The Academe Blog

The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.

The Crisis

They are right. All of them. We are in the midst of a dismantling of the United States as we have known it for nearly a century, a dismantling sparked by those with less interest in sharing the wealth than in amassing as much as they can for themselves—to hell with the rest of them.

Yes, you’ve heard that all already, heard it all. Yet—don’t scoff—we are in a crisis as grave for our nation as that of December, 1776, when Tom Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” So it is, today, and so it will be. It’s a battle, one that has been going on for decades but one most Americans still haven’t awoken to—or find themselves in thrall to those acting against their own best interest.

RJ Eskow, writing last month for Huffington Post, put it this way:

It seems as if same battle is being fought in every aspect of American society. On one side are the forces of egalitarianism, economic opportunity, and self-determination. On the other is a well-funded and entrenched elite bent on hijacking our media, our political process, and our institutions, for their selfish ends.

True, but a little tepid: It doesn’t simply seem. It is. Nothing in the country has been spared, not even (as Eskow points out) our classrooms.

Not even our university classrooms.

The rise of for-profit universities, the shift to textbook publishers for curriculum development, the increased reliance on contingent faculty, shifts in management style to top-down corporate models, initiatives for standardization that slowly are removing the syllabus from the professor and giving it to the bureaucrat: these, and much more, are signs of a system, undercut from without and with no internal counter-effort, crumbling while too many of us continue our daily tasks as though they can mean something even though the entire supporting edifice turns to ruin.

Yes, there will continue to be excellent colleges and universities—just as there still are excellent schools preparing students for them—but these will only be for the children of the elite and for those other special few the doors will open for. The idea of real education—not simply job training—for everyone is being cast aside.

And we, for the most part, are doing nothing about it.

Less (when the “we” is college professors) even than our counterparts teaching K-12.

Frustration, in public education, is beginning to boil over. Diane Ravitch has become the de facto leader of an as yet inchoate movement to counter the Potemkin village of “reform” that is turning our schools from places of opportunity to sorting houses separating what the elite see as the wheat from the chaff. Mark Naison has founded the “Badass Teachers Association” that is exploding in size and importance, a venue for expressing the frustrations of genuinely good teachers in a milieu no longer allowing them to teach, but only to manage their classrooms.

Even we college professors could become Badass Teachers, but the movement, so far (though Naison himself is a college prof), is dominated by those in the public schools. We need to join in, too. Every year, since I returned to teaching almost a decade ago, I’ve seen student preparedness for college go down. What have we done about it, aside from wringing our hands and complaining?

Joining the AAUP, if you are not already a member, should be a start, but we all need to be doing more than that, more than restricting our activity and thought to what is going on in our colleges and universities. Becoming a Badass Teacher isn’t a bad idea, either—nor is following Ravitch’s blog, the best clearinghouse I know of for information about what is going on in public education.

The time to simply sit around and complain is long past. As Paine goes on to say, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” There’s value in the struggle itself. As teachers, we should know that.

About Aaron Barlow

English faculty, New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and Faculty Editor, "Academe."

5 comments on “The Crisis

  1. sethkahn
    July 5, 2013

    Aaron, I think this underestimates a lot of what’s happening at the college level–which is also inchoate, in many ways, but in others is much more advanced. The Campaign for the Future of Higher Ed is one example; the New Faculty Majority is another. Faculty unions around the country have fought back–sometimes successfully, sometimes less so–against anti-higher-ed and neo-liberal forces.

    Yes, there’s a lot of mobilizing to be done, but we’re not starting from zero. And more importantly, it’s crucial that we learn from and build on what we’ve done well.

  2. martinkich
    July 5, 2013

    In many ways, faculty unions–in particular AAUP chapters and conferences–are unlike other unions. Most specifically, our chapters and conferences are bottom-up organizations, depending a great deal on very engaged faculty activists and on very small staffs of dedicated professionals. But, unfortunately, we are like other unions in that we still need to do a much better job of actively engaging our members and in turning more of them into activists.

    We need to do this even as we focus on trying to organize more faculty in more states into effective CB and advocacy units.

    We need to do this even as we seek to extend our efforts to groups underrepresented in AAUP, such as adjunct faculty, graduate students, and academic professionals.

    It is not just that numbers translate into influence. One simply cannot confront attacks on the whole system of higher education–and, by extension, on the whole system of public K-12 education–without engaging as many people as possible within that system who have shared interests and concerns.

    As readers of this blog know, I am a big supporter of both the CFHE and the NFM, but both of those organizations depend on our being able to promote their positions on issues by galvanizing our membership on the conference and chapter levels.

    In sum, we need to get more people involved in doing more things.

    It is one of the reasons that I think that this blog is so important. It provides a forum for highlighting and hashing out issues, and you cannot convince people to become active on issues that they have not thought about. One of my major failings as a contributor to this blog (and I recognize that in making such a statement I may be opening the floodgates for comments on my other major failings) may be that, beyond promoting CFHE and NFM, I have not provided enough suggestions on how to become more actively involved to those who might want to do so but not quite know how to do so.

    At a minimum, all of us who are committed to organizing need to make it clear that if someone is interested in organizing a CB unit or an advocacy chapter, we are willing to help them do so or to find someone within AAUP who can help them do so. Angela Hewett, AAUP’s national director of organizing, has provided plenty of evidence that she is willing to travel anyplace where there are faculty who want to try to organize or to expand their membership. Angela not only has the support of Howard Bunsis, the CBC Chair, and of Rudy Fichtenbaum, the AAUP President, but both of them have themselves actively supplemented her efforts and those of the other DOS staff by traveling wherever they are needed. At our state level, the Ohio Conference leadership–John McNay, our peresident,,Sara Kilpatrick, our executive director,, and I, as the vice-president, have demonstrated a similar commitment.

    I tell anyone who asks that if they know someone, especially within Ohio or in adjacent states, who wants to organize, they should give them my e-mail or my cell phone number. For any reader who may be interested, it’s listed on the CBC Executive Committee contact page. Go to the AAUP home page and then to the CBC home page by clicking on the link on the upper right. (I’m slowly learning how to be a little more cautious in providing my personal contact information, especially in an open-ended forum such as this blog. If someone wants to spam me or send me personal hate mail, he or she will have to make a couple of extra clicks.).

  3. Jane Pellegrino
    July 6, 2013

    I am a retired high school mathematics and science teacher. It is correct that our public students are not prepared to enter college. I have watched this repeat for many years. I have also watched the college teachers lessen their requirements due to the dummy down approach we as a nation have set in motion. (I have taught at the college level, also.)
    I retired long before I wished to do so. I loved teaching and definitely worked toward understanding, relevance, and completion of necessary skills. I left for many reasons. Our public schools are imploding as the administration at all levels create a working environment that accomplishes low morale for the educators. This is indirectly passed to the students. I found that I was truly an island and that no one at a level who could make teaching possible were willing to step out and do what was correct. If you are aware of Spence Rogers and his “teachings on effectiveness in the classroom”, the first days of a two week seminar are spent teaching what he calls the Keys to Success in a class. When I left and had finally collected my personal belongings, I saw that poster. At that moment I realized that the people who are in charge of the teachers and clerical had created an environment that broke every key for the educator. It helped me understand how I could go against my values and leave after the first six weeks, instead of at a semester or at the end of the year. (I taught 33 years and when my students took standard tests the passed and at times were two standard deviations above the mean.) It also saddened me that I felt unsafe (not bodily harm) to the point of being ill every morning before I went to work.
    We need reform. How will that happen when the public and our politicians have no concept of the state of our schools are in, how teachers have created easier curriculum without realizing it for several years, just to survive the expectations of the upper hierarchy. At some point, education must be valued by the parents who will support and listen to the educators. The responsibility lies with the entire community, but the most important factor comes from the home and the expectations placed on the students.

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This entry was posted on July 5, 2013 by in faculty.
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