A large two-by-four was jammed..." "A Honda was overturned..."  "It started with a couple dozen plastic bottles being thrown...then fireworks were ignited...a gray SUV was set on fire..."  All this from a single Seattle Times report of the mayhem.  What usually might say "A young man in a Canucks jersey stomped on a mailbox..." reads instead "A mailbox was stomped." The subjects causing the verbs are missing.  Can't imply these are bad guys breaking the law.

To be sure, many Vancouver residents are ashamed of their neighbors. Volunteers assembled to clean up the mess.  But the chutzpah of rioters to brag about their criminal acts on their Facebook pages, and post shots of themselves in the midst of burning mayhem shows the devolved character of too many people in chaotic circumstances.

My husband thinks the Canucks' loss was just the excuse for pent up anger, perhaps a "spring fever" delayed by bad weather, like what used to appear as annual college campus protests.  That suggests that the riots would have happened whether the Vancouver team won or lost.  Certainly the setting was right--crowds compressed into a tight downtown area, loosened by alcohol, anxious over their athletes' success.  But these were not downtrodden societal underdogs rebelling against broader injustices--rather, they were a mix of ordinary Canadian sports fans, more of whom should have stood up to blatant criminality occurring before their eyes.

Now, however, eyes are electronic, removing their owners from responsibility and direct connection to what they view.  At this point, the Vancouver riots are another form of entertainment; something else to raise our eyebrows for a moment, before we upload other scraps of life into the ether.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Veggies in "Healthy Food Deserts" Won't Cure Obesity

Hand-wringers in universities and government care-for-you offices have rearranged urban geography to stop the obes-ifying of America's children--by deeming certain neighborhoods "healthy food deserts." That's deserts, like the Sahara, not desserts, like what kids are actually eating.

They say that communities lacking large supermarkets, but boasting a plethora of convenience and corner stores, prevent residents from consuming the veggies and fruits that would keep them svelte.  Time and cash-strapped neighbors feed their families the fried chicken, corn dogs, chips and soda these mini-marts sell--but the experts insist that if the same stores featured cucumbers and apples front-and-center instead, parents would opt for the healthy choice.  And they, as well as their children, would be thinner.

This speculative chain of thinking led the "do something" activists--progressively-bent feds, local governments, university researchers and foundations-- to attack the problem the only way they know how: by throwing money at it.  Pres. Obama's stimulus package--our tax dollars at work, through the Centers for Disease Control bureaucracy-- has awarded thirty communities $230 million in grants to prevent childhood obesity.  Local United Way offices have funded "healthy corner store initiatives," like $50,000 to three stores in Franklinville, Ohio, and an unspecified amount in Seattle to upgrade the healthy-food stock and displays in 22 convenience stores in the Delridge neighborhood.  In addition, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, funded nine sites nationally, including $500,000 to Seattle's King County. In Pennsylvania, $30 million of state grants over three years was triple-matched by $90 million more in grants and loans from The Food Trust, used for 78 grocery outlets in poor neighborhoods.

But the front-page lead article in this week's Sunday Seattle Times paper, combined with its Sunday magazine cover story (funded as a grant project by a California endowment through the University of Southern California) exposes how ineffectual throwing money at fat-causing behaviors really is (even as the feature lamely offers sidebars advising parents on curbing kids' expansion).

The article says that here in my state of Washington, the feds and foundations tossed mega-bucks ($15.5 million from stimulus funds alone) at the "food desert" problem without results. It describes how food-access advocates finally convinced the Delridge "Super 24" corner store to revamp its stock, adding refrigerated cases with an assortment of fruits and veggies. A KOMO TV news story features United Way rep Lauren McGowan pointing to the new cases effusing, "you've got lettuce and limes and lemons and cucumbers, and stuff that families can go home and make a salad, make a fresh meal for their family!"

The news video laments that small convenience stores don't take food stamps, suggesting illogically that this forces homeless customers like Jose Lopez to buy junk food instead: "Oh, I like to have these fruits..." Mr. Lopez, holding a freshly-purchased large coffee says, pointing to a basket of apples, oranges and bananas by the cash register.  He's cut off mid sentence by reporter Elisa Jaffe who finishes, "but they don't take your food stamps."  Lopez shrugs. "They don't."

It's wonderful that kindly community members want their poorer brethren to eat well. But the brethren themselves don't choose to. Bhim Singh, the Delridge store's owner, was lauded in December, 2009 when his new refrigeration units and "healthy choice!" signs touting nutritious items went up. This week's newspaper article, however, provides an update:  "We would spend $200 on vegetables and make only $10," he admits.  He's back to stocking only the longer-shelf life produce he carried before the hoopla, like potatoes and onions.  His clientele, it's clear, keeps him afloat with their fried-food-and soda purchases.

"Officials say they have learned valuable lessons," says the Seattle Times story. "Maybe they didn't spend enough time selling the idea.  In any case, they've budgeted another $1.8 million in hopes of enlisting at least 25 stores."  Don't bore them with facts.

The research considered most definitive on the question of access to healthy food was conducted by the US Department of Agriculture, published in June, 2009.  In it, a national questionnaire (which, when examined, is a pretty poor measure of food access) found that 81 percent of respondents "always had the kinds of food they want to eat."  Sixteen percent had enough, but not "always the kind of food they want to eat." Of that 16%, five percent said they didn't "always have the kinds of food they want to eat" because "it was too hard to get to the store, or the kinds of foods they wanted were not available."  Elderly or infirm people, and those who didn't have the money for food--even if it were easily available--made up more than half of those people--leaving less than 3% of respondents overall who don't "always" have what they want because "the kinds of foods they want are not available."

This calls for another government grant.

Now, nowhere in the study does it ask exactly what are the kinds of foods that respondents wanted.  Might be hallal food, or kosher food.  Might be gluten-free, or sugar-free foods. Might be gourmet cheeses or craft beers.  And of course the questionnaire asked if their desired foods were "always" available. If your market runs out of your brand of cereal or the kind of milk you like, then you aren't "always" able to get what you want.

There's an assumption that people in low-income areas crave fresh fruits and vegetables, but that a nefarious capitalistic force thwarts their innate healthy-food proclivities.

There are indeed market forces at work, and what they do is push shop-keepers to provide their local clientele what that clientele wants--or risk going under.  It's an insult to suggest that poor people don't know the difference between healthy and junk food.  Anyone with a television hears the news stories about Michele Obama's "Let's Move!" program, and watches reports like the video of the Delridge Super 24's new offerings. In 2007 alone, the USDA spent $697 million in classroom education, and every child in school over the last 20 years has, usually by government mandate, learned about good nutrition--but it does no good.  Ask the convenience-store patron buying grease-fried chicken wings about his purchase, and he knows darn well it's less beneficial than the apples he ignored near the cash register.

In fact, that's the exact scenario on the KOMO TV video about the Delridge store.  It opens as heavy-set Joseph Munnerlyn is selecting his purchases. Caught in the act buying junk, he explains, "I'm hungry, I'm trying to get something fast and quick, so I..." A voice-over then interjects that he's "a connoisseur of corner-store meals." Voice up. "Oh, I love it all," Mr. Munnerlyn intones with affection, waving his hand by the fried offerings in a heat-lamp-warmed glass case. "The wings, I mean come on! The breasts, the burritos, the Jo-jos...!" (Jo-jos are breaded and fried potato wedges.)

Bhim Singh owns "Super 24" store
 He gives a sly smile. "I know it's not healthy, but at the same time..." He lifts up an apple from the basket of fruit in front of him at the register. "...It's hard for me to pick up an apple when I've only got two bucks and I've got to feed myself for the rest of the day."  The unchallenged assumption there is that he gets more satisfying food for his money buying Jo-jos than a Jonathan.  It's not his fault.

When it looked at healthy food access by social variables, that Department of Agriculture national study about Americans' access to food found some astonishing conclusions--about supermarkets, typically stocked with a wide assortment of produce-- that the reform-corner-stores crowd might want to consider, such as:

"Overall, median distance to the nearest supermarket is 0.85 miles. Median distance for low-income individuals is about 0.1 of a mile less than for those with higher income, and a greater share of low-income individuals (61.8 percent) have high or medium access to supermarkets than those with higher income (56.1 percent).

"Overall, ethnic and racial minorities have better access to supermarkets than Whites. Median distance to the nearest supermarket for non-White individuals is 0.63 miles, compared with 0.96 miles on average for Whites.

"Similarly, a smaller percentage of non-Whites (26.6 percent) have low access to supermarkets than do Whites (48.2 percent)."

Given failure to influence purchases when corner stores feature fresh fruits and vegetables, and the fact that poor people and minorities have better access nationally to supermarkets than the financially better off and whites, why are anti-obesity experts so gung-ho on watering so-called "healthy food deserts" with tax money and foundation donations?

Because they're desperately searching for do-able solutions to a problem whose cause has still to be defined, and which has foiled all efforts to solve.

It's really not as if gluttony, sloth, inactivity and even childhood obesity are novel foes. According to CDC statistics, the steep increase in childhood obesity began in 1980 and after reaching an alarming peak a few years ago, has leveled off.  Throughout those years, and particularly since 1990, attention at all levels has focused on the issue.  It's just that these problems have proven resistant to even the most expensive and valiant efforts to overcome them.

For decades, millions of dollars have poured into nutritional education.  At the same time that carbonated soft drink consumption declines (every year for the past six!) organic food options burgeon, gaining by 20% every year in the last decade.  Health food stores, once a niche market, have gone mainstream; a case in point--the Whole Foods supermarket chain, begun in 1980 in Austin, now boasts more than 300 outlets.

Still, the mantra throughout professional obesity-world literature is that the problem requires still more investment of public funds. A 2007 book by the Food and Nutrition Board, Progress in Preventing Childhood Obesity: How Do We Measure Up? notes that "Government, industry, communities, schools, and families are responding to the childhood obesity epidemic by implementing a variety of policies, programs, and other interventions," but decides "the current level of investment by the public and private sectors still does not match the extent of the problem."

Of course, its main finding is that we just don't know if all the spending and talking and teaching and fruit-and-veggie-touting is making a difference, phrasing this conclusion in admirably academic terms: "Current data and evidence are inadequate for a comprehensive assessment of the progress that has been made in preventing childhood obesity across the United States."  Ahem.

Obesity in children--and adults--is a far more complex phenomenon than well-meaning agencies and pundits are willing to admit.  And because its causes are not yet understood, creating innumerable boards and bureaucracies to eradicate it (and make food deserts bloom) have failed. To be sure, some money must go toward innovative medical research to tease out the true sources of obesity--and whether the future generation is as doomed by it as alarmists insist.

I suspect that genetics and environmental influences (A virus, like the Adenovirus 36? An "obeso-genic" substance or situation that, like carcinogens, throws cells out of whack?) will prove contributors to the problem, and that unfair stereotypes that suggest all fat people are ignorant, have no self-control and need patronizing interventions will be squashed like the unsold tomatoes at Super 24 in Delridge, Washington.