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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

The Limits of Listening to Wonks

Wonks are experts and deserve being listened to, but not always.

April 19, 2021
 
 

My greatest asset in writing about higher education is my failure to secure a sustainable career in higher education.

While I have great reverence for the purported mission of higher education institutions, the totality of my experience working inside them has led me to a firm conclusion:

This shit does not work.

Obviously great things happen at higher education institutions every day, but in my view, these great things often happen despite existing structures rather than because of them.

In hindsight, this belief has roots as far back as my freshman year at the University of Illinois, where I discovered that you could get a B in your large lecture classes without attending any of the lectures themselves provided you read the textbook -- which the professor had written -- and purchased (and skimmed) the overhead transparency lecture notes from the campus copy shop.

As an indifferent student more interested in things other than class, this was an agreeable bargain at the time, but in hindsight … not great. What meaningful experience did those classes deliver? What lasting learning resulted?

To be fair, I did have a couple of instructors who would change the trajectory of my life, but they were exceptions to the structure they were working within, going beyond the bounds of the kind of work that was incentivized for faculty to provide these transformative moments. Only by defying structural incentives could they deliver experiences that embodied the high ideals of what it means to receive an education.

As a graduate student, I knew pairing up my developmental English students, who were absolutely the students most in need of expert instruction, with the likes of me -- the least experienced instructor -- was not good news for them. This was a structure not designed to help students succeed, but instead to weed them out, having captured at least a semester or two of their tuition revenue.

My experience as a contingent instructor is well documented in this blog, and I won’t hash over it in detail again. Suffice to say that for the majority of my career I taught far more than the recommended maximum number of students per instructor for writing-intensive courses at a wage that never topped $35,000 per year and was often less, ultimately making the work financially unsustainable. I believe I did a lot of good work, but again, all of it was in spite of the system and structures, not because of it. I took an inevitable journey toward demoralization.

This is a very long wind-up for what I really want to talk about, which is the problem of the influence of wonks on our public discourse regarding higher education, and indeed any other large structural problem that would benefit from a reconceiving and reconfiguring, as opposed to being subjected to policy tweaking.

Before I get too critical, let me grant wonks their due. I believe the vast majority of wonks work in good faith. A good wonk operates carefully within the boundaries of the system they seek to explain and influence, grounding their work in evidence, with policy recommendations flowing from this careful work. A good wonk is several million times more desirable than a pundit, who tends to start from a sweeping major premise and then go looking for evidence and extensions of that premise. (Scott Galloway has become the leading higher education pundit of the pandemic.)

I should also admit that I don’t have the background, knowledge, experience or mind-set/temperament to be a wonk. It requires a skill set that I don’t have and which doesn’t particularly interest me. That said, I don’t think my concerns about the influence of wonkdom are rooted in any kind of resentment, but I’ll let the reader judge.

A recent Kevin Carey post on a mechanism for making community college free serves as a good illustration of how I view the limits of a wonk worldview to problem solving. Carey is probably the leading wonk of higher education, and the post itself demonstrates the benefits of this manner of expertise. Carey’s post gets into the nitty-gritty of what a particular approach to this particular goal (free community college) looks like. We need this kind of thinking.

As a nonwonk reader, I found the post interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, because Carey’s proposal to deliver a flat per-student grant to any school that goes tuition-free would fix in place the existing inequalities in resources that go to nonselective institutions.

Into the discussion, enter Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed (Dean Dad), who (unlike me) has the knowledge and background to go wonk, but likely because of his own struggles trying to make the system work from inside the system, tends not to lead with his inner wonk, and instead works from his values.

In his blog post response to Carey’s proposal, Matt Reed points out that such a plan would potentially increase the punishing austerity that most nonselective public institutions have been working under for decades already. It would consign these schools to a permanent underclass predicated on underfunding.

Reed pushes back not with policy, but with a goal, a goal rooted in a core set of values linked ultimately to student well-being. Reed says, “Ideally, the per-student rate would be set at parity with the average per-student spending at public four-year colleges. I have yet to see a coherent principled argument why our students are worth less. Parity between sectors -- just parity! -- would be a major step forward.”

Rather than starting with the mechanism (per-student grants) which works logistically and bureaucratically inside the existing system, we start with the goal, providing equitable resources regardless of the institution students attend.

In my view, this is where the conversation should start, at the level of goals and values. Policy mechanisms should flow upward from this, rather than downward from what the system currently allows for.

Figuring out whom to manage inside the current system has left us with a system that is inequitable and unsustainable. We must change the system rather than being bound by its existing rules.

I advocate for free public college because I believe education is infrastructure, and accessible and equitable postsecondary education and training is a necessary condition for a dynamic and thriving populace.

I imagine a wonk reading Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education would be frustrated by my lack of specifics regarding the mechanism for free college. Essentially, I believe we should take resources that are earmarked for education that tend to reinforce status hierarchies and inequitable resources and redirect them toward the institutions that serve the public. I illustrate where this money is to be found -- wealthy institutions that benefit from favorable tax structures -- but you won’t find me crunching all the numbers, wonk-style.

My goal is to first convince people that making this shift is both worthwhile and possible. Yes, the devil is in the details, but before we start wrestling the devil, we need sufficient motivation to know that defeating him is necessary.

Not to oversimplify things, but why not put it plainly? I know that free college (or very low-cost college) is possible for two reasons: 1. It used to be the way of the world, and 2. It must be, otherwise what are doing here?

For the wonk to be of use, they must work under the rules of the system. This is obviously not limited to education. We’re seeing this battle writ much larger in the very concepts of public economics, where previously sacrosanct rules around debt, deficits and inflation are being challenged by a new generation of economists.

Rather than outlining how to best operate within the “rules,” figures like Stephanie Kelton (The Deficit Myth) are seeking to upset the entire federal government’s approach to macroeconomics with their Modern Monetary Theory. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Kelton has risen through the public side of academia with a stop at University of Missouri Kansas City prior to her current position at Stony Brook.

There’s many economists who argue that Modern Monetary Theory “won’t work,” according to the well-established “laws” of the discipline. But what if the laws are wrong and have been the whole time? We must be willing to ask these kinds of questions.

I have no desire to rid the field of wonks. We need them.

But we also can’t allow them to tell us what is and isn’t possible as though their word is holy writ.

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