Share the fresh air
During my year teaching boarding school, many amazing things happened. One of them was seeing kids who had never left the city discover an entirely new kind of world.
The school was set in the heart of the Berkshires, on an old family estate of around a hundred acres. The girls' dorm--where we lived--was an old gate house at the entrance to the drive. The main house was up the drive, and housed more girls' dorms in the upper stories. From the patio in front of the main house, you could look out for miles, and count blue ridge after blue ridge. Down the slope was the boys' dorm, an old converted barn. The classroom buildings were few and makeshift, heated none too well in winter time by wood-burning stoves that the students fed; one classroom was in what was once a forge. The campus bordered on woods and cow pasture. Deer were common, and sometimes you would see foxes and rabbits and hawks and snakes. A few years before our time, there was a bear. Once all the cows got loose and found their way to our yard, where they looked into the windows while chewing their cud.
This was more than mere scenery for the city kids. Some did not recognize the deer as deer when they first saw them. Some were spooked by the night quiet--they couldn't sleep without the sound of city traffic coming through the window. But they acclimated, as kids do--learning to chop wood, make snowmen, hike trails, garden, and all that good stuff. And good things followed.
A sense of possibility arose, along with a willingness to try things that were not available--and would not have been cool--to try back home. Some took up painting. Some took up dance. Some learned to ride unicycles. Some fell for Shakespeare--reading the sonnets for fun, in their spare time. Their imaginations opened up in unique and vital ways. And, as I've written here before, they all went on to college.
The point is that kids need new experiences. And if they are bound to the city by poverty and lack of opportunity, they need chances to see what else is out there. They need fresh air, they need trees and grass and quiet, and they need to be able to look out on a horizon that extends further than the apartment building across the street.
All of this is by way of drawing your attention to the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit that since 1877 has been helping inner city New York kids travel to the countryside during their summer break. About 10,000 kids get to do this every year--but it all depends on the generosity of families willing to be hosts.
Two hundred kids still need to be placed for this summer--and placement needs to happen this week. If you are willing to be a host--or if you know someone who is, find out how to help here.
July 24, 2008
More on NC State and academic freedom
The students get it, even if the administrators don't. Here's a staff editorial in today's student paper:
Chancellor James Oblinger said July 16 he would not reconsider his dismissal of former film professor Terri Ginsberg's grievance, in which Ginsberg alleged that the University had violated her right to academic free speech.
This is an obvious affront to the right of academic freedom and the symptom of a greater ill within both the contract policy and the grievance system. According to Jim Martin, chair of the Faculty Senate, Ginsberg's case is an example of everything that is wrong with the grievance process.
One of the first statements in chapter six of the UNC code reads, "The University and each constituent institution shall protect faculty and students in their responsible exercise of the freedom to teach, to learn, and otherwise to seek and speak the truth." These words perfectly frame the principle of academic free speech - the administration would be wise to heed them.
One of the real problems with the existing system is how the University views non-tenure track employment, which is how Ginsberg was hired. Simply put, N.C. State employees who sign contracts that do not qualify them for possible tenure are subject to the regulations governing employees who have contracts that allow for tenure. This is nonsense - the UNC code provides a distinct set of rules governing employees not eligible for tenure and allows them to file grievances for violations of academic free speech. Worse, the University's refusal to even consider a hearing for Ginsberg's grievance petition prevents any investigation of the facts or appropriate redress.
This is utter hypocrisy. Administrators preach to students about the importance of following the rules, yet act as if the rules are mere suggestions with regard to their actions. The University is again using questionable interpretations of existing regulations to defend its actions and remain above accountability.
The chancellor and other administrators involved are hiding behind the confidentiality regarding personnel matters and have failed thus far to take any substantive action needed to fix the broken grievance system.
Martin noted that teachers working in elementary through high schools enjoy more protection under the law with regard to academic freedom than non-tenured employees. This is absurd. University instructors often address controversial subjects, and it is vital to ensure such topics can be freely and openly discussed in an academic setting. Chancellor Oblinger and the rest of the University administration must address the problems with the grievance system and stand behind the principle of academic freedom.
Read more about the case here, and sign the petition here.
Spellings on Colbert
NCLB is such a lightning rod--and yet it's also widely misunderstood. Check out Education Secretary Margaret Spellings explaining it all to Stephen Colbert.
July 22, 2008
More on NC State and academic freedom
I wrote the other day about the case of Terri Ginsberg, an adjunct professor at North Carolina State who appears to have been seriously mistreated--from the standpoints of academic freedom, fair procedure, and viewpoint discrimination--in her one-year stint as a film teacher there. NC State has refused to hear her grievance--and the AAUP is refusing to defend her. This is a case that goes far beyond Ginsberg and NC State; it touches on the hypocrisy of an academy that swears by the ideal of academic freedom, but then structures employment in such a way that the vast majority of college teachers don't have it.
Now there is a petition to get both to rethink their positions. Read it here, and sign if you wish.
July 21, 2008
School for thought
Do you know about Berea College? If not, check out this morning's profile in the New York Times:
Berea College, founded 150 years ago to educate freed slaves and "poor white mountaineers, accepts only applicants from low-income families, and it charges no tuition.
"You can literally come to Berea with nothing but what you can carry, and graduate debt free," said Joseph P. Bagnoli Jr., the associate provost for enrollment management. "We call it the best education money can't buy."
Actually, what buys that education is Berea's $1.1 billion endowment, which puts the college among the nation's wealthiest. But unlike most well-endowed colleges, Berea has no football team, coed dorms, hot tubs or climbing walls. Instead, it has a no-frills budget, with food from the college farm, handmade furniture from the college crafts workshops, and 10-hour-a-week campus jobs for every student.
Berea's approach provides an unusual perspective on the growing debate over whether the wealthiest universities are doing enough for the public good to warrant their tax exemption, or simply hoarding money to serve an elite few. As many elite universities scramble to recruit more low-income students, Berea's no-tuition model has attracted increasing attention.
"Asking whether that's where our values lead us is a powerful way to consider what our values are," said Anthony Marx, the president of Amherst College, who considered the possibility of using Amherst's $1 million-per-student endowment to offer free tuition but concluded that it would make no sense, given Amherst's more affluent student body and the fact that the college already subsidizes about half the cost of each student's education.
"We're not Berea, much as we respect them," Mr. Marx said, adding there would be no social justification for giving free tuition to students from wealthy families.
Although this year's market drop is taking its toll, the growth in university endowments in recent years has been spectacular. Harvard's $35 billion endowment, Yale's $23 billion, Stanford's $17 billion and Princeton's $16 billion put them among the world's richest institutions.
Such endowments have helped make higher education one of the nation's crown jewels. As Harvard's president, Drew Gilpin Faust, said in her spring commencement speech this year, endowments at Harvard and other research universities help fuel scientific advances as government support is eroding, and help drive economic growth and expansion in a difficult economy.
Although most universities have only modest endowments, the wealth of the richest has made them increasingly vulnerable to criticism from parents upset about rising tuition costs, lawmakers pushing them to spend more of their money and policy experts arguing that they should be helping more needy students.
"How much do you need to save for future generations, and at what point are you gouging today’s generation?" said Lynne Munson, of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington.
In January, the Senate Finance Committee requested detailed endowment and spending data from 136 colleges and universities with endowments of at least $500 million, with a possible eye to forcing them to spend at least 5 percent of their assets each year, as foundations are required to do. Large, tax-free endowments "should mean affordable education for more students, not just a security blanket for colleges," said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who is reviewing the data.
Read the whole thing. Of course, the article is mixing apples and oranges--Berea is a tiny college, with a very specific mission, and it shapes education in very particular ways. Students are not consumers of education there, but contributors to the institution's well-being, doing jobs that contribute specifically to the maintenance of the school. What works there is not going to be what works at a major research institution such as Harvard, much as we might wish otherwise.
And that points to the other problem with the article's implications--that perhaps there ought to be some sort of one size fits all set of requirements for how private colleges and universities use their endowments. While I tend to agree with those who find Harvard's amassment obscene--and while I, too, wonder about the ethics of that, both from the perspective of Harvard's non-profit status and from the perspective of Harvard as an educational institution and a standard-bearer for higher education around the world--I do balk at the idea that the solution might be for the government to tell these institutions how they ought to handle their money.
I just don't think the government has a very good track record with this sort of thing, I think we ought to know that by now, and I think we need to think twice before we get all offended, in a collectivist way, by wealthy institutions and decide that we ought to force them to redistribute the wealth. Still, part of me wishes they would do so voluntarily. Part of me also wonders whether we need a new classification for such institutions--if they truly need to operate as they do, and spending 5 percent of the endowment every year is not viable, then maybe they shouldn't be understood as tax-exempt charitable organizations.
On Berea -- this is a higher ed, successful version of the boarding school where I taught a few years ago, and I have to say it is inspiring to see that the school's project is working so well. That was not the case at the boarding school, largely because it was way over-stepping its financial capacities. This school was very tiny--only 80-90 students. And very experimental, in ways that echo Berea--students were deeply embedded in the work of maintaining the school, cleaning their own living spaces and classrooms, maintaining the grounds, cooking much of the food, even chopping and shifting the wood that fed the various buildings' old wood-burning furnaces.
The school discouraged and even actively prevented the kinds of distracted, anti-social tech-based behaviors that affect the concentration and maturation of most teens today: there was no television; there was no internet in the dorms (only in classrooms and the library), so students could not surf and IM all night; cell phones and iPods were frowned on, and Facebook and MySpace were eventually blocked. This was intrusive and, of course, doomed--kids always find a way to plug in. But there were good reasons for it, and it did have the effect of getting kids to be more present, and to invest more completely in one another, in their studies, and in the life of the school.
And this school, like Berea, was deeply committed to providing an otherwise unavailable opportunity to disadvantaged kids. Something like half of the kids were on full or substantial scholarships, which lifted them out of neighborhoods and schools, in Harlem and elsewhere, where the dangers are legion and the likelihood of going on to college is small. These kids went on to college, and they developed an expanded sense of what they could do and be, and of what the world could be for them, along the way.
All to the good--except that the school couldn't afford to pursue that particular mission with the absolute integrity such a mission requires. It had a tiny endowment of only a couple million dollars, and so it found itself dependent on the tuition dollars of paying students to finance the educations of the scholarship kids. That created predictable tensions.
Meanwhile, there was all sorts of skimping at precisely the point where there should have been no skimping at all. With the exception of a few older, excellent teachers, educational quality was abysmal. The school did not pay teachers properly--when I was there, they were paying just about half what more traditional, well-known boarding schools paid--and knowing that it could not compete for top teachers with such low salaries, it did not, for the most part, even bother to try to recruit them. There were thus math teachers who could not do the math they were teaching, and language teachers who were not skilled in the language they were teaching--and this was visible to the kids. There were very few experienced teachers of any sort--and a great many fresh college grads who had never taught, had never thought of teaching, and had no special expertise in any field--but who were hired because they were fondly remembered alums, who would work for cheap in exchange for the nostalgic rush of returning to the scene of so many happy memories. That, it seemed, was the theory, anyhow. That's not quite how it worked out. Instead, you got an institutional culture that was weirdly stagnant, weirdly anti-intellectual, and highly politicized (progressive ideology came increasingly to replace educational substance, the one being easier to produce than the other, and easy, too, to pass off as the other).
Still, the kids themselves were utterly remarkable. They needed this unusual place, and they grew in phenomenal ways from the experience of living and working together to sustain and enhance what one older teacher liked sonorously to call "our shared collective life" (you can see the ideology there, wrapped up in charm).
All of this is to say that the project of the school was a noble one indeed, and that there was much that was wonderful and inspiring about the place. I still think fondly of the kids I knew there--the youngest of whom are going to college this fall--and I still hope that their natural buoyancy and intelligence will allow them to transcend, in college, the educational limitations the school may well have imposed on them without their even knowing it.
It's also to say that my metaphorical hat is off to Berea, which seems to be making highly effective and ethical work of its mission. May more schools take the educational road less travelled by. And may they have the freedom to do so.
UPDATE 7/24: More from Anthony Paletta at Minding the Campus.
July 17, 2008
Academic freedom's underbelly
We all know academic freedom is not something untenured faculty have. And most of us can agree that everyone teaching college courses should have academic freedom. So, there is a problem, especially when you consider that well over half of undergraduate courses are taught by non-tenure track faculty. There is a lot of debate about the nature of that problem--some think it's a by -product of tenure, which they see as an unsustainable institution that protects the privileged few at the expense of the many; others think it's proof tenure is necessary; still others think the answer is to create tenure-like protections for contingent faculty. Whatever you may think about it, it's important to refuse to let quarrels about the causes mask or marginalize the problem itself. I've seen that happen a lot, and it's ugly to watch, not least because of how quickly such quarrels convert the real people affected into abstractions. It's easy and inconsequential to play rhetorical volleyball with abstractions--and it can go a long way toward easing the consciences of tenured folks who just don't think the adjunct problem is their problem. But just because a rationalization feels good doesn't mean it is good.
You can see how badly adjuncts need the support of the tenured--and how poorly the tenured defend the academic freedom of adjuncts--in cases such as that of Thomas Klocek, the DePaul adjunct who was effectively fired after he offended the sensibilities of some pro-Palestinian students (not his students, not in his classroom). Klocek was hung out to dry by the DePaul administration--and while FIRE did its best to defend him, the DePaul faculty sat back and watched. Not their problem!
Now a new case is breaking, and it's an interesting companion piece to Klocek's. It might surprise some of the more cynical readers of this site, but I actually do think every college teacher, no matter what his views or politics, should get the same fair, procedurally neutral treatment. Always have. So, I was disturbed by this report about a visiting professor at North Carolina State who claims she was subjected to repeated violations of her academic freedom because of her pro-Palestinian viewpoints--and whose attempt to then use existing university procedure to address the situation was summarily dismissed by the Chancellor:
After filing a grievance against the University for violating her right to academic free speech, former film professor Terri Ginsberg had her case dismissed by Chancellor James Oblinger Wednesday in an act that Jim Martin, chair of the Faculty Senate called "very disturbing and an unwise practice for the University."
Ginsberg, who taught a film class focusing on media treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the spring, filed the grievance for a "number of administrative decisions" which took place last semester.
The grievance centered around her alleged violations of academic freedom by the University, and around her treatment by Marsha Orgeron, director of the film studies program, and Akram Khater, director of the Middle East studies program.
Ginsberg alleged the two program directors excluded her from the primary extra-curricular activity for which she was hired, helping curate a Middle Eastern film series, that Orgeron refused to purchase many of the requested materials - particularly pro-Palestinian materials - for Ginsberg's class, and that Orgeron submitted Ginsberg's teaching evaluation prematurely according to University rules.
All of the allegations, Ginsberg said, contributed to her not receiving an interview to remain at the University.
Oblinger dismissed Ginsberg's grievance based on a late filing, which had been cleared by Martin, and because Ginsberg is no longer employed by the University.
Oblinger, Orgeron and Khater all refused to comment, based on personnel matters, and on the issue of ensuring academic freedom in general, they said.
Martin, who had already met with the University's Legal Counsel, met with Oblinger on Monday regarding the timing issue.
Since there was no clear date of a triggering moment that Ginsberg would grieve, the timing of the filing should not be a reason to reject the grievance, Martin said.
"His dismissal was based on technicality arguments," Martin said. "The timing on the case was a common problem we've had with all the grievances that I have seen - what is a decision versus what is an action?"
Ginsberg asked the American Association of University Professors to file an appeal, but on Monday, the AAUP rejected the request, noting the group is not in a position to challenge Oblinger's ruling.
Now, professors from around the country have started sending letters to the AAUP, protesting the rejection, and concerned individuals have started a petition that they will send to Oblinger, urging him to reverse his decision and allow for a grievance trial.
If you read the rest of the article, you'll find stuff suggesting that Ginsberg was contentious in the classroom--but there is no way of telling at this point whether that contentiousness was just good old-fashioned, appropriately challenging pedagogy or whether it was a doctrinaire abuse of authority. And really, that's beside the point, at least at the moment; her students aren't the ones complaining about unfair treatment.
Ginsberg's superiors indicated that they had issues with her politics and her style; after she introduced a Palestinian film at a campus event, the directors of the film studies and Middle East Studies programs accused her of "bias" and of trying to "politicize" the campus. And who knows? Maybe she was biased, and maybe she did try to make a political splash. But that is her prerogative in that setting. Those overseeing her had no business responding by subjecting her to punitive double standards, if indeed they did--they ought to have treated her as they did every other professor, tenure-track and not. Likewise, Ginsberg ought to have had a means of registering a complaint about her treatment--the lack of options available to her, combined with the summary refusal to take her grievance seriously, are real problems.
Even if NC State does not want to reappoint Ginsberg (it has no obligation to do so, after all), it does have an obligation to determine if department and program heads are abusing their authority and imposing ideological litmus tests on faculty. There's a really big problem if they are--one far larger than one teacher's localized complaints. Does North Carolina State take academic freedom seriously? What is it doing to ensure that all teachers there have it--and to ensure that those with power don't violate it? Does the tenured faculty have a responsibility to stick up for those without job security?
To his credit, the chair of the Faculty Senate is defending Ginsberg. But as the case of Thomas Klocek reveals, adjuncts can't always count on that. And when the tenured faculty won't stand up for the academic freedom of their untenured colleagues, who will? Not the administration. And not, it appears, the AAUP.
July 16, 2008
Colorado State is taking the idea of measuring learning outcomes--and of becoming accountable for them--seriously. It's launching a pilot testing program this fall that will measure what students know coming in, in order to be able to compare that to what they know when they leave. Of course this is raising all sorts of hackles among faculty members who object to the idea that testing can be a means of seeing what--and how well--college students learn.
George Leef, who writes regularly, intriguingly, and contrarianly about the value of college education, is all over it:
Students spend years and a great amount of money in college, yet we have to take it on faith that the pursuit of the degree is sensible.
That was all right for most people in bygone days when college didn't cost so much and academic standards were solid enough to create a strong presumption that a student had gained in knowledge and skills from having earned a degree. But the cost of college has skyrocketed and academic standards have been plunging. Those facts have many people wondering if higher education is worth it.
One school, Colorado State University, is taking an initial step toward answering that question. According to this Denver Post story, before classes begin this fall, one hundred CSU freshmen will take a test to measure their writing and reasoning abilities.
"People want evidence that their tax dollars and tuition money are being well-used," says CSU vice provost Alan Lamborn. That's putting it mildly. With many college graduates ending up in the competition for jobs with low educational requirements and low pay – a point I have written about here -- proof that studying at a college or university demonstrably adds educational value for students could be the equivalent of the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) seal. It would give students and parents some assurance that its degrees are worth more than the paper they're printed on.
Colorado State's efforts hardly warrant a full-throated cheer, however. Incoming freshmen don’t have to take the test -- the Collegiate Learning Assessment -- and the inducement for them to do so is rather weak; they get to move into their dorms a day early and get a $10 voucher good in the university cafeteria. If you only test a rather small number of students who are probably the least test-averse, you won't learn much about educational value added. Still, it's a step in the right direction.
The Collegiate Learning Assessment is an interesting development. Designed in 2002 by a high-powered research group, the three-hour test is not your typical multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank exam. Instead, it requires students to write three essays that are meant to probe their thinking ability. Several dozen schools including Harvard and Duke are now using CLA, but only for internal evaluation. So far, no one is using CLA the way hotels and restaurants use Zagat ratings – to attract more business.
Perhaps the leading reason why colleges aren't racing to show how well they succeed in educating their students is that the faculty, which has huge clout at most schools, isn't enthusiastic about the idea testing to make comparisons. The Denver Post article quotes a professor at the University of Colorado: "But many faculty will be perturbed at the concept of a standardized test that could be used to blame them for inadequate teaching. As if that's the sole factor when a student doesn't succeed."
That defensiveness is revealing. A lot of professors know that their courses are short on content and give students credit for very little learning. They like things the way they are. If CLA or some other test were used to show the lack of student improvement, the hunt would be on to identify the weak links in the school. A frightening prospect to those with a vested interest in avoiding measurement of their efforts.
Higher education is ready for an entrepreneurial move by some college president who will get serious about the need to show that his institution adds to its students' foundation of skills and knowledge. Furthermore, the goal of such testing ought to be not only for internal use to show where the school is more or less effective, but as a metric by which individual students can demonstrate their accomplishments.
Suppose that a major state university adopted the Collegiate Learning Assessment or some other test that it devised to show how much each student improved in fundamental knowledge and skills (and also specific mastery in his major field) over the course of his studies. Its graduates would then be able to say to prospective employers or graduate schools, "I didn't just get a degree there, but as you can see from my scores, learned a lot."
Knowing that one university was testing in this manner would put pressure on others to follow suit.
There's more. And even as a thought experiment, it's worth thinking about. While it's certainly true that poorly devised tests can cramp educational effectiveness rather than enhance it, surely it ought also to be the case that well-devised tests would be revealing in ways that help, rather than hinder, professors' abilities to design courses, departments' abilities to structure majors, and faculties' abilities to set general curricular requirements. It all depends on how such tests are written, how they are evaluated, and how the results are used. If faculty worry that they tests be counterproductive if they are poorly designed, it might make more sense to get involved with designing and implementing them than to refuse to engage at all.
July 13, 2008
You are how you eat
Sometimes left and right meet--and it's so interesting to see where they do. Consider this piece on American eating habits and the socialization of kids:
Alice Waters might not seem like a conservative. A veteran of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, who once cooked a $25,000-a-seat fundraising dinner for Bill Clinton, she eagerly compares her campaign for "edible schoolyards"--where children work with instructors to grow, prepare, and eat fresh produce--to John F. Kennedy's attempt to improve physical fitness through mandatory exercise. Her dream of organic, locally and sustainably produced food in every school cafeteria, class credit for lunch hour, and required gardening time and cooking classes is as utopian as they come. The name she has given her gastronomic movement, the "Delicious Revolution," strikes the ear as one part fuzzy-headed Marxism, the other Brooksian bobo-speak. This woman is not, as they say, one of us.
But a closer look tells a different story. In a 1997 talk, Waters quoted from an essay by Francine du Plessix Grey about the film "Kids," which portrays the sex-, drug-, and violence-crazed lives of a circle of New York teenagers. Du Plessix Grey writes of being haunted by the adolescents' "feral" and "boorishly gulped" fast-food diet: "we may," she suggests, "be witnessing the first generation in history that has not been required to participate in that primal rite of socialization, the family meal." Such an activity "is not only the core curriculum in the school of civilizing discourse; it is also a set of protocols that curb our natural savagery and our animal greed, and cultivate a capacity for sharing and thoughtfulness." These teenagers "are deprived of the main course of civilized life--the practice of sitting down at the dinner table and observing the attendant conventions."
Today's children, Waters goes on to say, "are bombarded with a pop culture which teaches redemption through buying things." But schoolyard gardens, like the one she helped create at the middle school a few blocks from my home in Berkeley, "turn pop culture upside-down: they teach redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting--for the things that money can't buy: the very things that matter most of all if we are going to lead sane, healthy, and sustainable lives. Kids who learn environmental and nutritional lessons through school gardening--and school cooking and eating--learn ethics." Good cooking, she writes in the introduction to her 2007 cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, "can reconnect our families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for all our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime."
The proposal, put slightly differently, is that our attitudes toward food--which nourishes and sustains us, which binds us most fundamentally to place, family, market, and community--provide a measure of our respect for what Russell Kirk called the "Permanent Things." We are not just what we eat but how we eat. The cultivation and consumption of our meals are activities as distinctively human as walking, talking, loving, and praying. Learning to regard the meal not merely as something that fills our bellies and helps us grow, but as the consummate exercise of beings carnal and earthbound yet upwardly and outwardly drawn, is a crucial step in the restoration of culture. The suggestion that the inculcation of such values might be an essential part of an adequate education ought to resonate beyond the confines of the doctrinaire Left.
Adopting an alternative view of food does not require rejecting the possibility of a free and prosperous market economy. Indeed, the rise of the New American Diet--meals eaten in a rush and very often alone, made from processed and prepackaged ingredients--was not solely or even primarily the product of Adam Smith's invisible hand. Historian Harvey Levenstein has argued that the spate of government regulations in the wake of early 20th-century food-safety scares played a crucial role in the rise of industrialized agriculture and centralized food processors. Early nutritionists and home economists, many distinctly of the quack variety, found a key ally in their attempts to reform American cuisine in Herbert Hoover's Food Administration. The goal of reducing consumption of scarce foods and eating in accordance with "scientific" principles was tied to the cause of Allied victory in the First World War.
Official dietary guidelines inevitably became the product of collaboration between government agencies and representatives of the industries that stand to benefit. The substitution of state-sponsored nutritionist technocracy for the collective wisdom of taste, instinct, common sense, and tradition is a perfect example of the triumph of Tocqueville's feared "immense tutelary power" ("absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild"). The same goes for the extraordinary industrialization and global "flattening" of our culinary economy, which Waters's focus on community gardening, seasonal eating, and local markets is meant to combat.
There's much more. Read it all--and if this is a line of thinking that intrigues you, consider reading Michael Pollan's provocative and poetic Omnivore's Dilemma (which I have reviewed here) and David Kamp's United States of Arugula (which I have also reviewed).
July 11, 2008
What's the proper business of college and university accreditors? Should they just concentrate on ensuring educational quality--or should they be telling trustees how to run their schools? Where is the line between ensuring the one and interfering with the other? How do accreditors walk this line--and when do they cross it? These are all vital questions, as accreditation must be in place for a school to receive federal student aid. Without that, most schools would be effectively shut down; they could neither operate nor compete for students. So accreditors have immense power--and they can abuse it with impunity.
ACTA has written about this quite a bit (see its 2007 report on why accreditation does not work, with its revealing examples of accreditors who impose politicized educational criteria on ed programs, social work programs, and law schools, as well as accreditors who micromanage schools into oblivion). And today, ACTA president Anne Neal writes about the recent sanctions imposed by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) on junior colleges. Citing intrusive sanctions imposed by WASC on schools for such idiosyncratic and ambiguous criteria as their planning style and their campus "climate," Neal argues that WASC is meddling in areas of governance where it does not belong:
It's bad enough that accreditors often ignore what they are asked to review, namely educational quality. But it's even worse that they frequently push their own agenda---an agenda that interferes with governance and treads mighty close to regulating the exchange of ideas on campus. The situation with WASC and California schools is a case in point.
Here, it appears the accreditor is picking sides in internal disputes. Under the guise of quality assurance, WASC is demanding that trustees defer to faculty and administrators--the very groups that the review teams represent.
Of course, it might be tolerable if the trustees could tell the accreditors to go away. But under the current regulatory regime, California boards have essentially no choice---regional accreditors such as WASC have carved up the country into little cartels. WASC is the regional gatekeeper for federal funds. If it doesn't accredit UC or the California community colleges, the institutions can't receive federal student-aid dollars. Causing a school to lose federal funding is tantamount to shutting it down.
So the accreditors wield immense power over these institutions---and they are thus able to manipulate what happens on campus in subtle ways. "The interests of the faculty and administrators have become primary to the accreditors and are in direct conflict with engaged, reform-minded trustees," outgoing Hawaii regent Jane Tatibouet---whose university is also subject to WASC accreditation---explained at a recent forum in Washington, D.C. "The accreditors, in my view, are subtly 'blackmailing' the academic institution into obedience or sanctions will be imposed. The threat of a sanction or actual probation is the first tool used to keep a Board under the accreditor's thumb, ultimately preventing the Board from performing its role both as steward and visionary while addressing accountability, financial and cost controls, and academic excellence."
Rather than allowing accreditors and internal campus constituencies to bully boards and undermine their fiduciary work, trustees urgently need to exercise their rightful role. At the same time, policymakers need to hear from trustees calling for an end to a federal system that undermines the very institutional independence that has made American higher education so great.
Accreditors with an agenda? Say it ain't so! Neal cites as examples WASC's ongoing sanctions against a number of California-based community colleges, as well as against the University of California.
July 8, 2008
Running the Zoo
The NAS is running a series entitled "If I Ran the Zoo," in which contributors offer their thoughts on what they would do if they were in charge of higher ed. The idea is playful in origin, arising from the Dr. Seuss story of the same name, and has thus far been tackled by Minding the Campus' John Leo, FIRE's Adam Kissel, ACTA's Anne Neal, Tenured Radicals author Roger Kimball, Dartmouth trustee Todd Zywicki, and others. I'm co-writing a contribution myself, as are, I would imagine, quite a few people out there.
I was scanning over the various entries last night, and ran across one by University of Oregon professor and Critical Mass regular Michael Kellman; it's an interesting meditation on the question of ideological imbalance within the professoriate, and it also drew a couple of interesting comments. Here's the entry:
If I ran the zoo, I would first remind myself that nobody really runs the zoo. Then I would relax and go back to musing about an imaginary world.
In my world, contemporary academics would acknowledge the astonishing disparity between liberals and conservatives among their ranks. They would realize that this is very unhealthy for their institutions, for the education they provide, for their own intellectual life. They would not necessarily own up to overt politicization of the classroom--in fact, I think this is greatly exaggerated. But they would recognize that the current lopsided faculties can't possibly do justice to the full range of perspectives that are needed in the academy. They would avoid the temptation to fall back on a denial of open bias, and would look, for example, at the range of invited speakers on politically tinged subjects. And they would immediately understand why outsiders see a problem.
What to do about it? A difficult question, especially if, like me, you are opposed to group preferences. Maybe I am blind and deaf, but I really am not aware of legions of conservative scholars banging on the doors of academia, seeking entry. Maybe some conservatives have had their careers trashed, but the biggest problem as I see it is simply that they are vastly outnumbered. I would be happy just to see the academy acknowledge that the imbalance, whatever its causes, is a real problem, and begin to ponder what might be done to ameliorate the damage it causes.
In my fantasy world, outsiders, especially conservatives, would ponder their own role in the problem. They would not be so quick to blame everything on bias in faculty hiring. My own experience from many years in the natural sciences, in something approaching a hundred faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion cases, is that nothing having to do with political views plays much of a role. (I wouldn’t say the same of high administrative positions.) And yet, I have no doubt that even the natural science faculties lean heavily to the left. Whatever the complete explanation for the faculty tilt, a greater taste for academic life among people of the left is a big part of it.
Another thing: it doesn't help that so many conservative academics and scholars have shunned academia for conservative institutes and think tanks, where the teaching loads are low, to put it mildly, along with the chance to influence students.
If conservatives really want to do something about the ideological imbalance on campus, it won't do to shun graduate studies, take up a pose of disdain for the campus, and opt for greener pastures.
The situation was typified perfectly, if perhaps unwittingly, in a recent Wall St. Journal column, in which Naomi Schaefer Riley pondered "The Ivory Tower Leans Left, but Why?" Her final sentence said it all: "If you want to know why conservatives don't get doctorates, maybe it's because they just don't like hanging out with the people who do."
To which I say, "If you don’t play the game, don't complain when you don't win."
Here's the first comment:
The point re conservatives not playing the game is a reasonable point vs conservatives as a group. The left, being very concerned with groups, thinks this way. The fact is that conservatives as individuals find that if their views become public they will be ostracized, at the least. More typically, on any subjective evaluation, they will receive lower grades, less likely to be hired, much less likely to get tenure, etc. than those spouting the liberal mantras. DO NOT say this isn't true; I have personal experience -- ask any conservative that has ever attended college. You learn quite quickly that if you expect to pass Freshman English with a decent grade you either write non-ideological prose, or fake the leftist view. It goes on from there.
In the sciences (my field) life is lot more objective. Politics doesn't really matter--you either proved the theorem or didn't. Opinon matters a lot less. I think this, in part, plays part of why the hard science faculty is a lot less ideological.
So--as individuals, we tend to go find a playing field that isn't so tilted. Where we aren't ridiculed, shouted down, graded down, and not presumed, a priori, as intellectually inferior. There are good conservative writers--you just don't find them in the English Department.
As a group, it would be in our best interests to grin and bear it, but individual interests, such as feeding the family, suggest strongly otherwise.
And here's the second:
Dr. Kellman's comments certainly merit consideration, but I beg to differ on several points.
For one, I very much disagree with his premise that no one really does run the zoo. Translation: Claims of a heavily biased, left-leaning PC-dominated academy -- both within the administrative and faculty ranks -- are somewhat of an exaggeration. Sorry, Dr. Kellman, they are not.
The space allowed here would be inadequate to describe the heavily politicized curriculum, faculty-hiring process, and programs and policies in place at the institution at which I work. For example, a standard question to applicants for a faculty or administrative position continues to be as follows: "How would you demonstrate your commitment to diversity?" Applicants who want to be considered for the post know that they had better talk about their commitment to "racial and ethnic diversity", not "intellectual diversity." So much for the chances of Dr. Kellman, who professes to rejecting race-based preferences, to even get the proverbial “foot into the door.”
The curriculum, too, is rife with courses that are reflected through the prevailing prism of group identity. The faculty is routinely encouraged to incorporate "multicultural perspectives" and "gender issues" into the development of new course outlines and programs.
Lest one thinks that students themselves are exempt from this troubling phenomenon, permit me to give you only one of countless examples of student coercion along the PC lines. A student recently informed me that as part of his admission to a UC graduate program in Physics -- yes, Physics! -- he had to write an essay on how he would present the subject matter to individuals of "historically underrepresented groups." That debunks the myth that the so-called hard sciences are immune to infection with the PC virus altogether.
The larger issue, however, is that the narrow focus on social justice and minority issues in contemporary higher education severely limits the broad, unfettered debate that undergirds a genuine liberal education. Arguably, the physical and natural sciences are much less shackled by the various forms of PC than disciplines such as Sociology, Political Science, or History -- the latter with its tendentious revisionism. But the question beckons: Shouldn't all educators, regardless of the prevalence or degree of politicization in their respective fields, harshly condemn said politicization's destructive effect on producing truly learned men and women?
I'm rushing off to an appointment--but want to flag just a few things about this exchange.
First, I think it captures neatly not only some of the major problems with the current one-sidedness of the faculty, but also some of the problems that tend to arise when we try to talk about that. For example, people who are concerned about that one-sidedness are not uniformly--or even mostly--advocates for conservative affirmative action. I'm certainly not.
Second, to say that in some fields bias is endemic is not to say that vast hordes of conservatives get turned away at the hiring stage--they don't, and that's because there is at this point such an identity between certain political leanings and humanist training, humanist scholarship, and humanist job descriptions that most people with consciously centrist or conservative leanings get weeded out--or eliminate themselves from contention--long before the hiring moment arrives. Likewise, those more malleable students, the ones without a clear sense of politics (i.e., the majority), tend simply to morph into conformity with the ideas, assumptions, and interests that surround them in their courses and their assigned reading. They often don't recognize these things as containing any sort of slant; without contrasting perspectives, they can't. It's tautological.
That is certainly how it works in English--there are very few hard core, self-conscious leftists among students or faculty, but there are a great many who have readily and unselfconsciously habituated themselves to a style of thought and a set of premises that are absolutely politicized. It's this sort of soft leftism--ambient, saturating, normal, and unremarked--that is the real kicker in the humanities. There is no real need for overt radicalism in the classroom or bias in grad admissions or hiring, because the people who get that far into the disciplinary culture are, by definition, deeply acculturated. Having only been exposed to one outlook, they simply can't imagine another way to look at things--and that's bad for free inquiry, bad for intellectual development, bad for teaching, study, and scholarship.
Third, I think Mike dispenses rather too quickly with "conservatives" who "have had their careers trashed." It happens, either actively or passive-aggressively, at every level of the system, and it is connected to the biases whose existence he questions. I have watched brilliant undergrads be unable to embark on graduate study--because they dared to question the politicized intellectual orthodoxy of their professors and so could not get good letters of recommendation. I have known others who were shunned by professors who found their interest in traditional topics beneath them. I have seen students and faculty blackballed for going against the grain--and I have seen faculty and students stand by and watch it happen, either because they thought the blackballing was well deserved, or because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they spoke up. I have seen hiring decisions turn on such questions as race, sex, and national origin, when those were not politically correct; I have also watched those perpetrating such fraud mask it with elaborate intellectual rationales--grounded, usually, in criticisms of the scholarship--for why the individual in question is professionally undeserving.
In the academic humanities, there is never a good time to get labeled "conservative." Even if you have tenure when the label gets applied, you can still experience social and professional death--through everything from hostile shunning to harassment and stalking to below-the-radar administrative aggressions such as punitively small or nonexistent raises. It doesn't do to downplay such things, especially when they happen with the full imprimatur of the administration, often as administrative actions. There's an awful lot that can be done while still remaining technically within the bounds of policy.
All of this is to say, though, that I appreciate Mike's insistence that even if you don't believe these things happen--or even if you think it's just fine that they do--that academics really need to take another look at their homogeneity, and figure out an ethical way to do something about it. As Michael Berube writes in his What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts?, it's not just that having more political and intellectual variety in the academy will benefit those who are currently outnumbered--it's also that it will sharpen up the resident majority. There's no better way to hone and develop your ideas and your effectiveness as a teacher and scholar than to be seriously challenged by those who disagree with you. That's a basic truth that has gotten lost.
July 7, 2008
How's your ADD?
Can you remember what your attention span was like before email and the Internet? Can you recall what your work habits were like--and how they felt--before the era of computerized multitasking? Do you have games on your computer? Can you work on anything on screen without checking your email every few minutes? Are you able to concentrate so deeply on a task that you lose track of time--and of competing distractions? Or has the wired world destroyed that particular experience of absorption for you? I'm implicitly addressing readers who are old enough to remember life before the Internet--but I'm interested as well in the thoughts of younger folks whose entire thinking lives have been mediated by it.
I think about these questions a lot, not least because my own life has been changed so dramatically by technology. Both work and leisure are profoundly different than they once were. Managing electronic distractions (no games, though; I could not be less interested in computer games) and handling the multiple, competing, subject-shifting demands of a highly dynamic inbox are major factors in my work day; the shifting is very stressful for me, as I'm someone who likes to move steadily and methodically through a day that I've planned in advance, and you just can't reliably do that anymore if you are doing work that is at all time sensitive. Leisure is different, too--I'm no longer someone who spends significant leisure time surfing or plugged in, though I used to be; I treasure and require time away from the screen, the inbox, the ADD-ish, unpleasantly agitating pattern of surfing from link to link to link. And I'm lucky enough to know what getting away is like, to understand that it is necessary, and to be able to actively cultivate a kind of restoring mental downtime with reading, thinking, cooking, walking, staring into space (highly underrated, especially if there is a nice horizon to look at), anything quiet and non-electronic that gives my brain a chance to settle down, lets the racing thoughts recede and allows things like contemplation, wondering, considering, ruminating, learning, or just plain blankly but pleasantly being, to take their place. The novelty of the 1990s has worn off, the computer has become "the office," and it is good indeed to be able to get away.
But I can do that because I am of a certain age, and I know what getting away is. I wasn't emailing until the end of grad school, and the Internet didn't really become a phenomenon for me until after I was out of school and working. So my foundational experiences are of a slower, quieter world where concentration, absorption, thought, work, and play all worked very differently. And I am lucky enough to be able to draw on those experiences, consciously recreate them, and treasure the slower, simpler, calmer time I can create for myself away from the screen. If I have any ideas whatsoever--good or bad--they happen when I am away from the screen. And If I have shored up any peace of mind at all, or any insight into life, or any wisdom learned from my many mistakes--those things, too, have happened offline.
There is a whole generation of people now who don't have that unwired experience--and whose lives are shaping up very differently as a result. There are advantages to how tech-savvy and linked in they are -- but there are costs as well and we need to gauge them. Mark Bauerlein tackles that in his new book, The Dumbest Generation, reviewed thus by the L.A. Times:
In the four minutes it probably takes to read this review, you will have logged exactly half the time the average 15- to 24-year-old now spends reading each day. That is, if you even bother to finish. If you are perusing this on the Internet, the big block of text below probably seems daunting, maybe even boring. Who has the time? Besides, one of your Facebook friends might have just posted a status update!
Such is the kind of recklessly distracted impatience that makes Mark Bauerlein fear for his country. "As of 2008," the 49-year-old professor of English at Emory University writes in "The Dumbest Generation," "the intellectual future of the United States looks dim."
The way Bauerlein sees it, something new and disastrous has happened to America's youth with the arrival of the instant gratification go-go-go digital age. The result is, essentially, a collective loss of context and history, a neglect of "enduring ideas and conflicts." Survey after painstakingly recounted survey reveals what most of us already suspect: that America's youth know virtually nothing about history and politics. And no wonder. They have developed a "brazen disregard of books and reading."
Things were not supposed to be this way. After all, "never have the opportunities for education, learning, political action, and cultural activity been greater," writes Bauerlein, a former director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. But somehow, he contends, the much-ballyhooed advances of this brave new world have not only failed to materialize -- they've actually made us dumber.
The problem is that instead of using the Web to learn about the wide world, young people instead mostly use it to gossip about each other and follow pop culture, relentlessly keeping up with the ever-shifting lingua franca of being cool in school. The two most popular websites by far among students are Facebook and MySpace. "Social life is a powerful temptation," Bauerlein explains, "and most teenagers feel the pain of missing out."
This ceaseless pipeline of peer-to-peer activity is worrisome, he argues, not only because it crowds out the more serious stuff but also because it strengthens what he calls the "pull of immaturity." Instead of connecting them with parents, teachers and other adult figures, "[t]he web . . . encourages more horizontal modeling, more raillery and mimicry of people the same age." When Bauerlein tells an audience of college students, "You are six times more likely to know who the latest American Idol is than you are to know who the speaker of the U.S. House is," a voice in the crowd tells him: " 'American Idol' IS more important."
Bauerlein also frets about the nature of the Internet itself, where people "seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort." In entering a world where nobody ever has to stick with anything that bores or challenges them, "going online habituates them to juvenile mental habits."
And all this feeds on itself. Increasingly disconnected from the "adult" world of tradition, culture, history, context and the ability to sit down for more than five minutes with a book, today's digital generation is becoming insulated in its own stultifying cocoon of bad spelling, civic illiteracy and endless postings that hopelessly confuse triviality with transcendence. Two-thirds of U.S. undergraduates now score above average on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, up 30% since 1982, he reports.
I like that phrase, "recklessly distracted impatience."
The obvious argument to make against Bauerlein's is made by this reviewer--that tales of the anti-intellectualism of American youth are part and parcel of American culture and have been for as long as we can recall. And that may be true--though I think it's also arguably true that you need more working knowledge of the world in order to be an informed, responsible citizen today than people did once upon a time. Leaving that aside, Bauerlein's observations about how the wired world reshapes psychology and personality--not only diminishing such things as concentration but also producing the traits of narcissism on a generation-wide basis--are well worth considering. Any reader of Christopher Lasch will know that the culture of narcissism precedes the Web--but it may also be the case that the Web has enabled our tendency toward narcissism to crystallize in damaging, unhealthy ways.
July 6, 2008
Beyond wonderful: Tom Perotta's collection, Bad Haircut. This is a series of coming of age stories all told from the perspective of the same boy, over a period of years, during the 1970s. They get better and better as you go--and are compact, observant, subtle, restrained, and often absolutely surprising. It is a positive joy to watch Perotta get from point A to point B in each tale--the route is never direct, and never predictable, and it always makes such perfect sense.
Hysterically funny and very, very sharp: Jincy Willett's The Writing Class. The main character teaches creative writing through the local university extension--and is herself an obvious extension of Willett (the posts on Willett's website are also the posts of the protagonist). There are some plot hitches--but the humor and the characterization more than compensate for them. Also--if you have ever either taught a writing class or taken one, you will love what Willett does with her treatment of teacher, students, and class dynamics. Finally, if you've ever kept a blog--or been a regular commenter on one--there's a very fun treatment of how online communities form and work, as well as how trolls factor into them.
Claustrophobic: Tom Perotta's Little Children. Novels that don't let you like any of the main characters but somehow compel you to keep reading anyway tend to get suffocating, at least for me. I dislike intensely what I am reading about--narcissistic, poorly compensated, overeducated, thirty-something suburban parents making hashes of their lives with affairs and other bad choices--and yet the novel is written so engagingly that I can't put it down. I am about half way through this novel--and it's stressing me out something awful.
In the stack: Jincy Willett's Jenny and the Jaws of Life and Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From.
Curiouser and curiouser
Lewis Carroll was one of the first to tell stories through a child's eyes--and in so doing he did much to help invent the genre of children's literature. Along the way, he framed lasting notions of how children's minds work, and of the kinds of curiosity, anxiety, determination, and uncertainty they feel. There is something archetypal about Alice; her story and her character were wholly unusual in her day, but have since become utterly embedded both in popular culture (we all know the story, even if many of us have not read the original book) and in our conceptions of childhood.
I was recently reminded of this while watching the film adaptation of Harriet the Spy (a mid-1990s version of Louise Fitzhugh's classic early 1960s novel). Harriet is older than Alice, and she lives in a different century on a different continent. And yet one of her touchstones is Carroll's nonsense poem, "The Walrus and the Carpenter." She and her nanny rehearse the poem together nightly, trading lines. It's how they register their closeness, their sense of shared wonder and whimsy, and, as Harriet comes painfully of age, their bittersweet recognition that sometimes life descends into awful absurdity--the sea really does get boiling hot, and pigs really do turn out to have wings.
I was reminded again of Alice by this story from the Daily Mail:
Two schoolboys were given detention after refusing to kneel down and 'pray to Allah' during a religious education lesson.
Parents were outraged that the two boys from year seven (11 to 12-year-olds) were punished for not wanting to take part in the practical demonstration of how Allah is worshipped.
They said forcing their children to take part in the exercise at Alsager High School, near Stoke-on-Trent - which included wearing Muslim headgear - was a breach of their human rights.
One parent, Sharon Luinen, said: "This isn't right, it's taking things too far.
"I understand that they have to learn about other religions. I can live with that but it is taking it a step too far to be punished because they wouldn't join in Muslim prayer.
"Making them pray to Allah, who isn't who they worship, is wrong and what got me is that they were told they were being disrespectful.
"I don't want this to look as if I have a problem with the school because I am generally very happy with it."
Another parent Karen Williams said: "I am absolutely furious my daughter was made to take part in it and I don't find it acceptable.
"I haven't got a problem with them teaching my child other religions and a small amount of information doesn't do any harm.
"But not only did they have to pray, the teacher had gone into the class and made them watch a short film and then said 'we are now going out to pray to Allah'.
"Then two boys got detention and all the other children missed their refreshment break because of the teacher.
"Not only was it forced upon them, my daughter was told off for not doing it right.
"They'd never done it before and they were supposed to do it in another language."
"My child has been forced to pray to Allah in a school lesson." The grandfather of one of the pupils in the class said: "It's absolutely disgusting, there's no other way of putting it.
"My daughter and a lot of other mothers are furious about their children being made to kneel on the floor and pray to Islam. If they didn't do it they were given detention."
Kids are naturally curious--and these kids could well be interested in and willing to learn about other cultures and religions. Alice certainly was. As she tumbled down the rabbit hole, she thought about where she would come out--and whether she would encounter a different culture on the other end:
"Well!" thought Alice to herself, "after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they'll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn't say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!" (which was most likely true.)
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? "I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?" she said aloud, "I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--" (for you see Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity of showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to hear her, still it was good practice to say it over,) "yes that's the right distance, but then what Longitude or Latitude-line shall I be in?" (Alice had no idea what Longitude was, or Latitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.)
Presently she began again: "I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it'll be to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! But I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know. Please, Ma'am, is this New Zealand or Australia?"--and she tried to curtsey as she spoke (fancy curtseying as you're falling through the air! do you think you could manage it?) "and what an ignorant little girl she'll think me for asking! No, it'll never do to ask: perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere."
Carroll created this story for a real English girl in the early 1860s, at a time when empire and what we would now call "cultural difference" were very much on English minds. And his story registers a curiosity--as well as a modesty--about that difference: Alice expects to be ignorant of the customs where she lands, and goes so far as to plan how to politely and discreetly conduct herself in a world where she is the foreigner.
The kids at Alsager High School might be similarly open, interested, and receptive--but their teachers appear to be doing everything they can to crush any natural inquisitiveness they may have beneath the weight of punitive sensitivity training. Alice makes up her own mind (and she does, incidentally, eventually reject the logic of Wonderland: "You're nothing but a pack of cards"). Perhaps that's what the teachers at Alsager High are afraid of--if you let kids think for themselves, if you give them room to explore, deliberate, judge, and choose--they might not come to the "right" conclusions. Better, from this point of view, just to shove all them all down the rabbit hole and ram the approved affect and outlook down their throats.
UPDATE 7/7: There's much more at Augean Stables.
July 4, 2008
What's it worth to you?
How valuable is tenure? And can teaching be better--for teachers and students--without it? Rich Vedder outlines a thought experiment:
The biggest hellhole in education in the solar system, arguably, is the Washington, D.C., public schools, but they have a chancellor (superintendents want a grander name) Michelle Rhee who is interesting and a bit different --which of course is what the system needs. Most recently, Rhee fired hundreds of teachers and teachers aides because they were not certified, an action that I have mixed feelings about since teacher certification has to be one of the biggest scams that ever was devised, and she did it to comply with federal law. But she has guts.
But really what intrigues me is that reportedly Rhee is preparing to offer the teachers a deal --you can continue on your current pay scale, making, say, $62,000 a year with all your cushy tenure and seniority rights. Alternatively, you can leave that highly secure world and go on a non-tenure track option --but have the opportunity to earn huge bonuses, perhaps making up to $100,000 a year. Presumably the average salary for this second track would be greater by far than the average on the first. Your performance would determine your salary --and even your continued employment.
I proposed this idea in GOING BROKE BY DEGREE for college teachers. You can sign up for the "green" track or the "red" track (you pick your colors).You can either go for job security or for higher income. The reasoning is that tenure imposes costs, most of them implicit and hidden, that are very real. Universities have a terrible time shifting resources to meet changing needs. It is hard to fire teachers of medieval history and hire experts in nanotechnology --even if it makes great sense to do so. Tenure breads arrogance and an unwillingness to obey university policies or even laws. It allows mediocre teachers to continue to do little, seemingly forever. So why not consider tenure a fringe benefit, but put a limit on the amount of fringe benefits available to each faculty member --forcing a choice between, say, a Lexus style insurance policy and no tenure or a low cost insurance policy and the possibility of gaining tenure (and, ultimately, the awarding of it).
Of course, I predict it will not happen in DC. The teachers will say no because giving management some discretion over its labor force reduces the power of the union, and union leaders are often more interested in their own income and power than in the welfare of their workers in many cases. But it could happen in higher education. Indeed, it IS happening --in a different way. We have a two class faculty now at most universities --tenure track people who are well paid and pampered, and a group of adjuncts, graduate assistants, etc., who are paid little and have few benefits. The Vedder-Rhee two color tracking system could actually reduce the disparities between the haves and have nots in higher education and end a crazy situation where those making the most money (senior professors) do less teaching today than the untenured, marginalized itinerant faculty who make often less than 20 percent as much per course taught.
I think it's worth at least entertaining the possibility that for teachers it's important not to have tenure. I know that flies in the face of everything we think we know about academic freedom, but the simple fact is that tenure, like socialism, is only nice in theory. In practice, it just doesn't work. It neither creates academic freedom not protects it. What it does do is this: it sets up an utterly unworkable system of sinecures that rewards conformity and complacency, punishes individualism and experimentation, protects incompetence and unprofessionalism, and generates a nasty hierarchy in which, in higher ed anyway, it's the underpaid, untenured, usually never-to-be tenured, often questionably qualified folks who do all the teaching. These facts tend to get obscured--or even excused--by the assumption that tenure is the only way to ensure that scholars are free to pursue the truth in research and teaching. But the fact is that tenure does not ensure these things. And, as Vedder points out, it's also terribly costly for institutions, teachers, and students.
Academics of a certain stripe like to lament the casualization of the academic work force, the increasing reliance on adjunct labor to get classes taught, and so on. They also like to blame the corporatization of the university for this situation--while still enjoying the benefits accorded to them personally in the form of light teaching loads, release time, and so on.
But they really ought to be taking responsibility for change, and they should be looking at what they can do about the situation instead of pointing fingers elsewhere. Wesleyan history professor Claire Potter has done so--she is exploring whether Wesleyan will allow her to trade her tenure for a renewable contract (so far, Wesleyan says no). And while I am wary of her conviction that unions ought to replace tenure, I do respect her analysis of the problem and her willingness to put her tenure where her mouth is. More academics should try it. Vedder offers a good starting point.
July 2, 2008
Dark side of donor intent
In general, I support the idea of donor's rights -- if you give a major gift to a college or university, for example, you have the right to attach certain conditions to it. If the recipient doesn't want to meet those conditions, then no gift.
Of course, there are times when the issue gets messy. Colleges and universities have tended to be a bit cavalier in their respect for donor intent--and donor intent can last a very long, very inconvenient length of time. Princeton is currently embroiled in a messy lawsuit centered on its alleged failure to honor the conditions of a major gift given decades ago. And Tulane just took a judicial rap on the knuckles for wanting to fold its women's college--created with a gift in 1886--into the wider undergraduate college.
Even messier: Sometimes donors get overly intrusive with their conditions, as when a corporate donor not only sponsored a course at Hunter College, but used the students taking the course to advance its own interests. And sometimes the source of the gift is a red flag, even when there are no official restrictions placed on it. The classic example is large gifts from foreign donors to support Middle Eastern studies and the like. As Stanley Kurtz, Jay Greene, and others have argued, such gifts can be tacitly keyed to expectations about the kind of scholarship and teaching it will be used to support; future gifts may depend on using current gifts in a particular way. To make matters worse, there is a pervasive problem with universities' disclosure regarding such gifts. Lack of transparency, it need hardly be said, is not a best ethical practice and raises questions about what else may be going on that isn't being reported.
Into this mix comes another problematic case: Princeton has just accepted $100 million from investment manager Gerhard Andlinger to combat global warming. Never mind that the jury is still out on anthropogenic global warming--so much so that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is now acknowledging that it is not a proven phenomenon. There are huge unknowns here--respected scientists dispute that global warming is even happening, and among those who believe that it is taking place, there is plenty of debate about whether it is caused by humans. It doesn't make much sense to pour resources into reducing our carbon footprints if carbon is not the source of our problems--or if climate change is not even really an issue.
But, as I have written here before, that's not stopping the people who should be guarding the integrity of the pursuit of truth from jumping on academe's PC bandwagon. Here's Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, basking in the moral glow of her university's new commitment to match its scholarly findings and educational program to this donor's wishes:
Shirley M. Tilghman, Princeton's president, said the university hoped the new center would enable researchers to use their discoveries to help scientists and engineers create better ways to manage carbon-dioxide emissions and create new types of alternative energies.
"We also hope to educate the next generation of scientists, engineers, and policy makers, who will take out of Princeton a deep sensitivity to global warming, and educate citizens," said Ms. Tilghman.
Love the evocation of sensitivity training. Tilghman has said more than she may have meant to.
To their great credit, the Chronicle's readers see right through the problem.
Here's JM: "A pledge with an assumption--make sure the scinence fits the pledge. I would venture to suggest that this is a pledge whose intent will be not only be honored but whose outcomes are all but guaranteed, somewhat akin to a major donation to prevent orc proliferation in middle earth--a winner every time."
Here's skeptic: "Too bad so much money is being spent worshipping at the altar of the mythology of 'global warming.' What a travesty when so many other things need to be done in this world. But, Algore and his cronies need to continue to enrich themselves so that he can pay his $22,000 electric bill for his personal residence each year."
And here's FB: "It is up to the global warming community to present incontrovertible evidence that climate change is the result of human activity. They have not yet done that."
Princeton really ought to know better than to set itself up for a major conflict of interest between the ethical, disinterested pursuit of knowledge and the politicized aims of major donors. But the combined allure of big money and a noble cause seems to have distracted Tilghman not only from the principles she is supposed to uphold, but also from the pragmatics of institutional giving and getting.
July 1, 2008
Cursing for credit
From the London Times:
Pupils are being rewarded for writing obscenities in their GCSE English examinations even when it has nothing to do with the question.
One pupil who wrote "f*** off" was given marks for accurate spelling and conveying a meaning successfully.
His paper was marked by Peter Buckroyd, a chief examiner who has instructed fellow examiners to mark in the same way. He told trainee examiners recently to adhere strictly to the mark scheme, to the extent that pupils who wrote only expletives on their papers should be awarded points.
Mr Buckroyd, chief examiner of English for the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), an examination board, said that he had given the pupil two marks, out of a possible 27, for the expletive.
To gain minimum marks in English, students must demonstrate "some simple sequencing of ideas" and "some words in appropriate order." The phrase had achieved this, according to Mr Buckroyd.
The chief examiner, who is responsible for standards in exams taken by 780,000 candidates and for training for 3,000 examiners, told The Times: "It would be wicked to give it zero, because it does show some very basic skills we are looking for--like conveying some meaning and some spelling."
You do want to get your expletives spelled right. It's vital for college essays, office memos, and things like that.
But seriously--the cursing question sounds like a distraction from the real issue at hand. Check out how officials have responded to Buckroyd's rules, and think about what their response reveals.
The AQA is distancing itself from Buckroyd's remarks, saying that "If a candidate's script contains, for example, obscenities, examiners are instructed to contact AQA's offices, which will advise them in accordance with Joint Council for Qualification guidelines. Expletives in a script would either be disregarded, or sanctioned." That seems fair enough--though it's strange that there is a reporting requirement.
But then consider this: The Joint Council for Examinations actually requires examiners to report "inappropriate, offensive or obscene material" written by examinees, so that it can conduct a follow-up investigation.
I always pause when I encounter educational bureaucrats evincing their seemingly bottomless need to "investigate" and "sanction" "inappropriate" or "offensive" speech. That's the vocabulary of institutionalized intolerance, and it's been abused countless times on campuses where administrators think it's their business to decide some should be punished for expressing views that others dislike.
It would seem here that the Council is interested in adjudicating far more than the use of foul language. It seems to be interested in adjudicating viewpoint as well. In other words, there seems to be a speech code built into the U.K.'s high school qualifying exams. That's the real foul, I would think.