Monday, November 9, 2020

Was the Good Samaritan a Cajun?

When I was a child, my family were 80-proof Methodists. Every Sunday, I would wriggle into my little plaid sports coat, adjust my clip-on bow tie, and head to Sunday School.  

Looking back, I think Sunday School was good for me. My Sunday School teachers were all women--mostly young moms. We sang lovely children's songs--"Jesus loves me, this I know"--and we listened to the same Bible stories hundreds of times. 

I especially liked the tale of the Good Samaritan. What impressed me most about this biblical character was his generosity. He spent his own time and money helping a stranger who got mugged out on some lonesome highway. I knew I would never be as good as the Good Samaritan, but he became my ideal.

Let's face it. We don't meet many generous people today. Very few people will stop to help a mugging victim. In fact, many Americans want to defund the police--the people we pay to protect us from muggers.

Indeed, a lot of Americans have become muggers.  I'm not talking about the hoodlums who lurk in dark alleys. I'm talking about the bankers who take a cut from every financial transaction. I'm talking about university professors who do no useful work but have lifetime job protection. I'm talking about the politicians who fly around in private jets and stir up racial strife. All these people are muggers.

But last weekend, I went deer hunting up in Claiborne Parish near the Arkansas border. There were nine of us at my friend's deer camp, and about half the group were true Cajuns.

No one shot a deer that weekend, but no one was bummed out. We spent time in the woods, and in the evenings, we shared fellowship and a meal together.

No one argued about who was entitled to sit in the best deer blind. In fact, everyone offered to take the worst blind. No one argued about how to split the ticket at the Mexican restaurant. A couple of guys just picked up the check. No one worried about who might be drinking someone else's beer.  If there was beer in the fridge--well, buddy,  that beer is for you. 

If someone writes another modern-day version of the Bible, I hope the Good Samaritan will be called the Good Cajun.  And instead of loaves and fishes, Jesus will hand out gumbo and jambalaya.

As we start the third decade of the 21st century, America is becoming a nasty place to live. Thank God, there are still a few good-hearted Americans, some cheerful Americans, and some generous Americans. A lot of these good people live in Flyover Country, and a good many are Cajuns.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Student-housing and meal plans at American universities: Another reason college students are taking out large student loans

College students take out more and more student loans to pay their tuition bills with each passing year because tuition has risen at twice the inflation rate for more than two decades. But tuition is only part of the cost of going to college.  

When you add in books, housing, and food, not to mention incidental costs like a cell phone, the cost of going to college for one year can be well over $30,000--even at a public university.

Let's look at Louisiana State University, located just down the street from me. LSU requires its first-year students to live on campus unless they qualify for an exemption. This means that most of the 6,400 students who enroll for the first time will live in a dorm.  First-year students must also purchase a meal plan.

According to LSU's own calculation, the typical first-year student needs to come up with 24 grand just to pay tuition, room, and board.  How many Louisiana families have $24,000 lying around to pay for their child's first year at college?

And students have other costs besides the money that goes directly to the university. LSU estimates the total annual cost for an in-state student is $33,590! How many Louisiana families have that kind of money sitting in the bank?

Of course, many families figure out ways to spend less than $30,000 a year for their children to attend college. Students with good high-school academic records and good ACT scores can qualify for a TOPS scholarship that covers most college-tuition costs in Louisiana. 

But even a first-year student who gets a "free ride" and pays no tuition must still come up with $12 thousand to pay for room and board.  And in most instances, at least part of that money will be borrowed.

Now stretch these costs over four, five, or six years. A typical student who graduates from LSU in four years will have spent $130,000 to finance their studies. But only about two-thirds of LSU students graduate in six years! A student who pays in-state tuition and spends six years living in an LSU dorm will rack up costs totally almost $200,000.

Obviously, that's far too much. And offering students free tuition at a public university (as Senator Bernie Sanders proposed) doesn't provide a total solution.

Of course, tuition must come down, but students need to spend less time hanging out on college campuses.  Spending six years to find oneself, financed with student loans, is a disastrous way to become an adult. And this is particularly true for students who spend six years in college to get a degree in art history, sociology, or gender studies.

How would you like to spend six years here?

Friday, October 30, 2020

Oh my God! LSU Football Coach Ed Orgeron takes 5 percent pay cut

 COVID-19 socked higher education right in the gut last spring.

Freshman enrollments dropped 16 percent this fall, and the universities are closing their under-enrolled programs: philosophy, sociology, art history, etc.  

Even the credit rating agencies smell trouble, and of course, the rating companies are always the last to know.  Moody's predict a revenue downturn for colleges and universities--yah think?

But we know higher education is in real trouble when the football coaches take salary cuts--and that's what's happening at Louisiana State University. Yesterday, the LSU Athletic Department announced that all employees making $80,000 or more will take a 5 percent pay cut.

And that includes Saint Ed Orgeron--who led the LSU Tigers to the National Championship last year--opening up the heavens and inspiring the angels to sing celestial hallelujahs.  Ed makes $6 million a year and is giving up $300,000.  

But there's more.  No bonuses for the coaches who have winning seasons.  Staff layoffs. According to the Baton Rouge Advocate, Jason Suitt, the Assistant Athletic Director of Fan Engagement, will lose his job.

I wonder what the Assistant Athletic Director of Fan Engagement does. Is he the guy who priced the stadium beer at six bucks a bottle?

Don't get me wrong. I love college football. In fact, I just completed a language emersion course in conversational football and can now talk confidently about the red zone, the bootleg play, and running the ball up the gut.  I even know what "pick six" means.

And I don't want to see people lose their jobs.

But even college football's most avid fans must realize that things have gotten out of whack.  Forty-five million Americans now owe $1.7 in student-loan debt. Until this year,  colleges did almost nothing to keep costs down. Meanwhile, the universities built palatial athletic facilities and paid coaches princely salaries.

And now my local newspaper tells me that the Tiger Athletic Foundation is urging wealthy fans to contribute to a "Victory Fund" to shore up LSU's sports programs.  Their donations will be tax-deductible.

Think about that. Two of my relatives work at LSU and haven't received a pay raise in years. Recently they learned that their property taxes are going up.

There's something wrong with the world when university employees struggle to pay their bills while their employer's athletic foundation encourages rich people to make tax-deductible donations to support the friggin' football program.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Colleges of Education--Higher Education's Cash Cows--are Suffering from Malnutrition

Colleges of Education have been higher education's cash cows for more than half a century, but the cash cows have gotten sick.

 Fifty years ago, the education schools were packed with undergraduates--mostly young women--working on their bachelor's degrees in elementary education. Many of them wanted to spend their careers teaching children, and others chose to major in education because they knew it was easy. 

Graduate programs in education also attracted a lot of students. In most states, an educator was required to have a master's degree in educational administration to become certified as a school principal.  That requirement kept the educational administration programs well supplied with working-adult students. 

In the old days, school districts often gave teachers automatic raises if they obtained a master's degree. Many school districts would actually pay a teacher's tuition to get a graduate degree in curriculum studies or educational administration.  Most teachers said, "Why not?"  Free tuition and a pay raise were all the incentives they needed to enroll at a nearby public university.

Universities loved their education colleges because they usually carried large enrollments, and the universities didn't have to pay the education professors very much. Also, public universities often received additional revenues for their graduate programs, so all those enrolled in M.Ed. and Ed.D. programs generated extra income.

But in recent years, the cash cows have gotten sick. Enrollments in education colleges are drastically down at universities all over the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, undergraduate degrees have plummeted over the past 50 years--from 176,000 in 1970-1971 to only about 83,000 in 2017-2018. Graduate-program enrollments have also dropped sharply.

What in the hell happened?  First of all, young people aren't going into the field of education. During the same 50-year period, when education degrees dropped by half, degrees in business more than tripled. In 2017-2018, more than four times as many people obtained business degrees than degrees in education.

Secondly, non-university certification programs proliferated at the expense of the education colleges.  Instead of sitting through a battery of boring college courses before getting a teaching certificate, people with college degrees found out they could immediately get a teaching job and work on their teaching credentials while drawing a salary. These programs were often operated by regional service centers and--in some states--even by the school districts themselves.

No wonder then that the University of South Florida demoted its college of education to a school within a larger college that included non-education programs.  Louisiana State University, where I first began teaching, took that step more than ten years ago.

Why have young people become less inclined to be teachers and school administrators?  Poor pay is one reason.  In Louisiana, teachers are severely underpaid, and the state doesn't participate in Social Security. Why would anyone invest their career in education knowing it will be damned difficult for them to retire comfortably?

Secondly, a public-school classroom is often not a nice place to be anymore--especially in the inner cities. Student discipline is a serious problem in some (but not all) schools.  Standardized testing has put teachers under stress to deliver good test scores. The bureaucratic maze of providing services to students with disabilities has made teaching a lot less satisfying for many educators.

My father was a cattle rancher, and when one of his cows got sick, he got out his spring-loaded "pill gun" and tossed a bovine-grade antibiotic pill down the ailing cow's throat.

But universities do not have an equivalent remedy for their sick cash cows.  For professors and students alike, the education business suffers from a malady for which there is no known cure.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Did you major in liberal arts? You may be the 21st-century equivalent of a blacksmith

 I grew up in a small western Oklahoma town where middle-class families worked at jobs that no longer exist. People owned their own gas stations in those days, and a man could make a modest living by selling gasoline (regular or ethyl), repairing cars, and fixing flats. 

I recall two appliance stores in the little town of Anadarko: Zerger's Appliances and Roberts' TV and Appliances.  Two families owned gift shops: Graham's and Lovell's.  

And there were 10 or 12 little grocery stores in my hometown. Everyone lived within walking distance of at least one. These were mostly run by widows who supplemented their modest Social Security checks by selling milk, bread, and canned goods in the front room of their homes. And soda pop. As a kid, I'm sure I bought at least one Grapette at every one of those little stores.

All these businesses are long gone--wiped out by Walmart and corporatism in general. 

Something similar is happening in the field of liberal arts. People who get college degrees in the humanities, liberal arts, or the social sciences will find it damned difficult to find a job. And people who went into debt to get a degree in comparative religions or sociology may have committed financial suicide on the day they selected their majors. 

People who get Ph.Ds in those fields are not likely to find jobs either--at least not teaching jobs at the university level. As the New York Times reported today, colleges across the country are slashing budgets in response to the coronavirus pandemic. And they are laying off faculty members--both tenured and untenured. Most of those laid-off faculty members teach in the liberal arts.

Not too long ago, tenured faculty members had rock-solid job security. Unless they committed a violent felony or said something unforgivable like "All Lives Matter," they could be assured of keeping their job until they tottered off to a comfortable retirement, made possible by a fat pension and lifetime health insurance.

But no more. Universities are enrolling fewer students, and those students are more likely to major in business than the humanities. Professor Whatshisname still teaches his seminar on the causes of the Crimean War (his dissertation topic), but nobody wants to borrow tuition money to listen to his lecture.

In his cautionary book about going to law school, Paul Campos warned against the snowflake syndrome.  You may think you are special.  You may think you will beat the odds and find a great job at a prestigious university, where you will teach fawning students all about the progressive era in American history. Or you will teach English while you write the great American novel.

But you won't. If you pursue a doctorate in liberal arts intending to become a professor, you are probably on a fool's errand. Like the blacksmith of yesteryear, no one will want to hire you. And if you borrowed money to pursue your foolish dream--you are a dead person walking--at least in terms of your financial wellbeing.

Friday, October 23, 2020

"We escaped Commie-fornia": Californians are leaving the Sunshine State in search of a better life

 Driving home from New Mexico a couple of weeks ago, I stopped for gas at the Love Truck Plaza in Tucumcari, New Mexico. A guy pulled up at the gas pump next to mine, driving a good-sized vehicle and pulling a large storage trailer.

As I walked behind his rig, I notice a sign on the back of the trailer: "We Did It!! We Escaped Commie-Fornia. We back the Blue!!"

I've got to meet this guy, I said to myself. So I chatted with him a bit while he was gassing up. He turned out to be a real nice guy with a big smile and a sunny disposition.  He said he and his wife were moving to Florida to be nearer their grandkids.

I didn't want to intrude on this man's privacy, so I broke off our conversation without asking him about his political views.  I don't think he was some right-wing zealot.  I read him as a guy with mild political views who just wants to move to a place where life is a little easier. 

And who can blame him? I'm not making a political statement when I say that California appears to be rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell (to paraphrase Merle Haggard). The forest fires are out of control despite everything the Californians have done to manage their public lands.

I'm not saying these massive fires--4 million acres burned this year alone--are anyone's fault.  I agree with Governor Newsom that climate change is probably the biggest contributor to the state's forest fires.  Who's done more to combat climate change than the Californians?

Nevertheless, it must be terrifying to live in a neighborhood that could be engulfed at any time during the fire season by a holocaust fire.  That little fire extinguisher you bought at Home Depot won't do you much good when the big one comes roaring down the street at 20 miles an hour.

Then, there is the growing problem of homeless, which is out of control in San Francisco and a few other California cities.  I'm not blaming that on anyone either. I have thought a lot about the homeless crisis, and I've done some volunteer work at food banks.  

I don't know how to solve the homelessness problem--made almost intractable by the fact that so many homeless people suffer from mental illness. Nancy Pelosi doesn't want homeless people living in her neighborhood, and I can't really blame her.  The image of some bum peeing in her hot tub is too horrible to contemplate.

But something else is going down on the West Coast--beyond the forest fires and the homelessness. The California legislature appears to be dominated by lunatics who, unfortunately, are not homeless. The California university system is a mess and seems to have forgotten how to teach young people how to think and reason.  

Crime.  I read that Walgreen's closed its third store in San Francisco due to high levels of shoplifting. 

The state pension funds are underwater and will someday collapse.--when, nobody knows. Who is going to bail out the California pension funds--the taxpayers of Ohio?

I find it ironic that hundreds of thousands of Americans from the Midwest came to California as refugees during the Great Depression--the Okies and others who rolled down old Route 66 in beat-up cars and trucks.  And the Californians tried to keep them out.

Now, Californians are baling on the Sunshine State and are moving east to the Rocky Mountains states, Texas, and Florida. They can count their lucky stars that the people who live in these states are mostly decent and compassionate Americans who will greet them much more warmly than the Californians greeted my ancestors when they went west in the 1930s to escape the Dust Bowl.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A "mostly peaceful"Trump parade on Paseo del Pueblo Norte in Taos, NM: A non-partisan field report

I was dining al fresco with my wife at Martyr's Steakhouse in Taos, NM. The weather was lovely on the restaurant patio, and I was enjoying a heart-healthy lunch and a margarita grande.

Suddenly, I heard shouting and blaring car horns coming from the direction of the Taos Plaza. Then, to my utter amazement, I saw a Trump parade appear on Paseo del Pueblo Norte--passing right in front of the restaurant.  Trump supporters, mostly driving pickup trucks and SUVs, were shouting and waving flags: the American flag and big Trump-Pence banners.

What the hell, I thought. The northern Rio Grande valley has been a Democratic stronghold for decades. I would have been surprised if there were even a dozen Trump supporters in all of Taos County.  But here they were--a gaggle of Trumpsters, chortling and cheering on a fine autumn day.

These folks must be Texans,  I concluded---maybe people from the town of Red River, where a lot of Texans have New Mexico summer homes. But no. All the cars had New Mexico license plates. They were locals.

Judging from the reaction of my fellow diners, most of the people sitting around me were Never-Trumpers. "Fascists!" one guy shouted from the table next to me. "Racists!" a woman screamed from another table.

Two young women seated near the Paseo spewed forth obscenities at the Trumpians, but this only seemed to heighten their merriment. One Trump supporter in the back of a pickup truck responded to the curses by saying, "You can't trust Joe." His voice didn't have a hostile tone. Actually, he sounded calm and reassuring, as if he was trying to talk someone off a ledge.

In a moment, the parade passed by, and we turned our attention back to our lunches. But then another Trump parade passed by--more flag-waving, more cheering, more horn honking.

Are these more Trump fanatics disturbing our midday repast, I wondered? Or did the first group circle back on Don Fernando Street for a second appearance to create the illusion of greater numbers?   

It was hard to tell. These Trump zealots all look alike.

And then a third Trump parade went by the restaurant, this one coming from a different direction. This group included an equestrian unit. Two men wearing western hats came by on horseback. One held the pole of a large American flag, and the other waved an equally large Trump-Pence flag.

Behind these two rode a little girl, who looked to be about 11 years old. She was wearing a large, red Make-America -Great-Again hat. And when I say large, I mean enormous. It was a gag hat, with a  brim about half the size of a coffee table and a crown that extended at least six inches on either side of her head.

By this time, the restaurant patrons conceded defeat. No one said anything as the third unit of Trumpsterism passed by on horseback. Perhaps the guy next to me thought it would be unseemly to shout "Fascist!" at a child--even a child wearing a MAGA hat.

Thus concludes my non-partisan and unbiased report on a Trump demonstration in the northern Rio Grande valley.  It was "mostly peaceful," as a CNN reporter might say. Nobody got shot. I saw no signs of arson or looting. 

And this was disappointing. If a riot broke out, I planned to break into the art gallery on Bent Street and steal a Victor Higgins painting. 

This Victor Higgins painting would look great in my home office.