More on economic literacy
In January, Maurice Black and I published an essay on the failure of our colleges and universities to compensate for the failure of K-12 by ensuring that students graduate with basic economic and financial literacy (not to mention the even more basic mathematical skills that these require). This is a theme that can't be emphasized enough, and that requires a great deal of elaboration and thought--not only about the nature of the problem, but about how to tackle it effectively.
Here's ACTA program officer David Azerrad, doing just that:
According to the National Council on Economic Education (NCEE), more than half of American adults do not understand what it means to say that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has increased. Nearly two-thirds do not know that in times of inflation, money loses value, the NCEE poll revealed. As for the current mess we're in, less than half of Americans can identify what a subprime mortgage is, according to a recent survey by the nonprofit Center for Economic and Entrepreneurial Literacy.
While no one will go so far as to blame the current debacle on widespread economic illiteracy, part of the nation's ongoing soul-searching must address the question of whether we are preparing leaders and citizens who can understand and think critically about this crisis, or for that matter, economics in general.
While we've heard innumerable stories about the causes of the downturn, its ripples and repercussions on every conceivable segment of American society, and how best to revive the moribund economy, we have for the most part ignored this fundamentally important question.
To answer it, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni surveyed 100 leading universities across the country to identify which ones require their students to take at least one introductory economics class. The results are disheartening. Only two institutions--the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and the United States Military Academy at West Point--have an economics requirement. The rest--including the entire Ivy League, the top liberal arts colleges according to U.S. News & World Report, and the flagship public universities in each of the other 49 states--are not doing anything to ensure that their graduates are economically literate.
Not surprisingly, the results of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's survey of college graduates reveal similarly stunning levels of economic ignorance. For example, 40 percent of those polled by ISI did not know that business profits equal revenues minus expenses. Only half could articulate the principles underlying free market capitalism.
Unfortunately, the dearth of economics requirements at our colleges and universities is part of a broader sad story: the collapse of the core curriculum. On campus after campus, critical subjects like math, science, and American history have become optional. In ACTA's study, only 11 of the 100 colleges and universities surveyed have an American history or government requirement. Barely more than half require mathematics.
Some will claim that requirements are outdated and that students should be free to decide which classes they wish to take. They are, after all, paying for them. But students are not consumers, classes are not commodities, and an education isn't simply a collection of courses that add up to a degree.
A college education--or any education, for that matter--presupposes that those who know more teach those who know less. Indeed, an undergraduate education is supposed to prepare students to become informed, engaged, and productive citizens by acquainting them with certain fundamental areas of knowledge.
Rather than leave it up to 18-year-old freshmen, still inexperienced in the ways of the world, to determine what they need to know, educators and administrators should exercise judgment and identify critical areas for mandatory study. Students, of course, remain free to choose from an array of courses to fulfill their requirements and pursue their own interests through electives, but the basics should be covered.
In other words, Economics 101 should not be just one more option among "Mafia Movies" (Barnard College), "Digital Game Studies" (Dartmouth College), and "The History of Furniture" (University of Nebraska at Lincoln).
As for those who would put their trust in our high schools, a 2007 survey by the NCEE reveals that only 17 states include economics as a graduation requirement. But the requirements are minimal. For example, the New Jersey State Board of Education requires only a half-year of economics and financial literacy. Similarly, Alabama, Arizona, and Florida require just a half-credit in economics in order to graduate.
This makes college-level attention to economics even more essential. Indeed, even if our high schools were doing their job, universities should shoulder the responsibility to strengthen what had already been learned, and to build upon it. A high school classroom is no substitute for a college lecture hall.
Azerrad goes on to offer ideas for what you can do--as an alumnus, or as a trustee--to make sure that your school is doing what needs to be done.
It's worth noting, too, that the argument he makes about how vital economic understanding is to our present national and global situation might also be made about science. I've written here before that we are a society that needs to understand what, for instance, a stem cell is, and what stem cell research is all about, before we can have an intelligent debate about it and pass legislation about it. It also strikes me that Azerrad's final point--about how taking a class in high school does not necessarily mean that one is "done" with a subject, and does not absolve colleges and universities from including that subject in its course requirements--is an argument that we ought also to be making about U.S. history and writing.
I'm up for letting folks test out of math or foreign language (I speak as someone who took calculus in high school and had six years of French before college), but not the others (and that, too, is spoken as someone who AP'd out of college history and college writing). I would have benefited enormously from taking college-level history, and I know now that I actually would have loved it; instead, I avoided it completely, having not loved my high school experience, and did not re-discover the subject until I was in grad school, reading around like a maniac the way grad students do. I think there are good odds I would have become a historian rather than a literature person if I'd made my little discovery earlier. As for writing, I wound up taking freshman comp even though I didn't have to, as that was the only English class I could get into as a Berkeley freshmen (back then, you couldn't get a spot in lit courses unless you were an English major, they were in such demand; people camped out overnight to get into the freshman comp courses, even as upperclassmen; I was actually lucky to be in that course). As it happened, I learned a lot, and acquired lifelong habits having to do with revising, revising, revising, and starting projects early enough for all that revising to happen.
But enough about me. On a related note--if you are past the schooling part of your life, but still want to study, still want to learn, and perhaps even want to fill in some gaps (in economics, or math, or history, or anything else) consider the Teaching Company. They have, to name one of many, a terrific Western Civ course, which runs from ancient Mesopotamia to yesterday, totals two professors, 48 hours of lecture, and 96 lectures. Watch during dinner; listen while you commute or work out. And ye shall be edified.
May 28, 2009
Our honeybees are still busy ravaging the lavender--but the bumblebees, who are bigger and badder, like it too. I think they try to bully the honeybees off their favorite flowers--they've got sole possession of the peonies--but our girls love their lavender so much they are willing to compete for space with the bumbles. Here's one, caught up close and personal.
May 27, 2009
One of the stock criticisms leveled at critics of the academy (and yes, the instantly baroque character of my prose here mirrors the infinitely baroque quality of the hall-of-mirrors, I'm-rubber-and-you're-glue quality of debates about academic reform as they have taken shape during the last twenty years) is that the critics of the academy only criticize. Why oh why, the critics of the critics lament, don't they offer something positive and constructive? Why do they only focus on the negative? The next step, of course, is to conclude that the critics are not serious, or are serious only about criticizing, and to dismiss their critiques out of hand--a bad faith move that justifies itself as responding to a bad faith move.
Peter Wood cuts right through all the crap this morning over at the NAS website, acknowledging (and not apologizing for) NAS' traditional stance as more of a critic than a problem-solver--and then taking the plunge into what can only be considered a desperately needed, and immensely welcome, effort at problem-solving.
The National Association of Scholars itself isn't really suited to giving such advice. NAS is perhaps best known for what it opposes than for what it supports. It opposes illiberal campuses ideologies; racial preferences; indoctrination in the classrooms; dumbed-down curricula; and authoritarian administrators. NAS typically presents its positive agenda in broad terms: it favors intellectual and academic freedom, rational scholarship in a free society, and scholarly inquiry founded on reason and civil debate. NAS upholds a positive view of Western civilization and the legacy of the American founding. And NAS has long held that America is best served by the great variety of colleges and universities in the nation--a variety that speaks to many needs and interests and fosters experimentation and competition.
We get asked from time to time to be more specific. Is there a particular curriculum we favor? Do we have proposals to improve college teaching? Where do we stand on grade inflation? College sports? State subsidies? Do we have ideas about accreditation? Is there a model of college administration that we advocate?
The answer to all these questions has been a guarded "no."
Having gotten the caveats out of the way, and having stressed that what is coming is not an official undertaking of the NAS, but a personal and provisional undertaking of Peter Wood, Wood begins to outline some ideas about the nature of the problem with American education--hopefully we can all agree that there are some pretty serious problems--and from there begins to frame ten basic principles that could stand as the basis for reform. They are:
Education should focus on learning, not credentialing. Credentials such as high school diplomas, college degrees, and certification exams do have an important role to play, but they are rightly understood as outward tokens of inner accomplishment. Of course, encouraging actual learning rather than the accumulation of course credits and passing grades is more difficult.
We can learn from others who already know. For nearly a century, the dominant pedagogy in American schools has been based on psychological theories that emphasize individual "discovery" of knowledge. Guided by this precept, teachers are often reluctant to teach their students the "right answers" or to show them the best way to solve problems. We need to get past this self-imposed handicap. No child can or should be expected to invent human knowledge from scratch. We need a pedagogy that empowers teachers to teach actual knowledge. That has important implications, beginning with the need to make sure that the teachers themselves possess the knowledge they are supposed to teach.
Some knowledge is basic. Students should learn it first. This principle applies to all levels of education and seems obvious, except that it is so often violated.
Some knowledge is intermediate. It demands its own kind of teaching. The mid-level between basic and advanced is a crucial stage in education and seems poorly served by our current system.
Higher education should focus on higher knowledge. Although almost anything can be taught at a college and students can be awarded college credit studying it, the proper purpose of college is to focus on higher knowledge.
Critical thinking is a component, not the whole of higher learning. This principle seems needed because of the widespread idolization of "critical thinking" as the sole legitimate intellectual goal of liberal education. In that context "critical thinking" often translates into learning how to debunk any idea that rests on the authority of tradition, learning, or intellectual inquiry. But "critical thinking" rightly understood is part of a project that entails learning to synthesize, abstract, develop cogent overviews, frame creative hypotheses, entertain counter-factual ideas, pursue analogies, and draw in both disciplined and imaginative ways on the resources of an educated mind. And critical thinking should never be disjunct from intellectual modesty and deference.
Education should be transparent. Schools and colleges should not be mystery cults. They should be clear about what they teach and why and what else they do.
Academic freedom depends on adherence to rational discourse. The much-abused term "academic freedom" gets invoked these days as justification for a great many things that have little or nothing to do with the rational pursuit of truth. No doubt this is because many who invoke the term doubt that "the pursuit of truth" is a meaningful goal of academic inquiry, though they would like to preserve the social privileges that come with academic freedom. But this is intellectual misappropriation. Academic freedom depends on a shared commitment to rational discourse in pursuit of truth.
Education in a democracy should be for everyone, but higher learning isn't. Our system of colleges and universities pursues many forms of training for many purposes. It isn't realistic to imagine a quick retreat from the something-for-everyone approach that has become dominant in American higher education, but that doesn't prevent the recognition that only a small part of our system actually focuses on "higher learning." In principle, we need to identify and foster this sector.
Vocational training is important, but college may not be the best way to foster it. Our society requires many specialized forms of knowledge and skill. We need to think more creatively about ways to develop these.
Wood wants feedback, isn't wedded to this point or that, wants to begin a discussion (in his next installment, he's going to talk about how we might move from "purposes to incentives"). Along the way, he hopes to work toward something like a comprehensive platform for reform that people who care about education can agree on. If you are one of those people, take him at his word, and please offer your thoughts. You don't have to agree with him--and I know many of the folks who read this site will disagree with some or all of what he has to say, just as you do with me. But real reform has to bridge differences, and emerge from fruitful discussion that includes a wide range of perspectives. Wood's is one of those--and yours can be, too.
May 26, 2009
Anatomy of an academic mobbing
As a workplace, academia is highly hospitable to mobbing behavior. Hence the scholarship of Kenneth Westhues, websites such as Academic Mobbing and Bullied Academics, novels such as Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and occasional articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and similar venues. These acknowledgements of time-honored ivory tower behavior are recent (though they may be said to have their ancestral roots in the work of people like Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell, and, of course, Arthur Miller), and they mark the emergence of a discussion--and a self-examination--academics have long needed to conduct.
I've followed the unfolding contours of that discussion with great interest, and am particularly taken by the news--reported today in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and many, many other places, of how Oxford professor Ruth Padel effectively engineered the mobbing of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott when they were competing for a coveted Oxford poetry professorship.
A historic month for women in British poetry turned sour on Monday when the first woman in 301 years elected to Oxford University's prestigious chair in poetry resigned and admitted what she had previously denied--that she had played a part in a covert effort to taint her main rival for the post with old allegations of sexual impropriety.
Ruth Padel, 63, was chosen only 10 days ago for the Oxford post, which is regarded as second only to poet laureate among the formal distinctions for poets in Britain. Two weeks earlier, Carol Ann Duffy, 53, became Britain's first female poet laureate, a post formally created in 1668.
Ms. Padel's admission that she sent e-mail messages to two reporters last month alerting them to allegations of sexual harassment against her main rival for the Oxford post, the Nobel literature laureate Derek Walcott, was a stunning turn in a saga of skullduggery that had opened a bitter schism in Britain's literary world.
Just as much, it has scandalized the ivy-walled cloisters of Oxford, exposing a culture of jealousy and mean-spirited connivance at sharp odds with the university's public posture of academic tolerance and reason.
In a resignation statement released to the news media on Monday, Ms. Padel said that she had acted "as a result of student concern" about the allegations of sexual improprieties, and that the information she had cited was already in the public domain. "I acted in complete good faith and would have been happy to lose to Derek," the statement said.
The battle for the post was a matter of prestige, not money. Chairs at Oxford and Cambridge rank their holders at the top of the academic hierarchy, and Ms. Padel's predecessors have included literary giants like W. H. Auden and Robert Graves.
But the chair draws a salary of barely $11,000 a year and requires nothing more of the holder than three public lectures a year.
During the campaign for the post and after her election, Ms. Padel, a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, insistently condemned the smear tactics that led Mr. Walcott, 79, to withdraw from a contest he had been favored to win. Mr. Walcott, born in St. Lucia, has spent much of the past 30 years commuting between his home on Trinidad and his teaching duties in the United States, and it was those duties that led to the allegations of sexual misconduct.
Ms. Padel's resignation came the day after two national newspapers, The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph, published articles detailing the e-mail messages.
The two papers said that Ms. Padel had noted Mr. Walcott's age, claimed that he was in poor health and pointed out that he lived in the Caribbean, not Britain. The Sunday Times quoted her as having gone on to say that "what he does for students can be found in a book called 'The Lecherous Professor,' recording one of his two reported cases of sexual harassment."
In the book, the authors, Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner, describe how Mr. Walcott was accused in 1982 of trying to seduce a student in his poetry class at Harvard, saying at one point: "Imagine me making love to you. What would I do?" According to the book, the student rebuffed the poet, and he gave her a C that was later changed to "pass" after the university reviewed the episode and reprimanded the poet.
Shortly after Ms. Padel's messages were sent, an article outlining the allegations appeared in The Independent, a newspaper with a strong following among literati in Britain; within days, anonymous packages giving further details were mailed to dozens of Oxford academics who had the right to vote in the election.
The packages recapped the Harvard incident in photocopied passages from the book, along with details of an allegation by a Boston University student, Nicole Niemi, who claimed in a lawsuit that Mr. Walcott demanded in 1996 that she sleep with him as the price of his helping produce a play she had written. The case was settled out of court.
On May 12, four days before the Oxford election, Mr. Walcott withdrew from the contest, saying it had "degenerated into a low and degrading attempt at character assassination."
During what remained of the campaign, Ms. Padel denied having anything to do with the mailings, and condemned the attacks on Mr. Walcott, saying that she revered her rival and telling The New York Times in an interview published days before the vote that "it seems horrible, this anonymous campaign."
After scoring an easy victory over the only other candidate, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, she told The Daily Telegraph her victory had been "poisoned by cowardly acts which I condemn and which I have nothing to do with." She added, "Those acts have done immense damage to people and to poetry."
But on Monday, bowing to demands for her resignation by a mounting list of influential literary and arts figures, including some who had vociferously backed her for the Oxford chair, Ms. Padel acknowledged her role in the campaign, saying she had sent the messages "naively, and with hindsight unwisely."
Academic mobbing is really pretty common--as I've written here before, I think it's the rare academic who can say, in complete honesty, that they have never witnessed or participated in mobbing behavior at some point along the line. Still, the mysterious thing about mobbing is that it's very hard to pinpoint how it all begins. There is usually someone with a particular axe to grind somewhere -- but by the time the mobbing manifests itself as mobbing, it's a generalized, collective phenomenon that no one initiated and no one is driving. Administrators pursue the mob victim, at that point, not because they have a personal vendetta, but because they have a job to do, and policies to enforce. Thus does the banality of evil evince itself in the careful application of academic policy and procedure.
What's remarkable about the Padel case is what it shows us about how such things might begin. She admits that she started it. She tells us how she did it. And then she just sat back and allowed the mob activity to do its thing--all while deploring the activity of the mob. And her conscience is clear--even now, after she has resigned, she says she acted in complete good faith.
Caveat for readers who need one: This is not to absolve Walcott of his history of less than gentlemanly professional behavior, nor is it to take a position on who deserved the poetry post and who did not. It is merely to observe how one academic identified the Achilles' heel of another, and used that to destroy the other's reputation and credibility in order to secure her own advancement. Nice work, as David Lodge would say.
May 22, 2009
Our bees are making the most of the lavender. And my mother, as ever, makes the most of them. Check out the slide show above.
May 21, 2009
I've been doing yoga for the past ten years. It's a really remarkable thing for overall strength, fitness, and flexibility. You become less prone to injury and less prone to sickness if you do it regularly; you can also radically diminish stress, massively enhance your overall feeling of well-being, and even banish chronic pain. You can also hurt yourself if you aren't careful, and if you approach yoga like it's some kind of no pain-no gain exercise in extreme self-torment. But if you have the right mindset--that you have to keep it gentle, keep it steady, "stay within yourself," and listen to what the bod is telling you about what it wants to do and not do on a given day--it can really reorient your life in marvelous ways.
When I first started, I took classes, and studied both Bikram-style and ashtanga yoga. Then I taught for a little while at the studio where I learned. Then life changed course, and for the past several years I've practiced on my own, sometimes using a DVD (Rodney Yee, Brian Kest, Baron Baptiste, and Shiva Rea are my favorites, though I never cease to giggle when they issue mysterious orders such as "drop your groins," "touch the still point within," and "enjoy the lunar qualities" of the pose).
One thing I've noticed over the years is that there are as many ways to do yoga as there are people who practice it--and also that there are a lot of fundamentalists out there who insist that the only way to do yoga is to do it their way. The fundamentalists must be ignored, of course, in this as in most walks of life. And, conversely, the innovators must be enjoyed and celebrated for the inspiration they bring to their craft.
I loved this New York Times profile of Vinnie Marino, a former addict who now teaches yoga in LA. Marino combines vinyasa-style yoga with a no-nonsense attitude and a love of rock and roll. In fact, it was Grace Slick who urged him to become a yoga teacher, and who paid for him to get certified when he was working as her personal assistant during the early 1990s. His classes have soundtracks that include Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, and the Pretenders--something yoga fundamentalists would regard as heretical. Most yoga classes, if they have any music going at all, have something new agey and more or less Indian-sounding going on in the background; it's all designed to be very peaceful and meditative and inward. And that's fine. But it's great to see Marino openly asserting that this is not the only kind of ambience music can bring to yoga. I doubt I'm the only person who likes to put on some classic rock now and then to do my sun salutations. You get a different feel that way -- but it's just as good, and sometimes better.
Rock on. Namaste.
May 20, 2009
ROTC goes mainstream
After years of reasoned argument, the case for restoring ROTC to private college and university campuses that have banned it for political reasons (first Vietnam, now DADT) is finally being recognized for the principled and fair-minded thing that it is. Here's CNN on Harvard's increasingly anachronistic attitude toward ROTC -- and why the faculty should rethink their stance on it.
May 19, 2009
All the commencement speech drama this year centered on Obama's appearance at Notre Dame. And the drama made the whole affair so overburdened--it was politicized and over-intellectualized and contested and protested and the whole bit, to the point where it felt less like a graduation ceremony than an episode in the culture wars. I don't think graduation speeches should be occasions for intense controversy--it always feels to me as though the ceremony has been hijacked when that happens, which is often. And that always seems like such a shame to me. Sure, the genre of commencement speech is hackneyed and seemingly worn out. And yes, the temptation on the part of organizers and speakers alike seems often to be to combat the cliched character of it all by layering onto it a heavy dose of controversy--which appears to function as a proxy for meaningfulness. Organizers choose controversial speakers guaranteed to cause an outcry (Obama at Notre Dame is a classic example); speakers arrive in pomp and circumstance, surrounded by political contention, and deliver their remarks in a charged context that renders anything they say--even the most innocuous things--electric, even explosive.
But every now and then someone comes along with a marvelously light touch. And they manage to say so much more. A classic instance is Dr. Seuss' 1977 anti-commencement speech for Lake Forest College. This year, the standard was set by Ellen Degeneres, who delivered an absolute gem at Tulane. Check it out.
May 18, 2009
From cafeteria to coffee shop?
The AACU is reporting that colleges and universities are "moving away en masse from general education focused on distribution requirements" (these are the words of AACU president Carol Geary Schneider). The AACU has for some years deplored higher ed's over-reliance on broad distribution requirements as a sort of intellectually shallow, unfocussed, and ultimately incoherent "cafeteria" approach to general education. In this, it echoes groups such as ACTA and the NAS, which have been deploring that very thing, in that very language, for well over a decade. Now, in a report issued last week, the AACU is delivering what looks to be good news.
In a survey of member institutions at a wide range of colleges and universities, the AACU found that schools are revisiting and revising the outworn distribution requirement model; general education is now increasingly being shaped in terms of things like first-year seminars, interdisciplinary work, and learning outcomes. From the executive summary:
Only 15 percent of colleges and universities are now using a cafeteria-style general education program alone. More than two-thirds of colleges and universities use a model that combines course choice with other integrative features like learning communities or thematic required courses.
--41 percent of institutions report incorporating common intellectual experiences;
--36 percent use thematic required courses;
--33 percent now have upper-level general education requirements; and
--24 percent use learning communities in which a group of students take the same set of courses linked to a common theme.
"One hundred years ago, Harvard introduced the concepts of 'distribution' and 'concentration' to organize the undergraduate curriculum," said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. "In 2009, this new study shows clearly that a decisive majority of colleges and universities see this model as inadequate for today’s students and today's world. Most campuses still use the concept of 'breadth'--requiring students to take courses in different fields to guide them beyond their comfort zones. But only a tiny fraction of institutions now rely on this model alone to ensure that students get the outcomes they need from a college education. Many colleges are now emphasizing interdisciplinary global studies, learning communities or topically linked courses taken together by a small cohort of students, thematic courses on big questions like sustainability or the global AIDS pandemic, and advanced-level integrative requirements. These new practices prepare students for a far more complex world and far more competitive global economy."
Many institutions surveyed are placing more emphasis on practices that educational research has shown are particularly effective. Seventy-eight percent are placing more emphasis on undergraduate research; 73 percent are placing more emphasis on first-year experiences; and 52 percent report placing more emphasis on learning communities.
"We've known for many years that common intellectual experiences such as students taking the same courses together as part of a core curriculum or a well-designed learning community can have a profound effect on a host of important learning outcomes," said George D. Kuh, chancellor's professor of higher education at Indiana University and founding director of the National Survey of Student Engagement. "It is most encouraging that many colleges are now incorporating some of these engaging, integrative practices in their general education programs."
It sounds so good! But two things jump out.
One is that there are limits to any survey that relies totally on institutions' own self-reporting. Thirty percent of schools reported that they were incorporating core curricula into their gen ed model. But what does that really mean?
The case of SUNY shows us how vague and insubstantial a term such as "core curriculum" can be. In 2000, the SUNY trustees voted to impose a core curriculum across the state system. The idea was to get rid of the baggy, spotty, incoherent gen ed requirements then in place at most SUNY campuses and to create the basis for each campus to define and implement a meaningful, substantive core curriculum that would ensure that students graduated with proper grounding in key skills and content areas. Since then, the many SUNY campuses have been implementing what looks on paper to be a very strongly framed, coherent educational core. But that core is not all it's cracked up to be when you look at it from one campus to the next. At Fredonia, for example, the core curriculum is working as a Trojan horse for retaining the cafeteria-style system by other means. Students can fulfill their American History requirement, for example, with "Holidays and American Culture," "American Indian Literature," and "Environmental Literature." All, I am sure, are interesting and worthy courses. But they are niche courses, highly specialized and focussed. Students will no doubt learn much in all of them--but none of them offers (or even pretends to offer) a solid grounding in American history. Fredonia also has a Western Civ requirement. But students can fulfill it with "Dance History," "Women Writers," and "Marxist Thought." Again, all worthy and interesting; again, not exactly courses that realize the ostensible aim of the requirement. These are examples of the cafeteria-style distribution model reconstituted within a core curriculum.
The second point I want to make about the AACU report is that there could well be a lot of old wine in new bottles going on here. Shifting around the experiential character of general education--so that there are smaller courses on offer, thematically-linked clusters of courses, diversity courses, service learning courses, undergraduate research opportunities, and so on--doesn't necessarily address the criticisms that are legitimately raised about cafeteria-style distribution requirements, in which students can choose from long, almost overwhelmingly diverse lists of courses to fulfill their arts and humanities requirements, their social science requirements, and so on. Those criticisms arise from a sense that students educated under that system don't have enough guidance, have too much choice, and are encouraged to choose their way into spotty, diffuse, disconnected, and ultimately incoherent educational patterns.
Making courses smaller and more focussed reduces the kinds of alienation that students can experience in huge, impersonal intro lecture courses (though I must say I think those courses can be great, and they have their place). So it might be more fun, and nurturing, and even intellectually rewarding to study in seminars and learning communities and what not. But that's a *very* far cry from a school saying, "Hey! Our general ed requirements are ridiculouslessly overexpansive! Let's all agree that every student should take a year of US history, two years of foreign language, an econ survey course, a really serious year of writing, math through pre-calculus, and enough science that they graduate with a sense of the scientific method, of the history of scientific thought (including the debates involved), and of the deciding scientific debates today (we live in a world where you need to know what stem cell research is and how it works, for example; most of don't).
At least as the AACU reports it, gen ed reform is centered more on changing the affective dimensions of undergraduate study than the substantive ones. Gen ed feels different if you can ditch the 500-person lecture course on Psych 1 and take a freshman seminar on a cool topic with a sharp, engaged professor who knows your name; such a course might even be a better course, and result in better learning outcomes for the students. But this begs the question of whether the problems of the "cafeteria" are really being addressed. One wonders whether the cafeteria model of endless, impersonal, ultimately mediocre choice is just being replaced by a "coffee shop" model in which more limited choice does not produce more focussed study, but instead results in a boutique mentality where specialized material and personal attention become the indices of quality.
That's just me throwing out a hypothetical on a Monday morning upon which I am exceptionally groggy. Don't read it as my ideal recipe for core education, but rather please see it as my attempt to draw a contrast between the vocabulary the AACU is using and the vocabulary that it might make more sense to use when thinking through the matter of whether colleges and universities are truly beginning to address the problem of general ed reform.
UPDATE: More at ACTA Online.
May 16, 2009
Let it bee
The hive inspection yesterday went wonderfully -- in their first week in the hive, the bees have released the queen from her protective cage, and have begun making comb. The queen is laying eggs, and the workers are storing pollen and nectar.
Re: the video above: My mom is learning to make movies -- this is her first effort, shot during the bees' first few days in the hive. Check it out and see if you don't think the bees are pretty marvelous.
May 15, 2009
Our honeybees arrived last week, for our inaugural year of beekeeping. You build your hive over the winter, and then in the spring, you have a starter package of several thousand bees plus one queen (ours is named Latifah) delivered to you. You drop them into the hive, set them up with a store of sugar syrup, and let them settle in for a week.
You can visit the hive during that time, and see them coming and going. They are beautiful, and gentle, and so fun to watch. Honeybees have a bad rap because of wasps and hornets--but they are very unlikely to sting you. All they want to do is go about their business in the hive, and they don't mind you if you don't bug them.
They are very tolerant. You can get right up next to the hive, and watch the workers brings great blobs of pollen back to the hive. You can watch the guard bees protecting the entrance. Sometimes you see a bee sitting in the entrance fanning her wings like crazy to regulate the hive temperature. If you put your ear up against the hive, you can hear them in there buzzing around, building comb, storing pollen and nectar and water, tending the nursery, and making honey.
After a week, you open up the hive to make sure everything is going well in there -- the queen should be laying eggs, the comb should be getting built, and there should be the beginnings of honey production. That's what we do today, and I can't wait.
May 13, 2009
Undercover campus reporting
May 12, 2009
I'm nobody -- who are you?
I've never understood the impulse to interfere with consenting adults' ability to marry one another. Just do not get it. So I loved this op-ed in this morning's New York Times:
I've been legally female since 2002, although the definition of what makes someone "legally" male or female is part of what makes this issue so unwieldy. How do we define legal gender? By chromosomes? By genitalia? By spirit? By whether one asks directions when lost?
We accept as a basic truth the idea that everyone has the right to marry somebody. Just as fundamental is the belief that no couple should be divorced against their will.
For our part, Deirdre and I remain legally married, even though we're both legally female. If we had divorced last month, before Governor Baldacci's signature, I would have been allowed on the following day to marry a man only. There are states, however, that do not recognize sex changes. If I were to attempt to remarry in Ohio, for instance, I would be allowed to wed a woman only.
Gender involves a lot of gray area. And efforts to legislate a binary truth upon the wide spectrum of gender have proven only how elusive sexual identity can be. The case of J'noel Gardiner, in Kansas, provides a telling example. Ms. Gardiner, a postoperative transsexual woman, married her husband, Marshall Gardiner, in 1998. When he died in 1999, she was denied her half of his $2.5 million estate by the Kansas Supreme Court on the ground that her marriage was invalid. Thus in Kansas, any transgendered person who is anatomically female is now allowed to marry only another woman.
Similar rulings have left couples in similar situations in Florida, Ohio and Texas. A 1999 ruling in San Antonio, in Littleton v. Prange, determined that marriage could be only between people with different chromosomes. The result, of course, was that lesbian couples in that jurisdiction were then allowed to wed as long as one member of the couple had a Y chromosome, which is the case with both transgendered male-to-females and people born with conditions like androgen insensitivity syndrome. This ruling made Texas, paradoxically, one of the first states in which gay marriage was legal.
A lawyer for the transgendered plaintiff in the Littleton case noted the absurdity of the country's gender laws as they pertain to marriage: "Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Tex., is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Tex., and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male."
Legal scholars can (and have) devoted themselves to the ultimately frustrating task of defining "male" and "female" as entities fixed and unmoving. A better use of their time, however, might be to focus on accepting the elusiveness of gender--and to celebrate it. Whether a marriage like mine is a same-sex marriage or some other kind is hardly the point. What matters is that my spouse and I love each other, and that our legal union has been a good thing--for us, for our children and for our community.
The last sentence says it all. As with so many things, it really should be that simple--but human beings have a way of complicating things into impossibility.
Two quick things: 1) If you have not seen Transamerica, do. It's amazing. 2) Here's the rest of the title poem:
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
Love the sound of Dickinson in the morning.
May 11, 2009
Lone Star exemplar
Texas business professor Jeff Sandefer connects some uncomfortable dots:
In the May 1 Austin American-Statesman, University of Texas professor Thomas Palaima asks us to "thank" tenured professors for improving "what they (have) rightly come to view as 'their' colleges and universities." According to Professor Palaima, tenured professors believe that our colleges and universities belong to them.
When workers and managers believe an organization exists to serve them, and not its customers or its rightful owners, it begins a terminal decline. General Motors serves as a grim reminder of the end result.
As a successful entrepreneur and a longtime university teacher, my years inside academia have taken me to places where parents, donors, and taxpayers aren't welcome. I have seen firsthand what happens when tenured faculties act as if the universities belong to them.
For starters, interest in teaching declines. According to the federal government's National Center for Education Statistics:
--The average tenured professor now teaches fewer than three classes per year, and often no more than a handful of students at a time, despite the fact that tenured and tenure-track faculty account for the bulk of college costs.
--For so little work, the average full professor receives more than $150,000 annually in salary and benefits.
--As a result, the cost of instruction for some tenured faculty members exceeds $20,000 per student.
So who teaches our children, if not the tenured faculty? An underclass of teaching assistants, adjuncts, and other non-tenured faculty – many of whom are paid $10 per hour or less. According to the New York Times, 70 percent of the faculties at American universities are made up of non-tenured, non-tenure track faculty.
Don't misunderstand. Inside our universities are some wonderful teachers, tenured and non-tenured still dedicated to serving students. These teachers are my friends and heroes – but there are far too few of them, and they pay a heavy price because of perverse institutional incentives.
How does the tenured faculty spend its time? Writing academic journal articles that few people read. Since the tenured faculty answers only to itself, prestige and promotion rests on publishing in these journals; graduate students who desire tenure slave away to serve the tenured priesthood, often "co-authoring" articles for those already in power.
But doesn't academic research drive the economy? The Texas Legislature seems to think so. It continues to support higher education's thirst for unlimited research funding and more "Tier One" universities, never stopping to inquire whether the esoteric research designed to serve the faculty's interest is worth what it costs.
--Academic research, properly accounted for, consumes two-thirds of every dollar we spend in American universities.
--Over the last decade, Texas taxpayers have spent more than $20 billion on scientific academic research – reportedly the most economically productive academic research – to generate less than $14 million a year in net patent income. That's less than a 1 percent rate of return.
--That same money invested in college scholarships would have allowed us to double the number of Texas students who attend college.
Work done by University of Ohio professor Richard Vedder goes one step further: the waste in our universities is so great that more spending on higher education in a state leads to lower economic growth. California is an example of what happens when runaway higher education spending leads to higher taxes that cripple a state economy.
Palaima is right that tenured faculties do believe that our colleges and universities belong to them. And they might go on strike if pushed too hard. But then the joke might be on them: college costs would plummet, most students would continue to be well served by non-tenured faculty, and the state economy would prosper.
It's time for the Texas Legislature to stop writing "blank checks" to our state colleges and universities for tenured professors to spend as they please. Instead, all state higher education funding should be directed to scholarships, so universities once again will have to answer to the people who pay the bills. That's the only way students, parents, and taxpayers will ever regain control of our universities.
Think of Sandefer's idea as a debate prompt rather than a workable proposal (or, if you think it's workable -- that's great, and please explain how it would work in the comments). From my vantage point, you can't create accountability and efficacy in higher ed by confining all state funding to scholarships. While there is a huge amount of waste, and while teaching has become far less important to many professors (and institutions) than research, we still need research, and we still need the kinds of knowledge academia produces. We also need liberal arts education and the arts and humanities--none of which can really support themselves with grant money. Still, Sandefer is onto something when he speaks of the entitled psychology of an academia that has long ceased to take seriously its accountability to the public. He's also onto something when he implies that we probably need fewer research-oriented institutions and more teaching-oriented ones.
Thoughts and comments are welcome.
May 8, 2009
Merit, choice, and the future
We've made the education problem so complicated and political. But it doesn't have to be. Here's David Brooks on the charter schools operated by the Harlem Children's Zone:
The fight against poverty produces great programs but disappointing results. You go visit an inner-city school, job-training program or community youth center and you meet incredible people doing wonderful things. Then you look at the results from the serious evaluations and you find that these inspiring places are only producing incremental gains.
That's why I was startled when I received an e-mail message from Roland Fryer, a meticulous Harvard economist. It included this sentence: "The attached study has changed my life as a scientist."
Fryer and his colleague Will Dobbie have just finished a rigorous assessment of the charter schools operated by the Harlem Children's Zone. They compared students in these schools to students in New York City as a whole and to comparable students who entered the lottery to get into the Harlem Children’s Zone schools, but weren't selected.
They found that the Harlem Children's Zone schools produced "enormous" gains. The typical student entered the charter middle school, Promise Academy, in sixth grade and scored in the 39th percentile among New York City students in math. By the eighth grade, the typical student in the school was in the 74th percentile. The typical student entered the school scoring in the 39th percentile in English Language Arts (verbal ability). By eighth grade, the typical student was in the 53rd percentile.
Forgive some academic jargon, but the most common education reform ideas--reducing class size, raising teacher pay, enrolling kids in Head Start--produce gains of about 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 standard deviations. If you study policy, those are the sorts of improvements you live with every day. Promise Academy produced gains of 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. That's off the charts. In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students.
Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap. "The results changed my life as a researcher because I am no longer interested in marginal changes," Fryer wrote in a subsequent e-mail. What Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children's Zone’s founder and president, has done is "the equivalent of curing cancer for these kids. It's amazing. It should be celebrated. But it almost doesn't matter if we stop there. We don't have a way to replicate his cure, and we need one since so many of our kids are dying--literally and figuratively."
... the results also vindicate an emerging model for low-income students. Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don't have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values.
To understand the culture in these schools, I'd recommend "Whatever It Takes," a gripping account of Harlem Children's Zone by my Times colleague Paul Tough, and "Sweating the Small Stuff," a superb survey of these sorts of schools by David Whitman.
Basically, the no excuses schools pay meticulous attention to behavior and attitudes. They teach students how to look at the person who is talking, how to shake hands. These schools are academically rigorous and college-focused. Promise Academy students who are performing below grade level spent twice as much time in school as other students in New York City. Students who are performing at grade level spend 50 percent more time in school.
They also smash the normal bureaucratic strictures that bind leaders in regular schools. Promise Academy went through a tumultuous period as Canada searched for the right teachers. Nearly half of the teachers did not return for the 2005-2006 school year. A third didn't return for the 2006-2007 year. Assessments are rigorous. Standardized tests are woven into the fabric of school life.
The approach works. Ever since welfare reform, we have had success with intrusive government programs that combine paternalistic leadership, sufficient funding and a ferocious commitment to traditional, middle-class values. We may have found a remedy for the achievement gap. Which city is going to take up the challenge? Omaha? Chicago? Yours?
School choice and high standards work. We should stop arguing about it, and start doing it. It's the most decadent, arrogant form of waste to argue against it--it steals kids' futures for the sake of adults' partisan politics in the present.
FWIW: The year I spent teaching at a boarding school was a sharp and clear lesson in what kids respond to and what doesn't work for them. The school was hobbled by a rigid adherence to certain progressive practices and beliefs -- as in, no grades (just supportive report letters); no emphasis on basics such as spelling and grammar (because that might turn kids off); no tracking of any kind (because egalitarian mediocrity that served no one was preferable to the comparisons kids might draw if some were allowed to excel). It was tough being in that system. But what was really instructive about it was that the kids saw through it, thought it was crap, and resented the condescension and the lies that underwrote it. They knew they needed to acquire skills and knowledge--and that they needed feedback for that to happen. They knew there were differences between them--and they accepted that, and urgently wanted an environment that would allow them to gauge their abilities and develop them. They knew the school was not the real world--and worried that it was insulating them in damaging ways from the accountability they would encounter in college and beyond. It was fascinating and painful to watch. Many of them, by the by, were from Harlem. It's good to know that Harlem is now providing local educational options that speak to the best in the kids growing up there.
That said -- Brooks is sidestepping a crucial little something. We're accustomed to seeing eighth-grade gains in kids attending schools that are committed to bringing kids up to speed. But studies show that those gains don't carry over through high school, and that the same kids who gain through middle school fall behind again later on. I still think strict standards and choice are the key--but there is another chapter to the story that Brooks isn't acknowledging. Will the kids in Harlem's system carry their newfound skills, habits, and knowledge over into high school--and on to college and beyond? I truly hope so.
May 7, 2009
Academic Freedom in Translation
I'm always saying on this blog that the term "academic freedom" is as poorly understood as it is intensely contested. It means many things to many people, and many of the folks who invoke it to forward their arguments and agendas about academe either don't know the first thing about it--or, more cynically, know quite a bit about its history and meaning, but are capitalizing on the ignorance of others to advance a self-serving redefinition of the term. The AAUP is, ironically, one of the key actors in that less-than-intellectually-honest endeavor; its recent "Freedom in the Classroom" statement departs rather dramatically from the AAUP's own historical definition of academic freedom. But the AAUP is not alone.
One thing we all need to do--if we're interested in moving beyond stupid culture war posturing and moving toward actual substantive discussion--is get back to basics. We need a shared, working understanding of how the concept of academic freedom emerged, how the AAUP and other organizational players have historically defined it (and subtly redefined it), how the courts have engaged the concept (as kind of a First Amendment issue, but not always and not really), and, finally, of what all that means for practical day-to-day academic life--for institutions, trustees, administrators, departments, professors, and students. If we could do that, we might be able to begin actually talking to one another, instead of talking past one another.
University of Wisconsin professor Donald Downs is one of our better thinkers on the subject of academic freedom, and he's trying to help us do just that. Check out his new paper, "Academic Freedom: What It Is, What It Isn't, and How to Tell the Difference."
Crucial to Downs' discussion is his careful explanation of the checks and balances built into academic freedom--which is not an unqualified right, but is, rather, a highly specific mode of professionalism that combines privileges with duties, obligations, and accountability. See what you think.
May 5, 2009
Obama's voucher blunder
The Obama administration has blown it with its decision on the D.C. voucher program--and it's the kids who are going to pay the price. So much for vital ed reform, for rising above partisanship to focus on what works, for choice and the opportunity that comes with it. Meanwhile, Sasha and Malia, whose parents can afford not to send them to the D.C. public schools, enjoy organic lunches at Sidwell Friends. Sidwell Friends is running the Obamas close to $60,000 a year.
May 4, 2009
Administrators across the nation watched the Ward Churchill case closely. And some of them seem to have extracted quite a procedural take-home lesson. In the past couple of months, we've seen two cases of professors whose research has offended colleagues and administrators--and in both cases those taking offense have used a combination of harassment and research misconduct charges to punish those professors.
First there was the Bowdoin professor who distributed information about how college athletics compromises undergraduate education. His work did not make Bowdoin look very good--and he picked a hell of a time to distribute it, passing out copies during a college recruiting event. So a dean came along and charged him with harassment (for the time, place, and manner of his scholarly dissemination) and research misconduct (for the content of the work itself). The harassment charges didn't stick and were dropped--but the research misconduct charges, trumped up at the same time with the same motive, did.
Now, there's Nick Trujillo, a communications professor at Cal State Sacramento. Professor Trujillo's work is a kind of mockumentaristic, participant observerish, performance artsy, Spinal Tap-ish exploration of how viral media works. Posing as a rock star named Gory Bateson, Trujillo posts videos of himself doing things like serenading a lady of the night in Amsterdam's red light district. Over the past year, he's put over 70 of these things on YouTube, and has also developed Bateson's "identity" with a website for the Ethnogs, his fictional band. Trujillo has acquired a following (the Ethnogs performed at last year's annual meeting of the National Communication Association, and are invited back this year), and he hopes to see his Bateson character go viral. The ultimate aim of his work, as I understand it anyway, is to study how popular sensations emerge within the new media landscape.
Along the way, Trujillo is studying how his academic critics approach his work. And as things are shaping up now, those critics are offering a fascinating window into the self-purging mechanisms of a profession that, despite its claims to inclusiveness, can get very Shirley Jacksonish very quickly when someone runs afoul of the rules. Here's how the Chronicle of Higher Ed lays it out:
The objections come in several forms. In the halls of his department at Sacramento, he drew complaints from colleagues after he taped to a wall outside his office a picture of his character serenading the prostitute (he later agreed to take it down). Another professor filed a grievance against Mr. Trujillo claiming sexual harassment because of a picture he taped in the hallway from one of his videos--a close-up of a dog licking the professor's toes. "I get a letter from HR saying they hired a lawyer to investigate," he said. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' I e-mailed HR and said this is insane. My attitude is this is my research, and it's freedom of speech." The resulting investigation by the human-resources office found there was not enough evidence to warrant the charge.
He sent an e-mail message to his colleagues defending the project and noting that if the character Gory Bateson is offensive, that's part of the point. "I'm playing a burned-out rock star," he told them. "Is he sexist? Yes, hello! It's really critiquing the objectification of women."
The professor's off-campus promotional efforts have also sparked a backlash, including charges of violating research ethics. Edgar Bering, vice president of the Computer Science Club at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, wrote a letter to top officials at Sacramento describing the e-mailed message sent to the club as inappropriate. "We feel that the method used in this 'experiment' lacks the necessary rigor to have any meaning in the study of the social implications of computing," Mr. Bering wrote. "Proper 'viral' media is spread not through e-mail spam and incentive but through word of mouth, and studying 'viral' media by attempting to create artificially 'viral' content is bound to lead to meaningless results."
The letter also said Mr. Trujillo had behaved unethically by involving human subjects (like the club members at Waterloo) without approval from the university's institutional review board.
Among the officials he forwarded the complaint to was Terry Manns, senior director of research policy at Sacramento. He told me that no formal investigation of Mr. Trujillo has been requested. That call, he said, would have to made by the professor's department, which had been copied on the letter of complaint.
Has the project broken any research rules? It's a gray area, Mr. Manns said. "I thought that's a crazy way of doing any kind of research," he said. "In technical terms, I guess I'd wonder whether you'd even call this research."
They're just throwing mud at the wall to see what will stick. It's unbelievable. And it says something about how seriously peer review is taken. Who needs it, after all, when you have mob tactics underwritten by poorly framed academic rules?
A footnote to the article's claim that "The resulting investigation by the human-resources office found there was not enough evidence to warrant the charge." After the complaints about Trujillo's postings were lodged, CSUS dean Jeffrey Mason issued a memo to Trujillo stating, "I request and require that you refrain from posting anything (images or messages) on any university bulletin boards that are not in your own office." Trujillo's right to continue to have the same posting rights as every other faculty member on campus were not restored until he filed a grievance through the union. The text of the memo comes courtesy of Trujillo, who also notes that Mason "has written extensively about censorship."
Ward Churchill won his pyrrhic one-dollar victory because an unsympathetic jury had to admit that Colorado's investigation of his scholarly integrity was triggered by the politically charged uproar surrounding his "roosting chickens" essay about 9/11. Colorado's mistake, I have long maintained, was that it ignored complaints about Churchill's research misconduct until there was a public outcry about him that the university could not ignore. The take home lesson, as I saw it, was that universities should be much more timely about investigating complaints--and should be extra careful to avoid the appearance of attaching ulterior motives to investigations into research misconduct. But the folks at Bowdoin and CSUS seem to have gotten it backward, and are using charges of research misconduct as a cudgel to punish outspoken professors whose methods and message are not felt to be desirable (to watch that backwardness in real time, read the Bowdoin dean's memos to Professor Goldstein, archived at FIRE).
Here's where I think people like Stanley Fish and Michael Berube, who evinced such sanguine suavitude in the wake of the Churchill verdict, have got it backwards themselves. They are cavalier about the problems with Churchill's work because, they argue, every academic can get shredded in much the same way if an investigative committee has a mind to do it. Such shredding, they note, belongs within the realm of peer review -- and they are right as far as it goes. But what they fail to note is 1) peer review doesn't work anymore (if it ever did); and 2) that the work of such careful review is now becoming the provenance of administrative investigators who can launch career-ending investigations with the flimsiest of pretenses, and who can attach exceptionally severe consequences to their findings. To this we can add 3): it looks like we might have the beginning of a pattern on our hands.
May 2, 2009
Not so fun Saturday viewing
May 1, 2009
The content of higher ed's character
NAS president Peter Wood is an anthropologist by training and by instinct. In recent years, he's been turning his skills to higher ed and to the American public sphere, watching patterns unfold in real time, and writing about it along the way. If you have not read Diversity: The Invention of a Concept or A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, it's time you did.
Lately, Wood has been watching public reactions to public policy, particularly when it comes to education. He's also been thinking hard about the ever-expanding vision--powerfully propagated by President Obama in his exhortative statements about how every American should spend some time in college, and about how we should aim to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020--of who should go to college. On the face of it, what's not to love? Isn't that the logical and humane and natural wish of anyone who truly believes in equal opportunity and improved national standards of living? Shouldn't universal college be part of the American dream?
Idealism has a way of bumping up hard against immovable realities, though, and Wood has some very interesting things to say about it all:
I don't see our history of mass education leading to careers for many as clerks, baristas, and dog walkers as an indefinitely sustainable pattern. It is, of course, built on hope. Those college graduates have had little tastes of intellectual nihilism in college, but these were always sweetened with the sugar of social justice preaching. So they have Obama-sized "hope" of changing the system along with their own very American hope of personal advancement. Flood this system with 15 or 16 million additional students, many of them basically uneducable, and will we maintain this delicate combination of illusory social "hope" and semi-realistic personal ambition? I doubt it. The system somewhere has a tipping point at which the university becomes a giant holding pen for young people who have few other options and no real future.
One advantage is that such a system would temporarily lower the unemployment rate by taking people out of the job market. But the disadvantage is that people are quick to sense futility. Turning the university into a massive system of dependency for the young just isn't a good idea. Those who favor the massive expansion seem to believe the seldom examined notion that a college education is something like a conveyor belt that turns high school graduates into highly skilled, employable, "knowledge workers." Indeed, higher education can approximate that model when we have a robust economy, a supply of generally capable and ambitious students, selective admissions standards, and some sort of sane curriculum. These conditions, however, are not fixed, and even before our current economic crisis it had become clear that much of American college education is misaligned with both the job market and the prospect for life-time careers.
While I say the conveyor-belt-to-prosperity model of higher education is seldom examined, it is in fact the subject of a lively debate, just not a debate that gets much attention from the broader public. Last year Claudia Dale Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz published The Race Between Education and Technology (Harvard University Press), a book that argues a close "co-evolution of educational attainment and the wage structure in the United States through the twentieth century." But since 1980, say Goldin and Katz, an "educational slowdown" has led to falling wages and "rising inequality." This is fuel for the College Board, the Lumina Foundation, and President Obama's view that more and still more students should earn college degrees. The other side of the story is best represented by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which generally presents the view that the federal government has unwisely expanded higher education through massive subsidies in the form of student loans. The Center's director, Richard Vedder, for example, strongly disagrees with President Obama's 2020 goal. He writes:
And, let us return to the goal of becoming number one in the proportion of adults who are college graduates. First of all, is that necessarily a good objective? I know many many college graduates taking jobs for which a high school diploma is perfectly adequate, or perhaps a high school diploma plus some specialized post-secondary vocational training. But even if the President's goal is somehow a good one, we would have to have a revolution in education at the K-12 level as well, one that the president would never support because it would offend his union allies. When 30 percent or so of kids do not make it out of high school, it is hard to be number one in college graduates. When over 40 percent of those who do go on don't make it out of college, it becomes impossible. The president is concentrating on the one-third or so of high school graduates that do not go on to college, ignoring the larger other problems that keep 4 of 5 high school freshman from getting a bachelor's degree within a decade of entering high school.
The criticism of higher education as overgrown and deleterious to the lives of some students doesn't sit well with either side of the American political spectrum. Clearly Obama and the progressive left think higher education is an engine of prosperity (as well as votes) that can be scaled up indefinitely. Conservatives often concur in the idea that higher education generally advances the nation's economy. But there are also dissenters on both sides--people who think higher education simply is not doing its job very well.
Wood goes on to wonder about the long-term effects of academia's political homogeneity--which translates, indirectly but very definitely, into a narrowing of intellectual variety, an impoverishment of debate, and a strong pressure, for students as well as faculty, to conform in order to succeed. That conformity, it should be noted, extends beyond political beliefs and even ideas; it leeches into things like procedure and practice and behavior and culture, and includes learning such vital survival skills as "going along to get along" and soul-emptying, chameleonic feats of self-determination in which one becomes who others want them to be--and then matches one's inner being to the outer surface being presented to others for approval. Cynicism, narcissism, resentment, entitlement, and deadly personal passivity result.
So is the character of students shaped by our system of higher education best summarized as conformist? To a large extent, yes. The progressive left, as witnessed by the Center for American Progress' report, New Progressive America, is counting on a vast, quiescent consensus among the college-educated, a consensus sufficient to end the culture wars and usher in a reign of one-sided agreement on all important issues, a sea of leftist tranquility. As I've said, I don't have any strong reason to deny this proposition. The left's near total domination of education at all levels, including colleges and universities, has given it ample opportunity to instill its basic values. These include a settled hatred of Western civilization, an elevation of identity groups and corresponding devaluation of common humanity, and a preference for the homogeneous group over the free-spirited individual.
Along with the conformity comes a warmth-seeking, affirmation-thirsty need for the therapeutic. College graduates today have been used to a life of self-esteem-enhancing bromides. They seldom see difficulty as valuable in its own right. Any Everest that faces them won't be climbed by someone laconically explaining, like Edmund Hillary, "because it is there." It will be climbed, if it is climbed at all, by a social justice recycling alliance "to draw attention to our issues." Grandstanding comes more easily to these folks than doing; and accomplishment without an audience is almost unthinkable.
The character that contemporary American education seems most to foster is also a person unmoored to any abiding sense of reality. He or she--more often she given that about 58 percent of the students are young women--is ambitious, dissatisfied, and vaguely angry. College has made it a settled fact that America is a profoundly unfair society, but that the "structural inequalities" run so deep that there is little that can be done about them. This allows the alternatives of resentful passivity or frenetic pursuit of symbolic protests and acts of atonement. Often you see both in the same person. Lethargically pessimistic one day, stridently assertive the next.
That education leaves people dissatisfied is not necessarily a bad thing, but dissatisfaction comes in different flavors. This isn't the kind of dissatisfaction that often reaches the point of prompting someone to say, "I would actually like to know something about the history of my civilization other than that it was a tale of torment for oppressed minorities." Rather, it is the dissatisfaction of inveterate grumblers. The really pernicious premises of postmodernism seem to sink in and take root. Life becomes a game of appearances and gestures. Materialism may be despised, but it is at least available as a lifestyle option.
No generation is without its vanity. In this case, the growing cohort of sub-educated, not-very-ambitious, forever dissatisfied consumers of sustainability agitprop see themselves pretty much as Richard Florida sees them: profoundly creative and "open to experience." That's a nice way of saying they don't know what's valuable and what isn't, and they are baffled by the problem of how to draw lines.
This is, unfortunately, a picture of lassitude, waste, and false ideals that are pretty much immune to disillusionment since being disillusioned is part of the creed. Genuine enthusiasm is available mostly in celebrating cultural themes that are (or are imagined to be) from outside our own exhausted traditions. But where genuine enthusiasm fails, feigned enthusiasm is readily summoned. This is a generation as well without an actual existential threat. The communist behemoth is gone, and the best that this generation can do by way of monsters under the bed is the fantasy of global warming brought on by people living too well.
The character sketches here make me think of Meadow and AJ Soprano. I don't know if Wood knows The Sopranos, but I do know that The Sopranos knew American culture. I missed the series in real time, and only recently watched the entire series on DVD. It took months. But it was well worth it. Much of the hype surrounding the show centered on the character of Tony--is he a sociopath or not? Can Dr. Melfi help him? Isn't he really just a yuppie in mob's clothing? Or, conversely, isn't the character of modern American life strangely illuminated by--and compatible with--that entity that is so often described as antithetical to it, the mafia? But in the middle of all that, the show conducted a quite interesting exploration of contemporary education--particularly progressive, privileged, private education--and its impact on the lives it shapes. And, interestingly, that exploration has much in common with the line of thought Wood develops here.