October – Where Did You Go?

Whew! I’m feel as if I have been nonstop for the past six weeks!

As many of you know, Calm Undone came out October 1st! To help promote it, I did several readings and events. Two that were both fun and a huge success were part of the Do Not Submit series. Hosted every Thursday at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro, it’s a great place to come hear stories for free and enjoy a pint or two! On October 21st I got to read an excerpt from Calm Undone, and you can watch a video of that reading on my YouTube channel here. It was a great night – I sold some signed copies, and my friend Kim got up and told an impromptu story too!

Then I got swamped – but in a good way. This year I was honored to be the Chair of the 2021 International Brain Bee World Championship, which is the world’s premiere neuroscience competition for teenagers! From November 5th-6th, 43 teenagers (ages 13-19) from 31 countries and 6 continents completed a comprehensive exam (composed of a written section, a neuroanatomy section, a neurohistology section, and a patient diagnosis section) to become a finalist in our Live Judging Session. Then on Sunday November 7th, 24 finalists appeared before a judging panel of four accomplished neuroscientists and went 24 rounds of head-to-head questions-and-answers to see who would become the World Champion! We had to cancel the 2020 IBB World Championship due to COVID19, so this year we crowned two! Rahel Patel of the USA took home the 2020 prize and Viktoriia Vydzhak of Ukraine took the 2021 prize. The IBB World Championship is not only about competition, but also preparing the future of neuroscience and building connections across cultures and the world. This year’s event also included a career panel, two thought provoking keynotes given by eminent neuroscientists, a team competition, and an interactive neuroscience research demonstration — proving that neuroscience is as diverse as it is exciting! You can re-watch (or watch for the first time) all the action on our 2021 IBB World Championship YouTube page!

But the craziness did not stop after the IBB – two days later I was at a practice session for Story Lab, where I am a featured speaker!  On Wednesday November 17th I will be one of six up-and-coming cast members entertaining Chicago with stories of wit, adventure, and personal discovery! Story Lab has been a staple of Chicago for over ten years, and after being on an 18-month hiatus due to COVID19, I’m honored to be part of next week’s event! Story Lab is free to all and starts at 7:00 PM at the Ravenswood United Church of Christ.


Leg 2: Drive across South Dakota, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse

The Highlights:

On Monday we are up at 9 AM and packing to hit the road, when Murr throws out her back (OUCH)! She’s a trooper and we still make it out of camp at exactly 10:55 AM and we’re on the road for Mt. Rushmore. Murr is horizontal in the passenger seat, so I’m designated driver for the next 6 hours.

Route 90 in Eastern South Dakota doesn’t offer much, so we blast through as quickly as we can. I’ve planned a stop midway through the state at Chamberlain so we can stop at Dignity: of Earth and Sky. A 50 ft tall statue of a Native American woman in plains-style dress drawn from Lakota and Dakota culture, Dignity was erected in 2016 to commemorate South Dakota’s 125th anniversary of statehood. It’s way cool, especially the star quilt billowing behind her. She stands in front of the Missouri River, which cuts through South Dakota. Murray braves walking for a photoshoot. I imagine Dignity looks awesome lit up from the back at night – but I won’t get to see that on this trip.

Dignity: of Earth and Sky
Murr and Dignity
The Star Quilt

Back in the car and we still have three hours until we get to Keystone. The scenery improves – substantially. We are entering the Badlands — our vista is filled with rolling hills and granite crags. The winds are crazy! You can see the tractor trailers sway as we round gentle corners, and I count three accidents: One where the wind literally blew the 5th-wheel (aka, camper) off a truck, one Winnebago blown across the median, and an entire semi-truck (cab and trailer) pushed onto its side! Plus it eats into our fuel – we get a whole 10.1 mpg!

Tuesday and Wednesday are all about Mt Rushmore – from a helicopter (Tuesday) and then up-close-and-personal (Wednesday). It’s impressive and well worth the trip. And Murr and I both get our Mt Rushmore NPS Passport Stamps and Cancellations! YEAH. And yes, we are both twelve year-old geeks are heart!

The Black Hills
Western View of Mt Rushmore
Mt Rushmore from the Visitor’s Center
My First NPS Passport Stamps of this trip!

But the surprise event is a cloudy day at Crazy Horse Memorial. While it wasn’t on the original itinerary, as we posted about our trip we got many recommendations to visit, and thus we owe all our followers a big thanks!

Requisite Selfie at Crazy Horse

The Crazy Horse Memorial was the vision and dream of Chief Henry Standing Bear and the husband-wife team of Korczak and Ruth Ziolkowski. It’s truly moving – and I can’t do it much justice here, but I’ll give some basics:

Standing Bear wanted a memorial in the Black Hills to his cousin Crazy Horse. He reached out to Korczak Ziolkowski, a renowned sculptor and an original worker on Mt. Rushmore. Korczak agreed to move from his studio in New England to South Dakota in 1947, after enlisting in the Army for WWII. He and his wife Ruth spent the early years working on the land around the giant granite crag that would eventually become Crazy Horse. They built a home for themselves (and their eventual 5 girls and 5 boys) and a visitor center. The first dynamite blast for the monument was June 1948. Today the face of Crazy Horse is complete and the next phase of the mountain (5-10 years) includes his hand and forearm. Murray and I concede we may not live to see the full monument be done.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Standing Bear, Korczak and Ruth had a vision that was greater than just the world’s largest mountain carving, however. They wanted to preserve and protect the culture, tradition and living heritage of Native Americans. Standing Bear was educated in Chicago (yeah) and believed that the war to preserve Native American culture would be with words and ideas, not weapons. He envisioned a museum to store artifacts and educate on Native American history and culture; and an exhibition and performance center (where Murr and I take in some very awesome Dakota Hoop Dancing).

Tradition – Acrylic on Velvet from the Native American Museum at Crazy Horse Memorial
Murr Hoop Dancing With Kevin

What moved me most, however, was the vision and dedication that Standing Bear, Korczak and Ruth had to education. The mission is to establish an Indian University and potentially a medical training center. The University started small, first by giving $250 scholarship in 1978. The program grew, and in 2010 The Indian University of North America opened with the 7th GEN Summer Program. It is a summer residential program which provides students with 12 academic credits that transfer to a college of their course, work experience through internships, and professional development training such as public speaking.

In 2020 The University started the Wizipan Fall Leadership Program, a partnership with South Dakota State University that provides students 15 credit hours in resource management, global food systems, leadership and Native American studies. The program is open to Native American students throughout the United States and 100% of tuition, room and board is provided. Over the past eleven years, nearly 300 students from 20 Indian Nations and 20 States have graduate from The Indian University of North America. The 2021 session opens in September and enrollees will be fully funded by donations and support from the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.

Crazy Horse: The vision and Now

I think I found my next contribution — and if you’re interested in donating too, click here.

Some Stories are Meant to be Told

It’s back! Chicago’s premiere storytelling event: Do Not Submit has started up again, virtually for the time being. I’ve signed up to tell a story on Thursday, April 29th. You can reserve a space to either be part of the audience (or tell a story) here. I’m still deciding what story to tell . . .

Do Not Submit (DNS) is a series of free, open mic events around Chicago where anyone can come tell a story. I love DNS because it is low key, fun and no expectations of perfection, I’ve met some really great people and storytellers at these events. Len Joy, a fellow BQB author, storyteller and triathlete introduced me to DNS some years ago. Whenever my travel schedule allowed, I would hit up the Andersonville session at Hopleaf Bar.

Last time I attended DNS, I told a 7-minute version of the story All in the Family, a story of mine featured in Science magazine about my summer studying Baboons and being visited by my cousin. You can read that original story here (if you have a subscription to Science), or a variation of it on my blog here.

Copyright 2013 AAAS Owen is always watching

To All the Books I Loved Before

As I am debating and discussing final edits to Calm Undone with my (always helpful) editors, I find myself revisiting favorite characters and books. I truly believe that if you want to become a good writer, you will first have to become a good reader. When I struggle with things like pacing, character development, or how to get the right balance of telling a story without getting lost in minutiae, I pick up books I have strewn about my house that I think did all of that well. As I take a little break this evening from revising (and revising and revising again), I want to share my thoughts on two books (and the authors) that I remembering thinking, Yes, I want to create something like this.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews, 2012). What I love about this book is the narrative voice. Andrews’ protagonist is Greg Gaines, a snarky, witty and self-conscious teenager who just wants to hide in mediocrity. Except when he doesn’t: he wants the attention of the popular girl; he wants the cool nonchalance of his best friend; he wants to move on from high school, but is so scared of being less than mediocre he won’t apply to any colleges. And above all, he wants neat, happy endings to the worse life dishes out, knowing full well it doesn’t happen. Which makes him your typical teenager. Andrews balances self-introspection and stream-of-consciousness story telling with enough dialog and straightforward exposition to keep the story moving forward. It is a space I struggle to occupy comfortably with my characters and plot.

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton, 1967). I envy Hinton, I truly do. I’m still in awe of how she captures the internal voice of a teenage boy. I doubt I could ever write a female character as strongly as she wrote Pony Boy. What brings me back to this book over and over again, however, is the sense of yearning she creates in Pony Boy (Let’s face it – she does it with Johnny, and Soda Pop, and Cherry, and . . . well, she does it). Pony Boy constantly observes that he plays the role society gave him: Being a greaser. But all he wants is to know that if he wanted, he could be something else. It’s not that he thinks being a greaser is bad, it’s that if he wanted to NOT be a one, he could. Without being fake. Without betraying his brothers. Without someone telling him he can’t. Because he can – if someone just gave him the chance. That yearning to have a choice is a theme I want evident in Calm Undone, but it is hard to achieve. Well, not for Hinton, from what I can tell.

King VS Burwell: Or the attack on Obamacare round 2

So, my brother sent me the following email yesterday:

So, the Supreme Court is ruling (or might be ruling) that the States are NOT the executers of the Obamacare plan.  Federal “market exchanges” can be used instead of the States being responsible for setting up and running the program.

Hmmm….think this is a violation of the responsibility and authority of the States?

And here was my response:

Well, it is not that simple.  First, the law governs individual behavior, not a State’s behavior (i.e., the individual is required to purchase health insurance, not the State required to provide it).  However, the law allows for states to act either as executors or not act as executors.  ACA allows for a State to act as executors by establishing exchanges so that its residents are not forced to violate the law (i.e., they must purchase insurance).  If a State ‘opts out’ of executorship, then ACA requires the Federal gov’t to establish an exchange, which means the Federal Gov’t now acts as executor.  So the law, as written, both support state executor rights, and supersedes them.

So to answer your question: Yes, I believe that, originally, ACA removed the state responsibility of regulating health insurance when they made it an individual requirement. That horse it out of the barn, to speak colloquially.  It then placed executorship of that responsibility both at the Federal and State level. It allows for a State to either opt to be the executor of how individuals execute their responsibility; but by opting out, the State forces the Federal gov’t to be the executor of health insurance.

The King vs Burwell case (being heard) is a little more nuanced, and not a challenge to executorship per se; ACA states that, in order to help make insurance affordable, the Federal gov’t will provide subsidies to individuals enrolled in an insurance program “through an Exchange established by the State.”  Some are interpreting this literally; meaning you can only receive the subsidy if you are enrolled in an exchange set up by a State.  If your State did not set up an exchange, and you enrolled through the Federal one (as required by law) AND received subsidies, then King (the plaintiff) asserts that you violated federal law by accepting the subsidies illegally.  The money was only suppose to be available to those enrolled in State exchanges.

The direct question before the Courts is not specifically whether or not states still have the responsibility and executor rights of insurance, but the intent of the law when a state “opted” out of setting up the exchange.  Should people who use the Federal exchange (since their State opted not to set one up) be eligible for the subsidies, even though the letter of the law says “established by the State?”  If the Supreme Court says the letter of the law is legal, then the cost of using the Exchanges are so high, it will fail; eventually someone will successful demonstrate undue burden by the Federal Gov’t requiring such a costly thing as health insurance.

By striking down King’s claim, the Supreme Court allows the ‘intent’ of ACA to cover all the citizens, not just those resident in states with Exchanges.

YO! Marriage doesn’t Equal Parenting

The Brooking Institute released a new report today entitled “Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage.”  It’s a deep dive into the economics of marriage, family, and children.  I usually think the Brooking’s Institute does a good job of independently-guided research on social issues and driving toward practical solutions based upon what is and is not working today.  So I was shocked when the Brooking’s Cafeteria Broadcast used the headline “Why Marriage Is the Best Environment for Kids.”  If you listen to the podcast, you’ll realize the evidence does not necessarily state marriage, but a conscious commitment to parenting and a stable environment.  In fact, at the 17-minute stage of the interview, Isabel Sawhill, the report’s author, states couples should not have children unless “you and your partner want and are willing to be a parent.”  It is such a central part of the thesis, that it is captured in the report’s subtitle:  Drifting into parenthood.

Sadly, that doesn’t always mean marriage, nor should it. Marriage is a legal status – and always has been.  It is a recognition by governments (state, federal, and/or city) of an agreement between to individuals (spouses).  In most cultures, it is celebrated by a ceremony (wedding), usually a religious one (although that trend is changing).  If marriage was the mechanism for parenting, then you wouldn’t need a marriage license until pregnancy. But it fails as a the litmus test for love, commitment, an the ability and want to be a parent.  It may carry with it the expectation of those things, but it doesn’t guarantee them.  I’m not sure it ever did (just spend some time reading how royalty and the churches used marriages as agreements between countries and to establish monarchies and political affiliations. And no, I’m not just speaking of the Tudors, but in all cultures and continents).  I am not trying to tear down marriage.  But I am a realist:  Giving something a label doesn’t necessarily mean it carries any particular attributes.

I think what really shocked me (and somewhat angered me, I’ll admit), was the way the Brookings Institute promoted the article: The title tacitly infers that with marriage comes the attributes that lead to great parenting.  Some might say I’m just arguing semantics; and to that I will say, sure.  That is exactly what I am arguing, and trying to clarify.  The difference between parenting and marriage.  And this concept is confused by the litany of studies showing the disadvantages and challenges children face when coming from single-parent families compared to marriages.  Not necessarily two-parent families, which is the best comparison group.  I’m not saying those challenges aren’t real, but I’m am saying that those challenges can and often do exist in married families.  Listening to the podcast, you realize that Sawhill’s believes that too.  At one point she states that gay couples – who until recently couldn’t achieve the legal status of marriage in any state – have the capacity to provide family stability and strong parenting.  But she also states, obviously, that there is no data on gay marriages yet to compare to other marriages.

And this made me realize there is another piece of data that is missing from the conversation about marriage, family, and children.  The cost of being raised in a marriage that fails to provide stability and family focus, but stayed intact because of the belief that it is better for the child to have two married parents. I’ve watched friends and loved ones struggle to keep a marriage together, when happiness was not going to be achieved.  We all know people who will attest that in hindsight their parents should probably have been divorced.   The stories tell of unpredictability and instability in their home life; of parents not focusing necessarily on what’s best for the child, but on the broken spousal relationship.  At worst, these children becomes pawns in marriage. I’ve never seen a study comparing children in troubled marriages to children with single-parents.  What challenges await children raised in a family with parents that constantly argue and fight, that don’t have trust for one another, but are committed to the marriage and do love their children?

At the end of this rant, I liked the interview, and the evidence that Brookings provides.  But the researcher and educator in me is disappointed that they failed to communicate what they really learned:  Stable Environments and Strong Parenting are Best for Kids.

Yes Dorothy, You Should Go To College

Despite 1.2 trillion dollars held in collective student debt, the overall answer to attending college is still yes.  The Hamilton Project has a fun online widget that allows you compare your annual income by degree and major (I’m trying not to be envious of my engineering and chemistry friends).  Check it out here.

Earning Advantage for bachelor's degree

Earning Advantage for bachelor’s degree

But college today is different than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and because of that we need to think differently about why individuals go to college, when they go, and what they should expect.  Thirty years ago, going to school (be it elementary, high school, or under graduate) was the best source of information.  This is particularly true  at the undergraduate level, and what most people think of when they talk about ‘going to college.’  Aside from the nearest public library, there were few resources for me to learn what a neuron was and how it functioned (and for anyone that has ever been to Wooster, Ohio, where I grew up, even getting that information from the public library was a far shot).  College provided access to advanced information.

But today information is ubiquitous – and can be obtained almost anywhere for free:  Wikipedia, the Khan Academy, and yes from colleges and universities that are developing MOOCS (massive, open, online courses).  So today going to school to get information is not worth the value, per se.  I’ve taught literally hundreds of students physiology each year, and at times I myself used free resources and movies online that are of high-quality and do a great job explaining how the kidney works, or how gas laws govern lung function.

Getting my students to use this new information was different – and something they could not achieve by reading the book or just attending my lecture.  It was in lab sections or in small discussion groups where we read case studies of individuals with kidney malfunction and discussed how understanding gas law would provide a pathway for treatment that students learned how to apply this information.

When you have massive amounts of information at your disposal, you have a new challenge:  Organizing, analyzing, and interpreting that information in a useful and meaningful way.  This is perhaps the hallmark of what colleges and universities can still provide to students.  And despite what we may want to believe, understanding how to interpret information in our world is not easy and native.  Spend time with a two year old who believes that all four-legged creatures are dogs, and you’ll realize that knowing how to organize and categorize information is not easy.  Nor is teaching it.  It takes time, and experience.

College today isn’t so much about facts, but learning what to do with those facts.  College is where students develop and perfect their research and analytical skills – no matter what their major is (If you think English and writing don’t require those skills, simply read John Irving’s Until I Find You, and realize he did extensive research on tattoos, and had to integrate it meaningfully and entertainingly in order to write his book).  Going to college today doesn’t necessarily give you a job, but instead gives you the skills to do many jobs, no matter what you studied.

I’ve been Waiting

The next song on our ‘Best of Lyrics’ comes from Silversun Pickups, an LA band that got its start playing clubs in the Silver Lake neighborhood.  A friend of mine from graduate school lived in the Los Feliz neighborhood, which is just north of Silver Lake, and we would haunt the clubs and restaurants of Silver Lake looking for fun.  One of my favorite stories about the Silversun Pickups is the one that they got their name from post-show runs to the Silversun Liquor store, which is believable since they often played the Silver Lake Lounge, right across from Silversun Liquors (and I myself have made a Silversun pickup after a late night).


Silversun Pickups’ first, full length album was Carnavas, and the song that got the most attention was “Lazy Eye,” which generated airplay on The O.C., and as the promo song for major sporting events such as the MLB All-Star Game, the World Series, and the NHL Stanley Cup Finals.

I could wax philosophically about the meaning of the lyrics, especially with it’s catchy phrase “I’ve been waiting/ I’ve been for this moment,” (which has various endings throughout the song  that include “all my life,” “all night long,” and “but its just not right), and the title Lazy Eye – a medical condition about an eye that wanders and tends to look in a slightly different direction than the other ‘dominant’ eye. Indubiously, it is about infidelity, or the return to the relationship thereafter.  But like many songs in the shoegaze genre, I find it best to just enjoy the tireless wall of sound built by the catchy singing, droning riffs, and distortion that is simultaneously soothing and pleasantly agitating.

Here is the official video for the song – a mere 4:20 longs.  The Carnavas version is 6 minutes, and if you are dedicated enough you might find on the interwebs the UK version that clocks in at over 7 minutes.

Why (presumably) there are no famous female philosophers

There was a time, back in the 1960s and 1970s, when humanities degrees (think history, English or philosophy) were dominated by women. Then something happened.


The chart above tracks the percentage of males and females that received humanties Bachelor’s degrees since the late-1940s.  There was a peak (for both genders) near the 1970s, but then it bottomed out during the 1980s.  There are many possible explanations for this, including how the Reagan-era recession resulted in students being more ‘career-oriented’ during college, and selecting majors that, to them, were easy pathways to jobs (ironically, history does repeat itself, and we see this happening today).   However, a current Inside Higher Education articles states that the ‘drop in share in humanities majors… comes entirely from women,” which highlighted a debate about the role of gender in the humanities (see here and here), and quite frankly kind of pissed me off.

So look at the chart again, and tell me what you think?  Does it make sense?  If you look at the chart, right around the 1950s approximately 15% of women majored in the humanities, while somewhere around 7% of men did so.  Now look at the far right-hand side of the chart, and you see that the percentage dropped to approximately 8% for women … and the percentage for men is about the same – or approximately 7%.  Ergo, the drop is ‘entirely’ attributed to women, since there is no change in the percentage for men.

My beef here is the statement does not completely account for the ‘entire’ data set.  Look at the mid-1970s; Women still outnumbered men, but there was a substantial growth for both genders in the field.  And then there was the drop; Both men and women ran from the humanities between 1970 and 1985, and it just so happened that now the percentage of men getting humanities degrees is the same as it was in 1950.  Since 1985, the fluctuations for both genders are almost parallel, and today the percentage of females and males that study humanities are almost equal.  If anything, one could argue that the humanities are un-appealing to both genders.  The fact that the current percentage of males earning humanities degrees today is the same as in the 1950s is spurious.

Why am I on a rant about this?  Because analyzing and interpreting information means providing context for all your data, and explaining the story accurately.  The word entire means ‘no part left out, or whole.’  And the IHE statement does leave out a significant part – all the men that left the humanities since the field’s peak.  Granted, the statement “Entirely from women,” is sexier, or at least grabs your attention and riles people up: Pitching the genders against one another always provokes intrigue.   But the more appropriate description of the trend is “Between 1950s and early-1990s, more women majored in humanities than men, especially during the 1960s when over 20% of females majored in humanities, and less than 15% of males did.  Today, however, we find that less than 10% of either gender receives Bachelor’s in humanities, which has been the case since the 1980s.”  It’s not as pithy, but it is factual, and more representative of what we know to be true.

It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be intrigued by (or care about) the gender difference when humanities degrees were at their peak.  That is an interesting question, and one that could help revitalize the field.  But it isn’t like every single female walked out of the history department, while all men stood and watched in wonder.  Many men followed the women.

Show Me the Money, Not Your Diploma

If you need to prove that your education was good – pull out your pay stub, or so the current theory goes.

If you’ve attended any school – high school, college, technical or graduate – you cannot avoid the debate that is raging now about the value of education.  On one side are non-profits, such as the Lumina Foundation, and the Obama Administration that want to increase the number of Americans with bachelor’s degrees.  On the other side are people like former Secretary of Education William Bennett and lobbyists of the educational for-profit sector pointing out that the current higher-education system results in students attending the wrong schools and getting worthless degrees, all at the cost of the federal government.  It’s caused numerous think-tanks, pundits, newspapers, and even academic scholars themselves, to opine on whether or not a college degree (or beyond) is worth it.  And so often the one fact that everyone is turning to is money – how much you make after college, how much you owe, or some kind of amalgamated combination of the two.

Bad Metrics lead to Bad Decisions

Our elementary school training (remember Occam’s Razor?) tells us to always use the simplest solution when presented with many. But trying to answer the question of education’s value with a number and a dollar sign is not the ‘simple solution’ – it’s woefully wrong.  The implications of doing so are going to be catastrophic, on many levels.

For instance, Florida is considering a new state-tuition model that would effectively charge higher tuition for students that major in English and other non-STEM fields.  According to Florida, individuals that get English degrees cannot find jobs and are, therefore, under-employed, and the state must cough up money supporting an overly-indebted population.  There is also the current proposal that we link every individual’s yearly tax record to his or her education record – what is being regarded as the “Single Unit Record.”  The Department of Labor just gave away more than $6 million to states to allow for the improvement of computer databases that track any tax-paying individual’s income with education records, to match income with ‘individual data beginning in pre-kindergarten through post-secondary schooling.

Why are these potentially catastrophic?  In 15 years, what do we do when there are literally hundred of geneticists, but not a single English teacher or translators in our ranks?  Do we start to discount the tuition for art majors, historians, and individuals that study foreign languages? And while I am a data-freak, and love the idea of having an infinite database like the Department of Labor is funding, I’m also leery of gathering personal information when not necessary.  Should someone have access to my German II grades in college, in order to see if my studying psychology was ‘financially a good idea?”  For full disclosure, I got a D in German II, a damnable combination of the fact that our college tennis courts were located right outside my dorm and taking German II during the spring semester.  It was just too tempting to play tennis on Tuesday & Thursday afternoons, than study German gerunds.  I regret that decision, but despite it, I eventually got my PhD from a top-ranked psychology program. What does that say?

The Question of Content, not Cost

What it says is, there is an overwhelming complexity to how individuals decide what they want to do with their lives, and simply counting grades and salary won’t make understanding career decisions simpler. Imagine a doctor, who after years of medical school and residency, comes upon the realization that her passion is providing health access to individuals in rural and low-income communities.  She opts to take a position as a physician at a community health center, funded by a non-profit, and in doing so her salary is significantly less than other, comparably trained doctors.  Or consider the recently graduated engineer with a BS degree in computer networking; Not long after he starts working at a high-profile internet-tech company, his wife gets offered a great job across the country (Ironically, I should make her an English major, the best college degree to earn back your tuition money according to Salary.com).  He leaves his position and opts to teach at the small, private school his children attend, because he becomes the primary care-taker, and his wife’s salary more than supports the family comfortably.

I’m purposely engaging in reductio ad absurdum (or some might say abusing it): According to the US Department of Education’s “Gainful Employment“ rules, our doctor or computer programmer would potentially be a ‘failure’ for their respective alma maters, because the Dept of Ed uses debt-to-earnings ratios and other salary information as indicators of employment success.  This is very important, because the Dept of Education plans to deny federally subsidized loans to students that decide to attend schools with poor gainful employment records, under the premise that students should only go to colleges whose graduates make good money (as an aside, this was blocked by a federal judge, but the Dept of Ed will rewrite the rule, not eliminate it.  It is also difficult to determine which programs are exempt from the rule).  Money does not necessarily equal happiness or success.  But in both scenarios above, the education and training my civic-minded doctor or family-oriented computer programmer received helped each sort through the difficult decision of what to do with his or her life, and provided the necessary knowledge and experience to find careers that provided happiness, taking into consideration what they already paid for school (or may still have left to pay).

Which brings us to, in my opinion, the true hallmark of what a good education provides: The skills, abilities, and experiences to navigate the complex world we live in, and to be self-aware enough to know what it takes to achieve your own happiness.  The McKinsey Institute just released a report describing the 12 most “Disruptive Technologies,” explaining that advances in areas such as genetics, cloud computing, and automation will unpredictably change how we live and work.  McKinsey makes a strong argument for the possibility that today’s highly technical jobs that require years of accumulated knowledge (like surgery) will be gone, taken over by robots (in fact, they predict we will see the start of this by 2025, a mere 12 years from today). This inevitably leads to new technologies that will require new knowledge and create new jobs – ones that we cannot predict today.  This only emphasizes that education needs to prepare the next generation to adapt quickly and successfully to unforeseen circumstances, not train for a single job-field.

What we should demand of educational institutions (be they traditional brick-and-mortar colleges or the ever increasing on-line degree programs), is that all students learn critical thinking skills, the ability to make predictions & test them, the ability to reason, provide evidence and support for their arguments, and successfully communicate (in writing and verbally), be they English majors, engineering majors, or economists. This is possible for everyone – History majors that study past political decisions and then compare them to current affairs and hypothesize how today’s outcome may or may not be different meets my criteria stated above.  The test of your education’s value is if it critically think and plan for your happiness and success.   If your school, program, or online-course doesn’t provide you with these skills and abilities, or improve any of these skills that you already have, you should consider it not a good investment of your time and money.

This isn’t to say we don’t have problems with the large debt that young people have after going to college today; nor does it say we shouldn’t try to increase the number of individuals with access to higher education and training past high school; it also does not solve the problem of ‘degree mills’ charging exorbitant tuition for worthless degrees.  These are all issues that have to be addressed, and doing so will be complicated.

I for one hope whoever addresses these sticky issues is educated – not just someone that decided to study physics in order to get cheap tuition, or after graduating happened upon a six-figure-salary job.