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May 30, 2008 [feather]
Mental fogs

Dickinson College philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell writes about academic groupthink in the L. A. Times:

I teach political philosophy. And like most professors I know, I bend over backward to sympathetically teach texts I hate; I try to show my students why people have found Plato and Karl Marx -- both of whom I regard as totalitarians -- compelling. But when I get to the end of "The Communist Manifesto," I'm usually asking things like this: "Marx says that all means of communication should be centralized in the hands of the state. Anyone see any problems with that?"

I don't deceive myself into thinking that I teach these texts as well as, or in the same way as, a professor who found them plausible. And that's fine. What I'm trying to point out is that even as I try to be neutral (well, even if I did try to be neutral), my personal opinions affect every aspect of what I do, and I think that is generally true.

But it can be horrendously true in academia, where everything is affected by the real opinions of real professors, from the configuration of departments to the courses on offer to the texts taught. And because there's a consensus, there is precious little self-examination; a slant that we all share becomes invisible.

Academic consensus is a particularly irritating variety of groupthink. First of all, the fact that everyone agrees and everyone has a doctorate leads to the occasionally explicit idea that all intelligent people think the same thing -- that no one could disagree with, say, Obama-ism, without being an idiot. This attitude is continually expressed, for example, in attacks on presidents Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, not for their political positions but for their grades and IQs.

That the American professoriate is near-unanimous for Barack Obama is a problem on many levels, but certainly pedagogically. Ideological uniformity does a disservice to students and makes a mockery of the pious commitment of these professors simply to convey knowledge. Also, the claims of the professoriate to intellectual independence and academic freedom, supposedly nurtured by tenure, are thrown into question by the unanimity. Professors are as herd-like in their opinions as other groups that demographers like to identify -- "working-class white men," for example. Indeed, surely more so.

That's partly just a result of the charming human tendency to nod along with whomever is sitting next to you. But it's also the predictable result of the fact that a professor has been educated, often for a decade or more, by the very institutions that harbor this unanimity. Every new generation of professors has been steeped in an atmosphere in which the authorities all agree and in which they associate agreement with intelligence -- and with degrees, jobs, tenure and so on. If you've been taught that conservatives are evil idiots, then conservatism itself justifies a decision not to hire or tenure one. Every new leftist minted by graduate programs is an act of self-praise, a confirmation of the intelligence of the professors.

That this smog of consensus is incompatible with the supposedly high-minded educational mission of colleges and universities is obvious. Yet higher education is at least as dedicated to the reproduction of Obama-ism as it is to conveying information. But academics are massively self-deceived about this, which makes it all the more disgusting and effective.

Sartwell describes himself as neither a liberal nor a conservative, noting that "anarchism has its privileges."

The occasion for Sartwell's op-ed is University of Colorado chancellor Bud Peterson's effort to raise $9 million for an endowed chair of conservative thought and policy. Sartwell thinks this is a good idea, citing the official political imbalance of the Colorado faculty, as evidenced in voter registration figures: of the 800 faculty there, ony 32 are registered republicans. But, to carry on his smog imagery, as much as I admire Sartwell's eloquent evocation of how intellectual homogeneity pollutes the academic environment, I think his reasoning here is a bit foggy.

Let's set aside the equation of political party affiliation with intellectual vantage point--that's an old, well-travelled subject with old, well-rehearsed arguments for both sides, and it's not what I wish to take up here. Let's just concentrate on the question of who exactly would fill this chair. Colorado has been troublingly imprecise on this front--and while they have paid lip service to the idea that anyone could be hired for it, and that the person who occupies it need not be a conservative, they also cite a list of potential occupants of the chair that indicates something else entirely. Everyone mentioned is a prominent political conservative--Condoleezza Rice, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, columnist George Will, and 9/11 commissioner Philip Zelikow are among them--a fact that strongly suggests that whatever this chair is in theory, in practice it is envisioned as an opportunity for tokenistic affirmative action for conservatives, so much so that the actual academic qualifications of the candidate appear to be beside the point.

This is exactly the wrong way to approach the very real problem of ideological and intellectual one-sidedness on campus, for the simple reason that you don't solve a problem by reproducing the logic that creates the problem. Identity politics, and the double standards that go along with them, have no place within a truly self-respecting intellectual environment. The only thing that should count is merit.

If the conservative chair were clearly marked out as a strictly intellectual property--because the history and philosophy of conservative thought is every bit as legitimate an area of study as as Victorian literature, or African history, or Marxist theory--then it might mark the beginning of an important process of legitimation for a subject that has gotten short shrift within the academy in recent years. But as it stands, Colorado seems to be trying to have things both ways. And that's just as smoggy as the consensus the chair is ostensibly intended to clean up.

Erin O'Connor, 8:38 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

May 28, 2008 [feather]
The affective dimensions of academic critique

University of Pennsylvania history professor and FIRE founder Alan Charles Kors' New Criterion essay, "On the Sadness of Higher Education," has been reprinted in the Wall Street Journal. What that means is that now you can read the whole thing for free--for the Journal, unlike the New Criterion, understands that if you put content behind a subscription wall, you are burying it.

I'd urge everyone here to go read the essay in its entirety, even, and perhaps especially, if you reacted strongly to the original (or to my excerpt of the original). Kors has been the subject of quite a bit of contemptuous dismissal for writing this essay (see the comments to my original post, as well as the comments here and here [this last falsely accuses me of censoring a comment posted by the author--something I did not do; my spam filter does occasionally eat comments, however, particularly if they contain urls]).

I confess I was shocked by the amount of vitriol that was slung in Kors' direction, not least because the academic establishment, if it does nothing else, readily grants authority to analyses based on personal experience and is so friendly to reflective memoirs that it even tolerates a few that have been exposed as fabrications. But Kors is no Rigoberta Menchu, and critics accord him no such authority. Instead, his reflections on forty years of academic life are treated as instances of consummate intellectual dishonesty--presumably, one is led to suppose, because his conclusions offend those who see things differently.

Kors' essay is disturbing, but not because, in the words of one of his critics, he's "grinding his culture-war axe." What's disturbing about it is how hopeless and defeated it is. Kors is one of the most important and influential crusaders for free inquiry that we have. Ten years ago, his Shadow University launched a movement for free speech and intellectual fairness on campus that led to the founding of FIRE and that has definitively shaped the fair-minded defense of individual rights and free expression on campus ever since. Within the grossly partisan debate about higher ed, FIRE has held a special place as a foundation committed to principled advocacy for the expressive and associative rights of everyone--no matter what they believe or who they are. Only the most hard core, uninformed cranks continue to insist that FIRE is a right-wing organization devoted to advancing a right-wing agenda. FIRE has given hope to those who want to believe that higher ed can be saved from itself, and who think it's possible for the academic world to be usefully and substantively reformed for the good of all.

So, to see Kors winding down a long, genuinely important career with such hopelessness is striking indeed. On the one hand, of course, he is simply being a realist when he says that the truly pluralistic university is an experiment "no one can afford" to build. Of course he is just being pragmatic when he states that he continues to teach responsibly and to fight for freedom "simply because it is my duty to bear witness to the values I cherish, with no expectation of success." At the same time, he's expressing a devastating, weary awareness of the sheer dead weight of the status quo. The good fight--the fight that organizations such as FIRE, ACTA, the NAS, and individuals such as Mark Bauerlein and KC Johnson fight--is, to Kors' mind, ultimately beside the point, able only to "affect" the "margins."

That's tough stuff, indeed--and whatever else it may be, it's a confession from the heart. No, sentiments are not facts, and feelings are not reasoned arguments. But no one knows that better than Kors himself; so much of his work has been centered on explaining to the therapeutic university that something higher and larger than people's offended sensibilities should be what moves it. To condemn Kors' piece--which is personal, and sad, and closely centered on the conclusions drawn from a lifetime of academic experience--as intellectually dishonest is to miss the point entirely, perhaps deliberately so.

Erin O'Connor, 2:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

May 27, 2008 [feather]
Oversight, integrity, and alumni

I've written about Dartmouth's travails with governance a great deal over the past several years. The story is long, convoluted, and, I suspect, numbing for people who aren't in the thick of either Dartmouth politics or higher ed debates. I suspect it's those things for a good many of the people who are in the thick of Dartmouth politics and higher ed debates, too. That's in part due to the internecine, baroque character of academic governance processes. But it's also due to the manner in which so much of the debate about higher ed is centered on shockadelic material--politicized firings, punishment of dissenting students, damaging double standards in policy, extremist faculty rantings, and dumbed down courses--that appeals to a broad public but is not in itself useful for getting at how things work, who makes the decisions, and how things might be changed. It's one thing, for example, to wax appalled by Delaware's residential life program (which deserves plenty of such waxing). But it's another to work out how to effect reform at Delaware (the trustees have recently voted to approve a highly politicized residential life program for next year, despite the efforts of many to alert them to the problems with the program and to encourage them to do their fiduciary duty and deny approval).

Anyhow. All of this is by way of saying that understanding what's really going on in higher ed requires a level of attentiveness that is at odds with the outrage so easily summoned by anecdotes about trivial courses and ideologically challenged professors. It also requires a sobriety of affect that is actively selected against by the "outrage of the day" approach to higher ed critique. Dartmouth's story is a good place to begin exercising both faculties.

In lieu of summarizing again what I have already summarized many times, I will quote the account of Dartmouth's difficulties published in this morning's Wall Street Journal by William McGurn:

In little more than a week--on June 5--elections will close for the leadership of Dartmouth's Association of Alumni. If the establishment slate wins, the board will eviscerate a progressive, 117-year-old arrangement that makes this college in Hanover, N.H. one of the few where alumni have a real say in the way the school is run.

That arrangement dates to 1891, when the trustees were divided into two equal groups, plus two ex-officio members. The first group was appointed by the school itself. The other half was chosen by alumni from within their ranks. In recent decades, because of the way alumni seat nominations and elections were run, these alumni trustees were pretty much insiders themselves, and the relationship with the board was a cozy one.

All that changed in 2004, when T.J. Rodgers--class of 1970 and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor--ran for one of the board's alumni seats. Mr. Rodgers had to mount a petition drive just to get his name on the ballot, and then won election by a comfortable margin. Like many of his fellow alums, Mr. Rodgers is a passionate believer in the liberal arts, and his platform stressed high academic standards, free speech and the primacy of the undergraduate mission at Dartmouth.

"It sounds hammy," he says. "But Dartmouth is unique because it has this great liberal arts tradition and people who just love the place."

Since Mr. Rodgers's election, three other alums have also run as "petition candidates": Peter Robinson, '79; Todd Zywicki, '88; and Stephen Smith, '88. All have run on themes stressing accountability and the quality of undergraduate education. And all have been elected by their fellow alums.

Only in academe could an institution respond the way Dartmouth has. Instead of embracing reform, the Dartmouth establishment and its allies have launched personal attacks on the four popularly elected petition trustees.

In a recent letter from 12 establishment trustees sent to all alumni (a mailing list Dartmouth refuses to share with the elected trustees), the four were accused of pursuing "Washington-style politics" as part of a "political agenda" (read: vast right-wing conspiracy).

To end their influence on the board, the college approved a plan that would transfer real oversight to an unelected executive committee – and give unelected trustees a 2-1 numerical advantage on the board, down from the 50/50 split today.

Mr. Robinson is a fellow presidential speechwriter and friend, and I know Messrs. Zywicki and Smith--both law professors in Virginia--by reputation. All three are reasonably described as conservative.

Mr. Rodgers, by contrast, is a libertarian who favors gay marriage and opposes the war in Iraq. Far from pursuing a political agenda, these men have all run on an Obama-style campaign for change that Dartmouth alumni can believe in. For all to have won the popular vote of an Ivy League electorate underscores the real message here: A high level of alumni discontent with the Dartmouth establishment.

Which brings us back to the current election. Right now, the Association of Alumni is supporting a lawsuit that is the only thing stopping Dartmouth from implementing its board-packing plan. In other words, the election for the association's leadership is in fact a referendum on the board-packing plan.

Daniel King, '02, sums it up well. Mr. King describes himself as "an openly gay man, a teacher, a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party, the ACLU, and the Human Rights Campaign." In an essay posted online, he puts it this way: "The real battle going on is one between an overly paternalistic College administration, supported by a rubber-stamp Board of Trustees that has totally abdicated its oversight responsibilities – and, on the other side, loyal alumni from all sides of the political spectrum who wish to not see the value of their Dartmouth degree plummet and to preserve the historic and unique ties that alumni have to our alma mater."

Question: Do you know how your alma mater handles its board membership? Are you clear on the role alumni can play in maintaining the integrity and excellence of your school? Are you clear on what trustees should and should not be doing? Do you follow what's happening with your school--academically and financially? If these are issues you care about, are you doing what you can to get involved?

Erin O'Connor, 8:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

May 26, 2008 [feather]
Dumb and dumber

American students aren't the only ones who are faring poorly compared to other nations. The English are falling behind, too. Since 2000, English students have dropped from fourth to fourteenth place on an international science test given to fifteen-year-olds. The response? A national science exam has been dumbed down to an extraordinary degree, presumably to raise overall scores and so mask the problem.

Here are some sample questions from the test:

1(i) Give one way a mole, pictured on the right, is suited for digging through soil.

(ii) Where does the energy come from for a solar-powered mole-scarer?

2 Sharon, pictured on the left, is riding her horse. She is wearing a riding hat. Give the name of one organ the riding hat protects.

3 In very cold weather a mixture of salt and sand is spread on roads. Why are salt and sand used? (Tick two correct answers)

(a) salt makes the road white

(b) salt makes the water freeze

(c) salt makes the ice melt

(d) sand dissolves in water

(e) sand increases the friction between car tyres and the road

(f) sand makes the water freeze

Critics of the exam claim that it only "masquerades as science," and that instead of testing students' knowledge of chemistry, biology, and physics, it requires them merely to "read English, compare graphs and do simple tasks." In other exam questions, students were shown a picture of a fossil in the shape of a star, and were asked whether it would be related a snail, a starfish, a ladybird or a slug. Students were also asked a multiple choice question about why copper is used to make electric wires. The choices were: copper is brown, copper is not magnetic, copper conducts electricity, and copper conducts heat.

The passing grade for this year's test has not yet been published. But last year's was 57 percent--a mark 27 percent of students taking the test did not make.

Erin O'Connor, 9:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

May 25, 2008 [feather]
The alumni who keep on giving

Harvard alumni are slow to change their giving habits--but perhaps they should. So argues Harvard alum Carroll Bogert in this morning's New York Times:

At Harvard, where I'm on my way for my 25th reunion, I'd have to be drunk to fall for their pitch. The university's endowment stands at $35 billion and is likely to hit $100 billion in a decade. At an annual growth rate of 13.3 percent--the average since inception, and regularly exceeded in recent years--Harvard can cover next year's entire undergraduate financial aid budget with what it earns in the market in eight and a half days.

Many colleges may genuinely still need alumni contributions to stay solvent, but Harvard isn’t one of them--nor are Yale, Princeton or several other super-rich universities.

If you ask Harvard's president, Drew Gilpin Faust, why in the world she needs your $1,000--as I did recently, at one of those pre-reunion cocktail parties in someone's staggering Fifth Avenue duplex--she has a ready answer: alumni giving covers one-third of Harvard's operating budget. What she doesn't mention is that earnings from the endowment last year could cover the entire operating budget while still growing at a healthy rate.

About 15 years ago, according to Lynne Munson, a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, university endowments changed their investment strategies from conservative to highly aggressive. "These universities have a modern mentality about investing," she told me, "but they still have an old-fashioned mentality about spending."

The result is that Harvard is sitting on top of a gargantuan pile of cash, and it's getting bigger all the time. But for some reason, no one seems to be talking about a new financial model for running the university. The juggernaut that is the Harvard Development Office has grown no less ardent in its pleas for my contribution this reunion season.

Last year, in the wake of Congressional hearings on the rising costs of college education, Harvard announced that it would offer financial aid even to families earning up to $180,000 a year. That was good news for middle-class parents wondering where they would find $50,000 a year for the next four. But it should be only the beginning of a brainstorm about the bigger picture of financing a private education.

Harvard is the wealthiest private institution in America except for the Gates Foundation, which has about $37 billion. But unlike the Gates Foundation, Harvard isn't legally required to spend 5 percent of its income every year. Last year, it didn't. Nor does it pay tax. Nor is it bound by most of the strictures of financial reporting that make spending at Gates transparent and publicly accountable.

A few hundred alumni have formed Harvard Alumni for Social Action, to try to channel 25th-reunion giving to destitute universities in Africa. In three years, we’ve raised $425,000--a lot for the University of Dar es Salaam but hardly a match for our annual class "gift." And evidently not enough to win the respect of President Faust, who has begged off meeting the group. Harvard clearly doesn't like any effort that might divert a dollar away from its Cambridge coffers.

So where are the rest of the alumni? Why do all those clever classmates of mine continue to invest their money in an institution with such a lack of imagination about how to deploy its resources?

The main reason is probably the unparalleled networking opportunity that alumni events represent. The more money you give, the more networking events you’re invited to, and the higher the net worth of the other attendees.

But fear is another big reason. All of us hope our children will be able to go to Harvard if they want to. We're not sure if anybody up in Cambridge notices our paltry checks when David Rockefeller is writing one for $100 million, but an awful lot of people continue to write them anyway. It's a small price to pay--a kind of soft blackmail --to keep options open for little Max and Sophie.

Bogert isn't quite right in arguing that no one is talking about a new financial model for running the university. There's been quite a lot of talk about that. But the point about alumni giving is a good one--and the suggestion that Harvard alumni continue to contribute to their alma mater's already obscenely swollen coffers because they are trying to buy their kids a piece of the crimson pie is believable and chilling. I'm not a big fan of forced redistribution of wealth. At the same time, Harvard is a rich standard-bearer in an economically challenged higher education landscape. The university--and its alumns--ought to be doing a better job of thinking through the ethical obligations and opportunities inherent in its growing wealth.

Erin O'Connor, 9:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

May 24, 2008 [feather]
Beet Read

Roger Rosenblatt's Beet is the latest addition to the noble sub-genre of campus fiction, and its tone it as snarky and snide as one might expect of a niche novel trampling well-travelled ground and hunting for something new to say. I've noted before that campus fiction of the David Lodge sort is growing increasingly tough to write, because the more people know about campus culture, the harder it gets for novelists to come up with plots that rival--let alone trump--the truth. So they huff and they puff, and sometimes they really are hysterically funny (Richard Russo's Straight Man) and sometimes they are just hysterically strained.

I'm only a few pages into Beet, so I can't make any real judgments. But I will note the the hysterical strain is definitely present: the college is named Beet, the hero-English professor is named Peace, the bloviating chairman of the board is named Bollovate; students can major in Homeland Security Studies, Native American Crafts and Casino Studies, and Bondage Studies; the school maintains a Fur and Ivory Audiovisual Center, a Tarzan Institute (for the Robert Bly Man's Manliness Society), and has spawned a countercultural poetry movement called the Beets; the pig is the mascot, the motto is Deus Libri Porci, and the school is said to be the origin of the term capitalist pig. You can see how hard Rosenblatt is trying.

But within all of that, there is an interestingly topical plot centered on the fact that the school is failing, and that it will close if it cannot draw more students. The board decides that what is needed is a new curriculum--and the book decides to take us through the committee meetings that center on that new curriculum. Curricular questions and the behavior of committees are at once dry as dust subjects and areas ripe for sarcastic send-up--not least because, as dull as they are, they are really both quite vital to the credibility and viability of higher education.

Here's an excerpt from the first meeting, in which committee members propose their personal plans for a new, improved curriculum:

"Shall I proceed?" asked Kettelgorf [from Fine Arts]. All nodded. "You know, students love to perform. Sing. Act in plays. Dance. I used to do that as a girl. Dance and dance!" She sailed into a shrill rendition of "I Could Have Danced All Night," whirling in her seat and heaving with jactitations, to which the others responded with dead stares. "Anyway, we could devise a curriculum in which all the disciplines are converted into performing arts. Instead of merely reading Paradise Lost, for instance, we could turn the poem into a mime show. Or an old Harlem tap-dance competition. Or a hippity-hop concert with El Al Cold Jay. Think of it! History as opera! Botany in folk songs! Why, I'm composing a country-and-western song about Gregor Mendel in my head right now!" She became a coliseum of explanations. "And then ... and then ... as a sort of final project for the entire college, we present a mixed-media melange performed on the lawn of the Old Pen, in which students dress up as disciplines and sing, and all the disciplines begin in a cacophony of assertions, as if competing for dominance, and then, merely by rearranging the clashing notes, suddenly explode in pure harmony. All of learning coming together in a better world! A brave new world! Parents in the audience, the trustees, the deans, our colleagues, on their feet and applauding a revolution of thought bursting into existence before their very eyes!" Her own were like a spooked horse's. "Why, it tires me out to think about it! I'm pooped!"

"Me too," said Smythe [an English professor]. Heilbrun [from the Theater department] smirked. Lipman [from journalism] looked around to see how to react.

"My plan involves the great battles of history," said the military historian Kramer, taking advantage of the silence. His eyes were fogged goggles. "It's simple, really. We give lectures on the major clashes of a war, then the students go to the gym, where they divide into armies and move toy soldiers around the gym floor to simulate actual battles. And they could dress up as soldiers, too! Fusiliers could carry real fusils! Once the students really got into playing with toy soldiers, they would understand history with hands-on excitement."

To demonstrate his idea, he'd brought along a shoe box full of toy doughboys and grenadiers, and was about to reenact the Battle of Verdun on the committee table when Heilbrun stayed his hand. "We get it," he said.

"That's quite interesting, Molton," said Booth [a chemist]. "But is it rigorous enough?"

At the mention of the word, everyone, save Peace, sat up straight.

"Rigor is so important," said Kettlegorf.

"We must have rigor," said Booth.

"You may be sure," said the offended Kramer. "I never would propose anything lacking rigor."

Smythe inhaled and looked at the ceiling. "I think I may have something of interest," he said, as if he were at a poker game and was about to disclose a royal flush. "My proposal is called 'Icons of Taste.' It would consist of a galaxy of courses affixed to several departments consisting of lectures on examples of music, art, architecture, literature, and other cultural areas a student needed to indicate that he or she was sophisticated."

"Why would a student want to do that?" asked Booth.

"Perhaps sophistication is not a problem for chemists," said Smythe. Lipman tittered.

"What's the subject matter?" asked Heilbrun. "Would it have rigor?"

"Of course it would have rigor. Yet it would also attract those additional students Bollovate is talking about." Smythe inhaled again. "The material would be carefully selected," he said. "One would need to pick out cultural icons the students were likely to bring up in conversation for the rest of their lives, so that when they spoke, others would recognize their taste as being exquisite yet eclectic and unpredictable."

"You mean Rembrandt?" said Kramer.

Smythe smiled with weary contempt. "No, I do not mean Rembrandt. I don't mean Beethoven or Shakespeare, either, unless something iconic has emerged about them to justify their more general appeal."

"You mean, if they appeared on posters," said Lipman.

"That's it, precisely."

Lipman blushed with pride.

"The subject matter would be fairly easy to amass," Smythe said. "We could all make up a list off the top of our heads. Einstein--who does have a poster." He nodded to the ecstatic Lipman. "Auden, for the same reason. Students would need to be able to quote 'September 1939[ or at least the last lines. And it would be good to teach 'Musee des Beaux Arts' as well, which is off the beaten path, but not garishly. Mahler certainly. But Cole Porter too. And Sondheim, I think. Goya. Warhol, it goes without saying, Stephen Hawking, Kurosawa, Bergman, Bette Davis. They'd have to come up with some lines from Dark Victory, or better still, Jezebel. La Dolce Vita. Casablanca. King of Hearts. And Orson, naturally. Citizen Kane, I suppose, though personally I prefer F for Fake."

"Judy!" cried Heilbrun.

"Yes, Judy too. But not 'Over the Rainbow.' It would be more impressive for them to do 'The Trolley Song,' don't you think?" Kettlegorf hummed the intro.

"Guernica," said Kramer. "Robert Capa."

"Edward R. Murrow," said Lipman.

"No! Don't be ridiculous!" said Smythe, ending Lipman's brief foray into the world of respectable thought.

"Marilyn Monroe!" said Kettlegorf.

"Absolutely!" said Smythe, clapping to indicate his approval.

"And the Brooklyn Bridge," said Booth, catching on. "And the Chrysler Building."

"Maybe," said Smythe. "But I wonder if the Chrysler Building isn't becoming something of a cliche."

Peace had had enough. "And you want students to nail this stuff so they'll do well at cocktail parties?"

Smythe sniffed criticism, always a tetchy moment for him. "You make it sound so superficial," he said.

Lest the general line of thought here seem too over the top, consider Stanley Fish's lengthy pair of January posts on the uselessness of the humanities. Arguing that the humanities serve no purpose whatsover, he entertains the idea that perhaps their utility lies in their ability to enhance cocktail party banter: "Count me as one of those who would welcome an increase in the number of those who can be relied on to enliven a dinner party rather than kill it."

Erin O'Connor, 6:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

May 23, 2008 [feather]
Sunk cost

The University of Delaware has approved a new, not very improved version of its ideologically challenged residential life program--and it looks like it's going to cost students a bundle. FIRE's Adam Kissel suggests that Delaware's "sustainability" curriculum is, ironically, not looking terribly sustainable:

The University of Delaware has promised a great deal more oversight over the Office of Residence Life as it implements its controversial 2008-2009 educational program for students in the residence halls in the wake of last year's version of the program, which required students to undergo ideological reeducation.

One of the promises of oversight is that a new position at the Vice President level under Vice President for Student Life Michael Gilbert will have ResLife oversight as a primary duty.

How is UD paying for it? Budget monies are fungible, so one never can really tell. But I can report that on Monday, the Board of Trustees also (quoting http://www.udel.edu/PR/UDaily/2008/may/resolutions052108.html):

--Increased residence hall rates by an average of 8 percent ... with the cost for a traditional double room increasing by $380 to $5,128;

--Increased dining plan rates by an average of 4.7 percent ... with the fall semester, with the 19-meals-per-week plan increasing by $150 to $3,350;

--Increased the Student Health Service fee by [6 percent,] increased the Comprehensive Fee by [15 percent,] and increased the Student Center Fee by [3 percent].

Are its environmental sustainability initiatives really saving UD money? If so, the savings are not being passed along to students. Instead, the increased administration is costing the students even more money.

Defenders of Delaware's program perversely present it as a question of academic freedom: Opponents of the program, they suggest, are hypocritical censors who, in the name of individual rights, wish to shut down views they dislike. But students are hardly free to opt in--or out--when they are always already paying for a politicized bureaucracy that explicitly aims to convert them to a particular worldview.

Erin O'Connor, 8:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Top public high schools

Newsweek ranks the top one thousand public high schools in the country--or the top 5 percent of all U.S. high schools. Say what you will about rankings--and there is much to be said. They are still interesting, and still useful as indices. It's also good to be reminded that there are still high-performing public high schools out there. With all the criticism floating around, that's easily forgotten. So check it out. Is your school on there? Mine is. And I am happy to see it there.

When I was enrolled (over twenty years ago!) North Central High School was a huge, teeming place. There were about 4,000 students there, and our graduating class of nearly 1,000 had, for space reasons, to do commencement at the state fair grounds. We lined up in a massive, aromatic cow barn, the shorter people taking care not to let their white graduation gowns drag in the hay and attendant muck. Then we filed into a hall where, on other occasions, tractor pulls and livestock shows were the order of the day. We sat alphabetically in rows of metal folding chairs, and filed across the stage to get our diplomas when our names were called. Most of us never saw one another again--most of us didn't know one another anyhow. But that was and is fine.

The conventional wisdom is that good schools have to be small schools. Effective classrooms should be small classrooms. Schools have to be communities, we say, and we assume that "community" is a synonym for intimacy and--even, presumptuously and problematically--family. The working educational ideal today is rather like that of the bar in the 80's sitcom, Cheers: School should be a place where everybody knows your name.

I like the ideal as much as the next person. I've seen it work wonders. But it's not always practical, and it doesn't always work. Small can be intimate and communal--but it can also be insular and stifling. And there is a lot to be said for schools where you can belong to multiple communities (the track team, the math geeks, the stagecraft kids) and where you can also fade into anonymity at will. Anonymity can be a very good thing, and very freeing. It relieves you of pressure to be the person everyone who has always known you expects you to continue to be. When you are a teenager aching with the weight of peer pressure, the option of anonymity--and the opportunity for reinvention of self that it offers--can be hugely sustaining.

My high school had that quality. It was big and impersonal and ugly. It was filled with all kinds of kids from all kinds of backgrounds. The halls were so packed between classes that you had to elbow your way along. You lived by the bell and caught hell if you were late to class or found in the halls when you should not be there. The food sucked and you only had 20 minutes to eat your prefabricated lunch in a deafening and grubby cafeteria. You packed your life into narrow lockers and heaved your books around in oversized backpacks and lived with the inevitable cliques and cruelties of teenaged existence.

My high school was so advanced in its cliquish cruelties that it actually had a hierarchical system of sororities that girls pledged in their sophomore years. This was a major status sorter for girls. Boys then established their status according to which sororities their dates belonged to.

But within all that, you still had a small knot of close friends, and you could study and do just about anything and take it to just about any level. If you wanted to take college-level calculus in your senior year, you could, providing you had prepared for it. If you wanted to be on a championship soccer team, you could, provided you had the skills. If you wanted to sing, or act, or weld, or paint, or write poetry, or repair cars, you could. You could do any of these things in any combination and no one would bat an eye--few would know entirely what you were up to but yourself. And, if you wanted to do nothing at all, you could do that, too, for better or worse.

Sometimes I google people I knew in high school. I can't find most of the girls, because most of them have married and changed their names. But the boys are doing all kinds of cool things. Some are physicists and chemists and doctors. Some are musicians and artists. Some are journalists and teachers and entrepreneurs. And some parent full time--something that often gets discarded as "not working" but that I think is a very meaningful line of work indeed.

All of which is to say that there is a lot to be said for the much maligned huge high school. It's not at all perfect. But neither is the alternative. And it has certain virtues that smaller schools just don't. I suspect that basic fact is getting lost in the current well-intentioned wave of reform. Improvement is needed. But improvement should not always automatically be equated with compression.

Erin O'Connor, 7:38 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

May 22, 2008 [feather]
Wither the humanities

We're used to stories about the decline of the academic humanities, as well as to explanations for that decline that center on everything from the Corporatization of the University (which renders the decline no fault of the humanists) to Political Correctness (which renders the decline entirely the fault of the humanists). The truth is somewhere in the middle, of course, as all complex realities tend to be. And while a look at the trivial-sounding courses, hyper-politicized scholarship, and aggressively multiculturalist hiring patterns that characterize the humanist side of the academy reveals a host of problems, the precise nature of those problems as well as their natural historical emergence are lost to those who don't look at them in context.

Yale professor Anthony Kronman's Education's End offers good and compelling insight into both the problems and their institutional contexts, not least because Kronman writes from a real position of informed earnestness about the value of genuinely humanistic study. Read his book if you can--but in the meantime, here is a summary from Christopher Orlet:

AT ONE TIME the purpose of a university education was to give future leaders an opportunity -- before they shouldered the dull burdens of civic responsibility -- to explore the purpose and value of life. By instilling a strong sense of history, of reason, of logic, of the best of what has been thought and said, a background in the Humanities would prepare a young scholar for whatever may lie ahead.

This, at least, had been the belief going back to Plato's Republic.

[Allan] Bloom believed the university should provide the student with four years of freedom, "a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate." More important, the college years were "civilization's only chance to get to him." (Somehow I doubt Tom Wolfe would agree.)

The Humanities also served a primary existential purpose, which was to counterbalance "the defects of a democratic order" (Bloom's phrase), and to fill "a void by pointing to the human ends which the ideals of liberty and equal rights are unable to prescribe," adds James Pierson in the New Criterion.

The Sixties Generation broke with this four-thousand-year tradition. If the bugbears of early 20th Century radicals were the consumer-driven economy and the thoughtless pursuit of material comfort, then the Baby Boomers' bete noire was Western Civilization and all it entailed.

From then on, social change, rather than concerns about work and consumption, would be paramount on college campuses. Such change would not come from the government or the people, but from the university, since the university was uniquely situated to tackle moral issues. After all where else could one find so many smart, morally superior persons? First, however, the university, and its Humanities departments (the propagandizer of the elitist, racist, sexist, imperial tradition of Western culture) must change and adapt.

In the subsequent 40 years the radicals and their political agenda have triumphed unopposed on the college campus, so much so that today's student is compelled to conform to an intolerant progressive doctrine if he hopes to receive his sheepskin. Students are now told that there is a single right answer and, like the Sphinx, only he, the professor, possesses it.

Inevitably this atmosphere of conformity and groupthink results in a sterile learning environment, where dialogue and debate are limited for fear of uttering the wrong sentiment and facing disciplinary action.

A RADICAL FREE MARKETER might say that the Humanities deserve their fate since they proved unable to compete in both the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas. However it wasn't the marketplace that killed the Humanities, says Kronman. Rather, it was the one-two punch of political correctness and research specialization.

Of these, political correctness and its offspring diversity, multiculturalism and constructivism (which gave us such wonders as "rainforest math" and "African math") have done the most damage. With more women than men on college campuses, and near majorities of foreign students, to say nothing of the distinctive viewpoints, experiences and traditions they bring, political correctness is seen as an "instrument of corrective justice" -- payback for the sins of all of the Dead White Males that created the racist, patriarchic and imperial West.

Not only are the ideas and institutions of the West and the works that embody them no more valuable than those of other non-Western civilizations, but professors find it difficult to teach Western Civilization courses when they loathe its chief representatives. Lost in this political quagmire is the question of how we can hope to understand or appreciate or compare and contrast ourselves to other cultures if we are wholly ignorant of our own?

The final blow to the Humanities has come in the form of the modern research ideal, an idea that honors and rewards original scholarship, specialization, and incremental thinking, and whereby academics "choose an inch or two of the garden to cultivate," and which the Greeks and the renaissance scholars knew was the antithesis of true learning.

Kronman reminds us that specialization is anathema to the broad study of the "great conversation" that has been going on throughout the history of Western Civilization. When he focuses on original discoveries, Kronman argues, "a scholar does not aim to stand where his ancestors did. His goal is not to join but supersede them and his success is measured not by the proximity of his thoughts to theirs, but by the distance between them -- by how far he has progressed beyond his ancestors' inferior state of knowledge," all of which leads him to pretentious philosophical departures like deconstruction, where one misses the big picture by focusing on the minutiae. As Pauline Kael's reminded, "Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole."

Despite the obvious doom and gloom Kronman sees reason for optimism. Political correctness has had a 40-year run and at long last seems to be on the wane. A few universities are even dusting off their Great Books courses.

The most interesting parts of Kronman's book are the sections on how the research ideal made its way into the humanities and then undid them. The book is worth reading for that alone.

Kronman is not just a gadfly. He's putting his money--and his time--where his mouth is. Formerly dean of Yale's law school, he's now teaching undergraduate courses in Yale's hard-core humanities curriculum, the Directed Studies program.

Erin O'Connor, 8:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

May 15, 2008 [feather]
Not making public intellectuals

Academic humanists arguably have an obligation to reach out to a public beyond academe. Setting aside ethical/professional questions, it's certainly in the best interests of humanists to connect with general audiences--involution, in-fighting, and navel-gazing are some of the worst features of overly specialized disciplines, and these things do damage not only to the humanities, but also to the professional viability of those who seek to study them professionally.

But that's easier said than done, for some hard-wired reasons elegantly laid out by University of Colorado history professor Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick has found her way as a public intellectual, and is immensely gratified by the work. But she recognizes, too, that academe strenuously selects against the very kinds of intellectual outreach that it needs. The result is an almost impossible situation for both aspiring scholars and for entire disciplines:

So why ... do I hold back on wholeheartedly recruiting young colleagues into this wildly gratifying, intellectually invigorating territory?

--To conventional academics in the humanities, contact with the public, as well as the entrepreneurial pursuit of financing, registers as contamination and impurity.

--Effectiveness as a public scholar requires practices far more strenuous than the comfortable custom of reminding audiences of fellow academics of the virtue and validity of left-wing principles.

--The clarity of language necessary for reaching the public will, in the judgment of conventional academics, convict its users of a lack of sophistication and a questionable level of expertise.

--The criteria used by humanities departments for hiring and promotion are half-a-century out of date and yet persistent and powerful. By those standards, the work of a public scholar can only register as "service," a not-very-glorified act of volunteerism that will be counted as immeasurably inferior when compared to real research.

--While colleagues who feel recognized and validated for their own achievements will be the best of allies, professional jealousy and rivalry will radiate from the insecure. Those stricken with envy will circle around a successful public scholar like sharks around a lively, aquatic protein source. But there is good news: Tenure, once you have it, will keep those sharks from doing much damage.

Here is the upshot: To become university-based public scholars, young people may well have to put their ambition into cold storage for a decade and a half. Go to graduate school, write a conventional dissertation, get a tenure-track job, publish in academic journals and in university presses, give papers at professional conferences to small groups of fellow specialists, and comply with all the requirements of deference, conformity, and hoop-jumping that narrow the road to tenure while also narrowing the travelers on that road. Then, once tenured, you can take up the applied work that appealed to you in the first place.

It goes without saying that at that point, more than ten years after commencing training, few will do so. That's one of the strongest and most damning arguments against tenure, by the way. As Mark Bauerlein has noted, the education in groupthink that is academic socialization strongly selects against genuine intellectual individuality--and strongly selects for precisely the kinds of narrow, ultimately self-sabotaging standards that Limerick outlines here.

On another note, I love the bit about how, if you are addressing a non-academic audience, you can't just sit back and assert the superiority of your politics. Academia is quite a political monoculture, and this has a lot to do with how isolated, inaccessible, and, in some corners, irrelevant it is becoming. Academics who care about politics only damage their causes when they lock themselves into intellectual echo chambers of their own making. Everybody benefits from debate, and all ideas worth having are strengthened by challenge. That's a founding principle of academic freedom, and also a governing premise of the broader marketplace of ideas. Academics' difficulty honoring this has a lot to do with both their internal problems and their ongoing public relations disaster.

Erin O'Connor, 8:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

May 12, 2008 [feather]
John K. Wilson jumps the shark

At Minding the Campus, John K. Wilson defends Delaware's doctrinaire residential life program with a lot of illogic and a good dose of name-calling:

The Faculty Senate at the University of Delaware is meeting later today to discuss approving the controversial Residence Life (ResLife) proposal for educational programming in the residence halls. The faculty should approve the proposal, partly because it's a good idea, but primarily because academic freedom is endangered whenever voluntary educational programs are banned. Conservative critics of the program are demanding censorship of ideas they dislike, and the Faculty Senate at a free university must not participate in such repression.

The only relevant question is whether the ResLife program violates the rights of students by compelling them to participate or censoring their views. There is not even a shred of evidence that this is the case, and the program explicitly says otherwise. There is no compulsion to participate or agree, there is no grading, there is no threat at all to a student's academic progress or to a student's ability to remain in a residence hall. In terms of compulsion, there is no there there, and no amount of hyperbolic fantasizing about what might happen can change this fact. The fact that in the past there were some minor issues about intrusive questions being asked of students by RAs is irrelevant to the consideration of this current program.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) claims, "Saying that the programming will be optional is hard to swallow. After all, how can a freshman, first day on campus, opt out at a time of great social pressure to do the activities everyone else is doing, and without full knowledge of what the program really entails?" Easy: stay in your room, hang out with other people, and ignore what the ResLife staff does.

FIRE is infantilizing college students, treating them like dumb puppies who will follow administrators mindlessly if any programming is allowed in residence hall. This is demeaning and insulting to all students, since it presumes that students would be better off with nothing to do rather than running the "risk" of being pressured to attend an event.

It is the liberal content of the program that FIRE and other conservative critics object to. FIRE argues that ResLife's proposal is "soaked in a highly politicized social and political agenda." I agree. It is a politicized agenda. Virtually all intellectual activity has a politicized agenda, because important ideas are political. ResLife promotes social justice and civic engagement, and these are political values (albeit not very radical ones). I think these are good political values, and conservatives disagree, but that doesn't matter. If ResLife was proposing to promote abstinence and other conservative values, I might disagree with them, but I would never seek to ban any of their activities. Instead, I would express my views and organize activities that reflect my values. So why won't these conservative groups try counterspeech instead of suppression?

It's true that some faculty (and students) might have good ideas for residence hall programs, and it appears they have already had input into the proposal. They're also free to organize their own programs if they are dissatisfied with what ResLife has created. But no one should have veto power to ban educational programs.

Another objection is made by FIRE: "The program still tries to change students' 'thoughts, values, beliefs, and actions.'" Trying to change what students think is a primary goal of all education. Adam Kissel of FIRE writes, "Try cutting half of the proposal out, and getting rid of the educational goals and intended learning outcomes, and the program might have a chance of being morally and legally sound." Exactly when did having educational goals become a thoughtcrime? I object to the relativist approach promoted by FIRE, which seems to presume that all ideas are equal and that staff at a university should never dare to teach anyone that some ideas are better than others. Adam Kissel imagines students being "bombarded with ResLife's sustainability agenda." But all of us are bombarded with ideas we may not like. No one at a university has a "right" not to hear ideas they don't like.

The attacks on ResLife's program are also anti-intellectual. FIRE seems to want ResLife to hold pizza parties and mindless social events, and never organize any controversial activities. Why can't a residence hall aspire to have more? Why can't a residence hall have intellectual activities and engage students in serious ideas?

Kissel claims that these are "re-education programs" that "violate the Constitution and the canons of academic freedom." To the contrary, if the Delaware faculty (or anyone else) tries to ban the ResLife program because they dislike some of the political views that might be expressed, they will be violating the Constitution and the canons of academic freedom. To call it a voluntary residence hall program "re-education" is insulting and demeaning to students who adults fully capable of expressing their own ideas and engaging with ideas different from their own.

If you do not like an educational program, then you are free to criticize it. You are free to propose and organize your own educational programs. But you are not free to ban the program from existing. And that is what critics such as FIRE are demanding.

The quality of the ResLife program is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether it should be banned. Academic freedom demands that even stupid ideas must be protected from censorship. Dorm activities at colleges across the country are almost universally vapid, and I am not especially fond of the ResLife proposal. I wish idiotic things like the "Discovery Wheel" could be consigned to whatever circle of self-esteem hell they came from. But overall, the University of Delaware proposal is a step above the average because it makes some halting effort at engaging students in serious issues. So my only objection to the ResLife proposal is that it doesn't try to educate students enough.

Never mind that critics of Delaware's program come from across the political spectrum, and consist of people who disapprove of public universities pouring large amounts of money into patently ideological attempts to impose on students a tendentious and partial outlook on the world. Never mind that it's quite a falsehood to label FIRE a "conservative" organization--Wilson knows very well that FIRE's board and staff are composed of a healthy political mix, and that its current president is a staunch liberal. Never mind that in urging Delaware's faculty to vote down the proposed new program for sound academic and ethical reasons, FIRE and others can hardly be accused of "demanding censorship of ideas they dislike." Wilson ought to be able to distinguish between the decision not to approve a faulty, inappropriate, and intellectually weak program and "banning" a program "you do not like." His strenuous attempt to conflate those things here is revealing indeed. What, after all, is sound logic when you have an axe to grind?

What confuses me is why Wilson--who purports to defend free expression on campus--wants to grind this particular axe. Surely he can see the difference between voluntary, student-motivated political efforts and institutionalized, politicized bureaucracies funded with taxpayer dollars? "It is disgraceful to see FIRE betraying the principles of academic freedom and seeking to ban a program from a university because it finds the content too liberal for its conservative taste," Wilson concludes. But the real disgrace here can be found in the way Wilson both misuses the concept of academic freedom and abuses FIRE's reputation in order to carry his own highly problematic point.

Setting the specifics of the Delaware program aside, it's worth examining the assumption that college dorms just aren't doing their job unless they are working hard to "educate" students in their off hours. If you have ever lived in dorms with students, you will know a little bit about how that assumption plays with them. And if you respect college students even just a little bit, you will be able to respect their instinctive distaste for condescending bureaucratic efforts to turn their school-year homes into scenes of endless tutelage--and you will also be able to see how knowing students are about such attempts, how they consciously tolerate and even, at times, quietly indulge those efforts as a path of least resistance. It's a short distance from that tolerance to a damaging cynicism no university should ever want to cultivate. But that's what a place like Delaware is doing.

Erin O'Connor, 8:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack (0)

May 8, 2008 [feather]
No old wine in new bottles

The NAS reports that the University of Delaware faculty has refused to approve the ideologically challenged residential life staff's botched attempt to effectively reinstate a version of the doctrinaire program that was nixed after it drew national criticism last fall:

The NAS is encouraged by the vigorous opposition mounted by the University of Delaware's faculty against the attempt to subvert its legitimate academic function. Yesterday, the UD Faculty Senate met; the last item on the agenda was the new residence life program proposal. Put forth by the Student Life Committee, this program would replace the old residence life program which was shut down on November 1, 2007. But the proposal never made it to a vote.

Both faculty members and students spoke eloquently against the program, explaining that it promoted a political ideology, just like the old program. They told how the residence life agenda focused on sustainability, a term that, contrary to appearances, isn't limited to environmental issues but is being used by UD's Residence Life officials to promote political dogmas.

Professor Matt Robinson, chairman of the Faculty Senate Student Life Committee, who presented the new Res Life proposal offered the bold claim that, "The concept of sustainability, that's only speaking in terms of environmental." His attempt to package the new program as only conservation and environmental preservation, however, didn't persuade skeptical faculty members who had taken the trouble to read the details. They replied that the term sustainability is being used to sneak in “a curriculum of indoctrination” similar to the one President Harker suspended in November.

Yesterday's debate in the University's Faculty Senate also showed that many UD professors recognize the impropriety of turning instructional responsibilities over to ill-trained residence life activists. The presence of student voices among the opposition was particularly heartening. NAS hales our Delaware affiliate, particularly Jan Blits and Linda Gottfriedson, for their unflagging efforts to prevent the indoctrination program from being reinstated. We also salute Adam Kissel, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for his work on the UD res life situation, and for the letter he gave to faculty members urging them to reject the proposal.

We at NAS are pleased that yesterday's debate focused on substance. According to NAS executive director Peter Wood, "The UD faculty criticisms of the proposed new residence life program arise from genuine concern about the integrity of UD's undergraduate programs, not from any spirit of political partisanship."

For more on how Delaware's res life people are using "sustainability" as an ideological Trojan horse, check out Adam Kissel's parsing of the proposed program here.

Debate will continue on Monday, May 12.

Erin O'Connor, 8:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

May 7, 2008 [feather]
Free to be you and me

While Aliza Shvarts was dominating shock art news a couple of weeks ago, University of Maine at Farmington art student also made waves when she fulfilled an assignment by placing American flags on the floor of a campus building.

Plenty of people were outraged by the installation--local vets turned up to protest, and the College Republicans even made a YouTube video showing the flags, the protesters, the police, and the administrators standing by to keep the peace and explain that the student had procured all necessary permissions to place the flags in a highly trafficked hallway.

Check out the video above. Most of what you see is students instinctively walking around the flags on their way to and from class--but toward the end, one enterprising individual decides to stand on one of the flags to make a point. In doing so, he seems to have blurred a line that until that point passers by were automatically observing. You begin to see others step on the flag rather than walk around it, cutting mental corners as well as physical ones.

This might strike you as standard campus fare--someone tries to shock and awe everybody by publicly violating deep-seated norms of propriety. It may strike you as the unpatriotic analogue of Shvarts' inhumane handling of her body and the embryos it may or may not have held within it. But consider this: the student artist was forty-year-old education major Susan Crane, daughter of a twenty-five year military veteran, and a self-proclaimed conservative.

"I really had a hard time putting the flags on the floor. I'm a conservative Republican, and I come from a military family," she said. "I do believe in the flag as a symbol of freedom and what our country stands for. I first thought I could put paper under the flags but it was a safety hazard. I still really have not come to terms that the flags are on the floor. So that bothered me. I understand veterans fought in the war, and they died for our freedom. Other people have the choice to feel how they would interpret it."

And choose they did. Some called for censorship because the display offended them. But it sounds like more people thought better of that line of argument:

For the third day in a row, a student art project centered around the American flag sparked emotions in this college community, drawing town and university residents into another day of peaceful but intense contention.

About 100 people attended a rally called by Vietnam veteran Charles Bennett of Farmington, an American Legion commander. On Tuesday, he had challenged the University of Maine at Farmington administration's decision to allow an art project that used flags made of duct tape and plastic to be placed on the corridor of the student center.

Ultimately, the project generated debate about the flag and what it means.

"I think there is a renewed sense of patriotism on campus and appreciation of the flag," said student Austin Cookson, 20, of Kittery, who was holding up a large American flag with two friends.

"We're not saying the administration is un-American, but they are saying it is just a piece of cloth. It is a lot more than that. It represents freedom," he said.

UMF president stressed that she would not herself ever place a flag on the ground, but that the University was correct in supporting Crane's right to do so: "The flag represents our country, along with the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. But do people want censorship if an idea makes them mad? The highest value is upholding the Constitution, even if it means disrespecting the flag."

A professor at Farmington writes to tell me that "The CRs and a few faculty members (from outside arts and humanities) now charge that the students' forced participation in the project, by having to make the choice to step on the flags or walk around, makes them human subjects. This group is arguing that in future all public art projects with the potential to offend to be submitted to the Human Subjects Research Board for review."

I argued that Shvarts should have had to go through Yale's IRB because she was undertaking a project that involved putting herself at risk. But to suggest that Crane's flag installation ought to have been reviewed--and implicitly nixed--by the IRB sounds like an absurd stretch, one that quite transparently seeks to hijack such review boards in the service of suppressing offensive views.

The College Republicans and the faculty backing them ought to know better--and they ought to be able to recognize when they are regurgitating in the most uncritical manner the nasty and unconstitutional logic that creates campus speech codes. If you want free speech for yourself, you have to defend it for others--especially when their expression shocks, appalls, or offends.

Erin O'Connor, 8:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

May 6, 2008 [feather]
The longer view

University of Pennsylvania history professor and FIRE founder Alan Charles Kors reflects on how the university has changed since the 1960s:

For students from "the Sixties" who moved into the world apart from the academy, there were adjustments to the reality principles and values of a free, dynamic, and decent society. The activists of the 1960s who stayed on campus, however--in original bodies or in spirit imparted to new bodies--expected students to take them always as political and moral gurus. Students did not do so. They had the gall first to like disco, and then to like Reagan. Such students had to be saved from the false consciousness that America somehow had given them. Thus, under the heirs of the academic Sixties, we moved on campus after campus from their Free Speech Movement to their politically correct speech codes; from their abolition of mandatory chapel to their imposition of Orwellian mandatory sensitivity and multicultural training; from their freedom to smoke pot unmolested to their war today against the kegs and spirits--literal and metaphorical--of today's students; from their acquisition of young adult status to their infantilization of "kids" who lack their insight; from their self-proclaimed dreams of racial and sexual integration to their ever more balkanized campuses organized on principles of group characteristics and group responsibility; from their right to define themselves as individuals--a foundational right--to their official, imposed, and politically orthodox notions of identity. American college students became the victims of a generational swindle of truly epic proportions. If that part of the faculty not complicit in this did not know that it was happening, it was by choice or willful blindness.

In the academic university--the curriculum and classroom, and the hiring that underlies them--it all varies by where one looks. To understand why and to understand one of the few vulnerabilities of universities to actual accountability and reform, one must understand the hierarchy that predicts academic institutional behavior: sexuality (in their language, "sexual preference") trumps neutrality; race properly conceived easily trumps sexuality; sex properly conceived (or, in their language, "gender") easily trumps race; and careerism categorically trumps everything. From that perspective, the careerists who run our campuses have made a Faustian bargain (though they differ on which is the devil's portion). Being careful, on the whole, to keep the natural and physical sciences, mathematics, and a variegated Column A of departments (sometimes psychology, sometimes philosophy, sometimes linguistics), and the professional schools that relate symbiotically to practical America relatively free of political agendas--though even in these cases, the barriers to crude politicization may break down--the careerist administrators have kept largely intact those disciplines where added value might be measured. From diverse motives of ideological sympathies and acute awareness of who can blackball their next career moves, they have given over the humanities, the soft social sciences, and the entire university in loco parentis to the zealots of oppression studies and coercive identity politics. In the latter case, it truly has been a conspiracy, with networking and common plans. In the former case--the professoriate and the curriculum--it is generally, with striking politicized exceptions, a soft tyranny of groupthink, unconscious bias, and self-inflated sense of a mission of demystification. Most of the professors I meet are kind, indeed sweet, and certainly mean no harm. It is profoundly sad to see what they have become.

There also has been, compounding academic problems, a dumbing down of the professoriate that quite numbs the mind--best seen not in the monographs that earn people their degrees, but in the egregious nonsense, crude meta-theorizing, self-indulgence, and tendentious special pleading that are not merely tolerated without criticism, but rewarded at the highest levels. Those who want to understand critically the degradations that have occurred should look at, for starters, the stunning works of Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral, editors, Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent; John Ellis, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities; and Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science. Academia also has become a place where professors can achieve the highest rewards, except in the protected fields, for acting out their pathologies. In higher education, to paraphrase the Woody Allen stand-up line, we increasingly send our students to schools for learning-disabled and emotionally disturbed teachers. One cannot wholly escape these sides of universities even by majoring in the hard sciences; at least a few humanities and social science courses in oppression studies and demystification are generally required for graduation. Even if students escape these phenomena in their choice of study, though, they will meet them in freshmen orientations, residential programming, and the very rules and regulations of their campuses.

Those often kindly teachers, however, do have a sense of urgent mission. Even if we put them on truth-serum, the academics who dominate the humanities and social sciences on our campuses today would state that K-12 education essentially has been one long celebration of America and the West, as if our students were intimately familiar with the Federalist Papers and had never heard of slavery or empire. Having convinced themselves that the students whom they inherit have been immersed in American and Western traditions without critical perspective--they do believe that--contemporary academics see themselves as having merely four brief years in which to demystify students, and somehow to get them to look up from their Madison and Hamilton long enough to gaze upon the darker side of American and Western life. In their view, our K-12 students know all about Aristotle, John Milton, and Adam Smith, have studied for twelve years how America created bounty and integrated score after score of millions of immigrants, but have never heard of the Great Depression or segregation.

Academics, in their own minds, face an almost insoluble problem of time. How, in only four years, can they disabuse students of the notion that the capital, risk, productivity, and military sacrifice of others have contributed to human dignity and to the prospects of a decent society? How can they make them understand, with only four years to do so, that capitalism and individualism have created cultures that are cruel, inefficient, racist, sexist, and homophobic, with oppressive caste systems, mental and behavioral? How, in such a brief period, can they enlighten "minorities," including women (the majority of students), about the "internalization" of their oppression (today's equivalent of false consciousness)? How, in only eight semesters, might they use the classroom, curriculum, and university in loco parentis to create a radical leadership among what they see as the victim groups of our society, and to make the heirs of successful families uneasy in the moral right of their possessions and opportunities? Given those constraints, why in the world should they complicate their awesome task by hiring anyone who disagrees with them?

The power of universities comes from their monopoly of credentials. As Richard Vedder so deeply understands in his Going Broke by Degree, they are the only institutions allowed to separate young individuals by IQ and by the ability to complete complex tasks. They do not add value to that, except in technical fields. Recruiters do not pay premiums because of what the Ivy League or the flagship state universities teach in English, history, political science, or sociology. They hire there despite, not because of that. Recruiters do not pay premiums because our children have been sent to multicultural centers for sensitivity training. Recruiters pay premiums for the value already there, which universities merely identify. So long as recruiters pay premiums, however, it is rational for parents who wish to gain the most options for their children to send them to the university with the most prestigious degree. That will not change in the current scheme.

We now have closed-shop, massively subsidized, intolerant political fiefdoms, and they are the gatekeepers of society's rewards. Without incentives for different models of higher education, we shall have this same system of colleges and universities as far as the mind can foresee. The tax-free mega-endowments will grow. The legislators and the public will not end the subsidy. The alumni will continue their bequests. The trustees will proudly attend the administrative dog-and-pony shows, the most efficient act on any campus. Well-intentioned donors will support ghettoized "centers" (without faculty lines, cross-listed courses, graduate fellowships, or degrees) that marginalize inquiries that should be central to the academy. These provide protective coloration for administrators, help with fundraising in certain quarters, and permit a transfer of funds to the accelerating thirst for ever new forms of regnant campus orthodoxies. Until civil society makes administrators pay a price for the politicized hiring, curriculum, and student life offices they administer, nothing truly will be reformed.

Kors doesn't see that happening--and he ends on a depressing note: "The academic world that I entered is gone. I teach for my students, whom I love, and I fight for intellectual pluralism, for legal equality, and for fairness simply because it is my duty to bear witness to the values I cherish, with no expectation of success."

One of the remarkable things about FIRE is how studiously and elegantly centered it is on precise legal analysis of individual rights. FIRE matches college and university policy up against the First Amendment, and, in the case of private schools not bound by the First Amendment, it compares what schools claim (or advertise) to do in the way of respecting free expression with what they do in practice. This is one of those formulae so simple as to exude genius. It has made FIRE remarkably successful during the short years of its existence. But it has also necessarily left a lot unsaid--about what the culture of academe is, how it got that way, and whether it can ever be reformed. Kors tackles some of those questions in his essay--and so lends a sobering perspective to the local victories of academic watchdogs.

Erin O'Connor, 8:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Responsible historiography

Retired Wellesley classics professor Mary Lefkowitz--who famously challenged Afrocentric history in her book Not Out of Africa--speaks here about the consequences of her methodological critique of that politically correct but factually challenged school of thought. Lefkowitz elaborates on the fallout provoked by her book in her latest, History Lesson: A Race Odyssey. Among other things, the interview and the book touch on what happens to free inquiry and to academic careers when scholars play the race card as a means of avoiding and hijacking debate.

Erin O'Connor, 7:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

May 5, 2008 [feather]
Pimp my transcript

A Dartmouth alum looks at the Priya Venkatesan Affair through studiously pragmatic eyes:

Such conduct is hardly representative of the professoriate at Dartmouth, my alma mater. Faculty members tend to be professional. They also tend to be sane.

That said, even at--or especially at--putatively superior schools, students are spoiled for choice when it comes to professors who share ideologies like Ms. Venkatesan's. The main result is to make coursework pathetically easy. Like filling in a Mad Libs, just patch something together about "interrogating heteronormativity," or whatever, and wait for the returns to start rolling in.

I once wrote a term paper for a lit-crit course where I "deconstructed" the MTV program "Pimp My Ride." A typical passage: "Each episode is a text of inescapable complexity . . . Our received notions of what constitutes a ride are constantly subverted and undermined." It received an A.

Where the standards are always minimum, most kids simply float along with the academic drafts, avoid as much work as possible and accept the inflated grade. Why not? It's effortless, and there are better ways to spend time than thinking deeply about ecofeminism.

The remarkable thing about the Venkatesan affair, to me, is that her students cared enough to argue. Normally they would express their boredom with the material by answering emails on their laptops or falling asleep. But here they staged a rebellion, a French Counter-Revolution against Professor Defarge. Maybe, despite the professor's best efforts, there's life in American colleges yet.

I want to love the analogy. But Madame Defarge would never have attracted classroom mockery or outright revolt--and even if she had, she would not have been undone by it. She would have kept on knitting calmly--and she would have exacted her revenge quietly and decisively after the fact.

Erin O'Connor, 8:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

May 3, 2008 [feather]
Out of the mouths of babes

Detroit middle schoolers deliver a strong lesson in civility, choice, maturity, restraint, and responsibility to City Council pro tem president Monica Conyers:

Conyers didn't like being in the hot seat--but she kept her temper with the kids better than she did with her colleagues. And, in a meliorative gesture, she subsequently gave them an award. I don't love the award part -- giving kids prizes simply for having their heads screwed on straight is a bit screwy. If Conyers had really wanted to acknowledge the wise words of these kids, she would have apologized to the fellow Councilman she verbally attacked--something she has not done, and has publicly vowed not to do.

Erin O'Connor, 9:51 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

May 2, 2008 [feather]
Not recommended

From a letter of recommendation written for a Buffalo, New York, high school senior, by her AP English teacher:

Jazmine is enlightened by the journey of academia the twist, turns and heights elevated to farthest stretch imagined. Jazmine will bring a willingness to work, thought provoking, openess and challenges of the worlds positive attributes. ... Jazmine has shared with her peers & cohorts her beliefs of academia and the wherewithal to never give up to keep trying, to keep learning and to always keep growing.

It hardly needs saying that a letter like this is not likely to help anyone get into college. All it really does is show that the writer herself did not learn anything in college (or, it seems, high school), and should not now be employed as an English teacher.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley has more on how poor, urban schools are hindering students' chances of going on to college. It's not just poor educational quality -- it's also bureaucratic incompetence.

Erin O'Connor, 8:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

May 1, 2008 [feather]
Art for Shvarts' sake

When Yale art student Aliza Shvarts did not display her abortion/miscarriage senior project last week, she effectively failed to fulfill the terms of the assignment. I had wondered whether that would get lost in the shuffle, and had wondered, too, exactly how Yale was going to assign her a grade, given that the project was never displayed, that the professor who was advising Shvarts had been disciplined for permitting it, and so on. Today the Yale Daily News answers these burning questions and more:

Aliza Shvarts '08 has submitted another art piece in place of her controversial senior project that purportedly documented nine months of self-induced miscarriages, the University said this week.

The announcement--which came Monday, a week and a half after Shvarts' initial project inspired nothing short of a national controversy--puts to rest the question of whether the Davenport College senior's art exhibit would ever be displayed. Last week, the University forbade Shvarts from installing it unless she admitted the piece was a work of fiction. She did not.

In the announcement, University spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said Shvarts requested permission to substitute a different piece of art in place of what Klasky termed "the performance piece" she had originally planned as her senior project.

"We welcomed the solution that Aliza proposed," Klasky said, "as we had been unable to determine with clarity whether Ms. Shvarts had in fact undertaken actions injurious to her health in carrying out her original project."

The director of undergraduate studies in the School of Art, Henk van Assen, approved her request, the statement said.


On Monday, faculty from the School of Art were scheduled to critique and evaluate her project, as is customary with senior projects for undergraduate art majors.

With no project on display, it was believed that Shvarts would have received a failing grade for her senior project. The project is a requirement for art majors, according to the Yale College Programs of Study.

Perhaps that possibility, observers mused, would be enough to compel her to agree to Salovey’s demands. Whether or not the possibility of failing played into her decision was unclear; van Assen has not commented publicly on the matter, nor has Shvarts' adviser, School of Art lecturer Pia Lindman.

But whether Shvarts would have failed may have been a moot point, since her failure to complete the Art major may not have affected her eligibility to receive a diploma.

According to the online Yale College directory, Shvarts is also enrolled in the English major. As long as she had at least 36 other credits to her name--not including ART 495, the senior project course--she would have remained eligible to graduate next month as an English major.

Shvarts' replacement exhibit is not on display in Green Hall at her request, officials said.

This project was supposed to be the culmination of an entire school year's work. You have to wonder what she's come up with in the space of a thoroughly disrupted and disturbing week. Perhaps it's a performance art piece about the uproar that surrounded her original performance art piece.

Erin O'Connor, 3:11 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Rethinking costs, accountability, outcomes

We hear so much these days about skyrocketing college costs and devastatingly bad educational results. Just today a study was released showing that rising tuition rates are not translating into increased spending on actual education. And we hear so much, too, about "accountability." It's become a buzzword that gets thrown around to mean so many things -- and it has also become one of those divisive terms that circulate so poisonously within higher ed debates. You know the format -- calls for accountability from beyond the walls of the ivory tower tend to be interpreted by those within the ivory tower as "assaults" and "attacks" on academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and so on. The result is a politicized stalemate that only underscores the intractability of the problem of academic accountability itself.

But costs, educational quality, and accountability remain important, intertwined issues, and academic stonewalling should not distract us from this fact. And strong, thoughtful commentary on them should be taken seriously by all who care about higher ed. A good example of such commentary is this bracing op-ed from Marty Nemko (How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University) in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's long, so I won't reproduce the whole thing. But here's a taste of what Nemko has to say on educational quality:

Today, amazingly, a majority of the students whom colleges admit are grossly underprepared. Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.

Perhaps more surprising, even those high-school students who are fully qualified to attend college are increasingly unlikely to derive enough benefit to justify the often six-figure cost and four to six years (or more) it takes to graduate. Research suggests that more than 40 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions do not graduate in six years.


A 2006 study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors scored below "proficient" levels on a test that required them to do such basic tasks as understand the arguments of newspaper editorials or compare credit-card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. The students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station.

Unbelievably, according to the Spellings Report, which was released in 2006 by a federal commission that examined the future of American higher education, things are getting even worse: "Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined. ... According to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, for instance, the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined from 40 to 31 percent in the past decade. ... Employers report repeatedly that many new graduates they hire are not prepared to work, lacking the critical thinking, writing and problem-solving skills needed in today's workplaces."

And here are some of Nemko's thoughts on accountability:

Colleges should be held at least as accountable as tire companies are. When some Firestone tires were believed to be defective, government investigations, combined with news-media scrutiny, led to higher tire-safety standards. Yet year after year, colleges and universities turn out millions of defective products: students who drop out or graduate with far too little benefit for the time and money spent. Not only do colleges escape punishment, but they are rewarded with taxpayer-financed student grants and loans, which allow them to raise their tuitions even more.

I ask colleges to do no more than tire manufacturers are required to do. To be government-approved, all tires must have--prominently molded into the sidewall--some crucial information, including ratings of tread life, temperature resistance, and traction compared with national benchmarks.

Going significantly beyond the recommendations in the Spellings report, I believe that colleges should be required to prominently report the following data on their Web sites and in recruitment materials:

--Value added. A national test, which could be developed by the major testing companies, should measure skills important for responsible citizenship and career success. Some of the test should be in career contexts: the ability to draft a persuasive memo, analyze an employer's financial report, or use online research tools to develop content for a report.

--Just as the No Child Left Behind Act mandates strict accountability of elementary and secondary schools, all colleges should be required to administer the value-added test I propose to all entering freshmen and to students about to graduate, and to report the mean value added, broken out by precollege SAT scores, race, and gender. That would strongly encourage institutions to improve their undergraduate education and to admit only students likely to derive enough benefit to justify the time, tuition, and opportunity costs. Societal bonus: Employers could request that job applicants submit the test results, leading to more-valid hiring decisions.

--The average cash, loan, and work-study financial aid for varying levels of family income and assets, broken out by race and gender. And because some colleges use the drug-dealer scam--give the first dose cheap and then jack up the price--they should be required to provide the average not just for the first year, but for each year.

--Retention data: the percentage of students returning for a second year, broken out by SAT score, race, and gender.

--Safety data: the percentage of an institution's students who have been robbed or assaulted on or near the campus.

--The four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, broken out by SAT score, race, and gender. That would allow institutions to better document such trends as the plummeting percentage of male graduates in recent years.

--Employment data for graduates: the percentage of graduates who, within six months of graduation, are in graduate school, unemployed, or employed in a job requiring college-level skills, along with salary data.

--Results of the most recent student-satisfaction survey, to be conducted by the institutions themselves.

--The most recent accreditation report. The college could include the executive summary only in its printed recruitment material, but it would have to post the full report on its Web site.

--Being required to conspicuously provide this information to prospective students and parents would exert long-overdue pressure on colleges to improve the quality of undergraduate education. What should parents and guardians of prospective students do?

--If your child's high-school grades and test scores are in the bottom half for his class, resist the attempts of four-year colleges to woo him. Colleges make money whether or not a student learns, whether or not she graduates, and whether or not he finds good employment. Let the buyer beware. Consider an associate-degree program at a community college, or such nondegree options as apprenticeship programs (see http://www.khake.com), shorter career-preparation programs at community colleges, the military, and on-the-job training, especially at the elbow of a successful small-business owner.

--If your student is in the top half of her high-school class and is motivated to attend college for reasons other than going to parties and being able to say she went to college, have her apply to perhaps a dozen colleges. Colleges vary less than you might think (at least on factors you can readily discern in the absence of the accountability requirements I advocate above), yet financial-aid awards can vary wildly. It's often wise to choose the college that requires you to pay the least cash and take out the smallest loan. College is among the few products that don't necessarily give you what you pay for--price does not indicate quality.

--If your child is one of the rare breed who knows what he wants to do and isn't unduly attracted to academics or to the Animal House environment that characterizes many college-living arrangements, then take solace in the fact that countless other people have successfully taken the noncollege road less traveled. Some examples: Maya Angelou, David Ben-Gurion, Richard Branson, Coco Chanel, Walter Cronkite, Michael Dell, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Alex Haley, Ernest Hemingway, Wolfgang Puck, John D. Rockefeller Sr., Ted Turner, Frank Lloyd Wright, and nine U.S. presidents, from Washington to Truman.

There's a lot of sharp, uncompromising thinking here, and also plenty to disagree with (I can already hear the reflexive outrage at the tire analogy: "Students are not products!" "Education is not a commodity!" "This is just another example of the corporatization of the university!"). But Nemko is thinking hard and well. That's what makes this piece valuable -- and that's what makes it worth discussing.

Erin O'Connor, 7:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)