At the London Times, critics and authors undertake the heretical--and thus quite necessary--work of revealing their least favorite (most despised) books. Appearances are made by Dostoevsky, Rushdie, Tolkien, Mailer, Woolf, Lawrence, Dickens, James, Lessing, and McEwan. Reasons given ranged from flat characters (Dickens) to pretentious style (Woolf gets top honors for making the list twice over with Orlando and The Waves) to crushing negativity (Dostoevsky) to abandonment of the implied contract between writer and reader (the manipulative ending of Atonement). This sort of exercise is rife with illicit pleasure--we still tend to operate under the false assumption that works that have been designated as "classics," or that have been written by writers designated as "great," are above and beyond our private opinions and idiosyncratic preferences. But they really aren't--and it's fun to find out what people really think. It's good to knock down the sacred cows now and then.
Some of the books that annoy the Times critics to distraction are favorites of mine -- I adore McEwan and Dickens particularly. But it was fun indeed to discover that my antipathies to others--to The Waves, to The Ambassadors--are shared.
I was surprised not to see Yann Martel's Life of Pi, with its utter cop out of an ending. And would add to this list Zadie Smith's abominable The Autograph Man (made worse by the fact that White Teeth and On Beauty are so marvelous), Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage (am convinced that this one survives because it's short enough to assign in high school)--and, I have to confess, Richardson's Clarissa. I like the idea of Clarissa, and I appreciate its pivotal place in literary history. It's important. But it's just plain unreadable.
This sort of game is only fun if others play -- so please have a ball in the comments.
June 26, 2008
Reading the marriage market
My review of Rebecca Mead's One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, is up at Knowledge@Wharton.
... enhanced patterns of consumption may be the most lasting commitment most modern marriages produce. Engaged couples, Mead tells us, registered for $9 billion in gifts in 2006; brides-to-be also spent far more money than their unbetrothed female counterparts. And wives stay the consumerist course: Studies show that 85% of women who register with a particular brand will remain loyal to it for the next 50 years. In other words, the brand loyalty that marketers induce during wedding planning is far more likely to last than the marriage itself.
It wasn't long ago that weddings were fairly spartan affairs. In 1939, one-third of all brides did without an engagement ring, a reception or a honeymoon, and 16% of couples got married in clothes they already owned. But in 2006, Americans spent an average of $27,852 on their weddings -- more than twice that of 1990, despite the fact that the wedding industry is what one bridal consultant describes as "the purest example of an inelastic market." The number of weddings has remained relatively constant for decades, and yet the price and scope of weddings have expanded exponentially. Today, the average bride spends $800 on her dress. Collectively, engaged couples spend $4 billion on furniture, $3 billion on housewares and $400 million on tableware every year.
Written in the tradition of charismatic muckrakers who have made their names and their fortunes tracing the cultural damage done by American big business, One Perfect Day tries to do for weddings what Jessica Mitford did for funerals and what Eric Schlosser did for fast food. The not-so-hidden message of One Perfect Day is that weddings reveal the weakness of modern American life. Mead's frequently snarky tone spreads the blame more or less evenly between the money-grubbing callowness of wedding marketers and the dumb willingness of brides and grooms to be exploited by them. Copying the narrative style, humor and ambient anti-capitalism that put The American Way of Death and Fast Food Nation on the map, Mead wants to argue that the wedding industry is a signal example of how the market cheapens American culture by commodifying our most vital traditions.
It's a tidy, if familiar, argument. The trouble is that the facts just don't bear Mead out.
The entire thing is here.
June 25, 2008
Who's profiling you?
It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway -- ideologically biased hiring and promotion practices are wrong no matter what the nature of the bias is. I was appalled, but not terribly surprised, to read about the Justice Department's report on its own skewed, anti-left vetting practices:
Justice Department officials illegally used 'political or ideological' factors in elite recruiting programs in recent years, tapping law school graduates with Federalist Society membership or other conservative credentials over more qualified candidates with liberal-sounding resumes, an internal report found Tuesday.
The report, prepared by the Justice Department's own inspector general and its ethics office, portrays a clumsy effort by senior Justice Department screeners to weed out candidates for career positions whom they considered 'leftists,' using Internet search engines to look for incriminating information or evidence of possible liberal bias.
One rejected candidate from Harvard Law School worked for Planned Parenthood. Another wrote opinion pieces critical of the USA Patriot Act and the nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court. A third applicant worked for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and posted an unflattering cartoon of President Bush on his MySpace page.
Another applicant, a student at the top of his class at Harvard who was fluent in Arabic, was relegated to the 'questionable' pile because he was a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that advocates civil liberties. And another rejected candidate said in his essay that he was 'personally conflicted' about the National Security Agency's program of wiretapping without warrants.
The report, prepared jointly by the office of the inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, and the Office of Professional Responsibility, is the first in a series of internal reviews growing out of last year's controversy over the dismissals of nine United States attorneys. The report is the first from an official investigation to support accusations that the Bush Justice Department has been overly politicized.
'When it comes to the hiring of nonpartisan career attorneys, our system of justice should not be corrupted by partisan politics,' said Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee. 'It appears the politicization at Justice was so pervasive that even interns had to pass a partisan litmus test.'
The report suggests that the political profiling of applicants went so far as rejecting candidates who used certain buzzwords, like "social justice" and "environmental justice." Membership in Greenpeace, or work experience at Planned Parenthood, were also grounds for rejection. There is a difference between rejecting candidates for their politics and rejecting candidates because they are unprofessional ideologues who can't separate their politics from their work. The first is way out of line; the second is essential--though difficult to discover, particularly in the absence of an interview. If the report is to be believed, the Justice Department crossed the line and then some.
The good news is that this report constitutes an important admission that systematic ideological bias in personnel matters can and does exist within certain institutions and professions. Academe--which has been steadfastly denying that it has engaged in a dedicated, decades-long campaign to homogenize its ranks--should take note.
The bad faith move for the left-leaning academy to make right now is to point fingers and jeer at conservatives for having their inherent corruption exposed. The good faith move is to recognize that this kind of behavior is viewpoint neutral--and terribly, terribly human--and to acknowledge that left-leaning institutions are just as liable to it as those that lean right. The Justice Department is setting a strong, if lamentably belated, standard for for internal accountability and transparency. The academy--which has been exhorted for years by ACTA, FIRE, and others to be accountable and transparent about these issues--should follow its example.
June 23, 2008
The new anger
If you are like me, you keep up with the news, and you read (and perhaps write) blogs, despite the extreme ambient anger that circulates in the media and the blogosphere. I want to know what's going on, and I want to see what people think about events and art and ideas, and so I put up with the nastiness that often inflects reporting and commentary today. But the fact of the nastiness itself suggests that there are a great many people who enjoy it very much--and who seem to regard it as a legitimate way of doing interpretive business.
Higher ed--the central concern of this blog--is exceptionally prone to vituperative argumentation. In the six years since I started writing this site, it's become something of an armchair anthropological enterprise for me to watch the higher ed anger ebb and flow, and to see particularly nasty arguments, ideas, and personalities come and go from the ever-intense ongoing debate (and, at times, from my own humble comments section).
It's interesting to see what kinds of arguments inspire angry responses--to trace the line where reasoned analysis gives way to impassioned invective, and to watch, too, that line get energetically blurred, particularly when the blurring is being done by scholars, journalists, and other professionals whose jobs would seem to require them to maintain a clear distinction between the two. Snark--that quasi-analytical pose that uses the appearance of logical argument to deliver nasty, singularly selective fallacious attacks--is the modus operandi by which the more clever purveyors of distorted non-thought make themselves seem at once rational and wickedly clever. Snark, when done well, is so hip that it seduces its readers into accepting its swashbuckling rhetorical style as a fair substitute for impeccable analytical substance. But in reality, it's a real free inquiry killer--which is why, I assume, Rohan Maitzen's ground rules for discussion of The Valve's electronic discussion of Adam Bede included a plea to participants not to be "snarky." (I write a bit about snark in an upcoming piece for Academic Questions, by the way; I will say more when the piece comes out.)
Anyway. The armchair anger anthropologist in me was delighted to discover Peter Wood's 2006 study, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. It was a good and interesting read. Here are a few paragraphs from the preface:
A lot of Americans have noticed the excesses of anger in our midst, but we are having a hard time deciding why it has suddenly swarmed around us. Is it the consequence of two bitterly fought presidential elections? Are the news media to blame? Have we endured a slow erosion in civility that has finally exposed the raw feelings underneath? Have we developed a hair-trigger intolerance for one another?
Some scholars assure us that this profusion of anger isn't really new. Americans, say these scholars, were always angry. We had an uncivil Boston Tea Party and an eight-year Revolution. We had a presidential election in 1800--Adams vs. Jefferson--at least as nasty as Bush v. Gore or Bush v. Kerry. We fought a bloody Civil War with over a million casualties. And we can't forget the 1960s, replete with protests, riots, teargas, and more protests.
Some scholars also argue that the angry "culture war" of recent years ("red states" vs. "blue states"; NASCAR fans vs. Volvo drivers; Sunday-morning-go-to-church vs. Friday night at the vegan Dean rally) is mainly an illusion. We are, they say, mostly in agreement on the important matters, and it is the political elites and the controversy-hungry media that conjure up the so-called "culture war."
I think these views are mistaken. The anger we see and hear around us differs in character from the anger of previous epochs, and it is no illusion. The anger of the present is, among other things, more flamboyant, more self-righteous, and more theatrical than anger at other times in our history. It often has the look-at-me character of performance art.
The anger in America now also differs from earlier epochs in that many seem proud of their anger. It has become a badge of authenticity, and holding back or repressing anger is often depicted as a weakness or failure of self-assertion rather than a worthy form of self-control. We have elaborated this view into several popular theories that encourage the expression of anger as a way for members of ethnic groups, women, political parties, children, or people in general to "empower" themselves. This is new. However angry Americans were in 1776, 1800, 1860, or 1963, they were not congratulating themselves for getting angry.
The people and situations that evoke our anger today also differ in some interesting ways from angers past. Today we don't pick too many fights over family honor; and we don't seem to get especially worked up over people who defy our authority. We can be calm in the face of insults that not so long ago would have led to armed duels. But then we flare into livid fury for reasons that would have baffled our ancestors.
What was the nineteenth-century equivalent of road rage on the Los Angeles freeways? Something has happened to us that allows hugely disproportionate responses to what are, after all, small provocations. We also can get furious if we feel disrespect aimed at our self-definition. "Take me seriously" is the message of much of our anger, where, in another time and place, a self-reliant American would have shrugged and walked away. Some of our contemporary rhetoric of anger is based on claims that our rights have been violated. Rights-based grievances are old, but our sense of what those rights are has ballooned beyond anything Jefferson, Lincoln, W.E.B. Du Bois, or even Justice Earl Warren might have imagined. And our anger is especially sharp at those who pretend to be one thing and are really another. A characteristic anger of our times enunciates outrage at the phony, the hypocrite, the liar, and the fake--so much so that we often reframe anger caused by something else into an accusation of phoniness, hypocrisy, lying, and fakery. They are the trump cards in our anger deck.
The performance-art aspect of anger; its merit-badge "I'm angry, therefore I'm real" quality; and road-rage-respect-me-rights-based-you're-a-liar fury are not the only characteristics of what I call the New Anger. They will do for a start, but a principal aim of this book is to provide an overview of the new emotional terrain in which anger has achieved prestige and a kind of celebrity. We have become, without really noticing it, a culture that celebrates anger.
Of course you can't judge a book by a few paragraphs from the preface. But these give a quick sense of how Wood is thinking about anger, and of the basic premises he elaborates in the course of his study. Thoughts on anger welcome in comments. Snark not.
June 19, 2008
The University of Chicago is gearing up to launch a $200 million economics research center, to be known as the Milton Friedman Institute. Building on the university's historical ties to one of the most important economists of the twentieth century, Chicago anticipates that the Institute will "build on the University's existing leadership position and make the Milton Friedman Institute a primary intellectual destination for economics by creating a robust forum for engagement of our faculty and students with scholars and policymakers from around the world" (those are the words of Chicago president Robert Zimmer).
It's a no brainer. It's a great idea, and it's bound to be successful. So of course there's a noisy group of faculty who are against it:
Few names are more associated with the University of Chicago than Milton Friedman's.
But that's exactly the problem, say some faculty who want to put the brakes on a plan to name a new research center after the Nobel Prize-winning economist.
In a letter to U. of C. President Robert Zimmer, 101 professors--about 8 percent of the university's full-time faculty--said they feared that having a center named after the conservative, free-market economist could "reinforce among the public a perception that the university's faculty lacks intellectual and ideological diversity."
About a half-dozen faculty members aired their concerns Tuesday in a meeting with Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, who remain committed to the project. Rosenbaum said the university plans to put about $500,000 toward launching the center next year, but it hopes the expected $200 million endowment for the center will come mostly from private funds from alumni and business leaders.
"It is a right-wing think tank being put in place," said Bruce Lincoln, a professor of the history of religions and one of the faculty members who met with the administration Tuesday. "The long-term consequences will be very severe. This will be a flagship entity and it will attract a lot of money and a lot of attention, and I think work at the university and the university's reputation will take a serious rightward turn to the detriment of all."
The controversy highlights tensions between the university's historically conservative economics department and law school and the generally liberal humanities and social sciences.
It also renews a split on campus about Friedman himself, who brought prestige to the university through his economic approach, which became known worldwide as the "Chicago School" of economics, but also garnered ill will from those who thought his policies led to social injustice and inequality.
The Milton Friedman Institute, proposed by faculty members who included three Nobel Prize winners in economics, is intended to attract visiting scholars who will conduct research on topics related to economics, business and law. It will promote workshops, seminars and lectures.
The institute will be centrally located in buildings that now house the Chicago Theological Seminary, which is moving to a new location.
Rosenbaum said the center will not push any particular point of view.
"We are honoring a great scholar, and that is the intent here," Rosenbaum said. "We are supportive of a wide range of ideas across the spectrum of ideologies, and it's not intended to promote any ideology."
But faculty critics are concerned that it will be one-sided, attracting scholars and donors who share a point of view.
They point to sentences in the institute proposal noting that its focus would "typify some of Milton Friedman's most interesting academic work," including his critical analysis of monetary policy and advocacy of market-driven forces over government planning of the economy.
"I don't think any institute of any educational institution should be so strongly aligned behind a single ideological program," said U. of C. music professor and department chair Robert Kendrick.
Friedman won the Nobel Prize in 1976, a year before he retired from the U. of C. after 30 years of teaching. He died in 2006.
"For many people who travel around the word, the university has had a pretty bad reputation that is tied to the Chicago School and economic principles that Milton Friedman advocated," said Yali Amit, a U. of C. statistics and computer science professor. "We don't think it's a great idea to strengthen this reputation."
Economics professor Lars Peter Hansen, chair of the committee that proposed the institute, said the opponents are confusing Friedman's economic scholarship with his social and political views. He said the center will not have any "particular political slant."
John Cochrane, a business school professor who served on the Friedman Institute committee, also emphasized that the center will be nonpartisan.
"There will be no ties to any party," he said. "It will not be a home for administration officials while Republicans wait out the [ Barack] Obama administration."
Columbia University economics professor Jagdish Bhagwati laughed when he heard about the latest debate at the Hyde Park campus.
"It is nonsensical to object. . . . Chicago should be proud it has someone like Milton on its rolls," he said. "Anybody who can claim that Milton was not one of the major thinkers of his time is crazy."
I reproduce the Chicago Tribune piece in full because I find the quotes contained therein to be remarkable. I want you to see them in context, as they speak volumes about the attitudes and the ignorance of the Institute's opponents.
The University is explicit and clear that the Milton Friedman Institute will welcome and host a range of viewpoints. And Friedman himself was hardly pigeon-holeable--as a libertarian, he believed in free markets, but he also helped end the draft and advocated the decriminalization of drugs and prostitution. But these things are lost on the faculty protesters, with their blunt-instrument descriptors (they use "right-wing" as a discrediting, dismissive label--despite the fact that it just doesn't fit). All of which is to say that they don't see the University as a center for the open, unfettered pursuit of knowledge, and they do see the University as a political entity whose ideological image must be managed in accordance with their own politics--even when that means attempting to suppress scholarly endeavors that they themselves acknowledge are likely to be successful.
The result is a major act of intellectual bad faith on the part of the protesters. They dare to argue that the Institute will harm intellectual diversity on campus, when the Institute is committed to open inquiry across viewpoints, and when the protesters are the ones trying to suppress a scholarly undertaking because they don't like--even prospectively, in anticipation--the ideas that the undertaking may enable to be explored. And in casting the Institute as an "ideological" endeavor and then objecting to it high-mindedly on those grounds, the protesting faculty also has the temerity to imply that there are not already plenty of campus entities that openly embrace ideological agendas--as long as those entities (women's studies, peace studies, etc.) are aligned with the faculty's views, they get a free pass.
But we should perhaps be a bit forgiving. The Chicago faculty is, after all, not alone in having a conniption fit about a scholarly center that may include viewpoints they abhor--Hamilton College has gone down that self-discrediting road recently, as have SMU and the University of Illinois. There is a bit of an emerging, censorious bandwagon here--and Chicago's faculty protesters are simply jumping on it.
The good news is that the faculty members who object to undertakings such as the Alexander Hamilton Institute have not been very successful in shutting them down. Chicago can and should forge ahead with the Milton Friedman Institute.
June 18, 2008
Know your rights
I have long thought that instead of sensitivity training, colleges and universities should be offering--and perhaps requiring--training in First Amendment rights as well as the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom. Everyone on campus needs this knowlege--students, faculty, administrators, trustees, staff. And too few have it. The resulting mess keeps FIRE, ACTA, and a small but critical cluster of similar groups in business--and also seriously undermines the quality of American higher education and scholarship.
Western Oregon University administrators recently revealed their utter ignorance of the First Amendment when they responded to a sensitive article in the student newspaper by firing the faculty advisor, punishing the student editor, and conducting a night-time investigation of the newspaper office that included attempting to secure copies of files on the paper's computers. At issue was the fact that the university had failed to secure private information about student applicants--and that the student journalists were exposing that fact in their story.
Now the College Media Advisers Board of Directors, an advocacy group, is urging Western Oregon officials to undertake some much needed First Amendment training. And while the fur flies and debate rages about who was in the wrong, what's clear is that the situation is immensely complicated by a broad lack of understanding of where First Amendment rights begin and end within a public university setting. More at Inside Higher Ed.
To become a U.S. citizen, you have to pass a test on U.S. history and civics. That test is currently being redesigned. Here are some questions from the new version, which will be launched this October:
1. How many amendments does the Constitution have?
2. What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
3. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
4. There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.
5. What are two rights only for United States citizens?
6. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the
7. What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?
8. Who was President during World War I?
9. Name one U.S. territory.
10. Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
The answers are here. How did you do?
If you are in a test-taking mood, take the exam ACTA administered to elite college seniors several years ago (see Appendix A). The majority flunked.
Hat tip: Thanks to Cliopatria for the link to the naturalization questions.
June 17, 2008
Over at The Valve, they are reading George Eliot's Adam Bede. It's an open discussion forum, and will continue for several weeks, with readings paced reasonably throughout. This is the first week of discussion, with commentary centering on the first several chapters. If you have a little bit of free time--or a willingness to make same--check it out and take part.
George Eliot is one of my absolute favorites. She's a bit of an acquired taste--her prose can be a bit heavy at times--but she's well worth the effort. She came to the novel during the 1850s circuitously--from a rural, evangelical, intensely autodidactic childhood to a brief career in London as a behind-the-scenes everyman for the Westminster Review to a tortuous affair with Herbert Spencer and a spectacularly happy but socially damaging elopement with the married George Henry Lewes.
Mary Ann Evans could read numerous languages and talk knowledgeably about science, philosophy, history, religion, and just about anything else; she translated Spinoza, Strauss, and Feuerbach; and she had a strong, evolving sense of the novel as a genre with great artistic and social potential--and of novelists as continually falling short of realizing that potential. She sharpened her sense of realist fiction as an under-realized form throughout the 1850s with essays on the silly novels written by lady novelists and on the special capacity of fiction to "extend our sympathies" outward, to lives and outlooks and experiences far beyond our own. She saw Dickens in particular has having squandered a great chance to make a real difference in a newly urban, terrifically divided industrial world--because he failed to draw his working-class characters believably, opting instead for charming caricature.
And, at Lewes' prodding, she eventually undertook storytelling on her own, with a series of novellas about the recent rural past, Scenes of Clerical Life. Published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine under the pseudonym "George Eliot," they were an immediate sensation, admired by Dickens (who realized the writer was a woman) and even appropriated by a clergyman who seized his fifteen minutes by claiming to have been their author.
Adam Bede followed shortly thereafter; it is Eliot's first novel, and it represents her first full-length effort to devise a narrative style that would realize the novel's capacity to enlarge readers' empathic powers by giving them compelling characters vastly unlike themselves. Hence the thick regional dialect, the remote historical setting, and the focus on rural, evangelical characters far removed from the personalities of the mid-Victorian novel-reading classes.
This is necessarily a brief and partial introduction to an important novel by a great author (Virginia Woolf once observed that Eliot's finest work, Middlemarch, was "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people"). But hopefully it's enough to tempt you to read some Eliot in the coming weeks.
June 16, 2008
... you could be any literary character, who would you be? Michael Dirda says he would be James Bond.
June 15, 2008
There's so much back and forth about teachers--about what makes a good one, about how to attract good ones and deal with the bad ones, about the unions and the ed schools. Teach for America offers an intriguing spin on it all.
Get this: This year, 25,000 college seniors applied to do Teach for America. 3,700 were accepted. Among them were 11% of Yale's graduating class, 9% of Harvard's, and 10% of Georgetown's. That's pretty humanitarian, considering the pay, and also pretty savvy. As the Wall Street Journal points out, Teach for America is a great way to sidestep the expensive, time-consuming, politicized, and altogether annoying ed schools. It's also, it turns out, a great way to improve the caliber of instruction.
The American Federation of Teachers commonly derides Teach for America as a "band-aid." One of its arguments is that the program only lasts two years, barely enough time, they say, to get a handle on managing a classroom. However, it turns out that two-thirds of its grads stay in the education field, sometimes as teachers, but also as principals or policy makers.
More importantly, it doesn't matter that they are only in the classroom a short time, at least according to a recent Urban Institute study. Here's the gist: "On average, high school students taught by TFA corps members performed significantly better on state-required end-of-course exams, especially in math and science, than peers taught by far more experienced instructors. The TFA teachers' effect on student achievement in core classroom subjects was nearly three times the effect of teachers with three or more years of experience."
Jane Hannaway, one of the study's co-authors, says Teach for America participants may be more motivated than their traditional teacher peers. Second, they may receive better support during their experience. But, above all, Teach for America volunteers tend to have much better academic qualifications. They come from more competitive schools and they know more about the subjects they teach. Ms. Hannaway notes, "Students are better off being exposed to teachers with a high level of skill."
The strong performance in math and science seems to confirm that the more specialized the knowledge, the more important it is that teachers be well versed in it. (Imagine that.) No amount of time in front of a classroom will make you understand advanced algebra better.
Teach for America was pleased, but not exactly shocked, by these results. "We have always been a data-driven organization," says spokesman Amy Rabinowitz. "We have a selection model we've refined over the years." The organization figures out which teachers have been most successful in improving student performance and then seeks applicants with similar qualities. "It's mostly a record of high academic achievement and leadership in extracurricular activities."
Go TFA -- and go TFA teachers. The kids need you.
June 13, 2008
I have a dream
I dreamed about Barack Obama last night. He was competing for the presidency, which was being run as a gymnastics meet. Most of my dreams slide out of reach soon after I wake up, and most of this one did, too. But one image has remained vivid through my morning coffee: Barack Obama, sheathed in a bright red spandex bodysuit, absolutely nailing his beam routine. He even sticks the landing. It's quite a sight.
So I took it as a sign this morning when I saw that David Brooks had devoted his column to Obama's position--or lack thereof--on education. Here's what Brooks has to say:
Is Barack Obama really a force for change, or is he just a traditional Democrat with a patina of postpartisan rhetoric?
That question is surprisingly hard to answer. When you listen to his best speeches, you see a person who really could herald a new political era. But when you look into his actual policies, you often find a list of orthodox liberal programs that no centrist or moderate conservative would have any reason to support.
To investigate this question, I looked more closely into Obama's education policies. Education is a good area to probe because Obama knows a lot about it, and because there are two education camps within the Democratic Party: a status quo camp and a reform camp. The two camps issued dueling strategy statements this week.
The status quo camp issued a statement organized by the Economic Policy Institute. This report argues that poverty and broad social factors drive high dropout rates and other bad outcomes. Schools alone can’t combat that, so more money should go to health care programs, anti-poverty initiatives and after-school and pre-K programs. When it comes to improving schools, the essential message is that we need to spend more on what we’re already doing: smaller class sizes, better instruction, better teacher training.
The reformist camp, by contrast, issued a statement through the Education Equality Project, signed by school chiefs like Joel Klein of New York, Michelle Rhee of Washington, Andres Alonso of Baltimore as well as Al Sharpton, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and experts like Andrew Rotherham, the former Clinton official who now writes the Eduwonk blog.
The reformists also support after-school and pre-K initiatives. But they insist school reform alone can make a big difference, so they emphasize things the status quo camp doesn't: rigorous accountability and changing the fundamental structure of school systems.
Today's school systems aren't broken, the reformers argue. They were designed to meet the needs of teachers and adults first, and that's exactly what they are doing. It's time, though, to put the interests of students first.
The reformers want to change the structure of the system, not just spend more on the same old things. Tough decisions have to be made about who belongs in the classroom and who doesn't. Parents have to be given more control over education through public charter schools. Teacher contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom need to be revised. Most importantly, accountability has to be rigorous and relentless. No Child Left Behind has its problems, but it has ushered in a data revolution, and hard data is the prerequisite for change.
The question of the week is: Which camp is Barack Obama in?
His advisers run the gamut, and the answer depends in part on what month it is. Back in October 2005, Obama gave a phenomenal education speech in which he seemed to ally with the reformers. Then, as the campaign heated up, he shifted over to pure union orthodoxy, ripping into accountability and testing in a speech in New Hampshire in a way that essentially gutted the reformist case. Then, on May 28 in Colorado, he delivered another major education speech in which he shifted back in a more ambiguous direction.
In that Colorado speech, he opened with a compelling indictment of America's school systems. Then he argued that the single most important factor in shaping student achievement is the quality of the teachers. This seemed to direct him in the reformist camp's direction, which has made them happy.
But when you look at the actual proposals Obama offers, he doesn't really address the core issues. He's for the vast panoply of pre-K and after-school programs that most of us are for. But the crucial issues are: What do you do with teachers and administrators who are failing? How rigorously do you enforce accountability? Obama doesn't engage the thorny, substantive matters that separate the two camps.
He proposes dozens of programs to build on top of the current system, but it’s not clear that he would challenge it. He's all carrot, no stick.
If Brooks were in a different mood, he might classify Obama's as bobo politics. Certainly his stance on education has the feel of bobo (bourgeois-bohemian) style--it's slick, chic, attractive, adjustable, accessible without being terribly substantive; it dabbles without depth and changes as the wind does; it's hard to pin down, but it looks good, and it seems, on the surface, to have a bit of substance; it appears to be oriented around reform--but when you get right down to it, it's utterly embedded in and indebted to the establishment.
Brooks notes that while the bobo outlook tends to be innocuous or even, at times, socially and economically beneficial, it can be a real problem when it comes to religion, scholarship, and politics:
I have chapters about consumption and business, where I'm mostly positive. But then I have chapters about the effect on our intellectual life, our religious life and our political life, and there, there are real problems. Religious life, for example. I ran across a rabbi in Montana who describes his faith as "flexidoxy," which is a great phrase for bobo morality, because it starts with the bohemian urge to be flexible, freedom, be autonomous. But then it says, "well, I don't want too much autonomy, I want ritual, I want order in my life, I want roots." And so there's also orthodoxy mixed in. And so he's trying to ... many bobos are trying to build a foundation of obligation, build a structure of obligation, on a foundation of choice. And they sort of mush things together. Politically, also--you get Bill Clinton, who's an ultimate bobo, mixing the left and the right, anti-ideological turning. They're all into such an ideological mush, and it's an unsatisfying style of politics.
That's from a 2000 interview, so Clinton is Brooks' point of reference. But it takes on a special new resonance now, as we try to sort through what Obama actually means when he invokes the nebulous ideal of "change."
On a slightly different note--one of the most thought-provoking and inspiring things I've read lately on education is John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down. Well worth a look--as is his 2003 Harper's article--especially if you are feeling that the debates are getting stale, and that even the reform movement is showing a tendency to lose the plot.
June 11, 2008
Sticks and stones
I'm increasingly interested by the idea that cultures, institutions, and professions can cultivate and perpetuate particular affects, and that those affects can be quite maladaptive. Just finished reading Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel's One Nation Under Therapy: How the Self-Help Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance, and am currently working my way through Peter Wood's A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. Both are fascinating, and, in crucial ways, interlocking; they parse the moods and methods of the self-absorbed culture of American grievance that has arisen since the sixties, and they offer great if disturbing food for thought about what we are becoming and why.
Mark Bauerlein's ongoing anthropology of academic culture, with its emphasis on how groupthink operates as a professional and professionalizing norm, fits in nicely with these other analyses. For several years he has been charting how intellectual insularity and procedural cowardice have come to play determining roles within entire academic disciplines. Along the way, he's offended the sensibilities of many academics--and he's also begun to explore why it is that academics seem to have so many sensibilities so ready to be offended.
That's his subject this morning in a short column at Minding the Campus:
Observing the sparring that has taken place between professors and conservative/libertarian critics outside the academy, many laypersons must wonder why professors grow so indignant over the criticism. They understand why professors disagree and want to defend themselves, but why so defensive? Why get mad? Other professions get chided - lawyers, doctors, politicians - and they respond, sometimes at least, with concessions and reforms, not "How dare you say that to us?" All-too-often, though, academics have acted with thin skins and prickly sensitivities, rarely to their advantage.
Several causes are at work here, but one of them is hard to discern if you haven't pursued an academic career, and it's insufficiently appreciated by outsiders.
It stems from a relentless truth of professional life for professors in the humanities and "softer" social sciences. The truth is this: when it comes to your status, you aren't judged by how much money you bring the university or how much your students learn. Instead, you are what others say you are. At each stage in a career, advancement depends on the words and opinions of teachers and colleagues. Entry into graduate school rested on the admissions committee, and every semester afterwards each seminar paper grade indicated whether you had a future or not. Three professors approved your dissertation and granted you a PhD. You went on the job market and a hiring committee liked your dossier, three professors in a hotel room at the annual convention smiled at your interview, and you won a tenure-track job offer. A couple of years later, two expert readers of manuscripts for scholarly presses liked your work and you got a book into print. When the department met to review your record, some senior colleagues in related fields approved of your research, teaching, service, and tenure finally arrived.
Each threshold seemed like life or death, the professors in charge rendering Olympian judgment. Their opinion meant everything, and it happened over and over for 12-15 years from the time you entered graduate school to the golden day of tenure. The scrutiny has a deep and long-term effect. No wonder professors come to think that opinions in public life carry the same weight. They rarely do, but academics have spent so many years in a gauntlet of appraisals that they've become touchy and wary. If a letter from an authority in the field carries so much weight in the cloistered spaces of an academic department, just think what a column on liberal bias by George Will in the Washington Post can do.
This is a mis-estimation of off-campus debate, of course, for public life allows for lots more criticism and raillery than scholarly exchange does. Furthermore, the recourse to "You don't understand what we do" doesn't work. The more academics slide into pique when ACTA issues another report on academic freedom, the more they yield the terrain to the critics. Too much time living in the shadow of judgment freezes them up or ticks them off when outsiders challenge their practice. Years of building a reputation renders them inept in ideological battles outside of professional zones. This is one cause of indignation, and until they overcome it, academics will remain in a rearguard posture in public life. And, in a regrettable corollary, within professional zones they will remain intractable and insular. Peer review was never supposed to work this way.
I think there's something to this. It's not the whole story, of course. But Bauerlein is beginning to get at the hard-wiring that lies beneath the knee-jerk academic hostility to external critique; the poisonous combination of fear, insecurity, and entitlement that produces that hostility; and the often nasty, very personal kinds of defensiveness that result in situations where reasoned debate would be more appropriate and would serve everyone far better. He's also laid down a neat challenge: Nasty, dismissive responses from academics will prove his point.
June 9, 2008
Gaming the system
Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor is determined to alter the sorry state of civics education in this country--and is looking to the Internet, particularly to games, to do it. She spoke last week at a conference on digital games. Here is some of what she had to say:
"In recent years I have become increasingly concerned about vitriolic attacks by some members of Congress and some members of state legislatures and various private interest groups on judges," she said in her speech. "We hear a great deal about judges who are activists, godless secular humanists trying to impose their will on the rest of us. I always thought an activist judge was one who got up in the morning and went to work."
She said she embarked on this campaign after a conference she and Justice Stephen G. Breyer convened in 2006 on the state of the judiciary.
"The overwhelming consensus coming out of that conference was that public education is the only long-term solution to preserving an independent judiciary and, more importantly, to preserving a robust constitutional democracy," she said. "The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have. And we have to start with the education of our nation's young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do."
Justice O'Connor said that most citizens know very little about their government. "Two-thirds of Americans know at least one of the judges on the Fox TV show 'American Idol,' but less than 1 in 10 can name the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court," she said.
And for that she did not lay responsibility solely at the feet of popular culture.
"One unintended effect of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is intended to help fund teaching of science and math to young people, is that it has effectively squeezed out civics education because there is no testing for that anymore and no funding for that," she said. "And at least half of the states no longer make the teaching of civics and government a requirement for high school graduation. This leaves a huge gap, and we can't forget that the primary purpose of public schools in America has always been to help produce citizens who have the knowledge and the skills and the values to sustain our republic as a nation, our democratic form of government."
Enter the Internet. Justice O'Connor said she didn't play games and was hardly a computer expert. But she added that she had seen in her children and especially her grandchildren how involving interactive media can be and noted that interactive education can in some ways be more effective than traditional methods.
"We’ll have them arguing real issues, real legal issues, against the computer and against each other," she said. One of the first interactive exercises in the Our Courts program, she said, would take up First Amendment issues involving the ability of public schools to censor students' speech, as in student newspapers or on T-shirts.
"I believe that when we learn something, a principle or concept, by doing, by having it happen to us, which you can do by that medium of a computer, and you exercise it and you make an argument and you learn, 'Oh yes, that's an argument that prevails,' you learn by doing.”"
O'Connor's interactive online civics curriculum will target seventh-, eighth-, and ninth graders, and will be unveiled, at least in part, this fall at www.ourcourts.org. When she's finished with it, maybe she can spearhead something similar for economics.
June 6, 2008
So much comes down to money--and so few of us have any clue whatsoever about how money really works. I'm among the ignorant--knowing just enough to know that I know very little indeed. But I'm like most of us. And it's been interesting to watch certain economic discussions unfold--about, for example, what Harvard should or should not be doing with its huge endowment; or about universal health care (which we can't begin to afford, but which we continue to see as a panacea); or about the capital gains tax (which Obama would raise without understanding)--when you can recognize both your own ignorance about economics and the ignorance of many who are influential in shaping national discussions about money. Everybody thinks he is an authority on how money ought to be managed and spent. But few of us really understand what money is, how it works, or what kinds of consequences can come from certain kinds of financial decisions.
And small wonder. Very few of us have ever studied economics. And the problem is so big that it's not even on the radar. You hear so much about how our educational system is shortchanging students when it comes to math, science, civics, and history. But you never hear about the crippling effects of ignorance about money and economies. Colleges and universities, as ACTA observed in a 2004 study, don't require students to study it--not even those rare schools with a solid core curriculum.
This is the flip side of the problem produced by academe's broadly socialist monoculture--there is a great deal of friendliness, explicit and tacit, to such things as collectivism and cooperation, redistribution of wealth, government-run social programs, single-payer health care, and so on. There is likewise a broad hostility to capitalism and free market principles. But these leanings are rarely undergirded with a grasp of economic facts or realities. And that's a calculated gap. You don't have to look hard at all to find colleges and universities that press students, in course after course, to make moral determinations about how economies ought to be run--but you would be hard pressed to find a school that requires students to ground those determinations in actual economic knowledge.
It's fun and instructive to see exceptions to the rule, and to locate thought experiments that have managed to institutionalize themselves. Take Guatemala's Francisco Marroquin University:
Leftist ideology may be gaining ground in Latin America. But it will never set foot on the manicured lawns of Francisco Marroquin University.
For nearly 40 years, this private college has been a citadel of laissez-faire economics. Here, banners quoting "The Wealth of Nations" author Adam Smith -- he of the powdered wig and invisible hand -- flutter over the campus food court.
Every undergraduate, regardless of major, must study market economics and the philosophy of individual rights embraced by the U.S. founding fathers, including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
A sculpture commemorating Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" is affixed to the school of business. Students celebrated the novel's 50th anniversary last year with an essay contest. The $200 cash prize reinforced the book's message that society should reward capitalist go-getters who create wealth and jobs, not punish them with taxes and regulations.
"The poor are not poor just because others are rich," said Manuel Francisco Ayau Cordon, a feisty octogenarian businessman, staunch anti-communist and founder of the school. "It's not a zero-sum game."
Welcome to Guatemala's Libertarian U. Ayau opened the college in 1972, fed up with what he viewed as the "socialist" instruction being imparted at San Carlos University of Guatemala, the nation's largest institution of higher learning. He named the new school for a colonial-era priest who worked to liberate native Guatemalans from exploitation by Spanish overlords.
Ayau believed universities should stay out of politics and "place themselves beyond the conflicts of their time." Easier said than done, considering that at the time, Guatemala was under military rule and in the midst of a civil war.
A CIA-backed coup in 1954 had toppled the country's democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. His proposal to redistribute unoccupied land to peasants infuriated the nation's largest landowner, U.S.-based United Fruit Co., and stoked fears in Washington that Guatemala would become a Soviet satellite. Arbenz's ouster unleashed a bloody internal conflict that lasted nearly four decades.
Whereas San Carlos University actively aided leftist guerrillas, Francisco Marroquin preached the sanctity of private property rights and the rule of law. The cheeky Ayau chose red as the school's official color "on the theory that it had been expropriated by the communists and we shouldn't cede them exclusivity." He wore a bulletproof vest under his academic gown at the first graduation ceremony.
Tensions have mellowed since peace accords were signed in 1996. The same cannot be said of Ayau, whose nicknames include "the curmudgeon" and "Muso," short for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. His once-ragtag school now ranks among the finest in Central America. And he continues to irritate diverse factions of this impoverished nation with his unshakable faith in free markets, personal liberty, small government and his insistence on "no privileges for anybody."
Some leftists deride him as a lackey of the ruling classes, dishing up neo-liberal dogma to rich kids in a nation where a few powerful families still call most of the shots. Conservative elites chafe at his op-ed harangues about their cozy oligopolies and government protections.
Ayau delights at the potshots coming his way from both ends of the political spectrum: They signal that someone is listening.
"Ideas are powerful," he crowed recently, showing a visitor an auditorium named for the late American free-market economist Milton Friedman. "We're making progress."
Ayau's unflagging passions have turned Guatemala into an unlikely whistle-stop for all manner of capitalist luminaries.
Friedman, the University of Chicago economist, was one of four Nobel laureates in economics to have lectured at Francisco Marroquin. The school has bestowed honorary doctorates on billionaire publisher Steve Forbes and T.J. Rogers, the swashbuckling chief executive of Cypress Semiconductor Corp.
John Stossel, co-anchor of ABC News' "20/20," was honored this year on campus, as much for his ideology as his Emmy awards. An avowed libertarian, Stossel got a warm reception for his discourse against government regulation.
"We celebrate the message that this university teaches because economic freedom makes everybody's life better," Stossel said to rousing applause.
No matter that Francisco Marroquin has made little headway in its own backyard.
Today, more than half of Guatemala's population of 13 million lives in poverty. Namibia and Botswana rank higher than Guatemala on the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom. Guatemala is one of the most corrupt nations in the hemisphere, according to Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization. Land ownership is concentrated in few hands. Key industries such as sugar are controlled by powerful oligopolies that saddle poor consumers with high prices.
"They are insatiable," Ayau said.
Still, Ayau points to a few small victories. Francisco Marroquin graduates were among the key architects of the 1996 deregulation of Guatemala's telecommunications industry. The country now boasts a competitive sector with some of the lowest rates in Latin America. About three-quarters of the population have mobile phones.
Francisco Marroquin "is like this little gem in the middle of this region," said Donald Boudreaux, a George Mason University economist who has lectured at the university. "It has a sterling reputation."
They founded Francisco Marroquin in 1971 and began classes a year later with 40 students in a rented house.
Enrollment is now at 2,700, and the university offers 18 degree programs, including journalism, architecture and medicine, on a beautiful, modern campus.
All students speak English. Entrance requirements are stiff. So is tuition. At $8,000 a year for some programs (more than three times the annual gross national per capita income), it's the priciest university in Guatemala. University President Giancarlo Ibarguen said the sum was justified by the good job offers graduates receive.
There are no sports teams and no affirmative action in hiring or admissions. Instructors can forget about tenure; there is none. Ditto for the protests and sit-ins that are common in public universities in Latin America. If Francisco Marroquin students are unhappy with the product they're getting, they're free to take their business elsewhere.
"If you don't like Macy's, you go to Gimbels," Ayau said.
The university's detractors criticize it--predictably--by ignoring the fact that it was founded as an alternative to Guatemala's socialistic academic monoculture: "What they sell is discipline ... a uniformity of thought that easily translates into dogma so that students graduate from campus believing that they are unique possessors of truth," says writer Mario Roberto Morales. "The truth is that the university exists to indoctrinate the children of the oligarchs."
June 2, 2008
You can say that again
At the NAS website, FIRE president Greg Lukianoff surveys the history of campus speech codes, explaining their origins as well as their surprising resistance to reform:
So how do speech codes continue to survive? I have come to the conclusion that there are at least four major factors at work:
Ideology: Political correctness is still alive and powerful on our college campuses. The belief that some students (and, indeed, some administrators) have a right not to be offended plays a part in dozens upon dozens of incidents every year in which FIRE must come to the defense of a student or faculty member who said "the wrong thing."
"The wrong thing" can range from publishing an "insensitive cartoon," to sending out an overly ironic Halloween invitation, to an attempt to satirize or protest any number of issues, from affirmative action to terrorism and religious extremism.
Bureaucracy: What I find perhaps most galling about universities' unwillingness to defend free speech and provide basic due process rights for students is that students are being asked to pay increasing portions of their lifetime earnings for the privilege of attending these institutions. Furthermore, their tuition money is far too infrequently spent on improving faculty-to-student ratios or otherwise guaranteeing the quality of education. Rather, it goes toward an ever expanding army of student judicial officers, residential life officials, and other administrators whose primary existence seems to revolve around keeping an eye on students and being involved in their lives. The results have not been surprising, as administrators justify their positions and salaries by diagnosing more and more problems in the behavior, speech, and even attitudes and beliefs of students.
Liability: This is the factor that I believe gets the least attention from the critics of campus political correctness. An ever-growing industry of university lawyers and "risk management" experts has left universities in a panic about avoiding lawsuits. Unfortunately, some poorly decided harassment cases, as well as case law indicating an increased legal duty on the part of campus administrators to police the behavior of students, seems to have encouraged many plaintiffs. At the same time, the risk management industry has a vested interest in exaggerating how serious and complex the state of the law actually is, and in this process free speech and due process often lose.
Genuine ignorance of the law, the principles of modal liberty, and the reality of speech codes: Starting in 2000, FIRE has made a point of sending a representative to the annual Association of Student Judicial Affairs conference, and we have led seminars there concerning abuses of student speech rights on campus. While there are notable exceptions, I have been routinely surprised by how much misinformation and lack of understanding there is among both college administrators and university counsels regarding basic principles of free speech and academic freedom.
Lukianoff notes that FIRE is definitely making a difference--it has raised awareness about speech codes so much that even as FIRE's profile has become more prominent, the number of people coming to them for help has decreased. Lukianoff sees that as tangible evidence that university and college administrators are handling themselves differently when it comes to speech.
Still, though, speech codes are still on the books, and even if they are not regularly enforced, their sheer presence as policy is itself a real and substantial wrong. So what are the options for getting them off the books? Lukianoff explains the success FIRE and the Alliance Defense Fund's David French have had with their litigation projects, and also summarizes the various educational and publicity efforts FIRE spearheads. Among other things, FIRE is working on establishing an educational program for university lawyers, and has also established a fellowship to support legal scholarship on the subject of speech codes. That strikes me as very positive--part of a necessary move from the watchdog role to the mentor role. The move from the one to the other--or the addition of the one to the other--contains enormous possibilities for real and lasting change.
The elephant in the living room, of course, is legislation. Why not simply make laws that will secure free expression on campus? Lukianoff is interesting on this point:
FIRE has traditionally held a healthy skepticism of the effectiveness of legislation. Legislation tends to be a clumsy instrument, and oftentimes even well thought out and well constructed legislation becomes highly distorted through the political process. We have, therefore, avoided supporting legislation in the past.
Looking forward, however, legislation might be appropriate in certain areas. Legislators could very well require universities to follow controlling case law, to define harassment in a way that follows the appropriately narrow formulation of the only student-on-student harassment case to reach the Supreme Court, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, and to provide further redress for students and faculty members whose free speech rights have been violated.
Congress could also give teeth to contractual requirements so that private universities face more serious consequences should they fail to live up to their promises regarding free speech. Thus, well constructed legislation could help end the scandal of campus speech codes forever. FIRE will be exploring how to best achieve these results in the coming years.
That's a good promise--though the point about how readily legislation gets politicized is a good one. We've seen quite enough of that with higher ed-oriented bills in recent years and FIRE is right to be cautious.