Backseat Driving in the Clown Car

Backseat driving in the clown car: that’s what pundits are about, today.

In The New York Times, David Brooks tries to turn that around, making out that is those who disagree with him who have the red noses and squeeze horns. He mounts a defense of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) based on the idea that those he shills for are the wise and considerate and caring–and that everyone else is either raw material or the lunatic fringe (both left and right).

Education, to Brooks, “is to get students competitive with their international peers.” What the students need in their personal lives, or want, these don’t matter. What communities need, in terms of citizens and contributing members, doesn’t matter. And anyone who disagrees with Brooks and those he advocates for is a nut. A clown. Continue reading

Misunderstanding Academic Freedom… Again and Again

Last month, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, who should know better, described academic freedom as permitting “the airing and defense of any and all views.” It is not so simple as that, of course. As the 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure puts it, there are (as most of us know) three parts to academic freedom. They should be repeated, and often, so that we can concentrate on what academic freedom really is, and not on what so many (and not just Deneen) imagine it to be:

  1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.

  2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.

  3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

Though academic freedom has been conflated with freedom of speech over past decades (and, in many minds, has been extended to students), it was intended as a particular right of the faculty granted for quite specific purposes–and with clear limitations. Continue reading

Across the Great Divides? No More (Updated)

No matter the measure you use–education, income, heritage, race, family size, job type, language–Americans are moving to greater segregation than we have ever before experienced. This is a no-brainer; it has been the pattern for decades, and it becomes more dominant each year.

We must be satisfied with it, for we are doing nothing, absolutely nothing to change it. Certainly not in higher education.

My students, most of them first-generation college students, many of them immigrants, almost all of them from the less fortunate “side of the tracks” in one way or another (generally in many), are still sold the dream that they can make it to the other side of the divides, that their education is going to make a difference. They have been told that degrees are all it takes, told it throughout their education. I work with an Associates degree program, a transfer program meant to prepare students for baccalaureate majors. Few of these students were strong candidates for college in the first place (else they would be at one of the other CUNY campuses) though most of them (even those lacking basic skills) have the intellectual capacity for college work. As in A.A. programs nationwide, however, their success rate is abysmally low. We, like educators everywhere, are working hard to change that–but we still are, also, abetting a situation of growing separation.

What are these students going to do when they do get their Bachelor’s degrees and find that they still aren’t going to get the prize jobs? When are we going to admit to them that the dreams for their futures that we have helped foster can never be realized, that their chances of crossing to the other side are next to nil? When are we going to recognize that we are fooling ourselves–along with our students–when we claim that degrees are enough in themselves? Continue reading

College and the Growing American Divide

This was no surprise:

Deluged by more applications than ever, the most selective colleges are, inevitably, rejecting a vast majority, including legions of students they once would have accepted. Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.

The divide between thems-as-got and thems-as-ain’t is becoming even less connected to merit than it ever was (and the connection was weak at the best of times). The myth of a burgeoning meritocracy promoted by Charles Murray, Richard Florida, et al is becoming even more clearly and simply a justification by those on the top side of the divide, a justification for their being there. Continue reading

The Play’s Only One Thing: Renewing the Relevance of Literary Studies

Marc Bousquet writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education of “The Moral Panic in Literary Studies” today. He believes that it stems from “loyalty to a pedagogy from the 1950s.” I think he’s right—and I’ve little sympathy for the handwringers. Though I do think that the shift in English Departments toward Rhetoric and Composition and Digital Humanities is happening because of changes beyond the walls of academia, it is also the result of a deliberate collapse created by the scholars of literature themselves. They focus too closely on texts themselves and refuse to see (outside of certain formulaic constraints that have been with them for generations) that the objects of their study only exist in context and not as things in themselves alone.

In addition, this collapse, of a sort seen too often within ivory towers (or of them), stems from valorization of a particular way of looking at a topic (the basis for Bousquet’s fifties pedagogy), one that insists on creating a ranking—and a ranking that places a particular subject matter, not just a particular way of looking at it, at the top of an academic pyramid.

But that’s not the whole of it.

The study of literature is being passed by not because there is anything wrong with it in and of itself. Not even because it does not meet the needs of the contemporary age and reflects hierarchies long discarded. Yes, the study of literature is being passed by because it has become backward looking and dependent on a high-culture/low-culture distinction that has become increasingly seen as irrelevant, seen as a vestige of class systems no longer operating.

But, as I said, there’s more to it. Continue reading

Badass Mark Naison and the Growing Conflict in American Education: A Book Review

One of the many carefully orchestrated myths of the corporate “reformers” who have hijacked American education this century is that opposition comes only from the Tea Party and from teachers union ‘dead enders.’ All right-thinking Americans, the myth goes, recognize that our public schools have failed and that education in the United States can only be saved by alternatives like vouchers and charter schools, by public schools staffed by temporary Teach for America instructors, and by imposition of “standards” by an elite that knows what employers need. Led today by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates, College Board head (and Common Core State Standards creator) David Coleman, and Students First organizer Michelle Rhee, this well-funded “reform” movement has been steamrolling over resistance for years, opponents often destroyed before they even know they are under attack.

A case in point is the recent experience of Bill de Blasio, new mayor of New York City. Diane Ravitch, the doyen of the anti-”reform” movement, notes his surrender to the charter-school movement and asks: “How did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York’s students manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?” The answer, of course, is money. The money of the “reform” movement has, over the past decade or so, crushed all obstacles. Continue reading

CCSS: The Pushback Gains Momentum

Since the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were introduced, The New York Times has been in constant, clamorous support. Columnists as diverse as Paul Krugman and David Brooks have lauded them; new stories have assumed their obvious utility and necessity.

Today, however, that started to change. Columnist Timothy Egan wrote this:

The push for Common Core standards in the schools came from colleges and employers who complained that high schools were turning out too many graduates unprepared for the modern world. That legitimate criticism prompted a massive overhaul affecting every part of the country. Now, the pushback, in part, is coming from people who feel that music, art and other unmeasured values got left behind — that the Common Core stifles creativity. Educators teach for the test, but not for the messy brains of the kids in the back rows.

Egan is wrong about the push for CCSS–colleges and employers have complained about the quality of our high-school graduates, yes, but I have yet to hear one argue that imposition of random and universal “standards” would solve the problem–but it is wonderful to finally read someone give even the slightest criticism of CCSS in the Times. Continue reading

Badass Teachers Unite!

One day in October of 2011, I went down to Zuccotti Park to listen to what the Occupy Wall Street people were saying about education. They had a circle going, moderated by a couple of people from Columbia Teachers College and a member of the NYC City Council was handing out his card. It was nice to hear the passion of the speakers, but nobody really seemed to know as much as they felt. I walked around the group, peeking in, listening, and watching the others paying attention but hanging back.

One of these, a man a little older than I, seemed to be taking especial care to hear each person’s words. He, I decided, on absolutely no evidence, was probably the most interesting and perhaps the most knowledgeable person there.

I introduced myself and asked if we could exchange information, networking a bit toward what I hoped would one day become a great movement against the test-centric education “reform” movement and its No Child Left Behind and Race To the Top. The man said his name was Mark Naison; I’ve been watching him ever since. Continue reading

Education Reform: The Individual at Risk (Except when Protected by Money)

Taylorism, the systematization of labor developed by Frederick Taylor, makes the worker immediately replaceable. Individual skill and knowledge becomes irrelevant–on the part of the worker. Only at the higher levels of management and ownership does creativity count for anything. It’s an elitist system positing that those at the lower echelons are merely cogs, not thinkers. It’s the elitism forwarded by Ayn Rand, whose The Fountainhead ends with Howard Roark atop a building he designed–with the implication that he created it completely. He didn’t, of course.  No one does–but those with money and power can create the illusion of their own freedom and competence, an illusion based on the unrecognized work of those who, for whatever reason, are below them.

I first experienced the Taylorization of education a little more than a decade ago, when I worked, for a time, for a for-profit online “college.” It was a writing class. Naive, I was a little perplexed by the nature of the course, built on a structure with little room for instructor input. As I see writing as a dynamic, an interaction between author and audience, I tried to add that in, giving the students a little sense of whom they were writing to. I tried to make a few other changes, as well. Soon, I came up against “my” administrator, someone who had never taught, had no advanced degree relevant to the subject, but who was responsible for oversight of the “facilitators” (as we putative “teachers” were called). Finally, I was threatened with immediate dismissal if I deviated from the proscribed path. I finished up the term but did not ask to teach there again. Continue reading