This is where I am. It’s beautiful and relaxing, all the things you need for a good vacation.
Yesterday we ended up with several extra kids around. It was a good thing all the way around, keeping the kids off the electronics for a while, participating in a couple of rounds of Monopoly, followed by a trip to the park to play tennis, picking up a couple of other kids, then to the water ice stand and back again. Two of the extras stayed with us for dinner and in fact, all night. You can’t plan these things. They require letting your kids roam a bit, encouraging them to stop by friends’ houses to say hello. I’m thankful we live in an area where I have no fear about their doing these kinds of things.
I just finished reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It is, as Kevin Drum notes, an odd book to read. The tone makes you want to not trust Taleb, and he almost tells you not to trust him, but then his ideas make some sense. He seems prescient about the current financial crisis, as his whole book suggests that financial institutions are generally blind to outlier events such as the mortgage bubble and ensuing stock market crash because they use models based on the bell curve rather than a power law. His argument is basically that black swan events, those that no one predicted, happen more often than we think, and that our models of prediction are terrible at predicting even smaller versions of these events, much less the seriously catastrophic (or conversely, seriously beneficial) ones.
Taleb has equal scorn for academics and bankers. Academics are too insular, having never been in “real” decision-making situations. Bankers are in real decision-making situations but don’t think critically about those decisions. They check their brains at the door. Worse for him are bankers who use tight mathematical models from academics to predict risk.
Interestingly, when searching the blogosphere to find what others have said about the book, I mostly found commentary on Taleb’s hedge fund that is based on his ideas. Some have claimed it’s not doing well–because his strategy is to lose small amounts of money 90% of the time and win big 10% of the time–while others have touted its brilliance. I don’t care much about applying his ideas to finance, even though that’s his field. I think it’s more interesting to consider the idea of the black swan, both positive and negative in more general terms. He says to be open to opportunity, to be generally open-minded about what might happen. Try as much as possible to think outside the box. People are not predictable; society as a whole is even less predictable.
I remember being a kid trying to imagine how my life would turn out–what kind of job would have, who would I marry, would I have kids, where would I live–and it always felt like this black hole. I was not, back then, one of those people who planned much past the next few days. I had friends who were already planning to be doctors or lawyers and were planning their classes and colleges based on those plans. I just figured some unexpected event might occur that could change any plan I made. I was right. Just thinking that something unexpected might occur helps you deal with it. It doesn’t mean that when a good thing or a bad thing happens that it doesn’t impact you. It just means that you can take it in stride. You can just start doing what you need to do to minimize the pain or take advantage of the opportunity. Rather than, as I sometimes do now, worrry about what might happen, and conjure up all the most horrible images, it makes more sense to live from day to day. It’s harder than you think.
Today is the final day of school. Although I wrote a while back about managing my (and my kids’) time without the benefit of school or camps, I definitely want to allow for a *lot* of down time. We all need it. The house is kind of a disaster after my absence coupled with a crazy schedule in said absence, but I’m not going to panic; I’m not going to induce my kids to child labor. Not today. Today, like yesterday, we will poke at the dishes and the laundry, but we might play soccer or Mario Kart or tennis (real tennis). There are new shoes and shorts to buy. There are things to learn about maybe. There’s just being together.
I’ve just returned from a lovely trip to Monterey, CA to attend the New Media Consortium‘s summer conference. It was, all told, a good experience, about which I will write more later. At most education conferences, especially those that have a technology component, talk often centers around what the future holds for education and what role technology will play in that future. As I am reading The Black Swan at the moment, the best thing we can say is that we don’t know. On the other hand not knowing does not mean not being prepared. It means being prepared for even the weirdest outcome. Laura pointed to several articles and blogs addressing what she calls a potential higher ed bubble. I’m leary of arguments that suggest that technology can save education entirely, but I’m equally skeptical of positions that suggest that technology will kill education (at least of the traditional kind).
As I wrote last week, and as Tim Burke wrote, cost pressures are going to cause many colleges to make some difficult decisions. Students who might have once considered an elite liberal arts college may not be able to even get in as need-blind admissions go away. Or they won’t consider it at all. Colleges will have to find ways to make their brand affordable to a larger population by cutting significantly–programs, staff, etc. Those are tough decisions to make, and they often have significant effects on the future of the college. There’s no way of knowing what those effects are.
I have this strange feeling that education is changing right before our eyes, but like a blurry picture, we can’t see what it’s changing into yet. As students make their desires and needs known through selection, we will see how the industry responds.
Inside Higher Ed, among other sources, has been reporting on several incidents of institutions gaming the US News and World Report ranking system. No one should be surprised, today’s report says, especially when the stakes are so high. These incidents dovetail nicely with my own recent thoughts about college expectations for my kids. My brother-in-law is visiting this week and we took a stroll around campus while Mr. Geeky was in a meeting. He asked how much it cost to go to fancy pants liberal arts college. The total price tag, with room and board, is about $50k. He wanted to know why the hell it cost so much and what makes going to a place that costs that much so much better than a state school. For the record, he has 4 kids to get through school (10 years from now), with a huge amount of overlap, so cost is going to be a huge factor, as it is for many parents.
One key reason people want to go to expensive schools, of course, are all the intangible benefits: the connections you make, the name recognition, etc. I agree that the cost seems way out of sync, but it also gets you some tangible benefits as well. At an exclusive SLAC, you won’t have a class larger than 40 or 50 people (and those are the lecture classes). Most classes will have 15 or so people. That means your opportunities for engaging in class discussion, for the teacher knowing you and keeping an eye on your progress are vastly increased. Your faculty will be from “better” schools (they cost more as a result, though their pay is still less than other professionals). The faculty will also be more available for one-on-one consultation and in theory, will also be more focused on teaching and learning rather than research (though this is debatable). Even at schools like Harvard and Yale, one could argue that having the opportunity to work with the great minds of our time is a privilege worth paying for.*
So here’s the thing, yes, state schools can be just fine for many people. Mr. Geeky attended state school and went on to get a Ph.D. from said state school and ended up teaching at a presitigous liberal arts college. There are thousands of success stories like that. But it’s also true that some students would be lost in a large state school population and would not only not thrive, but might even fail. I knew that of myself after visiting a large state school I was considering. Not only did I not check out any of the classes (because my hosts were skipping classes), but I spent the entire time there really drunk. I figured I would spend 4 years drunk if I went there.
Rankings don’t tell you that. They might help you begin to make a list, but there are many other factors to consider. Location, demographics, class size, curriculum, general philosophy. Going to a school ranked below the top 25 isn’t going to ruin your life. It might not catapult you into that fabulous political career, but it will probably allow you a pretty good life.
*Of course, with many of those great minds’ lectures and course materials being made freely available, one can forgo the expense of Harvard and simply take advantage of the free offerings while attending state school.
This is the last full week of school. Next week will probably be a complete wash with only a day and a half. I’m sure that time will be used for parties and cleaning out desks and lockers. For the first time since I’ve been a parent, I’m staring down a summer where both the kids and I have a lot of free time. We also have, thanks to said free time, quite a few trips planned. No longer do I have to account for my vacation time, so I’m taking advantage of it. We’re heading to the beach twice and Mr. Geeky and I just found out that we’ll be going to Paris in early July.
But, I still want to accomplish something myself this summer. There is work to find, a potential book to write, and who knows what else will come up. Also, I want to establish some better habits in my kids and not let them languish all summer. At the same time, I don’t want to be too regimented. After all, you don’t get this kind of relaxed schedule for much of your life. So I’ve decided on a few things. They will both be practicing their instruments every day. We will spend time outside. Both kids want to play tennis and soccer. And we’ll likely visit the pool. I also want to fit in some school stuff, which I have a feeling they won’t like much, but I think it will be good for both of them not to atrophy too much.
How do the rest of you manage the summer? I’d love to hear your ideas.
Today is Geeky Boy’s birthday. He’s 14 and about to go into high school. He’s had a very up and down year and I think he’s looking forward to a new environment and new things. I’ve had a very up and down year as his parent. I feel certain at times that I’m just doing it wrong. But we still muddle through pretty well. Geeky Boy is a generous soul, very forgiving and kind, though I think being that way weighs on him at times, especially when he’s the one getting hurt. I’m proud of that quality in him though. He’s a great kid in so many ways, smart, athletic, sensitive. I worry pretty constantly, though. In part, I know what a minefield my own teenage years were, and I hope he has fewer mines than I did. In part, it’s just that I know I have so much less control over his life now than I did 5 years ago. And that feels really weird to me.
Geeky Girl turns 10 on Sunday. Double-digit midget she calls herself. She, too, is a great kid, though very different from Geeky Boy. While he is quiet and reserved mostly, she is bold and enthusiastic. When she was younger, we used to tell her to use her inside voice all the time. She had what we called a “stadium voice.” She seems to not be afraid of anything. Most of the time, she exudes confidence, though she has moments where she’s unsure of herself.
If someone had told me 14 years ago that I’d be as proud, anxious, excited and terrified about being a parent as I am now, I wouldn’t have believed them. This has been an interesting journey, and in some ways, what’s been interesting about it is how much it’s becoming their journey and not mine. I’m trying to get used to that.