This is weird. Three nights ago I finished a post on Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. I logged into my WordPress account a few minutes ago and it didn’t show up on my list of posts. I searched my list of drafts in case something went wrong when I clicked on the publish button, but it wasn’t there. I was getting anxious that the post was lost entirely, but then I spotted it, listed as a post from September 15, two weeks ago.
I don’t know how that happened. In case you missed it, this post serves as a pointer. It’s here.
In addition to pointing, let me add some new content by noting the publication of Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, reviewed by Jonathan Kozol today in the Sunday NYT.
Whenever I see a Ravitch piece in the New York Review of Books, I read it immediately. In the same spirit, I should download the book right now. However, I fear that I’ll find it to be an expanded version of the articles I’ve already read.
In any case, I’m a big fan. So too is Kozol, and he sure knows a lot more about the issues than I do. From his review:
Diane Ravitch was for many years one of the strongest advocates for the testing-and-accountability agenda. Because of her impeccable credentials as a scholar and historian of education, she was a commanding presence among critics of our schools. Some years ago, however, she reconsidered her long-held beliefs and, in an influential book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” parted ways with her former allies and joined the highly vocal opposition.
In her new book, “Reign of Error,” she arrows in more directly, and polemically, on the privatization movement, which she calls a “hoax” and a “danger” that has fed on the myth that schools are failing. Scores go up and down from year to year — usually, as she explains, because the testing instruments are changed and vary in their difficulty. But, pointing to the National Assessment of Education Progress, which has sampled math and reading scores every two years since 1992 and, in an alternate version, every four years since the early 1970s, Ravitch demonstrates that levels of achievement have been rising, incrementally but steadily, from one decade to the next. And — surprise! — those scores are now “at their highest point ever recorded.” Graduation rates are also at their highest level, with more young people entering college than at any time before.
What passes for reform today, Ravitch writes, is “a deliberate effort” to replace public schools with a market system. The “unnatural focus on testing” has produced “perverse but predictable results.” It has narrowed curriculums to testable subjects, to the exclusion of the arts and the full capaciousness of culture. And it has encouraged the manipulation of scores on state exams. “Teaching to the test, once considered unprofessional and unethical,” is now “common.”
All of this, she says, has continued unrelentingly under the administration of President Obama, who has given “full-throated Democratic endorsement” to “the longstanding Republican agenda.” The president’s signature education package, Race to the Top, is “only marginally different from No Child Left Behind.” In fact, it compounds the damage by requiring that states evaluate teachers, partially at least, on the basis of yearly gains in students’ scores — no matter if the teacher has a different group of children from year to year, which is usually the case, and no matter whether a teacher has more troubled children, or more with disabilities, than another teacher who comes up with higher scores.
In its funding practices, the White House has “abandoned equity as the driving principle of federal aid,” offering new funds on condition that states expand the scope of competition by opening more charter schools and outsourcing normal functions of public schools to private agencies. This, Ravitch says, is “the first time in history” the government has “designed programs with the intent of stimulating private-sector investors to create for-profit ventures in American education.”
Ravitch’s book and Ripley’s converge in their focus on Finland. Kozol again:
If we are to cast about for international comparisons, Ravitch urges us — this is not a new suggestion but is, I think, a useful one — to take a good, hard look at Finland, which operates one of the most successful education systems in the world. Teachers there, after competing for admission to schools of education and then receiving a superb course of instruction, are “held in high regard” and “exercise broad autonomy.” They are not judged by students’ test scores, because “there are no scores.” The country has no charter schools and no “Teach for Finland.” But, as Ravitch reminds us, there is one other, crucial difference: “Less than 5 percent of children in Finland are growing up in poverty.” In the United States, 23 percent do.
Maybe I should read it after all.
Four days ago I announced a policy change at Ron’s View, promising shorter and less-thought-out posts so that I could return to old posting volumes. Four posts followed that evening, but nothing since. Maybe it’s time to work through my backlog of drafts and get some of them out, finished or not.
For example, when we were on Nantucket a few weeks ago, I assembled some pieces about a book I had started reading, intending to write in more detail once finished. But that has yet to happen. Let me salvage something from those pieces.
During our Nantucket stay, I read Lee Child’s new Jack Reacher thriller Never Go Back, to which I had devoted three posts (last one here). The day I finished it, I saw a reference to a book that had received a lot of attention when it came out a few weeks earlier, Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. I downloaded the free Kindle sample that night, read it, then downloaded the full book the next morning.
From the review:
“If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” These blunt words from a British politician, quoted by Amanda Ripley in “The Smartest Kids in the World,” may lead readers to imagine that her book belongs to a very particular and popular genre. We love to read about how other cultures do it better (stay slim, have sex, raise children). In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction. “American educators described Finland as a silky paradise,” she writes, “a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved.”
But Ripley … has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the “Nordic robots” who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests — and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.
In reporting her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist “field agents” who could penetrate other countries’ schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year. Kim, a restless 15-year-old from rural Oklahoma, heads off to Finland, a place she had only read about, “a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee.” Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What Kim’s school in the small town of Pietarsaari does have is bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.
It’s the review’s conclusion that really got my attention.
Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien — quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we’ve got the schools we want.
Still, I forgot about the book until that day on Nantucket. It’s short. After downloading it, I read a ways into it while we sat by the ocean, read another chunk in the afternoon by the bay, then finished it the next day.
Here is the blurb from the book’s website:
In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before. They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy. What is it like to be a child in these new education superpowers?
In a global quest to find answers for our own children, author and Time Magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embedded in these countries for one year. Kim, 15, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, 18, exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, 17, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for a gritty city in Poland.
Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. They had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.
And there’s also a video:
By far the most enjoyable passages are those in which we follow the three American students in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Back when I read the book and started this post, I anticipated elaborating on this. No point now. The students are mostly forgotten.
I also anticipated quoting some passages about math education. Not that I claim any special expertise on this, despite years of teaching mathematics. I know a few things about math, maybe even a few things about teaching, but not much about how K-12 math education is best done. I have ideas, yes, but haven’t studied the research or the data, so I don’t presume that my ideas have any special merit. Nonetheless, there were some fascinating bits.
Here’s one, not from the main text, but from an appendix on “how to spot a world-class education.”
In 2011, I took a tour of a Washington, D.C., private school that was hard to get into and cost about $30,000 a year. … strange things happened on this visit. When the head of the school talked, nothing she said made sense to me. There was a lot of jargon about the curriculum and vague promises of wondrous field trips and holistic projects. All the visiting parents nodded; I got the sense that no one wanted to say anything off key that might hurt a child’s admission chances.
Then a parent with three children at the school took us for a tour. We saw gleaming floors, bright, colorful walls, beautiful, framed art projects, and other seductive tokens. Finally, one visiting father asked a good question.
“Every school has its weaknesses. What is this school’s weakness?”
“You know, I’d have to say the math program is weak.”
I was speechless. Imagine visiting a tony private hospital that only admitted healthy patients who could afford its services, and finding out the surgery practice was weak. What did it mean if the math program was weak at a school that made small children take I.Q. tests before they were even accepted. That particular parent wrote a check each year for about $90,000 to this school to cover the tuition for her three children. Wouldn’t she demand decent math classes in exchange?
But no one said anything. Maybe all the parents were stunned as I was. Then the tour guide parent added one more thing.
“Oh, and I wish the football program was stronger.”
Suddenly, the parents perked up.
“Really, what do you mean? Is there not a football team? What age does it start?”
I wandered out into the parking lot, mystified. Perhaps this explained why our most affluent kids scored eighteenth in math compared to affluent kids worldwide: Even wealthy American parents didn’t care about math as much as football.
I would say more, but I have to go catch some highlights from tonight’s 49ers football game.
I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts that I read Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be during our trip earlier this month to New York and Georgia. I’ve been meaning to say more, as I will do now.
Delbanco is a humanities professor at Columbia who writes on a broad range of issues for non-academic magazines. I’ve long enjoyed his pieces on education at The New York Review of Books. (He also was a college classmate of mine, though I didn’t know him.) When College, a short book, came out last year, I considered reading it. Delbanco’s Princeton counterpart (prominent humanist, prolific writer on many issues) Anthony Grafton reviewed it last May, writing:
As the commercialization of American higher education accelerates, more and more students are coming to college with the narrow aim of obtaining a preprofessional credential. The traditional four-year college experience–an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers–is in danger of becoming a thing of the past.
In College, prominent cultural critic Andrew Delbanco offers a trenchant defense of such an education, and warns that it is becoming a privilege reserved for the relatively rich. In arguing for what a true college education should be, he demonstrates why making it available to as many young people as possible remains central to America’s democratic promise.
In a brisk and vivid historical narrative, Delbanco explains how the idea of college arose in the colonial period from the Puritan idea of the gathered church, how it struggled to survive in the nineteenth century in the shadow of the new research universities, and how, in the twentieth century, it slowly opened its doors to women, minorities, and students from low-income families. He describes the unique strengths of America’s colleges in our era of globalization and, while recognizing the growing centrality of science, technology, and vocational subjects in the curriculum, he mounts a vigorous defense of a broadly humanistic education for all. Acknowledging the serious financial, intellectual, and ethical challenges that all colleges face today, Delbanco considers what is at stake in the urgent effort to protect these venerable institutions for future generations.
This resonated with me. But also, by the time I finished Grafton’s review, I figured I’d read enough and pursued Delbanco’s book no further.
Then, on the eve of our trip, I saw a link to a piece by Delbanco at the end of March in The New Republic on MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Reading it, I decided I should read College after all.
I should add that Delbanco’s MOOC article is worth reading in its own right. Here’s one passage near the end (and therefore out of context):
Back in the mid-twentieth century, the Ford Foundation report on “telecourses” asked the key question about technology and education: “How effective is this instruction?” When I came upon that sentence, it put me in mind of something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a long time ago. “Truly speaking,” he said, “it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”I first understood this distinction during my own student days, while struggling with the theologian Jonathan Edwards’s predestinarian view of life. Toward the end of the course, my teacher, the scholar of American religion Alan Heimert, looked me in the eye and asked: “What is it that bothers you about Edwards? Is it that he’s so hard on self- deception?” This was more than instruction; it was a true provocation. It came from a teacher who listened closely to his students and tried to grasp who they were and who they were trying to become. He knew the difference between knowledge and information. He understood education in the Socratic sense, as a quest for self-knowledge.
No matter how anxious today’s students may be about gaining this or that competence in a ferociously competitive world, many still crave the enlargement of heart as well as mind that is the gift of true education. It’s hard for me to believe that this kind of experience can happen without face-to-face teaching and the physical presence of other students.
Delbanco touches here–as he does in his book and as Grafton does in the quote above–on the question of whether one attends college for job training or some richer sort of educational experience. Closely related to this is the question of where humanities and the arts fit into a college education, since they sure aren’t likely to lead to jobs to the extent that study in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) does. Delbanco writes eloquently on this.
Science, moreover, tells us nothing about how to shape a life or how to face death, about the meaning of love, or the scope of responsibility. It not only fails to answer such questions; it cannot ask them. …
Meanwhile, literature, history, philosophy, and the arts are becoming the stepchildren of our colleges. This is a great loss because they are the legatees of religion in the sense that they provide a vocabulary for formulating ultimate questions of the sort that have always had special urgency for young people. … One of the ironies of contemporary academic life is that even as the humanities become marginal in our colleges, they are establishing themselves in medical, law, and business school, where interest is growing in the study of literature and the arts as a way to encourage self-critical reflection among future physicians, attorneys, and entrepreneurs … .
Certain books—old and not so old—speak to us in a subversive whisper that makes us wonder whether the idea of progress might be a sham. They tell us that the questions we face under the shadow of death are not new, and that no new technology will help answer them.
Delbanco discusses the history of American higher education going back to its origins with the founding of Harvard in the 1600s, looking at the role of religion in the founding of our first schools and as well at the limited social strata from which students came. Even as we’ve moved toward a more open, democratic, meritocratic system, Delbanco argues that something has been lost.
As I later understood when I came to read [Michael Young's] The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young and Baltzell were talking about … the Anglo-American version of noblesse oblige—a conception that seems much attenuated now that “merit has become progressively more measurable.” In our era of social sorting by academic prowess, which Young placed in an imaginary future but which we know firsthand, the “new upper classes are no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism,” and, all too often, subscribe to “the axiom of modern thought … that people are unequal, and … that they should be accorded a station in life related to their capacities.”
It is hard not to be fortified in this view as one goes through today’s college admissions process, which effectively begins in preschool, accelerates through childhood, consumes much of adolescence, and comes to a climax on the cusp of adulthood. This series of trials and rewards is well designed to convince the winners that they deserve their winnings. … “Today,” as [Young] put it with tart irony, “the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and fortheir own undeniable achievement,” and “become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern.”
Mitt, I think Delbanco and Young are talking about you.
And finally, here’s a passage that includes a centuries-old quote from leading Puritan clergyman John Cotton (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, in The Puritans in America, edited by Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco):
Our oldest colleges have abandoned the cardinal principle of the religion out of which they arose: the principle that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit. In that view—too harsh, perhaps, for anyone except a saint to live by—when God announced to Abraham that he had chosen him for an exalted role in history, he did so “without any respect unto any goodness in Abraham,” but rather “freely of his grace … for it is nothing God seeth in Abraham, for which he doth reveal his justification to him.” Such a God was not impressed by any demonstration of meritorious behavior in any human being. To the extent that human beings are capable of worthy actions, they are unmerited gifts from a merciful God, and should be occasions for humility rather than pride.
The current issue of Academe, the bi-monthly publication of the American Association of University Professors, has an article by recently retired high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein with the title Warnings from the Trenches: A high school teacher tells college educators what they can expect in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. I don’t ordinarily read Academe. However, I saw a reference last week to a post the week before at Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post education blog The Answer Sheet in which she reprinted Bernstein’s article. It’s worth reading.
Here’s a sample:
Let me use as an example my own AP course, US Government and Politics. I served several times as a reader for the examination that follows the course. In that capacity, I read the constructed responses that make up half of the score of a student’s examination. I saw several problems.
First (and I acknowledge that I bear some culpability here), in the AP US Government exam the constructed responses are called “free response questions” and are graded by a rubric that is concerned primarily with content and, to a lesser degree, argument. If a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric. There is no consideration of grammar or rhetoric, nor is credit given or a score reduced based on the format of the answer. A student who takes time to construct a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion gets no credit for those words. Thus, a teacher might prepare the student to answer those questions in a format that is not good writing by any standard. If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing— no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support. Some critical thinking may be involved, at least, but the approach works against development of the kinds of writing that would be expected in a true college-level course in government and politics.
My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing. My teaching was not evaluated on the basis of how well my students did, but I felt I had a responsibility to prepare them for the examination in a way that could result in their obtaining college credit.
Mullen describes a roundtable discussion at an education conference in which he participates along with “three state governors, one state senator, a Harvard professor and author, and a strange little man who assumes the role of group moderator.” The others discuss and agree on the failings of contemporary teachers, who one governor explains “are not prepared to teach in 21st century classrooms because they possess, in his words, ‘only 20th century skills.’ He does not provide specific examples or elaborate upon his theory but the other guests at the table nod their heads in agreement.”
Mullen stays silent, until finally the senator asks his thoughts.
Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending non educators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value.
“I’m thinking about the current health care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.”
“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”
I never seem to tire of quoting Diane Ravitch. In her latest piece at the New York Review of Books, she tackles the ongoing fight between Mayor Bloomberg and the teachers’ union in New York City over teacher evaluation. (For background, see this NYT article and editorial from a couple of weeks ago.)
As Ravitch explains, the background to the New York stalemate is the Race to the Top program of President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, with its emphasis on evaluating teachers through student test performance. What’s wrong with that? Well, let Ravitch explain:
Many researchers and testing experts have cautioned that evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students—called value-added assessment—is fraught with problems. Linda Darling-Hammond, a prominent scholar at Stanford University and one of the nation’s leading authorities on issues of teacher quality, has written that the measures say more about which students are in the classroom than about the competence of the teacher.
The National Academy of Education and the American Educational Research Association issued a joint statement saying the same thing. Those who teach students with disabilities, English-language learners, and low-performing students are likely to get smaller gains in test scores than those who teach students from affluent homes in well-funded schools. Using test scores to rate teachers will penalize those who teach the students in greatest need. Over time, teachers will avoid the students who jeopardize their jobs and their reputations. This will be harmful to the students who need talented and experienced teachers most urgently.
It is simply wrong to devise a measure of teacher quality based on standardized tests. The tests are not yardsticks. They are not scientific instruments. They are social constructions, and quite apart from how contingent their results are on the social and economic background of the students being tested, they are also subject to human error, sampling error, random error, and other errors. It is true that the cleanliness of restaurants can be given a letter grade (another of Bloomberg’s test-oriented innovations in New York City), and agribusiness can be measured by crop yields, and corporations can be measured by their profits. But to apply a letter grade or a numerical ranking to a professional is to radically misunderstand the complex set of qualities that make someone good at what they do. It is an effort by economists and statisticians to quantify activities that are at heart matters of judgment, not productivity. Professionals must be judged by other professionals, by their peers. Nowhere is this more true than among educators, whose success at teaching character, wisdom, and judgment cannot be measured by standardized tests.
It has become popular to blame teachers and their unions for the failures of our urban public schools, and to propose solutions that amount to privatizing the schools. The horrors of socialism; the wonders of capitalism. There’s no problem too big for the market to solve. Health care. Social security. Education. Just let the invisible hand of the free market do its magic.
The current reform movement in education has embraced Teach for America and privately managed charter schools as remedies for the nation’s schools. But this combination is unlikely to succeed because one alienates career educators and the other destabilizes our public education system. It is hard to imagine improving the schools without the support and trust of the people who work in them every day.
The problems of American education are not unsolvable, but the remedies must be rooted in reality. Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty. On the SAT, for example, students from the most affluent families have the highest scores, and children from the poorest families have the lowest scores. Children need better schools, and they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education, arts programs, after-school activities, safe neighborhoods, and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement.
A few weeks ago, I spent most of a day at a small conference of science teachers and science educators from around the state. When I speak of science teachers, I don’t mean just secondary science teachers. Elementary teachers, after all, teach science, and may be the most important teachers of science, since they have the responsibility of introducing our youngest students to the subject as an exciting way to think, do, discover.
By the end of the day, I was in awe of these teachers’ commitment, creativity, and energy in the face of the daily difficulties imposed by an underfunded system. Several were elementary teachers here in Seattle. One was told she couldn’t use water this summer on the school garden she had set up. Another — who had no experience teaching science when he was hired a couple of decades ago as the ESL instructor at a high school in a small community in the eastern part of the state — learned on arrival that he was to teach his non-English-speaking students science as well as English and other subjects. (And, of course, it was suggested to him that these would be low-performing students.) With help from professional science educators here at the university, he was soon teaching such a successful course that the native-English-speaking students wanted to get in.
I know. Anecdotes aren’t worth much. We need test scores and all that. I simply want to point out that I’ve encountered many wonderful teachers who deserve all the support we can give them, plus our respect.
Which brings me to Rebecca Mead’s commentary at The New Yorker blog today on the Chicago school teachers’ strike, from which I’ve stolen the title of this post. Perhaps I should explain that the Pinkerton agency got its start in the 1850s. By the end of the century, its agents had become synonymous with union-busting. I close with an excerpt:
Not long ago, I ran into someone I’d not seen for a while, who moves in moneyed circles in New York. We started chatting about the usual things—kids, schools—and she told me she’d been consumed lately with political work, raising money for candidates nationwide who were committed to breaking teachers’ unions. She said this with the same kind of social enthusiasm with which she might have recommended a new Zumba class, or passed on the name of a place to get really great birthday cakes.
One problem with Chicago’s schools—like schools in urban centers all over this country—is that their constituents, the students, suffer from the usual hindrances of poverty: having no place at home to study; having no support at home for studying; sometimes having no home at all. Another problem is that talk of breaking teachers’ unions has become common parlance among the kind of people whose kids do not live below the poverty line, polite Pinkerton agents of education reform, circling at cocktail parties. No doubt there are some lousy teachers in Chicago, as there are everywhere. But blaming teachers for the failure of schools is like blaming doctors for the diseases they are seeking to treat.
The thriller writer Barry Eisler had a thoughtful post yesterday about the process by which journalists find themselves “compromised, corroded, and lost.” Eisler’s starting point is an interview of Chris Hayes by Glenn Greenwald. Hayes, an editor at The Nation and host at MSNBC, is also the author of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, which appeared two months ago. Greenwald writes about (and links to) the interview here, asking at one point how Hayes avoids “cognitive capture”:
In the book, Hayes described how American elite culture is so insulated that it “produce[s] cognitive capture,” meaning that even those who enter it with hostility to its orthodoxies end up shaped by — succumbing to — its warped belief system and corrupt practices. Given that Hayes pronounces this “cognitive capture” to be “an inevitable outcome of sustained immersion” in that world, I asked him what steps he is personally taking to inoculate himself against being infected now that he’s a highly rewarded TV personality and employee of one of the world’s largest media corporations.
Suggesting his own answer, Eisler offers ten warning signs of assimilation. For instance:
As the compromises accumulate, you’ll need a larger, more all-purpose rationalization to explain them away. I suspect the most common of these boils down to, “Okay, this isn’t my proudest moment, but overall I do more good with my journalism than I do bad. Plus, if I left this position, it would be filled by someone with (even) greater capacity for compromise, and less capacity for doing good. So on balance, I have to do this small bad thing in the service of the larger good I do.”
Do you find yourself identifying more with the public figures you’re supposed to hold to account than with the readers and viewers you’re supposed to serve? This identification can take many forms. Do you worry about whether they’ll think you’re a “good guy” or otherwise about their good opinion of you? About whether they’ll grant you various forms of access? About whether they’ll invite you to prestige events and speak well of you to their friends?
Near the end, Eisler points out the broader applicability of his warning:
And obviously, the principles we’re dealing with here apply to professions and situations beyond just journalism. … when you enter an enormous, shifting system single-mindedly dedicated to beguiling you into surrendering your values and assimilating you, you have to do more than assure yourself you’ll practice good journalism. You have to take the threat seriously, consider how many people have succumbed to it before you, and armor up accordingly. If you don’t, you don’t have a chance.
This got my attention. Thinking beyond journalism, I re-read Eisler’s post with my years as a university administrator in mind. Working through his ten warning signs of assimilation and testing them against my administrative experience was enormously instructive.
I don’t have any conclusions that I wish to share just yet. But I recommend performing this exercise, replacing journalism by your favorite context.
Thomas Frank has an interesting piece in the May issue of Harper’s on soaring college tuition, the concomitant increase in student debt loads, and the money-making financial model of universities. The article is behind a paywall, so I can’t link to it, though a small excerpt from near the end is freely available.
Unfortunately, Frank doesn’t provide evidence to back up his repeated jabs at universities as profit centers. The article is more sketch than in-depth study. Here’s a representative passage, which follows his observation that universities rely on their status as charitable institutions to defend their behavior:
Charitable institutions do not exploit the labor of their charges, nor do they relentlessly bid down their wages, as universities do with grad students and new Ph.D.’s who take on much of the teaching. They don’t run their endowments as you would a hedge fund (or, as is often the case, invest them directly in such concerns). They don’t take kickbacks to steer kids into the toothy mouths of expensive private lenders. They don’t sell their souls for seats on corporate boards or research grants from tobacco companies or a Division I title. They don’t replace scholarly leaders with armies of professional managers who proceed to fiddle with the curriculum, funnel resources to business schools, and strive for supremacy as (in the winning words of one expert on the subject) “one among many industries that pursue intellectual properties.” These are the deeds of profit-maximizing entities. The fact that universities don’t have shareholders and don’t pay exorbitant bonuses to top officers is merely a matter of organizational detail.
Talk about painting with a broad brush! I’d say he overdoes it there. But universities, public as well as private, do need to be out there full time chasing the money, whether from federal agencies, foundations, or individuals. That’s what gets the buildings built, the research equipment bought, the famous faculty hired or retained, the new programs started.
I read somewhere years ago — I wish I remember where, and this was more in the context of the Harvards of the world than universities in general — that if one imagines universities raise money in order to educate students, than one has the model exactly backwards. No, they educate students in order to raise money. Some of those students, some day, will be the source of major gifts. Educate them and the money will come.
Here’s another passage, from the excerpt available on-line:
Massive indebtedness changes a person, maybe even more than a college education does, and it’s reasonable to suspect that the politicos who have allowed the tuition disaster to take its course know this. To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt—total student debt is now more than one trillion dollars—is ultimately to transform them into profit-maximizing machines. I mean, working as a schoolteacher or an editorial assistant at a publishing house isn’t going to help you chip away at that forty grand you owe. You can’t get out of it by bankruptcy, either. And our political leaders, lost in a fantasy of punitive individualism, certainly won’t propose the bailout measures they could take to rescue the young from the crushing burden.
I like that “punitive individualism” phrase as a description of our Republican Party’s attitude toward the unemployed, those with underwater mortgages, the sick. Blame the victims.
The article ends with a remark by Nicholas Merzoeff, a professor at NYU: “I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.”
I don’t find myself feeling that way about my job, but maybe I’m naive, or perhaps the difference lies in the significantly lower (though sharply rising) tuition we charge at the University of Washington compared to NYU.
Nor do I share Frank’s level of outrage. But higher education is changing, at the least in the expectations set for it by students, parents, and legislators, and not for the better. What stands out is the growing emphasis on universities as job-training institutions. After paying all that tuition, students expect jobs, and we somehow must magically ensure it, a hopeless task in the current economic climate. That’s where the damage is really done — the combination of large debt and job scarcity.
As long as I’m on this theme, I’ve been intending to read Andrew Delbanco’s book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, which was published two months ago. He’s one of the finest writers on higher education that I know (and also a college classmate). I did read Anthony Grafton’s review of it in The New York Review of Books. Early on, Grafton sets out a fundamental paradox, with which I’ll conclude this post:
The belief that college matters deeply is both implicit and ubiquitous. It dominates upper-middle-class and upper-class family strategies, it wins buyers for magazines that offer pointless and inaccurate university ratings, it generates income for college counselors, and it sustains alumni loyalty (genetics is destiny, a fellow professor told me thirty years ago, as we thought about which colleges our children might attend and realized that we might have sealed their possibilities by our own choices). Most important, it impels tens of thousands of students and their families to spend vast amounts of money every year.
The belief that college matters very little is also ubiquitous: it echoes through the dingy mansions of American public discourse. We hear such a belief when Rick Santorum criticizes President Obama for trying to ensure that as many Americans as possible should attend college, and denounces universities as snobbish institutions, divorced from reality and focused on indoctrinating the young with left-wing dogmas; when the billionaire businessman Peter Thiel offers prizes for top-ranked students willing to drop out of college and try to succeed as entrepreneurs; when writers argue that the college premium in wages is overrated and the American concern with selective admissions rests on erroneous beliefs about the practical value of higher education. These people are all, in their various ways, arguing that higher education has become a strange ghost world, whose practices and beliefs are foreign to those of most ordinary Americans, and whose benefits, intellectual or practical, may be few.
Four weeks ago, I wrote a post that I soon came to regret, the one titled We Are All Snobs Now. This was my response to Rick Santorum’s widely publicized remark calling President Obama a snob for wanting to provide the opportunity for everyone to go to college. My regret came from the realization that I had been manipulated. Santorum set the bait; I swallowed it. What’s the point of allowing such hypocritical pandering to get the better of me?
Last Tuesday, Charles Simic provided what amounts to a more considered reply, in the post Age of Ignorance at the New York Review of Books. Simic is a member in good standing of Snob Central: poet, poetry editor, professor, MacArthur Fellow, Pulitzer Prize recipient, US Poet Laureate. At the same time, he personifies all that a politician of Santorum’s ilk would extol as the greatness of the United States — growing up in the Yugoslavia of WWII and its aftermath, leaving communism behind for the US, achieving great success in his adopted land and language. Perhaps this gives Simic credibility.
Let’s dip into Simic’s post for a taste of what’s on his mind.
Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.
An educated, well-informed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country. Most of our politicians and their political advisers and lobbyists would find themselves unemployed, and so would the gasbags who pass themselves off as our opinion makers. Luckily for them, nothing so catastrophic, even though perfectly well-deserved and widely-welcome, has a remote chance of occurring any time soon. For starters, there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened, and deceiving Americans is one of the few growing home industries we still have in this country. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business.
If this lack of knowledge is the result of the years of dumbing down of high school curriculum and of families that don’t talk to their children about the past, there’s another more pernicious kind of ignorance we confront today. It is the product of years of ideological and political polarization and the deliberate effort by the most fanatical and intolerant parties in that conflict to manufacture more ignorance by lying about many aspects of our history and even our recent past. I recall being stunned some years back when I read that a majority of Americans told pollsters that Saddam Hussein was behind September 11 terrorist attacks. It struck me as a propaganda feat unsurpassed by the worst authoritarian regimes of the past—many of which had to resort to labor camps and firing squads to force their people to believe some untruth, without comparable success.
… Where else on earth would a president who rescued big banks from bankruptcy with taxpayers’ money and allowed the rest of us to lose $12 trillion in investment, retirement, and home values be called a socialist?
What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect. That’s why they love politicians who rail against teachers indoctrinating children against their parents’ values and resent the ones who show ability to think seriously and independently.
I think Simic may have Santorum in mind at the end there.
What a snob!
I’ve tried to keep the idiocy of the Republican presidential campaign out of Ron’s View, but Rick Santorum has pushed me over the edge with his remarks over the weekend that President Obama is a snob for wanting people to go to college. See for yourself, in the opening 12 seconds of the video above, as Santorum sneers, “What a snob!”
I hardly know what to say about this arrant demagoguery and dishonesty. I mean here’s a fellow who got a Bachelor’s degree from Penn State, an MBA from Pitt, and a law degree from Dickinson School of Law (Penn State). Yet in the interests of phony class warfare, he’s prepared to argue that others shouldn’t want to be educated. If holding out the promise that everyone who wishes to can receive an education is snobbery, I will happily join the club. (I know, you may wish to argue that I joined the snob club long ago. If so, I’ll extend my membership.)
Santorum goes on to explain that the real harm of a university education is the presence of “liberal college professors that try to indoctrinate them.” Another club I seem to be a member of. The liberal college professor club, that is, not the indoctrinator club. Unless we’re talking about indoctrination into the pleasures of logic and reasoning, the beauty of mathematical truth.
Rick, next time you’re in Washington State, please drop by and sit in on my class. You’ll find a room filled with young adults eager to learn and to better their lives.