About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
May 31, 2007 [feather]
Glenn Reynolds on Indoctrinate U

Glenn Reynolds--who appears briefly in Indoctrinate U--has this to say about the film:

HELEN AND I JUST WATCHED EVAN COYNE MALONEY'S FILM, Indoctrinate U. It's a gripping hour-and-a-half, and the college administrators -- and there are a lot of them -- who call the cops on Evan rather than answer simple questions about matters of public record certainly give higher education a jackbooted-thug ambience. Even your dumber corporate PR people would know better, but they are used to a lot more public scrutiny than the folks who run colleges and universities.

I hope that the film gets a lot of attention. It certainly deserves it, and I think it's going to leave a lot of people angry.

It sure will. Truth-telling tends to have that effect.

Erin O'Connor, 8:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

May 28, 2007 [feather]
Reviving the Sorbonne

French higher education may finally receive a desperately needed overhaul:

PARIS--The Sorbonne has no cafeteria, no student newspaper, no varsity sports, no desk-side electric plugs for laptops. France's most renowned university also costs next-to-nothing to attend, and admission is open to every high school graduate.

President Nicolas Sarkozy says this picture is emblematic of much that is wrong with France, which seeks to recapture its economic luster and key role in international affairs.


High dropout rates, antiquated resources and funding cuts have so plagued the Sorbonne, like universities across France , that its president, Jean-Robert Pitte, is calling for an overhaul of the university system. He wants to make admission selective and sharply increase tuition, measures critics call "Americanization."

French universities "don't correspond to the needs of the economy, to French society, and even less to Europe and the world," Pitte said in an interview. "I'm pragmatic. I watch what happens elsewhere, and I'm for borrowing what works best."


The challenges start with egalitarian rules that govern French universities. Imposed after the student and worker uprising of 1968, they offer any student with a high school diploma a free education. Financial barriers were to be leveled with generous grants.

Nearly 40 years later, the free and democratic universities are producing far fewer graduates than their much more costly counterparts in the United States. In 2005, 14 percent of adults had a university education in France, compared to 29 percent in the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Pitte says the French system just produces dropouts. Forty-five percent of Sorbonne students do not complete their first year, and 55 percent do not earn a degrees. Without entrance standards, there is a "selection-by-failure" that squanders resources and professors' time on students who "have no real chance of success," he said.

The Sorbonne is all the more difficult to reform because it has an intrinsic link to Paris' Left Bank intellectual history, which students are keen to preserve.

And while French students complain about poor facilities and huge classes, they vehemently oppose change.

"Education is a public service and should be open to everyone regardless of their economic situation," said Simon Vacheron, a history student who says the solution is more public money.

Many defend the system as a true meritocracy.

"It allows everyone to take their chances," said Maxime Lonlas, president of the Sorbonne's largest student union. Instead of being judged on past accomplishments, each student "can be judged on their performance," he added.

But Pitte says annual tuition fees of less than $400 , a sum that is often waived , mean there's no financial penalty for failure.

There's even a "phantom student" phenomenon where as many as 10 percent of students on the rolls never see the inside of a lecture hall, having enrolled to get free health benefits and student discounts on everything from train travel to movie tickets.

Free universities aren't the only choice for French students. There's also a parallel system of "grandes ecoles" that educates the French elite.

With 6 percent of post-secondary students, the grandes ecoles have difficult entrance exams and charge tuition of up to $6,700 a year, but offer small classes and graduate nearly all the country's business leaders and politicians.

"We're the street-sweepers of the education system," Pitte said, picking up all those who fail to gain entrance to the grandes ecoles.

Low tuition also means universities are starved for money and short on the services that are taken for granted in the U.S. The Sorbonne has no alumni association, robbing it of essential donations. And without access to outside resources , corporate funding is prohibited , the universities are crumbling.

The University of Shanghai publishes a world ranking of universities, and in 2005, the top French university placed 46th, behind more than 30 American institutions.

Sarkozy has included university reform in his four top priorities to be passed during a parliamentary session this summer. His proposals include $20 billion for universities, which would see their budgets increase by 50 percent.

Pitte wants to limit the numbers of students in disciplines that have few job opportunities upon graduation, and introduce annual tuition fees of $4,000.

"Nobody should be prevented from doing university studies," said Pitte. But to let students who aren't cut out for it into the system "is criminal."

Egalitarianism may have its place, but it also has its limits. It is not a viable educational philosophy, nor is it a workable solution to most pressing social problems. The Sorbonne needs a merit-based system of admissions and assessment. It needs to raise tuition and allow private investment. And it also needs to be publicly accountable.

Erin O'Connor, 9:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

How not to do it

There are respectable ways to make your political opinions known. Disrupting a graduation ceremony is not one of them.

AMHERST, Mass. (AP) -- President Bush's former chief of staff Andrew Card was loudly booed by hundreds of students and faculty members as he rose to accept an honorary degree at the University of Massachusetts on Friday.

The boos and catcalls - including those from faculty members who stood onstage with Card - drowned out Provost Charlena Seymour's remarks as she awarded the honorary doctorate in public service. Protesters claim Card lied to the American people in the early days of the Iraq war and should not have been honored at the graduate student commencement.

Card smiled slightly while Seymour spoke and raised his hand in thanks, then sat down without speaking.

Afterward he ignored a reporter's question about the protesters. "It was a great honor and a privilege to be here," he said.

The protests were mainly contained to an area in the back of the campus arena, though many of the faculty members onstage joined the three- to four- minute outburst.

One faculty member onstage held a sign: "Card - no honor, no degree." Another sign said, "War criminals go home."

With role models like these, it's hard to expect more from students.

Erin O'Connor, 9:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

May 27, 2007 [feather]
A step in the right direction

One of the biggest hypocrisies of today's academy is the assumption that "diversity" can be achieved by engineering student bodies and faculties according to genetic criteria. A related one is the assumption that this automatically gives the entire campus community some sort of special insight into privilege and oppression. This assumption persists despite our belated recognition that most elite college students come from comfortable backgrounds, no matter what color they are (a 1998 study showed that 86% of blacks enrolled at prestigious colleges and universities were either middle- or upper class).

Merit should be the most important factor in college admissions. But if there is a place for affirmative action, and I think there is, when it is clearly distinct from quotas, it should be centered on economic background.

Some schools are beginning to get it. From this morning's New York Times:

AMHERST, Mass.--The discussion in the States of Poverty seminar here at Amherst College was getting a little theoretical. Then Anthony Abraham Jack, a junior from Miami, asked pointedly, "Has anyone here ever actually seen a food stamp?"

To Mr. Jack, unlike many of his classmates, food stamps are not an abstraction. His family has had to use them in emergencies. His mother raised three children as a single parent and earns $26,000 a year as a school security guard. That is just a little more than half the cost of a year's tuition, room and board, fees and other expenses at Amherst, which for Mr. Jack's class was close to $48,000.

So when Mr. Jack, now 22 and a senior, graduates with honors on May 27, he will not just be the first in his family to earn a college degree, but a success story in the effort by Amherst and a growing number of elite colleges to open their doors to talented low-income students.

Concerned that the barriers to elite institutions are being increasingly drawn along class lines, and wanting to maintain some role as engines of social mobility, about two dozen schools--Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Virginia, Williams and the University of North Carolina, among them--have pushed in the past few years to diversify economically.

They are trying tactics like replacing loans with grants and curtailing early admission, which favors the well-to-do and savvy. But most important, Amherst, for instance, is doing more than giving money to low-income students; it is recruiting them and taking their socioeconomic background--defined by family income, parents' education and occupation level--into account when making admissions decisions.

Amherst's president, Anthony Marx, turns to stark numbers in a 2004 study by the Century Foundation, a policy institute in New York, to explain the effort: Three-quarters of students at top colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, with only one-tenth from the poorer half and 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

"We want talent from across all divides, wherever we can find it," President Marx said. Amherst covered the full cost of Mr. Jack's education beyond what he earned in work-study. The only debt he says he owes is the $41 it cost to make copies of his 107-page honors thesis.

One of the corruptions of the current diversity system is the degraded and degrading assumption that "talent" is synonymous with being a minority; the system obeys an exploitative logic that says that sheltered white kids will benefit from the enriching presence of non-white classmates, and as such it pays far more attention to the demographic profile of the prospective minority student than it does to either that student's background or his own educational needs.

Nobody thinks being poor is a talent, and nobody thinks it's wonderfully exotic. Hopefully that will help keep an economically oriented system of affirmative action from falling into the hypocrisies of race- and gender-based systems. There are dangers with any sort of social engineering, and it's not hard to imagine the kinds of marxist manipulations that could come with this territory. But it's also easy to imagine poor kids' worlds being opened up by the opportunity to be educated. That's what Anthony Jack says has happened for him at Amherst: "Thanks to Amherst, Mr. Jack said, he has rewritten the narrative of his life." That's the American dream. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Erin O'Connor, 7:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

May 23, 2007 [feather]
English for everyone

"Are California's EL [English Learners] students learning English and academic skills?" Joanne Jacobs asks. "Are they learning the skills but getting stuck in an 'EL track' that leads nowhere?"

In a new paper put out by the Lexington Institute, Jacobs explores these questions, along with the distressing statistics that surround them: "Only 9.6 percent of English Learners (ELs) in California public schools were redesignated to Fluent English Proficient status during the 2005-06 school year. According to one state education department study, only one-third of those who start in kindergarten are reclassified by fifth grade." Those aren't good numbers--and in her paper, Jacobs explores everything from how California offers financial incentives to keep kids classified as ELs to how individual schools handle the complexities of teaching English to kids who speak a variety of first languages.

Erin O'Connor, 8:02 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

May 21, 2007 [feather]
Did you laugh today?

Julian Gough asks why the novel has lost its grip on good humor and comes up with some interesting hypotheses. Noting that the novel has become a dour, oh-so-self-consciously-deep production, he gives credit for humor where credit is due: to Joseph Heller, Evelyn Waugh, Kurt Vonnegut, Flann O'Brien, John Kennedy Toole. And he notes the role of the university in helping excise the novel's funny bone (a symptom, he notes, of a larger creative paralysis inflicted on the genre by its institutional appropriators):

...professionalisation will make poor writers adequate. And will make potentially great writers adequate. Great novelists write for their peers. Poor novelists write for their teachers. If you must please the older generation to pass (a student writing for an older teacher, a teacher writing to secure tenure), you end up with cautious, old-fashioned novels. Worse, the system turns peers into teachers. Destroyed as writers, many are immediately re-employed, teaching creative writing. This is a Ponzi scheme.

During their second year, students are offered teaching appointments to teach introductory undergraduate creative writing workshops (ENL 5F or ENL 5P) in their genre or are hired as literature TAs or GSRs. (From the website of the English department at the University of California, Davis)

The damage this is causing to novel, writer and audience is particularly advanced in America. The last 30 years have seen the effects of turning novel writing into an academic profession with a career path. As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.

And the language of the American literary novel began to drift away from anything used by human beings anywhere on earth. Thirty years of the feedback loop have led to a kind of generic American literary prose, instantly recognisable, but not as instantly comprehensible. Professions generate private languages designed to keep others out. This is irritating when done by architects. But it is a catastrophe for novelists, and the novel.

Lastly, a series of thesis units, which is your writing time guided by your thesis committee members, will fulfil the required 36 units. (From the website of the English department at the University of California, Davis)

Much of their fiction contains not so much tragedy as mere anxiety. Pushed to look for tragedy in lives that contain none, to generate suffering in order to be proper writers, they force themselves to frown rather than smile; and their work fills with a self-indulgent anxiety that could perhaps best be called "wangst."

He goes on to offer rules of thumb for aspiring novelists, among them "steal from The Simpsons, not Henry James." Literary allusion, Gough argues, can be inbred to the point of sterility. This is a complaint he has about John Banville.

I'm guessing people who care about novels in general and about contemporary fiction in particular will find this essay invigorating and maddening by turns. But it's well worth a read, even if you don't completely buy either its polemic or its history. If nothing else, it's a tacit reminder of the lasting value of great nineteenth-century comic writers such as Dickens, Twain, and Austen, who were all hilarious novelists, and whose wildly different senses of humor led each to reinvent the novel form. None, of course, ever came within spitting distance of a creative writing class, let alone a university degree.

Comments as ever are welcome, though I am especially interested in novels that have made readers laugh. My first memory of laughing out loud while reading centers on Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame, which had me in stitches as a twelve-year-old. Others include Catch-22, Richard Russo's Straight Man, and Huckleberry Finn.

Erin O'Connor, 9:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

May 20, 2007 [feather]
Irish diaspora

There are far more Irish people living outside of Ireland than in it -- the famine, and the hard decades afterward, meant that for many years Ireland's population shrank rather than grew, despite the country's historically high birth rate. They say there are more than 40 million Americans of Irish descent (compare that to today's Irish population of about 4,000,000, a quarter of whom live in Dublin). When you get to talking to people about their ancestry, as I like to do, it sometimes seems as if just about everyone has some ancestor who came from a remote Irish village ("remote" being, in this phrasing, utterly redundant). So I wasn't surprised to find out that Barack Obama is Irish, too.

Obama's great-great-great maternal grandfather was a shoemaker in Moneygall, County Offaly before he emigrated to the U.S. in 1850, hard on the heels of the famine. No word on whether Obama finds this information thrilling. As someone who spent years trying to find her own county and village of origin, I can say that the hunt for this pivotal piece of genealogical information is half the thrill, and the discovery after a long, hard hunt is the other half. Without the mystery, the impact just isn't the same. For what it's worth, my great-great paternal grandparents emigrated from Annascaul, County Kerry to upstate New York during the mid-1860s. That doesn't sound like much. But I will never forget the day I finally found that out.

If you are interested in family history and have not discovered ancestry.com, by the way, discover it now. There are a lot of Americans whose families have lost--or wilfully forgotten--their precise ties to their countries of origin. It's a very, very cool thing to reconstruct those ties, and to begin to resurrect the history and even the relationships that come with them.

Erin O'Connor, 6:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack (0)

May 19, 2007 [feather]
Trash talk

I love a little etymology on a Saturday morning:

Whether they use the term white trash or not, most Americans are unaware of its long and ugly history. If you had to guess, you'd probably say that the term arose in the Deep South, sometime in the middle of last century, as a term that whites coined to demean other whites less fortunate than themselves. Yet most of what we presuppose about the term is wrong.

The term white trash dates back not to the 1950s but to the 1820s. It arises not in Mississippi or Alabama, but in and around Baltimore, Maryland. And best guess is that it was invented not by whites, but by African Americans. As a term of abuse, white trash was used by blacks--both free and enslaved--to disparage local poor whites. Some of these poor whites would have been newly arrived Irish immigrants, others semiskilled workers drawn to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in the postrevolutionary building boom, and others still may have been white servants, waged or indentured, working in the homes and estates of area elites. The term registered contempt and disgust, as it does today, and suggests sharp hostilities between social groups who were essentially competing for the same resources--the same jobs, the same opportunities, and even the same marriage partners.

While white trash is likely to have originated in African American slang, it was middle-class and elite whites who found the term most compelling and useful and they who, ultimately, made it part of popular American speech.

Over the next forty years, the term began to appear more and more frequently in print. In 1854 white trash appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestselling Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin--her defense of the abolitionist play [sic] that had garnered her international fame. Stowe devoted an entire chapter to “Poor White Trash,” explaining that the slave system produced "not only heathenish, degraded, miserable slaves, but it produces a class of white people who are, by universal admission, more heathenish, degraded, and miserable." The degradation was due, Stowe argued, in part because plantation slavery locked up productive soil in the hands of a few large planters, leaving ordinary whites to struggle for subsistence. But there were other factors as well: "Without schools or churches, these miserable families grow up heathen on a Christian soil, in idleness, vice, dirt, and discomfort of all sorts. They are the pest of the neighborhood, the scoff and contempt or pity even of the slaves. The expressive phrase, so common in the mouths of the negroes, of 'poor white trash,' says all for this luckless race of beings that can be said."

The article goes on to chart how the notion of "white trash" helped fuel the eugenics movement in this country. It's not clear how in the world the authors got the idea that Uncle Tom's Cabin was a play -- but here's hoping the rest of the article is more accurate. One wants one's history to contain a grain of truth.

A little searching does redeem their gaffe somewhat--Stowe's novel was the best-selling novel of the American nineteenth century, but even so many Americans saw the story done as a musical play. The first stage adaptations of the novel were being done--without Stowe's permission--hard on the heels of its publication. But it's still a stretch to call Uncle Tom's Cabin a play, and slips like that do make one wonder what else isn't quite right about the history offered here. Experts on American etymology, ethnic history, and eugenics are more than welcome to offer their assessments.

Erin O'Connor, 8:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

May 13, 2007 [feather]
Bass ackwards

Via Kevin Drum comes the story of a Nebraska high school teacher who was ousted after he showed his class the critically acclaimed documentary, Baghdad ER. Supporters of Michael Baker suggest that his decision to show the graphic film--which has won praise from across the political spectrum--simply provided the school district the excuse it needed to remove a teacher who had long rubbed them the wrong way.

Baker, it seems, had an innovative approach to teaching history--he taught backwards, helping students work their way from a present that is instantly relevant to them to a past that becomes relevant when studied in the context of the present that it has helped to bring about:

Baker has clashed with administrators before. In 2005, they objected to his innovative approach to teaching history, which was to start at the present and work backwards, an approach he'd been using for four years.

But then, the school district forbade him from teaching that way any longer. The school's consultant said it was "not logical, does not contribute to effective teaching or monitoring of progress, and puts students at a disadvantage" with newly instituted statewide tests, according to a paper on the subject by Professor Nancy Patterson of Bowling Green. Baker appealed but lost, and was eventually
"prohibited from teaching U.S. history," Patterson writes.

"I think they wanted me to become so disenchanted that I would leave," he told Patterson in an interview in December, according to her paper, entitled "History That Is Made in Our Time: The Backwards Tale of One History Teacher's Experiences with Reverse Chronology." He added in that interview: "They are trying to make my life miserable, and they are succeeding."

The article does not say whether Baker's students actually learned history studying it his way--and that's a glaring omission from a commentary on professional competence. The jury is also out about whether Baker managed to separate his political stance from his pedagogy. One student says that "We hardly ever agreed on political issues, but I have to tell you, being in his class benefited me in ways that I never thought were possible" while another says that "Baker is an anti-American socialist who has been using his classes to attack capitalism and democracy. ... There are many students who were unhappy with him. . . . This is a teacher who should have been fired a long time ago."

He said/she said aside, Baker's story does raise disturbing questions about how educational bureaucracies in the era of NCLB can interfere with the kinds of creative and innovative teaching that we clearly need in this country. Teaching history backwards is a potentially masterful solution to the perennial problem teachers face when trying to make the past come alive for young students. With very little history themselves, teens and even young adults frequently just do not have the life experience they need to grasp the more profound, elemental aspects of history: the notion of a past that is distinct from the present while at the same time connected to it, a sense of how complicated and unpredictable and thorough change is, an abilty to imagine minds and cultures and ideas and worlds beyond their own, an understanding that the events of the past were made by flawed, fascinating, human people and did not simply create themselves abstractly and dully. That's a huge part of the challenge of teaching high school history, and, for that matter, English.

Teaching backwards, if it's done well, without a vulgar prevailing idea that the past only becomes meaningful insofar as it reflects our narcissistic contemporary selves, can help overcome that difficulty. Often the past is a boring undifferentiated blur for students; beginning at the beginning does not always help mitigate students' sense that history is very far from meaningful, let alone alive. Teaching backwards can be one way of getting around these problems. If a teacher approaching the material this way gets results, there's nothing to argue with. Or there shouldn't be.

Erin O'Connor, 10:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

May 10, 2007 [feather]
Indoctrinate U does Washington

There has been a lot of buzz about Evan Coyne Maloney's long-awaited Indoctrinate U. Evan has appeared on Hannity's America and was interviewed live on Fox News; he's done dozens of radio interviews (here is an excellent one that gives you a sense of Evan's personality as well as the thoughtfulness he brought to this project); and early screenings of the film in New York have earned very positive reviews.

Amid the buzz, academics been studiously quiet about the film -- hoping, perhaps, that Indoctrinate U won't draw an audience if academics pretend it doesn't exist. I find that sad, but I'm not surprised.

George Washington English professor Margaret Soltan has broken the mold on this one, which I respect. She's going to go see Indoctrinate U tonight, and judge for herself what all the fuss is about. A winning and uncompromising critic of the academy, Soltan has managed to combine harsh criticism of some of academe's worst excesses and hypocrisies with a charismatic ability to avoid being condemned for being an academic herself. That's a tough balancing act, and I admire her for it. She suggests on her blog that her mind is not all that open when it comes to Indoctrinate U--she writes that she "suspects it's not going to be very good"--but at least she's going.

More should follow suit, and everyone should try to go with an open mind.

Erin O'Connor, 11:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

A token with legs

Last week I posted about the AHA's outrageous decision not to allow a perfectly good panel to proceed at its annual meeting unless the organizer could locate a woman--some woman, any woman--to be part of the panel. Said woman (not here named to underscore the fact that her importance in this scenario is merely as a representative of her sex) has been located, and is participating only to enable her colleagues to move ahead with their panel; she's not happy about the AHA's policy, and has even joked that she might wear a t-shirt that reads "token" to the panel.

Now IHE reports that when asked about the AHA policy, that organization's illustrious president--a woman--did not die of embarrassment, rapidly backpedal, or accuse an anonymous staff member of overzealousness that the organization cannot condone. Instead, she defended the policy:

Barbara Weinstein, a professor of history at New York University who is the AHA's current president, says that's a fair question, but she also thinks the policy has done a lot of good and that those who complain that they can't find women (or men) for panels generally aren't looking hard enough.

A generation or so ago, she said, AHA sessions were full of panels of only men, even as women were doing important work. The rule, she said, "has had a healthy impact." Serving on program committees, Weinstein said that she has heard complaints over the years from scholars who say that because of their specialties, "there are no women who study X," and she said that is almost always "an imagined problem." Even if many AHA panels today would end up with at least one man or one woman--without any rule requiring that--some fields may be likely to be missing female voices.

She said, for example, that many women these days are doing military history, although they may be doing it in ways different from what the field has traditionally supported, and so may not come instantly to mind when people are organizing such panels. While the AHA makes gender a rule, it encourages other forms of intellectual diversity as well, Weinstein said. She's a scholar of Latin American history and said that when she has reviewed panel proposals, she has been struck by the number of themes that relate broadly to the world but feature only perspectives from American or European history.

Weinstein stressed that the association is an equal opportunity enforcer of its gender policy. She remembered a program committee telling organizers of a panel on the history of menstruation, proposed featuring only female scholars, that they needed to add a man. They did and the panel was better for it, Weinstein said. She was recently at a meeting where a female scholar working on a panel on the history of domestic service wondered aloud "where am I going to find a man" doing such work, and a man in the group volunteered that in fact he was studying that topic and would love to help. Such incidents, Weinstein said, suggest the positive impact of the rule.

At the same time, she said she hoped that conference organizers would look for "good faith efforts," and not apply rules rigidly. In addition, she said that with women not only entering the profession but leading the association, "perhaps there is no longer a need for the rule." She said she was "perfectly willing to revisit" the question, but that because this was official AHA policy, it would need to go through association governance and wasn't something she as president could simply change.

It's good to know the AHA is so even-handed in its absurdity, requiring all-female panels to add some testosterone to their mix before accepting them. One does wonder, though, given the social engineering openly on display here, how solid Weinstein's claim that the AHA also values intellectual diversity is. This year's resolution opposing the war in Iraq suggests the AHA might have some problems with that, too.

Weinstein has paid lip service to the idea that this policy may need to be revisited by the AHA. But words are cheap. Perhaps, in the spirit of democracy, AHA members could vote on whether they want to retain this policy. If they are qualified to take stands on foreign policy, surely they are qualified to decide this.

Erin O'Connor, 7:15 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

May 7, 2007 [feather]
Mad hot innovation

Speaking of creative educational programs in New York City's schools, Mad Hot Ballroom is a must-see.

The film documents a mandatory after-school program for NYC fifth graders centered on the entirely unlikely activity of ballroom dancing. It's inspiring -- it will make you want to teach, and it will make you want to dance.

Erin O'Connor, 4:19 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

In praise of parochial schools

It's hard to argue with a school that can reliably educate young, poor African-American men--one of this country's most challenging at-risk groups--and send them off to college. And yet one such school is struggling to stay afloat in the heart of Harlem. City Journal tells the story of Rice High School, linking it to the general decline of Catholic education (which is not just for Catholics anymore) in America as well as to the tremendous challenge of providing solid education for the nation's poor:

We almost lost Harlem's Rice High School a few years ago. And what a defeat that would have been for all New Yorkers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. For the past three decades, Rice has rescued at-risk African-American boys and turned them into responsible men who go on to college and then give back to the community. Yet despite this academic success, Rice almost succumbed to the demographic changes and financial pressures that have led to the closing of thousands of excellent inner-city Catholic schools and needlessly deepened the nation's urban-education crisis.

It's hard to exaggerate the challenge that Rice and similar schools voluntarily take on. Survey after survey shows that young black males lead the nation in homicides, both as victims and perpetrators; have the highest rates of unemployment and incarceration; and lag behind every other racial, ethnic, and gender subgroup in academic achievement. That Rice High School accomplishes so much with its current student population transmits the hopeful message that the black-white academic achievement gap can narrow--and that we might, at last, overcome America’s lingering race problem.

Located in a 110-year-old former YMCA building on the corner of 124th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, Rice remained faithful to Harlem during the community's near-disintegration in the seventies and eighties. When working-class Italian and Irish Catholic families stopped sending their sons to Rice and left the city, the Christian Brothers teaching order, which had founded the school, decided not to leave with them. Instead, Rice's doors stayed open, more tuition scholarships somehow turned up, and poor minority kids (most of them non-Catholic) from the surrounding community and the South Bronx filled the seats. Rice has the highest proportion of black students--over 70 percent--of any Catholic high school in the city.

Rice advertises itself now as "Historic Harlem's Catholic College Prep School for Young Men." In fact, until a few years ago it was the only high school, public or private, in central Harlem. Recently, Harlem congressman Charles Rangel visited Rice and told a student assembly: "When I was growing up, Rice was a school for white people. Everything that was white left Harlem, except for Rice School. That's a tribute to the Brothers, who could have walked away."

Today, Harlem is experiencing what many are calling a "second Renaissance," though it's more economic than cultural. Walk the streets surrounding the battered old Rice building and you can almost see the money pouring into the neighborhood--sleek new storefronts sprouting along 125th Street, plus condo developments and renovated brownstones with price tags starting at seven figures. But now it's Rice that is counting its pennies, uncertain whether angels will keep showing up every September to cover the $300,000 operating deficit.

I'm a pragmatist when it comes to education. If it works, we should do it. I'm also a huge fan of school choice. Parents should have the option of choosing a school such as Rice for their kids. For some families, it's the only way to give their kids a chance to get out of poverty's downward spiral.

On another note, I also believe that we can't talk knowledgeably about education in this country if we only talk in broad generalizations. We need to know what the big picture is. But we also need to know the stories of specific schools--details about how they work, what makes them work, what their failings are and where they succeed and how, at times, a school's particular failures and successes are two sides of the same coin. Thanks to Sol Stern for telling Rice's story, and for putting it in context.

Erin O'Connor, 11:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)


If you follow Michael Crichton, you know about the scandal of gene patents. Now, it seems, there is a problem with yoga patents, too:

I grew up watching my father stand on his head every morning. He was doing sirsasana, a yoga pose that accounts for his youthful looks well into his 60s. Now he might have to pay a royalty to an American patent holder if he teaches the secrets of his good health to others. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has issued 150 yoga-related copyrights, 134 patents on yoga accessories and 2,315 yoga trademarks. There’s big money in those pretzel twists and contortions--$3 billion a year in America alone.

It's a mystery to most Indians that anybody can make that much money from the teaching of a knowledge that is not supposed to be bought or sold like sausages. Should an Indian, in retaliation, patent the Heimlich maneuver, so that he can collect every time a waiter saves a customer from choking on a fishbone?

The Indian government is not laughing. It has set up a task force that is cataloging traditional knowledge, including ayurvedic remedies and hundreds of yoga poses, to protect them from being pirated and copyrighted by foreign hucksters. The data will be translated from ancient Sanskrit and Tamil texts, stored digitally and available in five international languages, so that patent offices in other countries can see that yoga didn’t originate in a San Francisco commune.

It is worth noting that the people in the forefront of the patenting of traditional Indian wisdom are Indians, mostly overseas. We know a business opportunity when we see one and have exported generations of gurus skilled in peddling enlightenment for a buck. The two scientists in Mississippi who patented the medicinal use of turmeric, a traditional Indian spice, are Indians. So is the strapping Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga, who has copyrighted his method of teaching yoga--a sequence of 26 poses in an overheated room--and whose lawyers sent out threatening notices to small yoga studios that he claimed violated his copyright.

But as an Indian, he ought to know that the very idea of patenting knowledge is a gross violation of the tradition of yoga. In Sanskrit, "yoga" means "union." Indians believe in a universal mind--brahman--of which we are all a part, and which ponders eternally. Everyone has access to this knowledge. There is a line in the Hindu scriptures: "Let good knowledge come to us from all sides." There is no follow-up that adds, "And let us pay royalties for it."

Bikram--whose yoga empire finances a fleet of Bentleys and Rolls Royces--has copyrighted not discrete poses but his special, temperature-controlled series of poses. He argues that other yoga teachers should not be able to teach his style of yoga without a license issued by him, and in 2002 he obtained the copyright that allows him to legally enforce this argument. A group of yoga teachers sued him, and in 2005 a federal judge upheld Bikram's right to restrict access to his style of yoga.

One analogy offered to explain the logic here is that of music. No one owns the notes. But if you compile notes into a unique melody, you can own that. The analogy in turn raises Lawrence Lessig-like questions about our creative commons. Should yoga routines and poses be freely shared? Or should the yoga industry--which surpasses $3 billion each year in the U.S. alone--go the way of the music industry? Perhaps what we need is a way of using the internet to share poses.

Whatever the ethics behind it all, I can vouch for the effectiveness of Bikram's yoga style. It's gentle but very deep, building strength, endurance, and flexibility at the same time. It's also very good for calming the mind. His book is excellent--but, unlike so many other star yoga instructors, he has not issued a DVD. That might have something to do with his intellectual property concerns. But whatever the reason, it's a loss.

Erin O'Connor, 7:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

May 6, 2007 [feather]
And when a book is bad ...

Joe Queenan moons the tyranny of taste and it is good:

Most of us are familiar with people who make a fetish out of quality: They read only good books, they see only good movies, they listen only to good music, they discuss politics only with good people, and they're not shy about letting you know it. They think this makes them smarter and better than everybody else, but it doesn't. It makes them mean and overly judgmental and miserly, as if taking 15 minutes to flip through "The Da Vinci Code" is a crime so monstrous, an offense in such flagrant violation of the sacred laws of intellectual time-management, that they will be cast out into the darkness by the Keepers of the Cultural Flame. In these people's view, any time spent reading a bad book can never be recovered. They also act as if the rest of humanity is watching their time sheets.

Such prissy attitudes are neurotic and self-defeating. Bad books are an essential part of life, as entertaining and indispensable as bad clothing (ironic polyester shirts), bad music (John Tesh at Red Rocks, Phil Collins anywhere), bad trends (metrosexuality, not using toilet paper for a year in order to "help" the environment) and bad politicians (take your pick). I started reading extremely bad books as a boy, when my beloved but slightly unhinged Uncle Jerry lent me the classic Reds-under-the-beds screed "None Dare Call It Treason," and have been reading them ever since.


One of the main reasons we bad-book lovers go out of our way to make our sentiments known is because it is a way of resisting the hegemony of good taste. If slaves to quality had their way, there would be no thrillers by Marilyn Quayle ("Embrace the Serpent"), no children's books by Madonna ("Lotsa de Casha"), no autobiographies by Geraldo Rivera ("Exposing Myself"). If goodness fetishists were in control of the publishing industry, nothing more hair-raising than Bill Bradley's last book of homilies would ever make it into print. That's right, no books by Shaq, no memoirs by Rue McClanahan, no collections of ruminations and apercus by Dinesh D'Souza. Sound like a world you'd want to live in?

With customary insight, Garrison Keillor once wrote: "A good newspaper is never quite good enough, but a lousy newspaper is a joy forever." I agree. Some people would identify a passion for bad books as a guilty pleasure, but I prefer to think of it as a pleasure I do not feel guilty about, even though I probably should. Bad movies, bad hairdos, bad relationships and bad Supreme Court rulings merely make me chuckle. Bad books make me laugh. And if they ever stop writing books with lines like "Being a leader of the Huns is often a lonely job," I want to stop breathing on the spot.

I am reminded of the extremely pleasant hours I spent with The DaVinci Code, as well as of the extremely unpleasant hours I subsequently spent with the movie, which was also bad, but not in a good way. Great bad books are creatures apart--if, as Queenan notes, great bad writing cannot be taught (" Jimmy Carter couldn't write a book as bad as O. J. Simpson's if he tried"), it is perhaps also true that it cannot be filmed.

What's the best bad book you've read lately?

Erin O'Connor, 6:57 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

May 5, 2007 [feather]
One-click learning

From the New York Times:

The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

So the Liverpool Central School District, just outside Syracuse, has decided to phase out laptops starting this fall, joining a handful of other schools around the country that adopted one-to-one computing programs and are now abandoning them as educationally empty--and worse.

Many of these districts had sought to prepare their students for a technology-driven world and close the so-called digital divide between students who had computers at home and those who did not.

"After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement--none," said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students' hands. "The teachers were telling us when there's a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It's a distraction to the educational process."

Liverpool's turnabout comes as more and more school districts nationwide continue to bring laptops into the classroom. Federal education officials do not keep track of how many schools have such programs, but two educational consultants, Hayes Connection and the Greaves Group, conducted a study of the nation's 2,500 largest school districts last year and found that a quarter of the 1,000 respondents already had one-to-one computing, and fully half expected to by 2011.

There is theory, and then there is practice. Getting technology into schools is not a quick fix for what ails them.

Erin O'Connor, 8:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

May 4, 2007 [feather]
Happy Birthday NCLB

AS NCLB marks its fifth birthday, it's worth taking a look at what that law has done--and not done--for American schooling. And, as Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammon argues in The Nation,

...it's also worth taking a step back to ask what the nation actually needs educationally. Lagging far behind our international peers in educational outcomes--and with one of the most unequal educational systems in the industrialized world--we need, I believe, something much more than and much different from what NCLB offers. We badly need a national policy that enables schools to meet the intellectual demands of the twenty-first century. More fundamentally, we need to pay off the educational debt to disadvantaged students that has accrued over centuries of unequal access to quality education.

In the spirit of debate, The Nation is also hosting three responses to Darling-Hammond: one from NYU sociology professor Pedro Noguera, one from the National Urban League's Velma Cobb, and one from NYU's Deborah Meier.

All agree that NCLB was well-intentioned but misguided; all agree that we need to rethink what is taught in schools and how it is taught; all agree that accountability is essential, but note, too, that poorly designed accountability measures can undermine what they are trying to measure. From the standpoint of someone who spends much of her time thinking about higher education issues, the baseline agreement about accountability is what is most striking. There really isn't any in higher ed, and what's in its place, among academics, is a bad faith idea that making higher ed accountable to itself is not only unnecessary--insultingly so--but is guaranteed to be destructive. NCLB is cited a lot in making this last argument for maintaining the status quo.

Anyhow -- I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on the discussion The Nation is holding, as well as on what needs to happen to make public education in this country be all it should be.

Erin O'Connor, 7:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

May 3, 2007 [feather]
Historical association or social engineer?

At Cliopatria, historian Manan Ahmed writes about receiving the following letter from the American Historical Association after proposing a panel for its 2008 annual meeting:

Dear Manan Ahmed,

After meeting this weekend to consider the proposals for the 2008 AHA, the Program Committee has decided to accept your panel, "Contested Pasts and Constructed Presents: Memory in the Local," with certain conditions.

Since the AHA has a standing commitment to gender diversity on panels, the Program Committee has decided to require you to find a female participant, perhaps to serve as chair or a second commentator for your session.

We will need a response with the name and affiliation of the new participant by May 8, 2007 in order to include your panel in this year's program. If you do not respond, we will be forced to reject your panel.


Tracing the rationale for the rejection to AHA guideline 3.2 (C)-- "The AHA seeks to avoid gender-segregated sessions. The Program Committee will thus encourage participants to include members of both sexes, wherever possible" -- Ahmed notes that in having his panel acceptance hinge on finding a woman for it, he has been more than "encouraged," that the AHA appears to be slighting "transgendered historians," and that he has been unable to meet the requirement by convincing his fellow panelists to appear in drag.

"The thought of going to any historian and asking him or her to be a token panelist to fulfill a quota is deeply offensive to all parties involved," he continues. "And I am quite taken aback by AHA's rather ham-handed efforts at diversity."

His solution is pragmatic--he puts out a call for a female historian to join the panel--and only, ultimately, mildly critical: He asks that the AHA make its requirement more prominent so that others can fulfill their quotas ahead of time, and not go what he has gone through. "I don't have any problems with AHA's policy - at all," he notes. "I am just certain that there are better, pro-active ways of going about it."

I was with him until the end. But he loses me in his bland acceptance of the AHA's outrageous attempts to impose demographic diversity on a scholarly event. Shouldn't the goal be to assemble the best panels and to host the most intellectually vibrant conference possible? Annual meetings of huge scholarly associations are commonly described as "zoos." But in requiring that every panel display a token female--see female historian talk! see female historian think!--the AHA is taking the zoo image to a new level entirely.

Erin O'Connor, 7:49 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)