The Sorcerers’ Apprentices

Portrait caricatureI flipped through Outdoor Life a while back as I was waiting for the doctor. There was a big spread on ski lodges. I remember seeing a similar spread in some magazine or other about a year ago. A couple of those lodges actually had ice skating, too.

I’’d love to go to a lodge like that where I could skate. I started taking skating lessons a few of years ago, as a way of staying fit, and now I’’m really into it.  I’’d love to spend a weekend at a “skating lodge”; eat a hearty breakfast in front of a roaring fire in the lodge dining room and then go out and “hit the ice”; come back for a hearty lunch, a little shopping, perhaps another skate, then a sumptuous dinner, again in front of a roaring fire, with an excellent wine and some kind of wicked dessert.

Why don’’t lodges advertise skating the way they do skiing, I asked myself. But then, I realized the answer: —skating is not so much fun as skiing. I love skating. I mean I really love it, but you have to spend countless hours at it before it is as fun as the first few trips down the slopes. Physical law, specifically gravity, works with you in skiing. It will pull even the rank beginner down the slopes so he’ll experience the thrill of speed, of wind in his face.

Gravity is the enemy in skating, though, and where it takes you, you don’t want to go. You are constantly fighting gravity when you skate, whether it is gravity that drags the leg, that is supposed to remain extended behind you after each stroke, prematurely back to the ice, or gravity that makes rising on one leg again and again to facilitate the notorious “double-sit push” so seemingly impossible.

Igor Yareshenko, the former Olympian who now coaches at the Skating Club of Wilmington, makes his students do one hundred deep-knee bends with their backs up against a wall. Everything is in the knees. Skater’s knees are like pistons, the really good one’s, anyway. Watch the ice dancers out there bobbing gently with each stroke. It’s almost as if the ice were not frozen, but fluid, and they were buoys bobbing gently in the waves. It’s all in the knees.

Those skaters make it look effortless, that gentle rising and falling, but it takes years to learn to skate like that. I still haven’t gotten it right, and I’m just talking about regular old straight stroking, nothing fancy. It takes years to learn to skate like Elizaveta Stekolnikova and Dmitri Kazarlyga, the couple who demonstrate the moves on the videos, “Stroking Exercises on Ice: The Dance Training Methods of Natalia Dubova.”

I watch those videos over and over again just to see their beautiful skating. They’re instructional videos and yet I think the skating in them is more beautiful than in any competition or ice-show I’’ve ever seen. I like the explanations too. I think they make the skating even more beautiful. All the slow-motion close-ups with the voice-overs explaining things such as the importance of rising on the skating leg over a turn, or how the free leg must briefly become one with the torso so that the skating leg can act independently of it. I think I have never seen anything so beautiful as the apparently effortless movements of that couple as they demonstrate some of the simplest and yet most fundamental elements of figure skating so that they seem like natural movements; so that to do them any other way would seem to require more effort.

Figure skating is one of the most difficult of human endeavors. I saw proof of this a few years ago over at the Class of 1923 Skating Rink on Walnut just behind Drexel’s Creese Student Center. I spend most of my lunch hours over there. There are only about a half a dozen of us who go there regularly for these mid-day public sessions, and we have gotten to know one another. There are often a few beginners along with the more skilled regulars.

I saw a guy there one day who was really good, frighteningly good. A couple of the regulars are decent jumpers (meaning they can do axels, the one and a half revolution jump), but this guy was doing triple jumps and flying by the rest of us with such speed he was generating wind.  No one knew who he was. I noticed, however, that he had a Drexel shirt on, so when he finally stopped for a minute, I went over to talk to him. His name was Michael Solonoski. He’ was a freshman in the architecture program and, of course, a competitive figure skater. He skated down at the University of Delaware with, among others, Jeff DiGregorio, who trained Olympic champion, Tara Lipinski. He was preparing just then for the South Atlantics, a qualifying competition for the national figure skating championships.

I’’ve seen a lot of good skaters. I started skating at the Skating Club of Wilmington, one of the top training facilities in the country. You can watch world-class skaters there any day of the week. Like most clubs, the sessions are divided according to skill level, so you’ll never see beginning and advanced skaters on the ice at the same time, the way you could when Michael Solonoski practiced at the 1923 rink. This kind of juxtaposition is crucial, however, to understanding how much work is involved in becoming a skilled skater.

Skaters such as Solonoski make skating look easy. It’s tempting, as you watch them, to think that you, too, might be able to skate like them with a little practice. But when you see great skaters on the ice with real beginners, you’ll have an entirely different perspective. Compared with the beginners, they’ll seem almost magical. You’ll think that perhaps they’re not really normal humans being but some kind of changelings, that they did not have to learn how to skate like the rest of us, but were born knowing how.

They weren’t. They start taking lessons when they are very young because they want to learn to spin and jump, to do all the fun and exciting stuff. Then they find out that they have to endure hours of tedious, repetitive exercises every day for years to acquire the skills that form the foundation for those more complicated maneuvers.

Figure skating demands all the physical discipline of ballet, but requires one execute his balletic maneuvers on what is effectively the head of a pin. Figure skating blades are curved, so there’s barely an inch in contact with the ice at any one time. If your posture is bad in ballet, if your shoulderblades are not pulled toward each other while your shoulders themselves are pressed firmly downward, if your hips are not just exactly beneath your shoulders, you will simply make a less pleasing impression. If your posture does not meet these same standards in skating, you’ll fall, and possibly hurt yourself. Your torso has to be a stabilizing element. It can’t go leaning this way and that with each thrust of your legs. It must remain in place, almost as if it were suspended from the ceiling by a string, as if you were a puppet whose legs could be moved independently of its torso because they were suspended by separate strings.

Yours are not, though. Your legs come right out of your torso and, despite that fact, you’’ve got to learn to make them move independently. The only way you can do that is by maintaining a firm downward pressure on the shoulders and making sure you keep them squared over your hips. That downward pressure, which must be maintained even as you are rising on the skating leg after a stroke, is what keeps your torso from equally and oppositely reacting to the thrust of your legs.

Skating violates physical laws. Good skating makes this miracle seem almost mundane. There’s perhaps a better way to put it. Skaters, or more specifically, coaches, learn physical law so that, like lawyers, they can bend and twist it to make it do what they want. Watch Natalia Dubova’’s explanation of basic skating exercises and you’ll see a first-rate legal mind in action. For the outside Mohawk (a turn), she explains, “you must have a very strong back, as if there were a wall behind you that you are leaning against.”

The Mohawk is a fairly intricate piece of footwork. It’’s a turn that starts on one foot going forward and ends on the other going backward. I always watch the feet. They fascinate me. Natalia says almost nothing about the feet, though; everything is in the back. And, of course, she’’s right. It doesn’t matter in the least that you know what to do with your feet, or that you know what your feet should do. If you go out and try this turn without concentrating almost exclusively on maintaining a strong back (and, of course, downward pressure on your shoulders), you will fall forward onto your face. You’ll get up thinking that somehow you’ve gotten your feet wrong. You’ll try it again, and you’ll fall again.

It’s all in the back. If you maintain that firm pressure on your back, explains Natalia gently to her puzzled students, —“you will do it.” She is always dropping little gems like this. It’s “the back” for the Mohawk, “the hips and shoulders” for crossovers. Figure skaters are the Jesuits of the sports world, using physical laws against themselves to achieve what, if you tried it yourself, you would swear was physically impossible.

That’s what a fellow skater, Mark, said the first summer my husband and I went to one of the adult weeks at Lake Placid’’s figure skating training camp. Mark had taken up skating in his early fifties after he’’d started his own business, and the work involved in that meant that he could no longer get away to ski mid week. As an avid and advanced skier he could not tolerate the thought of battling the crowds on the weekends.

Mark and his wife, Patti, live in Manhattan, so Patti had suggested they take up figure skating. She pointed out that they could skate at Wollman Rink in Central Park. They would be outside just like skiing. So they decided to do it. They got some good skates, a good coach and after about five years they’ acquired some impressive skills.

Mark and my husband were talking one day while they were waiting for the ice to be resurfaced.

“You know that stuff they do on TV,”” Mark said, ““that’s not really possible. It’’s all camera tricks and angles.””

Of course he knew it wasn’t. He knew they were really doing that stuff. He just couldn’’t understand how, not even after five years and, as Mark joked, “a “million dollars in lessons.””

If you actually take up skating and try to learn even some basic moves, your attitude toward the sport will change almost entirely. The movements of skaters, the really good ones anyway, will continue to look effortless. You’ll gain some appreciation, however, of the effort required to create this impression and this appreciation will make the movements take on an eerie beauty.

Nothing is so absorbing as to watch a young skater develop, to observe his early efforts and his gradual acquisition of skill. I know this because for a few years I followed the development of a young boy, Andrew Nagode. Andrew’’s coach, Slava Uchitel (a former Ukranian national champion) was also my teacher. Slava began working with Andrew when he was five.

I remember when Andrew was struggling with single jumps, or perhaps they were doubles. It was hard to tell because he fell so often. Those early efforts showed how difficult were the things Slava was asking him to do. You would see his body twisting and contorting in all the wrong ways. You would see him fall, again and again and again. You would see the look of anguish and defeat on his face and your heart would go out to him. Slava seemed almost cruel to me back then as he stood by silently, demanding, from a small boy, the seemingly impossible.

After a while though, there was less anguish on Andrew’’s face. He was gaining more control and sometimes his face would take on the same expression of concentration that always characterized his coach’’s face.

One day I showed up at the rink and there was Andrew, doing with inexplicable ease what had earlier appeared impossible and the expression of concentration on Slava’’s face was replaced by a smile of satisfaction. Suddenly I realized, what I was coming to understand from my own interactions with Slava, that he was not heartless, or cruel, but the purveyor of extremely esoteric knowledge, knowledge so exotic and mysterious he is like a sorcerer or a magician.

To watch, in this way, the development of a young skater is one of the most fascinating things imaginable. It’s like watching someone learn to fly, or to make himself invisible. You’ll see from his early struggles just how inhumanly difficult it is. But then one day you’ll see him doing it. You’ll marvel over this and wonder how it can have been possible. And there in the background will be the shadowy figure of the coach, who’ll seem to hold all the secrets of the universe, secrets he’s passing down, in a time honored ritual, to this new generation of fortunate apprentices.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in ASK, The Journal of the College of Arts and Sciences of Drexel University, March 2005)

The Scam of Online Learning Platforms

Portrait caricatureThere’s an interview in this morning’s Inside Higher Education with Katie Blot, the president of Blackboard Education Services. Universities pay millions of dollars to Blackboard and similar companies for online learning services that are, in fact, available for free on the internet. Everything Blackboard Learn does can be done through a combination of free blogging services, Vimeo/Youtube, Facebook, traditional email and Skype (and, in fact, done much faster and more efficiently than Blackboard’s lumbering counter-intuitive platform does it). And how is it that university administrators can be so far behind the times that they do not know this and hence are willing to pay millions of dollars for unnecessary services that are then passed on to students who can ill afford to have such extra costs tacked onto their already through-the-roof tuition?

“Are you aware,” reads one of the comments that follows the interview,  “that no single piece of academic software is as loathed as your flagship product?” Blackboard Learn is so awkward and counter intuitive that it requires many hours of training for faculty to be able to use it even to provide the most basic of course services, not to mention the more advanced services that are features of Learn. I had to attend two all-day Learn seminars before I was in a position to use it to teach online (and that was after having attended several such seminars to learn Blackboard’s earlier platform Blackboard Vista).

What an enormous waste of time and resources! Universities have full-time information resources staff to teach faculty how to use Blackboard Learn and those people spend much of their time in contact with Blackboard staff soliciting additional help and information, alerting them to “bugs” in the program and suggesting improvements. Most faculty already know how to use the above-mentioned services that are available for free on the internet and the few that don’t could be taught them much faster and more efficiently than anyone can be taught to use Blackboard. And not only do faculty have to be taught how to use Blackboard, students have to be taught as well, students who already posses all the skills they need to take advantage of courses taught using free services.

So why does Blackboard Education Services even exist? Why are universities paying millions of dollars to this company for unnecessary services and wasting staff and faculty time effectively reinventing the wheel? Why? These online learning platform companies are unnecessarily increasing the cost of higher education at a time when that cost is already unacceptably high. Wise up people!

The Propaganda Campaign Against Ebooks!

Portrait caricatureThis is an expanded re-post of the piece I did last week entitled “The Wall Street Journal Keeps Its Readers In the Dark!,” so if you read that piece you can skip to the end of this piece.

I read a really misleading article in January 5 issue of The Wall Street Journal about how ebooks are not going to replace regular books. It said that ebooks are mostly for fiction–WRONG. I hardly ever read fiction and I have switched almost completely to ebooks because they are: 1) less expensive than regular books, 2) take up no space, 3) far more convenient in that I can carry almost my entire library with me everywhere, 4) searchable (a tremendous boon to my research), and 5) much easier to read in bed.

There’s another advantage 6) to ebooks too. I used to have to wait a minimum of two days to get a book from Amazon (I buy most of the books I need because I like to mark them up), but now I can get them instantly. That has accelerated the speed of my research, and of the development of my thought more generally. I think ebooks are a huge boon to the brain in that sense. That is, I think they are actually going to speed up thought! Even my 83-year old father thinks his Kindle is “fantastic!”

But back to the article. It also states that the sales of tablets have probably hurt ebook sales. WRONG, what’s “hurt” ebook sales (and I put “hurt” in quotation marks because the article actually acknowledges that sales of ebooks are continuing to grow, just not at so fast a rate as earlier) is the economy, NOT tablets. People are using their tablets to read ebooks, not only through Apple’s iBooks application but through Kindle for iPad and iPod (I read books on my iPod when I don’t have my Kindle Paperwhite with me).

The byline for the article was Nicholas Carr. Could Carr be that out of touch? My guess is that the article was actually a poorly-drafted ENR (electronic news release) that originated from a PR firm hired by Bertelsmann, or some other global print-media conglomerate, to stave off the inevitable enlightenment of old-fart WSJ readers to the ascendency of ebooks. That’s not as wild a speculation as it may seem. Sheldom Rampton and John Stauber report in their book Trust Us, We’re Experts, that approximately 60% of the “news” content of The Wall Street Journal consists of ENRs that originated in PR firms.

Strangely, when I went to post all these observations to the comments section at the end of the article–I couldn’t. I kept getting an error message when I tried to log in through Facebook, and I couldn’t create an account without actually subscribing to the Wall Street Journal.

Then today I found another article bashing ebooks. This one is in The Chronicle of Higher Education (this article, unfortunately, is available only to subscribers, so check to see if your library has a subscription). Ian Desai, the author of the article, observes that “e-book sales have slowed, and e-reader sales are in an ‘alarmingly precipitous decline,’ in the words of a recent industry report from IHS iSuppli, a market-research firm, having fallen 36 percent from their 2011 highs, with further projected declines on the horizon.”

What Desai does not explain is that e-reader sales are not a direct indicator of ebook sales. First, Amazon has free Kindle applications for both Macs and PCs that are available for download from its website. That means at least some people are reading ebooks on their computers rather than on e-book readers. Why would Amazon do that? Because Amazon doesn’t make it’s money from e-readers. It makes its money from ebooks and the same is true, I believe, for Barnes and Noble. These companies want to sell e-readers only so that they can get readers to purchase their ebooks.

Another possible reason for the decline in e-reader sale is that many people have by now already bought e-readers and will probably be content with their particular e-reader for several years. That doesn’t mean they aren’t buying ebooks though. The sale of ebooks is, again, continuing to grow.

“Perhaps it is the purveyors of digital devices who should be insecure about the future,” observes Desai. “Despite their best efforts, their relatively flimsy and expensive products often fall short of the intuitive, durable, and simple interface provided by the ancient technology of ink on paper.”

“[f]limsy”?  Wrong. Both my original Kindle and my new Kindle Paperwhite are incredibly durable. I did not get my new Kindle (which I had had for three years) because my old Kindle wasn’t working properly, or even because the technology was obsolete. I liked the smaller size of the Paperwhite and the fact that the lighted screen meant that I didn’t need a book light when I read in dim lighting (e.g., in bed at night).

“[E]xpensive”? Wrong again. My new Kindle Paperwhite was just $119 dollars, so inexpensive that I could easily by a new one every year without feeling, as I almost always due when I have to buy a new computer, that I’m the victim of a planned obsolescence technology scam.

Most notably [continues Desaid] these electronic devices are failing the social test that has underscored the success of print culture. Not only have e-readers, tablets, and smartphones made it difficult for users to share content, but such devices are also cited as causal factors of stress and social isolation.

The sharing content issue has been a problem, but I believe the makers of e-readers are working on that. Nook uses, I understand, can “loan” one another books and if Nook readers can do it, my guess is that Kindle readers will soon be able to do it as well. Even if readers of ebooks cannot directly share books though, one of the best features of e-readers is that they provide easy access to free public domain content. That means one reader doesn’t have to be able to “share” his books with another reader. Both readers can get the same material for free from the same source. People can also share their own PDFs for free across e-readers. These features of ebooks would seem actually to decrease rather than increase social isolation!

Last year [observes Desai] sales at independent bookstores increased more than 15 percent from the previous year during the week of Thanksgiving, according to the American Booksellers Association. The latest figures suggest a further double-digit increase in sales at independent bookstores this year.

That brings me to another issue that I think has received insufficient attention. I think e-readers may actually be increasing the sale of conventional books. That makes sense if independent bookstores are seeing increased sales even while ebook sales are also continuing to grow. There are several reasons this could be the case. One, I think the ease of accessibility to literature that e-books provide may actually be encouraging people to read more than they had been before the advent of e-readers. Two, some books still are available only as conventional hard-copy books rather than as ebooks. Also, I sometimes buy conventional hard copies of books in which I’ve become interested as a result of having read the free sample I downloaded on my Kindle. If, for example, the book has a lot of illustrations (and I can learn that from the sample), I may decide I want a hard copy of it rather than an electronic copy.

Ebooks would seem to be the wave of the future for a variety of vary good reasons, so why have two articles bashing ebooks appeared in rapid succession? Coincidence? I think not. That’s what PR firms do. They don’t just send out one ENR to one journal or magazine. They try to flood the media with propaganda that is favorable to their client’s interests. Strangely, I was once again unable to post a comment to the article.

I’ll confess that I wasn’t too surprised to see the WSJ apparently colluding with the PR industry to mislead the public about the ascendency of ebooks. It’s pretty disturbing, though, to see The Chronicle of Higher Education doing it.

Accountability in Higher Education: The Elephant in the Room

Portrait caricatureThere’s been a lot of discussion among academics of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago, 2011). Arum and Roksa present strong evidence that students are not learning the reasoning skills that colleges and universities claim to teach. Part of the problem, it appears, is that professors aren’t requiring enough of students. Half the students surveyed for the book, observed Sarah E. Igo in a review in Academe, “reported that they had not had a class in the last semester requiring more than twenty pages of writing in the entire course, and a third had not taken a class requiring more than forty pages of reading a week.”

Why aren’t professors requiring more of students? Is it because, as some have argued, tenured and tenure-track faculty are more concerned about their research than they are about teaching? Or because they’re just lazy and hence don’t want to exert themselves grading lots of assignments? The latter position has lots of proponents. Tenure makes it nearly impossible to fire a professor, so what incentive does he or she have to do any real work?

Leaving aside the issue of whether people are more effectively motivated by the carrot or the stick, there’s one huge reason for the decline in the expectations placed on students in higher education that has yet to be given sufficient attention–the increasing amount of university-level instruction that is being done by what academics refer to as “contingent faculty.” Contingent faculty–primarily adjuncts who are hired by the course–are paid so badly that they are forced to teach more courses per term than can be handled well.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty typically teach two courses per term. There’s no official limit, however, to how many courses an adjunct can teach. Adjunct pay is miserably low. My department at Drexel pays between $2,175-$3,000 per course. We’re on quarters, so an adjunct who teaches two courses per term for the standard academic year would have an annual salary of between $13,000-$18,000. Few people, especially people with student loan debt, can afford to live on so little, so most adjuncts teach more than two courses per term. In fact, many teach more than four.

“This class isn’t like the other critical reasoning classes,” one of my students commented recently. “My buddy took critical reasoning last term and he said it was easy. He said he never had to go and he still did well.” This student, my student, I mean, had added the class at the end of the second week of the term. When he went to add it, he’d found that mine was the only section he could get in. “All the others had 25 students,” he said, “but this one had only sixteen.”

“Yeah, I lost a lot of students,” I explained, “after they got their first essay back.” I’d originally had 25 (the official ceiling) in each of my sections, but no more than twenty actually showed up for the first class because I’d emailed them the syllabus, and I think that scared off a few. The syllabus lists the requirements for the course including the fact that there are quizzes every day on the readings and three in-class essays. That’s a lot of work for me, but it makes for a better class because the quizzes mean the students will do the readings and the essays mean they’ll learn to construct a persuasive argument.

I spend almost all my time during the terms when I’m teaching grading quizzes and essays and meeting with students to discuss them. I don’t mind doing the work because I know it’s important. I do mind having almost no free time, but there are breaks between terms and then the summer when I can do some real research. I can’t do much research while I’m teaching. There just isn’t time.

Here’s the kicker though. I’m tenured. I’m one of an increasingly tiny elite of tenured professors who have reasonable teaching loads and rock-solid job security. I teach two courses per term. Sounds pretty cushy, doesn’t it? It’s all I can handle though, if I want to do a good job.

I complained once to another critical reasoning instructor about the amount of time it took to grade essays.

“I don’t give essays,” he said, “I can’t, I’m teaching four other courses.”

He was an adjunct. He had to teach five classes, he explained, just to be able to pay his rent. Some adjuncts teach more than five classes. Not at Drexel. We don’t let them teach more than three for us. They go other places though. They have to just to be able to eat. Most of the sections of critical reasoning we offer in any given term are taught by contingent faculty. That’s why they’re “easy.” The instructors can’t give so many assignments as tenured or tenure-track faculty because they don’t have time to grade them.

Grading essays in enormously time consuming. I’ve spent as much as an hour on a single essay. They don’t usually take that long, but they sometimes do. First you have to figure out what someone is trying to say. You can’t give constructive feedback on how they might be more successful unless you know what they’re trying to say and figuring that out can require reading some essays over and over again. Figuring out what a student is trying to say is only the beginning of the task of grading. Once you’ve done that, you have to determine where they went wrong, precisely where and how they failed. That isn’t easy either. It’s easy enough to say “I can’t make heads or tails of this,” but that doesn’t help them. You’ve got to figure out why you can’t make heads or tails of it. After you’ve done that (“step two,” I call it) you have to figure out what you need to tell them that will be helpful. You can’t point out everything that went wrong. That’s demoralizing. They’ll just give up if you point out every problem. You’ve got to select from among the myriad things that could be improved, the ones that are absolutely crucial and then find a way to communicate them that doesn’t sound too harsh.

I’m fortunate because my job is secure. I have time to give my students substantial reading and writing assignments and I don’t have to worry that they will trash me in their evaluations if I’m hard on their papers. I trust them to be fair with me if I am fair with them, and they usually are. Tell an adjunct that, though. They’re hired by the course. If their evaluations aren’t good, they know that they can be easily replaced with some other recent Ph.D. who’ll be more accommodating.

There’s a lot of talk about how the consumer model of higher education is destroying it. I think if it were employed properly, it could save it. Students should be getting more for their money than most adjuncts, through no fault of their own, are able to give them. It’s not that adjuncts are less well qualified than tenured, or tenure-track professors. They’re occasionally better qualified.  The problem is that they’re overworked. Most aren’t able to give students the kind of attention, or assignments, or feedback on their assignments that a tenured or tenure-track professor could give them. If I were paying what students are paying nowadays to go to school, I’d want more for my money than I could get from and adjunct.

There’s a lot of discussion among academics about the increasing use of adjunct labor, but nearly all of that discussion concerns how exploitative that practice is–of the adjuncts. You almost never hear anyone point out that it is also exploitative of the students, that it exploits their ignorance. Most students are simply relieved to find they’ve got an “easy” class, a class where the instructor requires very little of them. They’re still assuming they’re in school to get that piece of paper that will get them a job and the easier it is to get that piece of paper the better. Most of them don’t realize yet that that piece of paper is not going to get them a job. That if there is any hope of their ever getting, or at least keeping, a job it will be because of the stuff they’ve actually learned in college.

Academics complain almost constantly about the preoccupation of students with “that piece of paper,” yet the academy itself encourages this attitude by turning so much instruction over to people who don’t have time to do more than rubber stamp a student’s transcript.

The recent spate of blaming academics for the decline in the quality of higher education is just another symptom of what Richard Hofstadter, among others, identified as the anti-intellectualism of American culture. What is increasingly referred to as the crisis in higher education is sometimes characterized as a battle between two different models of education: the liberal-arts model and the vocational one. “[I]s college,” asks James M. Maslow, “an apprenticeship for informed public participation or a store selling competitive private credentials?” (“Losing Our Faculties,” Academe). That’s a red herring, though, because the sad truth is we are failing miserably even at the task of teaching practical skills. American culture is very anti-intellectual, so you won’t find too many people in the general population clambering to rescue the liberal-arts model of higher education. People would scream bloody murder, though, if they realized they were paying tens of thousands of dollars to institutions where students weren’t even learning practical skills.

I’m a big proponent of the liberal-arts model of education, but most of the energy I put into teaching is actually directed at helping my students acquire the practical skills of being able to construct and analyze arguments. That’s true even with upper-level courses in epistemology and metaphysics. Most of my students don’t know the difference between an argument and a bunch of unsupported assertions strung together with a lot of non-argumentative rhetoric. Many of them have difficulty even remembering the topics of papers that are assigned in class. I’ll give them the topic and explain the structure the paper should have and still, many will turn in rambling, unstructured musings on unrelated topics. It’s not because they don’t care about doing well. They care very much, but their minds are so completely untrained that even teaching them the most rudimentary of practical skills requires enormous chunks of time, more time than most adjuncts have to give to their students.

People are blaming academics for the crisis in higher education. The decision to turn over increasing amounts of instruction to beleaguered adjuncts is not coming from academics, however, it’s coming from administrators who’ve migrated to academia from the world of business where cutting costs is pursued as if it were a holy grail.

Academics, even adjuncts, care about teaching, but faculties are being squeezed by bloated administrations that need to cut costs to justify their own existence and one of the ways they have chosen to cut costs is to replace tenured faculty with adjuncts. Students need feedback on their work. They need more than just a grade on an assignment if they have any hope of doing well and for many of them grades are crucial to their receiving the financial aid they need to be able to remain in school. Most adjuncts don’t have time to give much feedback though, or to meet with students one-on-one to discuss how they might improve their work. Imagine how frustrated, how desperately frustrated, a student could become who sees his or her grades slipping but can’t get enough feedback from an instructor to halt that downward trend.

Lack of feedback isn’t the only problem associated with the increasing use of adjuncts. I’ve had students who have never been to a single class email me in week eight of a ten-week term with some sob story as to why they’ve never been to class and begging me to make up some special assignments for them so that they can “still pass.” Where, in God’s name, I’ve asked myself, are these kids getting the idea that any instructor would do such a thing? It took me a while to figure that one out. I’ll bet there are a few adjuncts out there who’ll do it. If the student is still officially enrolled in the course, he can still do an evaluation and the instructor may fear he’ll get a bad evaluation if he doesn’t find some way to help the student pass.

Students are being led to believe that they don’t have to do any real work in order to earn an advanced degree. So then, when they run into an instructor who actually requires something from them, they protest the instructor is being unfair. What isn’t fair, however, is blaming tenured and tenure-track faculty for the diminished expectations that are being placed on students when evidence suggests the problem stems from the gradual takeover of instruction by overworked adjuncts who don’t have the time or energy to require much of their students. What isn’t fair is taking money from people and claiming to be educating them when you’re not.

“From the professorial perspective,” writes Benjamin Ginsberg in The Fall of the Faculty : The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford, 2011), “the university exists to promote teaching by providing faculty members with classrooms, laboratories, libraries, computers, and other instructional resources. From the administrative perspective, however, the purpose of teaching is to bring fees-paying customers (sometimes known as students) into its dormitories and classrooms.”

That’s the elephant in the room, the thing nobody wants to acknowledge because it makes everybody, meaning every institution, look bad. That’s the dirty little secret behind the crisis in higher education. It’s not so much a battle between populist vocational training and old-guard intellectual elitism. It’s a battle between academics who want to give students something for their money and expanding armies of administrators who care less and less about what sort of product they are providing, so long as the money keeps coming in.

This piece originally appeared in CounterPunchMay 29, 2012

Education and Democracy

Anti-intellectualism (cover)I’m reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life in preparation for doing a review of Carlin Romano’s new book America the Philosophical. Romano mentions Hofstadter in his introduction, but only in his introduction. He never returns to him. I suspected that was going to turn out to be a weakness in Romano’s book, so I decided I should read Hofstadter before reviewing Romano. That was no great chore. Hofstadter is one of my favorite authors. His book Social Darwinism in American Thought is a real eye-opener. That book, together with Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is a kind of Rosetta Stone of American culture.

The penultimate chapter of Hofstadter’s book looks at the educational theory of John Dewey. “The new education,” Hofstadter observes, that grew out of Dewey’s thought “would have social responsibilities more demanding and more freighted with social significance than the education of the past. Its goal would be nothing less than the fullest realization of the principles of democracy. In setting this aspiration, Dewey stood firmly within the American tradition, for the great educational reformers who had established the common-school system had also been concerned with its potential value to democracy” (Hofstadter, p. 378). That is, in Dewey’s theory, “the ends of democratic education are to be served by the socialization of the child, who is to be made into a co-operative rather than a competitive being and ‘saturated’ with the spirit of service (Hofstadter, p. 379).

Leaving aside the issue of the mounting evidence that people are inherently more inclined to cooperation than to competition, it seems to me that something essential is omitted here. The traditional conception of the significance of education to democracy is that it is important that citizens in a democracy be well informed, that they should be able to read as a means to being well informed, as well as that they should be able to think critically and analytically so as to be better able to sort their way through the information with which they are presented and to properly understand its significance.

I believe, however, that the significance of education to democracy is much greater than that. It is not simply that citizens in a democracy must be rational and well informed, they must also be happy. Unhappy people are too prone to using their vote punitively, that is, in ways that actually decrease rather than increase the happiness of their fellow citizens. But policies that improve the quality of life of the average citizen are the engine of democracy. Without them democracy ultimately breaks down. That is, Dewey’s ideal of socialization as encouraging cooperation can’t be sustained unless the individuals being socialized are relatively happy both throughout the period of socialization and beyond (if the process can be meaningfully said to stop at any point).

What few people understand, I fear, is the importance of education to human happiness. Human beings, as Aristotle famously observed, are rational animals. They have very highly developed and complex brains, brains that have needs of their own for stimulation and challenge. Helen Keller writes movingly, for example, of how perpetually angry, and even violent, she was before she learned language (The Story of My Life). That was partly, of course, because of her difficulty communicating, but it was also, as she clearly details, because of her difficulty in fixing thoughts in her mind. Language, like mathematics and logic, is a cultural achievement. People do not learn it in isolation from other people and they do not gain an optimal command of it if they do not read. The brain is driven to make sense of its environment. It finds fulfillment in that. People would do science (as indeed they did for millennia) even if it had no obvious utility, just as they always done cognitively challenging and stimulating games such as chess and crossword puzzles.

The need of human beings to develop their minds is, I believe, so acute that its fulfillment is an ineradicable element of human happiness. That, I would argue, is the real value of education to democracy. We need to educate people in a democracy not merely so that they will better understand what sorts of policies would be best for society as a whole, but so that they will also desire what is best for society as a whole rather than the spread of their private misery onto the larger community.