About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
June 30, 2009 [feather]
Rethinking the adjunct

So many of the debates about higher ed reform are so incredibly stale, and so profoundly stuck. The debate about the rise of non-tenure-track faculty is one of the stalest and stuckest. But there's a new book out that offers an intriguing new way to think about the issue--and that has the potential to un-stick the debate. Maurice Black and I have co-authored a review of John Cross and Edie Goldenberg's Off-Track Profs; here are the opening paragraphs:


According to the AAUP, 48 percent of faculty are part-timers, and 68 percent of all faculty appointments take place off the tenure track. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) cites comparable numbers, reporting that a mere 27 percent of postsecondary instructors hold fulltime, tenure-track positions. Such figures are the familiar touchstones of debates about the nature and future of academic work, undergraduate education, and academic freedom. They anchor official statements and form the basis of movements. Adjunct faculty are unionizing, and the AFT has launched a campaign to increase the proportion of undergraduate courses taught by fulltime and tenure-track professors to 75 percent.

Surrounded by statistics, activism, and commentary, the adjunct faculty member is never far from discussions about higher ed reform. "There is no subject so painful and so ubiquitous as the role of adjuncts in higher ed," writes Louisiana State University English professor Emily Toth, the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Ms Mentor." Nor, perhaps, is there an academic subject so thoroughly stylized. The underpaid, uninsured, and underappreciated "freeway flyer" has become a tragic figure, a poster prof for the moral, economic, and ethical failings of modern-day academia. Hardly a month goes by without another scandal in which someone fires---or fails to renew---an "invisible adjunct" who has expressed controversial views. Such cases---and the anger they evoke---have become the standardized set pieces of an academia that has yet to reckon with the fact that its modes of employment have undergone a seismic shift.

The supporting casts in these set pieces are as stylized as their non-tenure-track stars. There is the bean-counting administrator, an anti-intellectual corporate drone who sees adjunct faculty as a handy way to reduce overhead. And there is the smug tenured professor who sits idly by while a corps of shamelessly exploited workers enables his light teaching load, his leisurely sabbaticals, and his inflated salary. Together, these characters facilitate two structures of blame. The first focuses on putatively deliberate actions, assuming that the rise of adjuncts is an intended consequence of a specific, crass economic plan; the second focuses on passive inaction, assuming that tenured professors have made a Faustian bargain to secure their own comfort at the expense of tenure and academic freedom for future generations.

Blame of this sort is righteous indeed, and can feel awfully fine. But it's important to recognize its origins in oversimplification and caricature. The cost-conscious administrator is not so ruthlessly calculating as the blame game makes her out to be, nor is the tenured professor so consciously entitled. The fact is that neither administrators nor faculty can be exactly blamed for the rise of adjunct faculty. As John C. Cross and Edie Goldenberg demonstrate in their meticulously documented, devastatingly dispassionate Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, this is a situation that no one set out to create and that no one actively maintains. They find that the growing numbers of non-tenure-track college teachers are, instead, the cumulative, unanticipated result of decades of disconnected, dispersed decision-making by administrators, deans, department chairs, and staff members working within a decentralized system where planning, assessment, communication, accountability, and adjustment are all exceptionally challenging endeavors.

A devastating correlative fact is that no one actually knows what the facts about adjunct labor in academe actually are. Take the statistics propagated by the AAUP, the AFT, and others---the ones that underwrite the academic labor movement and that fuel debate about what the rise in adjunct faculty means for the quality of undergraduate education, for academic freedom, for tenure, and for a host of related issues. These, Cross and Goldenberg note, are often drawn from statistics published by the U.S. Department of Education, which collects them from colleges and universities. But---and this is the appalling discovery at the heart of the book---colleges and universities do not themselves track this information. When called upon to report figures, they throw something together. But they don't actually know what's happening on their campuses. The "data" they report is largely guesswork done to produce what the authors call "fictitious precision."


Read the rest of the review to find out what Cross and Goldenberg have to say about what the lack of real data about adjuncts means--and about what should be done about it.

UPDATE: Here's David French on the implications of Off-Track Profs' argument:


As I read the somewhat surprising news that no one really seems to know how many adjuncts there are and no one really understands how they are (systematically) hired and fired, I couldn't help but think that we're seeing the beginnings of a functioning free market in labor in higher education. While the market is still dramatically distorted by tenure, the very desirability of academic jobs creates the virtual equivalent of a black market in lecturers, instructors, adjuncts, and aides. Budget pressures are eased by the crush of willing applicants, and thorny tenure decisions can be postponed, perhaps indefinitely, by hiring a series of part-time professors eager for even an outside shot at a true, enduring academic career.

While there are no doubt many bad adjuncts, and there are no doubt many instances of unfairness toward and even exploitation of part-time academics, this merely places the university workplace on a more equal footing with virtually any other career. Are these disadvantages worse, on balance, that the disadvantages of the present, tenure-bound system? After all, we know what tenure has given us: a semi-permanent class of academic elites who think alike, cost a lot, and educate poorly.

At the end of the day, lasting academic reform may not come from top-down legislative or legal initiatives, but from the relentless logic and creative energy of thousands of hopeful academics who are willing to do more for less. After a while (and especially during a recession), the costly ideological monoculture spawned by tenure and other hidebound academic traditions simply stops making sense.


Cross and Goldenberg argue that they don't think tenure is going anywhere. But, like David, I find that premise to be awfully counterintuitive.

Erin O'Connor, 6:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)




June 25, 2009 [feather]
Another must-see

The Stoning of Soraya M. opens tomorrow in select theaters. Based on the 1994 bestseller about the stoning-to-death of an Iranian woman, this film is beyond timely, beyond important. See it if you can.

Erin O'Connor, 9:46 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




June 24, 2009 [feather]
Making it

Check out the trailer for TEN9EIGHT, a new film about the power of entrepreneurship to lift kids out of poverty and hopelessness--and into purposeful life. I got the trailer this morning in an email from the Templeton Foundation, which blurbs it thus:


A child drops out of high school in the U.S. every nine seconds, but it doesn’t have to be that way, according to a new film called TEN9EIGHT: Shoot for the Moon. The film tells the inspirational stories of several inner-city teens as they compete in an annual business-plan competition run by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). Both the film and the NFTE have received major grant support from the John Templeton Foundation.

Produced by the award-winning filmmaker Mary Mazzio, TEN9EIGHT shows that when young people are given the opportunity to start their own businesses and take control of their futures, they can improve their academic performance and lift themselves out of even the most difficult circumstances. One of the students featured in the film is Rodney Walker, who was put into the foster care system at the age of 5 and ended up homeless on the streets of Chicago. During high school, he founded Forever Life Music and Video Productions, and he is now studying business as a freshman at Morehouse College. Another student in the film is Amanda Loyola, whose father escaped from the slums of Rio de Janeiro and brought his family to Brooklyn, where he worked at Burger King. Inspired by his example, Amanda started her own business, a vegetarian dog-treat company.

The final NFTE competition in New York City brings together 35 young entrepreneurs, chosen from over 24,000 participating students from across the country. The winner receives $10,000 to launch his or her own business. The finalists have the opportunity to interact with high-profile entrepreneurs like Arthur Blank, the founder of Home Depot; Tom Scott, the co-founder of Nantucket Nectars; and Kay Koplovitz, the founder of USA Network.


TEN9EIGHT opens at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, where Arne Duncan will introduce it.

Erin O'Connor, 7:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




June 22, 2009 [feather]
How to read an English department

Wanted to draw attention to a column that ran last week in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. The subject is the fraudulent manner in which many schools handle the teaching of freshman composition:


When I was a graduate student, I participated in academic fraud. I didn't plagiarize to get an article published or inflate my CV to get a job. I did something worse. I accepted a teaching assistantship as a doctoral student at Elite National University.

By becoming a TA there, I took on a responsibility for which I had no qualifications: teaching first-year composition courses. Even though I had a bachelor's degree in English, I hadn't taken an introductory writing course while I was an undergraduate. I'd never taught before or had any course work in education. I didn't even have a master's degree. My hometown community college wouldn't have hired me as an adjunct, but Elite National U. put me in charge of two sections of a required class.

Students attend ENU to be taught by experts, not amateurs. In my defense I can only plead ignorance.


The anonymous author--who is now an English professor--goes on to describe the shock he felt upon learning what being a "teaching assistant" really meant (he thought it meant that he would begin his teaching career apprentice-style, by assisting an actual college teacher, rather than by being thrown head first into his own comp class). He describes the non-training and non-mentoring offered by his graduate program, with special emphasis on his sad and groping attempts to handle things like suspected learning disabilities. He describes how the grading system was rigged at the program level. And he describes how his students instantly intuited his inexperience, and behaved accordingly:

In those days, graduate programs at many universities sent teaching assistants into the classroom with no training, but ENU took pride in its support program. Before the first day of classes, new TA's had an entire afternoon of training in grading essays, and "Dr. Dreedle," the director of the first-year composition program, told us, "Look confident."

Straining to appear stern, I began the first day of class by giving a rehearsed speech about the wonders of writing essays. I hadn't gotten very far when one young man, "Nate," declared in a stage whisper, "Bullshit!"

I hadn't prepared a response for obscenity, but the other students ignored Nate, so I went on. In a few moments Nate repeated his sotto voce declaration. The young women around him snickered. I praised rhetoric more loudly. Then he said it again.

I resorted to what I'd seen teachers do in high school. I glared at Nate and asked coldly, "Do you have a question?"

He looked down. "No."

Nate spent the rest of the semester challenging me, and I responded like a desperate novice. I tried telling Nate outside of class to behave, shaming Nate in front of his fellow students, and finally forcing him to sit in a desk in the front where I could keep an eye on him. We endured one another until the semester ended.


I expect that the author wrote this piece because he knew his experience was far more typical than not. His story certainly meshes with my own, which also involved being thrown into teaching freshman comp without ever having taught before, and essentially without preparation or guidance. Yes, there were some nominal "training" sessions the week before classes started, and yes, there were some "mentoring" sessions throughout the first semester, but I can't say they did much.

I was tickled by the anecdote about Nate. My Nate didn't curse at me, so far as I can remember--but he did make faces at me, and once he stood up in the middle of class, calmly walked out, and twenty minutes later returned with a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke, which he then ate, noisily and with great relish, throughout the remainder of the hour. Once you've taught for a few years, such events become totally unimaginable--you just acquire an easy authority and things like that just do not happen. You don't have to think about Imposing Order or Commanding Respect or any of those things. It just happens. You know your job and you know what you are doing, and the students instinctively know that you know, and problems are very rare indeed. But when you are just beginning, anything can happen.

The fact is that of all the courses English departments offer, composition is probably the hardest one to teach (and also the hardest one to take). The workload is much greater and in many ways more demanding, for both teacher and student, than a traditional literature course, and the stakes are much higher -- it really matters whether students learn in freshman comp. It matters no matter what they go on to major in, and no matter what they go on to do in life. It matters much less whether they learn something in an elective seminar on Victorian novels--and I say that as someone whose bread and butter used to be teaching Victorian novels. And yet, for the most part the folks who teach composition in university English departments are grad students who have no particular interest in composition, who may not be very good writers themselves, who may or may not know the rules of grammar and syntax, and who have been planted in composition classrooms because a) they need teaching experience; b) the faculty doesn't want to teach composition. It's win-win for everyone except the freshmen who don't get the kind of course they need--and have a right to expect.

So what tends to happen in freshman comp? The standard model is that students spend most of their class time discussing readings--rather like a standard lit course. This suits the grad student teachers just fine, because it lets them practice teaching literature, which is what they really want to teach anyhow, while also allowing them to mask the fact that they aren't generally doing very much at all in the way of teaching actual writing. Students will then write lots of essays, and there will often be lots of class time devoted to "workshopping" the essays, an enormously time-consuming activity of questionable value. In a "workshop" every student has supposedly read and commented on one student's essay. Then they all talk about it, and deliver their considered opinions about what's good about the essay and about how it could be improved. Good teachers can make this format work--but inexperienced ones tend to allow it to become a shapeless free for all in which bad ideas get just as much play as good ones, and in which the outcome tends more to confusion than clarity. That's an acceptable tradeoff for the beginning teacher, though, as workshopping is a great way to fill up class time while getting the students to talk. It also makes everyone feel that writing is being taught--even when it isn't.

Stanley Fish is fascinating on the subject of what composition courses should be. Here he is in Save the World on Your Own Time:


All composition courses should teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. No composition course should have a theme, especially not one the instructor is interested in. Ideas should be introduced not for their own sake, but for the sake of the syntactical and rhetorical points they help illustrate, and once they serve this purpose, they should be sent away. Content should be avoided like the plague it is, except for the deep and inexhaustible content that will reveal itself once the dynamics of language are regarded not as secondary, mechanical aids to thought, but as thought itself. If content takes over, what won't get done is the teaching of writing, something the world really needs and something an academic with the appropriate training can actually do.

Note the bit about training. But of course, if composition courses were treated as Fish would like, you couldn't just dump unprepared grad students in to teach them.

Erin O'Connor, 6:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)




June 19, 2009 [feather]
Building bridges

Yesterday I wrote a bit about the stalemated quality of many "debates" (they aren't really debates, since they are stalemated and increasingly scripted) about higher ed. The occasion was ACTA's new booklet on intellectual diversity on campus--which, far from being a "manufactured controversy" (a phrase coined by defenders of the academic status quo and defended vigorously with a nice brew of ad hominem attack, false accusation, and ostrich-like disinterest in facts)--poses some very reasonable, constructive ideas for what campuses can do to ensure that free inquiry and open exchange are alive and well among students and faculty. ACTA's ideas are all drawn from examples of what some forward-looking schools are already doing--and they exemplify ACTA's collaborative outlook.

So did the panel discussion ACTA recently ran at the AAUP national meeting, and so do a bunch of other recent ACTA endeavors. Here's ACTA president Anne Neal, describing the organization's outlook over at ACTA Online:


"Reaching Across the Aisle: Bridging the Gap Between Governing Boards and Academics." That was the name of ACTA's panel discussion at the recent American Association of University Professors annual meeting. Dedicated to fostering a greater exchange between faculty and trustees, this panel was part of ACTA's larger, long-term effort to educate trustees about what constitutes appropriate governance, to educate faculty about the same thing, to spark productive discussions between these two groups, and to enlist the AAUP as a partner in those efforts.

In recent months, ACTA has been pleased to reach out to faculty and the AAUP in a number of ways. In December, we participated in a colloquy with AAUP board member and Penn State English professor Michael Berube at the National Communication Association's annual convention. In January, at the annual meeting of the National Association of Scholars, we asked AAUP president and University of Illinois English professor Cary Nelson to join us in stomping out speech codes (he accepted our invitation). Most recently, we included an article by AAUP general secretary Gary Rhoades about intellectual diversity in our forthcoming newsletter. These events are complemented by our participation in academic conferences hosted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the State University of New York, and others. At every point, we seek to build an ongoing, positive engagement with the higher ed community -- to discuss issues, to hear differing perspectives, to brainstorm solutions, and to build the kinds of dialogues and relationships that can facilitate beneficial reform for everyone in higher ed, from the faculty to the students.

We may not have completely "bridged the gap" just yet, but we have only just begun. And I do believe we have laid a strong foundation. As I noted during the AAUP session, ACTA shares faculty members' interest in demanding excellent governance -- including resisting rogue administrators and trustees who micromanage. That is one of the goals of our state report cards, which grade boards on numerous fronts: presidential selection and review, committee structures, transparency and accessibility, as well as substantive actions. ACTA also shares many faculty members' legitimate concern about administrative bloat and about trustees who lack a sensitive understanding of the special protocols and values that underwrite the unique enterprise of higher education.

That said, we also believe that it is the professoriate's job to reach out to trustees. Faculty should understand that presidents and trustees are engaged in enormously complex, vital, and often urgent fiduciary endeavors. They should also understand that, going forward, trustees must be included among academia's primary stakeholders, alongside faculty and administrators. The bottom line: Shared governance should indeed be "shared." ACTA has made a start towards a broader dialogue and we look forward to continuing on this path.


Here's to the AAUP for giving ACTA space at the conference--and here's to the folks who attended, listened, and took part in the discussion afterward. I was not there myself, but I have heard from some who were that it was a very good panel indeed.

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




June 18, 2009 [feather]
Jumpstarting free exchange

It's like a game of endless tennis, the "debate" about whether campuses these days do what they should to ensure the free exchange of ideas. Critics say they don't, and point to speech codes, scandalous cases in which students or faculty have been punished for expressing their views, and so on. Status quoers say the criticisms are the "manufactured controversies" of folks with an ideological axe to grind--asserting, along the way, that the people who say they want to see free exchange on campus don't really want that at all. What they actually want, they proclaim, is to shift the balance of power so that their views are the only ones allowed. Well, that's never been why I talk about those ideas here, and it's never been why any of the people and organizations I know who care about those issues care about them, either. Still, the accusation seems to carry an awful lot of weight, considering that it circulates among people who make their living doing things like weighing evidence, assembling facts, produced reasoned analysis and things like that. In the end, it's tiresome, and like so many of the ongoing battles in the academic culture wars, it never seems to resolve. (Yes, I know I've mixed metaphors--that tennis has become war and game has become battle. Forgive me, reader, for I am only half way through my first cup of coffee.)

So while I was mixing metaphors, where I was going was this: the way to advance the discussion, and, more than that, to move from stalemated discussion to actual constructive action, is to stop arguing about how many speech codes do or do not dance on the head of a pin and to start framing practical, content-neutral, reasonable things that actual people on campus can actually do to ensure that their institution is doing what it needs to do to safeguard freewheeling study, inquiry, discussion, and debate for all. A new report issued today by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni sets out to do just that, looking at what schools across the country are doing and laying out best practices for all schools that want to fulfill their stated commitments to robust debate and the vibrant exchange of ideas.

Here's Mary Beth Marklein at USA Today:


Dozens of public and private colleges have taken steps to ensure their students are exposed to a range of intellectual views on campus, and to ensure that students can freely express their views, says a report being released Thursday.

"If you want to produce informed citizens, you have to hear both sides" of an argument, says Anne Neal, president of the Washington-based non-profit American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA plans to mail its report, based on a review of more than 200 schools, to more than 9,000 trustees as part of a campaign to "reinvigorate the free exchange of ideas" on campuses, she says.

The report highlights 40 examples at public and private institutions in 24 states, including a Tufts University lecture series that features speakers, such as historian Shelby Steele and author Salman Rushdie, who hold "provocative and perhaps controversial points of view," and a University of Missouri system requirement that orientation programs explain what students can do if they think they are being penalized because of their beliefs.

Despite such cases, "the free exchange of ideas ... is in peril in today's academy," says the report. It cites a 2006 case in which a social work student sued Missouri State University after she said her grade suffered when she refused to sign a letter supporting gay adoption as part of a class project. (The case was settled out of court.) The University of Delaware revised an orientation program in 2007 after some students and parents said the exercises sought to shape their attitudes on sensitive issues, including race and sex.

Some free-speech groups argue that ACTA mostly targets liberal faculty, but Neal notes that it recently criticized a decision by private Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., founded by evangelical Christian Jerry Falwell, to end recognition of a College Democrats club. While private universities "do have the right to restrict student and faculty expression ... the decision is nonetheless unfortunate, as it is likely to make for a less vibrant intellectual environment on campus," an ACTA blog post says.

In recent years, ACTA has promoted a number of legislative efforts to require public universities to report what they do to prevent bias against students because of their political and religious beliefs.

No proposals have become law, but Neal says legislative pressure has led to some reforms. In South Dakota, the board of regents requires faculty at its six universities to include a "freedom in learning" statement in course outlines that says, in part, that students "should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study."

Critics of such policies say there's a reason not one of more than 30 states has passed bills introduced since 2004 related to free speech on campus: they represent "a manufactured controversy that distracts from the real issues affecting higher education," says Megan Fitzgerald of the Chicago-based Free Exchange on Campus Coalition, a non-profit founded in 2006 to rally against groups such as ACTA.

With a few high-profile exceptions, the coalition says, independent investigations of a liberal bias on individual campuses have turned up nothing.

That may be subject to interpretation, however. ACTA says, for example, that a 2007 campus survey of students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that "at least 13% of undergraduates felt they had witnessed at least one classroom situation in which unpopular or provocative ideas seemed to have been unwelcome, either because of the instructor's viewpoint or viewpoints of most students." But Ron Strauss, the school's executive associate provost, says the survey "was very valuable in that it helped us determine that this was not a major issue and it didn't sort by political point of view."

Neal says it's "simply disingenuous" to deny problems.

"Our report shows the different ways institutions are indeed taking voluntary concrete steps to address this," she says.


So what about that 13 percent figure? Marklein takes that up on her blog:

I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that different people can look at the same information and draw different conclusions. So I ask, is 13% cause for concern, or nothing to get excited about?

You'll see specifics on what I'm talking about below. I'm referencing a story being posted today about the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which encourages colleges to develop campus climate surveys to assess whether students are free to express their unique views, without penalty and in a respectful environment. In a new report, it praises the University System of Georgia and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, among others, for having taken such steps.

But what to make of the results? As the online version of our story says, ACTA noted that 13% of undergraduates in the Chapel Hill survey "felt they had witnessed at least one classroom situation in which unpopular or provocative ideas seemed to have been unwelcome." Ron Strauss, the school's executive associate provost, said the overall findings "helped us determine that this was not a major issue and it didn't sort by political point of view."

As for the Georgia system survey, ACTA mainly lauds the system for its attention to the free-speech issue. It says the survey found "certain troubling findings (that) merit further review," but doesn't give details.

A press release on the Georgia survey notes that 13% (there's that number again) of its students agreed that professors had inappropriately presented their own political views. It comes in the second to last paragraph of the release. Higher up, research director James Bason says: "In evaluating the data, I saw no pattern of political discrimination of any particular sort." Chief Academic Officer Susan Herbst told me the survey "didn't find anything particularly worrisome" regarding classroom practices.

I urge anyone who is interested in this subject to read the survey findings themselves. Meanwhile, what do you think, readers? Cause for concern, or nothing to worry about?

Let me add one more thing about the Georgia survey: The fiercest debates over issues related to free speech in higher education center on the classroom. Critics of groups like ACTA (such as the 22-member Free Exchange on Campus Coalition mentioned in the story) argue that ACTA's foremost interest is in limiting academic freedom for faculty. Here's that group's most recent report, which calls the whole issue a "manufactured controversy."

But one of the most interesting Georgia findings, Herbst told me, was that some students felt their fellow students should be more respectful of different viewpoints. That, she says, merits further review. "I would like them to learn more about respect and tolerance. When they get out in the workplace they'll meet all kinds of people with different views," she says.

Another question, readers: Any thoughts on how to achieve that?


Good questions.

The ACTA report--which is directed at trustees--makes a number of recommendations. Among them: Survey the campus climate, incorporate intellectual diversity into institutional statements and policies, eliminate speech codes, encourage visiting scholar and guest lecture series, build intellectual diversity into new student orientation and strategic planning initiatives.

Sounds to me like such measures would serve everyone on campus--not just people with this or that view--and that they are all good, sound, affordable, uncontroversial steps all campuses should consider taking. Also sounds like it's really not necessary to decide what that 13 percent does or does not mean in order to go forward with the no nonsense actions recommended in the report. No "manufactured controversy" in sight.

Erin O'Connor, 8:03 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




June 15, 2009 [feather]
What he said

Peter Berkowitz has an excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed on why and how conservative thought should be integrated into the college curriculum. His thoughts are applied particularly to political science departments, but they also model a spirit of inquiry and openness that could well be adopted by a wide range of liberal arts disciplines. He also meticulously shoots down the straw men that usually interrupt and obfuscate the type of discussion he is attempting to start (no, this is not about affirmative action for conservatives; no, this is not about imposing anything on anyone, but rather about improving intellectual life for everyone).

Here's the whole thing. See what you think.


The political science departments at elite private universities such as Harvard and Yale, at leading small liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore and Williams, and at distinguished large public universities like the University of Maryland and the University of California, Berkeley, offer undergraduates a variety of courses on a range of topics. But one topic the undergraduates at these institutions -- and at the vast majority of other universities and colleges -- are unlikely to find covered is conservatism.

There is no legitimate intellectual justification for this omission. The exclusion of conservative ideas from the curriculum contravenes the requirements of a liberal education and an objective study of political science.

Political science departments are generally divided into the subfields of American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Conservative ideas are relevant in all four, but the obvious areas within the political science discipline to teach about the great tradition of conservative ideas and thinkers are American politics and political theory. That rarely happens today.

To be sure, a political science department may feature a course on American political thought that includes a few papers from "The Federalist" and some chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."

But most students will hear next to nothing about the conservative tradition in American politics that stretches from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt to William F. Buckley Jr. to Milton Friedman to Ronald Reagan. This tradition emphasizes moral and intellectual excellence, worries that democratic practices and egalitarian norms will threaten individual liberty, attends to the claims of religion and the role it can play in educating citizens for liberty, and provides both a vigorous defense of free-market capitalism and a powerful critique of capitalism's relentless overturning of established ways. It also recognized early that communism represented an implacable enemy of freedom. And for 30 years it has been animated by a fascinating quarrel between traditionalists, libertarians and neoconservatives.

While ignoring conservatism, the political theory subfield regularly offers specialized courses in liberal theory and democratic theory; African-American political thought and feminist political theory; the social theory of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school; and numerous versions of postmodern political theory.

Students may encounter in various political theory courses an essay by the British historian and philosopher Michael Oakeshott, or a chapter from a book by the German-born American political philosopher Leo Strauss. But they will learn very little about the constellation of ideas and thinkers linked in many cases by a common concern with the dangers to liberty that stem from the excesses to which liberty and equality give rise.

That constellation begins to come into focus at the end of the 18th century with Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France." It draws on the conservative side of the liberal tradition, particularly Adam Smith and David Hume and includes Tocqueville's great writings on democracy and aristocracy and John Stuart Mill's classical liberalism. It gets new life in the years following World War II from Friedrich Hayek's seminal writings on liberty and limited government and Russell Kirk's reconstruction of traditionalist conservatism. And it is elevated by Michael Oakeshott's eloquent reflections on the pervasive tendency in modern politics to substitute abstract reason for experience and historical knowledge, and by Leo Strauss's deft explorations of the dependence of liberty on moral and intellectual virtue.

Without an introduction to the conservative tradition in America and the conservative dimensions of modern political philosophy, political science students are condemned to a substantially incomplete and seriously unbalanced knowledge of their subject. Courses on this tradition should be mandatory for students of politics; today they are not even an option at most American universities.

When progressives, who dominate the academy, confront arguments about the need for the curriculum to give greater attention to conservative ideas, they often hear them as a demand for affirmative action. Usually they mishear. Certainly affirmative action for conservatives is a terrible idea.

Political science departments should not seek out professors with conservative political opinions. Nor should they lower scholarly standards. That approach would embrace the very assumption that has corrupted liberal education: that to study and teach particular political ideas one's identity is more important than the breadth and depth of one's knowledge and the rigor of one's thinking

One need not be a Puritan to study and teach colonial American religious thought, an ancient Israelite to study and teach biblical thought, or a conservative or Republican to study and teach conservative ideas. Affirmative action in university hiring for political conservatives should be firmly rejected, certainly by conservatives and defenders of liberal education.

To be sure, if political science departments were compelled to hire competent scholars to offer courses on conservative ideas and conservative thinkers, the result would be more faculty positions filled by political conservatives, since they and not progressives tend to take an interest in studying conservative thought. But there is no reason why scholars with progressive political opinions and who belong to the Democratic Party can not, out of a desire to understand American political history and modern political philosophy, study and teach conservatism in accordance with high intellectual standards. It would be good if they did.

It would also be good if every political science department offered a complementary course on the history of progressivism in America. This would discourage professors from conflating American political thought as a whole with progressivism, which they do in a variety of ways, starting with the questions they tend to ask and those they refuse to entertain.

Incorporating courses on conservatism in the curriculum may, as students graduate, disperse, and pursue their lives, yield the political benefit of an increase in mutual understanding between left and right. In this way, reforming the curriculum could diminish the polarization that afflicts our political and intellectual classes. But that benefit is admittedly distant and speculative.

In the near term, giving conservative ideas their due will have the concrete and immediate benefit of advancing liberal education's proper and commendable goal, which is the formation of free and well-furnished minds.


Interestingly, the people commenting on Berkowitz' piece think he has been far too moderate -- and that he errs unto the point of naivete.

For what it's worth, I'll note that Berkowitz' ideas dovetail quite neatly with some things Penn State English professor Michael Berube says in What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?--a book that has become a touchstone for academics wishing to refute accusations of institutionalized political bias, and that has become synonymous with a compelling, well-reasoned defense of liberal arts education.

Here's Berube on conservative ideas in academe, with apologies in advance for the necessary ellipses:


These days I often think my field is so pervasively liberal-left that smart young conservatives will shun it altogether. I know there are still some conservatives out there who truly love the arts and humanities--"old school" arts and humanities, usually more Augustan than modern, more Chaucerian than Kafkaesque, but I'll settle for what I can get and, besides, some of those old schools were pretty good. Arts-and-humanities conservatives may be a dying breed, as conservatism in America becomes more and more associated with the know-nothing, Tom DeLay wing of the Republican Party .... but when they disappear from the earth altogether, along with conservative American economists who believe in honest budgets and honest business practices (an endangered species) and conservative American environmentalists who respect scientific evidence (already extinct), I know that I will miss them terribly. Or, to put it another way, I often wish I had more conservative colleagues in literary study.

I'm serious about this. I don't mind in the least having substantial political disagreements with colleagues, just so long as they're smart colleagues who hit the rhetorical ball back over the net with gusto and topspin. I already have plenty of these on the left ... But when all the substantial intellectual disagreements in a discipline are arguments among leftists and liberals, the premises of argument are inevitably skewed--especially in those lefter-than-though circles in which the most "oppositional" positions claims for itself the greatest moral authority. And when an entire department or an entire field of inquiry produces a uniform moral mist, it's no wonder that after a while it will attract only those aspirants who like breathing the air.


Interestingly, the assumption here seems to be that you need conservative professors to ensure that conservative ideas have a presence within academe. And while that may be true, it's also, from an intellectual experiment point of view, a bit cramped by the kinds of identity-politics assumptions that Berkowitz challenges above (you don't conservatives on the faculty to teach courses on conservative thought). Looked at from another vantage point, though, Berube is just being realistic: after all, incorporating conservative thought into the curriculum so that undergrads can study it is not at all the same thing as changing the ideological demographics of a professoriate that has become something of an echo chamber--and that suffers in both its scholarship and its professional culture as a result. And finally, from yet another viewpoint, perhaps Berube and Berkowitz are in synch--after all, if professors begin doing what Berkowitz recommends, academe might begin attracting grad students with a broader range of political and intellectual investments. That, in turn, would trickle up, over time, to alter the demographics of departments and also to shift the character of scholarship within and across disciplines. Personally, I think this would be wonderful for everyone involved. May the best ideas win and all that. But perhaps it's the specter of just such a broadening (or should I say, a liberalizing or even a liberation) that ensures the continuation of the status quo.

Erin O'Connor, 8:01 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




June 12, 2009 [feather]
Mirror, mirror

The phenomenon of academic mobbing is finally getting some serious attention within academic circles. Right now, the AAUP is holding an international conference on globalization, shared governance, and academic freedom. And the Chronicle of Higher Ed reports that a session was devoted to the particular ways and means of mobbing behavior in academic space (where, unlike the non-academic workplace, power is decentralized, governance is shared, and unit-level leaders--the ones most likely to encounter mobbing behavior--have little or no training in the kinds of leadership such behavior requires).

Here's the CHE squib:


It probably wouldn't be that hard for faculty members to imagine that academic mobbing--a form of bullying in which members of a department gang up to isolate or humiliate a colleague--could derail their careers. But a discussion of the phenomenon today at the American Association of University Professors' international conference on globalization, shared governance, and academic freedom illustrated that the consequences can be much worse.

The session, based on a paper titled "Mobbing as a Factor in Faculty Work Life," began with a gripping story about how colleagues and administrators had ganged up on a highly productive tenured professor--think of being subjected to a stream of trumped-up complaints, ousted from an office, shut out of departmental meetings and committees, accused of an affair with a graduate student, and more. The professor was eventually fired and almost immediately afterward died of a stroke brought on by the stress of it all.

The story, actually a composite of the real-life experiences of several professors who were victims of mobbing, was written by Joan E. Friedenberg, a professor of bilingual education at Florida Atlantic University who herself has experienced academic mobbing. Collapsing many stories into one, she said, allows her to better communicate "the feelings of bewilderment and dread that victims of mobbing feel."

Ms. Friedenberg and the paper's co-authors, Mark Schneider, an associate professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and Kenneth Westhues, a professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo, presented their research at today's session. Mr. Westhues, who discussed his studies of academic mobbing with The Chronicle in 2006, also offered a handout that included a list of 16 indicators of mobbing. Among them: If rumors are circulating about the target's supposed misdeeds, if the target is excluded from meetings or not named to committees, or if people are saying the target needs to be punished formally "to be taught a lesson," it's likely that mobbing is under way.

But victims should not assume that notifying an administrator will help. Evidence suggests that administrators may find it easier to become part of a mob than to try to stop one, Mr. Schneider said. That's because administrators are likely to think it's better to have one person upset with them than a group. And faculty associations, he said, can't really "confront and expose mobbing unless they are very strong."

Ms. Friedenberg added that administrators should be forewarned that mobbing can have a boomerang effect on them: Some victims are "driven by detail and an intense need for justice," she said, and may launch a "significant counterattack."


She's right about that counterattack bit. I started blogging in 2002 in response to my own experience getting mobbed at Penn. I tried not to talk much about myself but to notice patterns of behavior within academia that resonated with my own experience--and thus Critical Mass was born. It was initially quite an angry blog, and for that reason sometimes painted with too broad a brush. In recent years this blog has calmed down considerably. That's because I've gotten distance on the experience, and the perspective that comes with that, and because I value temperate, reasoned analysis, find conflict exhausting and dull, and distrust ranting--even when it's my own. I'm neither an angry nor a confrontational person by nature, and it's been an interesting journey transforming a blog that began as an expression of personal outrage into something with -- I hope -- a broader purpose and better tone.

When I've written about mobbing here before, commenters sometimes question whether, as a category, it isn't a bit of a red herring. Looked at from one vantage point, the thing that is called academic mobbing might also be called "normal workplace behavior" or even "legitimate response to an incompetent or intractable colleague." Some of the commenters at CHE do that. But academic mobbing really is a thing--and a unique, unicorn-like entity it is, given the decentralized, consensus-driven culture and procedure of academic life. Other commenters at CHE recognize this--and many, for the first time, recognize themselves as targets of mobbing. I relate to that. My own experience with the glorious phenomenon began in 2001. But it was not until 2006, when CHE ran an article on Westhues' work, that I had a name for it, and could read about it, and could see how stylized and archetypal my own personal little hell had been. That's one of the fun paradoxes of workplace mobbing--like its premodern ancestor, witch hunting, it's always true to form, even though it arises spontaneously in small communities that aren't necessarily aware, on any level, that there is a form to follow.

I thought for a little while, after reading Westhues' work, that I would write a book about academic mobbing. I read a lot, and gathered cases and made notes on patterns. I thought I'd bracket the meat of the book with a recounting of my own experience with mobbing--but then decided that at least for the time being, I'd rather move on than relive it all by writing about it.

I do think we need more personal accounts of individuals' experiences with mobbing--that's what will make the experiences begin to count, to be real, and to matter within an institutional framework. As Arlo Guthrie put it, if one person complains, they think you're crazy and they don't listen to you. If two people complain, it's not much better. But if three people come forward, then you have a movement.

The trouble with writing about such experiences, though, is that they are kind of unbelievable--even to the person writing them down. You know as you write that your own lived history is not likely to pass the reasonable person standard. You don't want to take the trouble--and the unpleasant trips down memory lane--if there's just going to be a public dismissal or discounting of what you know to be true. You also don't want to whine--and it's tough to figure out ways of writing about an experience such as academic mobbing without either descending into bathos or assuming an arid posture of noble martyrdom. I've wondered if there might be a way to use humor, but I don't quite see it yet. So, I mull on it, and gladly register moments such as the AAUP panel--which I hope will have a hugely legitimating effect on one of academe's ugliest and least acknowledged cultural norms. And live my life, which is no longer bracketed, as it was for six years, by being mobbed in academia, and which is so, so, so much better for it.

By the way: Here's Westhues' list of 16 signs that mobbing is taking place:


1. By standard criteria of job performance, the target is at least average, probably above average.

2. Rumours and gossip circulate about the target’s misdeeds: "Did you hear what she did last week?"

3. The target is not invited to meetings or voted onto committees, is excluded or excludes self.

4. Collective focus on a critical incident that "shows what kind of man he really is."

5. Shared conviction that the target needs some kind of formal punishment, "to be taught a lesson."

6. Unusual timing of the decision to punish, e. g., apart from the annual performance review.

7. Emotion-laden, defamatory rhetoric about the target in oral and written communications.

8. Formal expressions of collective negative sentiment toward the target, e. g. a vote of censure, signatures on a petition, meeting to discuss what to do about the target.

9. High value on secrecy, confidentiality, and collegial solidarity among the mobbers.

10. Loss of diversity of argument, so that it becomes dangerous to "speak up for" or defend the target.

11. The adding up of the target's real or imagined venial sins to make a mortal sin that cries for action.

12. The target is seen as personally abhorrent, with no redeeming qualities; stigmatizing, exclusionary labels are applied.

13. Disregard of established procedures, as mobbers take matters into their own hands.

14. Resistance to independent, outside review of sanctions imposed on the target.

15. Outraged response to any appeals for outside help the target may make.

16. Mobbers' fear of violence from target, target's fear of violence from mobbers, or both.


It's a good list. I can check a box by all sixteen. Westhues--who got into the study of mobbing when he was himself mobbed--notes that "the most important indicator is shown here as No. 12, the enlargement of some real or imagined misdeed or fault in order to smear the target's whole identity, so that he or she is seen as personally abhorrent--a totally alien other, a dangerous, repugnant entity that turns the stomachs of good and decent people." Been there, been that. Amen.

Erin O'Connor, 8:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)




June 11, 2009 [feather]
For I have known them all already, known them all

Ms. Mentor, the Chronicle of Higher Ed's wonderfully acerbic alternative to Miss Manners, asks readers to recommend "newish academic novels that will delight and instruct her readers," noting that Richard Russo's Straight Man is her current favorite.

Being a campus novel junkie, I wholly support her query and reiterate it here. Russo's novel is truly hilarious, one of those rarities that will actually make you laugh out loud as you read along (it also marks a departure for him, as he's usually writing searching, elegiac, terribly sad and touching novels about life in the dying mill towns of upstate New York--if you have not read Empire Falls or Bridge of Sighs do, and then watch the excellent HBO adaptation of the first with Helen Hunt and Ed Harris and Paul Newman and Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Straight Man is funny for the same reason many campus novels are claustrophobic--they tend to be written in a broad, satiric style that works to emphasize the "you can't make this up" character of academic life. No matter how overdone, over the top, or overdetermined campus novel characters and plots are, one winds up feeling that one is reading realism. You know the characters, and you've seen the story lines played out in actual life. And the tension that creates--between the writer's attempt to parody academic reality and that reality's ready power to absorb and even outdo its own parody--is claustrophobic and funny by turns. You feel you've already been in the plot that David Lodge or Philip Roth or Francine Prose is crafting--and the result is that you begin to feel that the real object of the author's parody is ultimately yourself.

That awareness never altered my enjoyment of academic fiction, but it did make me think about the alternatively self-flattering and masochistic professional narcissism to which such novels ultimately appeal. One of the most intriguing things about the genre of campus fiction is its popularity among those whose ways and means it skewers; the skewering seems to work more to confirm those ways and means than otherwise. Academics enjoy reading about what fools and dolts academics are--as long as they are doing it in a fictional context and the person calling them fools and dolts is one of their own (a striking number of campus novelists have academic appointments). This is all part of the claustrophobic, involuted mystique of the genre.

That said, there are some campus novels that rise above all that (even as they contain it), and happen to be very good works of fiction. I'd count among them Philip Roth's amazing Human Stain and Francine Prose's Blue Angel, both of which I've read several times, and both of which use the hothouse quality of academic life to limn some of the darker corners of the American psyche. David Mamet does this in his play-cum-film Oleanna, as well, though it is so intensely claustrophobic that I can barely watch it. Then there are Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which does a Howard's End on Harvard, and Donna Tartt's overlong but compulsively readable The Secret History, which is a sort of drunken morality tale about what happens when students really take the classics seriously. In a class by itself is A.S. Byatt's Possession, which remains for me (and I suspect for many) an immensely evocative wish-fulfillment fantasy of historical research, with special appeal for Victorianists.

I'm less enamored of the more broadly comic campus novels--Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Jane Smiley, and, most recently, Roger Rosenblatt, whose Beet I found as strained as Russo's Straight Man is supple.

You?

Erin O'Connor, 8:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)




June 9, 2009 [feather]
What she said

Rachel Toor says what needs to be said about the teaching of writing:


If graduate students in the humanities are not being taught how to write--how to structure an argument, how to make clear what is at stake, how to build tension on the sentence level--how can we expect those in the sciences to do any better? In every field there is an overabundance of content to master. Where do you steal the time in the curriculum to work on the form? The assumption is that whoever has gone before you in the teaching has already covered the basics. Graduate professors think that their students got it in their undergraduate years; composition instructors believe that they don't need to teach grammar because their students learned it in high school. How many students, do you think, are learning that an understanding of grammar, syntax, and usage is integral to clear expression of thoughts? That knowing how to write well is the most important skill you can develop, regardless of your career path?

Most students don't think about argumentation after they get their required freshman comp course out of the way. They take this important course when they are overwhelmed by the newness of college and are least ready to learn about the complexities of rhetorical strategies. Composition 101 is probably the hardest class to teach; unfortunately, it is usually led by brand-new graduate teaching assistants. It's no wonder most people don't know how to make an argument.


I like Toor's columns. She's a former editor who now teaches college-level creative writing, and she has marvelous fanatical scourge-like tendencies when it comes to talking about how important writing is and how the world is going to a hell in a handbasket because no one can write, and no one cares about that because no one can tell that no one can write because no one can write. She channels my own inner fanatical writing scourge when she does that. And her thoughts on the illogical infinite regression model of teaching writing--it's never your job because it was the job of other people before you, even when you can see very well for yourself that the people before you did not do their jobs--are thoughts I've had many times myself.

A secret I learned during my year teaching high school students at a small Massachusetts boarding school: They like grammar (and vocabulary and syntax and usage) lessons, and want them, and want to write better. A secret I learned when I returned to Penn from that job: Same is true of college students. I had always done massive grammar and syntax commenting on student papers along with more global commenting on structure and framing and even more global commenting on the content of the argument itself, but after that year in high school I started devoting some formal class time to it as part of the writing component of the lit courses I taught. That was an unusual thing to do in a literature course, and I worried at first that the students would find the whole thing beneath them (even though they needed the work). But they didn't. And they improved. And it was good.

UPDATE: Who knew she had a blog? It's here. She likes being known as having "scourge-like tendencies".

Erin O'Connor, 7:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




June 8, 2009 [feather]
Yes we have no bananas
From the 15th floor you can see all manner of Manhattan eccentricities on the street below. But how did the humdrum rooftop of a nearby apartment house suddenly become covered with a blanket of suburban grass? "No, not grass--you don't want grass," explains Stuart Gaffin, a research scientist tracked down at Columbia University who turns out to be the city's rooftop Johnny Appleseed.

A specialist in something called the Urban Heat Island, Mr. Gaffin has successfully campaigned to have over a half-dozen rooftops, including four at green-minded Columbia, entirely matted with small plants called succulents.

They sop up and vaporize rainwater before it can jam the city sewage treatment plants; they cut summer heat that can exceed 170 degrees on a roof. No mowing required. "They're nature's geniuses at staying cool," Mr. Gaffin says, while stepping across the resilient mat of sedum plants flourishing high over West 112th Street. He gestures to the city panorama and estimates 30 square miles of unused rooftop acreage that could be vegetating. "Twenty times Central Park!" he declares, sounding like a producer coveting Broadway.

Mr. Gaffin's gardens range from vegetation plain as the top of a pool table to more advanced mixes that resemble pointillist abstractions atop two roofs at the Bronx’s Fieldston Middle School. Students tend instruments measuring insulation, water conservation and other virtues of green roofs, which Mr. Gaffin says far outlast normal roofs. They have a weird urban serenity. Far from streetwise rats, the worst critters that have shown up are butterflies and crickets.


Thus does the greening of New York meet Gravity's Rainbow, whose opening pages recount the horticultural history of a memorable London rooftop during the Blitz:

Bloat is one of the co-tenants of the place, a maisonette erected last century, not far from the Chelsea Embankment, by Corydon Throsp, an acquaintance of the Rosettis' who wore hair smocks and liked to cultivate pharmaceutical plants up on the roof (a tradition young Osbie Feel has lately revived), a few of them hardy enough to survive fogs and frosts, but most returning, as fragments of peculiar alkaloids, to rooftop earth, along with manure from a trio of prize Wessex Saddleback sows quartered there by Throsp's successor, and dead leaves off many decorative trees transplanted to the roof by later tenants, and the odd unstomachable meal thrown or vomited there by this or that sensitive epicurean--all got scrambled together, eventually, by the knives of the seasons, to an impasto, feet thick, of unbelievable black topsoil in which anything could grow, not the least being bananas. Pirate, driven to despair by the wartime banana shortage, decided to build a glass hothouse on the roof, and persuade a friend who flew the Rio-to-Ascension-to-Fort-Lamy run to pinch him a sapling banana tree or two, in exchange for a German camera, should Pirate happen across one on his next mission by parachute.

Pirate has become famous for his Banana Breakfasts. Messmates throng here from all over England, even some who are allergic or outright hostile to bananas, just to watch--for the politics of bacteria, the soil's stringing of rings and chains in nets only God can tell the meshes of, have seen the fruit thrive often to lengths of a foot and a half, yes amazing but true.

[...]

"Hhahh," Pirate, in a voiceless roar watching his breath slip way over the parapets, "hhaahhh!" Rooftops dance in the morning. His giant bananas cluster, radiant yellow, humid green. HIs companions below dream drooling of a Banana Breakfast. This well-scrubbed day ought to be no worse than any--

Will it? Far to the east, down in the pink sky, something has just sparked, very brightly. A new star, nothing less noticeable. He leans on the parapet to watch. The brilliant point has already become a short vertical white line. It must be somewhere out over the North Sea...at least that far...icefields below and a cold smear of sun...

What is it? Nothing like this ever happens. But Pirate knows it, after all. He has seen it in a film, just in the last fortnight... it's a vapor trail. Already a finger's width higher now. But not from an airplane. Airplanes are not launched vertically. This is the new, and still Most Secret, German rocket bomb.


Maybe it's a Monday thing--but these rooftops remind me of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle cure for the child who won't take a bath. When the dirt gets so thick on the skin that radishes start growing, it's time for a wash.

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




June 6, 2009 [feather]
Sorrow floats


In this short NYT video, John Irving talks about his new novel, Last Night in Twisted River, and reflects on the writing process. He writes longhand--no computer. He always thinks of the last sentence first, and that sentence never changes (he says it's like a musical phrase that the rest of the book works toward). It takes him upwards of a year, usually, to move from that last sentence, which always comes to him whole, to the first sentence, which can move and change a lot.

Your mission: If you do not get the title of this post, read Irving novels until you do. And keep passing the open windows along the way.

Erin O'Connor, 9:56 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




June 5, 2009 [feather]
Have you read The Fountainhead lately?

If not, perhaps you should. I recently re-read it, and it was a very different entity than the one I recall reading at fifteen. All I really remembered was the red-haired Howard Roark, naked on a cliff, spurned and individualistic, doing Peter Keating's homework, and having an incomprehensible but weirdly fascinating affair with someone named Dominique. The Fountainhead is one of those novels that has gotten pigeon-holed as an excusable rite of passage--it's okay, even perhaps expected, to read it and adore it as part of an adolescent phase. But then, of course, one must grow up, recognize the vulgarity and immaturity of Rand's views, and move on. Many do, which would account for her extraordinarily low status within academia, where she's not a major figure on syllabi, and where those who wish to endow chairs in her name encounter resistance unto tantrums. But many don't--which accounts for her incredibly strong and continuous sales (Rand has sold more books since the market crash than Obama, and John Galt is making an audacious and hopeful comeback).

The folks who are turning to Rand right now are onto something. She frames ideas we need to be thinking about--whether we finally agree with them or not, whether she overstates her case or not. I found The Fountainhead to be really remarkable--and not at all in line with many of the contemptuous stereotypes that circulate about Rand. And I was thinking of all this yesterday, in the context of my post about Sunstein and Thaler's Nudge book. I used the Orwell comparison yesterday, as that's the first thing that comes to mind when one gets onto the topic of government controlling people's perceptions (and I will admit that I think a lot, these days, about Orwell's prescient notion of how massive nation-states require perpetual war, even as they constantly shift around who is at war with whom, who is winning, and what it's all about). But as I mulled things over, I got to thinking about Rand and The Fountainhead and the character of Ellsworth Toohey, the Machiavellian newspaper columnist with grandiose collectivist aims.

Here's one of his speeches (The Fountainhead is a novel of ideas, so you get characters delivering long philosophical speeches; normally I mind this sort of thing very much, but here I never did):


"What do you want Ellsworth?"

"Power, Petey. I want to rule. Like my spiritual predecessors. But I'm luckier than they were. I inherited the fruit of their efforts and I shall be the one who'll see the great dream made real. I see it all around me today. I recognise it. I don't like it. I didn't expect to like it. Enjoyment is not my destiny. I shall find such satisfaction as my capacity permits. I shall rule."

"Whom...?"

"You. The world. It's only a matter of discovering the lever. If you learn how to rule one single man's soul, you can get the rest of mankind. It's the soul, Peter, the soul. Not whips or swords or fire or guns. That's why the Caesars, the attilas, the Napoleons were fools and did not last. We will. The soul, Peter, is that which can't be ruled. It must be broken. Drive a wedge in, get your fingers on it – and the man is yours. You won't need a whip – he'll bring it to you and ask to be whipped. Set him in reverse – and his own mechanism will do your work for you. Use him against himself. Want to know how it's done? See if I ever lied to you. See if you haven't heard all this for years, but didn't want to hear, and the fault is yours, not mine.

There are many ways. Here's one. Make man feel small. Make him feel guilty. Kill his aspiration and his integrity. That's difficult. The worst among you gropes for an idol in his own twisted way. Kill integrity by internal corruption. Use it against himself. Direct it towards a goal destructive of all integrity. Preach selflessness. Tell man that altruism is the ideal. Not a single one has ever reached it and not a single one ever will. His every living instinct screams against it. But don't you see what you accomplish ? Man realises that he's incapable of what he's accepted as the noblest virtue - and it gives him a sense of guilt, of sin, of his own basic unworthiness. Since the supreme ideal is beyond his grasp, he gives up eventually all ideals, all aspiration, all sense of his personal value. He feels himself obliged to preach what he can't practice. But one can't be good halfway or honest approximately. To preserve one's integrity is a hard battle. Why preserve that which one knows to be corrupt already? His soul gives up its self respect. You've got him. He’ll obey. He'll be glad to obey – because he can't trust himself, he feels uncertain, he feels unclean. That's one way.

Here’s another. Kill man's sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognise greatness or to achieve it. Great men can't be ruled. We don't want any great men. Don't deny conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept – and you stop the impetus to effort in men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection. Laugh at Roark and hold Peter Keating as a great architect. You've destroyed architecture. Build Lois Cook and you've destroyed literature. Hail Ike and you've destroyed the theatre. Glorify Lancelot Clokey and you've destroyed the press. Don't set out to raze all shrines – you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity - and the shrines are razed.

Then there's another way. Kill by laughter. Laughter is an instrument of human joy. Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction. Turn it into a sneer. It's simple. Tell them to laugh at everything. Tell them that a sense of humour is an unlimited virtue. Don't let anything remain sacred in a man's soul – and his soul won't be sacred to him. Kill reverence and you've killed the hero in man. One doesn't reverence with a giggle. He'll obey and he'll set no limits to obedience – anything goes – nothing is too serious.

Here's another way. This is most important. Don't allow men to be happy. Happiness is self-contained and self-sufficient. Happy men have no time and no use for you. Happy men are free men. So kill their joy in living. Take away from them what they want. Make them think that the mere thought of a personal desire is evil. Bring them to a state where saying 'I want' is no longer a natural right, but a shameful admission. Altruism is of great help in this. Unhappy men will come to you. They'll need you. They'll come for consolation, for support, for escape. Nature allows no vacuum. Empty man's soul – and the space is yours to fill.

I don't see why you should look so shocked, Peter. This is the oldest one of all. Look back at history. Look at any great system of ethics, from the Orient up. Didn't they all preach the sacrifice of personal joy? Under all the complications of verbiage, haven't they all had a single leitmotif: sacrifice, renunciation, self-denial ? Haven't you been able to catch their theme song – 'Give up, give up, give up, give up'? Look at the moral atmosphere of today. Everything enjoyable, from cigarettes to sex to ambition to the profit motive, is considered depraved or sinful. Just prove that a thing makes men happy and you've damned it. That's how far we’ve come. We've tied happiness to guilt. And we've got mankind by the throat.

Throw your first born into a sacrificial furnace – lie on a bed of nails – go into the desert to mortify the flesh – don't dance – don't go to the movies on Sunday – don't try to get rich – don't smoke – don't drink. It's all the same line. The great line. Fools don't think that taboos of this nature are just nonsense. Something left over, old-fashioned. But there's always a purpose in nonsense. Don't bother to examine a folly – ask yourself only what it accomplishes. Every system of ethics that preached sacrifice grew into a world power and ruled millions of men.

Of course, you must dress them up. You must tell people they'll achieve a superior kind of happiness by giving up everything that makes them happy. You don't have to be too clear about it. Use big vague words. 'Universal Harmony' – 'Eternal Spirit' – 'Divine Purpose' – 'Nirvana' - 'Paradise' – 'Racial Supremacy' – 'the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.' Internal corruption, Peter. That's the oldest one of all. The farce has been going on for centuries and men still fall for it.

Yet the test should be so simple: just listen to any prophet and if you hear him speak of sacrifice – run. Run faster than from a plague. It stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there's someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master. But if you ever hear a man telling you that you must be happy, that it's your natural right, that your first duty is to yourself – that will be the man who has nothing to gain from you. But let him come and you'll scream your empty heads off, howling that he's a selfish monster. So the racket is safe for many, many centuries.

But here you might have noticed something. I said, 'It stands to reason.' Do you see ? Men have a weapon against you. Reason. So you must be very sure to take it away from them. Cut the props from under it. But be careful. Don't deny outright. Never deny anything outright, you give your hand away. Don't say reason is evil – though some have gone that far and with astonishing success. Just say that reason is limited. That there's something above it. What? You don't have to be too clear about it either. The field's inexhaustible. 'Instinct' – 'Feeling' – 'Revelation' – 'Divine Intuition' – 'Dialectic Materialism.' If you get caught at some crucial point and somebody tells you that your doctrine doesn't make sense – you're ready for him. You tell him there's something above sense. That here he must not try to think, he must feel. He must believe. Suspend reason and you play it deuces wild. Anything goes in any manner you wish whenever you need it. You've got him. Can you rule a thinking man ? We don't want any thinking men."

Keating had sat down on the floor, by the side of the dresser. He did not want to abandon the dresser; he felt safer, leaning against it.

"Peter, you've heard all this. You've seen me practising it for ten years. You see it being practised all over the world. Why are you disgusted ? You have no right to sit there and stare at me with the virtuous superiority of being shocked. You're in on it. You've taken your share and you've got to go along. You're afraid to see where it's leading. I'm not. I'll tell you.

The world of the future. The world I want. A world of obedience and of unity. A world where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thought of the next neighbour who'll have no thought – and so on, Peter, around the globe. Since all must agree with all. A world where no man will hold a desire for himself, but will direct all his efforts to satisfy the desires of his neighbour who’ll have no desires except to satisfy the desires of the next neighbour, who'll have no desires – around the globe, Peter. Since all must serve all. A world in which man will not work for so innocent an incentive as money, but for that headless monster – prestige. The approval of his fellows – their good opinion – the opinion of men who'll be allowed to hold no opinion. An octopus, all tentacles and no brain.

Judgement, Peter ! Not judgement, but public polls. An average drawn upon zeroes – since no individuality will be permitted. A world with its motor cut off and a single heart, pumped by hand. My hand – and the hands of a few, a very few other men like me. Those who know what makes you tick – you great, wonderful average, you who have not risen in fury when we called you the average, the little, the common, you who've liked and accepted these names. You'll sit enthroned and enshrined, you, the little people, the absolute ruler to make all past rulers squirm with envy, the absolute, the unlimited, God and Prophet and King combined. Vox populi. The average, the common, the general.

Do you know the proper antonym for Ego? Bromide, Peter. The rule of the bromide. But even the trite has to be organised by someone at some time. We'll do the organising. Vox dei. We'll enjoy unlimited submission – from men who've learned nothing except to submit. We'll call it 'to serve.' We'll give out medals for service. You'll fall over one another in a scramble to see who can submit better and more. There will be no other distinction to seek. No other form of personal achievement.

Can you see Howard Roark in this picture ? No ? Then don’t waste time on foolish questions. Everything that can't be ruled, must go. And if freaks persist in being born occasionally, they will not survive beyond their twelfth year. When their brain begins to function, it will feel the pressure and it will explode. The pressure gauged to a vacuum. Do you know the fate of deep-sea creatures brought out to sunlight? So much for future Roarks. The rest of you will smile and obey. Have you noticed that the imbecile always smiles? Man's first frown is the first touch of God on his forehead. The touch of thought. But we'll have neither God nor thought. Only voting by smiles. Automatic levers – all saying yes...

Now if you were a little more intelligent, you'd ask: What of us, the rulers? What of me, Ellsworth Monkton Toohey ? And I'd say, Yes, you're right. I'll achieve no more than you will. I'll have no purpose save to keep you contented. To lie, to flatter you, to praise you, to inflate your vanity. To make speeches about the people and the common good. Peter, my poor old friend, I'm the most selfless man you've ever known. I have less independence than you, whom I just forced to sell your soul. You've used people at least for the sake of what you could get from them for yourself. I want nothing for myself. I use people for the sake of what I can do to them. It's my only function and satisfaction. I have no private purpose. I want power. I want my world of the future. Let all live for all. Let all sacrifice and none profit. Let all suffer and none enjoy. Let progress stop. Let all stagnate. There's equality in stagnation. All subjugated to the will of all. Universal slavery – without even the dignity of a master. Slavery to slavery. A great circle – and a total equality. The world of the future."

"Ellsworth... you're..."

"Insane ? Afraid to say it ? There you sit and the world's written all over you, your last hope. Insane? Look around you. Pick up any newspaper and read the headlines. Isn't it coming? Isn't it here? Every single thing I told you ? Isn't Europe swallowed already and we're stumbling on to follow ? Everything I said is contained in a single word – collectivism. And isn't that the god of our century. To act together. To think – together. To feel – together. To unite, to agree, to obey. To obey, to serve, to sacrifice. Divide and conquer – first. But then, unite and rule. We've discovered that one last. Remember the Roman Emperor who said he wished humanity had a single neck so he could cut it ? People have laughed at him for centuries. But we'll have the last laugh. We've accomplished what he couldn't accomplish. We've taught men to unite. This makes one neck ready for one leash. We found the magic word. Collectivism.

Look at Europe, you fool. Can't you see past the guff and recognise the essence? One country is dedicated to the proposition that man has no rights, that the collective is all. The individual held as evil, the mass – as God. No motive and no virtue permitted – except that of service to the proletariat.

That's one version. Here's another. A country dedicated to the proposition that man has no rights, that the State is all. The individual held as evil, the race – as God. No motive and no virtue permitted – except that of service to the race. Am I raving or is this the harsh reality of two continents already ? If you're sick of one version, we push you in the other. We've fixed the coin. Heads – collectivism. Tails – collectivism. Give up your soul to a council – or give it up to a leader. But give it up, give it up, give it up. Offer poison as food and poison as antidote. Go fancy on the trimmings, but hang on to the main objective. Give the fools a chance, let them have their fun – but don't forget the only purpose you have to accomplish. Kill the individual. Kill man's soul. The rest will follow automatically."


Toohey was a nudger. He also sounds amazingly contemporary, does he not? The Fountainhead was published in 1943.

Erin O'Connor, 8:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)




June 4, 2009 [feather]
Utilitarian or Orwellian?

Ever since Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler published Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, which I confess I have not read, and have only read about, I've been wondering about it, along the lines of the title of this post.

Here's an excerpt from a recent review of the book. See what you think.


Economics has traditionally ignored psychology. In Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein take a step toward greater realism about it. Thaler teaches economics at the University of Chicago and was an unofficial advisor to the Obama campaign. Sunstein is a law professor at Harvard and now the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama Administration. The authors start off by differentiating "Econs" from "Humans." The former are the efficient calculators imagined in economic theory, able to weigh multiple options, forecast all the consequences of each, and choose rationally. The latter are ordinary people, who, like the analysts on Wall Street, fall well short of homo economicus. Humans operate by rules of thumb that often lead them astray. They are too prone to generalize, biased in favor of the status quo, more concerned to avoid loss than make gains, among other shortcomings. So they often fail to manage their personal affairs to the best advantage.

Thaler and Sunstein think that ordinary folk should be "nudged" to decide more rationally. A "nudge," as they conceive it, means some change in the "choice architecture" surrounding personal decisions that will cause Humans to choose differently and better, even though an Econ would be unswayed. Often that means changing the default option—the choice made for people if they do not choose. For example, many employees save too little for their retirement because they fail to sign up for 401(k) plans offered by their employers. The authors would change the default from opt-out to opt-in-employees would be enrolled in pension plans unless they said otherwise. Workers would also be encouraged to commit now to pay higher pension contributions in future, if not today. Both steps would raise savings substantially. Another nudge would be to establish better defaults for allocating pension contributions among different investments. Also, many people say they are willing to donate their organs for transplants when they die, yet fail to sign up. Again, the authors would change the default from opt-out to opt-in-people would be presumed willing to donate unless they declined.

The authors say that for Econs, the more choices the better, but Humans should not face too many options, lest they be overwhelmed. Sweden erred in reforming its pension system so that people had to choose among myriad retirement plans on their own, something many did poorly. The authors criticize Medicare for forcing seniors to choose among multiple private plans to get prescription drug coverage. Subscribers should face only a few options based on their prior drug history.

The usual objections to such paternalism are that it is coercive and that those making choices for people can't be trusted. Thaler and Sunstein say that their paternalism is "libertarian": their nudges would allow people to deviate from recommended choices without significant cost. The authors also trust that nudging could and would be publicly justified, not secretive.


Reassurances aside, Sunstein and Thaler's ideas about cultivating "libertarian paternalism" really bug me--I don't like the idea of having my choices, or anyone else's choices, engineered in the way they recommend. On the other hand, I'm aware that in a way, Sunstein and Thaler are simply recommending that we pay more attention to how we structure options that are always already structured--if only through carelessness or default. Maybe it's a bit of both--but I am still really repelled by any embrace of paternalism, however tempered, and dislike intensely the book's working assumption that "ordinary" people can't think for themselves, and must have their choices made for them by an elite group of managerial others. We've got plenty of institutionalized paternalism already in our culture, and all it seems to do is erode people's belief that they can be self-determining (which is another way of saying it steals their humanity).

I'm on board with the premise that we cannot assume, as economists historically have, that people reliably act rationally, in their own self-interest. I think most of us--even, and perhaps most perniciously, the intellectuals--are operating viscerally much of the time (rationalizing, when needed, before and after the fact). But I worry that the Big Brotherly implications of the "nudge thesis" signal a cure that is worse than the disease.

The question is: can a "nudge culture" increase rational choice, individual well-being, and, hence, personal freedom? Or will it inevitably destroy those very things, creating dependency even as it pretends to maximize autonomy and responsibility? Are the answers different in different venues (i.e., education vs. health care)?

Comments are open.

Erin O'Connor, 7:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)




June 3, 2009 [feather]
What a single teacher can do

This is a clip from Small Wonders, a wonderful documentary about a Harlem violin teacher and the students whose lives she affects. Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras starts teaching violin to kids when they are only five or six--and stays with many of them them until they finish high school. She's got a wonderful manner with the children she works with--no matter how small they are, she takes them seriously, gives them frank feedback, and doesn't condescend or patronize them. They love her for it.

In the film, the kids talk about how they learn about discipline, patience, hard work, and the vast rewards they bring, from their study of violin. From the clip, you can see they also learn a lot about art.

Erin O'Connor, 10:36 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




June 1, 2009 [feather]
The who, what, when, where, and why of teaching

As we attempt to tackle our education crisis, we need to be able to identify our assumptions about what education is, how it should be delivered, and who should deliver it. We then need to be able to look at those assumptions objectively--recognize them as assumptions (instead of undebatable truths), and revisit the problems and challenges that have led us to adopt them. For example -- we have for some time assumed that small class size --> better teaching and more learning, that we therefore need to hire ever more teachers (and allocate ever more money) so that we can shrink classes, that the source of new teachers should be fresh college graduates, and that each and every one of these new teachers must be the best and the brightest--even though, as the teaching force grows, that ideal looks increasingly like a Lake Wobegone construction (if all the children are above average, all the teachers must be the best). What would happen if we went back to basics and rethought the whole thing?

Here's Frederick Hess, doing just that:


Our schools are in a constant, unending race to recruit and then retain some 200,000 teachers annually. Given that U.S. colleges issue perhaps 1.4 million four-year diplomas a year, schools are seeking to bring nearly one of seven new graduates into the teaching profession. No wonder shortages are endemic and quality a persistent concern.

It does not have to be this hard. Our massive, three-decade national experiment in class-size reduction has exacerbated the challenge of finding enough effective teachers. There are other options. Researchers Martin West and Ludger Woessmann have pointed out that several nations that perform impressively on international assessments, including South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan, boast average middle-school class sizes of more than 35 students per teacher.

To improve schooling, the U.S. has adopted the peculiar policy of hiring ever more teachers and asking them each to do the same job in roughly the same way. This dilutes the talent pool while spreading training and salaries over ever more bodies. As Chester Finn wryly observed in Troublemaker, the U.S. has opted to "invest in many more teachers rather than abler ones. ... No wonder teaching salaries have barely kept pace with inflation, despite escalating education budgets." Since the early 1970s, growth in the teaching force has outstripped growth in student enrollment by 50 percent. In this decade, as states overextended their commitments during the real estate boom, the ranks of teachers grew at nearly twice the rate of student enrollment. If policymakers had maintained the same overall teacher-to-student ratio since the 1970s, we would need 1 million fewer teachers, training could be focused on a smaller and more able population, and average teacher pay would be close to $75,000 per year.

Even without the constraint of limits on class size, trying to retrofit an outdated model of teaching is a fool's errand. Today's teaching profession is the product of a mid-20th-century labor model that relied on a captive pool of female workers, assumed educators were largely interchangeable, and counted on male principals and superintendents to micromanage a female teaching workforce. Preparation programs were geared to train generalists who operated with little recourse to data or technology. Teaching has clung to these industrial rhythms while professional norms and the larger labor market have changed. By the 1970s, however, schools could no longer depend on an influx of talented young women, as those who once would have entered teaching began to take jobs in engineering and law. The likelihood that a new teacher was a woman who ranked in the top 10 percent of her high school cohort fell by 50 percent between 1964 and 2000. Meanwhile, policymakers and educators were slow to tap new pools of talent; it was not until the late 1980s that they started tinkering with alternative licensure and midcareer recruitment. Even then, they did little to reconfigure professional development, compensation, or career opportunities accordingly.

Even "cutting-edge" proposals typically do not challenge established routines, but instead focus on filling that 200,000-a-year quota with talented 22-year-olds who want to teach into the 2040s. Perhaps the most widely discussed critique of teacher preparation of the past decade, the hotly debated 2006 study by the National Center for Policy Analysis, Educating School Teachers, simply presumed that teacher recruitment ought to be geared toward new college graduates who would complete beefed-up versions of familiar training programs before being cleared to enter the same old jobs. Absent was any reconsideration of who should be teaching or any inclination to question the design of the enterprise.

There are smarter, better ways to approach the challenge at hand: expand the hiring pool beyond recent college graduates; staff schools in ways that squeeze more value out of talented teachers; and use technology to make it easier for teachers to be highly effective.


Hess' article goes on to develop each proposal. See what you think.


Erin O'Connor, 8:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)