Category Archives: Curriculum

Books for Book Virgins and Book-o-phobes

The annual controversy over books assigned to freshmen as summer reading is upon us.  Spoiler alerts.  Odysseus makes it home. Hamlet dies. The Whale wins.

Oh, not those books.  We are talking more about White Girls (by Hilton Als, 2013) and Purple Hibiscus (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003).  White Girls, as one reviewer puts it, is “an inquiry into otherness” by a writer for the New Yorker, who is a black male.  Purple Hibiscus is a novel by a Nigerian woman that depicts the travails of fifteen-year-old girl who has to cope with her violent and cruel, fanatically Christian father.

In 2014, the topmost assigned book (17 out of 341 colleges that have such programs) was Wes Moore’s account of a convicted murderer who shares his name and his beginning as a fatherless black child in Baltimore, The Other Wes Moore (2010).  Second on the list (eight colleges) was Dave Eggers’ novel about a woman who works for a privacy-destroying internet company, The Circle (2013), and third was Rebecca Skloot’s account of the poor black woman whose cervical cancer cells were the first human cell line to be kept growing in a lab,  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks(2010).  In 2015, according to Inside Higher Ed, it appears that Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of his efforts to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, Just Mercy (2014) will be the winner.

Books Younger Than Their Readers

For the last six years, the National Association of Scholars has been assiduously tracking all the books selected by all the colleges that do this sort of thing.  We call them “beach books,” but the usual term is “common readings.”  NAS executive director Ashley Thorne has pretty much single handedly turned a minor campus phenomenon into a subject of widespread controversy—the subject of annual conferences, legislative hearings, and mass media attention.  The latest reverberation was a report on July 23 on NPR.

This year 93 percent of the books assigned to “first-years” (the new PC term for freshmen) are younger than the students who are asked to read them.  There are many threads to the beach books story, but the extreme youth of most of the books is the most revealing.  Why so much emphasis on hot-from-the-presses titles?

We’ve heard three answers. First, the program coordinators insist that the best way to engage students is to bring the author to campus to speak.  That makes for a nice income stream for some contemporary writers, and too bad for Mark Twain.  He had his chance.

Second, the coordinators tell us they have to meet the students where they are. Many are “book virgins” who reach college never having read any book cover to cover.  Such students need to be coaxed by assigning them a book that is “right now.”

And third, the coordinators are convinced that the past is over and done with anyway and, regardless of what the students think, the focus should be on contemporary social issues.

This last one concerns me most, but the other two are lame as well.  College students should get used to reading books by dead people.  If you can’t read Edith Wharton or Mary Wollenstonecraft without her in the room, hire an actor.  As for book virgins and book-o-phobic first years, why not get them started on the real thing?  If Hemingway is too hard, try Aesop’s Fables.  If Aesop’s talking animals are above their level, try Mother Goose.  Am I exaggerating how bereft of literary foundations these students are?  I hope so.

No Dead Writers, Please

But the third point—that education all by itself requires that the beach books be molded from the freshest, most up-to-date progressive sand—deserves a little more attention and, let’s say, a lot more opprobrium.  Among the responses to the recent NPR report on summer readings came this crystalline summation from an undergraduate named Kai:

Good literature teaches students about our world now, about the challenges our society faces and will continue to face. Climate change, inequity, and—this is the big one—discrimination (especially racial). Real world issues start to be acknowledged when college kids read about them in books like “A Long Way Gone,” “White Girls,” or “The New Jim Crow.” And that’s why college reading programs SHOULD NOT contain the classics. College reading should be controversial, inspiring, provocative contemporary literature.

Kai is full of youthful arrogance.  He’s read someone named “Vergil” in the original.  But he sees the need to get beyond “institutionalized, oppressive traditions.”  The literature that “has shaped the predominant modes of interaction in western civilization” may be “fun to read—indulgent, even,” but it is time to move on.

I don’t mean to make too much fun of poor Kai.  He is clearly an eager student who has diligently taken in the premises of his college and enthusiastically made them his own.  But his is the voice of someone imprisoned in “now,” for whom “good literature” is writing by contemporary social activists.  He is oblivious to the need to learn about the past and the deep ways in which great literature from previous eras bears on the present.

We all, of course, live in the present and need to pay attention to its particular demands, which include listening to people prose on about “climate change” as earlier generations prosed on about other supposed menaces.  Inequity and discrimination?  Kai might be on firmer ground if he knew more history and understood how much inequity and discrimination are endemic to the human condition.  Virgil, for example, has something to say on the topic of oppression.

Devaluing the Past

The saturation of college students in what might be called present-tense books should worry us.  Higher education cannot of course erase the past but it can radically devalue it.  Introducing students to college-level reading by feeding them candy bars of social outrage is about the poorest way I can imagine to develop their taste for serious ideas expressed with power, imagination, and intelligence.

The problem is not new.  We noticed this extreme focus on contemporary books in our first study of common readings in 2010, when we found the “vast majority” of assigned books in the 290 colleges we studied to have been published in the preceding decade.  But back then, we did find ten colleges (3.4 percent of the total) that had reached back further.  Thoreau’s Walden made an appearance, as did Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, and Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country.  More daringly, two colleges had assigned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

We have redone and expanded the study each year since then.  The list of books that are assigned changes dramatically from year to year—as naturally it would if the college is set on chasing the winds of ideological fashion.  But what doesn’t change is the relentless focus on books that are in their dewy youth.  In 2010, it was the world of Steve Lopez’s account of a skid-row violinist, The Soloist (2008); Greg Mortenson’s account of his building schools for girls in Pakistan, Three Cups of Tea (2007); and Sonia Nazario’s account of a child from Central America illegally slipping in the United States, Enrique’s Journey (2006).

The Soloist is now off playing by himself in a different skid row.  Mortenson’s cup ran dry when he was exposed as a fraud; those Pakistani girls’ schools were made up.  Enrique went underground for a while but has resurfaced in view of current illegal immigration.

The relative youth of a book is no knock against it as a book, but it is a knock against making it the one (and usually only) book that a class of college students will read together.  I’ve elsewhere made my own suggestions for better books for the first-year beach babies.  I’m moderate about this.  If Don Quixote is too long and Crime and Punishment too dark, try The Right Stuff or Life on the Mississippi, or perhaps better yet, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

This article was originally published on the National Association of Scholars site.

The Community Colleges:
High Promise, High Drop-Out Rates

The problem is stated bluntly in this report from the American Association of Community Colleges, entitled, “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future.” The report contains an overly-dramatic framing, with dire assertions such as this opening in the Executive Summary: “The American Dream is imperiled. Upward mobility, the contract between one generation of Americans and the rest, is under siege.” But the basis for the report is undeniable. A section on “Student Success” notes that only 46 percent of community college students pursuing a degree or certificate earn one, transfer to a four-year college, or are still enrolled after six years. Worse, “Nearly half of all community college students entering in the fall term drop out before the second fall term begins.”

Continue reading The Community Colleges:
High Promise, High Drop-Out Rates

What “Western Governors” Does Well

asking questions.jpgOn most any college campus, first-year courses with more than a few dozen students have a high proportion of bored, disaffected, and/or uncertain students. Sometimes they feel that way because course materials just don’t excite them, or because they don’t seem relevant to their backgrounds and futures. But another reason is that neither the pace of the course nor the style of the instructor fits their capacities. Some students need the course to move more quickly, others more slowly, and some can’t communicate with the teacher while others communicate too much, asking irrelevant questions and interrupting the presentation.

The solution begins with this: instead of asking 35 students to
squeeze into the schedule of the semester and jibe with the manner of
teachers who are often harried and unhappy, customize instruction to
each enrollee. Therein lies the great advantage of digital tools in
higher education, and it’s being implemented best by Western Governors
University, the nonprofit online school founded by the governors of 19
U.S. states. WGU has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years (as
detailed in this profile by John Gravois in Washington Monthly
a few months ago). At WGU, students are able to enroll and work on
their own schedule, one that accords with other demands (family, work,
etc.) and adapts to the skills and knowledge they bring to the courses.

Continue reading What “Western Governors” Does Well

Rallying Around Che at a ‘Literary’ Conference

che-guevara-shirt.jpgWhen charges of doctrinaire Marxism are leveled against professors, the standard procedure is to charge the accusers with misinterpretation—they just can’t understand the subtleties of the literary and philosophical profundities being dispensed. In English departments these theories have touched deconstruction, new historicism, post-colonialism, gender studies, disability studies, etc. Most in the field–promoters and detractors alike–know that these theories have roots in Marxism. For those of us alarmed by the politicization of literary studies, it’s a difficult message to get out to the world because the cloud of academic verbiage obscures the real sources and aims of such theories.

But when announcements for a world literature conference begin with a long quotation from The Communist Manifesto and a co-director approvingly quotes the left’s most popular dead Stalinist, Che Guevara, the aim became clear: the conference wasn’t really going to be about literature. The first International World Literature Conference at Kennesaw State University in suburban Cobb County, Georgia, on March 16, announced the purpose of the conference in the call for papers and on the English Department’s website with the quotation that reads in part, “The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. . . .The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

Continue reading Rallying Around Che at a ‘Literary’ Conference

The Radicalization of the University of California

University_of_California_Seal.svg.pngAre the 234,000 students enrolled in the massive University of California system receiving an education or a re-education?

It’s the latter–or something fairly close–according to “A Crisis of Competence,” a report just released by the California Association of Scholars (CAS), the Golden State affiliate of the National Association of Scholars. The devastating 87-page report addressed to UC’s Board of Regents, concludes that leftist political indoctrination represents a significant portion of the curriculum at the nine UC campuses that admit undergraduates. Here are some major points:

— UC-Santa Cruz offers no fewer than five introductory courses devoted
exclusively to the thinking of Karl Marx. You can take a basic course on
Marx in the politics, sociology, community studies, legal studies, or
history of consciousness departments–or if, you wish, take all five
courses simultaneously in all five departments, several of which also
offer advanced courses on Marx’s works. “Adolescent Marxist nostalgia
still evidently reigns on campus and impedes a return to reality–but
where are the adults who might be pointing out that it is time to grow
up and move on to thinkers who have been able to withstand the test of
time and to remain more relevant to modern life?” the report asks.

Continue reading The Radicalization of the University of California

What Does a High Graduation Rate Prove?

A mantra fills the airways from the White House to the NCAA and from there to California governor’s mansion: keep graduating students from American colleges and universities. Keep the system of higher education humming. But what precisely does a graduate rate measure other than the completion of thirty, perhaps 32, courses whose quality is unknown and whose instructors have varied talents?

Continue reading What Does a High Graduation Rate Prove?

The Terrible Textbooks of Freshman Comp

Norton Reader.jpgFreshman composition class at many colleges is propaganda time, with textbooks conferring early sainthood on President Obama and lavishing attention on writers of the far left–Howard Zinn, Christopher Hedges, Peter Singer and Barbara Ehrenreich, for instance–but rarely on moderates, let alone anyone right of center. Democrats do very well in these books, but Abraham Lincoln–when included–is generally the most recent Republican featured.

Take The Norton Reader, for instance. Someone sent it to me, presumably because I teach freshman composition myself. Much of the volume is made up of popular writing by ideological writers of the left and political speeches that strain the traditional standards of rhetorical worthiness. Among the latter is the instant classic, Barack Obama’s “A New Beginning” speech delivered in Cairo in 2009. It drew quite a bit of criticism, especially over historical inaccuracies. Yet none of this was mentioned. Topic questions were also embedded to trigger predetermined responses from students.

Lincoln, King and Obama

With my curiosity piqued by the obvious bias, I decided to look at other textbooks. What I found was the widespread promotion of Obama, thinly disguised by claims about his rhetorical skills. (Entering college freshmen are likely to have already been exposed to a lot on Obama, much of it from Scholastic, which offers a teachers’ workbook, as well.) Other than one or two columns by a token conservative, like David Brooks, the rich array of conservative writing was ignored.

The Norton Reader, like most, is divided thematically. Interestingly, Obama’s speech is not included in the section, “Politics and Government,” where Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” appear. It shows up in the “Spoken Words” section that is made up of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Eleanor Roosevelt’s “On the Declaration of Human Rights,” William Faulkner’s “Nobel Prize Speech,” and Al Gore’s speech, “The Climate Emergency” that became the basis of the film and book, An Inconvenient Truth. While acknowledging that Gore’s speech was given during the 2004 presidential campaign, the editors treat his data as undisputed scientific fact. For example, topic question 4 asks the student: “Gore gives three leading causes of the climate emergency: population growth, technology, and our way of thinking. List the kinds of evidence and examples he uses in this part of his speech, and suggest how the diversity of evidence and examples helps him communicate with his audience.” There is no hint that there is disagreement on the issue. None of the five topic questions allow the student to dissent from any part of Gore’s argument.

Similarly, Obama’s claims in his Cairo speech are presented without any skepticism. CBS News, hardly a conservative organ, reported that praise for the speech usually focused on its “delivery,” but noted that even the Huffington Post marked the “lack of substance in the words.” William Bradley’s column there claimed that the speech’s arena itself was reason for its success: “The positions [Obama] laid out are positions he had in his campaign. But he did say it all at once, and quite well.”

Obama’s historical inaccuracies in the speech go unchallenged, like attributing the invention of printing to Muslims (it was the Chinese) or crediting Morocco with being the first to recognize the United States (No–Russia, France, Spain and the Netherlands did it earlier). And again, there is no mention of criticisms of the speech, many of them well-founded.

Two of the four topic questions require the student’s uncritical affirmations. Question 2 refers to the seven “specific tensions or issues affecting the current relationship between the United States and Muslim nations.” Were the enterprising student to select one of those as instructed and examine it in detail, but with outside evidence, he would then be faced with the next part of the question: “How does Obama develop his argument so that it will appeal to various audiences?” The assumption that Obama does appeal to various audiences gives the lie to the usual claims about making students “critical thinkers.”

Just Obey the President’s Call

Obama speaking.jpgUsually the last topic calls for a more open, creative response. For Obama’s speech we have: “Obama concludes with a call to action directed especially toward the world’s youth: ‘And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country–you, more than anyone, have the ability to re-imagine the world, to remake this world.’ Write a paper in which you discuss ways you personally might respond to this call.” Disguised as a question, this is a not-so-subtle request to obey the president’s call.

There is not only lack of balance in terms of political representation, but also in sources of the essays. While the anthology does contain a smattering of classics from Emerson, Thoreau, Orwell, and the like, modern selections make up the bulk of the volume. Most come from general interest publications, but it seems the editors never heard of National Review, the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, or New Criterion. Yet, The New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s offer numerous excerpts each. A number also come from American Scholar and Georgia Review. There are multiple offerings by the likes of Anna Quindlen, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Joan Didion. The “Ethics” section contains an offering by Peter Singer, by an abortion clinic nurse, and from several animal rights advocates, but nothing from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective. Bedford/St. Martin’s too includes Obama in several textbooks. A Memorial Day speech at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery provides the sole presidential offering in Making Sense. The 2012 edition of The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings offers Obama’s election night “Grant Park Victory Speech.” (The previous, 2009, edition that contains an excerpt from Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father apparently went to press before the election. Dreams must have been assigned widely, for endotes offers help to students, as does BestEssayHelp.com for the Inaugural Speech.)

The Victory Speech’s salvific message is enhanced by its placement amidst accounts of the inherent hopelessness of life in America by the same authors (Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Barbara Ehrenreich, Peter Singer). Again, no balance is offered. What might be useful is Ronald Reagan’s short speech on his landslide victory that is marked by humility, in contrast to Obama’s insistent proclamations of the historical significance of his election as “the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful….” Topic questions at the end ask students to connect this speech to the Gettysburg Address (!) and MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” The editors seem to be aware of crossing a line, however, for in the instructor’s manual they acknowledge that Obama is “the focal point of a great deal of emotion on either side of the political spectrum.” They therefore advise limiting class discussion to the speech’s “persuasive power.” The attempt to mask such cheerleading is further betrayed by the inclusion of other selections, like John Edgar Wideman’s “Street Corner Dreamers,” which is about what the Victory Speech means to the hitherto hopeless denizens of our nation’s cities. Wideman asks, “Do I glimpse that change in the way they walk and talk, the way they occupy space and flash looks at one another, urgent exchanges of joy, anger, longing, understanding, impatience, solidarity, challenge, like the undeniable, irrepressible reality embodied in singer Sam Cooke’s voice when he promises change that must come–music that might be in the general air now or playing just around the corner in the voice of Barack Obama?”

(An accompanying photo announces, “Barack Obama plays basketball with local youths in Chicago’s Southside, where he launched his career in public service as a community organizer.”)

Wideman continues the rhapsody: “Not Barack Obama singing, but Barack Obama in charge, calling the meeting to order. Putting a finger to his lips: Quiet, everybody, please.” The section includes an essay by Howard Zinn, the late over-the-top historian who is simply described as “professor emeritus of political science at Boston University . . . known both for his active involvement in the civil rights and peace movements and for his scholarship,” however, strains credulity regarding simple rhetorical criteria. The editors list Zinn’s numerous publications and say only about his political allegiances that he argued “that perseverance [sic] in the face of opposition is essential.” Topic 1, though, asks, “Explain what Zinn means by what Leon Trotsky called the ‘natural selection of accidents’ (paragraph 2) preventing true depictions of war, class, and race from appearing in films.” Topic 3 then directs students’ attention to Obama again: “‘What steps do you believe President Obama will take to improve your life? (Possible answer: he could lose in November.)

‘Hearts Bursting with Love and Pride’

Another Bedford anthology, America Now: Short Readings from Recent Periodicals, does not include speeches or book excerpts. Yet, a thematic section focuses on “Barack Obama: What Does His Election Mean to America?” The head note introduces the readings with the claim that Obama’s election “filled the country, from left to right, with a momentary euphoria.” In this section are two essays from Essence, one the aforementioned Wideman essay, and one by Diane McKinney-Whetstone on “The First Family” (“When the crowd surged forward, hearts bursting with love and pride, the lens shifted and altered the world’s view of the Black family,” with topic questions driving home the point that racism had hitherto stymied the black family); an essay from Tikkun that the editors explain is a criticism from the left, “arguing that [Obama] represents a continuation of the conventional policies of the Bush administration, policies [the author Christopher Hedges] believes are determined and orchestrated by a corporate oligarchy”; and a student essay titled “Obama–President for All” (“while Obama embodies a milestone in America’s history as the first African American president. . . .”).

Hedges, an unusually angry senior fellow at the Nation Institute, who wrote what is described as a “call to arms” for the first issue of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, claims that “the old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex continue to plunder the country.” Obama is simply, in Hedge’s estimation, a new brand of the unlawful President Bush, for he refuses to “dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws and restore habeas corpus.” The editors’ footnote explains only, “habeas corpus: The principle that an accused person should be allowed to know the charges against him or her exactly; the Bush administration suspended it during the War on Terror.”!

The substitution of “person” for “citizen” and the refusal to describe Hedges’ real position is, of course, irresponsible. The fact that this textbook is aimed at the student with a low reading level, one who would be least likely to know this information on his own, suggests a goal that has very little to do with education. Nor do the other volumes for that matter. They want to tell students what to think, not how to write.

On “The Birth of Critical University Studies”

The first sentences of Jeffrey Williams’ essay in the Chronicle
of Higher Education
, “Deconstructing Academe: The Birth of Critical
University Studies”,
sounds like an introduction to the many conservative and libertarian critiques
of higher education that have appeared in recent decades, starting with Allan
Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Martin Anderson’s Imposters
in the Temple
, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal
Education,
and Richard Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue.  The
sentence reads:

“Over the past two decades in the United States, there has
been a new wave of criticism of higher education. ” 

But the second sentence dispels them all.

Continue reading On “The Birth of Critical University Studies”

What Will They Learn? Maybe Not Much

Academically Adrift“, a study by two sociologists – Richard Arum of NYU and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia – demonstrated that 36
percent of our college students graduate with little or no measurable gains in
their core academic skills – areas like expository writing and analytical
reasoning.  Their diplomas are literally tickets to nowhere.  No, I
take that back.  With an average student debt of $25,250, they are tickets
to long-term financial crises that can curtail their opportunities for
decades. 

The higher education establishment assures us that this
poor showing is due to the underfunding of colleges. 
Not so.  The average per-pupil expenditure on higher education in America is
more than twice the average of other industrialized nations.  No, the
problem is not too little money.  It is too little attention to what
matters.  What do students learn during those expensive college years?

Continue reading What Will They Learn? Maybe Not Much

Notes on Bowdoin’s Curriculum

Prompted by the NAS’ intriguing–and commendable–decision to use Bowdoin as a case study to explore the liberal arts experience, I took a look last week at the staffing decisions in Bowdoin’s history department. Three unusual patterns emerged: (1) a seemingly disproportionate emphasis on environmental and African history; (2) an inconsistent commitment to scholarship as a requirement for promotion and/or tenure; and (3) a preference for narrowness (history of diet, history of science, two environmental historians of the Pacific coast) in U.S. history, all while running away from any approaches that could be deemed “traditional.”

So how do these staffing decisions translate into curricular choices?

Continue reading Notes on Bowdoin’s Curriculum

Simone Weil and the Condition of Schooling Today

simone_weil.jpg“We can only lean on what offers resistance.” So writes the historian Oswald Spengler in The Hour of Decision (1934). Seven years later, Simone Weil incorporated this principle in her declaration that the key to academic studies is an undivided focus on each particular subject at hand, with no concessions to the student’s aptitude or preferences.

Weil’s term for this effort of mind is attention, which she refers to no less than thirty-eight times in her brief but remarkable essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”  Comparable repetitions fill the pages of our education establishment, with the crucial difference that it traffics in catch-words that are deployed with all the insistence of a propaganda campaign, such as “self-esteem,” “progressive,” and “multicultural,” whereas “attention” speaks to the actual process of intellectual discipline and throughout Weil’s essay remains a real tool of perception.

No such grounding in the life of the mind is possible in what Heather Mac Donald calls academic “Theorese,” which serves to inhibit thought through a smokescreen of abstractions and stilted, sterile prose, behind which the big guns of “Theory” take aim at time-tested principles of knowledge and learning and seek to deconstruct, “problematize,” or otherwise subvert standard norms of thought and education. For three decades or more, the very concepts of objectivity, correctness, coherence, and logic have been the object of “radical critique,” particularly in the field of college composition, which has been targeted for special abuse, since it is the gateway to the entire curriculum, science included.

Continue reading Simone Weil and the Condition of Schooling Today

Why Don’t Progressives Support U.S. History for Freshmen?

Herb London and KC Johnson have already posted on the disappointing findings of the ACTA project What Will They Learn? But it is worth pondering some of the implications of the report.  One of the more striking of them is the “Slightly less than 20% [of colleges surveyed] require U.S. government or history.”  As KC noted, the bar for qualification was set pretty low, with ACTA reporting that it

gives schools credit for U.S. Government or History if they require a survey course in either U.S. government or history with enough chronological and topical breadth to expose students to the sweep of American history and institutions.  Narrow, niche courses do not count for the requirement, nor do courses that only focus on a limited chronological period or a specific state or region.

Note that breadth is the only requirement. If within that requirement a teacher emphasizes racial or gender issues, if he or she highlights the guilty record of politicians, business leaders, or religious organizations, or if he or she emphasizes any other theme with sufficient scope, then the course would count and the school would get credit.  But less than one in five schools qualified.

Continue reading Why Don’t Progressives Support U.S. History for Freshmen?

After Graduation, Get a Job Immediately, or Else

One of the frequent complaints one hears from humanities professors and figures in the “softer” social sciences is that students and a growing number of higher education officials, consultants, and commentators regard college more and more as a job-training program.  While driving across the country this week, I heard Rush Limbaugh declare that the only point of going to college was to find a job—nothing about general knowledge and skills that go with citizenship and being an adult of taste and discernment and historical understanding.

The economic crisis makes their workforce-readiness arguments even stronger, and this story in The Fiscal Times adds an aggravating component to it.  It bears the headline “The Lost Grads: Born into the Wrong Job Market,” and it focuses on graduating classes of '08-'10 who left school only to find that employers weren’t hiring.  The result, according to the Economic Policy Institute: college grads under 25 have an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, while older grads have a rate of 4.4 percent.

Continue reading After Graduation, Get a Job Immediately, or Else

Charter Colleges: A Market-Based Solution

The cost of higher education in America spirals out of control. Tuition and fees have increased fourfold in real terms in the last two decades, far outstripping the rise in the cost of medical care. At the same time, the quality of instruction plummets, thanks to declining standards, grade inflation, and the hollowing out of the traditional curriculum through the over-specializing of the faculty and the privileging of  abstruse publication over skill in teaching. In a recent book (Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses), Arum and Roksa document the decline in student effort and results. At present, things look rosy, with the perceived benefits of a college degree still exceeding its perceived costs. The higher ed establishment encourages students to overestimate the value added by a college degree (the supposed $1 million earning premium, created by confusing correlation with causation), while students significantly underestimate the real costs of the crushing load of student debt they accumulate. In the long run, perceptions will catch up with reality, resulting in a precipitous drop in demand. All of this fully justifies talk of a “higher education bubble,” soon to burst with catastrophic results.

Those of us who care about higher education are looking for solutions that will dramatically lower costs to students and taxpayers, while improving the quality of instruction. Unfortunately, most proposals for reform take the form of top-down, bureaucratic measures, attempting to re-allocate resources from ‘research’ to ‘teaching’ (the basic thrust of Jeff Sandefer’s “Seven Breakthrough Solutions”). Although well intended, such proposals are doomed to fail. One cannot solve problems created by arteriosclerotic bureaucracy simply by adding more layers of bureaucracy. The only solution is to bring market-oriented solutions – competition and entrepreneurship– to bear. One vehicle for doing so is the counterpart of the very successful charter schools movement: the creation within state university campuses of charter colleges.

Continue reading Charter Colleges: A Market-Based Solution

Literature Professors Discover Animals

English professors have long been straying far afield from literary studies, expanding into women’s studies, disability studies, ethnic studies, even fat studies.  Recently they have migrated into animal studies.

An ambitious professor might be working on a paper for “Cultivating Human-Animal Relations Through  Poetic Form,.” a panel scheduled for  the November South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) meeting.  She may have been inspired by the quotation by Alice Walker that opens the panel description: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons.  They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”

Continue reading Literature Professors Discover Animals

Dartmouth Foils Its Donors

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It’s a constant skirmish between donors seeking to fund specific scholarly projects at universities and the universities’ administrators, who would typically like to see as much of that money as possible go to “unrestricted” uses–that is, whatever the administrators, not the donors, deem  the best use of the funds. And nowadays, with universities’ endowment values falling during the current recession, “best use of the money” can often mean covering deficits in the universities’ general operating budgets, deficits sometimes occasioned by wasteful spending on grandiose campus construction projects or–even worse in the eyes of some donors–ideological projects such as “diversity” and “sustainability” offices only marginally connected to the delivery of higher education.

Hence the recent and increasingly widespread phenomenon of the “levy”–a rake-off by administrators of a percentage of the income from endowed programs and endowed professor’s chairs, ostensibly to cover overhead and other “associated program costs,” as universities call them, but in fact a bit of naked budget-balancing. Such was the case in late May, when top administrators of Dartmouth College announced that it planned to increase, as of the fiscal year that began July 1, the percentage of its levy from 14.29 percent to 19.1 percent. Dartmouth administrators announced that the nearly 33 percent levy hike would raise $2 million that would have previously gone to endowment recipients but now would help close Dartmouth’s $100 million budget deficit.

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Fraud Up and Down Our Educational System

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In Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz the Wizard says he wants an educated populace, “so by the power vested in me I will grant everyone diplomas.” Welcome to the education system of 2011. Much of what we now observe comes right out of the Baum novel.

When Charles Eliot was president of Harvard, he was asked why there is so much intelligence at this college, He replied, “because the freshmen bring so much in and the seniors take so little out.” My guess is if a university president were completely honest today, he might say the freshman bring almost nothing in and leave by taking nothing out.

The question is, if the society spends billions on primary, secondary and higher education, why is so little accomplished? There are many answers to this question, of course, but I would argue the overarching reason is fraud, fraud at every level in order to satisfy political demands.

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A Minor Cut at Harvard Is an Amputation at UNLV

In 2008, when all the writing was on the wall but the wall was still believed to be surmountable, the various strategies to rescue the nation were largely about putting more money into the economy.  Now, up against the wall, the strategy is about taking it out.  That counter-movement has begun to reveal a few things that strike us all as very unpleasant, regardless of which political side we may take.  Because public and private universities are beholden to very different kinds of constituencies, it is particularly painful to watch, for example, as Harvard recovers from its losses with cuts that are more akin to losing a little weight than losing a limb, while at the same time such public universities as the University of Las Vegas at Nevada struggle with whether to retain some departments in the liberal arts, including philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and women’s studies.

It is easy to see how a triumphal politics on the left or the right can weigh in on all this.  In Harvard’s case, it has been more publicly embarrassing than fiscally consequential that some of its more ambitious programs have had to be scaled back or delayed, including a large development project in the sciences in nearby Allston.   But Lawrence Summers, who has returned to Harvard after his stint in the Obama administration, is now feted in the pages of The Boston Globe as a popular and inspiring teacher. This follows his earlier departure as President of Harvard for making remarks confirming that no university administrator should ever risk high position for the sake of personal integrity and candor.

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Rap in the White House, Rap in the Schools

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It’s rare that poetry explications are done on Fox News, but guests weighed in on the depth of meaning in a line like “burn a [George W.] Bush for peace” and a panegyric to convicted cop-killer and Black Panther Assata Shakur with “May God bless your soul.”  The “poet” in question was the rapper Common, invited to the White House on May 11 for workshops and readings, along with Rita Dove, Billy Collins, and others.  Those on the left trotted out the usual defenses, citing poetry’s “purpose” (to “challenge us”), free speech, and a subtlety to the poetry that right-wing critics just are too dense to understand. The White House, of course, cautioned against taking a few objectionable lines out of context and stressed Common’s charitable organization (Common Ground enjoys the advice of Cornel West on its council).  Some commentators pointed to his appearance on Sesame Street, which airs on publicly supported television stations.  Overall, critics were treated like unsophisticated rubes incapable of appreciating the subtlety and depth of his poetry.

But critics wouldn’t have been as shocked by the invitation had they known that the often-vile doggerel known as rap enjoys a privileged place in the academy.  Syracuse University has offered “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen Bitch 101” through its English and Textual Studies department; the University of California, Irvine, has offered “Hip-Hop Culture” through African-American Studies; and the University of Washington has offered “2Pac,” in Comparative History of Ideas, where students interviewed former Black Panthers, and wrote and performed their own rhymes.  While some professors like Harvard’s Cornel West have turned away from their academic training to produce rap recordings, some universities are inviting rappers off the stage.  At Rice University this spring, rapper Bun B, who wrote “Pop It 4 Pimp,” taught Religion and Hip-Hop.  At Duke, producer 9th Wonder taught courses on the history of hip-hop.  Smith College hosted Dessa from an “underground collective” as artist-in-residence. A 2007 campus publication described Berkeley’s hip-hop studies group, represented by departments of education, sociology, African-American studies, and law.  Not only do members seek to share scholarship in the field, but some hope to establish formal hip-hop studies programs.

While rap music has long been embraced for its sociological value as a lens into the underclass, of late the genre has been embraced for its purported literary and rhetorical value.  This year Yale University Press released an 867-page Anthology of Rap.  Classroom use of rap came up at last month’s annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta (CCCC).  Texas A & M graduate teaching assistant Marcos Del Hierro showed videos for classroom use, in a session that according to the conference program was intended to “interrogate the racist rhetoric of SB1070” (the Arizona statute requiring compliance with federal immigration laws within the state).  The session was intended to “assess the potential for digital, visual, aural, material, and embodied protestrhetorics to contribute to a revolution.”  

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Quarantining the PC Pathology

ant.jpgLet’s face it, our noble efforts to detoxify today’s PC-infected university have largely failed and the future looks bleak. This is not to say that the problem is incurable–though it is–but it calls for a solution different from the current approach.  Here’s how.

Begin by recognizing that all our proposed cures impose heavy burdens on foes. For example, demanding an ideologically balanced faculty means fewer positions for PC zealots to fill. Asking them to abandon anti-Americanism requires revising lectures and reading assignment, no small task for those working 24/7 for social justice. And the assignment may be beyond their intellectual abilities. Why should tenured radicals surrender life-time employment to prevent professorial abuses? In a nutshell, our side insists on painful reform from within, all of which have zero benefits to the PC crowd. Victory requires measures that appear as net benefits, not bitter medicine.

My solution arrived one day in a casual conversation with a fellow political scientist. He recounted that when his university initially proposed a separate Department of Women’s Studies, the faculty objected.  Resistance was futile, however, and the separate department came to pass. There was, however, a silver lining in the defeat–with all the department’s strident feminists exported to an autonomous homeland, intellectual life suddenly improved dramatically. No more silly quarrels about inserting gender into international relations, no more struggles over subtly-hidden, invisible sexism and so on. Civility and reason reigned.

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Politics and the Demise of the Humanities

“But when humanism became the servant of the political or university establishment it lost its vitality and, indeed, its credibility…

         Willem Frijhoff discussing 16th century humanism in 
         A History of the University, Vol. II (Cambridge U Press), p. 45

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The crisis of the humanities officially arrived on October 1, 2010. At least this is what Stanley Fish claims in the <em>New York Times</em>. The fact that SUNY Albany’s president announced the demise of the university’s French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theatre programs on this date hardly appears to be a significant omen, but Fish believes this event possesses deeper symbolic importance. It represents the empirical reality that numerous scholars have already observed: the humanities are withering away in higher education. 
 
What will revive them?  As a consistent postmodernist, Fish suggests politics should be the answer, by which he means “the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies—legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others—that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.”  In a follow-up column Fish specifies that this political solution also includes begging the state to provide more money for the humanities. 

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Students ‘Adrift’? Don’t Blame Them

inside-college-classroom.jpgI haven’t read Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, and frankly, I’m not sure that I want to. Having had high expectations of other widely touted books on higher education—most recently, Hacker and Dreifus’s Higher Education?, Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit, Mark Taylor’s Crisis on Campus—and having been sadly disappointed after reading them, I’m afraid that reading this book will be an instance of history repeating itself. Besides, after listening to a great deal of the chatter that it’s generated, I keep asking myself, “What’s new?”

In his fascinating book, Weapons of Mass Instruction (2009), John Taylor Gatto cites a 2006 study conducted by the University of Connecticut that affirmed that college students weren’t learning the things they were supposed to be learning. Having surveyed 14,000 students at fifty intuitions in five academic areas, the study showed that at sixteen of the fifty schools—including Yale, Brown, and Georgetown—negative intellectual growth (meaning that seniors knew less than freshman) had actually occurred among undergraduates. In thirty-four of the fifty schools, no discernable change occurred. This prompted Gatto to write: “after spending an average of six years in search of a BA degree or its equivalent, and spending an average of a quarter million in cash and loans, a great many young people had nothing or even less than nothing to show for the investment.”

In the American Scholar (Summer 2008), former Yale professor William Deresiewicz already warned us that even the elite institutions, which used to be the bastions of higher education, have been slouching “toward a glorified form of vocational training” and increasingly graduating more educated ignoramuses. Will another book on the failings of higher education deter students from going to ivy-league schools, even though they will be no better off after graduating than the 35 percent of first-year community college students who don’t return for their second year, or the 33 percent of students at four-year institutions who don’t complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling, or even those who never step foot in an ivory tower? (Source: A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, 2006.)

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The Book That Shook the Campuses

9780226028569.jpgNeither liberals nor conservatives take the education part of higher education very seriously. Instead, college gets used as an arena for special interest promotion and ideological dispute. The right publishes lists of “The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America” while fulminating about post-modernism and the hedonist student culture. The left pours endless billions of taxpayer dollars into student financial aid programs without holding anyone accountable (or at least not traditional non-profit colleges) for how that money is spent. Everyone is simultaneously horrified and entertained by college sports.
This happens in large part because everyone assumes that the core business of higher education doesn’t require much scrutiny. Our K-12 schools may be mediocre, but we all know our colleges are the best in the world. Just ask them!
Now Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s landmark study, Academically Adrift, has blown a gaping hole in the wall of assumed competence that has long shielded colleges and universities from criticism. The warranty that accompanies the college degree–that students have undergone a rigorous course of study and emerged ready to tackle the challenges of the workplace and further education–turns out to be, in many cases, a fraud.
During their four years of college, 36 percent of students studied made no progress at all on the most widely-used measure of collegiate critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and written communication skills. The average gain was less than half of one standard deviation. Results for minority students and those from academically disadvantaged backgrounds were even worse.
The list of culprits is long: Poor preparation, lax accreditation standards, faculty incentives that privilege scholarship over teaching, a low equilibrium of mutual expectation where professors ask students to do little and provide little in exchange. The modern university has evolved haphazardly over time to accommodate a huge variety of interests, functions, and concerns. Somewhere along the way, the core business of educating undergraduates faded from view.
But this learning-deficient ecosystem only persists because there is little or no outside pressure to become otherwise. Contrast this with the vigorous national conversation about elementary and secondary education. A whole constellation of organizations from across the ideological spectrum exist to analyze, criticize, and improve schooling for children. Many disagree, often stridently, about the necessary means, with perspectives ranging from big government regulation to wholesale privatization and many points in between. But they all begin from the same underlying premise: too many American K-12 students are failing to learn.

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What Else Do Professors Do? They Teach.

Teaching periodically reaches the public’s attention, as in a recent statement by a group of scientists about the failure of research universities to train their students to be good teachers. The New York Times ran a report on a study published in Science that led its lead researcher to contend: “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” This undoubtedly prompts teachers to feel more pressed to teach “to the brain.” Is learning finally “all about retrieving”? And the veiled acknowledgment that students might fare better by being tested more regularly, a staple of language learning, for example, can now be imagined as one more panacea for our cultural ADD. I do not think Professor Karpicke and his associates are off-base, I think they are tinkerers at the base of a vast cultural inheritance of teaching and learning that deserves its own acknowledgment.
When my graduate advisor, Philip Rieff wrote Fellow Teachers, which began as a lecture/conversation he conducted at Skidmore College in the early 1970s, few were prepared to read about the vocation of teaching—not about how to teach. The latter has become the ball and chain wrapped around the ankles of so many teachers. No reputable institution of higher education today is without a teaching and learning center. (Curiously at my own institution, it is called the Learning and Teaching Center, suggesting that many carts (i.e. students) are entitled to go before the horse in keeping with a consumer-driven logic that drives up the cost of everything.) Fellow Teachers marked an important point of departure in the culture wars that spread throughout many institutions, first in the American university. It had been preceded a year or so by Robert Nisbet’s equally important The Degradation of the Academic Dogma. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind upped the ante considerably, by then, already fifteen years later, but also by then, the arguments had assumed a life of their own far beyond the university as they do today.
I do not mean to disparage the craft of teaching. The Socratic Method, for example, is intended to engage students effectively in a public setting, insisting that they learn how to think on their feet. A film illustration of this made Orson Welles’s early collaborator, John Houseman, the cultural icon of teaching as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. The film celebrated the autocratic, distant figure in authority who could drill and humiliate while teaching the law. The film’s final scene marked, however inadvertently, the end of that kind of figure. Kingsfield’s best student folds his final grade report into a paper airplane and sends it into the sea without opening it. For him the encounter with such an inspiring teacher counted more than the final grade. What more needs to be said today about how much has changed?

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No Labels = No Thinking, and No Fighting for Principles Either

no%20labels.bmpWhat a different scene at Columbia University in the last month of 2010 from the glory days of the 1960s, when student radicals took over the campus! On December 13th, mild-mannered students with pleasant smiles nodded in agreement with establishment politicians and political strategists at the “No Labels” conference. As political analysts have pointed out, the repeated pleading for “bipartisanship” and for moving not “left or right” but “forward” was an attempt to obscure the losing message of Democrats and nervous Republicans in the 2010 elections.
But the phrases of “moving forward” and “compromise” were refrains in a song familiar to more than 300 college students from across the country gathered on campus. At the microphone, these students demonstrated their docile acceptance of the “no labels” pedagogy of “consensus-building,” “conflict resolution,” and “civil discourse.” When explaining “why” they were there, they echoed the words of the organizers and said they were tired of “hyper-partisanship.” Then they “pledged” to “speak out against this hyper-partisanship” because “a win for one party is not necessarily a loss for another party.” Sometimes making their statements with the timorous inflection of a question mark at the end, they raised—for some observers, at least– the issue of intellectual decline, and spiritual and psychological decline as well.
Like many of my college students, these students displayed a reluctance to declare anyone–or any idea–a “winner.” The notion of there being a losing side, whether in wiffle ball or a mock UN debate, has in effect been outlawed over the last few decades. In part this numb recessiveness is the work of campus “mommies,” freshman composition teachers who instruct their classes to shy away from assertion and real debate.
Freshman composition was once known for teaching young adults how to defend a conviction with logic and evidence. Feminists saw the inherently competitive nature of this enterprise, and sought to replace it with the “maternal presence in the classroom,” an Orwellian term in circulation at the University of Georgia in the 1990s, where I taught as a graduate teaching assistant. At the time, the English department, known as the last hold-out from the pernicious influence of the various schools of postmodernism, was being taken over by feminists who sought to root out the patriarchy in all its manifestations—including the freshman essay. The “maternal presence” trickled down into our annual fall orientation sessions where we were directed to implement the new strategies as “facilitators.”

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