Important lessons learned

This is what Zeynep Tufekci says. That the civil rights marches led to change because back then, people had to build organizations and put in all the hard work of persuading, getting buy-in face-to-face, build social connections of trust, and figure out how to give an organization staying power before they can even organize a march. Now with social media, organizing marches and protests is easy, but since it is so easy to pull off, nobody has built the muscle to give an organization staying power, which is why so many protests fizzle.

Anyway, we’re entering a brave new world. Ben Thompson (brilliant guy; state school grad; at least for undergrad; Wisconsin; was a poli sci major; now I consider him the most far-sighted tech strategist living) thinks social media will lead to as much societal and global upheaval as the printing press did. The printing press overthrew the Medieval church, which had (very loose) authority over a billion little fragments of Europe. The printing press (after many wars and violence) led to centralized nation-states (evidently, when everyone managed to learn to read, they found an affinity with people who they could read). He thinks social media will lead to as much change as the printing press did and can hardly imagine what that future world would look like.*

Hmm. It could be like something out of the Diamond Age. Maybe generations from now, instead of universities, most people would be educated through online cults.

  • States currently have the monopoly on the power of violence on a massive scale, however. Hard to see how that can be overcome.

Montessori all the way up for everyone!

I think it’s just that they’ve got lots of early training in working fast and collaboratively, but also alone. That’s been their entire K12 experience. Add social media and they really know how to round people up and organize. The problem is the K12 training’s also very glib – the standards they’re tested on require them to cover a ludicrous amount of ground, so they go like skipping stones across their curricula. The pace is very, very fast, and the depth is journalistic at best. Teachers don’t have time to give real criticism/feedback, and those who slow things down enough to do it right are targets of serious anger. When I make the students slow down and dig deep, it’s almost physically painful for them, till they get used to it – everything they know says “wrap it up and move on.” That also means they haven’t got the research and analytical skills to go deep, or even to start going deep.

In order to move across curricula as fast as they do, and also to protect them from evils of the internet, you see a lot of canned “research projects” – explore, but don’t really, stay with these links. So they really don’t know how to investigate, how to distinguish one source from another, how to build up a picture and ask deeper questions from there. AP Seminar is meant to patch that, but it comes late in the game and has its own canned-research-product problems.

So. The kids are introduced to these giant social problems, they follow a thread and find a towering mountain of info, and unless they’ve got a sherpa they’ll generally bail. Even the really bright ones. The fear of doing it wrong, spending too much time, or getting lost in the maze is just too strong. I’m currently working with some journalism students who’re really panicking about not knowing immediately what the project will be four weeks hence and not already having training in the things I’ve brought them to investigate. They really want me to devise a snack-sized project for them instead of making them look around, ask real questions, talk to humans who know things, find some boundaries to investigate further within. Happily, I’m allowed to avoid the business of making snack-sized projects.

It really depends on how you set up “education”. Something like the LAC model for everyone, yes, is extremely expensive. The German way means even lower pay for faulty there, but teaching undergrads is mostly just lecturing. Curriculum is rigid, so faculty can be matched to classes easily. Grades just come down to tests at the end of the year (so little in the way of continuous assessment or feed-back). You fail out, you fail out (feel free to apply to enter another degree program). Uni students are expected to be responsible self-sufficient adults who don’t need their hand held. Then again, their entire educational system feeds in to their uni system (whether you get to go to uni comes down to big tests at the end of the year; those who don’t do well in that system get tracked to something else like apprenticeships where they can work and learn applied skills). And uni is free.


I think that’s the future of higher ed. Ala carte everything. The university will eventually become unbundled. Students will be able to mix and match the credentialing, the actual education, the college experience. It will be mixed in with work and last longer (maybe throughout a life). It could be even more unequal but really depends on how the politics sets up the economics.

Sorta back to the future. The University of London just gives degrees to its constituents (I think it use to administer tests too). The Oxbridge unis use to also just administer the tests that led to degrees. Actual education is/was mostly through tutorials organized by the faculty of each college (which is where the social life is too).

Montessori for everyone!*

  • Not a cheapest way to educate, but not the most expensive either, since it relies on kids to teach other kids too.

This thread has covered a lot of ground. I think we agree that some (too many) kids in the US are born in to circumstances where their odds of joining the top 1%/decision-makers/etc. just aren’t that good. But if you have enough smarts, drive, and some adults to guide you (and your daughter definitely has the last), you can get pretty far even if elite undergrad admissions is far from a level playing field or a meritocracy.

I say that because high enough stats pretty much assures you of admission to T14 law (outside of YHS, which are selective enough to be holistic) and definitely big scholarships to the top 25 law schools (probably big scholarships to some T14 too). Stellar stats + some decent experience and ability to weave together a story likely is enough to get you in to the T15 MBA programs too, probably with big money; possibly also M7 and maybe with big scholarships. Definitely some MBA program for nearly free. From T14 law and T15 b-school, you can break in to many of the prestige industries. And from there, from what I have seen, you can get extremely far if either

  1. You are simply brilliant.
  2. You are willing to put in the (very long) hours.

I went to an M7 MBA program this century and one of my classmates was an Indian guy who was attending on a full scholarship (full-ride or full-tuition, can’t remember). He hadn’t come from somewhere elite. His undergrad was somewhere in India that I’d never heard of and before the MBA, he was working for Capital One on a sponsored visa. In the MBA program, he became a Siebel Scholar. We came out just in time for the Great Financial Crisis to lay all of us off. He was worried because he didn’t have permanent residency or citizenship but he shouldn’t have been because every place he interviewed at offered him a job. Last time I actually saw him in person in NYC, he was partying every night of the week. Anyway, he doesn’t have to work any more but a few years ago, he went back to India to launch a startup.


Yes. The problem is that you really do have to be superhuman to do this from outside the magic circle, as opposed to quite bright and ambitious, which is what you need starting off from inside that magic circle. (If you are that superhuman, your door at undergrad level is EA.) Who, then, is represented in higher and higher concentration up there at the top? Not those superhumans, who tend to have trouble empathizing with the less bootstrappy among us anyhow. I’d argue (and have) that it’s both bad for a democratic society and cruel to the vast majority of quite-bright reasonably-ambitious non-wealthy/privileged/etc. people who’re told routinely that if they just try hard enough, it’s possible for them, etc. – when for most it isn’t true. It isn’t a matter of “not that good odds”; it’s a matter of shutout. They aren’t brilliant enough at whatever’s wanted today by the middle-aged in the magic circle, meaning wealthy and, concomitantly, powerful to manage a thing like that, no matter how much work they put in, even though in more egalitarian times people like them were suitable for all sorts of society-defining work.

I’m acquainted with a young man, poor family/cruel immigration story, who’s been doing almost nothing but finishing his STEM PhD and studying for the LSAT for about a year. He’ll do nothing over the summer but LSAT prep. He wants a top school, he knows the stats, he’s been chipping and chipping away at them. I cannot think of a more ghastly waste of this very bright young man’s time. But he’s probably correct: if he doesn’t hit the mark, it probably won’t happen. It might not happen anyway. He’s stumbling around in that world and I can see from here that it’s unlikely his essay will sound right. He hasn’t had time to hang around in the right circles, right conversations. And he didn’t have time as an undergrad to notice that no, he doesn’t want to be a scientist – he was working fulltime, school fulltime. Hasn’t had time to figure out much of anything about what he actually wants, so he’s been trying to jam that in while doing everything else, trying this and that. Showing up in my office with novels and wanting to talk about them, self-improving to the point of exhaustion. The fiancée’s been neglected for years and is running out of patience. I think he’d actually make a magnificent science-agency upper-level administrator someday, which is achievable up the GS ladder if he gets moving, but we’ll see what happens first with the LSAT.

I really don’t think we need to turn this into Jude the Obscure for so many people, especially ones who are such able people and knocking themselves senseless, just trying to get in the door to make serious contributions and be recognized.

And yeah, my daughter’s ace in the hole is me. I will say, though – I spent a little time looking through the catalogue for her registration, and hoo boy, we got a whole lotta nothing here for the undergrads, especially outside certain STEM areas. I knew we’d taken a wrecking ball to humanities and that soc sci was never really it here, but man, I hadn’t realized it had gone this far. No wonder my students look so blindsided. We’ve got course after course that advertises frantically “this is easy and fun and kind of like social media, don’t worry!” or is essentially remedial. A colleague here and I have been joking about “do you want to watch football and not really go to college? Apply now!” but it’s gallows humor, and not actually funny. My kid’s really going to have to wrestle an education out of particular profs, I’m thinking – ones who’ll essentially be volunteering, since they’re paid to teach massive not-really-courses, not her. And leave town a lot, grab a lot of lapels and say “teach me, take me on.” I guess that’ll be the education, learning to grab lapels. All I can do is hope that by the time she gets herself somewhere, the kids will have put through enough revolution that she won’t have to face having her name badge checked over and over for having come through the back door.

I think the phrase will be: “Treat me like I’m a grad student.” Again, though, you shouldn’t have to have an insider to stage-mother you through like this. That is not a working university system for a large and important democracy.


Would your D consider taking a gap year and reapplying or alternatively transferring?

There are other countries too that have the “this is the education, learn this/genuflect at the prof” model, and it works very nicely for some things. What it doesn’t work well for is inventiveness and creative work, which is what made the US so special in the 20th c. It’s why people came here. Not just for the money and the job and material opportunities, but because this place fostered the individual groove like nowhere else. Famously in the giant, sprawling, bald-lawn state universities with their cheap shirtsleeves.

It still does that – if you’re rich. And it’s a funny thing, how the groove of the rich is never quite it, which is why New York isn’t worth fighting to live in now. So we’re getting our tuchus handed to us all over the world now when it comes to the new. Berlin’s back at it better than New York, I think.

If you’re not rich, though, and you’re American, being able to afford risking invention and creativity is now a very serious problem. Which gives me an idea.

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I dig the Erte, btw.

She doesn’t want to do a gap year, but more to the point it wouldn’t help anything. The GPA’s nice but not worldbeating, ton of APs/honors, great letters, state competition place, scholarship to elite-U summer course where she did great, two university courses besides that, job, activities, demonstrated interest. What’s missing are a couple tenths of a point GPAwise and a Westinghouse and/or several hundred thousand dollars in my bank account, plus me about two tax brackets up. She’d have to get a job – there isn’t money for her to play around or have an “experience” – so it’d be an unexceptional sort of year.

Transfer has low odds given that she’s not arriving with the shipping container full of money, and would need very substantial fin aid. She’ll try it, but is not expecting much. We’d actually expected a reverse transfer – if she’d gotten into one of the smaller elites with less money to hand out, she’d have gotten a come-on package that would’ve evaporated across the four years, meaning that by sophomore or junior year she’d have to come back here for the state-U tuition. But they clearly see that coming. Like I said, pro game.

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She’s very fortunate to have you in her corner. Wishing her success in all her endeavors!

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So I am sincerely trying to figure out why you are upset she didn’t get into an elite school. As you state, her GPA was good not great, with rigor. The usual assortment of activities, jobs, etc. Fine letters and interest, but most do have that. State competition in something, but no specifics and unclear if she placed first. In short, a fine, well rounded applicant, of which there were tens of thousands applying to elite schools, the vast majority of which were rejected. Even applicants with hooks with that profile were rejected by elites. Just too long odds.


I don’t believe that’s quite right, and I’ve been in one of those elite industries. The toughest part is getting in (at some stage of the game). Once you’re in, the folks who rise to the top tend to be superhuman and/or super competitive regardless of background and having street smarts as well as book smarts is an advantage (think Princeton wrestler from a working class or former gang member who got in to an Ivy).

Your immigrant student has the right idea. Get a high enough LSAT (definitely a 173 though 170 or lower may be OK too) and T14 is assured, likely with a lot of money. Adcoms love immigrant striver stories like that.


For what’s it’s worth. The two founders (one an immigrant, the other AA / military brat) of my tax consulting firm went to San Francisco State and Sacramento State University which are ranked #400 and have 70% acceptance rates.

While they couldn’t get jobs at the Big 4 accounting firms right out of college, they first had to work for the state government, gets experience and reapply to Big 4 several years later, later opening up their own business.

They took a circuitous route, but now own a very successful business and are certainly in the top 1%.


The problem isn’t that she didn’t get into an elite. The problem is that there’s no longer anything but the slenderest of paths from non-elites to the sort of work that people coming out of elites go into. Which has only been the case in the last 20-25 years, increasingly so: that path gets narrower and narrower. That’s a serious problem.

If that hadn’t been the case, we really wouldn’t have bothered with any of this. The state U would’ve been fine and by far the most sensible option.


I guess I just do not see that. Yes, IB and consulting still want an elite pedigree. Few other career paths seem to, and the majority of kids graduating even from elites do not enter IB/ consulting.


Well, maybe it’s not surprising. I have a feeling that people outside universities are in a position wrt opportunity that they were in wrt student debt sometime around 2005-2010, when students were talking about drowning in debt, and people who’d come through some decades before didn’t see the problem: instead they figured the kids were just big complainers and were just making bad choices. It took another 10-15 years for a significant number of adults to recognize that yes, there’s a vast problem that isn’t actually the fault of 18-year-olds wanting luxuries.

There’s a book I’d forgotten about that tries to go into this and then wanders into its own walk-in closet, but it’s trying to show the problem: . This guy sees a problem - iirc he’s an immigrant himself – but he didn’t have enough experience or something to be able to articulate it well.

Could you further explain what paths you feel are closed to state u grads? Maybe some roles in academia, but that is so oversubscribed I wouldn’t encourage anyone from any college to pursue that route.


I don’t know why you’d accept the first paragraph as describing an acceptable, let alone sensible, way for things to run. If people of significant ability are blocked by having gone to “the wrong school” for years of their lives, and have to spend those years working assiduously around their undergrad degree – particularly when that path would have been open to them had they been born earlier, in the same country – then we have a serious problem.

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