Tag Archives: read

It’s Not Just the Athletes Who Can’t Read and Write

Tar
Heel alums may be embarrassed over the scandal involving the amazingly low
academic standards for “student-athletes” at the University of North Carolina,
but for the rest of America, it is the gift that keeps on giving for its
insights into the true priorities of our higher education leaders.

This
recent
article
in the Raleigh News & Observer nicely summarizes the mess at
Chapel Hill. We learn among other things that Mary Willingham, a “reading
specialist” employed by the university to help athletes, says that she knew
from their diagnostic tests that many of them simply were not able to do
college-level work. Some admitted “they had never read a book and didn’t know
what a paragraph was.” Yet one of America’s “public ivies” so felt the need to
pile up wins on the gridiron and basketball court that it admitted students who
by objective standards ought to have been returning to about fifth grade after
graduating from high school.

Some
other student-athletes were better prepared for college, but just wanted to
save time on academic work to have more time for their sports. When Willingham
told one student that a paper she wanted to submit in a class was a plagiarized
“cut and paste” job, she was told to look the other way. The student “earned” a
B.

It
would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the problem of ill-prepared
students who don’t want to be bothered with reading and writing is confined
just to athletes. Evidence abounds that this phenomenon is widespread.

I
recently finished reading The
Shadow Scholar
by Dave Tomar. He admits – without any apparent remorse
– that he wrote thousands of college papers for students over the span of a
decade. His business of enabling students to cheat began while he was an
undergraduate at Rutgers, a university that U.S.
News
rates as “more selective.” But Tomar found many of his classmates to
be pathetically weak in their basic academic abilities.

One
of his first clients was “Rich Kid Sid.” Sid regarded himself as better than
Rutgers. He intended to transfer as soon as possible to a more prestigious
school with the long-run goal of getting into law school. He didn’t want to
waste his time with the expository writing course required of all freshmen. The
problem was that his initial in-class writing assignment had been graded as No
Pass. Sid needed to do better, but wasn’t interested in accomplishing that
himself, so he paid Tomar to rework the assignment.

How
bad was the writing of this typical (and non-athlete) student? Tomar writes,
“It was a jumble of words slapped together uncomfortably, standing next to one
another with an air of remoteness, like strangers in an elevator…. Punctuation
dotted the landscape of his work almost randomly, as though he had written the
paper first and then gone back through it indiscriminately inserting dots and
dashes.”

Sid
thought he was a good writer. Tomar observes that no teacher had ever told him
otherwise. That’s a common problem with young Americans. Many of them coast
through twelve years of schooling without ever learning how to write, as Ellen
Finnigan, an online writing coach, explains here. In
college, a few improve their writing, but many others get by with cheating or
just because professors don’t want to take the large amount of time necessary
to work with students on their writing. Professor Murray Sperber made that point
during a Pope Center event last year.

College
leaders say that they’re committed to educational excellence, but their actions
speak otherwise. They admit many students who are hardly ready for high school,
much less college, and then allow them to graduate even though they have made
scant progress in basic skills like writing.

Obama’s Win Is An Indictment of Higher Education

This morning in the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes summed
up
one condition of the Republican Party:

“What’s their problem? In Senate races, it’s bad candidates:
old hacks (Wisconsin), young hacks (Florida), youngsters (Ohio), Tea Party
types who can’t talk about abortion sensibly (Missouri, Indiana), retreads
(Virginia), lousy campaigners (North Dakota) and Washington veterans
(Michigan). Losers all.

“And those are just the Senate contests decided
yesterday.  In 2010, it was similar.  Republicans threw away two of
their best chances to gain seats, choosing pathetically incapable candidates in
Nevada and Delaware.” 

Indeed, conservative and libertarian teachers, writers, and
intellectuals have to wonder why the candidates they have to choose from are
precisely that, “pathetically incapable” mouthpieces who can’t talk about
controversial issues such as abortion sensibly. 

Here’s one reason why: those politicians didn’t study any
conservative thinkers in college.  When they talk, they say nothing that
suggests they have read much serious discourse on the right side of the
spectrum from Burke to Charles Murray.  Leftists have their nostrums down
pat (against racism, sexism, imperialism, economic inequality . . .), and
however dated and predictable those utterances are, liberal politicians stick
to the point and press it again and again.  Again, one reason is that they
received ample helpings of liberalism in freshman English, history, any
“studies course,” sociology, etc., reading some Marx, Foucault, Dewey, Malcolm
X, a bit of feminism here and multiculturalism there.  In school, those
future conservative politicians likely rejected those texts, but they didn’t
plunge into the other side’s corpus

It shows in the absence of depth in so many Republican
candidates.  When you hear them speak, nothing in the tradition comes
through–no Franklin on work ethic, Madison-Hamilton-Jay on power, Emerson on
self-reliance, Hawthorne on Federal employment, Thoreau on Big Government,
Booker T. Washington on individual responsibility, Willa Cather on the pioneer
spirit, and Hayek on social engineering.  This is a fatal deficiency, and
it neglects one of the strengths of conservatism (superiority in the battle of
ideas).  Worse, when conservatives don’t have the tradition in their
background, when they lose elections, they tend to look forward by examining
their relationship to the electorate instead of their relationship to first
principles and values.  Conservative candidates don’t need more political
calculation that competes with liberalism, but rather more intellectual heft
that presents a better alternative to liberalism.

It won’t happen in college, so maybe organizations such as
the Manhattan Institute should run two-week seminars for office-seekers. 
Not policy-making or campaign strategy sessions, but short courses in
conservative words and ideas.  Have them read Franklin‘s Autobiography, Washington’s
Up from Slavery, and Cather’s O Pioneers!  Let them know,
too, that while we all await the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan, one way Reagan
thrived in politics is by withdrawing for a time and reading Hayek and Friedman
carefully, soberly, far from the madding crowd.

Common Core Mandates Will Harm Critical Thinking

Jay Mathews is one of the few education reporters who gets it. He understands that the heavy diet of informational reading Common Core mandates at every single grade level for the language arts or English class may decrease, not increase, “critical” or analytical thinking. But how are teachers and parents to know that black is white and freedom is slavery? No one tells us how reading “informational” texts could necessarily stimulate “critical” thinking better than literary reading–or stimulate it at all.

For example, how would the “informational” texts recommended by the National Council of Teachers of English for the secondary English curriculum stimulate analytical thinking more than, say, a close reading of Pride and Prejudice? According to a NCTE volume she co-authored, an Iowa English teacher has assigned her grade 10 students books about teenage marketing and the working poor–Branded by Alissa Quart and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich–to address Common Core’s mandate. Do these books present their “information” in such ambiguous or subtle ways that close reading is needed to figure out the authors’ messages? In contrast, think how much class discussion is needed to help students understand the irony in Austen’s works.

Common Core thinks rigor is addressed by requiring reading and English teachers to use texts that increase regularly in complexity. But, as American College Testing (ACT) notes, complexity is laden with literary features: it involves “characters,” “literary devices,” “tone,” “ambiguity,” “elaborate” structure, “intricate language,” and unclear intentions. Reducing literary study means reducing the opportunity to develop in all students the analytical thinking once developed in just an elite group of students by the vocabulary, structure, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony in classic literary texts.

Some ostrich-like supporters of Common Core claim that there will be no reduction in the amount of literature assigned and studied. Tell that to English teachers who have been told to divide their reading instructional time as Common Core does: 10 reading standards for informational texts, 9 for literary texts. And in grade 12, make it 70% informational, even though Common Core explicitly says English teachers shouldn’t be responsible for 70%. How much they should be responsible for, Common Core’s architects don’t say.

Reading researchers know there is absolutely no research to support the idea that more “literary non-fiction” or “informational” texts in the English class will increase students’ level of analytical thinking. There is every reason to believe they will, instead, lower the level.

A ‘Magisterial’ Work on Affirmative Action

SCOTUS.jpg

“Mend it, don’t end it” was the famous advice
on affirmative action from Bill Clinton, who did neither. There are, of course,
other useful slogans, such as “Muddle it,” which the Supreme Court essentially did
in the 2003 Gratz and Grutter cases. The Court held that the University
of Michigan could not give a fixed number of points to minority applicants but
that its law school could give even more substantial preferences based on race
so long as it sufficiently disguised what it was doing under the smokescreen of
individualized, “holistic” review.

Now under new leadership and with a few new
members, the Court will see if it can do better when it decides, after hearing
oral arguments this week, whether the University of Texas is allowed to
supplement its successful, facially race-neutral diversity-producing “top 10%”
admissions policy by taking race into account in the admission of other
students. 

Continue reading A ‘Magisterial’ Work on Affirmative Action

Harvard Tells the Freshmen What to Read

Harry
Lewis, a professor and former dean of Harvard College, wrote
yesterday
that the texts Harvard freshmen are reading this year “are more
politically correct and less challenging than they used to be.” Yes, it would
seem so. 
Here
are this year’s readings:


A More Perfect Union, Barack Obama

Whistling
Vivaldi , 
Claude
M. Steele

Choosing
the Color of My Collar, 
David Tebaldi ’10

Every
Asian American I Know Is Smart, 
Frank H. Wu

Who
Is the Surgeon? , 
Chris Barrett, GSAS ’12

Psalm, Wislawa Szymborska

Demographic
Snapshot of the Harvard Class of 2016 

The
first thing to note is that the inclusion of President Obama’s famous speech
carries a political  and partisan weight
this year that it would not have had last year or next. Lewis writes: “Was
there really no alternative to including the Obama text as required reading for
all freshmen, two months before the first election in which many of them will
vote?”

Worse,
this year’s texts give new Harvard students clear clues on what grievances they
ought to feel and which class and racial resentments are deemed proper on this famous
campus. And the emphasis on stereotypes is heavy: Claude Steele’s depiction of
stereotype threat as a reason for lack of success by many qualified women and minorities;
Frank Wu’s complaint that Asian-Americans are conventionally stereotyped as
smart and successful; David Tebaldi’s discomfort as a black student of humble
means at Harvard confronted by bewildering expectations and, yes, stereotypes;
and Chris Barrett’s rambling complaint that people always think of surgeons as
male and heterosexual.

These
readings are thin gruel indeed, saying the same thing over and over and shaping
discussions scheduled to be based on these readings the same way. Claude Steele’s
controversial theory of stereotype threat, to give one example, might have been
balanced by inclusion of a piece by his brother, Shelby Steele, an equally
prominent scholar who disagrees.


The last text on the list is a poem by the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska,
which begins (in translation): “Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!,” and
ends “Only what is human can truly be foreign. The rest is mixed vegetation,
subversive moles and wind.”

A
final note: though the readings were presented in the name of “diversity,” no
white male made the list. 

What Should Kids Be Reading?

Books above a sixth-grade reading level, for sure. According to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report on the books read by almost 400,000 students in grades 9-12 in 2010-2011, the average reading level of the top 40 books is a little above fifth grade (5.3 to be exact). While 27 of the 40 books are UG (upper grade in interest level), a fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship.

Continue reading What Should Kids Be Reading?

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.

Why Academic Gobbledygook Makes Sense

teaching the Constitution.jpgWhen I first began teaching political science in the late
1960s I would routinely assign articles from top professional journals to
undergraduates. This is now impossible–without exception, they are
incomprehensible, overflowing with often needless statistical complexity. The
parallel is not the hard sciences where mathematics replaced philosophical
speculation. If anything, these articles reflect a trivialized research agenda.
Consider, for example, an August 2011 American Political Science Review essay
asking whether democratic electorates chose better educated leaders, a
question, it would seem, hardly requires mathematical complexity. To quote from
one key passage:

Continue reading Why Academic Gobbledygook Makes Sense

Academic Articles–Expensive and Mostly Unread

At research universities and many liberal arts colleges,
too, it is universally assumed that research is an unadulterated good. 
Research keeps professors fresh in their fields, makes them better teachers,
and raises intellectual standards for departments.  Who would
disagree?

In conversations about research in my world of the humanities,
though, one doesn’t often hear about one particular aspect of research: its
financial cost.  Yes, we hear about the costs to undergraduates when their
research professors are too busy doing research to hold regular office hours,
and we note the human cost of hiring adjuncts to teach freshman courses (the
costs of morale and exploitation), but I have never seen anybody try to
attach a dollar figure to the books and articles humanities professors produce
every year.

So how much does a research article cost to produce?

Continue reading Academic Articles–Expensive and Mostly Unread

Greatly Exaggerated Death of the Novel

Thomas C. Foster’s book is three years old, but it still holds the gold medal for Turnoff Title of the New Millennium: How to Read Novels Like a Professor. The author, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, attempts to sanitize his work with the subtitle, A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. But the damage is done. His title conjures up too many blackboard demands: “In Remembrance of Things Past is Marcel Proust saying farewell to high society, or suggesting that social milieus are a kaleidoscope of change? Discuss.”; “In Moby-Dick, the vessel that rescues Ishmael is called the Rachel. What is the significance of that Biblical name?” etc., etc., ad infinitum.

Continue reading Greatly Exaggerated Death of the Novel

The Decline of the Novel and the Fate of English

English departments have diversified.  Forty years ago, just about every faculty member defined himself or herself in literary historical terms.  One was a Medievalist, one a Shakespearean, one a Romantic scholar, one a philologist.  Large departments might have someone who does film plus a creative writer-in-residence.  Today, click on any faculty roster and the expertises amble far into social and psychological areas–critical race theory, cultural criticism, gender and sexuality, imperialism, etc.

Continue reading The Decline of the Novel and the Fate of English

The Fiske Guide Turns 30

It seems only yesterday that a few colleagues and I gathered every night in the back of the newsroom of New York Times, then on West 43rd Street, to create the first edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. It’s hard to believe that the appearance of the 2012 edition this month marks the 30th anniversary!

Today’s Fiske Guide is a lot different than the first edition. It’s a lot bigger – with write-ups of more than 300 of the “best and most interesting” colleges in the country. There is an electronic version, and, most exciting of all, there’s a new iPad app with lots of bells and whistles to streamline the college search process. Once you have identified schools that sound like a good bet, you can use the iPad version of the Fiske Guide to plan your college tour, email admissions departments directly, browse each college’s website and check out competing schools. Unfortunately, you still have to brew your own coffee.

And – get this – there’s even a complete new Mandarin edition for Chinese students who have set their sights on a U.S. college. It’s kind of fun seeing your name in Chinese characters (or at least I think that’s my name).

Continue reading The Fiske Guide Turns 30

That Smug Article in the New York Review of Books

Last year, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus published Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–And What We Can Do About It, a resounding broadside against campus policies and practices.  They berated the system for producing useless research, creating cushy working conditions, neglecting undergraduates, and reproducing elitism.

Hacker and Dreyfus sometimes swung their club wildly, it is true, but one had to appreciate their concern.  They had no conservative or liberal axe to grind, and no anti-academic or anti-intellectual attitudes in place.  They deeply believe that higher education has lost its way, its civic virtue, and they launched a polemic to correct it.

One might argue with their evidence and question their assumptions, of course.  Here, however, is how a recent reviewer in The New York Review of Books characterizes them: 

Continue reading That Smug Article in the New York Review of Books

Edmundson on Students and Derrida on Tradition

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has a penetrating, but saddening article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. It’s called “Narcissus Regards a Book”, and it laments a terrible outcome of the academic culture wars of the late-1980s and early-1990s. Edmunson recalls the infamous chant of students at Stanford—in his rendition, “Hey-ho, hey-ho, Western culture’s got to go”—but focuses not on the impudence of the marchers but on the response of the professors. The youthful ones and their grown-up supporters posed a serious question, Edmundson says. Why read Blake or study Picasso? Why not teach The Simpsons and Stephen King instead, especially as those are so much more relevant to the worlds of 1990s students?
Edmundson’s comment is worth repeating in full:

I’m not sure that teachers and scholars ever offered a good answer. The conservatives, protected by tenure, immersed in the minutiae of their fields, slammed the windows closed when the parade passed by. They went on with what they were doing. Those who concurred with the students bought mikes and drums and joined the march. They were much in demand in the news media—figures of great interest. The Washington Post was calling; the Times was on the other line. Was it true? Were the professors actually repudiating the works that they had purportedly been retained to preserve?
It was true—and there was more, the rebels yelled. They thought they would have the microphones in their hand all day and all of the night. They imagined that teaching Milton with an earring in one ear would never cease to fascinate the world.
But it did. The media—most inconstant of lovers—came and the media went, and the academy was left with its cultural authority in tatters. How could it be otherwise? The news outlets sell one thing above all else, and that is not so much the news as it is newness.

Continue reading Edmundson on Students and Derrida on Tradition

Will Graduate Work in Literary Studies Have to Cut Back or Shut Down?

The National Science Foundation has just issued an Info Brief on trends in the awarding of doctorates in different fields for the year 2009. (See here) The report contains data going back to 2009 and breaks the numbers down by Science, Engineering, and “Non-science and engineering,” the latter including Education, Health, Humanities, and Professional Fields. For all fields, doctorates jumped from 41,098 in 1999 to 49,562 in 2009, the vast majority of the increase falling to science (20,601 to 25,836) and engineering (5,330 to 7,634). The “non-sciences and engineering” gained only 925 doctorates, most of that gain due to professional fields (2,172 to 2,800).
The humanities at large, in fact, went down, dropping from 5,036 doctorates in 1999 to 4,667 doctorates in 2009. History went up slightly (960 to 989), but foreign languages slid from 626 doctorates in 1999 to 602 in 2009, while “Letters” (which includes English, Classics, Folklore, Comparative Literature, and Speech) dropped from 1,516 to 1,414. That makes for a four percent decline for foreign languages and a seven percent decline for English et al.
How is that possible, though, given that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the total enrollment of students in degree-granting institutions rose from 14.8 million in 1999 to 18.2 million (estimated) in 2008, a gain of 23 percent? With more students going to college, one would expect more graduates proceeding into PhD programs.
There is another odd trend in place. More undergraduates should mean that colleges and universities would hire more teachers, but here, too, the number of slots for recent PhDs runs in the opposite direction. Each year the Modern Language Association publishes its Job Information List, which provides the fullest listing of openings in the field. Recent doctorates look for tenure-track assistant professor positions in the Job List and apply to those that match their specialty.
For each of the last five years, around 1,400 fresh Letters PhDs and 600 fresh foreign language PhDs have completed school and sought a regular position. In the Letters fields of English and American language and literature, the output averages in the mid-900s. What has the job market looked like to them?
Hyper-competitive. According to the MLA’s “Midyear Report on the 2009-10 MLA Job Information List” (here), from 2005 to 2008 the number of tenure-track assistant professor positions in foreign language ranged from 231 to 267, while assistant profs posts in English ranged from 299 to 474. (English reached a high of 606 in 2000, foreign languages a high of 396 in 2001.)

Continue reading Will Graduate Work in Literary Studies Have to Cut Back or Shut Down?

Prof. Bayoumi’s Lament

I recently posted on the peculiar strategy employed by defenders of a Brooklyn College committee’s selecting Moustafa Bayoumi’s book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, as mandatory reading for all first-year and transfer students at the college. As I noted at the time, Bayoumi and his defenders present straw-men arguments, suggest that the only figures criticizing them are on the far-right fringe, or portray themselves (from their positions as tenured or tenure-track professors) as helpless victims. Bayoumi has taken the dodge-and-victimization strategy to a new level, in an essay just published in the Chronicle Review.
“On closer inspection,” Bayoumi mused in his column, “it became clear to me that my detractors”—note that he didn’t qualify his statement to suggest “some” of his detractors—“hadn’t actually read the book.” This interpretation, of course, allows Bayoumi to ignore the kind of devastating criticism offered by people like my Brooklyn colleague Robert Cherry. And while Prof. Bayoumi might not like what I have to say, even he presumably would concede that I have read his book.
“Next I realized how insulting those objections [of critics] were to our students, suggesting that they are unable to form independent judgments of what they read.” By this rationale, no one could criticize a Biology Department that assigned a creationist textbook, since such criticism would be “insulting” to the students forced to read the inappropriately selected text. Of course, the main criticism in this matter was directed not against BC students’ cognitive abilities, but the judgment of a faculty committee that would mandate all incoming BC students read one and only one book—a book whose sole section open to fact-checking (the afterword) contains numerous strained or outright erroneous interpretations.

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Sound and Fury—The Bayoumi Uproar

bayoumi.bmpHow Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America—the controversial book assigned for freshman reading at Brooklyn College—is, in my opinion, an important but seriously flawed work, and one that should be read, but not as a sole required text for incoming English students.
In the book Brooklyn College English professor Moustafa Bayoumi decries what he sees as the pervasive bigotry that Muslim youth have faced since 9/11. After citing past groups that have been singled out for discrimination, including Japanese Americans during World War II, in an interview Professor Bayoumi concluded, “You would have thought that this would never happen again.” A number of New York City newspapers condemned its selection as the required reading for all Brooklyn College freshmen. By contrast, the New York Times claimed that the condemnations were fomented primarily by outsiders and allowed Professor Bayoumi to respond to his critics. In this essay, I will discuss: the inappropriateness of its selection, the inaccuracy of many of Professor Bayoumi’s generalizations, and the motivation for the position taken by the New York Times. An accurate assessment will find that Muslim Americans have been treated remarkably well by the American public and that Muslim Americans have a very positive view of their personal situation and experiences, undermining the victimization narrative that Professor Bayoumi promotes.

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Don’t Pay Sticker Price, Part 2—the National Universities

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Read Part 1 here.
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In examining the gulf between sticker price and real cost, let’s consider the top 10 national universities as defined by U.S. News & World Report in its most recent rankings. Using U. S. Department of Education data, I compiled the average net prices that students from different family income groups would pay at the top 10 national universities combined.
Despite total sticker prices averaging more than $50,000 a year at these top 10 universities, net prices range from a low of $4,652, paid by students from poorest family income group, to a high of more than $35,000 paid by students from the richest category of family income.
These averages, however, mask the significant differences in net prices paid by poor and rich students at the individual institution. At Harvard, students from families in all income categories fare significantly better in terms of net price than they might at Harvard’s competitors. Harvard’s poorest students, whose parents earned $30,000 or less, paid net prices averaging just $2,170, significantly less than the average net price charged low-income students at all the Top 10 national universities.

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The Suicide of English

In The Weekly Standard, James Seaton has a review of the new edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism that illuminates a basic mistake the discipline of literary studies committed many years ago. Here is the second paragraph of Seaton’s review:

Despite its length, the new NATC is most revealing in its omissions, the most significant of which occurs in the title. The NATC claims to deal with ‘theory,’ not with ‘literary theory’ and with ‘criticism,’ not ‘literary criticism.’ One cannot help but be impressed by the effrontery expressed by the deletion of the qualifying adjective. The strategic omission of ‘literary’ intimates (without explicitly declaring) that English professors who use the NATC are equipped to provide guidance to all those who employ any sort of theory, presumably including their colleagues in the social sciences, and even in physics and chemistry. Such pretension has not been seen since the heyday of the Hegelian system, which claimed the intellectual authority to give the law to every particular science and discipline, from physics to history and everything in between. ‘Theory’ with a capital ‘T’ deserted philosophy with the demise of Hegelian idealism early in the 20th century, but it seems to have reappeared in the unlikely precincts of the English department.’

The point gets to the heart of how literary studies changed over the course of the 1980s and 90s. In a word, much of the field stopped being “literary”—or at least it claimed such. English professors branched out into media, cultural studies, popular and mass culture domains, and several other non-literary fields, and they pursued non-literary themes of race, sexuality, imperialism, the environment, etc.

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Amen to Bard’s Reading Program, but…

President Botstein’s portrait of Bard College’s summer reading assignments in the context of the college’s curriculum and larger educational aims is winsome and compelling. The college leads its students astutely into reading important books. It attends to the order in which such books should be read—Virgil before Dante. It is mindful of the need to challenge students with books that demand their full attention.

The reasons Botstein offers for colleges to offer summer reading programs, however, don’t track very closely with what most of the colleges in the NAS survey say they are doing. According to Botstein, these programs are founded on the need to rouse high school grads from their summer torpor; to introduce them to general education; and for the institution to make a good first impression on its sometimes skittish and prone-to-transfer new students.

But the colleges we surveyed say something else. Many of them say some version of the idea that they want to “build community” on campus by giving students a “shared intellectual experience.” Kalamazoo College, which we quoted in the report, says its:

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Message to Freshmen: Let’s Start with Kafka and Darwin

In the wake of the National Association of Scholars’ report on summer reading for college freshmen—the report found many of the assigned books trivial and politically one-sided—we asked Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, to explain his institution’s unusually rigorous approach to summer reading.

franz-kafka.jpgFor the past two years, Bard College has asked first-year students to read works by Kafka and Darwin over the summer. These texts then become subjects of analysis when the students arrive on campus in August for an intensive three-week program of reading and writing before the fall semester begins. Let me explain the thinking behind this approach.

The idea of assigning summer readings to students entering college has three justifications. First, since American high school students usually take more of a vacation from serious thinking and study during the summer months than is warranted, readings remind them that college promises to be demanding and difficult and that it would therefore behoove them to stay in some sort of intellectual shape. This exercise is especially welcome because once high school seniors learn what college they will attend, they often cease to study seriously so that the final months of high school are wasted.

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An Unusually Cheeky Summer Assignment

Many colleges assign incoming freshmen a book to read over the summer. The original idea was to give new students a shared taste of what intellectual life is like. Over the years, the books came to reflect the dominant faculty obsession with race-class-gender group grievance and the idea that America is a grossly unfair nation—Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, for instance, was a popular choice. And as students seemed to grow more averse to serious reading, the assigned books got shorter and simpler, and often included upscale comic books like Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus.
Now The University of California at Berkeley has assigned freshmen a non-reading task instead of a book—they are to return a cotton swab with cells from the inside of their cheeks. The university is doing this, according to Inside Higher Ed, because “a reading assignment didn’t make sense for something as cutting-edge and personalized as genetic analysis.”
But of course that analysis will be done in labs by non-freshmen. Instead of spending hours on a book, each student will have to commit three seconds or less to the assignment—a major time-saving gain for busy high-school graduates. Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning for the undergraduate division of the university’s college of letters and science, sees another advantage for a cheek swab over a book: “If we assigned them a book, it would be out-of-date by the time they read it.” Last year freshmen were assigned Michael Pollan’s account of food chains, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was pretty good at the time, but sadly out of date now, along with Plato, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Ehrenreich, comic books and oh so many other once-pertinent works.
Schwartz said the freshman swabs are a one-time thing in the freshman program. “Who knows what creative thing the deans will come up with next?,” she said. We have no idea, but we certainly hope it will further reduce the summertime intellectual demands made of new students.

Why the Great Books Are the Answer

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In his recent essay, “Why the Great Books Aren’t the Answer,” Patrick Deneen is correct about many things. He is correct to criticize conservative supporters of great books like Allan Bloom and William Bennett who see them as a throwback to the “good old days” of liberal education. He is correct to point out the shortcomings of advocates like Anthony Kroman who view them as a means to combat postmodernism and keep relativism and political correctness at bay. He is also correct to point out that these books “contain a wide and ranging set of debates over the nature of the good and best life, the good and best polity, the good and best economic system, and so on.” Even a superficial reading of them will show that they are rent with discord and do not indoctrinate.
I agree with most of what Deneen says, but unfortunately he misses the point about the great books. Like most liberal critics of the canon—and even many conservative supporters—he writes about these books on political and philosophical, not pedagogical, grounds. As a result—again like most critics and many supporters of these books—he fails to address their primary value as tools of instruction that must be central to the undergraduate curriculum because they are the best and most efficient means to achieve the aims of liberal education.
True, the great books preserve a tradition and connect us with the past, as Bloom and Bennett have argued. But equally important is how they educate us as we read them; how they reinforce the varieties of knowledge, the skills, and the habits of thought and mind appropriate to free and cultured human beings; above all else, how they teach us to “read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit,” which Thoreau reminds us “is a noble exercise” that “will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem” and “requires a training such as the athletes underwent.” The great books are the answer because they promote continuity in the curriculum, reinforce the connections between the courses that students take, and foster genuine synergy of learning in the classroom.
The great books connect us with the past because they invite us to listen to and participate in the great conversations of the ages. “Great books of every civilization,” says Thoreau, “are the voices of human experience and as such worth reading and pondering.” They are a form of travel in time and space, allowing us to experience vicariously what others have thought, felt, and even seen. They enlarge our perspectives and strip us of our provincialism. They can free us from our self-imposed nonage and transform us, as Candide was transformed in Voltaire’s story, a modern version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

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Another Source of Disengagement

One of the most dismaying statistics that comes up every time the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) publishes its annual results is the “professor-student interaction” figure. In 2009, NSSE reported that fully 40 percent of first-year students “Never” discussed with their teachers ideas or readings outside of class (see here for the report). Fully 38 percent of them did so “Sometimes,” while only 15 percent did so “Often,” a paltry seven percent “Very often.”

The numbers mark a fair measure of just how much students value their teachers as a resource, a guide, a mentor. For the vast majority of them, teachers run a class, that’s all, issuing a syllabus and grading assignments. They don’t care to visit office hours and talk about Crime and Punishment or the Founding Fathers or supply-side economics, much less general intellectual matters that come up in their just-begun college career.

Why?

Lots of reasons, but a story in a forthcoming book by Craig Brandon entitled The Five-Year Party (web site here) provides one of them. A few years ago, Brandon was a journalism instructor at Keene State College in New Hampshire. One day he was asked to serve as faculty advisor to the student radio station, and he gladly agreed. He met with the students who ran the station and judged them lively and thoughtful. But over the next week or two when he listened to the station in his car driving to and from work, he reacted in shock.

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How the Universities Got This Way


Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University is a short, provocative book that raises many more questions than it answers. Its greatest contribution is that it clearly delineates the development of the American university from its origins in the late 19th century to the many absurdities that characterize it today.
Menand’s exposition of the various key events and trends that have shaped the contemporary American university runs like a stream throughout the book’s occasionally disjointed sections and chapters (the book is largely a compilation of lectures he gave at the University of Virginia). What we learn is that, for the most part, all of the key features of the American university as we know it today emerged full-blown in a burst of academic gestation over a single generation – approximately 1870 to 1900 – largely through the efforts of one man, Charles Eliot, Harvard University’s president from 1869 to 1909. Although Menand reviews the important ways in which the American university has changed since then, describing some of the key twists and turns along the way, he stresses that much has remained the same – often for no particularly good reason.
Menand divides the American university’s historical evolution into three distinct phases: a formative period running from its launch in 1870 under the influence of Harvard’s Eliot through its institutional maturation in the 20th century up to the onset World War II; a “golden age” of rapid expansion in enrollment, funding and prestige that lasted from 1945 to 1970, a product of post-war population and economic growth and the cold war, heavily influenced by another Harvard president, James Bryant Conant; and a post-golden age phase taking us from 1970 to the present, that Frederick Hess (but not Menand) has aptly dubbed the “politically correct” university.

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