Something to be Thankful For

I didn’t know that Trump had won the election until I woke up on the following Wednesday morning. I had neither the heart nor the stomach to watch the election returns Tuesday night. This was the worst election in my memory, in my lifetime, possibly in this country’s history. I knew watching the returns would be depressing. I wanted to watch something uplifting, something edifying, so I watched the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson. 42 may not achieve the same level of cinematic greatness as To Kill a Mockingbird, or In the Heat of the Night, but the story of Robinson’s integration of baseball is a great story and it makes the film deeply moving despite its shortcomings. Watching it reaffirmed my faith in the average American, the average human being.

There have been a lot of apocalyptic predictions about what would happen if Donald Trump were elected president. There’s no question that he will be able to do a lot of damage, but he will not, as so many people seem to think, be able to turn back the clock to the bad old days of a virulently racist, sexist, and generally intolerant past. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t racist, sexist, or intolerant anymore. We are. We are not so bad as we used to be, though, not by a long shot, and nobody is going to be able to turn the clock back on that, not even Donald Trump.

An election-night guest on Democracy Now said that if Trump were elected, all bets would be off. “These young black people,” she said, “who have been lying down in the streets as part of the many Black Lives Matter protests have been able to count on motorists not running them over. Well, if Trump gets elected, she asserted, they won’t be able to count on that anymore.” I’m paraphrasing her, of course, because my memory is not so good that I am able to repeat verbatim what she said. That’s pretty close, though.

The thing is, I believe she’s wrong. Motorists are not going to start running over protestors. It’s not like they’ve had to be forcibly restrained from doing this by liberal law-enforcement officers. As I explain to the students in my applied ethics classes, fear of arrest is not the reason most people obey the law. You couldn’t have enough law-enforcement officials on the street if fear of arrest were the only thing ensuring order in society. Respect for law, for social order, is the reason most people obey the law. People understand its importance for ensuring social order. They want to live in an orderly society and most people, in my experience, feel their fellow citizens, their fellow human beings, similarly deserve to live in an orderly society.

Motorists are not going to start running over protestors because human beings generally abhor homicide. Most people, the overwhelming majority of people, wouldn’t run over their worst enemy, even if they felt confident that they could do this without any negative repercussions to themselves. People are not the monsters that those who try to shape public opinion would often have us believe.

One of the things I love about teaching is that it keeps me in touch with basic truths about human nature. The overwhelming majority of my students are conspicuously good, decent people. Even the ones who occasionally cheat, clearly do so out of fear. Inter-cultural, and even inter-racial couples are a common sight on campus. No one seems disturbed by their presence. I’ll never forget an experience I had a few years ago when somehow the conversation in one of my classes had turned to the subject of romantic relationships and one of my male students, when discussing his current relationship casually referred to his love interest as “he.” I hadn’t realized that this student was gay. Everyone else seemed to know this, however. At least they exhibited no surprise whatever at what was to me the revelation of this student’s sexual orientation. There was not the slightest pause in the conversation, no raised eyebrow, no suppressed giggles –– nothing!

Racism, sexism, and homophobia among college students consistently make headlines in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education. I don’t mean to suggest that these things don’t exist among college students. They make headlines, however, because it is increasingly clear that they are the exception among college students rather than the rule.

Something analogous explains the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Police have always been killing young black men. Black Lives Matter is not a response to a recent spate of such killings. It is an expression of a growing intolerance of this perennial problem, especially in the face of video proof.

Televisions shows such as The Cosby Show and Will and Grace, not to mention decades of civil-rights activism, have humanized groups that were earlier demonized. Trump’s presidency wasn’t the only significant political change to come out of the recent election, more states legalized marijuana. The growth of the internet and the increasing ease of global communication more generally means many, if not most, Americans now know that a living minimum wage, universal healthcare, and free higher education are not impossible dreams but tangible realities in countries far less wealthy than the U.S. If some Americans think Obamacare went too far, polls suggest many, if not most, Americans think it didn’t go far enough.

We’re not perfect yet and likely never will be. Americans are getting progressively better, though, and we are going to continue to get better even if Trump’s election means the next few years will be ones of fits and starts.

This country has changed. It has changed irrevocably since the days of Bull Connor and death threats to those who would integrate baseball. We are a different country now than we were in our more ignorant and intolerant past. That’s something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “Waking Up to Change” in the 10 November 2016 issue of Counterpunch.)

 

Lies, Damned Lies, and Public Discourse on Higher Education

Portrait caricatureTwo staggeringly inane points are being made ad nauseam in public discourse about higher education. The first is that tenure is an institution that has far outlived its usefulness (if it ever was useful). The second is that universities today need to focus on providing students with the technical skills they will need in order to effectively tackle the demands of the contemporary, technologically advanced workplace.

Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation wrote last summer in The Chronicle of Higher Education that tenure was “one of the worst deals in all of labor. The best scholars don’t need tenure, because they attract the money and prestige that universities crave. A few worthy souls use tenure to speak truth to administrative power, but for every one of those, 100 stay quiet. For the rest, tenure is a ball and chain. Professors give up hard cash for job security that ties them to a particular institution—and thus leaves them subject to administrative caprice—for life.”

Carey seems to have confused tenure with indentured servitude. Tenure does not tie professors to particular institutions. A tenured professor is just as free to move to a new institution as a non-tenured one. Few will leave a tenured position for an untenured one, but that doesn’t make them less mobile than they would be if tenure were abolished. Academic stars seldom have difficulty moving from one tenured position to another, and professors who are not stars seldom have the opportunity to move.

I’m uncertain what Carey means by “administrative caprice.” In my experience, the faculties most subject to administrative caprice are those at for-profit institutions. Traditional colleges and universities more often than not share the governance of the university with the tenured faculty through the agency of a faculty senate, as well as through the judicious promotion of faculty to administrative positions.

Sure academic stars don’t need tenure. One doesn’t become an academic star, though, by excelling as a teacher. One becomes an academic star by excelling as a scholar. Excellent scholars, however, are not always excellent teachers. A good university needs both. Of course if human beings were fully rational, then university administrators would realize that the long-term health of an institution depends on its good teachers as much as, if not more than, on the reputation of its scholars. No one gives money to his alma mater because of his fond memories of studying at the same institution where Dr. Famous Scholar taught. I give money every month to my alma mater even though not one of my professors was famous. They may not have been famous, but they were fantastic teachers who cared about their students and instilled in them a love of learning. Quaint, eh? That doesn’t change the fact, though, that I give money to the least famous of the institutions of higher education with which I have been affiliated and that I give it for the simple reason of the quality of instruction I received there–and I am not alone.

Carey would likely counter that he is all for good teaching. He believes making professors “at-will employees” would require them to do “a great job teaching.” But who would be the judge of this “great teaching”? What would the standards be? If it were student evaluations, that could be problematic because students are not always the best judges of good teaching. Too many tend to give their most positive evaluations of instructors who give the fewest assignments and the highest numbers of As. Many come around eventually, of course. I had a student write me last winter to thank me for giving her the skills she needed to make it through law school. She had not written that letter upon her graduation from Drexel (let alone at the end of my course), however, but upon her graduation from law school! Unfortunately, we don’t solicit teaching evaluations from alumni for courses they took years earlier. Fortunately for me, I was tenured, so I could be demanding of my students without fearing that angry evaluations might cause me to lose my job.”At-will” professors are not so fortunate.

These are dark times in higher education. The intellectual backbone of a culture is the mass of university-level teachers who slave away in almost complete obscurity, not because they don’t have the intellectual stuff to make it in the highly-competitive atmosphere of “world-class scholarship,” but very often because they do not have the stomach for the nauseating degrees of self-promotion that are sometimes required to break into that world, and because they have too much conscience to abandon their students to their own, literally untutored, devices. Teaching is extraordinarily time consuming. It takes time away from research, the kind of research that brings fame and fortune. Teaching brings it own rewards, and thank heavens there are many who still value those rewards. Unfortunately, few such individuals are found among the ranks of university administrators.

As I said, however, this is not the only inanity that is being bandied about by talking empty-heads. The suggestions that universities should concentrate on providing students with technical skills is even more conspicuously ludicrous. The most obvious objection to this point is that the provision of technical skills is the purview of vo-tech (i.e., vocational-technical) schools and institutes, not universities. For the latter to suddenly begin to focus on imparting technical skills would effectively mean that we would no longer have universities. (That this may be the hidden agenda of the peculiarly American phenomenon of the anti-intellectual intellectual is understandable given that the days of their media hegemony would be threatened by even the slightest rise in the number of Americans who did not need to count on their fingers.)

There is a more profound objection, however, to the assertion that universities ought to focus on teaching technical skills: the shelf-life of those skills has become so short that any technical training a university could provide its students would be obsolete by the time of their graduation if not before. Dealing effectively and adaptively with technology is a skill acquired now in childhood. Many kids entering college are more tech savvy than their professors. Almost everything I know about computers I’ve learned from my students, not from the tech-support staffs of the various institutions with which I’ve been affiliated. One of my students just posted a comment to a class discussion in which he mentioned that one of his engineering professors had explained that what he learned in class might, or might not, apply once he was out in the workforce.

Technology is simply developing too rapidly for universities to be able to teach students the sorts of technical skills that old-farts are blustering they need. Kids don’t need to be taught how to deal with technology. They know that. They need to be taught how to think. The need to be taught how to concentrate (something that it is increasingly evident they are not learning in their ubiquitous interactions with technology). They need to be taught how to focus for extended periods of time on very complex tasks. They need to be taught how to follow extended arguments, to analyze them, to see if they are sound, to see if the premises on which they are based are plausible, to recognize whether any of the myriad inferences involved are fallacious. They need to be taught that they are not entitled to believe whatever they want, that there are certain epistemic responsibilities that go along with having the highly-developed brain that is specific to the human species, that beliefs must be based on evidence, evidence assiduously, painstakingly, and impartially collected.

Finally, students need to be taught to trust their own educated judgment, not constantly to second guess themselves or to defer to a superior simply because that person is superior and hence in a position to fire them. They need to be taught to believe in themselves and their right to be heard, particularly when they are convinced, after much careful thought, that they are correct and that their superiors are not.

Unfortunately, young people are not being taught these things. We are preparing them to be cogs in new kind of machine that no longer includes cogs. No wonder our economy, not to mention our culture more generally, is on the skids.

(This piece originally appeared in the 3 February 2014 issue of Counterpunch)