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February 21, 2005 [feather]
On what college is--and is not

Writing for The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco has published the first of two review articles on the decline of undergraduate education in the U.S.. It's worth reading in full, but here's a particularly pithy excerpt:

By the end of the nineteenth century, the professionalized university had absorbed schools of medicine and law that had typically begun independently, and was acquiring teacher-training schools, along with schools of engineering, business, and other professions. It was on its way to becoming the loose network of activities that Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, famously called the "multiversity." When Kerr coined that term in 1963, in The Uses of the University, he remarked on the "cruel paradox" that a "superior faculty results in an inferior concern for undergraduate teaching," and he called this paradox "one of our most pressing problems."

Since Kerr wrote, the problem has gotten worse. Today, as David Kirp points out in Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, New York University, which has lately made a big (and largely successful) push to join the academic front rank, employs "adjunct" faculty--part-time teachers who are not candidates for tenure--to teach 70 percent of its undergraduate courses. The fact that these scandalously underpaid teachers must carry the teaching burden--not just at NYU, but at many other institutions--speaks not to their talent or dedication, but to the meagerness of the institution's commitment to the teaching mission. At exactly the time when the struggle to get into our leading universities has reached a point of "insane intensity" (James Fallows's apt phrase), undergraduate education has been reduced to a distinctly subsidiary activity.

Under these circumstances, one might expect to see students fleeing to colleges whose sole mission is teaching undergraduates. Fine colleges such as Swarthmore, Amherst, and Williams, which have significant endowments and high academic standards, do indeed have considerable drawing power. Yet these are small and relatively fragile institutions, and even the best of them are perennial runners-up in the prestige game, while other impressive colleges --such as Centre College in Kentucky or Hendrix College in Arkansas--must struggle, out of the limelight, to compete for students outside their region.

The leading liberal arts colleges will doubtless survive, but they belong to an endangered species. Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, and Morton O. Schapiro, president of Williams, report that even now "the nation's liberal arts college students would almost certainly fit easily inside a Big Ten football stadium: fewer than 100,000 students out of more than 14 million." In today's educational landscape, barely one sixth of all college students fit the traditional profile of full-time residential students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. One third of American undergraduates now work full-time, and more than half attend college part-time, typically majoring in subjects with immediate utility, such as accounting or computing. These students, and their anticipated successors, are targets of the so-called electronic universities that seek a share of the education market by selling Internet courses for profit. A few years ago, the president of Teacher's College at Columbia University predicted that some wily entrepreneur would soon "hire well-known faculty at our most prestigious campuses and offer an all-star degree over the Internet...at a lower cost than we can."

As for the relatively few students who still attend a traditional liberal arts college--whether part of, or independent from, a university--what do they get when they get there? The short answer is freedom to choose among subjects and teachers, and freedom to work out their own lives on campus. Intellectual, social, and sexual freedom of the sort that today's students assume as an inalienable right is never cheaply won, and requires vigilant defense in academia as everywhere else. Yet there is something less than ennobling in the unearned freedom of privileged students in an age when even the most powerful institutions are loath to prescribe anything—--except, of course, in the "hard" sciences, where requirements and prerequisites remain stringent. One suspects that behind the commitment to student freedom is a certain institutional pusillanimity--a fear that to compel students to read, say, the major political and moral philosophers would be to risk a decline in applications, or a reduction in graduation rates (one of the statistics that counts in the US News and World Report college rankings closely watched by administrators). Nor, with a few exceptions, is there the slightest pressure from faculty, since there is no consensus among the teachers about what should be taught.

The history of American higher education amounts to a three-phase story: in the colonial period, colleges promoted belief at a time of established (or quasi-established) religion; in the nineteenth century, they retained something of their distinctive creeds while multiplying under the protection of an increasingly liberal, tolerationist state; in the twentieth century, they became essentially indistinguishable from one another (except in degrees of wealth and prestige), by turning into miniature liberal states themselves--prescribing nothing and allowing virtually everything. Anyone whose parents or grandparents were shut out from educational opportunity because of their race, ethnicity, or gender is thankful for the liberalizing trajectory of higher education-- but as in every human story, there is loss as well as gain.

Also worth reading: Scott McLemee's equally timely fiftieth anniversary review of Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger's The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. Noting that "the deepest implication of [the] work is that academic freedom does not, in fact, have very deep roots even in the history of American higher education--let alone in the wider culture," McLemee offers some provocative sidelong stabs at the manner in which debates about academic freedom have come to shape some of the more pressing ideological and political issues facing academe today (both Ward Churchill and David Horowitz take a beating).

Reading McLemee's piece alongside Delbanco's is instructive--among other things, doing so suggests that defining the problem with contemporary academe as a problem of expressive freedom (as many pundits, commentators, bloggers, and watchdog organizations on both left and right are wont to do) is to miss a much larger, much more salient point about how and why higher education is in decline today. Comments are open to readers who are interested in collectively parsing these articles further.

Erin O'Connor, 9:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

February 15, 2005 [feather]
Student expelled for expressing opinion

FIRE reports that a master's student in Le Moyne College's graduate education program has been expelled for expressing personal beliefs that don't tally with the ideological and pedagogical stance of the program. Ironically, what got the student expelled was a paper advocating strict discipline in the classroom; apparently, at Le Moyne advocating discipline to pedagogues who don't approve of it leads to the strictest, most gratuitously punitive discipline of all. In expelling the student, Le Moyne has violated its own policy on free expression. Read all about it on FIRE's site.

Erin O'Connor, 1:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (16)

February 13, 2005 [feather]

I've written before about my interests in family history, genealogical fiction, and their place in American literature. Now I'm happy to add a new novel to my growing list of works--among them Steinbeck's East of Eden, Annie Proulx's Accordian Crimes, and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain--that think about what it is to be American through stories of a family's successive generations: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Published last fall, Robinson's first novel since her acclaimed 1980 debut, Housekeeping, was long-awaited and eagerly scrutinized. The verdict was that Robinson's new work was well worth the wait, that it was an unusually probing, intellectually serious novel about questions that are at once increasingly pressing and increasingly unpopular to ask--questions about faith, belief, effort, work, self-examination, judgement, doubt, and the complicated, often tortured kinds of love that emerge from personalities wrapped around puritanically-tinged habits of introspection.

Robinson is the unapologetic descendant of a theologically-oriented thread of American letters that has been all but buried over the last century, and that makes for prose that is at once painfully elegiac and pointedly philosophical. The book is told in the form of a letter from a dying Iowa preacher to his young son, and the story it tells is the story of his family's history. Early on, the preacher describes how, as a boy, he and his father (also a preacher) hunted the remote reaches of late nineteenth-century Kansas for his grandfather's lost grave. As an example of Robinson's remarkable combination of reverie and historical reflection, the passage is worth quoting at length:

It was so bad out there we couldn't buy food. We stopped at a farmstead and asked the lady, and she took a little bundle down from a cupboard and showed us some coins and bills and said, "It might as well be Confederate for all the good it does me." The general store had closed, and she couldn't get salt or sugar or flour. We traded her some of our miserable jerky--I've never been able to stand the sight of it since then--for two boiled eggs and two boiled potatoes, which tasted wonderful even without salt.

Then my father asked after his father and she said, Why, yes, he'd been in the neighborhood. She didn't know he had died, but she knew where he was likely to have been buried, and she showed us to what remained of a road that would take us right to the place, not three miles from where we stood. The road was overgrown, but as you walked along you could see the ruts. The brush grew lower in them, because the earth was still packed so hard. We walked past that graveyard twice. The two or three headstones in it had fallen over and it was all grown up with weeds and grass. The third time, my father noticed a fence post, so we walked over to it, and we could see a handful of graves, a row of maybe seven or eight, and below it a half row, swamped with that dead brown grass. I remember that the incompleteness of it seemed sad to me. In the second row we found a marker someone had made by stripping a patch of bark off a log and then driving nails partway in and bending them down flat so they made the letters REV AMES. The R looked like the A and the S was a backward Z, but there was no mistaking it.

It was evening by then, so we walked back to the lady's farm and washed at her cistern and drank from her well and slept in her hayloft. She brought us a supper of cornmeal mush. I loved that woman like a second mother. I loved her to the point of tears. We were up before daylight to milk and cut kindling and draw her a bucket of water, and she met us at the door with a breakfast of fried mush with blackberry preserves melted over it and a spoonful of top milk on it, and we ate standing there at the stoop in the chill and the dark, and it was perfectly wonderful.

Then we went back to the graveyard, which was just a patch of ground with a half-fallen fence around it and a gate on a chain weighted with a cowbell. My father and I fixed up the fence as best we could. He broke up the ground on the grave a little with his jackknife. But then he decided we should go back to the farmhouse again to borrow a couple of hoes to make a better job of it. He said, "We might as well look after these other folks while we're here." This time the lady had a dinner of navy beans waiting for us. I don't remember her name, which seems a pity. She had an index finger that was off at the first knuckle, and she spoke with a lisp. She seemed old to me at the time, but I think she was just a country woman, trying to keep her manners and her sanity, trying to keep alive, weary as could be and all by herself out there. My father said she spoke as if her people might be from Maine, but he didn't ask her. She cried when we said goodbye to her, and wiped her face with her apron. My father asked if there was a letter or a message she would like us to carry back with us and she said no. He asked if she would like to come along, and she thanked us and shook her head and said, "There's the cow." She said, "We'll be just fine when the rain comes."

That graveyard was about the loneliest place you could imagine. If I were to say it was going back to nature, you might get the idea that there was some sort of vitality about the place. But it was parched and sun-stricken. It was hard to imagine the grass had ever been green. Everywhere you stepped, grasshoppers would fly up by the score, making that snap they do, like striking a match. My father put his hands in his pockets and looked around and shook his head. Then he started cutting the brush back with a hand scythe he had brought, and we set up the markers that had fallen over--most of the graves were just outlined with stones, with no names or dates or anything on them at all. My father said to be careful where I stepped. There were small graves here and there that I hadn't noticed at first, or I hadn't quite realized what they were. I certainly didn't want to walk on them, but until he cut the weeds down I couldn't tell where they were, and then I knew I had stepped on some of them, and I felt sick. Only in childhood have I felt guilt like that, and pity.

The whole thing reads like that. It's gorgeous, and important, and like so many things that combine great beauty with deep meaning, deserves the respect of minimal comment. So I will simply say: This is a book that deserves your undivided attention. Read it.

Erin O'Connor, 2:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

February 10, 2005 [feather]
Malapropisms and other fun things

People write to me from time to time asking me to post about what it's like teaching in a boarding school. For a variety of reasons, I've not obliged--this site is not a diary, the school deserves not to be identifiably discussed on this site, there's no time. That's one thing I will say about the life I presently lead--I own very, very little of my time. I'm at a very small school--which means that teachers all do a lot more than teach. They proctor study halls during the day and at night; they run tutorials and sports programs and extracurricular activities; they do administrative work; they manage dormitories, which in turn means that they ensure that students are up and about early in the morning and that they are at home by curfew and in bed by a reasonable hour; they also counsel, counsel, and counsel. Very often, the work day begins at 7 AM with dormitory duties and ends after 11 PM, also with dormitory duties. In between, it's a whirlwind of serial commitments and obligations. I have one night off a week, and I have two weekends off each month. So it's hard to find time to read. This is why I am only a few pages further into Susanna Moore's In the Cut than I was last Sunday, when I posted her opening paragraphs. Stealing a few minutes to read today, I found another few paragraphs I like enough to post here. The novel is told from the perspective of an English teacher / linguist who finds herself mixed up in a murder investigation. Here's the sort of thing this teacher-linguist thinks about when she is on the subway:

Two women sitting next to me on the subway were talking about a man. One of the women said, but he just want to conversate and I just want to blowse through my magazine. I could kill that man.

A dangerous combination for me. Language and passion.

I have often noticed that words that are incorrectly rendered have an onomatopoetic logic, as well as a kind of poetry, that is more appealing, sometimes even more accurate, than correct usage. The wrong words are sometimes so close to a truer meaning that they are like puns. Many of the words have to do with the body, or disease. For example, Old Timer's Disease, rather than Alzheimer's. Abominal for stomach. Athletic fit for epileptic fit. Chicken pops. Very close veins. The prostrate gland.

And there are other words, too. Daily-by-daily. Chomping at the bit. Autumn furlage. Unchartered waters. And what could be more alluring than breastesses?

I love these. My mother, a retired physician, once knew patients who suffered from the Screaming Mighty Jesus (cerebral meningitis). Readers are welcome to add more in the comments.

Erin O'Connor, 6:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (23)

February 7, 2005 [feather]
A fine beginning

This one goes out to all the teachers who have ever felt their grip on the English language slipping due to excessive contact with linguistically confused students:

I don't usually go to a bar with one of my students. It is almost always a mistake.

But Cornelius was having trouble with irony.

The whole class was having trouble with irony. They do much better with realism. Realism, they think, is simply a matter of imitating Ernest Hemingway. Short flat sentences, an adjective before every noun. Ernest Hemingway himself, the idea of him that they have from the writing, makes them uncomfortable. They disapprove of him. They don't like him or the white hunter in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." The bravado, the resentment in the writing excites them, but they cannot allow themselves to feel it. Hemingway, they've decided, Hemingway the person, isn't cool.

I considered giving them Naipaul to read, A Bend in the River or Guerillas, but I decided that they would be so sensibly outraged by the beating, murdering, and dismembering of women that they might not be able to see the intelligence in the books. I wondered if they would like Graham Greene. Brighton Rock perhaps. But I had forgotten, I don't know how, the dream in which the murderer, straight razor in hand, says only two words: "Such tits."

Stream of consciousness, which some of them thought at first was stream of conscienceness, doesn't seem to give them much trouble. They think it's like writing down your dreams except without punctuation. Some of them admitted that before completing the Virginia Woolf assignment they'd smoked a little dope and it had helped. They make these confessions to me in a shyly flirtatious way, as if they were trying to seduce me. Which, of course, they are. Not sexually, but almost sexually. It would be sexual if they knew any better. And someday they will. Know better.

But irony terrifies them. To begin with, they don't understand it. It's not easy to explain irony. Either you get it or you don't. I am reduced to giving examples, like the baby who is saved from death in the emergency room only to be hit by a bus on the way home. That helps a little. Cornelius said that he preferred realism to irony because irony turned conceived wisdom on its head. Whether he meant to say conventional wisdom or received wisdom, I don't know. I was so distracted by an image of wisdom being turned on its head that I simply nodded and let him go on. Irony is like ranking someone or something, he said, but no one knows for sure you're doing it.

That's close enough, I said.

That's from Susanna Moore's In the Cut.

In other recreational reading news, I've recently finished reading Charles Portis' True Grit, a 1968 spiritual cousin to Mark Twain's 1885 classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Portis sets his story in Arkansas and the nearby Indian territory during the same time period that Huck and Jim would have been sliding down the Mississippi on their raft, and it's hard not to read the novel as having evolved in some insensible way from Twain's unrelenting criticism of the stupidity of people from Arkansas (Portis, who lived in Arkansas, would have been acutely alive to Twain's regional slurs). The broad similarities between the two novels are unmistakable--Portis' heroine, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, lights out into the territories (just as Huck does at the end of his novel) to avenge the death of her father. She hires a guide in the figure of the hard-drinking, gambling Rooster Cogburn, and together they make, like Huck and Jim, an unlikely pair whose bond deepens over the course of their adventures. Mattie is smart like Huck and not dumb like Twain's Arkansans; she's in many ways a cagey, tough, weirdly ladylike companion to Huck, a girl who, to borrow Huck's own term of highest praise, is just full of sand. It's a good read, and good, too, are the critical assessments of Portis' work by Donna Tartt, who wrote the introduction for Bloomsbury's new edition of the novel, and Scott McLemee, who writes more generally about Portis' work and speculates on why such a central figure in American literature should have had so much trouble staying in print.

Erin O'Connor, 1:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (25)

February 2, 2005 [feather]
Free to be stunningly ignorant

The University of Connecticut recently conducted a survey of how much high school students know--and appreciate--about the First Amendment. The Michigan Daily has this disturbing summary of the results:

The survey, conducted by the University of Connecticut, found that one in three of the 112,003 students surveyed said the freedom of the press should be ?more restricted? ? a full 36 percent of the students said newspapers should receive governmental approval before publication. When asked whether the press enjoys too much freedom, not enough, or about the right amount, a staggering 32 percent said ?too much,? while only 10 percent answered ?too little.? Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that many of the students surveyed appeared to be ignorant as to what the First Amendment guaranteed; a startling 75 percent of students thought defacing the American flag was illegal, despite a U.S. Supreme Court case explicitly protecting such freedom of expression.

Sigh. If we don't educate ourselves and our kids about our rights, we're going to lose them. Worse, as this survey chillingly suggests, we will neither know nor care when those rights are lost.

Erin O'Connor, 10:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (46)

No high school student left behind

Yesterday's New York Times ran an editorial on the sad state of literacy in American high schools, with special emphasis on what New York City is doing to confront a growing, deeply troubling problem. Noting that the U.S. now ranks seventeenth in the world in high school education, the Times observes that

The American high school is a big part of the problem. Developed a century ago, the standard factory-style high school was conceived as a combination holding area and sorting device that would send roughly one-fifth of its students on to college while moving the rest directly into low-skill jobs. It has no tools to rescue the students who arrive unable to read at grade level but are in need of the academic grounding that will qualify them for 21st-century employment.

New York City recently embarked on a plan to develop a range of smaller schools, some of them aimed at the thousands of students whose literacy skills are so poor that they have failed the first year of high school three times. The plan is to pull these students up to the academic standard while providing some of them with work experiences. The National Governors Association has begun a high school initiative that calls for remedial services and partial tuition reimbursement for students who complete community college courses that lead to technical or industrial job certifications. The White House, rushing to get ahead of the parade, recently announced a high school project of its own. And other school districts are tinkering with gimmicks like cash bonuses for good grades.

The emerging consensus is that the traditional high school needs to be remade into something that is both more flexible and more rigorous. But the rigor has to come first.

The editorial goes on to argue that nothing will change unless and until we rebuild "the teacher corps," which it sees happening through a combination of subsidized teacher training, withdrawal of funding from nonfunctional ed schools, and ending the pattern of sending the least able teachers into the most troubled schools.

All this is of course easier said than done, and what's being easily said is also, of course, highly disputable: The editorial's apparent assumption, for example, that ed school ought still to be a gateway to public school teaching really cannot stand as an assumption at this stage of the public debate on education.

Something the article does not not mention--in fairness, because the issue is beyond its particular purview--is how independent schools are confronting the same pressing issues of declining literacy. We center our debates on literacy and education on public schools, and the working assumption there appears to be that the issue only really affects kids in public schools. While it seems clear enough that the most extreme manifestations of the problem are to be found in public schools, it's equally clear that independent schools are affected, too. It's just not that unusual for teachers in these schools to encounter serious deficits in their students, and to find themselves doing a depressing--and sometimes seemingly futile--amount of remediation. I would guess, too, that just like the public schools, these schools struggle at times to find teachers who are capable of doing that remediation.

One very basic reason for this--one of many-is that for more than a generation now, the study of grammar has been out of favor in American schools. Without solid grounding in grammar, a student is never really going to learn to write well. Even more to the point, without a solid grounding in grammar, that student's teachers are not only not going to be able to teach that student to write well, they aren't even going to know when a student cannot write.

I'd love to hear from teachers, parents, and students about their experiences learning to read and write in both public and private schools. In particular, I'd love to hear from people who teach English in private high schools. What kinds of literacy issues do you face with your students, to what do you attribute them, and how do you deal with them?

Erin O'Connor, 8:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (26)