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.
You are probably familiar with some of the animations the Taiwanese news organization Next Media Animation (nma.tv) creates in which various news stories are re-enacted. I first learned about their work two years ago, thanks to their video that provided two interpretations of what happened in the post-Thanksgiving early morning hours when Tiger Woods drove his Cadillac Escalade into a tree. Did his then-wife Elin Nordegren use a golf club to free him, or did she find another use for the club? See the classic NMA video below for an answer.
Funding for University of California schools has been slashed in recent years, and UC schools are looking to students to make up the difference. This means cutting spots reserved for California students in favor of out-of-state or international students, who pay full tuition.
The University of California, San Diego, for example, will be accepting 500 fewer in-state students this year. Some of these slots will be filled by students from China. The number of Chinese students at UCSD increased 12-fold from 2009 to 2011 to almost 200, while the number of Asian-American Californians enrolled fell 29 percent to 1,230. UC San Diego tuition is $13,234 for California residents and $22,878 for non-residents.
Although an American education is expensive, students return to China with a prestigious degree and a broadened outlook. American universities in turn get a welcome injection in funds, at the expense of tax-paying residents.
This approach to funding higher education has been a big issue here in Washington State as well. My own school, the University of Washington, has followed the same strategy in response to a 50% cut in state support over the last few years, increasing tuition steeply while recruiting more out-of-state and out-of-country students who pay higher tuition. We have also made an effort to maintain in-state freshman admissions at the same level, which of course can only be done by increasing enrollment overall.
Since tuition increases haven’t been enough to make up for state budget cuts, the university budget has been cut in part by shrinking the size of the faculty. Decreasing faculty size while increasing student enrollment is hardly an ideal recipe for maintaining educational quality.
But that’s another story. I don’t want to write a long post about public higher education. We do what we can. I just want to point to NMA’s take on the matter, which looks right to me.
Change We Can Believe In: Wall Street Tool
Sure, Obama’s a Wall Street tool. That’s not news. But this post isn’t about economic policy, banks, the relationship between Goldman Sachs and the Treasury Department, or any of that. It’s about education policy.
Four days ago I wrote about reading the third and latest of Martin Walker’s crime novels, Black Diamond, featuring that dear French police chief Bruno. Yet again, Walker connects life in a seemingly quaint rural village with the larger currents of national and international history and economy. It’s a wonderful book, and I eagerly await volume four.
But in the meantime, upon finishing the book this morning, I was free to get caught up on the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, which I proceeded to do by reading Diane Ravitch’s review of Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.
Ravitch takes strong exception to it, or rather to the “reform” efforts of Wall Street dandies that enthrall Brill.
Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools celebrates the improbable consensus among conservative Republicans, major foundations, Wall Street financiers, and the Obama administration about school reform. …
Brill also lavishly praises the billionaire equity investors and hedge fund managers who have financed the reform movement, … .
The financiers of public school reform described here live in a world of spectacular wealth. They believe in measurable outcomes; their faith in test scores is greater than that of most educators, who understand that standardized tests are not scientific instruments and that scores on the tests represent only a small part of what schools are expected to accomplish. The Wall Street men have found a cause that is both “exciting and fun” and, as Curry IV puts it, “because so many of us got interested in this at the same time, you get to work with people who are your friends.” It is unlikely that any of them have close personal connections to public education, yet they have made it their mission to change national education policy. School reform is their favorite cause, and they like to think of themselves as leaders in the civil rights movement of their day, something unusual for men of their wealth and social status.
In 2005, the financiers formed an organization called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) to promote ideas such as choice and accountability that were traditionally associated with the Republican Party. They set out to change Democratic Party policy, which in the past, as they saw it, was in thrall to the teachers’ unions and was committed to programs that funneled federal money by formula to the poorest children. DFER used its bountiful resources to underwrite a different agenda, one that was not beholden to the unions and that relied on competition, not equity.
While it was easy for the Wall Street tycoons to finance charter schools like KIPP and entrepreneurial ventures like Teach for America, what really excited them was using their money to alter the politics of education. The best way to leverage their investments, Brill tells us, was to identify and fund key Democrats who would share their agenda. One of them was a new senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who helped launch DFER at its opening event on June 3, 2005. The evening began with a small dinner at the elegant Café Gray in the Time Warner Center in New York City, then moved to Curry’s nearby apartment on Central Park South, where an overflow crowd of 150 had gathered.
… Brill writes that DFER sent a memo to the Obama team immediately after the presidential election, naming its choice for each position. At the top of its list, for secretary of education, was Arne Duncan.
It’s a wonder that Obama and Duncan doubled down on the bet Bush made on accountability based reform through No Child Left Behind. Mind you, I’m no expert on public education policy, but I’m convinced by a decade of evidence that NCLB has been a disaster, with its reliance on standardized testing and severe penalties for failure. I could say more. However, why not turn again to Ravitch?
Brill believes that teachers are the primary reason for students’ failure or success. If students have great teachers, their test scores in reading and math will soar. If they don’t, it is their teachers’ fault. Reduce the power of the unions, he argues, and bad teachers could be quickly dismissed. Of course, bad teachers should be dismissed, and many are. Fifty percent of those who begin teaching are gone within five years. … .
Unfortunately, Brill is completely ignorant of a vast body of research literature about teaching. Economists agree that teachers are the most important influence on student test scores inside the school, but the influence of schools and teachers is dwarfed by nonschool factors, most especially by family income. The reformers like to say that poverty doesn’t make a difference, but they are wrong. Poverty matters. The achievement gap between children of affluence and children of poverty starts long before the first day of school. It reflects the nutrition and medical care available to pregnant women and their children, as well as the educational level of the children’s parents, the vocabulary they hear, and the experiences to which they are exposed.
Poor children can learn and excel, but the odds are against them. Reformers like to say that “demography is not destiny,” but saying so doesn’t make it true: demography is powerful. Every testing program shows a tight correlation between family income and test scores, whether it is the SAT, the ACT, the federal testing program, or state tests.
Blame the teachers. And the unions. It’s so much simpler that way. And it keeps the campaign contributions rolling in.
One last quote, emphasis mine:
Brill’s book is actually not about education or education research. He seems to know or care little about either subject. His book is about politics and power, about how a small group of extremely wealthy men have captured national education policy and have gained control over education in states such as Colorado and Florida, and, with the help of the Obama administration, are expanding their dominance to many more states. Brill sees this as a wonderful development. Others might see it as a dangerous corruption of the democratic process.