About Critical Mass [dot] Writing [dot] Reviews [dot] Contact
August 31, 2009 [feather]
Cut the fat

Administrative bloat has a lot to do with skyrocketing tuition costs and budget deficits on campuses across the nation--and yet administrators are not leaping to shrink their own ranks to address the problem. Hiring freezes, faculty and staff pay cuts, layoffs and non-renewals for non-tenure track faculty, reduced financial aid, and still more tuition hikes are more the norm. The silence where strong leadership should be is deafening.

Except in North Carolina, where the Raleigh News & Observer has goaded system president Erskine Bowles into loud and decisive action:


UNC system President Erskine Bowles has rebuked the leaders of the 17 campuses for their top-heavy administrations and put them on notice: Make significant cuts. Now.

In an Aug. 17 e-mail to the chancellors of the UNC system's campuses, Bowles characterized a News & Observer report on the steady growth in administrative positions across the UNC system as "an absolute embarrassment."

Campuses are putting together plans to cut spending 10 percent, and administrative costs must be a prime target, Bowles warned in the e-mail. Four times, Bowles wrote words entirely in capital letters for emphasis.

"The coverage in today's News & Observer on administrative growth within the university is an absolute embarrassment -- and we brought it all on ourselves," Bowles wrote. "In the conversations that we will be having with you regarding your 10 percent budget reduction plans, we will be looking for absolute PROOF that you have focused FIRST on administrative reductions and solid evidence that you have taken steps to shore up our academic core."

Campus budget reduction plans will not be approved by Bowles' office or the UNC system's Board of Governors unless administrative costs are pared much as possible, the e-mail stressed.

The president's frustration was clear in the e-mail, but he declined to discuss it with a reporter. He will talk about the issue face-to-face with chancellors Monday in a regular meeting.

Bowles' e-mail was sent the same day the N&O reported that administrative ranks across the UNC system had swelled by 28 percent over five years, from 1,269 administrative jobs to 1,623 last year. That increase in administrators outpaced the growth of faculty and other teaching positions, which was 24 percent, as well as student enrollment, which climbed 14 percent.

And administrative growth came even as Bowles was warning against it. In his e-mail, Bowles notes that he has urged campuses for nearly four years to reduce administrative costs.

Bowles made efficiency and accountability mantras upon taking office in January 2006. But the university system he presides over is a far-flung and decentralized enterprise that has, in recent years, given campus leaders more decision-making power. Much campus hiring requires no UNC system approval.

Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors, said the growth was likely the result of that flexibility given to campuses to manage their own affairs in an era of prosperity.

"As the system has grown and more autonomy has been given to the campuses, there has been an assumption that the judgment of the campuses will reflect the philosophy of the university system," she said. "The campus oversight was not strong enough."

Bowles and Gage have both spoken of the rising administrative costs and other issues eroding the trust of taxpayers and legislators.

It's on the radar

State Rep. Ray Rapp, an education budget writer, said the UNC system's management costs and spending on hundreds of academic centers and institutes have expanded too much. The UNC system took a $171 million cut to its budget in the current year, and next year will likely have to cut another $246 million, Rapp said.

"Some programs have grown like unchecked, without adequate supervision," said Rapp, a Democrat from Mars Hill. "It is on our radar, and I think it's fair to say it's on Erskine Bowles' radar as well."

James Woodward, N.C. State University's interim chancellor, said Friday administrative costs have risen steadily across higher education. He said he supports Bowles' desire to make dramatic changes.

"We have a tendency to over-fix a problem," said Woodward, who previously spent 16 years as chancellor at UNC-Charlotte before retiring from that job in 2005. "If we make a mistake someplace, we'll change a process and add an administrative task. And we do that without adequately judging the cost versus the benefit."


Usually the argument against ensuring accountability is that this is an extra cost and an extra layer of bureaucracy. But that's only if the thinking is unimaginative and if administrators are not required to pare down their own operating costs while increasing efficiency. Colleges and universities need to get leaner and meaner and more effective--which means setting priorities, recommitting to their core educational mission, and removing their own red tape.

Erin O'Connor, 10:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)




August 28, 2009 [feather]
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

New York Times writer Randy Kennedy takes an idiosyncratic tour of Philadelphia -- and stumbles across something I wish I had known about when I lived there:


...my first stop, after stepping off the train in 30th Street Station on Monday morning, was a real outlier: a tiny, hidden museum that interested me not because of new art--most of its pieces are well over a century old--but because of the obsessive nature it shares with so many places in the city, the sense that it exists only because its founders felt a necessity borne of fascination. Located on the grounds of a cemetery in the suburb of Drexel Hill, the Museum of Mourning Art--a name to make Edward Gorey proud--is a compilation of American and European funerary art and artifacts from several private collections, assembled by the family that has owned the cemetery for generations.

The small, haunting, very serious collection includes an ornate horse-drawn hearse from 1890, parked over a coffin made in 1610 with an oval window in the lid so--as the museum's curator, Elizabeth Wojcik, explained--one could make the sure the deceased was good and deceased, and so the soul had an easy means of egress.

Housed in a reproduction of Mount Vernon, the museum centers on the profusion of objects (broaches, ribbons, books, paintings, embroidery) that were produced in the wake of the prolonged period of mourning after Washington's death. And its highlight is one of a small number of mourning rings ordered to be made by Washington's will, with a small glass oval lined with seed pearls and filled with gray strands of the president's hair. The museum's visitors--tours are by appointment--run the gamut from historians to artists to student undertakers to those who simply seem to be drawn to things deathly. (I was there that morning with two local artists and jewelry designers interested in mourning jewelry.)

"There's a woman who comes in a lot," said Ms. Wojcik, pointing out a gorgeous 1797 memorial embroidery, "and stands in front of this work and looks at the weeping willows in it and just cries and cries."


I combed Philly pretty thoroughly between 1995 and 2007--but I missed this one. And I am sorry I did. On my first ever trip to London, which I took after my first ever year teaching at Penn, I was supposed to spend my time in the British Library doing Serious Work. But I'd never been to London, and it felt like all of Dickens was coming to life before my eyes, and I spent the entire time walking and walking and walking around the city, poking into odd corners, and hunting for treasure in the city's many street markets.

In Covent Garden, I found a small gold mourning brooch, with brown hair under glass, engraved on the back with the year 1828. I think I paid L15 for it, and the vendor, bemused by how inordinately thrilled I was with this unwearable piece of Georgian swag, threw in an old blue velvet-lined leather box to keep it in. In the Portobello Road, I found a bigger, grander Victorian variant, with more hair behind more glass, braided, and bordered with seed pearls. I had to have it--probably because I absolutely did not need to have it. Then, in a funny little medical antiques shop in Mayfair, I found three Victorian glass eyes, two brown and one blue, for, I think, L20 each. They were creepy and beautiful at once--sharp curved lenses designed to sit on top of the vacant space where one's eye had once been, replete with gorgeously translucent irises and tiny red threads to delicately indicate just the right amount of bloodshot. Carried away with visions of Mr. Venus' shop, I bought them all, gave two as presents, and kept the last as a treasure in the battered blue leather box alongside the mourning brooches. And there they live to this day, having come out to play only a few times, when I brought them to school to show the students in my Victorian novel classes. I think I would have loved that museum.

One comparably peculiar museum classic that the author does not mention--but that any visitor to Philly should visit: the Mutter Museum. Situated on the site of the old Philadelphia College of Physicians, it's filled with artifacts once housed in the educational medical museum in the city that used to be the medical capital of the United States: skulls of criminals and syphilitics; skeletons of giants and dwarves; drawers filled with strange things people have swallowed; beautiful wax models of nerves and veins; the conjoined liver of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, swimming in a vat; and, most challengingly, jar after jar of anomalous births, bobbing in preservative fluid.

It sounds like a freak show--but it is just the opposite. It's filled with objects doctors used to study their craft and deepen their knowledge in the days before it was possible to reproduce photographs in books. In each object lies a history of medicine's emergence during the nineteenth century as a genuinely knowledgeable modern science as well as a history of forgotten individuals (the poor, the criminals, the deformed) so disconnected from the world that when they died no one came forward to bury them--and their bodies went to doctors instead of to the grave. It's a haunting and wonderful place.

UPDATE: Penn is putting a wonderful twist on the tired "freshman reading project" concept this year--and using Philadelphia's fascinating history as a center of American medical history to anchor it.

Erin O'Connor, 7:50 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)




August 27, 2009 [feather]
Art of persuasion

Patrick Courrielche recently wrote about the art community's long tradition of dissent -- and strange, unsettling silence at this pivotal and controversial moment in our history. Now he's following up with a description of how the government is working to transform the arts community into a group of advocates for its agenda:


I was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to take part in a conference call that invited a group of rising artist and art community luminaries "to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda--health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal."

Now admittedly, I'm a skeptic of BIG government. In my view, power tends to overreach whenever given the opportunity. It's a law of human nature that has very few exceptions. That said, it felt to me that by providing issues as a cynosure for inspiration to a handpicked arts group--a group that played a key role in the President's election as mentioned throughout the conference call--the National Endowment for the Arts was steering the art community toward creating art on the very issues that are currently under contentious national debate; those being health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation. Could the National Endowment for the Arts be looking to the art community to create an environment amenable to the administration's positions?

Before arguing why I see this as a gross overreach of the National Endowment for the Arts and its mission, a brief background on the conference call is needed.

On Thursday August 6th, I was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to attend a conference call scheduled for Monday August 10th hosted by the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve. The call would include "a group of artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, taste-makers, leaders or just plain cool people to join together and work together to promote a more civically engaged America and celebrate how the arts can be used for a positive change!"

I learned after the conference call that there were approximately 75 people participating, including many well respected street-artists, filmmakers, art galleries, music venues, musicians and music producers, writers, poets, actors, independent media outlets, marketers, and various other professionals from the creative community. I suppose I was invited because of my work in creating arts initiatives, but being a former employer of the NEA's Director of Communications was probably a factor as well.

Backed by the full weight of President Barack Obama's call to service and the institutional weight of the NEA, the conference call was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were "health care" and "energy and environment." The service was to be attached to the President's United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans.

It sounded, how should I phrase it...unusual, that the NEA would invite the art community to a meeting to discuss issues currently under vehement national debate. I decided to call in, and what I heard concerned me.

The people running the conference call and rallying the group to get active on these issues were Yosi Sergant, the Director of Communications for the National Endowment for the Arts; Buffy Wicks, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement; Nell Abernathy, Director of Outreach for United We Serve; Thomas Bates, Vice President of Civic Engagement for Rock the Vote; and Michael Skolnik, Political Director for Russell Simmons.

We were encouraged to bring the same sense of enthusiasm to these "focus areas" as we had brought to Obama's presidential campaign, and we were encouraged to create art and art initiatives that brought awareness to these issues. Throughout the conversation, we were reminded of our ability as artists and art professionals to "shape the lives" of those around us. The now famous Obama "Hope" poster, created by artist Shepard Fairey and promoted by many of those on the phone call, and will.i.am's "Yes We Can" song and music video were presented as shining examples of our group's clear role in the election.

Obama has a strong arts agenda, we were told, and has been very supportive of both using and supporting the arts in creative ways to talk about the issues facing the country. We were "selected for a reason," they told us. We had played a key role in the election and now Obama was putting out the call of service to help create change.

We knew "how to make a stink," and were encouraged to do so.
Throughout the conversation my inner dialogue was firing away questions so fast that the NRA would've been envious. Is this truly the role of the NEA? Is building a message distribution network, for matters other than increasing access to the arts and arts education, the role of the National Endowment for the Arts? Is providing the art community issues to address, especially those that are currently being vehemently debated nationally, a legitimate role for the NEA? I found it highly unlikely that this was in their original charter, so I checked.

The NEA published a book entitled National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965-2008 early this year. Combing through the 40+ year history of the NEA, I could not find a single instance of the agency creating or supporting a national initiative that encouraged the art community to address current issues under contentious debate.

The NEA was created by the Congress of the United States and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 as "a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education." The issue of health care is curiously absent from this description on their website.

So I'd like to start a little debate and ask you, the reader, the same question. Do you think it is the place of the NEA to encourage the art community to address issues currently under legislative consideration?

And before answering, let me give you my take.

The NEA is the nation's largest annual funder of the arts. That is right, the largest funder of the arts in the nation--a fact that I'm sure was not lost on those that were on the call, including myself. One of the NEA's major functions is providing grants to artists and arts organizations. The NEA has also historically shown the ability to attract "matching funds" for the art projects and foundations that they select. So we have the nation's largest arts funder, which is a federal agency staffed by the administration, with those that they potentially fund together on a conference call discussing taking action on issues under vigorous national debate. Does there appear to be any potential for conflict here?

Discussed throughout the conference call was a hope that this group would be one that would carry on past the United We Serve campaign to support the President's initiatives and those issues for which the group was passionate. The making of a machine appeared to be in its infancy, initiated by the NEA, to corral artists to address specific issues. This function was not the original intention for creating the National Endowment for the Arts.

A machine that the NEA helped to create could potentially be wielded by the state to push policy. Through providing guidelines to the art community on what topics to discuss and providing them a step-by-step instruction to apply their art form to these issues, the "nation's largest annual funder of the arts" is attempting to direct imagery, songs, films, and literature that could create the illusion of a national consensus. This is what Noam Chomsky calls "manufacturing consent."

Now, if you are for the issues being pursued by the current administration, you may be inclined to think favorably of what I am labeling "overreach." What a powerful weapon to fight those that are opposed to our ideas, you may think. For those in this camp I ask you this - will you feel the same when the opposition has access to the same machine? If history is any indication, the pendulum swings both ways. Is persuasion what the originators envisioned when they brought the legislation that created the NEA to the floor of Congress?

[...]

There is no shortage of problems within the art community that the NEA could tackle. Museums across the country have been hit hard by the financial crisis. Their trusts and portfolios have seen massive declines. Donations, attendance, and memberships are down. Many have had to reduce exhibition hours due to staffing and budget reductions. And countless art galleries, the lifeblood and revenue stream for many artists, have closed or are on the brink of closure. Rallying the art community around these issues seems a more appropriate use of its resources.

I'm not a "right-wing nut job." It just goes against my core beliefs to sit quietly while the art community is used by the NEA and the administration to push an agenda other than the one for which it was created. It is not within the National Endowment for the Arts' original charter to initiate, organize, and tap into the art community to help bring awareness to health care, or energy & environmental issues for that matter; and especially not at a time when it is being vehemently debated. Artists shouldn't be used as tools of the state to help create a climate amenable to their positions, which is what appears to be happening in this instance. If the art community wants to tackle those issues on its own then fine. But tackling them shouldn’t come as an encouragement from the NEA to those they potentially fund at this coincidental time.

And if you think that my fear regarding the arts becoming a tool of the state is still unfounded, I leave you with a few statements made by the NEA to the art community participants on the conference call. "This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally? ... bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely..."

Is the hair on your arms standing up yet?


O brave new world, that has such people in it.

What I'd like to see: the NEA's manipulations blow up in its face. After all, there are probably a great many people in the arts community who think Obama is failing to follow through on gay marriage, on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, on ending rendition and similar controversial tactics, and on ramming through a hard-core single-payer version of health care reform. Perhaps the arts community--if it even makes sense to talk about artists as such a homogenous entity--would like to use its representational power to begin a "brand new conversation" about these issues? But then ... the NEA won't be funding that conversation, will it?

Erin O'Connor, 7:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)




August 25, 2009 [feather]
Grudging agreement

You know you are getting somewhere when even the people who make a point of disagreeing with you have to agree with you. And so it is with the debate about college curricula. Today, Stanley Fish devotes his New York Times blog to ACTA's new report and accompanying website, WhatWillTheyLearn.com, and finds himself in grudging agreement with much of what ACTA has to say:


A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college's composition program. What, I wondered, could possibly be going on in their courses?

I decided to find out, and asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues--racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising.

As I learned more about the world of composition studies I came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, and I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research. Now I have received (indirect) support from a source that makes me slightly uncomfortable, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which last week issued its latest white paper, "What Will They Learn? A Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation's Leading Colleges and Universities."


I won't paste the whole column in here; it's long, and you should just click through and read it yourself. But the main point is that Fish agrees completely with ACTA that there ought to be a strong core curriculum, and he even agrees with how ACTA has thought through its criteria for whether a school can legitimately say it requires composition, foreign language, math, and science.

Where he disagrees: He argues with ACTA's criteria on literature and history, suggesting that ACTA's wish to see schools require surveys in these subjects is a "political" move that differs substantively from its more neutral recommendations about other subject areas. While I think you can certainly debate whether broad survey courses are the only way to get a proper grounding in literature or history, I do think Fish presses too hard to make ACTA's position into an ideological one--and so to indicate that there is something vaguely sinister and threatening about it. But he pretty much has to do that, since earlier in his column he characterizes ACTA as an organization that, by virtue of its longstanding efforts to raise awareness and spark debate about what gets taught in college, supports "external regulation of classroom practices."

In this, Fish plays into one of academe's uglier contemporary solecisms, the assumption that criticizing academia, having opinions about it, publicly urging colleges and universities to make good on the social compact that underwrites their autonomy--that all these things are fundamentally threatening to academic freedom, and might even be reasonably described as "McCarthyist." Fish doesn't use that term--but he's absolutely skulking around the borders of that line of thought when he paints ACTA as a group that wants to see outside powers regulate universities and accuses ACTA of using "accountability" as a "code word for reconfiguring the academy according to conservative ideas and agendas." He also shows he has not done his homework, as ACTA not only endlessly and repeatedly makes it clear that it wants to see colleges and universities regulate themselves and do it well; it also endlessly and repeatedly makes it clear that it is not an advocate of installing a conservative agenda in academe. (ACTA president Anne Neal's recent debate with Penn State English professor Michael Berube airs both points very thoroughly--and might be instructive listening for Fish.)

Anyway. Having cast ACTA in a dubious political light (itself a dubious political move), Fish has an obligation to cast some of ACTA's study in a dubious political light, too. And so he does when he discusses ACTA's analysis of history and lit requirements. Still, he's engaged. He's willing to talk about what colleges and universities should ensure that students know. He's willing to agree that in many, many instances, they fall shamefully short of their duty to educate. And that's good stuff.

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




August 24, 2009 [feather]
Core inconvenience

From Ted Bromund, at Commentary:


It's sometimes claimed by institutions that lack a core curriculum that they compensate by a careful system of academic advising. What a laugh. I advised for six years at Yale. Here's how it works: An hour before you meet your freshmen for the first time, you get their folders and some quick advice from the dean. You have a few minutes to memorize a fact or two about each student--hopefully, that includes their name--and then you go off and have a stilted conversation with four students who don’t know you from a hole in the wall, who have no interest in your subject, and can't imagine why they should care what you say--which is sensible, because you don't know much about them and can't offer any useful advice on their wildly disparate interests. A few weeks later, they materialize in your office with a form to sign. You check that it meets Yale's immensely unconstraining distribution requirements, sign, and they disappear. They materialize again in January with another form to sign, and that is usually the last you ever see of them. Frankly, advising doesn't work, and anyone who says it does is ignorant.

The trickier question is why it's done this way--and "by this way" I mean not just advising but the whole curricular system. One answer is that after the 1960s and their aftermath got done demolishing the idea of knowledge and objective inquiry, it was all that was left. That's undoubtedly part of it--maybe even the main part of it. But day to day, I tend to think it's mostly about making life easy for the faculty; they are the ones who hire their own colleagues (the Ph.D. is, in the end, really a union card that's useful for excluding outsiders), set their own schedules (which, if you're tenured, increasingly doesn't involve teaching on Monday or Friday), and pick their own classes (which for a lot of faculty involves dodging the intro courses).

The basic problem with a core curriculum is that someone would have to teach it--and because it would be core, there would be a lot of teaching to be done. That's not what faculty at elite universities are really there for, which is why the top schools do so poorly in ACTA's rating and why only seven schools in the entire study got an A. To an extent, this problem can be met by hiring adjuncts, which is what most faculties, in another great stab in the back to the rising generation, have already done. But if you took the model of English 101 at most universities and applied it across all the general-education subjects, you would need a lot of adjuncts indeed. Better, maybe, not to make the effort at all, or so the faculty appears to have concluded. I'm all in favor of ACTA's efforts, but they do nothing to calm my reluctant sense that, as long as the faculty are running things--not that most of the other candidates would be any better--there is not the slightest chance that the core curriculum will make a comeback.


Bromund may seem harsh, but he's actually fairly gentle here, leaving out the part about how the faculty have also rationalized themselves into a relativistic hole from which they are unlikely ever to emerge: rather than admit the truth of the matter, that staffing a core curriculum is hard, repetitive work they'd rather avoid, professors who oppose installing core curricula trot out endless justifications for their unwillingness to even take a stab at making sure students graduate knowing core things and possessing core skills. The idea of the common core is reactionary and conservative, many say; it presumes a demographically homogenous student body, or, worse, presumes that a diverse student body can and should find the history, thought, and art of "dead white men" to be relevant and even formative to their lives. Some sidestep that one, and simply go with a weak, pseudo-inclusive pragmatism, saying that students today come from so many backgrounds, have so many different and distinct educational needs, and are going so many different places, that a common core is a quaint and purposeless distraction--for the students and for the faculty. Some prefer to get on a high horse with no legs, arguing that core curricula are essentially remedial courses, covering what students should already know from K-12 education--and that college is for higher things; never minds that even students at elite colleges don't show up knowing what K-12 is supposed to have taught them. Still others just throw up their hands at the complexity and expense of it all, arguing that there is just no way to arrange the logistics of core courses for large student bodies, let alone pay for it.

All of these arguments, of course, are utterly routed by the few schools that do have strong core curricula in place. Surely if they can do it, others can, too -- if they have the will.

Erin O'Connor, 7:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)




August 21, 2009 [feather]
Pulling rank

Writing at the Wall Street Journal, Eric Felten notes that the U.S. News college rankings have become one of those deeply resonant sites where our putatively classless society ruthlessly establishes and enforces rigid hierarchies of status: "For all the social mobility of our society," he writes, "one's college is the marker of one's class. The U.S. News guide is our democratic answer to Debrett's Peerage."

He also has some choice and challenging words for ACTA's new, rival rankings site, WhatWillTheyLearn.com:


The newest entrant in the ranking game is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which has the quaint notion that a university be judged on what it teaches its students. At the group's Web site, WhatWillTheyLearn.com, schools are given grades based on the extent to which students are required to take classes in the core subjects of a general education, such as math, literature, science and history. Their effort to change the focus to learning is no doubt an admirable one, but I suspect that it will have a limited effect. Any grading scale that gives an "A" to the University of Arkansas and an "F" to Yale may prove too contrarian to capture the public imagination.

Which is a shame because the Council has a point. The irony of modern education is that the faster the world moves the more value there is in the dusty old undergraduate curriculum. Train for a specific technology and chances are it will be obsolete before the ink is dry on the diploma. Indulge in the academic fad of the moment and you may find it hard to change your bell-bottomed intellectual wardrobe when styles shift. Who wants an education with an expiration date?


What colleges and universities are missing, with all their emphasis on endless student choice--with the sheer volume of trendy, cute, or aggressively trivial course offerings; the avoidance of core content-based requirements; and the sometimes-cynical, sometimes-naive focus on skills over knowledge--is that students are hungry for intellectual anchors. They want to read the great writers, study the major historical events, examine the most lasting ideas and powerful inventions. They are delighted when they happen across the opportunity to do that--but they also tend, quite understandably, to lack the wherewithal to self-style courses of study that offer that. That's what requirements and college counselors are for, after all.

When I was teaching, the most popular course I offered was a course called "Dickens." Emails would roll in months ahead of time from students all over the university, from all manner of majors, from nursing and business students, from incoming freshmen, from Penn staff enrolled in continuing education programs, from older area residents participating in Penn's free course audit program for seniors, all expressing their desire to devote a semester of study to the great Victorian author, and all hoping to secure a spot in what they assumed would be a massively overenrolled course. The Dickens course never drew the crowds that these "early adopters" feared it would--but it did draw a great, varied group of students who really loved the idea of immersing themselves in the work of this particular Great Author.

The courses themselves were a joy to teach. There was a real sense of shared interest, a clear communal purpose, and, most remarkably, genuinely playful, joyful intellectual work. Along the way, we read tens of thousands of pages of Dickens, studied his life, studied his historical moment, studied the remembered and forgotten writers who surrounded him, studied his influences and his influence, and generally moved together well beyond the static notion of Great Writer to something approaching a genuinely textured understanding of the artist, his work, and his world. We all learned, we all discovered, we all laughed, and we all happily came back for more.

This isn't to say that the only successful courses are courses on canonical writers and texts, but it is to say that there was something special about the Dickens course, and qualitatively different from other successful courses I taught. The students chose the course because they wanted to have some sustained contact with a figure they recognized as of vital importance to literary history; they brought with them a readiness to focus, explore, learn. And--just as crucially--Dickens rewarded them, just as Shakespeare, that other perennially popular favorite, does. That's kind of the whole point of studying the canon. It gives back.

And it keeps giving. Readers of this site know I've been revisiting Hawthorne in recent months. I read plenty of Hawthorne in high school, college, grad school; I've taught Hawthorne, too. But good writers grow with you, and change as you do. The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables were completely new novels to me this time around; I found different things in them, felt I came to know the writer in different ways, and wondered how I could ever have missed the fact that so many of his obsessions are mine (or, perhaps, how it came to be that my own obsessions about genealogy, and historical legacy, and inherited family dysfunction, and the terrible danger of groupthink, are patterned after his -- in what may be an inkling of how national literatures work and why they matter).

It's not just that colleges and universities are failing to educate students when they fail to decide what they should learn, and to register those decisions in the form of a core curriculum. It's also that they are missing out on one of the most obvious and effective ways to get college students--who today spend more time going to parties than studying--hooked on learning.

Erin O'Connor, 8:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)




August 19, 2009 [feather]
Getting what you pay for

Is an expensive private college education a better college education? How do colleges and universities compare when you set aside the (rigged) U.S. News & World Report rankings and look at what students actually learn? ACTA has set out to help parents and prospective college students answer these questions and more with WhatWillTheyLearn.com, launched today. Check it out and see what you think.

UPDATE 8/20: More on the ACTA site--and on the new U.S. News rankings--at the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed.

Erin O'Connor, 10:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)




August 18, 2009 [feather]
More criticism for Yale UP

University of Pennsylvania English professor and Yale alum Peter Conn has given me permission to publish his letter to the ethically challenged Yale University Press. Here it is, in full:


Mr. John Donatich
Director
Yale University Press

Dear Mr. Donatich,

RE: The Cartoons That Shook the World

A prefatory confession: my comments are based on the information supplied by today's New York Times, a usually but not always (see: Judith Miller) reliable source.

As I understand it, in choosing to excise the illustrations from Cartoons, you sought to balance the need for unfettered expression in scholarly writing against a prudential concern for real-world consequences. I do not envy you the difficult choice. At the same time, I do not hesitate to insist that you made the wrong decision. Eliminating the illustrations from Cartoons diminishes the intellectual value of the book.

Far more significantly, your decision effectively subordinates the requirements of truth-seeking and truth-telling to the hypothetical caprice of an angry mob. In short, you have abandoned the core values of a university press. In addition, and ironically, you have almost certainly put freedom of expression at greater risk. When the next newspaper or press finds itself under inappropriate political pressure, your example will provide a discouraging precedent. If an organization as wealthy and powerful as Yale University cannot defend our fragile freedoms, who can?

Yale University Press has collaborated in an act of censorship. Needless to say, no press is obliged to publish any book. However, a university press has an inescapable obligation to base its publication decisions on scholarly merit, and having made that decision it cannot subsequently reverse itself by yielding to political and politicized speculation.

The process of outside consultation in which you engaged may have been even more troubling than your decision to censor the book. Stipulating that such consultation was appropriate (a generous stipulation), nonetheless the conditions under which it was conducted are, at least as reported, offensive. It seems that Jytte Klausen was told that she would have to enter into some sort of non-disclosure agreement concerning the "14-page summary" of the recommendations.

No consultant should have been allowed to claim confidentiality in this process. The issues here strike near the heart of our shared academic purposes, and should have been debated in the open. At a minimum, Jytte Klausen should have had full access to whatever materials these consultants produced. Nor should she have been told that she could not discuss the details in public. Indeed, if any of your proposed consultants demanded confidentiality, you should have found others who had the integrity to speak on the record. Experts in these areas are plentiful.

I look forward to your response.

Peter Conn (Yale G '69)

++++++++++++++++++++
Peter Conn
Vartan Gregorian Professor of English
and Professor of Education
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104


Conn reports that he has not received a response.

Erin O'Connor, 8:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)




Civic Engagement, contd.

I just received this letter from my congressman:


Dear Erin:

As you know, the health care debate in this country is in full swing, and I wanted to give you a quick update regarding where the process stands in Washington, D.C.

In July, five congressional committees began work on similar pieces of legislation that would drastically change health care in this country, putting more responsibility for your care in the hands of the government.

I am a member of one of those committees-the House Energy and Commerce Committee-where a 1,018-page bill was introduced just hours before we began considering amendments to the legislation. Ramming bills through Congress without time to read them has become an all-too-common practice in the nation's capital. That's an absurd way to legislate.

I voted against the bill, H.R. 3200, which the Energy and Commerce Committee passed by a narrow 31-28 margin after a rushed and closed process. Five Democrats joined all Republicans in opposition. Hopefully the House leadership will bring some sanity and openness to the process and engage in bipartisan discussion before the bill goes before the full House. I know that's what Americans expect and deserve from their elected leaders.

Without a doubt, we need to carefully address America's health care challenges. There are far too many junk lawsuits that drive up the cost for everyone, and billions of dollars could be saved by rooting out the waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid. We can create solutions for small businesses to pursue affordable health coverage for their employees, without raising new taxes.

But the current plan in Congress just creates more government and spends $1.2 trillion in taxpayer money to launch a takeover of health care that would mimic the models in Canada and Europe, where government bureaucrats, not doctors, decide when you will receive the treatment you need. Let me be clear: I will not support a health care system that puts anyone between you and your doctor.

If the government takeover becomes law, as many as two out of three Americans will be forced from their current coverage to a government plan, according to an independent study. Up to 114 million Americans could lose their current health coverage. That's not right. If you like the coverage you have now, you should be able to keep it.

Like I said earlier, reform is necessary, especially with the spiraling cost of coverage that puts health care out of reach for too many. But according to the nonpartisan head of the Congressional Budget Office, this $1.2 trillion bill does not propose the "fundamental changes" needed to rein in health care spending. It doesn't even fix the problem (17 million Americans would still lack health coverage under this plan), and it adds $239 billion to the national debt. We can get costs under control, but this bill simply doesn't do it.

Small businesses would fund much of the new government spending through tax hikes. A penalty equal to 8 percent of payroll would be assessed on employers who are unable to provide "acceptable coverage," a threshold determined by an unelected government panel. Small business owners tell me they cannot afford a punitive tax or the costs of providing coverage to all their employees, and would either have to shut their doors or lay off significant numbers of employees if this new tax is enacted. Having owned and managed a small business in Oregon for more than 21 years, I certainly relate to these concerns.

The plan jeopardizes the care that some 210,000 Oregon seniors rely upon by drastically cutting Medicare Advantage. In total, the bill would cut nearly $500 billion from Medicare, which results in $311 million in payment cuts to hospitals and over $80 million in cuts to nursing homes in Oregon's Second District. One Oregon hospital administrator told me his facility might have to close under the plan.

And government care isn't better care. The highly-respected medical journal Lancet reported that American five-year survival rates for breast, colorectal and prostate cancer rank first or second in the world. Survival rates for breast and prostate cancer in the United States are 83.9 percent and 91.9 percent, respectively. Compare that to the rates in the UK: 69.7 percent and 51.1 percent, respectively. We can't afford that risk.

In the Energy and Commerce Committee, I came ready to work in good faith to make access to health care more affordable and accessible. Many of our suggested improvements to the bill were rejected, including provisions to allow you to keep the coverage you have if you like it; force members of Congress to enroll in the same health coverage they create in the government takeover; and block cuts to care for those seniors who rely on Medicare.

The Republican alternative I support would allow small businesses to join together to purchase high quality care for their employees at a reasonable price, just as unions already do. For workers who do not receive benefits from their employers, our proposal creates easy-to-understand health-plan finders for workers to identify a plan that fits their needs. We would cut down on frivolous lawsuits and root out waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid that cost American taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

I believe Americans sent us to Washington, D.C. to work together to solve the country's problems. When Congress reconvenes in September, I hope we can do the deliberative and transparent work that can lead to real, productive reform that this country's health care system needs.

Finally, here's a link to a recent article written by the House Republican Leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio. His comments are right on target.

It's an honor to represent you in the U.S. Congress.

Best regards,

GREG WALDEN
Member of Congress


It's good to see the calls for transparency and bipartisan cooperation going forward. The issues we face transcend partisan affiliation--and the problems with the present reform proposals are problems that are going to affect us all, regardless of ideology.

Erin O'Connor, 7:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)




August 14, 2009 [feather]
Hawthorne in college

Hawthorne's family had aspirations that did not match its resources. So, when they decided to send the family intellectual to college, they sent him to Bowdoin, which they could afford, rather than Harvard, which they could not. There he counted among his classmates Franklin Pierce, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a host of other future artists and statesmen. Good times were had by all.

From Brenda Wineapple's Hawthorne:


"I am very well contented with my situation," he wrote to [his sister] Ebe, "and like a College Life much better than I expected"--all the more since his studies allowed plenty of time for wine, cards, and other "unlawful occupations, which are made more pleasant by the fines attached to them if discovered." By spring President Allen had to contact Mrs. Hawthorne to ask her "to induce your Son faithfully to observe the laws of this Institution." Cushioning the blow, he suggested Nathaniel may have been unduly influenced by a wayward friend, recently dismissed from the college. Nathaniel took immediate umbrage. He alone was the author of his deeds, thank you very much.

He constantly broke the rules. He resented regulations stipulating how far one could walk on the Sabbath and that forbade smoking a "seegar" on the street or consuming alcohol. For if nothing else, the bone-chilling cold of a long Maine winter provided sufficient incentive to drink. Students smuggled alcohol into their rooms, loading extra lamp-fillers with liquor instead of oil. In 1826, the year after Hawthorne's graduation, twelve thousand gallons of liquor were drunk in the small village of Brunswick, population about two thousand, including women and children; one assumes the figures weren't altogether different during his residence.


The more things change ....

Erin O'Connor, 9:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




AAUP gets it right

Here's the AAUP comment on Yale's cowardly decision:


"We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands." That is effectively the new policy position at Yale University Press, which has eliminated all visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad from Jytte Klausen's new book The Cartoons That Shook the World. Yale made the unusual decision not only to suppress the twelve 2005 Danish cartoons that sparked organized protests in many countries but also historical depictions of Muhammed like a 19th-century print by Gustave Dore. They are not responding to protests against the book; they and a number of their consultants are anticipating them and making or recommending concessions beforehand.

In an action that parallels prior restraint on speech, Yale also refused to give the author access to consultants' reports unless she agreed in writing not to discuss their contents. Such reports typically have their authors' names removed, but a prohibition against discussing their content is, to say the least, both unusual and objectionable.

Publishers often refuse to print color illustrations to save money or limit the number of black and white illustrations to reduce the length of a book, but Yale Press has not raised any financial issues here. The issues are: 1) an author's academic freedom; 2) the reputation of the press and the university; 3) the impact of these twin decisions on other university presses and publication venues; 4) the potential to encourage broader censorship of speech by faculty members or other authors. What is to stop publishers from suppressing an author's words if it appears they may offend religious fundamentalists or groups threatening violence? We deplore this decision and its potential consequences.

Cary Nelson, AAUP President


I disagree with the AAUP on many things--but not this one. And I appreciate Nelson's refusal to mince words.

Erin O'Connor, 6:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)




August 13, 2009 [feather]
Sensitive cowards

Academic freedom, tenure, self-governance, institutional autonomy, and peer review all exist because those are the things that are required for the pursuit of truth to be conducted fearlessly, relentlessly, and joyously--wherever it might lead. Academia fiercely defends those principles against encroachments from outside--whether in the form of legislative intrusion, trustee activism, or even reasoned criticism. But encroachments from the inside are common--and tend to get either ignored or rationalized into oblivion. Hence the rising numbers of non-tenure track college teachers, speech codes, and so on. Such things are major problems for free inquiry, but from campus to campus, you really don't see too many people getting upset about them. Are they hypocrites? Oblivious? Naive? Self-serving to a fault? All, some, or none of the above?

Yale University Press has created a wonderful opportunity for academics who care about free expression and free inquiry to speak up against encroachments from within. From this morning's New York Times:


Yale University and Yale University Press consulted two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, and the recommendation was unanimous: The book, "The Cartoons That Shook the World," should not include the 12 Danish drawings that originally appeared in September 2005. What's more, they suggested that the Yale press also refrain from publishing any other illustrations of the prophet that were to be included, specifically, a drawing for a children's book; an Ottoman print; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Dore of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, an episode from Dante's "Inferno" that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dali.

The book's author, Jytte Klausen, a Danish-born professor of politics at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., reluctantly accepted Yale University Press's decision not to publish the cartoons. But she was disturbed by the withdrawal of the other representations of Muhammad. All of those images are widely available, Ms. Klausen said by telephone, adding that "Muslim friends, leaders and activists thought that the incident was misunderstood, so the cartoons needed to be reprinted so we could have a discussion about it." The book is due out in November.

John Donatich, the director of Yale University Press, said by telephone that the decision was difficult, but the recommendation to withdraw the images, including the historical ones of Muhammad, was "overwhelming and unanimous." The cartoons are freely available on the Internet and can be accurately described in words, Mr. Donatich said, so reprinting them could be interpreted easily as gratuitous.

He noted that he had been involved in publishing other controversial books--like "The King Never Smiles" by Paul M. Handley, a recent unauthorized biography of Thailand’s current monarch--and "I've never blinked." But, he said, "when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question."

Reza Aslan, a religion scholar and the author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam," is a fan of the book but decided to withdraw his supportive blurb that was to appear in the book after Yale University Press dropped the pictures. The book is "a definitive account of the entire controversy," he said, "but to not include the actual cartoons is to me, frankly, idiotic."

In Mr. Aslan's view no danger remains. "The controversy has died out now, anyone who wants to see them can see them," he said of the cartoons, noting that he has written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction. He added that none of the violence occurred in the United States: "There were people who were annoyed, and what kind of publishing house doesn’t publish something that annoys some people?"

"This is an academic book for an academic audience by an academic press," he continued. "There is no chance of this book having a global audience, let alone causing a global outcry." He added, "It's not just academic cowardice, it is just silly and unnecessary."

Mr. Donatich said that the images were still provoking unrest as recently as last year when the Danish police arrested three men suspected of trying to kill the artist who drew the cartoon depicting Muhammad's turban as a bomb. He quoted one of the experts consulted by Yale--Ibrahim Gambari, special adviser to the secretary general of the United Nations and the former foreign minister of Nigeria--as concluding: "You can count on violence if any illustration of the prophet is published. It will cause riots, I predict, from Indonesia to Nigeria."

Aside from the disagreement about the images, Ms. Klausen said she was also disturbed by Yale's insistence that she could read a 14-page summary of the consultants' recommendations only if she signed a confidentiality agreement that forbade her from talking about them. "I perceive it to be a gag order," she said, after declining to sign. While she could understand why some of the individuals consulted might prefer to remain unidentified, she said, she did not see why she should be precluded from talking about their conclusions.

Linda Koch Lorimer, vice president and secretary of Yale University, who had discussed the summary with Ms. Klausen, said on Wednesday that she was merely following the original wishes of the consultants, some of whom subsequently agreed to be identified.


According to Klausen, "The book's message ... is that we need to calm down and look at this carefully." But Yale has altered that message by refusing to publish the images and then trying to gag the author so that she can't talk openly about that decision. The book's message is now that fear trumps courage, that pandering trumps principle, that anticipated visceral reactions matter more than existing reasoned arguments, and that even those charged with upholding the uncompromising pursuit of truth, knowledge, and inquiry are willing to subordinate that mission to the doomed and entrapping endeavor to avoid causing offense. I'm not saying there's no risk here--but that free speech is inherently risky, and that the moments when it is most important to defend it are the moments when there is something real at stake. Academia has a special place in Western culture as a protector and defender of that principle. It can't afford to let itself get taken hostage by the forces of censorship.

Klausen is a full professor, so doesn't "need" the prestigious Yale imprimatur to secure tenure or promotion. I'm wondering what would have happened if she had placed publishing the images over publishing with Yale, and brought out the book with another press.

Erin O'Connor, 7:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)




August 11, 2009 [feather]
Academic complicity

I've been wondering lately on this blog about selective activism among academics, and have been particularly intrigued by moments when academics seem spontaneously and collectively to ignore, deny, rationalize, or even celebrate things that really cannot be ignored, denied, rationalized, or celebrated--things that go far beyond partisan bickering and ideological posturing, and that touch on truly basic and elemental aspects of what is it to be human, and humane.

So I was most intrigued by Carlin Romano's review of Stephen Norwood's new book, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower. Excerpt:


Norwood, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, attracted media attention when he unpacked some findings in the past. At a conference last year about Columbia University's ties to Nazi Germany, he detailed how its longtime president, Nicholas Murray Butler, invited the Nazi ambassador Hans Luther to campus in 1933, remained friendly with Nazi-run German universities into the mid-30s, and punished Columbia faculty members and students who protested.

Speaking at a 2004 Boston University conference on the Holocaust, Norwood shared other research that now appears in his fully detailed chapter on Harvard's bad behavior. In the updated version, he describes in gruesome detail how prominent "Harvard alumni, student leaders, The Harvard Crimson, and several Harvard professors assumed a leading role in the 10-day welcome and reception accorded the Nazi warship Karlsruhe when it visited Boston in May 1934."

At the 25th reunion that year of the Class of 09, writes Norwood, President James Bryant Conant, who'd sailed the previous year to Europe on a Nazi ocean liner, feted Ernst Hanfstaengl, "one of Hitler's earliest backers" and his foreign-press chief. In the summer of 1935, Harvard allowed its student band to perform regularly on a Nazi ship. In 1936, Conant dispatched a delegate to help celebrate the 550th anniversary of the Nazified University of Heidelberg, despite its bonfire of "un-German" books in 1933. Conant allowed the German consul in Boston to place a laurel wreath, swastika affixed, in one of Harvard's memorial chapels. Conant continued to maintain until Kristallnacht, Norwood writes, that Nazi universities remained part of the "learned world" and should be treated politely. In the 1950s, Conant, then U.S. ambassador to Germany, drew repeated denunciations from Congressional officials for his efforts to free Nazi war criminals, including some of the most bestial.

[...]

Norwood begins shrewdly in his opening chapter, "Germany Reverts to the Dark Ages: Nazi Clarity and Grassroots American Protest, 1933-1934." Offering one citation after another, he demonstrates that within months after Hitler came to power, on January 30, 1933, the news that Nazis were beating Jews in the streets, degrading them, banishing them from public life or yanking them off to torture cellars and early concentration camps was widely reported. Public figures outside of academe were already condemning Hitler.

On March 7, 1933, Norwood relates, Boston's The Jewish Advocate declared that Germany's entire Jewish population of 600,000 was "under the shadow of a campaign of murder." Days before, the London Daily Herald had predicted the Nazis would launch a pogrom "on a scale as terrible as any instance of Jewish persecution in 2,000 years." On April 7, the Nazis enacted the law expelling Jews from the civil service, which included all professors. By spring 1934, the Manchester Guardian correspondent Robert Dell opened his book, Germany Unmasked, by quoting a diplomat in Berlin: "The conditions here are not those of a normal civilized country, and the German government is not a normal civilized government and cannot be dealt with as if it were one."

The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower continues like that: chapter and verse of journalists and diplomats reporting anti-Semitic violence, public figures such as Einstein and La Guardia denouncing the Nazis, grass-roots activists successfully fomenting a boycott of German goods and services—while the leaders of America's universities "remained largely silent." Worse, the latter sometimes defied the anti-Nazi boycott, trading exchange students with Nazi universities, "warmly receiving Nazi diplomats and propagandists on campus."

In one remarkable chapter, Norwood exposes how "many administrators, faculty, and students at the elite women's colleges known as the Seven Sisters--Vassar, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, and Barnard--shared a sanguine view of Nazi Germany and enthusiastically participated in academic and cultural exchanges with the Third Reich." As Norwood shows, the solidarity could only be regarded as bizarre, given that the Nazis were pressuring German women to have a "five-child family," eliminating women from the professions, and imposing a "quota limiting women to 10 percent of those admitted" to universities. Erika Mann, Thomas Mann's daughter, noted in 1937 that not a single female full professor remained in any German university.


And so on.

Silence and complicity of this sort strikes me as more mysterious and terrible than the more expressive, protest-oriented forms of academic groupthink one is accustomed to see anatomized and debated these days--perhaps because they are so much more obviously indicative of how individuals can take on the burden of collective lies. This isn't to say that loud collective outpourings of opinion and sentiment (think about academia's issues with the war in Iraq, or with the Bush administration generally, or even with that strawman entity it calls "conservatives") don't get caught up in things like intellectual dishonesty; they absolutely do. But it is to say that the unspoken aspects of group behavior are at once harder to grasp and immensely revealing; if outpourings tell us what a group wants the world to see in them, the silences tell us something about what they may not even be willing to see in themselves.

Erin O'Connor, 7:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)




August 8, 2009 [feather]
Whither the dissidents?

I've been wondering aloud on this blog about academia's odd silence when it comes to critiquing Congress and the current administration; it has struck me as a strange thing, given academia's long tradition of "speaking truth to power," of distrusting centralized authority, and of never taking at face value government's own self-serving self-representations.

At Reason.com, Patrick Courrielche has similar questions about the arts community:


For over 14 years, I've been professionally involved in the street-art community, hosting events where artists paint live installations, and producing and promoting national art tours. I've personally known the key players behind the Barack Obama "Hope" posters for many years—one being a former employee of mine, another a former colleague. I'm excited for their accomplishment and sense of pride for participating in Obama's historic presidential campaign. When asked by my former employee to be involved with the Hope poster distribution, I declined on philosophical grounds, but fully appreciated and understood their passions.

But that said, it feels to me, as it did during the campaign, that the art community is not meeting its duty of always questioning those in power. And I say duty because the art community, as a counterpart of the press, has been given special rights written into the Bill of Rights, known broadly as freedom of the press, for the explicit purpose of keeping power in check.

Throughout modern history, art typically enters politics on a mass scale in two fashions: first, as a check on power; second, as a tool used by those in power. Freedom of the Press comes into play in both cases, but in very different ways. In the first case, it protects political commentary by artists. This freedom is not a garnish. It is a necessary weapon, enshrined in the Constitution for the purpose of countering contradictions, hypocrisies, and distortions made by politicians and others in power. Yet the art community has responded to the Obama administration's contradictions, hypocrisies, and distortions with near total silence.

Consider the recent flurry of debate over the Obama "Joker" posters that have been appearing in Los Angeles. This image represents the only substantial counterpoint to Obama's current agenda from the art community. What's been the response?

One writer from the LA Weekly declared of the image, "The only thing missing is a noose." Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post stated, "So why the anonymity? Perhaps because the poster is ultimately a racially charged image." Bedlam magazine, the first to comment on the poster back in April, argued, "The Joker white-face imposed on Obama's visage has a sort of malicious, racist, Jim Crow quality to it." Why would any artist who hopes to have (or keep) a career create images that criticize the president when both journalists and art reviewers make such irrational comments? To give some perspective, remember that the "noose" comment came from a publication that once presented a cover image of George W. Bush as a bloodthirsty vampire.

When I first saw the Obama Joker poster on my block in April I tried to read the website featured in the upper right-hand corner, but it was too pixilated to decipher. Is anonymity part of the artist's message? Possibly. However, if anonymity is not a part of the message, can you blame the artist for wanting to remain anonymous given the irrational and racially-charged criticism the poster has received?

I find it hard to believe that the Obama Joker creator is the only serious detractor (assuming that it is a critical commentary) within the art community. And I'm sure the incendiary criticism will keep others from creating similar images. But regardless of political affiliation, the art community must embrace all rational dissenters. Art must not exclusively serve the interests of any presidential administration.

It's time for the art community to return to its historical role in political affairs, which means speaking to power, not on behalf of it. Which leads me to the second case where art enters politics on a mass scale. The power of art, in combination with the suppression of free speech or a free press, has been used as a tool by authoritarian governments to control their citizens. From Hitler, Stalin, and Mao to Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, art has been used to deify leaders while preserving the position of the ruling class. Most artists would not want to be referred to as tools of the state, but in the case of Obama's administration, that's exactly what they've been so far.


This emerging anti-intellectual consensus among thinking people has been an odd thing to watch. Some of the more eloquently critical academic blogs--the ones that positively fed on righteous intellectual anger at the Bush administration--have utterly lost their thunder. They've become conceptual vacuums, and are really struggling to maintain their momentum (when they do muster critical energy, it's often to mock and dismiss the people who are stepping in to fill the dissident void, as when professors Paul Krugman, Cass Sunstein, and others call critics of Obama's agenda racist).

At first, I thought the shift in tone was just afterglow following the November election. I figured the relentless critical energy would start up again eventually--and that this could be a very good thing for building bridges across political differences. But at this point, I think something quite different is happening. It's blinkered, and it's irrational, and I have to believe that it is self-destructive in the extreme. Anytime you put unthinking loyalty to an ideal above your own critical faculties, you are killing a little bit of what makes you human and what keeps you free. This is particularly true of those who think, write, learn, create, and teach for a living.

Erin O'Connor, 9:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack (0)




August 7, 2009 [feather]
Governance and the curriculum

Several years ago, University of Texas philosophy professor Robert Koons established a new undergrad program centered on the study of Western civ and American institutions. There are a number of such programs at schools across the country (Duke has one, as do Princeton, Brown, and others), and the idea is that they allow undergrads who want to focus their studies in this way to do so. Most colleges and universities have highly diffuse general curricula with few serious core requirements; very, very few require that all undergrads study US history or civics (Texas is an exception). So programs of the sort Koons set up serve a real need, and add a nice layer of diversity to undergrad curricula.

But sometimes, it's exactly that diversity that is the problem. When professors at Hamilton College wanted to set up an on-campus center for the study of Western civ, they were hounded off campus. The resulting Alexander Hamilton Institute is an entirely independent entity--which is good insofar as this allows it to exist, but sad insofar as it says some pretty harsh things about the campus culture. If students can't study something for credit, they just aren't likely to study it.

Anyway, back to Koons. He's got a story to tell.


For six years, I was involved in efforts at the University of Texas at Austin to create a program in Western Civilization and American Institutions. Our vision was to offer to all undergraduates a sequence of Great Books seminars, beginning with the Bible and the works of ancient Greece and Rome, and culminating with the classics of the American founding. We sought approval of a certificate through which students could satisfy eighteen of their forty-two hours of general education requirements.

We made considerable progress. Perhaps as a result of that progress, we faced opposition from the major humanities programs (especially English, history, American studies, and religious studies), beginning in the spring of 2007. A New York Times article on September 22, 2008, "Conservatives Try New Tack on Campuses," accelerated and consolidated that opposition, because it included our program and a quotation from me.

So, even though we secured a "concentration" for our program (a step below but toward a major), introduced a new field of study on campus, raised over $1 million, and hired four postdoctoral teaching fellows, the life of the program was brief.

In November of last year, I was dismissed as director, and in the spring the administration and faculty replaced our program with one on Core Texts and Ideas. The new program lacks any list or criteria for "core texts," and the goal of a required sequence of courses has vanished.

I don't wish to rehearse the history of the program in any detail. (Barbara Moeller's Minding the Campus article covered it very well.) I will, however, record the larger lessons of our experience for others who may wish to start Western civilization programs. In retrospect, we overestimated the value of strong support from outsiders such as private donors, legislators, and policy groups, while we underestimated the determination of our internal opponents.

The main obstacle to our success was the idee fixe of unbridled faculty governance over the curriculum, which dominates at UT and elsewhere. In practice, that means the tyranny of the faculty majority.

Our program was rightly perceived as a threat to the monopoly of what I call the Uncurriculum, which prevails at UT and at most universities today. It is the absence of required courses and of any structure or order to liberal studies. The Uncurriculum dictates that students accumulate courses that meet a "distribution" standard--a smattering of courses scattered among many categories. Even within majors, the trend has been to eliminate required sequences.

The perfecting of the intellect and the formation of character through the attainment of what John Henry Newman called "liberal knowledge" have given way to engorgement with miscellaneous information. The suggestion that higher education should have something to do with acquiring moral wisdom is invariably met with the sophomoric query, "Whose ethics?" As Anthony Kronman has so well documented in his book The End of Education, nothing in the Uncurriculum encourages students to think through the great questions of life in a systematic manner, with the great minds of the Western tradition as their guides and interlocutors.

The Uncurriculum free-for-all gives undergraduates only the illusion of choice. In reality, the Uncurriculum model is entwined with the interests of the professoriate. If there are no courses students are required to take, there are no courses that professors are required to teach.


Koons goes on to describe how the program challenged--and perhaps threatened--faculty who prefer to maintain a baggy, formless gen ed curriculum because that's what easiest for them (as opposed to what's best for the students). He explores how rationalizations for that move have been institutionalized, and notes that this irresponsible shapelessness tells us a lot about the academic humanities' slow "suicide."

He ends with some very challenging ideas about governance:


For the academic gatekeepers, it was far easier to keep out the competition.

In addition to underestimating the power of the faculty majority, we also learned that reform-minded trustees cannot count on the appointment of supposedly sound and non-political administrators. Administrators will always side with the faculty majority in defending the Uncurriculum.

Instead, trustees must be willing to do one of two things: (1) get their hands dirty by dictating the details of curricular reform, over the objections of the faculty gatekeepers and their administrative allies, or (2) create alternative mechanisms for the introduction of academic programs.

Our program was a sound alternative to the Uncurriculum. It was privately funded and offered students a coherent way of satisfying many of their general education requirements. Unfortunately, the faculty saw our program as foreign and threatening, and therefore attacked it, much as the human body automatically attacks transplanted organs. We need to prevent that from happening in the future.

One idea, which state legislators could implement, is the creation of "charter colleges" within existing state universities. The state could authorize groups of three or more professors, together with a private foundation or even a for-profit sponsor, to propose charters for innovative programs like ours. If its charter were approved by an outside board, a charter college would be authorized to offer specific courses to satisfy designated components of the state's core, as well as certificates, minors, and majors. Faculty in the rest of the university would not control the decisions of the charter college.

The experience of the Western Civilization and American Institutions program underscores a sad truth about higher education in America--it is mostly run by and for the faculty. What it likes and dislikes trumps what would be best for students. Our system will never fully achieve its promise as long as that remains true.


Koons throws down a provocative, even counterintuitive, challenge here. Trustees tend to be hands off when it comes to curricular matters--they don't want to trample on professors' academic freedom to teach as they see fit. And they should be respectful of academic freedom. But they should also recognize that it's one thing to try to tell faculty what books they will assign or to control what gets said in the classroom--and quite another for trustees to work to ensure that the curriculum is sound, that courses are taught well, that students learn what they need to learn, and that all faculty have the option of introducing strong curricular innovations that serve students well--not just those with the right viewpoint.

Erin O'Connor, 7:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




August 6, 2009 [feather]
Fishy history lesson

You may remember Evan Coyne Maloney from Indoctrinate U, his sharp and important film about intolerance on our nation's campuses (full disclosure -- I contributed to the due diligence on that film and have helped promote it through the Moving Picture Institute). Anyhow -- Evan's interest in campus politics has a lot in common with mine: If you don't learn how to reason, how to think, how to evaluate multiple arguments and competing sources to come to your own conclusions, you will be a tool of the powerful and a profoundly un-free person. There is a very good argument to be made that higher ed is failing to educate for citizenship, insofar as that involves teaching people the critical thinking skills described above, plus equipping them with core knowledge about their world (from math to history to civics to science).

As I have been arguing here, our government is cynically assuming that Americans don't know jack about what their rights are--and that therefore, Washington can rewrite the rules. It's a calculated risk, and a sensible one, if you know anything about what is getting taught in K-12 and in college these days. But it depends on ignorance being maintained--on educators colluding in the government's disrespect for genuine freedom, which is messy, and involves debate, multiple viewpoints, and dissent. And it's fragile: it can be exploded with a simple history lesson, or a well-placed question, or both.

Here's what Evan has to say:


The Obama White House may be breaking the Privacy Act of 1974 by asking citizens to report "fishy" political speech.

On Tuesday, Macon Phillips, President Obama's Director of New Media, wrote on the White House blog asking citizens to rat out fellow citizens who are spreading "disinformation" about Obama's plans for more government control over the health care system. Phillips wrote:


There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can't keep track of all of them here at the White House, we're asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to flag@whitehouse.gov.

One wonders, what constitutes "fishy" speech or "disinformation"? Is it anything that runs counter to what the White House wants you to think? And what, precisely, is the White House planning to do about someone who’s speech has been "flagged"?

It turns out, even asking for citizens to report on each other may be illegal. According to the Department of Justice, "the purpose of the Privacy Act is to balance the government's need to maintain information about individuals with the rights of individuals to be protected against unwarranted invasions of their privacy stemming from federal agencies' collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information about them."

Further, anything is considered a "personal record" if it identifies an individual (an e-mail address would qualify), and "federal agency" specifically includes "the Executive Office of the President."

I'm no lawyer, but it sure sounds like the White House is violating the law by asking people to snitch on their friends and neighbors for engaging in "fishy" political speech. Anyone want to try this one in court?


I'd love to hear from the lawyers out there. And I repeat--where are the academics? They cry "McCarthyism" so readily--even unto comparing criticism of academic culture to government sanctioned persecution (don't get me started on sourcing that--the comparison has become a stock gesture in the years since 9/11). But now, academics say nothing. Are they hoarse?

UPDATE: More from David Hardy, a lawyer with plenty of Washington experience:


As a recovering bureaucrat, I can point to a much, much, bigger illegality under that Act.

5 US Code §552a(e)(7) commands that any Federal agency

"(7) maintain no record describing how any individual exercises rights guaranteed by the First Amendment unless expressly authorized by statute or by the individual about whom the record is maintained or unless pertinent to and within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity;"

Persons posting to the web or sending emails are exercising First Amendment rights. I can't see how gathering this information is expressly authorized by statute, nor within the scope of an LE activity. It doesn't get much clearer than that.

{Plus, 552a(e) generally requires that agencies collecting information about individuals into a records system, upon establishment or change to that system, publish in the Federal Register a detailed description of that records system, maintain appropriate security, etc.)

I'd say there are glaring Privacy Act violations here. And the penalties, per S552a(i) include fines of up to $5,000, not only for gathering forbidden data, but for disclosing it or maintaining an undisclosed system.


Alternatively, Byron York explains, a "dissident database" of the sort proposed may well be legal--but no less troubling for all that.

Erin O'Connor, 5:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)




Yes you can make this stuff up

A July 23, 2009, article in Britain's Daily Express:


THOUSANDS of the worst families in England are to be put in "sin bins" in a bid to change their bad behaviour, Ed Balls announced yesterday.

The Children's Secretary set out L400million plans to put 20,000 problem families under 24-hour CCTV super-vision in their own homes.

They will be monitored to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time and eat proper meals.

Private security guards will also be sent round to carry out home checks, while parents will be given help to combat drug and alcohol addiction.

Around 2,000 families have gone through these Family Intervention Projects so far.

But ministers want to target 20,000 more in the next two years, with each costing between L5,000 and L20,000 – a potential total bill of L400million.

Ministers hope the move will reduce the number of youngsters who get drawn into crime because of their chaotic family lives, as portrayed in Channel 4 comedy drama Shameless.

Sin bin projects operate in half of council areas already but Mr Balls wants every local authority to fund them.

He said: "This is pretty tough and non-negotiable support for families to get to the root of the problem. There should be Family Intervention Projects in every local authority area because every area has families that need support."

But Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: "This is all much too little, much too late.

"This Government has been in power for more than a decade during which time anti-social behaviour, family breakdown and problems like alcohol abuse and truancy have just got worse and worse."

Mr Balls also said responsible parents who make sure their children behave in school will get new rights to complain about those who allow their children to disrupt lessons.

Pupils and their families will have to sign behaviour contracts known as Home School Agreements before the start of every year, which will set out parents' duties to ensure children behave and do their homework.


From George Orwell's 1984, published in 1949:

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. He moved over to the window: a smallish, frail figure, the meagerness of his body merely emphasized the blue overalls which were the uniform of the Party. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended.

[...]

Behind Winston's back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig iron and the overfulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live--did live, from habit that became instinct--in the assumption that every sound you make was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing.


In Winston's world, the government does more than watch. It encourages people to watch one another, and to report "unorthodox" behavior. Children are first recruited as "Spies," and are taught the arts of lockstep and loyalty to an ideology over loyalty to loved ones. Orwell makes it clear that such children never really grow up--they remain eternally in thrall to a paternalistic government that they both love and fear at once.

Meanwhile, in other news, the Obama administration has put out a nationwide request: "If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to flag@whitehouse.gov."

What government on earth--or at least, what government that purports to head a free country--could ever countenance such a call? Even if the good people in the White House are completely aboveboard--even if this is the best-intentioned initiative imaginable (I do admit I find that hard to imagine), how in the world is that sort of wording going to do anything other than inspire fear, suspicion, and the worst censorious impulses?

I am reminded of a line drawn from another classic dystopian tale: In The Matrix, Morpheus introduces Neo to the truth of his decidedly unfree world with a key line: "Welcome the the desert of the real." That phrase, in turn, draws from an essay by French theorist Jean Baudrillard, whose thinking about the simulated, inauthentic character of contemporary life has long made him a favorite pet within academe.

Where are the academics now? Why aren't they challenging this stuff--hooking it up to the long history and philosophy of freedom, dissenting as a means of showing patriotism, charting with scholarly dedication this administration's frightening deviations from its own promises, not to mention the principles of liberty? I thought, when they turned that sort of intellectual critique on the Bush administration, that, as partisan as it was, it also bespoke a deeper commitment to intellectual and ethical integrity. I thought they saw themselves as guardians of some sort, as citizens with special obligations to parse Washington's ideas and place them in context.

Guess I was wrong.

Erin O'Connor, 8:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)




FSU's bad rap

Tough times call for creative measures. Real sustainability requires innovation and an openness to change. Leadership must be seized and celebrated--where it is found. They understand this at Florida State.


The search for a new president at Florida State University has barely begun, but there's a campaign under way to replace T.K. Wetherell with rap star T-Pain.

Called T-Pain For FSU Prez--with nifty T-shirts to promote the cause--the campaign was started last week by FSU graduate student Justin de la Cruz.

It quickly expanded to a Facebook group that has more than 250 members, including the wife and sister of Tallahassee native T-Pain. T-Pain, whose real name is Faheem Rasheed Najm, has endorsed the campaign via Twitter and his own Facebook page.

"Right when I saw TK was resigning," de la Cruz said, "I thought I'd try and get some alternative ideas of people for president – not that this is the perfect candidate or anything.

"They're looking for someone who can make a lot of money, and T-Pain makes a lot of money."

The "pain" theme plays a prominent role in the "cam-pain." It calls for the rapper to create a College of Hip Hop at FSU, and claims that as FSU president T-Pain will replace the water in all of the fountains on campus with "cham-pain."

De la Cruz, who's halfway to a master's degree in humanities, is planning a pep rally prior to the Labor Day night FSU-Miami football game.

"We are looking for local sponsors and support from anyone in the Tallahassee community," he said. "We'll be having steady updates on our site about merchandise, contests and giveaways."

Wetherell, who announced his resignation in June and is staying on as FSU president until a replacement is hired, wasn't aware Wednesday of the student-originated campaign for T-Pain.

"I'm more a Toby Keith, Johnny Cash guy," Wetherell said. "I don't know what a T-Pain is. Can he lobby the Legislature, that's all I want to know."


Personally, I'd be into having Clint Eastwood as a university president. He used to be a mayor. Plus, he knows what to do about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Erin O'Connor, 7:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




August 5, 2009 [feather]
The ramrod technique

Americans are not up for this health care bill. Here are the latest poll results:


American voters, by a 55 - 35 percent margin, are more worried that Congress will spend too much money and add to the deficit than it will not act to overhaul the health care system, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today. By a similar 57 - 37 percent margin, voters say health care reform should be dropped if it adds "significantly" to the deficit.

By a 72 - 21 percent margin, voters do not believe that President Barack Obama will keep his promise to overhaul the health care system without adding to the deficit, the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University national poll finds.

American voters disapprove 52 - 39 percent of the way President Obama is handling health care, down from 46 - 42 percent approval July 1, with 60 - 34 percent disapproval from independent voters. Voters say 59 - 36 percent that Congress should not pass health care reform if only Democratic members support it.


And here's what Obama had to say yesterday about public anger at his and Congress' continued efforts to force through a bill the people don't want: "We should not be fearful of it. The truth is on our side." (Quotation courtesy of Barbara Boxer.)

Sigh. I suppose if I were a True Believer, this wouldn't bother me.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, it turns out that the Obama administration has been in bed with the drugs companies all along. People may think this bill will help control the skyrocketing costs of drugs and other drug company shenanigans. But they should guess again. The New York Times calls the administration's behavior "secretive and risky." You think?

Erin O'Connor, 4:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)




Big Brother is watching you

Who needs debate when you can have propagandistic spin instead?

Hope and change!!

Erin O'Connor, 8:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)




August 4, 2009 [feather]
The facts about single payer care

There's a lot of myth and a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the ideal of universal health care. It sounds good in principle--I won't argue with that. But it's just unworkable in practice--and the folks who claim it works better are just cooking the truth, hoping you are too dumb or lazy or complicit to notice or care.

Scott Atlas is a professor of medicine at Stanford's med center, and a Hoover Institution fellow (please, those of you whose knees jerk at that--give the reflexive umbrage a rest). He's assembled a list of ten key facts about American health care, especially as compared to the socialized health care systems that get held up as models of how we should be doing better.

Check them out:


Medical care in the United States is derided as miserable compared to health care systems in the rest of the developed world. Economists, government officials, insurers and academics alike are beating the drum for a far larger government role in health care. Much of the public assumes their arguments are sound because the calls for change are so ubiquitous and the topic so complex. However, before turning to government as the solution, some unheralded facts about America's health care system should be considered.

Fact No. 1: Americans have better survival rates than Europeans for common cancers.[1] Breast cancer mortality is 52 percent higher in Germany than in the United States, and 88 percent higher in the United Kingdom. Prostate cancer mortality is 604 percent higher in the U.K. and 457 percent higher in Norway. The mortality rate for colorectal cancer among British men and women is about 40 percent higher.

Fact No. 2: Americans have lower cancer mortality rates than Canadians.[2] Breast cancer mortality is 9 percent higher, prostate cancer is 184 percent higher and colon cancer mortality among men is about 10 percent higher than in the United States.

Fact No. 3: Americans have better access to treatment for chronic diseases than patients in other developed countries.[3] Some 56 percent of Americans who could benefit are taking statins, which reduce cholesterol and protect against heart disease. By comparison, of those patients who could benefit from these drugs, only 36 percent of the Dutch, 29 percent of the Swiss, 26 percent of Germans, 23 percent of Britons and 17 percent of Italians receive them.

Fact No. 4: Americans have better access to preventive cancer screening than Canadians.[4] Take the proportion of the appropriate-age population groups who have received recommended tests for breast, cervical, prostate and colon cancer:

Nine of 10 middle-aged American women (89 percent) have had a mammogram, compared to less than three-fourths of Canadians (72 percent).

Nearly all American women (96 percent) have had a pap smear, compared to less than 90 percent of Canadians.

More than half of American men (54 percent) have had a PSA test, compared to less than 1 in 6 Canadians (16 percent).

Nearly one-third of Americans (30 percent) have had a colonoscopy, compared with less than 1 in 20 Canadians (5 percent).

Fact No. 5: Lower income Americans are in better health than comparable Canadians. Twice as many American seniors with below-median incomes self-report "excellent" health compared to Canadian seniors (11.7 percent versus 5.8 percent). Conversely, white Canadian young adults with below-median incomes are 20 percent more likely than lower income Americans to describe their health as "fair or poor."[5]

Fact No. 6: Americans spend less time waiting for care than patients in Canada and the U.K. Canadian and British patients wait about twice as long - sometimes more than a year - to see a specialist, to have elective surgery like hip replacements or to get radiation treatment for cancer.[6] All told, 827,429 people are waiting for some type of procedure in Canada.[7] In England, nearly 1.8 million people are waiting for a hospital admission or outpatient treatment.[8]

Fact No. 7: People in countries with more government control of health care are highly dissatisfied and believe reform is needed. More than 70 percent of German, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and British adults say their health system needs either "fundamental change" or "complete rebuilding."[9]

Fact No. 8: Americans are more satisfied with the care they receive than Canadians. When asked about their own health care instead of the "health care system," more than half of Americans (51.3 percent) are very satisfied with their health care services, compared to only 41.5 percent of Canadians; a lower proportion of Americans are dissatisfied (6.8 percent) than Canadians (8.5 percent).[10]

Fact No. 9: Americans have much better access to important new technologies like medical imaging than patients in Canada or the U.K. Maligned as a waste by economists and policymakers naive to actual medical practice, an overwhelming majority of leading American physicians identified computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as the most important medical innovations for improving patient care during the previous decade.[11] [See the table.] The United States has 34 CT scanners per million Americans, compared to 12 in Canada and eight in Britain. The United States has nearly 27 MRI machines per million compared to about 6 per million in Canada and Britain.[12]

Fact No. 10: Americans are responsible for the vast majority of all health care innovations.[13] The top five U.S. hospitals conduct more clinical trials than all the hospitals in any other single developed country.[14] Since the mid-1970s, the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology has gone to American residents more often than recipients from all other countries combined.[15] In only five of the past 34 years did a scientist living in America not win or share in the prize. Most important recent medical innovations were developed in the United States.[16] [See the table.]

Conclusion. Despite serious challenges, such as escalating costs and the uninsured, the U.S. health care system compares favorably to those in other developed countries.


These are not just talking points. They are facts. If you want the source material, click on the link above, and follow his footnotes through.

People from all over the world come to the US to get the best care available. That's because of our incredible academic medical centers and the premium we place on research and innovation. It's also because truly smart, creative, caring people have an incentive to go into medicine as a profession (less than they used to, given the burdens of insurance companies, malpractice insurance, etc., but still enough to attract good people). Nationalizing health care will kill that. All you have to do is look at the quality of research (when there is any) and the quality of physicians in countries with socialized health care systems, and you'll see the truth of that. And if we kill innovation and incentives, we'll also be killing people.

Yes, we need health care reform. No, the government is not the answer. Nationalized health care is not a magic bullet--though it is a bullet.

Erin O'Connor, 9:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack (0)




Harvard Law Review defends speech codes

...but only because the authors of the article are either ignorant or dishonest--or both.

FIRE has the details:


In its April issue, the Harvard Law Review (HLR) analyzes one of FIRE's favorite legal victories, DeJohn v. Temple University, 537 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. 2008). As Torch readers will remember, in DeJohn, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit struck down Temple University's broad sexual harassment policy on First Amendment grounds for proscribing a great deal of protected speech. Prior to the ruling, FIRE submitted an amicus brief to the Third Circuit urging it to reach precisely the result it did; and since the landmark victory, we've notified colleges across the country that yet another speech code has fallen in court. And we're not the only ones who think DeJohn was a big deal: Just last month, a federal district court judge in California enjoined the Los Angeles Community College District from enforcing its overbroad sexual harassment policy, relying in large part on the Third Circuit's ruling in DeJohn.

However, to FIRE's surprise and deep disappointment, HLR thinks DeJohn was decided incorrectly. In fact, the student-edited law review takes the shocking position that speech codes on campus are constitutional. Even more surprising than HLR's conclusion, though, is the shoddy analysis supporting it. For one of the nation's premier legal journals--indeed, four current Supreme Court justices are HLR alums, and the President of the United States is another--they sure mailed this one in.

Where to start?

Perhaps most unforgivably, HLR's analysis reveals its editors to be completely unaware of the larger legal landscape concerning campus speech codes. Amazingly, the analysis does not acknowledge that any case law on speech codes exists, let alone the fact that prior to DeJohn, eight different federal courts struck down speech codes as unconstitutional. Indeed, seven of those eight cases involved a "harassment policy" similar to the one at issue in DeJohn, and the eighth case struck down a civility policy and limited a harassment policy that was--unlike the policy in DeJohn—already narrow in its scope, narrowing it further to proscribe only true harassment.


There's more, and the conclusion is devastating:

The striking lack of research and sound analysis in this piece reflects a lazy acceptance of speech codes disguised as harassment policies at the Harvard Law Review. It is sad that Harvard Law students' first instinct is to tie themselves up in illogical circles trying to defend college censorship of "offensive" speech. But perhaps this should come as no surprise. As FIRE's Co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silverglate has documented, Harvard Law School's own bloated sexual harassment policy arose from the ignoble circumstance of administrators, students, and faculty wanting to censor a student parody of radical feminist scholarship. The culture of Harvard Law School has apparently deteriorated to the point that its students are willing to publish deceptive apologetics for official censorship in their flagship journal.

So much for the traditional student prerogative of dissent, questioning authority, speaking truth to power, envisioning a better and more just way, etc. etc.

Erin O'Connor, 8:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)




August 3, 2009 [feather]
Confederacy of dunces

One reason I'm obsessed with the health care debacle--there are many, but this is the one that allows me to feel it's sensible to write about it on a blog devoted to education--is that Obama and the bill's congressional pushers have been handling it in such an outrageously anti-intellectual way. Because they are ideologues and careerists who care more about putting the big Universal Health Care notch on their belts than they do about actual democratic process, they can't be bothered even to read the bill, let alone take the time needed to understand it, to work through its problems, or to remember that their primary duty is to represent the people -- not impose their arrogant entitled god-complexed will on them. Drives me nuts!

And it's just amazing to me to watch the academic blogs that I read look the other way. They couldn't complain enough when the Bush administration let agendas get in the way of good governance. But now you can hear a pin drop--except for those blogs where you can hear this funny, shrill, desperate cheerleading for something the author must know is incredibly wrong, but can't find the spine to question or oppose. So much for rigorous analysis, intellectual integrity, etc.

The good news is that the American people have had enough of Washington's haughty condescension. Here's PowerLine:


Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Sen. Arlen Specter held a town hall meeting on health care today in Philadelphia. The audience appears to have been mostly hostile.

In the one exchange I've seen, Specter tried to explain how he goes about learning what's in a 1,000 page piece of legislation. Specter said that, because of time constraints, his practice is to divide responsibility for reading the bill among his staffers. This explanation brought boos from the crowd. [see video above]

The Senate fancies itself "the world's greatest deliberative body." But it's becoming increasingly clear that the Senate is not a deliberative body at all -- not when Senators concede that they would vote on legislation to overhaul one-sixth of our economy, and arguably the most important sixth, without having read the legislation. Specter's defense that there's not enough time for him to read it all himself simply raises the problem in a more acute from: why would the world's greatest deliberative body consider legislation on a timetable that leaves Senators with insufficient to see for themselves exactly what's in the bill?

Americans inevitably will disagree over how our health care system should operate. But nearly every American would agree that Senators should know what's in major health care legislation before they vote on it, and that such legislation should not be enacted in a rush.

The problem is not unique to health care legislation. The same thing happened last year with comprehensive immigration reform and earlier this year with the stimulus bill. Congress is at risk of losing the confidence of the American people based on purely procedural concerns.


I'd say we're well on our way there. I'm loving the protests and the tea parties. I went to one of the first tea parties myself on April 15--a peaceful, inspiring affair on the courthouse lawn of my sleepy Oregon town--and I'm hoping for more.

Erin O'Connor, 9:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)




August 2, 2009 [feather]
What he said

The debate is not about whether people should have access to affordable health care. It is not, as certain intellectually dishonest commentators would have us believe, a contest between the evil conservative elites who want to keep the privilege all to themselves while denying the have-nots, and the noble, virtuous, compassionate liberals who understand that access to quality, affordable care is, or ought to be, a basic human right. Don't be fooled by the people who try to get you to take sides in that false construction. They have nothing but contempt for your intellect, your freedom, and your health.

The actual debate here is about whether the government's present acrobatics will resolve the problem of spiraling health care costs and shrinking access--or make it much worse. And there's really no debate about that.

Erin O'Connor, 10:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)




Inconvenient truths

Finally academic scientists are standing up and saying what needs to be said about the junk science that is now underwriting incalculable expenditures of time, resources, and money around the world. Melanie Phillips explains:


More and more scientists have just about had it up to here with the rubbish being put out as the 'consensus' on man-made global warming. Marc Morano reports how members of the American Chemical Society (ACS) have risen in revolt against the group's editor-in-chief -- with demands for his removal -- after an editorial appeared claiming 'the science of anthropogenic climate change is becoming increasingly well established.'

The editorial claimed the 'consensus' view was growing 'increasingly difficult to challenge, despite the efforts of diehard climate-change deniers.' The editor now admits he is 'startled' by the negative reaction from the group's scientific members.

Poor bewildered soul. He really thought he had written what was undeniably the case. Here are some examples of that 'negative reaction' he produced:

ACS member scientist Dr. Howard Hayden, a Physics Professor Emeritus from the University of Connecticut: 'Baum's remarks are particularly disquieting because of his hostility toward skepticism, which is part of every scientist's soul. Let's cut to the chase with some questions for Baum: Which of the 20-odd major climate models has settled the science, such that all of the rest are now discarded? [...] Do you refer to 'climate change' instead of 'global warming' because the claim of anthropogenic global warming has become increasingly contrary to fact?'

William E. Keller wrote: 'However bitter you (Baum) personally may feel about CCDs (climate change deniers), it is not your place as editor to accuse them--falsely--of nonscientific behavior by using insultingly inappropriate language. [...] The growing body of scientists, whom you abuse as sowing doubt, making up statistics, and claiming to be ignored by the media, are, in the main, highly competent professionals, experts in their fields, completely honorable, and highly versed in the scientific method--characteristics that apparently do not apply to you.'


Morano points out that this revolt is but the latest in a series of recent eruptions against the so-called 'consensus' on man-made global warming:

On May 1 2009, the American Physical Society (APS) Council decided to review its current climate statement via a high-level subcommittee of respected senior scientists. The decision was prompted after a group of 54 prominent physicists petitioned the APS revise its global warming position. The 54 physicists wrote to APS governing board: 'Measured or reconstructed temperature records indicate that 20th - 21st century changes are neither exceptional nor persistent, and the historical and geological records show many periods warmer than today.'

The petition signed by the prominent physicists, led by Princeton University's Dr. Will Happer, who has conducted 200 peer-reviewed scientific studies. The peer-reviewed journal Nature published a July 22, 2009 letter by the physicists persuading the APS to review its statement. In 2008, an American Physical Society editor conceded that a 'considerable presence' of scientific skeptics exists.

In addition, in April 2009, the Polish National Academy of Science reportedly 'published a document that expresses skepticism over the concept of man-made global warming.' An abundance of new peer-reviewed scientific studies continue to be published challenging the UN IPCC climate views. (See: Climate Fears RIP...for 30 years!? - Global Warming could stop 'for up to 30 years! Warming 'On Hold?...'Could go into hiding for decades,' peer-reviewed study finds – Discovery.com – March 2, 2009 & Peer-Reviewed Study Rocks Climate Debate! 'Nature not man responsible for recent global warming...little or none of late 20th century warming and cooling can be attributed to humans' – July 23, 2009 )

A March 2009 255-page U. S. Senate Report detailed 'More Than 700 International Scientists Dissenting Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims.' 2009's continued lack of warming, further frustrated the promoters of man-made climate fears. See: Earth's 'Fever' Breaks! Global temperatures 'have plunged .74°F since Gore released An Inconvenient Truth' – July 5, 2009



It's been a long time coming, but finally the scientists are locating their professional integrity and speaking up. It's really too bad that in the interim Al Gore and his corps of dewy-eyed ideological followers have made so much headway in setting domestic and foreign policy in the U.S. and abroad. It's a rich example of the kind of hell that can break loose--not just in the academy, but around the world--when academics don't police themselves.

Erin O'Connor, 10:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)