On School Spirit

Baker Library, Dartmouth College

Baker Library, Dartmouth College

Dartmouth knows how to do a reunion. Last year was my husband’s 25th. He’d gone to the 5-year and the 10-year, but those were both before we were married, before I’d even met him. He’d taken me up to Dartmouth once, just to show me around. It’s only an hour away from where his parents live in New Hampshire, from the town to which they’d moved when he was in high school. My husband loves New Hampshire, so I’d always thought his love of Dartmouth was just part of that.

It’s a beautiful place, Hanover, nestled in the New Hampshire hills just across the Connecticut River from Vermont. It’s incredibly green. Most colleges have a quad, a large rectangular lawn around which are clustered the oldest buildings, the ones that made up the original institution. These lawns are always green, but Dartmouth’s seems somehow greener than most. Perhaps it has something to do with the trees. Dartmouth has more trees than my alma mater, Earlham College, which otherwise sort of resembles Dartmouth. Green is everywhere at Dartmouth, not just because of the lawn and trees, but because green is the school color. Everything that can be is painted green: the shutters on all the buildings, door signs, trash cans. Curtains are green, upholstery is green, even the leather chairs in Sanborn library, where my English-major husband ran the writing center the year after he graduated, are green.

It could have been that extra year too, I thought, that had caused him to be so sentimental about the place. We give money to Dartmouth every year, a lot, at least for people like us. I was shocked, actually, when I learned how much we gave. My contributions to Earlham have been erratic and much more modest. Dartmouth, I’ve pointed out several times to my husband, surely needs the money less than Earlham. Earlham grads tend to make careers in the Peace Corps, not the World Bank, and Earlham, being a Quaker school does little to encourage the fervent school spirit that is typically cultivated at Ivy League institutions.

But my husband was adamant. Cutting back on our annual contribution to Dartmouth, even if only to increase our contribution to Earlham, was not on the table.

He has some scattered bits of Dartmouth paraphernalia: a really old green wool scarf with a single broad white stripe in the center (white is the other school color, not surprising given the amount of snow in Hanover in the winter), a green wool varsity-style jacket. He rowed crew, though not long enough to get a letter. There’s a beer mug and a coffee mug and a few other smaller things. I have nothing from Earlham, except a lot of wonderful memories, so I viewed my husband’s collection as one of his eccentricities.

It wasn’t until we went the the reunion last year that I realized his eccentricity might actually express itself in the relative paucity of his Dartmouth paraphernalia compared to what appeared to be the collections of his classmates. Approximately 300 alums showed up for the 25th reunion of the class of 1987. There must have been closer to 600 people all together in that many alums brought spouses and children.

Children were everywhere. A special tent was set up for them and all sorts of activities were planned for them. There was even a miniature buffet table in the tent where we had most of our meals. More than 80% of the class of ‘87 was married, I learned from the reunion yearbook. Most of them had children, and most of the children at the reunion were decked out in Dartmouth garb. Some of them were clad entirely in Dartmouth garb, from their Dartmouth shirts and baseball caps right down to their little green and white shoes and socks. Green fleece jackets for the cold mornings and green backpacks. Many also carried Dartmouth sports gear, Dartmouth balls, frisbees and water bottles.

There was a special event set up for parents on navigating the college admissions process. It wasn’t hard to guess to which institutions these little green-and-white clad munchkins were hopefully headed. If they didn’t already have positive associations with the place from their parents’ reminiscences, they would certainly have such associations by the end of the weekend.

It’s hard not to like the place and not just because it’s beautiful. There’s an energy to it. I’d expected the reunion crowd to be full of high-powered doctors and lawyers and investment bankers, people who’d be unable to sit through any of the events planned for the weekend without having to take a call on their cell phones.

I was wrong.

There was an open mic the evening we arrived, and the array of talent was staggering. Most of the performers were musicians. None was a professional, but any one of them could have been. Two guys, both fluent in Russian, did an inspired rendition of a Russian drinking song. Another did a hauntingly beautiful piece on what looked like a cross between a lute and a banjo. Two guys, a guitarist and a drummer, did an unrehearsed rendition of “Psycho Killer” that was so good if you closed your eyes you’d swear you were at a Talking Heads concert. And then there was my husband, who performed a stand-up comedy routine he’d prepared specifically for the reunion.

The whole reunion was like that; people sharing talents and gifts that in some cases were reflected in their professions but which just as often were only hobbies.

“That’s the thing,” my husband reflected mid-way through the reunion, “there are so many really talented people at Dartmouth. It’s hard when you have a lot of talent because you come to the point when you have to choose.”

And Dartmouth grads choose wisely, or perhaps I should say, prudently. Despite all the talent on display, there were not too many professional artists or entertainers among the reunion goers. There were, as I had anticipated, quite a number of doctors and lawyers and high-powered professionals of other sorts. I did not, however, see many of these movers and shakers ducking out of events to take calls. When they did something, including attending an event at the reunion, they gave it their all.

My husband read a chapter from his satirical self-help book to a packed audience as part of a panel of writers he’d organized. It was the best reading he’d given in terms of the audience response. Not only did they laugh at all the right places, they hung around afterward to find out where they could buy copies of his and the other writers’ books.

Dartmouth people stick together.

I was surprised by all of this because my impression of Dartmouth had been formed during the period of Dinesh DiSousa and the notorious Dartmouth Review. I’d assumed that Dartmouth cranked out thorough-going egoists committed to defending the most ruthless brand of laissez faire capitalism.

I was wrong.

I was leafing through the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine recently when I came across a letter from an alum of the class of 1935. He wrote that he, and several other alumni agreed “that we live in a plutocracy and not a democracy. … I chose to enroll at Dartmouth,” the letter continues,

because it was a liberal arts institution offering me an opportunity to expand my knowledge as well as allowing me to be part of the great outdoors, which I love.History and political science, my major, was my great love and I still study it almost every day. It was not my career, however. The science and math classes I took enabled me to be a pioneer in the plastics industry and an innovator in centrifugal casting. …I attended Dartmouth during the depths of the Great Depression and what I lived with is seared into my bones, as I saw so many less fortunate than me decline into abject poverty. I became and still am, I am proud to say, a bleeding heart liberal, as were many of my schoolmates.

I don’t know how many of the class of 1935 are still around, but I learned something at my husband’s reunion that I had not expected to learn: that bleeding heart liberal spirit is still alive and well at Dartmouth and continues to be passed down to new students. Not all Dartmouth alumni are liberals, of course, but the overwhelming majority of those present at the reunion had a conspicuous commitment to the public welfare, even if they did not always agree on precisely how that might best be achieved.

Dartmouth alumni are proud of their alma mater not simply because it is one of a tiny handful of elite educational institutions, but because Dartmouth helped to shape their character and the character of their classmates in positive ways. Dartmouth is a community. It is what a liberal arts institution is supposed to be: a community committed to helping young people realize their full potential, both as individuals and as members of the larger society, and realize that that can never be achieved outside of a community.

I no longer complain about the size of our annual contribution to Dartmouth. I’ve also begun to make a similar annual contribution to my own alma mater. These are hard times for higher education. Schools, particularly liberal arts ones, need all the help they can get.

And we need all the help they can give us, because these are hard times for us as well.

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.

The War on Fairness

Portrait caricatureIt’s rare when a person does something that is at once so idiotic and so heinous that it brings discredit upon his entire profession. I fear philosopher Stephen T. Asma has done this, however, with his new book from the University of Chicago Press. I’ve bragged for years to friends and relatives that the philosophy curriculum at the graduate level is so rigorous that it weeds out the kinds of morons who all too often are able to make it through other Ph.D. programs. Not everyone with a Ph.D. in philosophy is a transcendent genius, I’ve conceded, but there’s a basement level of analytical acuity below which philosophers simply do not go.

I stand corrected. Stephen T. Asma’s article, “In Defense of Favoritism,” excerpted from his book Against Fairness (I’m not making this up, I swear) is the worst piece of incoherent and morally reprehensible tripe I think I’ve ever read in my life. I endeavor, as a rule, not to read crap, but I was intrigued when I saw the title of Asma’s article in the headlines I receive every day from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Clever hook, I thought! It seemed obvious to me that few people would undertake a genuine defense of favoritism and that the Chronicle would certainly never publish such a thing, so I was curious to find out what the article was actually about.

Well, it’s just what it says it is–it’s a defense, or an attempt at a defense anyway, of favoritism. I say “an attempt” at a defense because favoritism is considered by most people to be indefensible, and with good reason.  “Favoritism,” as distinguished from the universally human phenomenon of having favorites, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “[a] disposition to show, or the practice of showing, favour or partiality to an individual or class, to the neglect of others having equal or superior claims; undue preference.” It’s the qualification of the preference as “undue” that’s important here.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your niece or nephew, for example, to get that new tenure-track position in your department, but there’s a whole lot wrong with giving it to them, or giving them preferential treatment in discussions of who should get it, simply because they are your niece or nephew. Ditto for your favorite grad student. To want someone you care about to succeed because you care about them is perfectly natural. To ENSURE that they succeed over other, and possibly better qualified, people simply because you care about them is wrong. That’s what favoritism is though.

I thought at first that Asma might simply be confused about the meaning of “favoritism,” that what he was actually trying to do was to defend the view that there’s nothing wrong with having favorites, that what philosophers refer to as “preferential affection” is simply part of human nature and not something anyone should ever feel guilty about. The further I got into the article, however, the clearer it became that Asma was indeed trying to defend undue preference.

The piece, as Kierkegaard would say, is something both to laugh at and to weep over in that it’s such an inept piece of argumentation that it’s hilarious while at the same time being profoundly morally offensive. That Asma’s opening is, as one reader observes in the comments following the article, “irrelevant to his point” is the least of his crimes against sound reasoning.

“Fairness,” asserts Asma, “is not the be-all and end-all standard for justice,” thus positioning himself as a sort of imbecilic David over and against the Goliath of John Rawls whose theory of justice as fairness is much admired by philosophers. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with taking aim at intellectual giants. It helps, however, when one does this, to have a good argument.

But Asma does not have a good argument. It’s impossible to give a developmental account of Asma’s argument because it has little that resembles a structure. Instead of starting with premises that he carefully arranges to lead the reader from assumptions he already holds to a conclusion the inevitability of which he is finally compelled, if not actually to accept, then at least to concede as probable, Asma presents a mishmash of irrelevant, incoherent, and equivocal non sequiturs that litter the page like toys strewn about a room by a child rooting impatiently through his toybox for the one cherished toy he cannot find. And what is Asma’s cherished toy? Why it’s favoritism! Asma is determined to prove that favoritism is, in his own words, “not a bad thing.”

The upshot of Asma’s rambling argument is that the tendency toward favoritism is part of human nature. This is regrettably true. It makes us feel good when we promote the interests of those we love. Just because something makes us feel good though, doesn’t mean that it’s ethical. The conflation of these two things is known in philosophy as “the naturalistic fallacy.” Asma, ought to know this because he is a philosopher. How he can make such a fundamental mistake is mystifying.

The article begins with Asma recounting a scene with his son who is complaining because Asma will not allow him to play a game that involves the killing of zombies because he, Asma, feels his son is too young for that sort of game. “That’s sooo not fair!” his son protests. Instead, however, of using this occasion as the inspiration to write a book for children that will help them to better understand the meaning of the word “fair,” Asma takes his toddler’s grasp of the term, equates it erroneously with “egalitarianism” and decides to write a philosophical treatise (for adults) discrediting both.

Asma then turns to an examination of what he asserts is the virtue of generosity. What he actually describes, however, is not what most philosophers would identify as a virtue (which, according to Aristotle, for one, requires cultivation), but a natural inclination, found in varying degrees in various individuals, to share what one has with one’s friends–and only, he is careful to explain, with one’s friends. But the fact that most people enjoy sharing what they have with their friends does not make this inclination into a virtue. To equate a natural inclination, in this way, with a virtue is, once again, an expression of the naturalistic fallacy.

The child in Asma’s example gives all her candy to a few friends over the protestations of classmates to whom she has a less passionate emotional attachment. “But the quality of her generosity,” asserts Asma, “is not compromised by the fact that she gave it all to her five friends.” This flagrantly begs the question, however, because there is a sizable contingent of humanity that would contest such a definition of “generosity.” Sure, if you define sharing with only your friends as “virtuous,” then you won’t have a hard time defending favoritism because sharing with only your friends is the same thing as favoritism and far from seeing it as a virtue, most of humanity would see it as downright nasty.

And that isn’t the only problem with conflating inclinations and virtues. How about sharing with your friend when you have good reason to believe that that friend is going to use what you’ve shared with him to further some nefarious purpose he may have? Is that virtuous? Plato talks about that problem in the Republic. Is it possible that Asma, a philosopher, hasn’t read the Republic?

My heart sort of goes out to Asma at that point, though, because he seems to be contrasting the child who shares with only her friends with a child who refuses to share any of his candy with anyone–ever. But that’s not just greedy, it’s pathological and anyone who fails to recognize this must have had a very wretched childhood indeed. To Asma’s credit, he acknowledges that his argument is “counterintuitive.” Readers will find themselves wishing, however, that Asma hadn’t been so dismissive of his intuitions.

Asma erroneously asserts that the activities of those in the civil rights and feminist movements, for example, are expressions of favoritism and tribalism. That’s a fair charge to level, I suppose, against black supremacists, and perhaps against radical feminist separatists, but the two examples Asma cites, Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, hardly fall into those categories. It’s not favoritism to demand rights for one’s group that are equal to the rest of society. Only fighting for more rights, or for preferential treatment, could be characterized that way.

Perhaps it’s the term “equal” that throws Asma off. He seems to have a particular aversion to it. He refers, for example, to what he claims is “American hostility to elitism,” but the example he gives is not one of anti-elitism, which would be hard to find in our culture, but one of anti-intellectualism. That is, he points out that “politicians work hard to downplay their own intelligence and intellectual accomplishments so they might seem less threatening (less eggheadish) to the public.”

We’re not hostile to elitism in the U.S. though. We’re the most thoroughly elitist society in the economically developed world. Everything from our systems of taxation, education, and health, to our system of criminal justice is set up to favor the wealthy elites.

Asma cites several studies that show that what is called “ingroup bias” appears to be inherent in human nature and uses this fact to support his position that favoritism is therefore “not a bad thing.” That something is inherent in human nature does not, however, entail that it is morally acceptable. There are all kinds of unfortunate tendencies in human nature that parents, societies, and finally civilization itself endeavor to control, tame, and even in some cases eradicate.

Asma’s whole defense of favoritism is not simply an expression of “the naturalistic fallacy,” referred to above. To the extent that he tries to defend favoritism by arguing that it’s innate, he’s also guilty of conflating an “ought” with an “is.” Hume referred to this mistake as the “is-ought” problem. That is, it is a misguided attempt to draw inferences about the nature of moral obligation (i.e., how people ought to behave) from observations about how people tend to behave (i.e., how they do behave) when the two things are qualitatively different and need to be kept rigorously distinguished.

Asma returns, at the end of the article, to the example of children. He appears to have hopped on the bandwagon of pseudo-intellectuals who have begun to express concern that we are being too nice to our children. It seems Asma’s son came home one day with a ribbon he’d “won” in a footrace, but Asma’s pride dissipated when his son explained that all the children had “won” the race, that they’d all been given ribbons. “I don’t want my son, and every other kid in his class,” protests Asma, “to be told they’d ‘won’ the footrace at school just because we think their self-esteem can’t handle the truth. Equal rewards for unequal accomplishments foster the dogma of fairness, but they don’t improve my son or the other students.”

Leaving aside the issue that Asma has once again evinced that he has appropriated a toddler’s simplistic and hence erroneous definition of “fairness,” there’s something comically fantastical about Asma’s apparent fear that today’s youth are in danger of living out their lives in blissful ignorance of their own weaknesses and inadequacies. The likelihood, for example, that admissions to elite universities are suddenly going to become merit blind, or that we will cease keeping statistics on the accomplishments of professional athletes seems vanishingly small, and the only professions that seem openly to embrace the conspicuously inept are those in the financial industry.

Sadly, children will learn all too soon that there are winners and losers and that the former are rewarded while the latter are not. Not only does it do no harm to stave off that realization as long as possible, it may actually do a great deal of good if it helps us to teach children that their worth as individuals is not dependent on their bettering their peers in contests. Not everyone can be a winner. Most people have to content themselves with being also-rans. If we can teach children early that the also-rans are to be lauded as an essential part of the race (after all, there is no race without them), then we might actually help to increase the number of people who are able to live happy and fulfilling lives.

Asma’s fears are not restricted, however, to the specter of a utopian future for his progeny. Even while wealth is increasingly transferred to a dwindling minority of the American population, Asma is tortured by feverish nightmares of creeping socialism. “Liberals,” he asserts, “say ‘fairness’ when they mean ‘all things should be equal’”–as if we, in the U.S., stood in imminent danger of sweeping political reforms that would make the social-welfare states of Northern Europe look like Czarist Russia by comparison.

What’s disturbing is not so much Asma’s argument as the fact that it found a reputable (or at least once reputable) academic publisher and that it was actually excerpted in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Noam Chomsky said somewhere that despite all the atrocities he had spent a large part of his life chronicling, he believed humanity was making moral progress. You don’t see moral defenses of slavery anymore, he pointed out, whereas you did see such things in earlier periods of human history. Yes, maybe that’s true. But if we’ve regressed to the point that it’s now socially acceptable to publish moral defenses of favoritism, and attacks on fairness, can defenses of slavery be far behind?

This piece originally appeared in CounterPunch on 11/192012

On Parenting

OK, I do not have children and there are those who would charge that this disqualifies me from saying anything meaningful about parenting. I would respond to such a charge, however, with the observation that not being a parent myself means I occupy a disinterested perspective relative to the issue of parenting and that what I lack in practical experience I perhaps make up for in objectivity. I just finished reading Lori Gottlieb’s article “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” in The Atlantic and that prompted a number of reflections I would like to record here in the hope that they may help give some peace of mind to what it appears are increasing numbers of parents who fear they are doing irreparable damage to their children by, of all things, being too attentive.

I, like Gottlieb, am a fan of Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” which I will quote at greater length than she does because, well, I am a fan of it.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some new ones just for you.

….

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as quickly as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

I don’t actually think that people ought not to have children, but I do believe that man hands on misery to man and this recent spate of blaming parents for being too attentive to their children seems to be to be a case in point. The problem with parenting, throughout most of human history, has been inattentiveness. That’s no surprise. Life is hard. Parenting is hard. I don’t have children, at least in part, because I find being sufficiently attentive to my cats taxing. I’m not insensitive, at least not if I am to judge from what family and friends and close acquaintances say about me. On the contrary, I am considered to be relatively sensitive. I acquired a stray cat many years ago and was somewhat put out by its habit of walking across the papers I was trying to grade. It would jump up on my desk and walk back and forth in front of me as I was trying to work. As frustrated as I was, it was clear to me that the poor thing needed attention. It was a living being crying out for affection, and that cry was obviously more immediately important that was my need to grade another paper just then. So I would stop and pet it and play with it until its need for affection was satisfied and I could get back to work.

Needless to say, this dragged out the process of grading papers. The good part of it was that I learned then and there that I should not have children. A cat, after all, is much more self-sufficient than a human child, which is notorious for having the longest period of dependency of any offspring in the animal kingdom. If I found it difficult to attend to the needs of a cat, how much more difficult, I realized, would I find it to attend to the needs of a child.

That’s the thing. Children need an enormous amount of attention and, thankfully, there are people who seem able to give it to them without resentment. I’m not entirely without qualification to speak on the issue of the state of today’s youth. I teach at a university, so while I don’t have children myself, I have lots of experience with young people. My impression of them is, in fact, very positive. Gottlieb is a psychotherapist, and she’s concerned because she sees increasing numbers of young people who’ve had happy childhoods but who are “just not happy” as adults. But should that be a surprise? It’s not easy to be an adult, particularly a young adult. Life is hard, and young people, no matter how happy or unhappy their childhoods, have relatively little experience navigating the stormy waters of maturity. All of a sudden they are expected to make important decisions on their own, to choose a career, a job at which they will spend the majority of their waking hours for the rest of their lives, answering to someone who, unlike their parents, is not tied to them by bonds of deep affection.

Just writing that sends cold shivers down my spine. Life is hard. It’s full of frustrations and disappointments. No amount of good parenting can change that fact. No amount of good parenting can guarantee that a child will grow up to be a perfectly happy and well-adjusted adult. There is no such thing, and to suggest that there is and that parents who have failed to fashion it from the raw clay of their children is to add insult to the injury of having, finally, to release those children into the cold, cruel world.

Of course people who’ve had happy childhoods are less happy as young adults. Duh? Do baby birds look happy when their parents push them out of the nest? Have the people who are now blaming parents for having been too attentive to their children ever watched nature shows? College is hard work, and it gets harder every day in that it gets more competitive. And, fun, fun, real work is harder than college. Your boss probably won’t give you an extension on an important assignment, or allow you to redo it to improve your “grade”. Kids know this. They know that however hard college is, it is still a picnic compared to what comes after it, and that is what they are looking at as young adults. Happy, why should they be happy? Gottlieb got one thing right. “The American dream and the pursuit of happiness,” she observes, “have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.” She doesn’t seem to see the implications of that observation though. There is nothing necessarily wrong with legions of people who’ve had happy childhoods being less happy as young adults. Being an adult is harder than being a child; most people struggle at it, even the ones, such as myself, who are really, really fortunate to find careers that are personally fulfilling, to say nothing of the multitudes who do not.

Rates of anxiety and depression, Gottlieb reports, have “risen in tandem with self esteem.” I’m willing to accept that rates of self-esteem among young people have risen because I have many friends with beautiful and apparently well-adjusted children, children who seem more even tempered, sympathetic and tolerant than I was as a child, or indeed than were any of my childhood friends. I’m optimistic, actually, about the future of humanity because of all the wonderful young people I see, including not just children , but also my students.

Ok, so much for rates of self-esteem. But have rates of anxiety and depression actually gone up? How does one measure such a thing? Presumably the measurements are made on the basis of the numbers of people seeking treatment for these conditions. But aren’t people with healthy self-esteem more likely to seek treatment than people with low self-esteem? There are many people my age or older who simply will not seek psychotherapeutic treatment for any reason because they see it as shameful. People with higher self-esteem are less concerned about things like that, and hence are more likely to seek treatment, thus skewing the numbers. That more people are seeking treatment for anxiety and depression does not thus necessarily mean more people are suffering from it. (It is interesting to note in this connection that neither Gottlieb nor anyone else she cites appears to acknowledge how these numbers may also be skewed by the increasingly aggressive marketing of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs by the pharmaceutical industry which appears designed to encourage pretty much everyone to seek treatment for anxiety and depression).

I don’t mean to suggest that children can’t be spoiled. They can, but there’s a difference between giving a child love and giving in to his or her every whim or desire. You can’t give a child too much love. So I say go ahead and pamper your children. Shelter them, protect them from as many of life’s hard knocks as you can for as long as you can. Reassure them that they are brilliant and beautiful. Comfort them when they fall, console them when they fail, etc., because there is no way in hell that you can be there for them all the time, even when they are children. Gottlieb observes naively, that “[k]ids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems.” But no parent can solve all a child’s problems, and the example she gives shows this. “I know of one kid,” she observes, “who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves.” By the time such kid are teenagers, she observes, “they have no experience with hardship.” Yeah, right. So the other kids are not going to make fun of the one kid who can’t be part of the carpool but whose parents have to drive him to school themselves. There is no way, no way any parent can keep a child from experiencing hardships. Kids are going to experience hardships, and they are going to learn, finally, to take care of themselves no matter how much parents may want to take care of them forever. One would think that if anyone understood this, it would be psychotherapists.

Perhaps what people in the psychotherapeutic professions should concentrate on is the hostility of the environment into which we are sending today’s youth. It’s never been easy to be an adult, but we’ve made it unnecessarily harder by creating a nasty punitive culture that is based on a negative view of human nature that we know now from biological and neurological research is demonstrably false. That is, people are not motivated by nothing but self interest, they are naturally sympathetic and empathetic. Perhaps the transition to adulthood would be less traumatic if our society were not based on the view it is “a war of all against all.” That is, perhaps our focus should not be on how this generation of parents, like every generation before it, is once again failing its children, but on how we are failing as a culture to create an environment that will maximize the potential for human happiness on an individual and a collective level.