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Should universities be held accountable for student debt?
On the first episode of The Portal, Eric Weinstein and Peter Thiel discuss the future of education.
- On his new podcast, The Portal, Eric Weinstein dives into student debt and the function of universities with Peter Thiel.
- Weinstein floats the idea of a college equivalence degree (CED) through an online testing system.
- Thiel notes that if you don't pay off your student debt by age 65, the government garnishes your social security checks.
The last recession took many Americans by surprise. Unsustainable real estate practices were hidden — perhaps in plain sight, yet the housing crash gave the nation whiplash. The next recession is predicted to be caused by another debt crisis: students. Even with advanced notice we seem paralyzed in the headlights.
American students currently owe $1.6 trillion. Households with student debt owe an average of $47,671. Going to medical school sets the average citizen back $196,520; pharmacy school grads, $166,528. Want to be a dentist? You're looking at $285,184 in debt. Incredibly, between 2014 and 2016, 3.9 million undergrads that borrowed money from the government dropped out, meaning that many don't even have a degree to show for their debt.
The topic seems to be important for Democratic presidential candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. If one of them should win, they will be tasked with fixing a system that appears to be broken beyond repair. Moderate liberals might be taken aback by radical ideas on the debate stage, yet one thing is clear: immediate action needs to be taken for students (and former students) if we want to avoid the fate of 2007.
During the debut of The Portal, a new podcast by Eric Weinstein, the mathematician chats with Peter Thiel (Weinstein serves as managing director of Thiel Capital) about the student debt crisis. Education is an important topic for Weinstein: during a TEDxYouth talk he champions a system based on exploring and exposing wonder, which happens to be the goal of his podcast as well.
First off, the chat itself provides an important bridge in modern American culture, with Weinstein predominantly on the left side of politics and Thiel on the other end of the spectrum. Even in disagreement, the two men remain civil and open — a lesson in itself.
They mention the importance of polymaths, agreeing that being educated in a wide range of subjects is far more valuable than specialism. The problem is that in academia, specialization is rewarded while being a polymath is frowned upon. Anyone challenging a field, especially from the outside but also from within, is oppressed by the weight of consensus. As Thiel says:
"In a healthy system, you can have wild dissent and it's not threatening because everyone knows the system is healthy. But in an unhealthy system, the dissent becomes much more dangerous."
A radical take on education | Eric Weinstein | TEDxYouth@Hillsborough
While a university degree is seen as important, Thiel notes that going to a university ranked #100 instead of #1 should be questioned. Weinstein floats the idea of a CED: if you can prove you have the equivalent knowledge of a college graduate through an online testing system, you should be awarded the equivalence of a degree. While Thiel is concerned about the potential of a hack-free system, he appreciates the idea.
The discussion moves into student debt. In 2005, Congress passed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. Don't mistake this for Elizabeth Warren-style protections. The bill, first drafted in 1997, was reintroduced by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley in 2004, supported by banks and credit card companies — and virtually no one else (except perhaps Joe Biden, who voted in favor).
A key provision makes it nearly impossible for citizens to be absolved of student debt when filing for bankruptcy (save proof of "undue hardship"). Thiel notes that if you don't pay off student debt by age 65, the government garnishes your social security checks. Basically, the only way out is paying it off — which, considering interest rates, is nearly impossible for many — or death.
Beginning your career in debt puts undue stress on everyone, especially young workers. Weinstein says, "It's always dangerous to be burdened with too much debt. It limits your freedom of action and it seems especially pernicious to do this early in your career."
He notes that university presidents, emasculated of the power of criticism, instead focus their efforts on fundraising. This creates a system dominated by financial growth and reward, not education. (Malcolm Gladwell tackles this topic brilliantly.) The benefit is not worth the cost. Weinstein continues,
"The bigger the student debt gets, you can sort of think, 'What does the $1.6 trillion in student debt pay for?' In a sense, it pays for $1.6 trillion worth of lies about how great the system gets."
Students hold placards as they stage a demonstration at the Hunter College, which is a part of New York City University, to protest ballooning student loan debt for higher education and rally for tuition-free public colleges in New York on November 13, 2015.
Photo credit: Cem Ozdel / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
One possible solution reverses the 2005 bill by making student debt dischargeable in bankruptcy. Then they take a step further: part of that debt would be paid for by the university. Give them some skin in the game. You can't harvest all the reward without taking on any risk.
In March, Education Secretary Betsy Devos announced she wants to cut the nation's education budget by $7.1 billion. The proposal includes slashing after-school programs in impoverished areas. As Weinstein and Thiel argue during The Portal, the education system is already slanted toward the privileged; such an aggressive budget cut would only tilt it further.
Perhaps the system is already too broken. I was able to graduate from Rutgers, a state university, in the mid-'90s for under $30,000, tuition, fees, and housing included. Today such a figure barely covers two years of tuition. I can't imagine being tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a degree I never achieved because it was too expensive, yet that's the reality millions of Americans face today.
An education is a necessary relationship between children and young adults and the society in which they live. Profit-hoarding administrators and the politicians they buy have inserted themselves in the middle, ruining it for both sides. Perhaps, as was briefly floated during The Portal, we've outgrown the current model; the digital world might offer learning opportunities well beyond what any university can provide.
Then again, most of my education took place outside of classrooms, learning how to be an adult in the company of peers. Take that away and you create more self-righteous bubbles in both right- and left-leaning circles. The tension created on college campuses is an important stepping stone in a democracy. Strip that away and you destroy one of the most important aspects of education.
The solution above is one we need to consider: hold universities accountable for the services they provide at the prices they charge. If they refuse to to put skin into the game, we need to create alternatives.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.