Dr. Michael Forster

Still in the education cellar

Just in time to turn up the heat on legislative debate on education funding even higher, Mississippi has scored one more “51st out of 51″ K-12 education system rankings.   According to the Education Week’s Quality Counts report, as reported in today’s Hattiesburg American, that’s an unqualified F in “academic achievement,” and a D+ in “chance for success,” folks.  Ouch.   No doubt there’s room to quibble about just how bad off we are, but the primary metrics are hard to argue with.  Mississippi students performed well below the national average in the 2013 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores for fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math.  And fewer than 4 percent of Mississippi students who took an AP exam scored a passing grade of 3 or higher, compared to a national average of 25.7 percent. 

Looking for a bright side to this educational blight, one might argue that both Gov. Bryant and state Supt. Wright at least deserve a B+ in making politically innocuous statements.  Bryant called the latest findings “troubling,” but evident support for “transformational public education reforms like the third-grade gate and new opportunities for public charter schools.”  Wright opined that “We know that many factors influence student achievement, and we hope the leadership in our state and communities will make decisions that will provide better opportunities for students to take advanced placement courses.”

All we can do is hope, I suppose.

Dr. Michael Forster

Expect climate change and health to take center stage in 2015

After years of denial, climate change and its deleterious impacts are now squarely on the political agenda of a growing number of Americans.  Many of those impacts are directly or indirectly health related, from increasingly destructive weather events and shifting disease vectors, to disruption of agricultural production and water scarcity.  Coming home are brutally simple truths – climate change is real; people (not to mention myriad other species) will suffer and die as a result; it’s still possible to mitigate at least some climate change impacts, but the clock is working against us.

Look for battles to shape up in both traditional and non-traditional venues.  If legislatures, regulatory bodies, and courts fail to act to curtail climate change contributors, expect rising rates of street demonstration and civil disobedience aimed at disrupting “business as usual.”

Dr. Michael Forster

Last word on the last day of the year: Education!

I don’t always agree with Sid Salter’s views, but he’s right on in a December 27 piece in the Clarion-Ledger when underscoring the fundamental link between poor education, unemployment, and poverty in Mississippi.  Perhaps it’s because the correlation is inescapable – a sad socio-economic reality that leaves little room for interpretation.

Poverty is high – and with poverty, a whole litany of social negatives, perhaps most notably poor heath – because Mississippi’s educational system is weak, underfunded, and on the whole incapable of keeping pace with a rapidly changing economic environment.  Part of the weakness is comparatively low educational attainment – the second lowest in the nation (trailing only West Virginia), with only about 20% of the population aged 25 and older having completed at least a bachelor’s degree.  Consequently, Mississippi has the lowest median income (under $38,000) and the highest poverty rate (24%) in the nation.

I surely can’t say it better than Salter: “As former Gov. William Winter and others in both parties have observed in the past, the road out of abject, withering and persistent poverty in Mississippi surely runs by the doors of the schoolhouse, the community college, the vocational-technical training facilities and the university. An educated workforce attracts and commands more and better jobs.”

2015 is a big election year in Mississippi.  Public officials, and would-be public officials, take note – The numbers don’t lie; it’s as clear as blaze orange: Mississippi is poor because it is undereducated.  The policy implication seems equally clear: Fund education at a level that will allow us to make real headway.  And stop hiding behind the excuse that Mississippi is just too poor to do what needs to be done to escape poverty.  That’s fatalism, not leadership.

Dr. Michael Forster

Funding crisis permeates public education

Both the Hattiesburg American and the Clarion-Ledger front-page a story today on Mississippi’s “long history of lousy education and a bad habit of not paying for it” in the K-12 public education system.  But informed readers know that the funding crisis extends to higher education as well, where a retreat from even “adequate” public funding has been underway for a long while now.

Different states, and even individual institutions, will reach the tipping point of possibly irreversible decline on different dates.  But Mississippi supporters of public education will want to pay close attention to the experience of the University of New Orleans, just more-or-less 100 miles south or west of USM’s campuses in Hattiesburg and Long Beach.

At UNO, President Peter Fos, my predecessor in the College of Health dean’s office, has been pushed into the fiscal corner of proposing elimination of otherwise healthy and valuable academic programs for no reason other than that the combination of state funding (dramatically reduced under Gov. Jindal and a compliant Louisiana legislature) and tuition won’t sustain them.  Other programs are on the bubble for possible similar treatment, as workloads of faculty and staff rise, and employee morale plummets.

Let’s hope a similar fate does not await USM or any other Mississippi institution of higher learning.

Dr. Steven Moser

Preconceptions by Dr. David M. Holley

Beginning this December, I’ve asked faculty in the college to serve as guests contributors to the college blog.  David M. Holley, Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion begins this series.

Steven R. Moser, Dean

Holley, David (8-2014)Surprising facts can overturn your preconceptions, but only if you let them. Sometimes we deny or ignore things that don’t fit into what we already think. Here is a surprising fact:

A study reported in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago compared salaries of people between ten to fifteen years after leaving college. The comparison involved a ranking of salaries according to undergraduate majors (considering only people without a graduate degree). Out of a list of 50 undergraduate majors, philosophy majors had the 16th highest salary. Degrees such as engineering and computer science were ahead of philosophy in the mid-career salaries ranking, but philosophy was ahead of business majors such as management, accounting, and information technology. Starting salaries for philosophy majors were lower than for many of these fields, but eventually philosophy majors were making higher salaries.

When you have a surprising fact, the explanation may not be simple. There could be many factors at work. One factor that comes to mind is that there are fewer philosophy graduates than graduates of many of the other fields to which they were compared. It is also relevant that philosophy majors on the average tend to be pretty bright, so we can’t attribute the advances in salary only to the fact that they studied philosophy in college.

Even so, it seems startling that a college major we wouldn’t associate with making money leads to this kind of result. So how can it be explained? I think the most obvious explanation is that philosophy majors are pretty good at learning new things and that some of the skills they developed are helpful for succeeding in a variety of fields. If you can learn to read and understand a complex philosophical text, you can probably learn to digest the information in business reports. If you can find the logical flaws or questionable assumptions in a defense of a philosophical position, you should be able to recognize the weaknesses of a new administrative proposal. If you have formed the habit of looking at things from a variety of perspectives, you may be able to come up with novel approaches to an organizational problem.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of technical knowledge. People who do advance in their fields have to acquire quite a bit of that. But anyone who thinks that you can learn what you need in college to be successful seriously underestimates the importance of learning on the job and being able to adapt to the unexpected. When we think of preparing for something other than an entry-level job, we need to be thinking of things like the capacity for being creative and analytical and adaptable.

One of our recent philosophy graduates who went on to a major law school in another state wrote back that he knew hardly anything about the law when he arrived, but that did not matter because his philosophy major had taught him how to think. That’s the sort of thing we like to hear, and faculty in our department hear something like it often enough that we’re inclined to think there is some truth in it.

Most people don’t choose philosophy as a major because they think it will help them earn a high salary. I would be startled if someone came to us acknowledging this kind of motivation. But when I think of the kinds of things we teach our majors to do, it seems clear to me that the skills they learn can be adapted to many types of work, and sometimes a byproduct of doing a job well is financial success.





– Dr. David M. Holley, Chair
Department of Philosophy and Religion