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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 29, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Straps, Swivels, Wasting Money on Education

If you've got a small, light e-reader, like the Kindle Oasis, then you know that there's no convenient way to grip it if you aren't sitting up, reading it as it rests on a table or on your lap.

If you're lying on your back in bed, it's difficult to keep it from slipping through your fingers -- and even more difficult to grip it without accidentally turning pages.

The solution is the TFY Hand-Strap for Tablets. It's a three-ended strap that hooks on at the edges or corners of the e-reader. You can configure it however you find it easiest to grasp -- or, as I've found, to have it grasp you. I just slide my hand under the strap and there it is.

These days I'm using my Oasis to read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Portuguese. My vocabulary is definitely growing, but I'm not sure how often I'll ever use the Portuguese for "broomstick" or "wizard" in ordinary conversation when I'm in Brazil. If I'm ever in Brazil again.

But that doesn't matter for this project: I'm not learning Portuguese, I'm remembering it while increasing my fluency and vocabulary. As long as I can still improve my Portuguese ability, I can make a good case that dementia hasn't got me yet. Not completely. Really.

And as I wrote the word "dementia," I flashed to a memory of a song that came out when I lived in Mesa, Arizona. My older sister had paid, out of her earnings, for me and my younger brother [Note, grammarians: Not "my younger brother and I") to take swimming lessons. We were on the way home from a lesson when a song came on the radio that got us laughing so hard that she had to pull the car to the curb for safety.

The song? "They're Coming to Take Me Away," a song by a man so demented by the loss of his love that he has lost his mind, and now "I'll be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats, and they're coming to take me away, ha ha!"

Look, there had been some wonderful, funny novelty songs on the radio during my first fifteen years of life. "The Little Green Man," about a strange stalker who is finally discouraged from continuing to profess his love for his beloved. ("I don't wuv you anymore.")

"The One-eyed, One-horned Flying Purple People Eater" was all the rage in elementary school.

Many people today never knew that Alvin and the Chipmunks began with a novelty song, where the gimmick was to record the song and then speed it up for playback, so the voices sounded like smaller creatures.

Then there was "I'm 'En-e-ry the 8th I am, ... I got married to the widow next door. She's been married seven times before, and every one was an 'En-er-y, never once a Charlie or a Sam ..."

And don't forget the song "Alley Oop": "There's a man in the funny papers we all know, lived way back a long time ago." I don't know if the comic strip Alley Oop still exists in any newspaper, but it was popular when I was a kid, and he got his own novelty song. (Created by V.T. Hamlin, new episodes of Alley Oop are still being created by Jack and Carole Bender at GoComics.com.

Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans" probably counts as a novelty record, too, though it's also weirdly patriotic, even though it was the most unnecessary battle ever fought, because the War of 1812 was already over, only nobody on either side of the battle had gotten the news yet. But my heart still thrills a little when I hear, "In 1814 we took a little trip along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip."

And don't forget the whole raft of parody songs by Allen Sherman in his album My Son the Nut." The big hit single was "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," and it takes the form of a homesick little boy writing home from camp, begging his parents to come and save him before he gets eaten by a bear.

But none of them were as funny as "They're Coming to Take Me Away." None of them made us stop the car and weep with laughter for five minutes after the song ended.

Now that song comes back to me whenever I have a memory lapse while teaching. It used to be that when I taught, I'd get an adrenalin rush and my memory would work with alacrity -- anything I once knew comes to my mind and I rattle it off. Now all I can usually say is, "I used to know that," and move on. Hoping that those nice young men in their clean white coats will not be waiting outside the classroom door.

It had me worried. Was my memory degrading enough that I should stop teaching? I didn't think so. My memory is exactly as it was a few years ago, with the only difference being that I no longer get the hypermemory from that adrenalin rush while teaching.

And then it finally dawned on me. It isn't old age (heck, I'm only 66!) that's degrading my ability to remember -- it's lack of sleep. I've gotten to where it feels like a really good night when I wake up after five hours, instead of the usual three.

I have a friend who was desperate for sleep as he dealt with savage pain from a chronic condition. He swears by Unisom's SleepTabs. The active ingredient in these is doxylamine succinate, while the active ingredient in the other UniSom sleep products (SleepGels and SleepMinis) is diphenhydramine HCl, which is the same active ingredient you get in Benadryl and Tylenol Simply Sleep.

I already know how that drug affects me -- I fall asleep fairly easily, but I'm groggy all the next day so I don't actually get the benefits of sleep. I'm never bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and I shouldn't operate heavy machinery, which includes my body.

(I learned this on a flight to Jakarta, a place which is exactly halfway around the world from Greensboro North Carolina. You can't get worse jet lag than to be twelve hours off. And crammed into miserable toy seats on the most overcrowded jets ever to fly commercially (Hi, Singapore Airlines!), only Diphenhydramine HCl allowed me to sleep enough on the flight to not be totally wasted by jet lag. I'm not ungrateful. I just can't use it when I have work to do the next day.)

My friend cuts the Unisom SleepTabs in half, and the result is that he sleeps much more easily yet arises feeling refreshed the next day.

Since I outweigh him by at least a hundred pounds, I'm not sure about dosage comparisons, but I'm going to try his method and see if I (a) sleep more easily and longer, and (b) have a functioning brain the next day. If it works, you'll hear all about it, you can be sure.

What was I talking about? Oh, yes, how to hold onto a tablet in bed. For my two Kindle Fire tablets, as well as for my smaller Samsung tablet, which are much heavier than my Oasis, I use URGE Basics Swivel Grip for Tablets. It offers 360-degree rotation, so you can swap from portrait to landscape mode easily, and it provides the connectors that will allow it to fit any size tablet I've ever heard of.

There's an adjustable strap on the swivel to fit any hand size. I've used the first one I bought almost every night for a couple of years, and it still works perfectly, swivels easily (but only when you want it to), and continues to fit my hand comfortably.

*

Bryan Caplan was looking for a provocative title, and with The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, he achieved it. He spends a lot of pages citing study after study that indicates that education as we're doing it these days is not worth the amount of money we pump into the system.

You know I've reported several times on homework studies that reveal that homework is completely ineffective for every grade until 12th, and our children's lives would be vastly better if they never had homework at all.

Is Caplan saying our kids would be better off never going to school at all?

Kind of, yes. But he also recognizes that there is zero chance that anybody but home schoolers will ever opt out of the education system entirely.

But he makes the valid point that since education is our single biggest taxpayer expenditure, year after year -- yep, more than thousand-dollar hammers for the Defense Department -- maybe we ought to consider in what sense we're getting our money's worth.

The book begins with purely economic arguments: What is the expected cash value in improved future earnings if you get a high school diploma, a bachelor's degree, or a graduate degree?

We've all heard the stats. If you drop out of high school, your lifetime earnings are going to be way below the earnings of kids who finish high school.

But nowadays, vastly more kids finish high school than did a century ago. In those days, especially during the Great Depression, there were decent jobs that non-graduates could get, so that if your family wasn't making ends meet, it made sense for teenagers to leave school and get jobs to help keep a roof and clothes and food coming into the home.

That's what happened to my mom's oldest sister and one or maybe two of her brothers -- they dropped out and worked. Then, when times got a little better for the family, the oldest sister went back to high school. Over-age and serious about schooling, Aunt Bernice was a brilliant student and the teachers adored her.

So when my mom, a decade younger, started high school the year after Bernice finally graduated, the teachers, forgetting that my mom was not in her twenties and had not had a job for years, greeted her with, "Oh, you're Bernice Park's sister! We expect big things from you!"

You can guess that my mother found this a daunting way to begin high school. As she told her children, "Pretty soon they stopped expecting big things from me."

The point here is that Bernice knew firsthand that she had to have that high school diploma, and having worked in the Real World, she knew how to knuckle down and make the most of her high school education.

Nowadays, with almost no decent jobs for high school dropouts, there are nowhere near as many kids ending high school without graduating. And keep in mind that back in the 1930s, there were only eleven grades in public school. What we now call "senior year" didn't exist. (And for me, it still didn't exist in 1968, when I graduated at the end of my junior year. I've never regretted missing that meaningless final year.)

There's an even bigger lifetime earnings jump if you also get a bachelor's degree. Finishing four years of college, no matter what you major in, qualifies you for serious jobs that pay way better than you can get with a mere high school diploma.

Graduate degrees, however, don't do much for your future earnings. You better love grad school, because you're never going to get paid back for the time you spent there.

But that's not the whole story. By that measure, a college education must make you much better qualified for future jobs.

No. That's not what the data show at all. There are a handful of undergraduate majors where you actually learn useful skills you can apply on the job -- engineering, for instance -- but degrees in business, English, or the arts are a perilous waste of money.

What?

If you're going into debt to pay for college, then a degree in English (I have one of those) or a degree in theatre (oops, got that one, too) are essentially worthless, in that nobody can figure out what jobs either degree will qualify you for. Every theatre student knows that people who are utterly without skills get bachelor's degrees all the time, and people get degrees in English without having a single skill that will help you in any career other than teaching English.

Yes, that's hyperbole, and I'm sure there are people who are already pulling out their crayons and scrawling on a napkin, "My English degree has qualified me for ..." To these injured bleeding souls I say, Put down your crayon and get back to flipping burgers, because you know that Bryan Caplan is right.

Here's the thing: Even with one of the majors he counts as worthless (which is most of them), you still get a huge bounce from having a bachelor's degree. But it doesn't come from anything you actually learned.

It comes almost entirely from simply having the degree.

It's called the "sheepskin effect," because what the studies show is that your future earnings don't increase with each year of college you complete, because it's not about the actual education.

The salary bump comes from the fact that, if you have the degree, it means you can work on a project for years on end, fulfilling the orders and instructions of idiots (I say this as one of those idiots myself), until the job is done.

In other words, it's not the things you learn, it's the signal your degree sends: This person was smart enough to get into college (signal 1); this person stayed in college (signal 2); and this person was granted a degree (signal 3).

Now, historically, if college athletes graduated at all, it was assumed that many or most of their classes were nothing but empty-chair courses in nothing, so they could be given high grades in order to keep their eligibility.

But even in schools that actually graduate student athletes who satisfied all the requirements of a college degree, these former athletes are going to be hireable because they are so going to help the company team win the city title in whatever sport it is.

For regular college grads, however, the college degree plus the name of the college are the only things that matter to hireability.

Caplan lays down a challenge. Wanna prove that college is actually about education? Then give ability or achievement tests at the beginning of college and repeat them after the degree is awarded. Include a control group of people who took the first test but did not finish college; and another group that didn't even attend college.

Caplan's thesis is that we'll discover that the "best students" at the end of college are exactly the same people who were the best students going in. In other words, college doesn't provide any added value. If you're smart, hardworking, resourceful, and have a good memory, you'll have those things at the end, and whoever hires you will benefit, not from what you gained in college, but from what you had in the first place.

So those vastly improved earnings for college grads arise, not from education, but from certification: By getting into college and finishing it, this person is certified to have the skills that most white-collar jobs and many blue-collar jobs require.

You get no bounce from one, two, or three years of college. Apparently all the value of your education comes in that last year.

But that's only the economic argument, right? There are all the intangibles, aren't there? The improvement in your ability to think, to analyze; the vast store of information you have added to your memory.

And sure, yes, I did learn things in college. I was a theatre major who steadfastly resisted general education requirements as much as possible, so that I know how to do a pretty good old-age stage makeup and I sewed some costumes and built some sets and proved to myself that I could stand up and say lines on stage. And I've lost thousands of dollars directing or writing plays, so I'm a true man of the theatre.

But my actual money-earning skills absolutely did not come from college. They came from home: From parents who read, who talked, who analyzed, and who came up with creative projects, made plans, carried them out, and made things happen.

I also picked up most of my language skills at home; our family had a fairly elevated vocabulary which made us all sound smart because we had all these words. I did have a good grammar teacher in seventh grade (Hi, Mrs. Johnson!) who taught me some mean sentence-diagramming skills, but my best training was proofreading the dissertations my mom typed in order to make extra money.

(In those pre-word-processor days, typing a dissertation meant pounding through six carbons. If there was an error, it was so hard to erase or even use Liquid Paper or Correc-Tape on all those carbons that my mom would simply type the whole page over.)

It was my job to meticulously read from the original to the copies my mom had typed and catch any and every error. I was also copy-editing on the fly, because even in the early 1960s I already had better language skills than most of the guys getting doctorates, so I'd make editing suggestions that my mom would often use.

My first real paying job was as a proofreader at BYU Press, then as a fulltime copy editor there, and finally as an assistant editor at The Ensign, the official magazine of the LDS Church. None of the skills that qualified me for any of those jobs came from high school or college. None. Seventh grade was the last class that did anything to train me.

And as for my audioplays and fiction, nobody taught me how to write. In high school and college I wrote the way I talked. The typing class my parents got me in eighth grade was a college class -- evening school at Arizona State, where my dad taught in 1965, when I took the class -- but since it doesn't show up on any of my transcripts and it was typing, for heaven's sake, I don't count it as part of my college education. But typing really, really fast allowed me to write with fluidity approaching speech.

What's the point of my self-examination here? It's that in my experience, Caplan is pretty much right. While I learned a lot in college, not a bit of it had any application in my employment.

With a weird exception. As a novelist, I find that the only classes that taught me anything I now use in my writing were those general education classes I was forced to take. I met my math requirement with a logic class from the Philosophy Department and a class called Structure of Mathematics, a survey of then-new areas of mathematical inquiry. For that class I learned about math, but we did no actual mathematical calculation whatsoever.

I use both of those classes constantly in my thinking and writing. And other general education classes also gave me some information I could draw on.

Combined, it all adds up to maybe one percent of the material I had to learn in order to write the novels, stories, and scripts I've written: The rest I learned from books I bought and read, at the rate of about two a week since I graduated. I did a far better job of self-educating than college did in educating me -- but college classes did provide me with some foundation.

Please don't misunderstand me. I loved college. It was the most creative, exciting time of my life. If I didn't have to earn a living I'd be back there, studying all the stuff I now know is valuable.

But college didn't teach me any skills that made me any money. So if, like Caplan, you measure the value of college solely by the improvement in earnings, then I have to admit that it's all about the sheepskin effect. It's all signalling.

(My wife hates this part, and insists that college was great for her. But by Caplan's measure, her job, after child #1 arrived, has been child-rearing and managing the business end of my career, plus copious amounts of church service. She got that highly demanding job because, without disrespecting any of the other women I dated, or either of our mothers, she was the smartest woman I knew.

(And it wasn't her college education that signaled her intelligence to me. It was the fact that she was a rigorous thinker who forced me to back up things I said with facts and analysis. From the beginning and up to now, 41 years later, she is the most exciting person I ever get to converse with. She falls asleep a lot when I'm talking, but I didn't say this was reciprocal.)

College has value, yes. And Caplan admits it freely -- after all, he teaches college and doesn't think he's cheating his econ students. I'm not cheating my students, either, even if my memory is unreliable.

The question is, how much value does it have? Is it worth the sacrifice of parents, who are now paying truly terrifying amounts of money to send their kids to some college with a great gym and plenty of entertainment? Is it worth borrowing obscene amounts of money that can't be wiped out with bankruptcy, even if you find that your English degree doesn't get you any job at all?

Caplan knows we'll never stop funding high school, though he thinks that making high school a tuition-funded enterprise would weed out the kids who are wasting their time there. If far more kids dropped out, the value of the high school diploma would really increase for those who remain. Yet the number of jobs that pretend to need a high school diploma would decrease as fewer applicants met that "requirement."

But he's serious about saying that federal subsidies for student loans and other kinds of tax-supported aid are a huge waste of taxpayer money. Right now, politicians all seem to have bought into the absurd idea that everybody should go to college. It's politically incorrect to suggest that a lot of kids shouldn't go to college because they'll hate it, they're ill-suited to succeed there, and it just cuts out four years of getting paid for the kind of job they can get without a college degree.

You don't have to go to college to become a plumber or an electrician. It doesn't mean that plumbers and electricians can't read books or take classes, it just means that you learn those trades by serving an apprenticeship.

And it's not just the trades. In my field, writing fiction, nobody ever asks whether you went to college. Your only resume is the manuscript of your novel, and if it's good enough, nobody cares if you have a high school diploma.

And let me repeat: No college class taught me how to write. Some gave me some pretty good criticism because the course was taught by a great teacher and editor -- I think of Francois Camoin at the University of Utah and a couple of others after him. But the language that flows onto my pages comes from me, from the language I absorbed by growing up with my family and from reading a few thousand books, none of which were required by any class.

For those parents who are killing themselves with stress about whether their kids will get into the right kindergarten, unclench a little, folks. You already gave your kids the most important aspect of their preparation for a life of productive work: First and foremost, you gave them your genes. Second, you gave them your family's culture, with its balance of reading, working, athletics, and social activities. Nothing that happens in high school or college compares with that powerful influence over your children's future.

So what if they don't get into Duke? If they don't get into Duke or Harvard or MIT, it's almost certainly because they don't get any joy out of doing the kinds of things that you have to do in order to get into those schools.

If they end up attending a state school, a community college, or no college at all, this does not doom them to a life of poverty. What dooms them to a life of scrambling to make ends meet is going to college, getting a teaching degree, and then teaching in the public schools for their whole career.

And here's another thing that isn't in Caplan's book. Taking a few years off from school isn't "dropping out." A dose of Real World is the best way to prepare for getting the most out of college. I well remember that between my BA and grad school I took a few years to support myself by writing and editing, both for publishers and then as a freelancer.

When I went back for my MA, I had a completely different attitude from most of the students who hadn't had a break since kindergarten.

I remember how disgusted I was when other graduate students would say things like, "Oh, you don't want to take a class from Norman Council. He's such a hard grader!" I wanted to scream at them: Do you understand how brilliant and accomplished this man is? Don't you understand that if we can carry away a thimbleful from that sea of knowledge, we'll be lucky?

Instead, I signed up for his class in Elizabethan Literature Except Shakespeare, and because I seemed to be the only person in the room who actually loved the subject matter, the class became Conversations between Buck and Scott.

(His nickname was Buck. I once asked him how he got that nickname. He said, "To tell me apart from my brother." "Oh," said I, "what was his name?" "Buck," he said, then went over to talk to somebody else.

Here's the thing. My undergraduate degree was not in English. I never took a literature course in college. Not one. But I was ready to do well in English in grad school because I had been supporting my family (and, in fact, still was) and I wasn't going to waste a minute of my grad school education. I didn't need teachers to motivate me: I walked into the room motivated.

I was prepared for every class discussion. I was prepared for every test.

Here's my proof. I was nearly done with my master's degree in English, when an administrator took me aside and said, "We just realized that you didn't major in English as an undergrad."

"No," said I. "I was a theatre major."

"You didn't take any literature courses."

"Not a one. But all of that was on my transcript when I applied and you admitted me knowing that."

Then it became clear that apparently nobody had actually looked at my transcript. They just assumed that anybody who applied to the English grad school must have taken an English major in college.

"We might need you to take some undergrad literature courses to make up for the gaps."

"Which graduate course do you think I would have done better in if I had taken undergraduate literature courses?" Since I had made A's in all my classes, they weren't going to be able to make a case that I was unprepared for grad school.

They finally dropped the matter, but I know why it caused them so much anxiety. If I could get A's in English in grad school, without a single literature course as an undergraduate, what did that say about the necessity of the things they taught to English majors?

Here's my training for grad school: Supporting my family as a writer and editor for a few years before heading back to school; and reading constantly.

So if your kid doesn't show much inclination to go to college, don't despair. Yes, you can make sure your kids know about how much more they're likely (but not guaranteed) to earn if they have a college degree. But don't compel them, because kids don't learn well under compulsion.

Instead, trust that after some time in the Real World, they may well go back to college on their own, without any urging from you. And when they do go back to school, because of their time in the Real World they'll do a lot better as students than they would have if college had been a mere extension of high school.

It won't ruin their lives. College doesn't keep you from ruining your life if you're determined to, and dropping out of college doesn't destroy your future. Some of my favorite people dropped out of college because their dream career turned out not to require a diploma after all. They're happy, their children have food, clothing, and shelter, and they make enough money to do the things they want most to do.

What other definition of career success even matters?

Caplan's thesis that "the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money" can be defended, though he knows and admits that any politician who tried to act on this idea would be out of office after the next election (if not sooner). So we're going to keep pouring more and more money down the sinkhole of trying to push every kid into college whether he likes school or not.

But in the meantime, parents who understand what the value really is will allow their kids to make their own decisions about timing, about which school to apply to, about how important going to school really is in their lives. If they end up regretting the decision they made, then at least you'll have the consolation of knowing that it was their decision, and you didn't force them into it.

Every now and then it's fun to talk about the nuts and bolts of writing!
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 1
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 2
A Town Divided by Christmas

Available November 6, 2018

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on the art and business of science fiction writing.

Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

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