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August 27, 2008 [feather]
Teaching hating reading

As a thirteen-year-old, my poor brother was assigned one of those kiss-of-death books in his middle school English class: Jane Eyre. Don't get me wrong--I adore that novel, have read it many times, and have managed to sustain my appreciation for it despite the fact that it has become one of those overused "everybooks" that critics can and do force to mean whatever they want it to mean. But it's wrong, just wrong, to ask a thirteen-year-old boy who is plenty smart but also plenty male and plenty reluctant to spend time with books to devote himself to the onerous task of imbibing hundreds of pages of Bronte's lovesick heroine's inner musings. I thought he would never recover. By the time he got to college, I thought there might be hope. He had read and enjoyed A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. We had great talks about it. But then, as an eighteen-year-old freshman, he took the required English composition class--and got assigned Lillian Hellman's Pentimento. The poor guy did his best--but he did find himself assuaging his unrest by drawing wry cartoons in the margins (the kind where the cartoons move around when you flip the pages through your thumb) and reworking the fawning pull quotes on the cover to express his distaste for the enterprise. I still have his copy (he didn't want to keep it) and every time I run across it, I have to laugh.

He reads now, when and as he can, given how enormously busy he is with family and work. But he did have to survive the outrageous pedagogical choices of English teachers who were thinking more about their tastes--or perhaps about the tastes of the girls in the class--than about what kinds of assignments might work for everyone in the room.

I thought of him when I ran across this thread at Joanne Jacobs' blog, all about how teachers who make poor reading choices can do more to teach kids to hate reading than otherwise. A recurring teacherly misstep is assigning books to which only girls are likely to be able to relate: How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, The Awakening, that sort of thing.

I was a very easy to please student myself. I just got so excited about reading actual, complete literary works--as opposed to selections from the textbook--that I was an easy sell. But I do recall that I had smart, thoughtful teachers who made sure that they assigned books and plays that contained something for everyone. In the eighth grade, it was Watership Down. In ninth, we read The Odyssey, Great Expectations, and Romeo and Juliet. In tenth, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and--much to our collective, unisex dismay, but also to our ultimate betterment--The Scarlet Letter. And so on.


Erin O'Connor, 8:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack (0)

August 25, 2008 [feather]
Something beautiful

You probably know Kurt Vonnegut. But do you know Indianapolis? That's where Vonnegut grew up. And when I was growing up there during the 70s and 80s, all the geekish kids were acutely aware of this--we felt in the way that teens can feel such things that our geographic proximity to Vonnegut somehow ennobled us, or at least offered proof that our futures could be wonderful and imaginative and different. In high school, we passed around copies of Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle. Some of us tried writing stories in Vonnegut's clipped, sardonic tone. And many of us carried Harrison Bergeron with us as an emblem of how a kid with a clear head and strong mind can overcome the absurd impositions of a repressive adult world. I will never forget the book report Ted Slupesky delivered on "Harrison Bergeron" in the seventh grade--dressed up in homemade handicaps, towering above us with his reedy six feet plus in height, and delighting in telling the rest of us, in his brand-new very deep voice, all about how Harrison brought his ridiculous world to its knees. We all gave the part where Harrison gets killed short shrift, as it really did not serve our imaginative ends. Kids have a way of doing that.

Vonnegut spoke at my high school in 1986, the year I graduated. He said, "All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis." Vonnegut also had good things to say about public education in Indy--as do I. "That city," he once wrote, "gave me a free primary and secondary education richer and more humane than anything I would get from any of the five universities I attended."

Unless you grew up where I did, you probably have not thought of Vonnegut as a distinctly Hoosier author. Which is fine. It's a dimension of his work that is great fun for people who share his background, but it's not essential for getting what he's all about.

What is essential, though, is seeing how he felt about freedom. "Harrison Bergeron" lays that out with enormous clarity. And now it's come alive in a gorgeous twenty-five minute short film. Check out the trailer--and sign up for updates about screenings at finallyequal.com.

Full disclosure -- I have some slight connection with the film through the Moving Picture Institute. But my opinion of it would be the same even if I didn't.

Erin O'Connor, 8:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Hold on to your wallet

Look out for I.O.U.S.A.--a new film about American fiscal irresponsibility that we all need to see. From the makers of Wordplay (remember Wordplay?), it's touring the nation now.

Erin O'Connor, 8:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

August 21, 2008 [feather]
Know you can

I wrote favorably last week about Charles Murray's Wall Street Journal piece about ed reform, the problems with the ideal of universal higher education, and the necessity of alternative routes to professional certification. I have since read his new book, Real Education, and was both provoked and impressed. But as hard as Murray works to make the case that kids' abilities just are lots more limited than we'd like to believe--as hard as he leans on the obvious point that half the kids are always going to be below average--I still really struggle with the implications of his argument for how hard we ought to try to maximize disadvantaged kids' chances of improving their prospects and deciding their own futures.

I get it that everyone can't be Einstein; I get it that many people go to college who should not. I agree wholeheartedly that we won't resolve the problems with public education by throwing more money at it, and I deeply believe in the most robust system of school choice possible. Those aren't new insights for me. Nor is the idea that we all have limitations, that we can't all be anything we want to be. We are unevenly intelligenced, and, to borrow a trendy phrase, differently abled.

Still, Murray walks a fine line between refusing unreasonably romanticized ideas about kids' potential (everyone can be the best!) and justifying less than stellar schooling because it can't change ability and won't make that much difference in achievement. I don't think that's his goal--but it's lurking there behind a lot of his argument, and that makes a lot of what he has to say hard to swallow. Failing schools are still failing schools--and incompetent teachers are still incompetent teachers, and pathological pedagogies centered on self-esteem and devoid of content remain profoundly damaging to all. Those things aren't the kids' fault--and they really interfere with kids' abilities to realize their potential, whatever that potential may be.

Stories like the one George Will tells about the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland California seem to fly in the face of the ideas about limitation that Murray presents in Real Education--and they are enormously inspirational accounts of how well kids respond when there is a healthy culture of discipline, expectation, and intellectual seriousness within a school.

Check it out:

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Seated at a solitary desk in the hall outside a classroom, the slender 13-year-old boy with a smile like a sunrise earnestly does remedial algebra, assisted by a paid tutor. She, too, is 13. Both wear the uniform -- white polo shirt, khaki slacks -- of a school that has not yet admitted the boy. It will, because he refuses to go away.

The son of Indian immigrants from Mexico, the boy decided he is going to be a doctor, heard about the American Indian Public Charter School here and started showing up. Ben Chavis, AIPCS' benevolent dictator, told the boy that although he was doing well at school, he was not up to the rigors of AIPCS, which is decorated with photographs of the many students it has sent to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. So the boy asked, what must I do?

Telling young people what they must do is what Chavis does. With close- cropped hair and a short beard flecked with gray, he looks somewhat like Lenin, but is less democratic. A Lumbee Indian from North Carolina, he ran track, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, got rich in real estate ("I wanted to buy back America and lease it to the whites") and decided to fix the world, beginning with AIPCS.

Founded in 1996, it swiftly became a multiculturalists' playground where much was tolerated and little was learned. Chavis arrived in 2000 to reverse that condition. Charter schools are not unionized, so he could trim the dead wood, which included all but one staff member.

David Whitman, in his book "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism," reports that in Chicago, from 2003 through 2006, just three of every 1,000 teachers received an "unsatisfactory" rating in annual evaluations; in 87 "failing schools" -- with below average and declining test scores -- 69 had no teachers rated unsatisfactory; in all of Chicago, just nine teachers received more than one unsatisfactory rating and none of them was dismissed. Chavis' teachers come from places such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Oberlin, Columbia, Berkeley, Brown and Wesleyan.

AIPCS is one of six highly prescriptive schools Whitman studied, where "noncognitive skills" -- responsible behaviors such as self-discipline and cooperativeness -- are part of the cultural capital the curriculum delivers. Many inner-city schools feature a monotonous chaos of disruption. AIPCS -- Oakland's highest performing middle school -- stresses obligation, not self-expression. Chavis, now "administrator emeritus," is adamant: "Everyone says we should 'preserve our culture.' There is a lot of our culture we should wipe out."

A visitor to an AIPCS classroom notices that the children do not notice visitors. Students are taught to sit properly -- no slumping -- and keep their eyes on the teacher. No makeup, no jewelry, no electronic devices. AIPCS' 200 pupils take just 20 minutes for lunch and are with the same teacher in the same classroom all day. Rotating would consume at least 10 minutes, seven times a day. Seventy minutes a day in AIPCS' extra-long 196-day school year would be a lot of lost instruction. The school does not close for Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day or Cesar Chavez Day.

Every student takes four pre-AP (advanced placement) classes. There are three weeks of summer math instruction, three hours of homework a night. Seventh-graders take the SAT. College is assumed.

Paternalism is the restriction of freedom for the good of the person restricted. AIPCS acts in loco parentis because Chavis, who is cool toward parental involvement, wants an enveloping school culture that combats the culture of poverty and the streets.

He and other practitioners of the new paternalism -- once upon a time, schooling was understood as democracy's permissible, indeed obligatory, paternalism -- are proving that cultural pessimists are mistaken: We know how to close the achievement gap that often separates minorities from whites before kindergarten and widens through high school. A growing cohort of people possess the pedagogic skills to make "no excuses" schools flourish.

Unfortunately, powerful factions fiercely oppose the flourishing. Among them are education schools with their romantic progressivism -- teachers should be mere "enablers" of group learning; self-esteem is a prerequisite for accomplishment, not a consequence thereof. Other opponents are the teachers' unions and their handmaiden, the Democratic Party. Today's liberals favor paternalism -- you cannot eat trans fats; you must buy health insurance -- for everyone except children. Odd.

I wish Will hadn't gotten into the political mud-slinging at the end--education is everyone's problem, and we all bear the responsibility for repairing the system, no matter what our politics. But his central point is a good one--and his story is a great one. We need to hear more of them.

Erin O'Connor, 11:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

August 17, 2008 [feather]

D.C. has some of the worst public schools in the nation. Education Week gives D.C.'s K-12 education an F for student achievement and college prep, and ranks it last in the nation for overall effectiveness. The 2007 NAEP showed that only 8% of D.C.'s eighth graders are proficient in math; only 12% are proficient in reading. Only 43% of D.C. high school students graduate within five years. And that's not for lack of spending--D.C. spend $17,000 per pupil (Boston is the only other urban district that spends more).

That's one of the more damning ironies of our country--that our capital is the scene of some of our most devastating failures of access and opportunity. But at the moment, it also seems to be the scene of one of the more inspiring clean-up operations.

Check out what Fast Company's Jeff Chu has to say about Michelle Rhee, the newly appointed chancellor of D.C. public schools.

Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, D.C., is one of the worst schools in one of the worst school districts in America.

"The mentality of excellence? We wish we could have that," said principal Harriett Kargbo, as we toured the school one morning in May. "But this," she said, pointing at the metal detector guarding the entrance, "is the reality."

This, too: Dozens of kids wandering the halls during second period. Corridors littered with fliers, candy wrappers, potato-chip bags. One second-floor foyer reeking of marijuana. ("I smell pot smoke," I said. "Really? I don't," Kargbo replied.) In the five-year history of No Child Left Behind, the school has never met the law's benchmarks; in 2007, just 24% of its sophomores tested "proficient" in reading and only 20% made the grade in math.

As we walked from one teaching area to another -- Dunbar is one of D.C.'s last open-plan schools, with dividers and old filing cabinets separating the "class-rooms" -- it became clear why the students weren't learning. Of the dozen classes we visited, only in one history session were all of the students doing something approximating work. "Why isn't anyone teaching?" I asked Kargbo as I watched one student do a meticulous inventory of the contents of her wallet. "It's the end of the period," she said. Half an hour later, second period ended.

That afternoon, Kargbo was fired.

The woman who orchestrated the "contract nonrenewals" of Harriett Kargbo and 30 other principals that day was Michelle Rhee, the 38-year-old chancellor of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). When she was appointed by Mayor Adrian Fenty just over a year ago, Rhee had never led a school, let alone a school system with 10,000 employees and a budget of nearly $1 billion. Since then, she has shuttered 23 schools, canned 15% of the central-office staff, fired 250 teachers who failed to get NCLB-required certification, and bought out more than 200 others. As the new school year gets under way, she is pushing a revolutionary contract that may simultaneously kill the entrenched seniority hiring system and make Washington's teachers the highest paid in America.

Rhee is fearless, determined, inventive, and utterly unique. Her approach combines tough-minded handling of resources, unwavering accountability for teachers and administrators, and sincere, personal investment in local urban communities, grounded in the area's black churches.

A staunch Democrat, Rhee's nevertheless a fan of NCLB--despite what she acknowledges are its problems--because it has introduced a desperately needed measure of accountability into a system that has for too long been answerable only to its own interests (which are not, it goes without saying, identical to those of the kids it is charged with educating). Rhee is professedly worried about what will happen to education if Obama becomes president. "He has taken on this 'NCLB is evil, sucking the life out of teachers' angle. I have a laundry list of things I'd change," she says, but the law nonetheless "brings accountability to a system that sorely needs it."

Read the whole thing, and send her your good wishes for success that improves D.C.'s schools--and that can be replicated across the nation.

Erin O'Connor, 10:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

August 14, 2008 [feather]
Models of deportment

I've been reading Bleak House at intervals for twenty years now. The first time it was for a college course on Victorian literature--every intervening time it was for work--and now, with great pleasure, I am finally reading it, bit by bit, along with other things, for myself. It's a great book and can sustain lots of readings, and it grows with you over time. That's if you can stomach Dickens -- which I know a great many people cannot. If you can't stomach Dickens but you want a novel that will sustain many readings over the years and will grow with you all the while, try Middlemarch. And if you are lucky enough to like both Dickens and Eliot--more power to you. Read them both, over and over again.

One of the pleasures of Dickens, for me, is how he captures patterns of human behavior--especially the absurd ones--so definitively, and often with such a combination of sympathy and satire, that he continually pops up in one's mind as one goes about the day, studying human behavior (I don't know about you, but I often feel as though the real thing I am doing all day long, whether I am working or watching TV or reading or running errands, is studying human behavior; this was a habit I developed in earnest during my year teaching boarding school, where there were a full seven faculty meetings per week. Such was the assault on one's sense of the rational that there was no way to cope but to begin to study, scrutinize, wonder, and learn. The habit has stayed with me ever since). Dickens often gets slammed for his poor characterization. But such criticisms tend to arise from the mistaken assumption that he is a realist and should be held to the standards of psychological realism that his contemporaries--Eliot, Trollope, the Brontes--were devising. Dickens was not a realist. He was fabulist whose subject was everyday London reality--and his style of characterization follows from that. He drew caricatures, quite deliberately, and with moralistic intent; sometimes they drip with sentiment and sometimes they reek of snideness, but they all tend to work toward a message he wants to send, and they all have at their heart a point he wants to make about the various types of human frailty, cruelty, weakness, and goodness. The key word there is "types." And the trick to his brilliance is that he renders his types in an utterly memorable, entirely idiosyncratic and unique way. If his characters are not individuals, his characterization of their typicality is a virtuoso performance (Dickens knew this--it's why he liked to sign himself "The Inimitable").

Anyway. This morning, I happened across this story about a college debate coach who lost it so completely at a competition last spring that he not only got into a cursing match with a judge, but jumped around while yelling shrilly and then, when words failed him, actually mooned his interlocutor (perhaps because the hostile display of one's buttocks makes a statement beyond debate?).

Don't miss the video:

Fort Hays State University is considering canning the mooner (no word on whether anyone is defending his academic freedom); the judge who got in the cursing match with him, who did not drop her pants but who did match him expletive for expletive and decibel for decibel, does not seem to be up for similar punishment. I guess Pittsburgh State, where she teaches, has a more expansive concept of academic freedom than Fort Hays. Or, perhaps, there is some fine print somewhere in the AAUP documents on academic freedom stipulating that professorial freedom of expression ends where the panty line begins.

Be that as it may, while the debates about punishment rage, I find myself thinking of Bleak House--specifically of Mr. Turveydrop, the novel's resident "model of deportment." Mr. Turveydrop is so perfect in his manners, so pristine in his grooming, and so cultivated in his taste that he has no time for anything but maintaining the perfection of his deportment. He is thus one of the novel's many leechlike characters who make their names--and evade their responsibilities--by cultivating an image of perfection so profound that they are somehow exempted from the rules that apply to others (Mr. Skimpole and Mrs. Jellyby are other examples).

Dickens devotes an entire chapter to Deportment, and it is a treat to revisit it in the context of our lunar debater. Meet Mr. Turveydrop, a "gentleman" who is "celebrated almost everywhere for his deportment," who is the owner of a dancing academy, but who leaves the actual work to his submissive son, Prince:

I found the academy established in a sufficiently dingy house at the corner of an archway, with busts in all the staircase windows. In the same house there were also established, as I gathered from the plates on the door, a drawing-master, a coal-merchant (there was, certainly, no room for his coals), and a lithographic artist. On the plate which, in size and situation, took precedence of all the rest, I read, MR. TURVEYDROP. The door was open, and the hall was blocked up by a grand piano, a harp, and several other musical instruments in cases, all in progress of removal, and all looking rakish in the daylight. Miss Jellyby informed me that the academy had been lent, last night, for a concert.

We went upstairs--it had been quite a fine house once, when it was anybody's business to keep it clean and fresh, and nobody's business to smoke in it all day--and into Mr. Turveydrop's great room, which was built out into a mews at the back and was lighted by a skylight. It was a bare, resounding room smelling of stables, with cane forms along the walls, and the walls ornamented at regular intervals with painted lyres and little cut-glass branches for candles, which seemed to be shedding their old-fashioned drops as other branches might shed autumn leaves. Several young lady pupils, ranging from thirteen or fourteen years of age to two or three and twenty, were assembled; and I was looking among them for their instructor when Caddy, pinching my arm, repeated the ceremony of introduction. "Miss Summerson, Mr. Prince Turveydrop!"

I curtsied to a little blue-eyed fair man of youthful appearance with flaxen hair parted in the middle and curling at the ends all round his head. He had a little fiddle, which we used to call at school a kit, under his left arm, and its little bow in the same hand. His little dancing-shoes were particularly diminutive, and he had a little innocent, feminine manner which not only appealed to me in an amiable way, but made this singular effect upon me, that I received the impression that he was like his mother and that his mother had not been much considered or well used.

"I am very happy to see Miss Jellyby's friend," he said, bowing low to me. "I began to fear," with timid tenderness, "as it was past the usual time, that Miss Jellyby was not coming."

"I beg you will have the goodness to attribute that to me, who have detained her, and to receive my excuses, sir," said I.

"Oh, dear!" said he.

"And pray," I entreated, "do not allow me to be the cause of any more delay."

With that apology I withdrew to a seat between Peepy (who, being well used to it, had already climbed into a corner place) and an old lady of a censorious countenance whose two nieces were in the class and who was very indignant with Peepy's boots. Prince Turveydrop then tinkled the strings of his kit with his fingers, and the young ladies stood up to dance. Just then there appeared from a side-door old Mr. Turveydrop, in the full lustre of his deportment.

He was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear. He had such a neckcloth on (puffing his very eyes out of their natural shape), and his chin and even his ears so sunk into it, that it seemed as though be must inevitably double up if it were cast loose. He had under his arm a hat of great size and weight, shelving downward from the crown to the brim, and in his hand a pair of white gloves with which he flapped it as he stood poised on one leg in a high-shouldered, round-elbowed state of elegance not to be surpassed. He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of deportment.

"Father! A visitor. Miss Jellyby's friend, Miss Summerson."

"Distinguished," said Mr. Turveydrop, "by Miss Summerson's presence." As he bowed to me in that tight state, I almost believe I saw creases come into the whites of his eyes.

There is much more in this vein, if you like this sort of thing. Enjoy--and consider these things: that a more proper sentence for the offending coach and judge might be lessons in deportment; that the real manners modeled in this passage are not those of its putative paragon; that simplicity, restraint, and civil frankness are disappearing as recognizable ideals for interpersonal conduct; and that searing, withering criticism of bad behavior--which is what our outraged coach failed to deliver, and which is what Dickens very much does deliver--is best done fully clothed, with well-chosen, judiciously delivered words. There is, after all, a reason we have the phrase, "Keep your pants on."

Erin O'Connor, 8:10 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

August 13, 2008 [feather]
Thought experiment

The libertarian in me loves the way Charles Murray is thinking about college:

Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place.

Finding a better way should be easy. The BA acquired its current inflated status by accident. Advanced skills for people with brains really did get more valuable over the course of the 20th century, but the acquisition of those skills got conflated with the existing system of colleges, which had evolved the BA for completely different purposes.

Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough -- four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you're a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.

The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees conferred in 2005. For that matter, certification tests can be used for purely academic disciplines. Why not present graduate schools with certifications in microbiology or economics -- and who cares if the applicants passed the exam after studying in the local public library?

Certification tests need not undermine the incentives to get a traditional liberal-arts education. If professional and graduate schools want students who have acquired one, all they need do is require certification scores in the appropriate disciplines. Students facing such requirements are likely to get a much better liberal education than even our most elite schools require now.

Certification tests will not get rid of the problems associated with differences in intellectual ability: People with high intellectual ability will still have an edge. Graduates of prestigious colleges will still, on average, have higher certification scores than people who have taken online courses -- just because prestigious colleges attract intellectually talented applicants.

But that's irrelevant to the larger issue. Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required. Equal educational opportunity means, among other things, creating a society in which it's what you know that makes the difference. Substituting certifications for degrees would be a big step in that direction.

Consider the possibility that college is the wrong answer to the right question. Think about all we have asked college to do that it has not done and cannot do--and ask yourself if loosening higher ed's stranglehold on credentialling and access to opportunity might not be what we need. At the very least, it's worth musing about over your morning coffee.

I've grown increasingly wary, personally, of higher ed models that want, at huge one-size-fits-all expense, to sit students' butts in seats, that glorify the experience of imbibing the wisdom of the Eminent Professor; that denigrate alternative models of learning such as distance education; that won't even consider independent, self-directed study as a viable route to professional qualification; and that seek, ultimately, to maintain a status quo that by just about every measure is at once too expensive and too ineffective to justify being maintained. Certainly there is a place for that archetypal undergraduate experience -- and Murray does incorporate it into his certification model. But it is quite often not all it's cracked up to be, and there really ought to be other avenues. And the first step to establishing them is to talk about what they might be.

Erin O'Connor, 8:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

August 12, 2008 [feather]
School for Scandal

I admire bloggers who can write temperately about controversial issues. They show a restraint--and a depth--that the screed-mongers who dominate the blogosphere lack, and they do a great deal to model what we each ought to be doing to realize the ideal of a democratic, open society. But there are times when being temperate becomes a form of temporizing--a way of rationalizing, or at least accepting, behavior that really should not be rationalized or accepted. And so there are times when even the most temperate among us ought to unload--judiciously, of course, but also decisively. Their judgment--and their scorn--carries more weight than that of the habitually outraged and chronically intemperate among us. And when they deign to take a tone, we all ought to listen.

So attend to what Joanne Jacobs--one of our most truly temperate, and truly admirable edubloggers--has to say this morning about North Carolina senator and serial presidential hopeful John Edwards:

For three years, students at a rural North Carolina high school have planned for college, encouraged by the promise of scholarships for all. But John Edwards has withdrawn financial support for College for Everyone, which "he once promised would be a model for the nation under an Edwards presidency," reports the News Observer.

Edwards' foundation raised money to pay for the cost of one year's tuition, fees and books at a public college.

Patrick Miller, Greene County school superintendent, said the Edwards program helped raise the college-application rate from about 26 percent several years ago to 94 percent this year.

Supporters say it was always meant to be a three-year pilot, an odd time frame for a program aimed at high school students. The kids who started ninth grade taking college-prep courses to earn the scholarship will discover that they're on their own financially.

If Edwards had won the Democratic nomination, he'd still be talking about College for Everyone--and funding it. But now his backers are spending more than half the cost of a year's scholarships for every Greene County grad to support Edwards' mistress and baby in a $3 million mansion. Throw in the payoff for the alleged baby daddy and his wife and kids and ... Well, they're not living on macaroni and cheese.

I'd suspected Edwards was a phony who adopted populism as a campaign gimmick, not because he really cares about the poor and working class. It bothered me that he spent millions on a huge mansion and that he used his anti-poverty foundation to create jobs for his campaign staffers. I guess we'll see whether he actually does anything to help the poor, now that his political ambitions are kaput.

It's not the adultery, writes Roger Simon. It's Edwards' "callow hollowness" (or "callow hallowness"). Either one.

Here's hoping those hard-working kids can get the help they need some other way--and that their families and communities will do all they can to make sure they still get their crack at college. Their futures should not be allowed to become the casualty of Edwards' political expediency.

Erin O'Connor, 9:27 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

August 6, 2008 [feather]
Dr. Seuss' Zoo

This summer, the NAS has been hosting a forum on higher ed reform that is loosely inspired by Dr. Seuss' classic, If I Ran the Zoo. Contributors have included Harvey Silverglate, Anne Neal, John Leo, Todd Zywicki, and more. Maurice Black and I also put together a little something for the forum. Here it is:

In 1977, Theodore Geisel--a.k.a. Dr. Seuss--delivered the Lake Forest College commencement address. The whole affair was an accident. When Geisel accepted the invitation, he thought he would simply be receiving an honorary degree. He had no idea he had agreed to speak. When he discovered that he was expected to give a graduation speech, he called the college president to explain that he would not be doing so. "I talk with people, not to people," he said.

Lake Forest's president begged Geisel to reconsider his position. But when graduation day arrived, he hadn't gotten anywhere. He commenced the ceremony without a speaker on hand. When it came time to award Geisel his honorary degree, the president made a final, whispered plea. And Dr. Seuss obliged. Reaching under his gown, he withdrew a sheet of paper. On it were some verses he had scribbled while sitting onstage. He read them out to the assembled graduates. They went like this:

My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant's bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them with
a penetrating stare...
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
"To eat these things,"
said my uncle,
"you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what's solid...
you must spit out the air!"

as you partake of the world's bill of fare,
that's darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.

The poem is a charming one, and contains about as much wisdom, and considerably more brevity, than the standard graduation speech. But it's also a gesture of refusal. Dr. Seuss wanted no part of telling college graduates what to think or be or do. It seems safe to assume that he would not have wanted to run the collegiate zoo--or even to speculate, as the contributors to this forum are doing, about what he would do if the zoo were his to run.

And small wonder. Geisel's refusal of the authoritative advisory moment no doubt had many, layered reasons behind it. But it's hard not to draw at least a provisional connection between it and his own undergraduate years at Dartmouth. As a college student during the 1920s, Geisel underwent a formative run-in with an administration that was, to say the least, given to creative abuses of authority. Caught serving alcohol at a party in his rooms, he was punished nonsensically and memorably--with a gag order forbidding him from editing and contributing to the campus humor magazine for the duration of his time at Dartmouth. Geisel continued his work on the Jack-o-Lantern anyway--editing, writing humorous essays, and publishing cartoons under the pseudonym of Seuss.

After graduation, Geisel matriculated at Oxford with the aim of becoming an English professor. Bored and uninspired, his lecture notes covered with doodles, he dropped out, abandoning the pursuit of collegiate authority and eventually settling on a career as a self-starting, self-sufficient author of children's books. The "Dr." in "Dr. Seuss" was added in playful reference to Geisel's abandonment of academic life.

Conceived in opposition to censorious administrators and anointed with an ironic anti-title commemorating his rejection of academia, Dr. Seuss could hardly turn around, decades later, and moralize at students about their futures. His entire career had been forged upon the anti-authoritarian ideals of play, whimsy, and deftly done allegory. He spoke of nonsense as something that "wakes up the brain cells," and described fantasy as "a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope...that enables you to laugh at all of life's realities." Straightforward admonition was not only not his thing, it was positively anathema to his philosophy of life.

The popover poem allowed Seuss to sidestep the dreaded advisory moment--and it allowed him to do so in a manner that subtly registered the precise nature of the problem he faced. For Uncle Terwilliger, the advocate of careful popover consumption, is not just any uncle. He is not a rhetorical conceit created for the Lake Forest graduation moment. He's an established Seussical personality. When he's not eating popovers, he waltzes with bears. And when he's not doing that, he's a maniacally autocratic teacher, bossing students around in exactly the ways Seuss reviled.

The star of Seuss's 1953 musical film, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Terwilliker (as his name is here spelled) appears initially to be a fairly innocuous, if strict, piano teacher. He believes in discipline, repetition, rote, and practice; he's an old-school authoritarian, no more, no less. But in the dreams of his reluctant student, Bartholomew Collins, Terwilliger morphs into a terrifying embodiment of the worst sorts of pedagogical abuse.

One night, Bart dreams that the evil Dr. Terwilliker has conscripted 500 boys to play an elaborate piano composition with their 5,000 fingers. Terwilliker plans to take over the world with his powerful music. He is dictatorial and cruel, obsessed with power, and given to fits of terrifying rage when he does not get his way. He keeps the boys in a dungeon, confiscates their toys, starves them, and tortures anyone who refuses to play his part in the plan for world domination. But Bart isn't having it--and in the end he and his compatriots overthrow Terwilliker's regime for good. The film is a surreal indictment of pedagogical authority, one so intensely focused on drawing links between strict teachers and evil dictators that it openly models Terwilliker on Hitler and uses the cultural accoutrements of Nazi Germany to establish the repressive feel of Terwilliker's dream-regime (as Bernard Welt has observed, the music, the architecture, the processionals, and even the cinematic style all owe much to Hitler's era; Bart's dream is filmed in a manner that specifically recalls Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will).

All of this is to say that Dr. Seuss' seemingly light-hearted commencement poem is actually a thoroughgoing set of self-referential in-jokes about abusive academic authority. A gentle refusal of the teacherly project of telling students what to do and who to be, the poem quietly but decisively condemns the very prospect of an adult trying to run the zoo.

Published in 1950, three years before Terwilliker made his film debut, If I Ran the Zoo forms an intriguing anticipatory companion piece to the movie. If the problem with Dr. Terwilliker is that he's a grown man using children to prop up his own quest for power, the appeal of this sweet book is that Gerald McGrew gets to fantasize about running the zoo because he is a child. Gerald's fantasy, like Bart's, is one of resistance--and creative liberation--from below, not of authoritative control from above. Adults, by definition, can't participate in it--that's doubly so for adults in positions of institutional authority over children, and perhaps triply so for those who run the zoo we call higher education.

Still, it's worth thinking about how Gerald McGrew thought he might run his zoo. Because when we do, what we see is that Seuss' story contains quite a revealing exploration of how fantasies about institutional reform take shape.

The first thing to note is that Gerald McGrew wants change for change's sake. "You see things like [lions and tigers and that kind of stuff] in just any old zoo," he complains. "They're awfully old-fashioned. I want something new!" And so he plans to acquire, among other things, a bustard, a flustard, a gootch, and a natch. There is nothing wrong with the traditional beasts except for the fact that they are traditional.

The second thing to note is that Gerald McGrew's plan for cultivating zoological diversity is centered on shock value. He wants to make people "gawk" at the "strangest odd creatures that ever did walk." In Gerald McGrew's zoo, exoticism is a positive value--not because it's educational, but because it's daring, transgressive, and surprising.

The third thing to note is that Gerald McGrew's zoo is all about Gerald McGrew. "The whole world will say, 'Young McGrew's make his mark. / He's built a zoo better than Noah's whole Ark! / These wonderful, marvelous beasts that he chooses / Have made him the greatest of all the McGrewses!'" His ultimate aim is to showcase himself.

The fourth thing to note is Gerald's total lack of thought and anticipation. How will he staff this zoo? Fund its acquisitions? Care for its exotics? Will he pass the increased costs of his boutique establishment on to customers? Seek federal or state subsidies? Set up as a privately funded non-profit? Other? On such subjects, young Gerald McGrew predictably has nothing to say. Nor does he have a plan for what he will do when the new zoo acquisitions inevitably become the old, unremarkable mainstays of his establishment--he seems not to grasp that his new, radically reformed zoo will quickly become an old, implicitly dull and traditional status quo.

This is not to criticize Gerald McGrew. He is, after all, what children naturally and appropriately are--a utopian fantasist with plenty of autocratic intent and no real plan. But it is to suggest that If I Ran the Zoo reads like a primer on the fundamentals of misguided leadership. We might observe, for example, that Gerald sounds an awful lot like a certain presidential candidate--audacious and hopeful, long on utopian beliefs about the virtues of change, short on specifics about what changes are needed and how they will be implemented, and breathtakingly silent on the subject of all that is good and worth keeping.

We might also note that he sounds a great deal like that generation of academic reformers, now reaching retirement, that has worked so hard to do away with traditional ideas of what is worth knowing largely because they are traditional ideas of what is worth knowing. Certainly, Gerald's new, improved zoo has much in common with the contemporary university, which has abandoned traditional disciplines for the sake of trendy, often shockadelic courses of study; has adopted poorly conceptualized and unworkable diversity plans; has come to center more on the careers of administrators than on the educations of students; and suffers from such an enduring failure of governance that we are growing accustomed to the once unthinkable idea that, if academics won't hold themselves accountable, government might have to do it for them.

Looked at in this light, If I Ran the Zoo begins to read like an uncannily apt caricature of how adults regularly botch the delicate project of institutional reform precisely because they naively imagine that the zoo would be perfect if only they could run it. Power corrupts. But utopian fantasies--as childish as they are--can make us forget that simple fact.

All of this brings us back to Uncle Terwilliger, who seems far wiser in his avuncular capacity than in his pedagogical guise. Having mellowed over time, Uncle Terwilliger appears at the Lake Forest graduation not in the capacity of a teacher, but in the special incapacity of an uncle--who by definition has no real authority over his nieces and nephews. His graduation advice reflects his comfortably powerless position. When he tells students to be wary of hot air, he is telling them to think for themselves. When he points out that popovers contain hot air, he is urging his audience to recognize that the good and the bad come jumbled together, and that in order to get at the one you have to be able to identify and reject the other. He is, in other words, going to the heart of what education ideally enables one to do: to think independently, and to come to one's own conclusions about what to do, be, and believe.

Maybe, ironically, it's the mellowed Uncle Terwilliger, and not the radical Gerald McGrew, who should inspire us when we think about how higher education could be improved. Certainly--and even more ironically--that's what Dartmouth seems to think. Just this year, the college that once attempted to censor Theodore Geisel adopted Uncle Terwilliger as a sort of graduation mascot. For a mere eleven dollars, Dartmouth's class of 2008 could purchase a commemorative t-shirt bearing the entirety of Terwilliger's graduation speech. Say what you will about the marketing ploy. Terwilliger's are more than just words to live by--they are also words for trustees, administrators, and faculty to lead by.

Many thanks to Peter Wood and the folks at NAS for hosting such a fun discussion.

Erin O'Connor, 8:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

August 5, 2008 [feather]
The jewels in the doorstop

The long overdue doorstop of a Higher Education Act contains two particularly interesting gems: it creates the American History for Freedom Program, and it delivers strong language about the importance of intellectual diversity and free expression on campus. The first is a grantmaking program aimed at enabling colleges and universities to launch or maintain "traditional" programs in U.S. history and Western civilization (defined as "traditional American history," "the history and nature of, and threats to, free institutions," or "the history and achievements of Western civilization"). The second is a statement of principle about the "Protection of Student Speech and Association Rights." It stresses the importance of intellectual diversity within and across institutions, underscores the rights of institutions to align their academic programs with their missions, and admonishes all colleges and universities to honor students' free speech and rights of association.

The two complement each other, of course. Students these days labor under a well-documented ignorance about U.S. history. And, as Hamilton College, the University of Illinois, and others have recently shown, attempts to launch history and Western civ programs centered on a more traditional--and less politically correct--approach can meet with major institutional hostility. And that hostility--which amounts to a censorious impulse to prevent certain views and lines of thoughts from even being explored in an academic setting--is part and parcel of the broader disrespect for free inquiry that is now endemic on campus. As ACTA, FIRE, and others have shown, colleges and universities have a bad track record when it comes to supporting student expression and student groups that run counter to institutional orthodoxy (hence the punitive speech codes, and the double standards that tend to be applied to religious student organizations that wish to limit their membership to those of like mind).

So these measures are all to the good. They respond to a pressing need for a substantial shift in higher ed's intellectual culture--as well as to the fact that higher ed's current culture is politicized to the point of anti-intellectualism and tyranny: it excludes whole areas of knowledge and punishes those who don't accept or submit to this exclusion.

NAS executive director Peter Wood has more:

Three years ago, under pressure from Congress, the American Council on Education (ACE) released a statement endorsing the concept of intellectual pluralism as a central principle of academic life. ACE speaks pretty much for American higher education's prevailing sentiments, and it was no surprise that twenty-seven other major higher education organizations, including the AAUP, co-signed the statement. With the final passage of the Higher Education Act last Thursday, Congress took a big step toward bringing to life what, thus far, has been merely a paper pledge.


Not so long ago, the American History for Freedom Program would have been an anodyne addition to the abundance of federally-supported academic programs. Thirty years ago most colleges and universities were actuated by a conviction that America had been blessed with an extraordinary gift of freedom, and wished an appreciation and understanding of that gift to be transmitted to each rising generation. This conviction, of course, has faded during the era of political correctness and postmodernism. It is no longer a central proposition on campus and it no longer receives much institutional support.

Nonetheless, there remain many individual scholars throughout academe who embrace the idea that Western civilization in general, and American history in particular, have something important to teach us about the creation of free institutions. The American History for Freedom Program is a giant step towards recognizing the value of this scholarly work. The new program will lift these often isolated scholars out of their relative isolation and, by bringing significant new funding to their research, raise their profile on campus.

Precisely because of this, we expect opposition. It is one thing for ACE and other organizations to endorse the idea that "Intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education." It is something else when a group of scholars who have been marginalized for more than a generation for pursuing unfashionable ideas suddenly become the recipients of their own federal support program.

Read all of what Wood has to say -- especially regarding his acute awareness of the problems inherent in seeking federal solutions for higher ed's curricular woes. His is a sober and enlightening analysis of the pragmatics involved in supporting and sustaining necessary institutional change.

UPDATE: The Chronicle of Higher Education casts these provisions--along with another that requires federally funded international studies programs to "reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views"--as partisan victories for conservatives, thus badly missing the point and cheapening measures that are consistent with the ideal of free inquiry, aimed at safeguarding academic freedom, and intended to be a substantial benefit for all scholars and students. Regardless of who championed the provisions, they are sound and fair; they are grounded in the positive values of procedural fairness, open inquiry, and diversity; and they should be treated as such. Instead of trying to tarnish them with dismissive labels, the Chronicle should be seeking to transcend the grubby political wrangling that mars so much debate about higher ed reform--and so set a better standard of reporting.

Erin O'Connor, 9:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

August 4, 2008 [feather]
You do the math

Union College physics professor Chad Orzel has some choice words for academics who not only know next to nothing about math and science--but wear their ignorance as a badge of pride:

Intellectuals and academics are just assumed to have some background knowledge of the arts, and not knowing those things can count against you. Ignorance of math and science is no obstacle, though. I have seen tenured professors of the humanities say--in public faculty discussions, no less--"I'm just no good at math," without a trace of shame. There is absolutely no expectation that Intellectuals know even basic math.

Ignorance of math can even be a source of a perverse sort of pride ....students seeking to avoid math or science classes can expect to get a sympathetic hearing from much of the academy, where the grousing of physics majors is written off as whining by nerds who badly need to expand their narrow minds.

In fairness, it's worth noting that some academics are against mandatory liberal arts instruction for science majors, and so are consistent in allowing the educated to avoid some subjects. But the avoidance of math and science is a common and accepted part of many core curricula, and this attitude gets my back up.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I think the lack of respect for math and science is one of the largest unacknowledged problems in today's society. And it starts in the academy--somehow, we have moved to a place where people can consider themselves educated while remaining ignorant of remarkably basic facts of math and science. If I admit an ignorance of art or music, I get sideways looks, but if I argue for taking a stronger line on math and science requirements, I'm being unreasonable. The arts are essential, but Math Is Hard, and I just need to accept that not everybody can handle it.

Orzel goes on to note that we can't expect to have a strong economy when we are collectively so innumerate that we can't do the math needed to ensure our own personal financial stability. Some commenters take him to task for that -- but you can't really get around the fact that a great many of us really don't have the knowledge or skills needed to think through basic, foundational decisions such as retirement planning, investment strategies, mortgages, and similar. The same can be said about our inability to distinguish junk science from real science, as well as our near total lack of understanding of economics. This is a really big deal, especially when such policy matters as climate change, health care, and energy are as prominent as they are right now.

Someone somewhere--perhaps even on this blog!--is going to say that Orzel is a self-important catastrophist and that it really does not make sense to blame those poor math-challenged, absent-minded humanists for a problem that might better be pinned on the usual suspects, the leaders academics love to hate. So let's just skip that step and talk about how it is the duty of college professors to embody an ideal of intellectual inquiry, awareness, curiosity, and ongoing learning; about how that requires a humbleness about what one does not know as well as a sober firmness about what one does know; and about how, within that obligation, a grandiose dismissal of entire fields of knowledge--as too hard, or too obscure, or whatever--such that the person doing the dismissing somehow elevates his or her academic cred with disciplinary colleagues, is way, way, way wrong. It sets a devastating example for students--and it does have an effect on the intellectual viability of our nation.

What I'd love to see: Faculty members actively embodying the ideal of liberal education that they are supposed to be delivering to students. They should be taking the odd class themselves, not just snuggling up to their disciplines and getting ever more over-specialized and, in the broad scheme of things, intellectually irrelevant. We have a situation now where, even within departments, academics tend not to be able to talk to one another, or to grasp one another's work. In an English department, you may have a scholar of women's literature who has never actually read Chaucer, or a medievalist who knows nothing about American literature. And some of that's inevitable--but it's a shame, and it shouldn't be cultivated as a positive good.

Picture an academic setting where faculty members are encouraged--perhaps expected--to continue to enlarge their understanding as well as to focus it. There is time built in to allow them, at regular intervals, to audit courses--not just or necessarily within their disciplines, but beyond them. The expectation would be that individual scholars would always be learning, always be pursuing new areas of knowledge and new understanding. An English professor, for example, might do well to take some math and science courses, just as science professors might benefit from a Shakespeare course. I think it would be great fun for everyone involved--and that it could have immense benefits, not just for individual academics, but also for the culture of academe itself.

Fun to think about, anyhow.

Erin O'Connor, 8:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)