More Money than Brains: Why School Sucks, College is Crap & Idiots Think They’re Right by Laura Penny. McClelland & Stewart 2010.
Penny’s basic premise is that the people she labels nerds, particularly those who aspire to higher education, are increasingly targeted by anti-intellectual sentiment in an age that values money before all else. Universities have become places that students attend for the purpose of fast-tracking their pursuit of a profitable career rather than to extend their education and broaden their minds. She lays out her argument in seven chapters with titles such as Is Our Schools Sucking? and Bully vs. Nerd: On the Persistence of Freedumb in Political Life.
Here’s the introduction to Is Our Schools Sucking?:
I have to give the man (Bush Sr.) points for insisting that America must be a “reading nation,” even though he wrapped this fine principle in the usual blah-dee-blah about staying competitive in the international market. He omitted the salutary effects of reading that Jefferson endorsed, such as not becoming – or voting for – complete fuckwits, but he did ask the following excellent question:
Education is our most enduring legacy, vital to everything we are and can become. And come the next century – just ten years away – what will we be? Will we be children of the Enlightenment or its orphans?
More than a decade later, in 2000, his son posed a similar question: “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?” The difference between these two quotes says a lot, and none of it good. Even the president’s childrens is not learning. Is this because our schools is sucking?
In looking at the state of schools, Penny considers charter schools (in the U.S. and Alberta), standardized testing, programs such as No Child Left Behind and other relevant factors. The United States pours money into education but students continue to perform below average on international standardized tests. The gap between Canadian and U. S. test scores rules out the excuse of cultural distractions such as T.V. and video games. Penny points out that the most important factor in determining student performance is class. Poor students do poorly.
Generally, students in countries with greater economic mobility perform better on international standardized tests. A 2007 study found that the United States had about 1/3 the ratio of mobility of Denmark and less than half that of Canada, Finland and Norway. France, Germany, and Sweden, also had higher mobility, with only the United Kingdom being less mobile. (Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well? Isabel Sawhill & John E. Morton. 21 February 2007. Economic Mobility Project, Washington, D.C.. 4 December 2007) Standardized testing scores follow a similar pattern.
With the emphasis that is now being placed on universities as degree factories for career seekers, liberal arts degrees have fallen into disfavour. Yet, Penny notes, the top ten skills that employers list as vital for graduates entering the workforce include items such as English language proficiency, critical thinking/problem solving, written communications, and reading comprehension. These are all associated with a strong Liberal Arts program. Further, the emphasis on money before all else affects ethics. One study showed M.B.A. students cheated more than students in any other discipline, with the majority, 56%, of M.B.A. students cheating on assignments.
We should stop treating a university degree as a consumer good. Penny’s prescription for repairing universities includes removing career training programs such as Hotel Management, Business and Marketing to community colleges (which would also make them more affordable). Universities could then concentrate on higher education in the liberal arts and sciences.
You don’t have to look far to find anti-intellectual bias in government. Here in Canada, Michael Ignatieff was lambasted by the Conservatives as elitist and out of touch because he is well-educated and taught at the university level. Apparently, when it comes to politics, only dummies need apply. That would explain the mess the country is in!
Penny describes the governments since Reagan and Thatcher as essentially idiocratic, meaning focused on the individual rather than the greater good. Constant promises of tax cuts undermine the important functions of government as protectors of the infrastructures necessary to provide citizens with the framework needed for freedom of individual development. That includes things like good roads and schools and cops and legal systems.
Idiocrats such as Stephen Harper
… criticize executive power until they wield it and demand accountability and transparency untill they are the ones who have to provide it. People who do not believe in public service, because they do not believe in the public sector, run for office in bad faith. …Who tries to fix something they don’t believe in?
If the private sector is so fantastic, so much better at everything than the government, then go join it. Leave the work of governing to people who actually believe that governments can work.
Laura Penny has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and teaches English at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax. Readers expecting a weighty tome, complete with obscure references, will find that More Money than Brains is instead snappy, satiric and sarcastic in tone. I’m good with sarcasm myself. I found many passages in More Money than Brains to be laugh-out-loud funny. However, I’ve found through sometimes sad experience that not everyone ‘gets’ sarcasm. Indeed, a surprising number of people might say “We are not amused!” And in this case, that’s too bad because Penny makes many good points and More Money than Brains is a worthwhile read.