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March 31, 2010 [feather]
The joys of ad hominem attack

The CUNY faculty has issued a statement on academic freedom that isn't really about academic freedom at all. That's been happening a lot lately. "Academic freedom" is one of those words that very few people can actually define with any accuracy or historical awareness--and a cynic might argue that this is awfully convenient for those who are using it as a Trojan horse for mentalities and attitudes that are anathema to academic freedom. Among them: the notion that to criticize academics is to threaten their academic freedom.

Erin O'Connor, 1:08 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Heckler's vetoes

There have been two of these on campuses in the last few days--one at Texas' Tarleton State, where threats of violence led to the canceling of a student play depicting a gay Jesus, and one at the University of Wyoming, where protests have led to the "disinviting" of Bill Ayers, the former Weatherman and current education professor who was supposed to give a speech there. In both cases, it was the public that freaked out about the events, showing not only disrespect for the marketplace of ideas, but also an ignorance of the Constitution, which requires public campuses to uphold the First Amendment.

In the case of Wyoming, the president also appears to be a bit confused about his obligations on that front, stating that Ayers' appearance was canceled because "The University of Wyoming is one of the few institutions remaining in today's environment that garner the confidence of the public. The visit by Professor Ayers would have adversely impacted that reputation." He also noted that academic freedom doesn't mean anything goes--but "comes with a commensurate dose of responsibility." He's right about that--and Ayers doesn't himself have either an academic freedom or a First Amendment right to speak at Wyoming. But Wyoming should have thought about the inevitable controversy before inviting Ayers--and should have decided either not to bring him in at all, or to weather the objections with ringing endorsements of free inquiry and open debate. As it is, they look like a bunch of disorganized hypocrites with a talent for describing the abandonment of principle as an exercise of it. FWIW, this is not the first time I have made this very argument about what it means for a university to cancel a Bill Ayers appearance.

Things were a bit more complicated at Tarleton State, because, apparently, the threat of violence was pretty significant. The president defended the students' right to produce the play, issuing a statement that invoked not only the First Amendment, but the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, which contains language about higher ed's obligation to foster free exchange on campus. But eventually the professor for whom the students were completing an assignment canceled the play because he was was worried about their safety. It should not have had to be that way -- and I hope there is a way to impress upon the surrounding community that they are way out of line in reacting as they did to expression they dislike.

Erin O'Connor, 7:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

March 29, 2010 [feather]
Duke Women's Center blows it

From FIRE:

Duke University's Women's Center has canceled an event about motherhood because the sponsor was engaging in pro-life expression elsewhere on campus. A Women's Center representative told Duke Students for Life (DSFL) that "we have a problem" and an ideological "conflict" with the event, which was supposedly canceled to protect Duke women from encountering the event during the group's "traumatizing" pro-life "Week for Life." The group's president has turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"Duke appears to have an unwritten but officially enforced stance regarding abortion that has resulted in pro-life groups being shut out of the Women's Center," said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley. "This treatment is a deeply hypocritical violation of the Women's Center's promise that it 'welcomes discordant viewpoints from varied experiences.'"

As part of a "Week for Life" series of events held at Duke over March 15-19, DSFL had reserved a Women's Center space for a "Discussion with a Duke Mother" on March 18. A Duke student and mother was to speak about motherhood and the challenges of being in both roles. But the day before the event, the reservation was abruptly canceled in a voicemail to the group.

Meeting with the group on March 18, Duke Women's Center Gender Violence Prevention Specialist Martin Liccardo said that because the event was associated with the Week for Life and DSFL, the event could not be held at the Women's Center.

Liccardo told the group that the prospect of holding a pro-life event in the Women's Center during Week for Life was too upsetting for some students: "We had a very strong reaction from students in general who use our space who said this was something that was upsetting and not OK. So based on that, we said, OK, we are going to respond to this and stop the program."

FIRE wrote Duke President Richard H. Brodhead on March 26, asking him to respect Duke's promises. DSFL President Michelle Barreto also explained the situation in an op-ed this morning on the national politics website The Daily Caller.

"This treatment violates Duke's public commitment to free speech," said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program. "If Duke's promises of inclusiveness are honest, Duke must repudiate the Women's Center's decision and ensure that such viewpoint-based discrimination does not happen again. If Duke wants to be officially a pro-choice university where only women with 'correct' views get full access to campus resources, it should stop misrepresenting itself."

Pathetic. And I say that as someone who is pro-choice, who worked at the campus women's clinic doing contraceptive and STD education during college (handing out free condoms to anyone and everyone who wanted them), and who used to have a pin on her bookbag that featured a picture of a coathanger with a line drawn through it. Women should have choices--and that includes the option to hear a range of perspectives on what womanhood is. No one, on the other hand, has the right not to be offended.

UPDATE 3/30: Duke has reversed itself, acknowledging that "mistakes were certainly made that should not have occurred." Oh, the absolutions of the passive voice!

Erin O'Connor, 6:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

March 27, 2010 [feather]
Three cheers for The Cartel

The Cartel, a Moving Picture Institute film about the failure of our public schools and the urgent need for school choice, has just won even more awards. This time they are the Visionary Award and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the DC Independent Film Festival.

This film is waking audiences up--and moving them powerfully. Just check out its Facebook wall and see for yourself. The Cartel opens next month in DC, Boston, New York, LA, SF, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Minneapolis, Houston, and Philadelphia. Get dates, showtimes, and locations at TheCartelMovie.com.

(Full disclosure: I served as a consultant during post-production and am part of the marketing efforts. But even if I didn't, I'd still love this film and urge you to see it.)

Erin O'Connor, 8:34 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Et tu?

This resonates.

Erin O'Connor, 7:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

March 26, 2010 [feather]
More books

All this talk of influential books is making me think about the books that shape us before we hit our teens and can read at a more or less adult level.

Some of the books I remember reading before I was ten--and that are still very much with me, very much a part of my imagination and general sensibilities:

--Charlotte's Web. Read more times than I can count.

--Harriet the Spy. Ditto. I got a notebook. I spied. I wrote. I don't spy anymore, but I watch very closely. And I still write.

--The Oz books. Not The Wizard of Oz, but all the rest of them. Amazing stories, amazing illustrations. Plus, a little known fact, an early tale of transsexual identity formation! (Ozma was not always Ozma, and not always a girl.)

--Roots. Read at nine; rocked my world.

--Gone With the Wind. Also read at nine. I was so proud to be reading a grown-up book. It had 1029 pages and the cover featured a lurid picture of Rhett Butler bending over Scarlet O'Hara's heaving breasts. I tried to keep that covered up when I was reading in public.

--The Once and Future King. "Fewmet" is the best word ever.

--The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It changed my sense of landscape, of forests, of rings, of hairy toes, of perseverance, of friendship, of wonder. Or maybe "changed" isn't the word -- "shaped" is probably more true.

--Lots and lots of kid biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Helen Keller. I loved their goodness and their strength.

--Diary of Anne Frank. It's very hard to get children--or even young adults--to develop a sense of history. They have no history themselves. But this did it for me.

--Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. I was fanatical about Judy Blume. I wrote her a letter. Amazingly, she wrote back.

Erin O'Connor, 7:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

March 24, 2010 [feather]
This is what happens when you rush

From the AP:

Hours after President Barack Obama signed historic health care legislation, a potential problem emerged. Administration officials are now scrambling to fix a gap in highly touted benefits for children.

Obama made better coverage for children a centerpiece of his health care remake, but it turns out the letter of the law provided a less-than-complete guarantee that kids with health problems would not be shut out of coverage.

Under the new law, insurance companies still would be able to refuse new coverage to children because of a pre-existing medical problem, said Karen Lightfoot, spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the main congressional panels that wrote the bill Obama signed into law Tuesday.

If it's worth doing, it's worth slowing down and doing it right. Rushing and getting it right are not terribly compatible.

Erin O'Connor, 10:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Your freshman ten

Folks on the internet are making lists of the ten books that influenced them most. They're interpreting what that means differently, but many are posting lists of books they read at a formative age, and that shaped them in ways that remain today, even as they have themselves changed and grown and progressed and regressed and evolved and devolved and all those things we do over the years.

I love making lists. I think it's one reason why I used to love writing syllabi so much -- they were the ultimate empathetic wish-lists, crafted sequences of works that individually and in the aggregate contained ideas, styles, arguments, and information that the teacher finds moving and important, and passionately wants to share with whoever chooses to enroll in the course. These lists of favorites resemble syllabi in interesting ways; they also resemble Rorschach tests.

I'm still drinking my coffee and haven't thought too carefully about this. But here's a stab at the things I remember reading--and being blown away by--as a teenager and a young twenty-something.

--Great Expectations: Assigned by an intrepid ninth-grade teacher. I loved everything about it, and kept a list of wonderful character names (Pumblechook, Jaggers, Wemmick, Pocket) in the back. That was my introduction to Dickens. I have never stopped loving Dickens, and for me he's one of the few writers you can go back and read over and over again. Many people don't feel that way; they find him cloying, obvious, heavy-handed, and messy. He's all these things at times--but he's also not, if that makes sense. I love his imagination, and his energy, his sense of character, and think he was a lot, lot smarter than many critics have given him credit for.

--Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I stumbled on Jane Austen when I was sixteen and bored, looking at the shelves for something to read. I was stopped dead by the controlled, perfect rhythms of the prose. She was funny, and sarcastic, and her sentences seemed to be like little dances done in words. Studying for an anthro final in college, I bribed myself with Pride and Prejudice: an hour of studying, a chapter of Austen; an hour of studying, a chapter of Austen. And so on.

--Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Also something I stumbled on in high school. I wasn't, for the most part, getting assigned exciting stuff in school--but I had a list of books you were supposed to read to prepare for the AP exam, and while I never thought too much about studying for the AP, the list served me well for years as a guide to books I would never otherwise have found.

--Middlemarch. A college assignment. I've written before about Eliot, and about this book. Amazing--not just as fiction, but as a meditation on goodness, on choice, on sacrifice, on love, on what it means to be alive.

--D. A. Miller's The Novel and the Police. This was one of the first works of literary criticism I ever read, and it taught me that criticism can also be a form of creative writing. I read it and read it and read it again for a number of years, and my own prose was heavily indebted to (imitative of) Miller at the end of college and beginning of grad school.

--Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. One of the earliest examples of investigative journalism, and a prototype of modern sociology. Mayhew set out to catalogue all the kinds of work, and all the types of workers, in a London where poverty was endemic, where the working class population was exploding, and where the lives of the London poor were almost entirely mysterious. He was a huge influence on Dickens, and was also part of a broader zeitgeist that included Engels' Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 and, of course, Marx's work. I read so much of this stuff in grad school; I was even reading Parliamentary blue books on poverty and urban disease. It's an incredible literature, part otherworldly narrative (even though it's not fiction, the writers routinely fall back on literary techniques to describe what they see, smell, and hear when they enter the slums), part factual inventory of an emerging aspect of a rapidly changing, frighteningly in-flux English culture.

--Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde. This one I discovered in my early thirties. Ellmann raised biography to the level of art. He was simply unbelievable, and made me start thinking about biography as a genre in its own right.

--Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate's The Shadow University. I was almost entirely innocent of the nastier side of academic life until my early thirties. Then I met it the hard way--and had to scramble to understand what was happening. This astonishing book put my experience into context, and also changed how I think. It led me to meet Kors, which led me to volunteer for FIRE, which he and Silverglate founded along with Thor Halvorssen. It led to the launching of this blog, to a rethinking of what academia is and what I was doing in it, and, eventually to a career change. Good book.

--Hayek's Road to Serfdom, also discovered during my early thirties. Short, sweet, and so smart on the dangers of big government. In four years of college, five of grad school, and seven at Penn, I had read endless amounts of Marx-inflected criticism, and was also steeped in a side of Victorian studies that concentrates very heavily on the evils of the factory system (which were very real). I had never encountered any thinker who looked at things through another lens--and had never heard of Hayek. Revelatory.

That's a quick list written off the top of my head. Curious to know what readers' lists are.

Erin O'Connor, 8:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

March 22, 2010 [feather]
History lesson

Last night was historic. But not, perhaps, in the way the Democrats would like to believe. Hillsdale College history professor Paul Rahe offers some useful context:

Back in 1946, an ingenious advertising executive named Karl Frost suggested a simple, straightforward political slogan to the Massachusetts Republican Committee: "Had Enough? Vote Republican," it read. This slogan was soon found on billboards all across the country, and in November of that year the Republicans picked up fifty-five seats in the House and twelve in the Senate, seizing control in both chambers.

By that November, the country had suffered under the New Deal for fourteen years, and Americans, understandably, were fed up. Moreover, as Michael Barone pointed out last May, "After World War II Democrats wanted to retain wartime high taxes, pro-union labor laws, and wage and price controls, all manipulatable for political benefit by political insiders. Republicans ... won big enough majorities to lower taxes, revise labor laws and abolish controls."

Were I in the shoes of Michael Steele, I would buy up billboard space all over the country and slap up the same slogan - for something similar should be possible this November. The healthcare debate was over some time ago. When Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January, it was made abundantly clear that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party had lost that debate decisively. Now, in the face of fierce public opposition, they have jammed the bill through Congress, and they have done so without the cover of a single Republican vote. For this - as William Daley, the mastermind of the Chicago machine, warned in an op-ed that appeared in The Washington Post on Christmas eve - they will pay dearly and not just this coming November.

Abraham Lincoln once observed, "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed." It is possible, of course, that events will intervene between now and November. It is conceivable that the healthcare bill and the manner in which it was passed in both the Senate and the House will be forgotten. But this is not likely. If the Republicans stick together, mount a principled opposition to the Obama administration on all fronts, and recruit first-rate candidates to run in every district at both the state and the federal levels in November, it is highly likely that there will be a political earthquake in this country on a scale not seen since 1932.

As I have argued now for months - first, in August, here; then, in November, here and here; and, more recently, here, here, and here - a genuine political realignment may be in the offing. This has happened at irregular intervals in our nation's past – most notably, in 1800, 1828, 1860, and 1932 – and on each occasion the political party benefiting from the upheaval was able to paint a plausible picture depicting their opponents as being parties to a conspiracy to overthrow the liberties possessed by their fellow Americans. This is what Thomas Jefferson did to the Federalists in and after 1800; it was what Andrew Jackson did to John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Nicholas Biddle, and the Whigs in and after 1828; it was what Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans did to the slave power conspiracy and its fellow travelers in the North in and after 1860, and it was what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did to Herbert Hoover and the business-minded progressives in and after 1932. When FDR claimed, at the 1936 Democratic convention, that "a small group" of his fellow Americans was intent on concentrating "into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor – other people's lives," he was merely rephrasing the charges lodged in an earlier time by Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and their political allies.

Of course, one cannot plausibly advance such a claim except in circumstances where one has a great deal of help from one's opponents. In 1800, Jefferson profited from the quarrel pitting Alexander Hamilton against John Adams, and by exhibiting secessionist propensities at the Hartford Convention, the New England Federalists destroyed their own party. Something similar can be said regarding Nicholas Biddle and the supporters of the Second National Bank. The same is true for the supporters of the slave power in and after 1860, and Herbert Hoover was in similar fashion a godsend for FDR.

If the Republicans have a comparable opportunity in 2010 and 2012, it is because of what I described in my very first blogpost as "Obama's Tyrannical Ambition." Barack Obama has a gift. He has told us so himself, and he is right, but he errs in supposing that his oratorical skill will enable him to fool all of the people all of the time, and over time he has, in effect, unmasked his own party as a conspiracy on the part of a would-be aristocracy of do-gooders hostile to very idea of self-government in the United States. There is no need for me to review the record of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress in the last fifteen months. It is enough to say that, in an administration that promised transparency, everything has been negotiated behind closed doors in a manner suggestive of tyranny and that, in an administration that promised to distance itself from the lobbyists, every major bill has been written by them and is loaded with special deals that give new meaning to the old phrase "corrupt bargain." The stimulus bill, cap-and-trade, healthcare reform: with these Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid have brought home to the American people, as never before, the tyrannical propensities inherent in the progressive impulse.

There's more, with special emphasis on the inevitability of entitlement reform and on what Republicans have to do if they want to anchor a decisive, healthy, and lasting shift toward--dare I say it?--sustainable government. All worth a read.

Erin O'Connor, 9:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

March 20, 2010 [feather]
Quote for the day
"I quit when medicine was placed under State control, some years ago," said Dr. Hendricks. "Do you know what it takes to perform a brain operation? Do you know the kind of skill it demands, and the years of passionate, merciless, excruciating devotion that go to acquire that skill? That was what I would not place at the disposal of men whose sole qualification to rule me was their capacity to spout the fraudulent generalities that got them elected to the privilege of enforcing their wishes at the point of a gun. I would not let them dictate the purpose for which my years of study had been spent, or the conditions of my work, or my choice of patients, or the amount of my reward. I observed that in all the discussions that preceded the enslavement of medicine, men discussed everything - except the desires of the doctors. Men considered only the 'welfare' of the patients, with no thought for those who were to provide it. That a doctor should have any right, desire or choice in the matter was regarded as irrelevant selfishness; his is not to choose, they said, only 'to serve.' That a man who's willing to work under compulsion is too dangerous a brute to entrust with a job in the stockyards - never occurred to those who proposed to help the sick by making life impossible for the healthy. I have often wondered at the smugness with which people assert their right to enslave me, to control my work, to force my will, to violate my conscience, to stifle my mind - yet what is it that they expect to depend on, when they lie on an operating table under my hands? Their moral code has taught them to believe that it is safe to rely on the virtue of their victims. Well, that is the virtue I have withdrawn. Let them discover the kind of doctors that their system will now produce. Let them discover, in their operating rooms and hospital wards, that it is not safe to place their lives in the hands of a man whose life they have throttled. It is not safe, if he is the sort of a man who resents it - and still less safe, if he is the sort who doesn't.
That's from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
Erin O'Connor, 1:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

March 19, 2010 [feather]
Case study: Higher Ed in Minnesota

ACTA has released a report card on public higher ed in Minnesota--and it's not pretty. Minnesota is at a crossroads--next year, the chief executives of U of M and the Minnesota State system will step down, as will the governor. Incoming leaders will need clarity of purpose and good information if they are to do right by the state's colleges and universities. The ACTA report, which assesses what students are learning, whether campuses support free inquiry and open expression, affordability, and accountability, should be a useful tool for those leaders--and also lays out some serious challenges.

A few examples: Costs are spiraling--tuition and fees have exceeded inflation by more than 20 percent in recent years, while out-of-control administrative spending has expanded by more than 30 percent during that same period. The six year graduation rate is low--no campus can claim even a 65 percent six year graduation rate. Meanwhile, students are reporting feeling pressure to agree with professors' views in order to earn good grades, and are not properly aware of their rights. Gen ed requirements are flabby, especially when it comes to history, foreign language, and economics.

ACTA gives Minnesota's public colleges and universities an F for general education, an F for intellectual diversity, an F for cost effectiveness, and mixed reviews for board accomplishments. Better board engagement could change all that. All it takes is the will to improve.

Erin O'Connor, 8:50 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

March 18, 2010 [feather]
November is coming

Sign the petition--and let your Congresspeople know that if they vote yes on the health care bill, you will vote no on them next time around.

This isn't about good humanitarian people who want reform vs. bad selfish ostriches who just loooove the status quo, as our very own president suggested last night during his extremely revealing, resolutely filibusterish interview with Fox's Bret Baier. Everybody wants health care reform, and it's dishonest to cast the situation in such inaccurate and loaded ways. What it is about: the size of government, the power we give it, and the freedom we lose when we allow government to grow far beyond its capacity to do good work on behalf of the American people.

Weigh in now.

Erin O'Connor, 8:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

March 17, 2010 [feather]
Case study in school reform: Cleveland

Cleveland spends about $14,000 per student. But the public schools still suck. Only 12 percent are rated by the state as "excellent." More than a third are classified as emergencies. And another third is on "watch" status. The failure of the schools correlates very powerfully with the poverty, violence, and general degradation of the city itself. And that's a representative pattern in cities across the country.

So what is to be done? Plenty--as long as autonomy, accountability, and innovation are the anchors. It's happening already. But not in a widespread way, because that doesn't suit the teachers' unions.

Watch and learn.

Erin O'Connor, 9:01 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Happy birthday, ACTA!

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is fifteen today. I've had the honor of being attached to the organization--first as the founder of its blog, then as a research fellow--since 2005. During that time, I've seen the organization grow by leaps and bounds in size and influence. ACTA's work on accountability, governance, academic freedom, curricular reform, and more is temperate, non-partisan, consistent, and resolutely commonsensical. As such, it's helping to shape debates about where higher ed should be going--and about how to ensure educational quality, scholarly integrity, and fiscal responsibility across the board.

Get to know ACTA--and read its many reports--at goacta.org.

Erin O'Connor, 8:31 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

March 16, 2010 [feather]
No loan left behind

I've had my skirmishes on this blog with readers who don't see why I have a problem with the government's takeover of health care--or, more broadly, why I have a problem with big and bigger government. It's not that I don't want reform--I do. It's that I don't think this albatross of a bill is going to give us what we need--and that it's a Trojan horse (mixed metaphors courtesy of pre-caffeinated state) for a style of government that should have us all worried. Now, as the health care takeover becomes--almost as an afterthought--a means of securing quite a federal hold over higher ed as well, I wonder what those readers are thinking about.

Here's Peter Wood on why academics--and anyone who cares about free inquiry, quality education, knowledge creation, and all the good stuff that is supposed to happen at our colleges and universities--should be more than worried:

Congressional Democrats have added President Obama’s takeover of the student loan industry to the health care reconciliation bill. It is a troubling development, but not because of the finances. The trouble comes from the specter of federal control of American higher education. “Obama loans” may seem benign but they threaten academic freedom and may compromise the quality of academic programs.

The move by the Democrats forestalls a debate we need to have over who controls this key institution. Since 1965, the federal government has subsidized colleges and universities by guaranteeing loans that students take from private lenders. Obama’s idea is to cut the banks out of the picture as loan-originators and have the Department of Education lend directly to students.

On the surface this so-called “Direct Lending” sounds thrifty. Over ten years the government would “save” billions of taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent in fees and subsidies to private lenders. The Congressional Budget Office has slashed the projected savings from $87 billion to $67 billion over eleven years. But that’s still a lot. What’s not to like? And Direct Lending has been in place on a smaller scale for about fifteen years. Lots of colleges already do it and like it. We know it works.


The federally subsidized student loan system surely stands in need of reform. But “Direct Lending” may well be a cure that is worse than the disease. The main problem is not financial but political. It will make American higher education extraordinarily vulnerable to political interference. Will Congress, presidential administrations, and the Department of Education resist the temptation to misuse their new power? Direct Lending will give the federal government decisive if not quite total control of higher education finance.

t is not as if the federal government has taken a hands-off approach in the past. Consider what happened to men’s teams in sports such as swimming and wrestling. They have been eliminated in most colleges because Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has been read as requiring equal numbers of men and women in college athletics. The law itself was anodyne: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance..." But one faction read that qualifying phrase, “receiving Federal financial assistance..." and saw an opportunity. They succeeded in transforming Title IX from a law against discrimination into a system of quotas. Too many boys playing college sports? The Department of Education will knock your college off the list of institutions eligible to receive federally-guaranteed student loans. That would be a death sentence for most colleges. In the name of “gender equity,” the government used its financial aid muscle to impose its own agenda on one dimension of college life.

Or consider the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights which has more than once used the government’s financial leverage to foster racial preferences in college admissions and hiring.

But it is not just the Left that has attempted to tell colleges what to do. Under President Bush, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings attempted to change the nation’s college curricula to produce college graduates whose skills mesh better with the needs of business and industry. Discovering that she had no direct say over what colleges teach, Secretary Spellings tried to get the nation’s accreditors to implement her plan for her. She didn’t succeed—but then again, she didn’t have the advantage of having total control over student loans. Direct Lending will change that, and future Secretaries of Education, whether moved by Obama-style progressivism or Bush-style utilitarianism, will have a great deal more power to get their way.


My biggest worry is that American higher education already tends towards stale conformity. The Climategate scandal provides a dramatic example of how genuine debate was for a period of years shut down in favor of an enforced “consensus” based on social pressure rather than scientific evidence.

We have a system of higher education that is highly vulnerable to such groupthink. If we add to that an arrangement of institutional funding that has no practical firewalls against being turned to ideological purposes, we face the likelihood of serious damage to the quality of American higher education.

Are these well-founded worries? Am I taking alarm at a measure that is really just a common sense step toward better government stewardship of an expensive program? I am not an especially humble critic, but sure, I could be wrong. I have been painting the picture in primary colors. But here’s the thing. I am raising questions that really ought to be examined thoughtfully by our legislators and not just brushed aside in a slapdash effort to get the bill on the President’s desk by the end of this week. I don’t think anyone in Congress intends the sort of consequences I have been describing. They just haven’t thought much about how higher education actually works. My point is that Direct Lending creates a huge opportunity for mischief, and the mischief-makers will figure that out soon enough.

The reason that Direct Loans are being bundled into the reconciliation bill is that the Democratic leaders of Congress reckon that they do not otherwise have the votes to get it passed. When it comes to health care, the Democrats defend this parliamentary maneuver by saying that, over the last year all the arguments have been heard and weighed, and that it is at last time to act. I don’t find that a very compelling argument for health care, but be that as it may, the same cannot possibly be said about Direct Loans. This is a dramatic restructuring of higher education finance with implications far beyond the dollar amounts, and yet it has received barely any public notice at all.

Seems to me that higher ed may have the honor of being one of the very first passengers in the health care Trojan horse.

Note to students: Don't take on tremendous debt to pay for college. Go to a school you can afford and work your butt off to make sure you don't fall between the cracks and you get the courses and the guidance you need. Be focussed and purposeful. Make it work--and shed any latent fixation you may have that if it's not private and costing $50K a year, then it's not a good school.

Erin O'Connor, 7:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

March 15, 2010 [feather]
Bee blogging

Beekeeping has long been banned in New York City. Deemed too dangerous for city life, the gentle, sweet honeybee has been lumped in with hyenas, tarantulas, cobras, dingoes(!), and other animals the city doesn't think people living in close proximity to one another should be allowed to keep. It's been a bad rap for the honeybee, and has been tough on urban beekeepers, who have stuck to their hives despite the risk of a $2000 fine if they are caught.

Now, though, New York City is rethinking the ban on honeybees, and may even be about to do the right thing:

On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s board will take up the issue of amending the health code to allow residents to keep hives of Apis mellifera, the common, nonaggressive honeybee. Health department officials said the change was being considered after research showed that the reports of bee stings in the city were minimal and that honeybees did not pose a public health threat.

The officials were also prodded by beekeepers who, in a petition and at a public hearing last month, argued that their hives promoted sustainable agriculture in the city.

A ban, of course, has not deterred many New Yorkers from setting up hives on rooftops and in yards and community gardens, doing it as a hobby, to pollinate their plants or to earn extra income from honey. Although the exact number of beekeepers in the city is unknown, many openly flout the law. They have their own association, hold beekeeping workshops, sell their honey at farmers' markets and tend to their hives as unapologetically as others might jaywalk, blaming their legal predicament on people’s ignorance of bees.

"People fear that if there's a beehive on their rooftop, they'll be stung," said Andrew Cote, president of the New York City Beekeepers Association, which was formed two years ago and has 220 members.

"Honeybees are interested in water, pollen and nectar," he said. "The real danger is the skewed public perception of the danger of honeybees."

They really are very, very gentle--and the work they do is beautiful, intricate, and necessary for our well-being. They are not wasps and don't sting gratuitously. They die if they do, so evolution has ensured that they don't.

I started a hive last year, and it was an amazing experience. Unfortunately, a curious raccoon knocked the hive over very early in the season, killing lots of bees and harming the queen's health so badly that she never became the top-speed egg layer that queen bees have to be if hives are to survive.

A honeybee lives about six weeks. She dies having worked herself to death. The queen is responsible for laying at a rate that ensures that the hive population will grow into the tens of thousands throughout the season--thus producing enough honey for the winter, and, if you are lucky, for you to harvest and eat. A damaged queen, if not recognized early and replaced, guarantees a failed hive. We learned that the hard way last year, replacing the struggling queen too late, and watching our hive dwindle and die out entirely by mid-summer. I can't tell you how sad it was--and I am not someone who likes insects. But I fell in love with those bees, and I was never stung.

This spring, we are trying again. Instead of beginning with package bees (a starter kit of several thousand workers plus queen, delivered through the mail in a buzzing, sticky box that makes for fun conversation with the UPS man), we are going to start with a "nuc colony" from an apiary nearby. A nuc colony amounts to five frames of drawn comb filled with brood, honey, pollen, etc., plus the workers, plus their queen. You place them in your hive deep alongside five more empty frames, and let them go. If all is well, they'll fill up those five frames, and fill up ten more in another deep, and then start making honey especially for you by the end of the summer.

All in all, it's a more secure way to establish a hive, because you aren't asking a very few tired, mailed bees to start from scratch with an unproven queen. You get a small but already successful colony, and all they have to do is adjust to their new surroundings and take off.

We should get the call to come pick up our nuc in a month or so. I've been on the edge of my seat for weeks. This year's nectar is beginning to flow, and on sunny days wild honeybees are already going nuts in the rosemary and heather flowering around the house. I watch them up close, and they buzz around ignoring me, moving from flower to flower, drinking the nectar and filling their little leg pockets with pollen. Then they fly back to their hollow tree--precise location unknown--unload their pollen pockets, regurgitate the nectar, and hand it over to other workers who will make it into honey by doing lots more eating and regurgitating. Then the bees fly back out to keep working the same flowers, until the nectar is gone.

I'm guessing most people don't know honey is processed bee vomit. Does it matter?

Erin O'Connor, 8:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

March 14, 2010 [feather]
Going Galt

For real.

Erin O'Connor, 10:13 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

March 12, 2010 [feather]
Inside peer review

Brevard College professor Robert Cabin takes up the topic of how pressed for time professors and students are--and along the way delivers an veiled indictment of both the peer review process and academic professionalism:

I do often wonder just how much of what is written these days is ever read in its entirety, and how often even those of us working in higher education ever manage to slowly and carefully think through and resolve our most important issues.

If my experiences are representative, the answers to those questions are not encouraging. For example, in my work as an associate editor of an academic journal, I have increasingly found: 1. fewer people willing to do peer reviews; 2. fewer people completing their reviews (let alone completing them on time); 3. more people turning in brief, superficial, poorly written reviews; and 4. more authors responding to their reviews in a manner that suggests they either didn't read the reviews carefully or didn't have time to focus on them thoroughly. Although I'd like to feel dismayed and outraged by those trends, the sad truth is that I too have found it increasingly difficult to complete my own editorial and peer-review work on time, and have felt forced to do more skipping and skimming than I care to admit.

My recent experiences as an author have done much to assuage my guilt for those sins. For instance, my last grant application didn't make the cut because one of its reviewers didn't have time to read more than its title and abstract page. Moreover, none of the four successive editors assigned to me by my former publisher ever managed more than a "quick skim" of my manuscript. (I appreciated their honesty but was left wondering what exactly such "editors" do these days.) While the editor at my prospective new publisher has been somewhat more responsive, the first thing she told me was that because nobody would buy (let alone read) a 400-page book anymore, if I wanted to work with her press I'd have to cut my manuscript by at least 50 percent.

Even within academe, I'm often struck by how many of us are willing to argue over documents we haven't actually read. I wish I had a dollar for every faculty round-table discussion and journal-club meeting I've attended in which at least half of the attendees had not read the papers we assigned ourselves. And just the other day, the chair of a committee I serve on interrupted a heated debate to ask whether we had all read the relevant sections of a document after our previous discussion of the topic at hand. "Yes," we all groaned irritably, eager to get back at it. "Well, that's quite interesting," she observed dryly, "because I still haven't managed to find the time to write up and send that document!"

Cabin's argument--kind of ironic, kind of not--is that academics should "collectively slow down and start demanding less"--and that along the way, they should sympathize with their students, who can hardly be blamed for having neither the "ability" nor the "desire" to "think, read deeply, and at least attempt to write well."

"Given that so many of their lives are overflowing with a combination of "real world" commitments (taking six classes a semester, working part time, competing in collegiate sports, caring for ailing grandmothers) and seemingly involuntary virtual additions (texting, Facebooking, gaming, and God knows what else)," he asks, "is it really any wonder that so many are unable or unwilling to grapple with the plain old texts we assign?"

Cabin claims, at the end of the article, to have been employing "irony" -- but he also appears to argue, more or less with a straight face, that the solution does lie in dialing back:

I still dream that someday we will collectively slow down and start demanding less. For starters, how about less e-mail and fewer meetings for faculty members, and smaller course loads and fewer curricular requirements for our students? How about, say, once every other month we turn it all off on our campuses for (gulp!) an entire day—no computers, no Internet, no personal gadgets. Instead we might engage with one another and our surrounding communities the old-fashioned way—and even read and thoroughly discuss a book in its entirety.

I don't know about you, but he sounds like he means it right there.

Thus does pragmatism meet irresponsibility: Rather than discuss such matters as priorities, self-discipline, organizational skills, professionalism, dedication, and ethics, Cabin appears to read the widespread distraction, abdication, and deflection he sees at both the faculty and student levels as inevitable--and seemingly reasonable--reactions to a situational and sensory overload for which no one is personally responsible. It's almost a foregone conclusion, given this premise, that the answer is to lower standards for students and faculty alike. Failure to fulfill commitments and to do one's work ceases to be a problem when we define away the concepts of failure, commitment, and work, and when we allow inanimate entities such as technology to be blamed for our personal failures. The result: a lost opportunity to think creatively and constructively about how to address a very real problem.

I know I'm overloaded these days -- and you probably are, too. The electronic world I work in has a lot to do with that. But I labor under the impression that the answer is to become better at managing my time, more clear and disciplined about my priorities, more focussed and purposeful in everything I do, more able to say no when that's needed, and more firm than ever that when I make a promise--to myself or others--I keep it. I don't want to dial back and do less--I want to do more and I believe that if I am clever about managing myself I can. You?

Erin O'Connor, 8:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

March 11, 2010 [feather]
UC hollow

I've admired John Ellis ever since I read his excellent and sad Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities. Ellis explained to me many of the patterns I was beginning to think I saw in the academic humanities--and put them into perspective in a way that helped me understand why the enterprise of the English department (scholarship and teaching) was coming to seem so bankrupt. It's not that there is no value or purpose in studying and teaching about literature and culture--I read and write and study like my life depends on it, because in some obscure but very real ways, it does--but that the way the academic humanities has come to do those things over the past several decades amounts to an airless, blinkered, and ultimately self-defeating enterprise.

There are all kinds of good reasons for this--and Louis Menand, for one, does a grand job of explaining some of them in his new book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. That's another post for another time, though. Right now, I'm interested in John Ellis.

Ellis is an emeritus professor at UC Santa Cruz--and began teaching at the University of California in 1966. He's been watching the UC system for a long time--and has a special perspective on the campus unrest that is roiling the university right now as California goes broke and higher ed feels the pinch. Here he is at Minding the Campus, with a piece entitled "How the Campuses Helped Ruin California's Economy":

All across the country there were demonstrations on March 4 by students (and some faculty) against cuts in higher education funding, but inevitably attention focused on California, where the modern genre originated in 1964. I joined the University of California faculty in 1966 and so have watched a good many of them, but have never seen one less impressive that this year's. In 1964 there was focus and clarity. This one was brain-dead. The former idealism and sense of purpose had degenerated into a self-serving demand for more money at a time when both state and university are broke, and one in eight California workers is unemployed. The elite intellectuals of the university community might have been expected to offer us insight into how this problem arose, and realistic measures for dealing with it. But all that was on offer was this: get more money and give it to us. Californians witnessing this must have wondered whether the money they were already providing was well spent where there was so little evidence of productive thought.

The content vacuum with filled with the standby language of past demonstrations, and so there was much talk of "the struggle," and of "oppression," and---of course---of racism. "We are all students of color now" said Berkeley's Professor Ananya Roy, and a student proclaimed that this crisis represented "structural racism." (Why not global warming too?) Berkeley's Chancellor Birgeneau called the demonstrations "the best of our tradition of effective civil action." Neither Chancellors nor demonstrations are what they used to be. The nostalgia for the good old days surfaced again in efforts to shut the campus down by blocking the entrance of UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. It didn't seem to occur to anyone that the old "shut it down" cry was somewhat misplaced when keeping it fully open was what the present demonstration was about, but then this was not an occasion when anyone seemed to have any idea of what they were trying to achieve.

One group at UCLA stumbled into the truth, though it was a truth they did not understand. At Bruin Plaza a crowd chanted "Who's got the power? We've got the power." In its context this was just another slogan of a mindless day, but the reality is that those people do indeed have the power, and routinely use it in a way that makes them the author of their own troubles. Let me explain.

Explain he does, demonstrating how California has "grossly mismanaged its affairs" by taxing individuals and businesses into oblivion, and so creating a strong incentive for wealthy people and successful businesses to flee the state. The irresponsibility of the state legislature--which has secured California a ranking of 49th among the states on the US Economic Freedom Index--is its own paradox: In its spendthrift ways, it is carrying out the redistributionist, politically correct, big government vision that finds some of its greatest allies on California's 33 campuses ... and yet, those very spendthrift ways are now squeezing those campuses in ways they can't abide.

Ellis's conclusion focuses on the tragic irony of it all:

The irony here really cries out for attention: a large state university system needs a free market economy that hums along in top gear so that the revenue needed to support it can be generated. But California's two unusually well developed state university systems provide enormous local voting power in many Assembly districts for a bitterly anti-capitalist ideology that sabotages the California economy. The campuses are shooting themselves in the foot. The power that those students and faculty chanted about is indeed theirs, and if they used it to elect sensible assemblymen and state senators their problems would be solved by the healthy business climate that would result. The votes that they actually cast are the source of their troubles.

Only one idea for solving the funding crisis was floated on March 4. It was to repeal the state's requirement that taxes can only be raised by a two thirds vote, so that taxes can be raised yet again and more money made available to the campuses. In other words, let's make the funding crisis even worse, by driving out of California even more wealth and wealth creating capacity, and raising the unemployment level even more. "California is not a tax-heavy state," said Assemblyman Joe Coto, whose office is right next door to San Jose State University, which enrolls 31,000 students. And that raises the question: how much longer will the California citizenry want to support a system of higher education that keeps its legislature stuck on stupid? It's not a question for this state alone.

I've said it before and I will say it again: public colleges and universities exist to serve the public good, not to feed on it. But perhaps it's inevitable that the distinction would be lost. Subsidized institutions yield subsidized careers and lives--and those are by definition divorced from a clear awareness of the economic underpinnings of their privilege (and it is privilege). That lack of awareness is a dangerous thing--and produces the kind of nonsensical response to budgetary crisis that we are seeing on the campuses of California.

I'm still reading Atlas Shrugged, by the way. Rand has a word for people who think the way the campus protesters do. She calls them "looters."

Erin O'Connor, 8:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

March 8, 2010 [feather]
The return of ROTC

Last month, when it became clear that we were at last seeing real movement on repealing "don't ask, don't tell," I noted that it was a great day for ROTC:

It's high time--and when it's done, it will reverberate very interestingly indeed in higher ed, where a great many private colleges and universities don't allow ROTC on campus because of DADT. The thing is, those campuses for the most part have not allowed ROTC on campus since the Vietnam era -- when the issue wasn't gays serving in the military, but the military itself. Since the 1990s, though, faculties and admins at Columbia and Harvard, among others, have been quite explicit that they don't want campus-based ROTC units because they don't like the military's discriminatory policies. With DADT repealed, those campuses will be challenged to be as good as their words--and will be pressed to bring ROTC back.

Stanford has accepted that challenge. Last week, the Faculty Senate voted to form a committee to consider whether ROTC should return to campus now that DADT is about to be repealed.

Stanford phased out its on-campus army, navy, and air force ROTC units during the early 1970s in response to the Vietnam War and concerns about the academic quality of ROTC courses. Since then, Stanford students wishing to participate in ROTC have had to do so in Berkeley, San Jose, or Santa Clara--which amounts to tremendously long and disruptive commutes for students to take courses and train. In practice, that means that very few Stanford students participate in ROTC--and that the university is creating a barrier to participation that arguably violates the Solomon Amendment and that, more broadly, does a disservice to its own students and to the military's ability to function in close connection with civil society by recruiting educated citizen-soldiers and officers.

"The academic dimensions of this subject were negotiable 40 years ago; and there's no reason to think they won't be negotiable again today," emeritus history professor David Kennedy told the faculty. "To bring the discussion up to the present day, it's our perception--and it's shared by others--that our current policy and practice compelling the one dozen ROTC students at Stanford to go to Berkeley or Santa Clara or San Jose--depending on their service branch--for their ROTC training imposes a pretty unreasonable burden on them that we probably ought to think seriously of doing away with, by bringing that instruction back onto this campus in some form."

Watch to see if Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and others will follow suit.

Erin O'Connor, 7:35 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

March 6, 2010 [feather]
An Inconvenient Tax

An Inconvenient Tax - Official Trailer from Life Is My Movie Entertainment on Vimeo.

An Inconvenient Tax premieres, aptly enough, on April 15. This film explains how our convoluted and excessively complex tax code came to be, looks at how it has been thoroughly abused by politicians, and offers several viable ways to effect meaningful reform. It could not be more timely--and it transcends the partisan bickering that tends to define debates about taxation to focus on what we are all losing, and what we could all gain from some serious change.

Watch the trailer, and if you want to see this film, please contribute to the fund-raising campaign launched yesterday at Kickstarter.com, and urge your friends to do the same. Every little bit helps. Your gift is tax-deductible--and will help raise the $20,000 needed to ensure that this film reaches the widest possible public. Kickstarter campaigns are on clocks--the deadline for raising that amount is April 15--and if the film doesn't make it, all donations will be returned.

Full disclosure: An Inconvenient Tax is produced in association with the Moving Picture Institute (MPI), which is also running the Kickstarter campaign. As I've mentioned here before, I am closely involved with MPI's work.

Erin O'Connor, 6:56 AM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

March 4, 2010 [feather]
Reviewing peer review

Peer review is what makes the academic world go round. At once the practice of scholarly independence and the means of self-policing, it's both the mechanism of academic freedom and the justification for it. At least that's how the story goes.

The problem is that peer review has been appropriated for purposes other than the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and truth. It has become a means of establishing and enforcing not only professional status (through enforced intellectual conformity) but quasi-religious belief (as the process is used to produce moral dogma rather than to question, discover, debate, and learn). And that makes it a very problematic process indeed.

At Spiked Online, Frank Furedi lays it all out in elegant, damning detail. He is particularly good on the rise of advocacy science. Excerpt:

In numerous areas, most notably in climate science, research has become a cause and is increasingly both politicised and moralised. Consequently, in climate research, peer review is sometimes looked upon as a moral project, where decisions are influenced not simply by science but by a higher cause. The scandal surrounding 'Climategate' is as much about the abuse of the system of peer review as it is about the rights and wrongs of the various claims made by advocacy researchers in and around the IPCC and the UEA.


Increasingly, peer review is cited as kind of unquestioned and unquestionable authority for settling what are in fact political disputes. Consequently, the findings of peer review are looked upon, not simply as statements about the quality of research or of a scientific finding, but as the foundation for far-reaching policies that affect everything from the global economy to our individual lifestyles.


Climate alarmists do not simply boast of their monopoly over peer-reviewed outlets – they also do their best to call into question peer-reviewed outlets that dare to publish research that challenges any aspect of their moral crusade. When Cambridge University Press published Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist, it faced bitter criticism from campaigners who hinted that something had gone wrong with the publisher’s system of review. Stephen Schneider, a professor in environmental studies, asked why 'a publisher with so excellent a reputation in natural sciences (it even published the IPCC reports) publish[ed] a polemic under its imprimatur', and demanded to know if Cambridge University Press had 'the book completely reviewed?' It seems that as far as Schneider is concerned, it is simply unthinkable that a publication that questions the prevailing consensus could have been properly reviewed.

The zealous policing of peer review by campaigners is directly encouraged by the IPCC itself. As Reiner Grundman argued in (the peer-reviewed journal) Environmental Politics, the IPCC 'characterises outside critics as unscientific as they do not publish in peer-reviewed literature'. With so many moral resources invested in the authority of peer review, it is not surprising that some supporters of the IPCC consensus adopt an almost casual attitude towards the violation of academic protocols. The leaked 'Climategate' emails show how one UEA scientist, Dr Keith Briffa, wrote to a colleague to ask for help in keeping a paper that he did not like out of an academic journal that he edits. US climate scientist Michael Mann has proposed that a journal should be ostracised for daring to publish a paper criticising his work. 'I think we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal', he argued. Phil Jones, the central figure in the Climategate scandal, promised to keep two research papers out of the IPCC report. 'I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is', he said.


While the IPCC insists that its critics should be judged by the most rigorous standards of peer review, it has a more relaxed attitude towards its own publications. In recent weeks there have been a series of damaging revelations about how conclusions drawn by the IPCC's 2007 report were based on speculation and anecdotes. So claims made about disappearing mountain ice were cobbled together from information drawn from a student's dissertation and an article published in a mountaineering magazine. Other claims were based on information from newsletters, press releases and reports produced by environmentalist advocacy groups.

There is a powerful double standard at work here: the IPCC attacks its critics for relying on 'grey literature' – that is, non-peer-reviewed literature – and yet it has relied on anecdotes and speculation in its reports. We shouldn't be too surprised about this double standard, because, fundamentally, the IPCC is not simply concerned with presenting the facts but with interpreting them, giving them meaning, giving them momentum. It continually makes conceptual leaps from facts to meaning, from findings to politics. Of course there is nothing wrong with being in the meaning business, just so long as you are honest about it and do not present yourself as the pure, impartial voice of science.

It shouldn't be surprising that those involved in the corruption of peer review should also be happy to use anecdotes and speculation as the moral equivalent of hard scientific data. However, it is important to understand that these people fervently believe in their cause and are convinced that, far from deceiving the public, they are preserving and protecting a higher truth. Like the authors of the British government's dodgy dossier on Iraq, they are convinced they are absolutely right. And it is this sense of righteousness that allows them not to let the absence of a few facts stand in the way of promoting their arguments as either hard intelligence or peer-reviewed science. It was the moral conviction of former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld that allowed him to respond to a question about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq by stating that 'the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'. And in a similar manner, the absence of evidence does not deter climate alarmists from practising their art.

The philosophy of the Noble Lie – revealing a 'higher truth' with little regard for meaningful facts – allows people to stretch the truth in good conscience. One apologist for the sordid Climategate affair has reminded the public to 'not forget the context in which many of these emails were sent'. Apparently, 'this is a saga that goes back to a time before the current political and media concern about climate change'. He reminds us that this was before Al Gore got his Nobel Prize and when ‘well-funded climate sceptics routinely spread disinformation’. From this perspective, the 'context' lightens the burden of moral reproach. Climategate is an understandable if not 100 per cent justified response to the 'context'. Which is precisely how Noble Lies are hatched.

Seems to me I've been harping on ClimateGate as an index of how broken our peer review process is for some time. So I am delighted to see Furedi lay it all out in such splendor.

More generally, Furedi's comments about how conscience operates within the Noble Lie--ratifying the abandonment of a moral compass in the name of doing the right thing--reminds me of the discussions we've had on this blog about conscience, leadership, and school vouchers.

The questions I have are these: Can peer review be cleaned up? If so, how? If not, what could possibly take its place?

Erin O'Connor, 8:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

March 3, 2010 [feather]
Babies and bathwater

Retention is a real problem in higher ed--barring elite private schools, most institutions in this country shed students like water, managing on average to graduate only 60-70% (sometimes far less) of freshmen within six years (tour WhatWillTheyLearn.com for more on this). College learning outcomes are a real problem as well--as numerous studies have shown, graduating seniors can't pass a basic high-school level history test, are civically illiterate, and struggle with such elemental skills as reading comprehension and basic algebra.

What makes things worse, to my mind, is that there doesn't seem to be much attempt to think about these two problems together--efforts to increase retention just don't, for the most part, take into account that educational quality must not be sacrificed in the name of simply getting students to the finish line. One could even argue that the problems we are seeing with lack of curricular focus and poor overall educational quality are owing--at least in part--to pressure to keep students enrolled.

Diane Auer Jones makes an analogous point in the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

With so much focus on college retention and graduation rates—and so little focus on educational quality—I can't help but wonder if the "new" humanities focus isn't yet another attempt to dumb down an already dumb curriculum so that more students can have fun and get through.

History is hard if we actually must memorize dates and understand the social, economic, scientific, and cultural context in which various actions occured and decisions were made. Foreign language is hard if we must learn how to communicate clearly and correctly in another language (especially when we can't construct a complete sentence in our first language). Mathematics is hard if we must use higher-order algorithms to derive correct answers. Literature is hard if we must master a college-level vocabulary and read for content. Science is hard if we must design and carry out controlled experiments that build upon current theory and evidence to defend or refute our hypotheses.

So, when we can't get students to do the hard stuff, it might just be easier to have them dribble on and on about what they think or what they feel and call it a day.

The question is, though, does this sort of education constitute a higher education and does it well prepare a student—and especially a first-generation college student—to succeed in the competitive global marketplace? It is time to stop treating students like consumers and to go back to treating them like students. Students may not like it if they have to perform higher order mathematical functions and get the right answer, or if they have to become proficient in a second language, or even if they have to read classical pieces of literature upon which Eastern or Western civilizations were based, but as the adults in charge, we need to ensure that a diploma on the wall means that the recipient is capable of reading, writing, and performing arithmetic at a level worthy of the sheepskin.

I urge higher education leaders to initiate a serious discussion about what constitutes a rigorous liberal-arts education—and what does not—and to be sure that liberal arts does not become the new euphemism for social promotion in higher education. After all, a solid, rigorous liberal-arts education provides the best hope that the next generation will be empowered to solve the problems of tomorrow, which we can't begin to anticipate today.

The working assumption these days seems to be that we have to dumb down the curriculum in order to retain students. It's cynical and sad (and self-serving--faculty don't have to work hard in dumbed-down classes). But what if the opposite were true? What if actually engaging and challenging students--treating them like intelligent beings capable of rising to the intellectual occasion, and expecting that they will--what if that proved to be a key component of retention? Shouldn't we at least try it?

Erin O'Connor, 8:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)