Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Opportuity and Single-Gender Schooling

I was struck this week by the following headline from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review: "Westinghouse's Single-Gender Academies to Bolster Opportunity." I found myself wondering "What kind of opportunity?" Perhaps, in light of the traditional gender stereotypes that have been used by many advocates to support the call for single-gender education since President G.W. Bush endorsed it earlier this decade, this means the opportunity for boys to explore the world using their rambunctious natures without the distraction of pretty girls, and for girls to more actively assert themselves without being trumped by the pesky shouts of exuberant boys. Perhaps, as is the case with the proposed all-male, all-African-American proposed charter school in Madison, Wisconsin, this means the opportunity to overcome persistent educational struggles by targeting the needs and strengths of one particular population.

I read further into the article to discover that the single-gender schools are thought to provide the "opportunity to show promise." Is promise something that is squelched or overlooked in mixed-gender settings? Can one only show promise in light of or because of one's gender when the other gender is kept at bay? Can one's talents only shine through when the radiating glow of the other gender is shielded? With perhaps a few rare exceptions, I find these unlikely to be the case.

What about the opportunity to learn from and interact with children different from themselves? What about the opportunity to break down gender stereotypes of the opposite gender by seeing counterexamples firsthand? What about the opportunity to prepare for the real world where genders work side-by-side daily in most fields? What about the opportunity to learn about how persistent systems of sexism trickle all the way down to influence the inter-gender relationships of children? What about the opportunity to expand our understanding of gender as two discretely defined categories? Those seem like the types of educational opportunities I would like to see.

Friday, December 10, 2010

This Economic Chance-World in Which We Live

As news of Obama’s deal with the Republicans to extend tax breaks to the wealthy was breaking on Monday night, I was sitting on my sofa finishing William Dean Howells’s classic novel about American social class mores, A Hazard of New Fortunes. At the heart of the novel are a set of characters who, in today’s terms, would likely fall into all three major groups touched by Obama’s spineless compromise of a plan: an energy millionaire, middle class professionals striving to keep afloat in uncertain economic times, and an angry, unemployed war veteran. It is striking how much better Howells saw the hazards of the economic situation than Obama does.

At the climax of the book, New York transportation workers strike for fair pay and a series of violent events ensues, which end up transforming the outlook of rich and middle class alike. (I’m not giving away what happens, because if you haven’t read this book, you should get hold of it and start reading immediately – for reasons mentioned in recent posts here and because this book is both timely and much funnier than one might expect from a weighty, socially serious novel.) Basil March, the middle class editor of a New York literary journal, has throughout the novel disdained social activism and treated the miseries of the working poor as a matter for distant intellectual curiosity, a picturesque subject to be used as subject material in stories for middle class readers. This changes when two of his companions are caught up in the violence. To his wife, March declares, that yes, life is risky,

“But what I object to is this economic chance-world in which we live, and which we men seem to have created. It ought to be a law as inflexible in human affairs as the order of day and night in the physical world, that if a man will work he shall both rest and eat, and not be harassed with any question as to how his repose and his provision shall come. Nothing less ideal than this satisfies the reason. But in our state of things no one is secure of this. No one is sure of finding work; no one is sure of not losing it. I may have my work taken away from me at any moment by the caprice, the mood, the indigestion of a man who has not the qualification for knowing whether I do it well or ill. . . . and so we go on, pushing and pulling, climbing and crawling, thrusting aside and trampling underfoot; lying, cheating, stealing; and when we get to the end, covered with blood and dirt and sin and shame, and look back over the way we’ve come to a palace of our own, or the poor-house, which is about the only possession we can claim in common with our brother-men, I don’t think the retrospect can be pleasing.”

Basil March’s words perfectly capture the reasons we should be outraged by Obama’s tax deal. It props up the poor for another 13 months with an extension of unemployment benefits. It props up the wealthy (not that they need much help) with tax breaks that worsen the national budget deficit. As Paul Krugman and other economists have pointed out, tax breaks to the wealthy are a completely ineffective way to stimulate the economy. It fails completely to prop up work, the middle class, and economic stability, which is what a tax plan should do. Obama himself is finally getting angry, accusing liberal democrats of overlooking the needs of working Americans, but Obama should get himself a copy of A Hazard of New Fortunes too. It might show him how ultimately laughable is the professional class’s insistence on decorum in the face of the pushing and pulling (not to mention the lying, cheating and stealing) in which the wealthy engage. Nothing short of work that leads to economic security can satisfy the reason, and there is no promise of that in this ridiculous tax plan.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, or such was the conclusion that Adam Gopnik came to in a response to this novel published in the New Yorker 10 years ago (reprinted in the Modern Library edition of this novel). “A hundred years ago, the one thing that Howells – and Henry Adams and so many others – knew for sure was that a society with a tiny plutocratic class, a precarious middle class, and a large and immigration-fed proletariat simply could not go on”, Gopnik comments. “Now, at the turn of another century, we find it is the only thing that has gone on, in nearly perfect duplicate.”

How has this happened? “Hope”, answers Gopnik, a willingness to forget about recession and inequality and go on as if we all might turn out ok. (This before Obama ran on the platform of hope, no less.) As the US continues careening around with the poor getting poorer and the rich richer, and our future in doubt as our politicians squander one opportunity after another, I wonder whether Howells might turn out to be right after all.

The ethically serious in America have been predicting disastrous consequences to our moral shortsightedness for nearly 400 years, so perhaps we’ll go careening forwards out of this crisis too. About this, though Howells is surely right: when we look back, I don’t think the retrospect can be pleasing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Serve the Rich! A Comment on Ann Beattie

I'm a sucker for book lists. I was scanning the latest list from Slate, of the best books of 2010 and found Ann Beattie's New Yorker Stories listed.

Now I will admit that I am an Ann Beattie fan, and an avid reader of both The New Yorker and of the contemporary American short story more generally. (It helps sustain my appreciation that Ann's husband, Lincoln Perry, was my first painting teacher, in 1976).

So I was struck by this line:

Beattie's characters of the '70s are young people foundering in nostalgia and quiet loss, trying to figure out how to move forward in a world where every choice is open but no markers of adulthood seem fixed.

I think the situation is much worse today, especially after the recession. And I don't think things will get better anytime soon.

The young coming of age in the 2010s are finding that no markers of adulthood seem any more fixed than in 1970, and yet very few choices are open. In the 1970s you could still go to college and grad school, study something you loved, and eventually maybe find a job you loved, too. But those pathways were already shutting down.

Today a few who are bright, ambitious, and vicious enough can "move forward" working for and serving the rich -- in investment banking, gourmet food, high fashion, personal coaching or whatever. I recently read one of those US News items of "news you can use" about future careers (I have a twenty year old son in college) and the advice was "serve the rich - they're going to be the only ones left with any money."

Nostalgia has given way to postmodern irony or worse, cynicism, and quiet loss has in many cases been replaced by desperation.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A happy face on your report card? A sitcom wades into the Québec school reform debate

We're all familiar with the well-worn criticisms of progressive school reform. It's "soft", it's written in "eduspeak", and it's ineffective. But when this kind of criticism makes it into popular culture, you know that it's having a significant impact.

In the clip below (which is subtitled), two major components of the Québec comprehensive school reform are targeted: non-percentage based report cards and cross-curricular competencies. Cross-curricular competencies are simply skills that are acquired across a range of subjects (e.g. critical thinking, problem solving), but the term itself ("compétences transversales" in French) has been surprisingly controversial, as the clip reveals... 

I'm still uncertain about why, exactly, cross-curricular competencies have received so much criticism. It's not as if the idea is particularly difficult to articulate or to understand, and goals like problem solving and critical thinking are uncontroversial. Percentage-based report cards, on the other hand, are part of people's established picture of how school is supposed to be, and so resistance here is less surprising.

Stretching through art

(This is cross-posted from Smart and Good.)

I am breathing slowly and deeply this morning, puzzled and saddened by something I heard yesterday on NPR. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery pulled part of the art exhibition “Hide and Seek” on Thursday under pressure from, among others, the Catholic League. Removed from view was a 4 minute video exploring death by AIDS and depicting Jesus on the cross being eaten by large black ants. However, my concern here is not the piece, nor the protest nor even the pronouncement that the Smithsonian would remove David Wojnarowicz‘s representation of his lover’s death, “A Fire in My Belly.”

Others have had interesting things to say on both sides of this issue if you want to pursue it:



I am most distressed today as an American educator by the post-game comments of Bill Donovan, the President of the Catholic League. Donovan, reveling in his triumph, is now working to undercut any and all taxpayer supported arts in the United States. What would this do to educational possibility in our present cultural and economic position? What do we lose if we fail to support the images and ideas that stretch us?

Donovan’s case goes something like this. Because there is no taxpayer support for that which “working people” appreciate, specifically the World Wrestling Federation, then there should be no taxpayer support for any other kinds of arts and entertainment. Hmmmm.

[Sidenote here: The government of Abu Dhabi has initiated a revitalization of their economy by importing branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre – a decidedly different take on what impacts a people toward productivity.]

Now there’s a lot of art I don’t understand and a lot I don’t appreciate (including WWF), but even the stuff I don’t understand (sometimes especially that stuff) stretches me (including WWF). And that stretching is part of my ongoing education. Because WWF is widely supported by both people who work and people who don’t, it is available to me. I can be – and very occasionally am – stretched by it. But other arts not commercially viable are nonetheless valuable. Sometimes that which we most need to enhance our collective sensibilities, to expand our abilities to respond to each other with understanding and appreciation, is that which we avoid, resisting enhancement or expansion, because it is uncomfortable. We don’t want to be stretched.

WWF may be one way of exploring the human condition, but it is not the only way. The visual and performing arts have this exploration as their raison d’etre. Videos like “A Fire in my Belly “ are such an exploration, an invitation to feel, to think, to act with integrity in the world.

Now here’s the part that’s tricky. That which is shocking can either prompt or impede educational stretching. Shock is, by definition, experience marked by strong feelings. Such feelings can open us up to educational possibility, but they can also harden into fear (flight, fight and/or paralysis) before reason or reflection can connect those feelings to possibilities for new understanding or action. Mr. Donovan is afraid. Something has scared him. It’s not this particular video (a Christian who has pondered “The Passion of the Christ” has already dealt with images more shocking than these), but there is something that has prompted the members of the Catholic League to flee deeper understanding, to fight those who seek it for themselves, to freeze in the track of past experience rather than renewed possibility. As an educator, I have to name this as fear and resist it – and resist as well any effort to shrink the artistic world or narrow the aesthetic sensibility that is available to me.

Government-supported funding of the arts serves precisely this purpose: to keep in play just those representations and explorations of that human (American) experience that we do not necessarily seek out, that we don’t readily pay to support. It is never time to cut the budget for what educates all of us.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Without a 'canon' what?

I have been enjoying a Facebook multilogue on the great books initiated by Dianne Allen. Dianne posted a book list from the BBC of 100 significant books; although most are squarely in the Western cannon, the BBC estimated that the average reader will have read no more than six of them. My magic number was 22, but as I looked at the list I was amazed, and somewhat chagrined, that I had not read many more.

Several of the participants in this conversation mentioned that of the few they had read, most were assigned in high school. The question I want to raise is this: Now that we have pretty well destroyed the idea of a 'canon' on the grounds of its Eurocentric, racist and sexist implications, how will we ever have any common touchstones. Phrases that once echoed in our heads from the Bible, Shakespeare and Aesop will no longer provide these.

I am preparing to travel to Italy with my wife next year -- the standard (note that term) Rome Florence Venice tour. I am already reading about these cities and their cultural institutions, and am getting familiar with the locations of the main sights on the city maps. So for Florence I already can locate the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi, etc.

But imagine a city with no canonical works of art or architecture, no "standard" sights, no reference points. A city where everything is as significant, potentially, as everything else. Would this make the experience of the city liberating and fascinating, or just confusing and ultimately boring?

Yes of course, the real pleasures of travel have little to do with "doing" the sights. They are about chance meetings in coffee houses, unexpected and unpredictable experiences, personal self-discoveries. But where do you find these? On the way to the Duomo, or Botanical Gardens, or Uffizi, that's where.

So it goes with reading. Serious writing does not stand in isolation. It is a response to what has gone before it, and a portent of what is to come. This situation in a living history is what makes writing "literature". We always tell our grad students that when they write a term paper or thesis they have to do a "review of the literature". They they are making a "contribution to the literature". That they are "joining a conversation.

Would it be fascinating, or liberating, to just say whatever you wanted in response to anything, or nothing? Of course not. That is why reading books is important, and why we need some touchstones in literature. And we need them not so that we can say that everyone "did" the Bible or Jane Austen or Dickens, but so that as people have their chance encounters and make their personal discoveries they have something to talk about, and a sharable vocabulary.

Or perhaps you do not see it this way, in which case, please join the conversaton!

PS. I stuck the picture of Emerson on this post because (1) I always like to include a picture and hear that having a picture makes a blog post more inviting, (2) I had this on my computer, and (3) I think Emerson is worth reading if you want to talk about social issues within an American context.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reading books as "silver bullet"?

Len Waks reminded us earlier this week of the impact of reading books. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that we who inhabit academic settings might have a vested interest in promoting the writing and reading of books. But my intuition is that Len is right, and his post reminded me of the lengths I went to turn my daughter into a book reader.

Emily was a rising sophomore in high school the summer I decided that I couldn’t abandon her to a lifetime without the entertainment, the consolation and the provocation of books. It wasn’t that she couldn’t read. She read easily and well, comprehending and putting thoughts into words without difficulty. But she was not “a reader.”

So I played “Let’s Make a Deal.” I offered this 14 year old an article of clothing for every book she completed that summer. Her eyes lit up but did not light upon a book until I started to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible to her one June night at bedtime. (Do I need to remind any of us that we all like to be read to, even when, especially when, we are “too old for that”?) I read about 10 pages to her each night for five nights in a row. One night I was not at home when she went to bed. She picked up the book without me, started reading and never looked back. When she completed the book, she earned a skirt. When she completed the second book that summer, she earned a top that went with it. When she completed the third book, she didn’t ask for any sartorial compensation. Today, ten years later, she is never without a book close at hand.

I sometimes wonder why she became a reader that summer after ten years of successful schooling had failed to lead her there. Was it the external reinforcement of a material reward? Perhaps, the companionship of mother and daughter reading and talking about the same book? Or did those two extrinsic elements keep her nose in the book long enough to feel the intrinsic pay-off of reading as a window into minds and worlds not our own?

More importantly, what was it about reading in and for school that did not encourage that habit? I’m not a believer in “silver bullets” when it comes to solving educational problems, but if I were, the one I could believe in would be turning all the Emilys of the world into readers of books.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Most Important Thing to do is Read Books

Mitch Joel, the inimitable guru of web marketing, writes an important post on 'the most important thing'. Two times on one day he ran into thought leaders who said, unequivicably, that the most important thing to do to move ahead in your life is to read books.

Yesterday morning, I went to see Jeffrey Gitomer (best-selling author) speak. Gitomer is pretty clear about what it takes to be successful. After spending some time with him, it's obvious that the real secret (for him) is in the reading. Gitomer reads a ton. He not only collects the books that inspire him, but he devours them and surrounds himself with them. He loves words. He's constantly learning and educating himself, and - from there - the ideas for his writing (whether it's a book, article, presentation or tweet) flow from an overflowing brain of ideas and inspiration.

Then, it happened again.

After Gitomer's presentation, I went for lunch with Julien Smith (co-author with Chris Brogan of Trust Agents)who told me about Charlie Munger (one of Warren Buffet's peers) and his passion for reading. Munger loves reading. Munger believes that the most successful people he knows are those individuals who are constantly reading... like in a non-stop kind of way.

Most of us really give up on reading after university.

I've been thinking a lot about reading lately (and how much I love it)... Tweets, status updates and Blog posts that tell you how to generate more Blog readers don't count much . . . The majority of newspaper and magazine articles are probably right on the edge of valuable reading, but the guts of reading that will truly make you smart and successful comes from the high brow stuff. The books, periodicals and longer thought/research pieces.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

It takes a corporate executive ...

To run a school system?? Have you been following the Michael Bloomberg/Cathleen Black/David Steiner saga in New York City? Bloomberg wants a long-time media exec with no public educational experience and no apparent interest to “manage” (read slash costs) in the city schools. State educational commissioner David Steiner initially refused to grant Black an exemption from required credentialing – with apparent good reason – and Bloomberg, to his surprise, couldn’t garner enough political support to pressure Steiner. So the accommodation is a “chief pedagogical officer” to support (challenge?) Black’s lack of understanding.

See, for example, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/27/nyregion/27black.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=a2.

Dave Waddington’s previous (and damning) post about a leading corporate university’s failure to provide value for dollars spent suggests that a corporate approach to education can be (and often is) more expensive and less effective than present efforts. The jury is out on Cathleen Black, with or without her pedagogical sidekick. (One hopes that she would have been smart enough to make this appointment on her own – but who knows?) I, for one, hope that she succeeds wildly. But success must be determined by looking at both sides of this complicated cost/benefit equation. Potential educational benefits to the kids and families of New York can cut the costs to the city far beyond the dollars the taxpayers actually spend on schools. But that requires a long-range view that corporate executives can rarely sustain.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

America's Subprime University: 9% Graduation Rate at University of Phoenix

A new report from the Education Trust has just been released that analyzes the growth of for-profit universities.

Some highlights:

-- University of Phoenix (all campuses) graduation rate: 9%
-- University of Phoenix (Online) graduation rate: 5%
-- University of Phoenix (Cleveland) graduation rate: 4%
-- University of Phoenix (all campuses) % revenue from federal financial aid: 90%
-- Pell grant aid to U of P in 2009-2010: more than $1 billion
-- Median student debt upon graduation at for-profit universities: $31,190
-- Median student debt upon graduation at public universities: $7,960

The facts speak for themselves. The University of Phoenix preys upon the most vulnerable students and leaves them with a hefty bill.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

If You Want to be a Princess, First You Need an Education

I can’t say I’ve thoroughly combed through the media commentary on Prince William’s announcement that he will marry Kate Middleton, but I did read a little of it this morning after this statement in a New York Times article caught my attention:

“Should Miss Middleton become Queen Catherine, she will be the first queen in British history to have a college degree, or indeed, to have any college education at all.”

Some commentators have lamented the fact that future Princess Kate has done little with that college education except procure a husband, but I think that overlooks a more important point.

For the past few weeks, my undergraduate classes have been reading about gender and sharing their thoughts on gender roles, marriage and family, media influences and girls’ education. In a comparison of contemporary and 19th century arguments about single sex education, one student commented that at least nowadays women’s main reason for attending college isn’t to find a husband. Agreed, but when I asked them whether as college women they feel pressure to find a boyfriend, or at the very least to procure male attention, stories started to pour out about friendly teasing at family gatherings and being left out of social events as friends paired off. The story that floored me, though was one young woman’s account of deciding in seventh grade to save her money for higher education, a commitment she stuck to when she recently faced the choice of getting married and starting a family or staying in college and continuing on to the graduate degree she wants to complete.

Two traditions are at issue here. One is education versus marriage, the notion that education (and the career, as e.g. abbess, teacher, social worker, college president, that education can lead to) exists as a respectable alternative to family life, giving women a path to success that runs parallel to the marriage track. Second is education as a means to marriage. A third, far more lovely and quintessentially modern, possibility, is that education is neither the autobahn to marriage nor the functional frontage road running next to it but, rather, a road to adulthood on which women can maintain an autonomy that serves them, and their relationships, well. Education not only provides careers and husbands; it provides the ability to make sense of it all and to keep afloat no matter what follows (divorce, job loss, dissatisfaction, media hullabaloo, whatever life brings).

A few years ago, in a New Yorker review of biographies of Diana Spencer, John Lanchester commented on her “outlandish lack of education” and how poorly it served her in later life. “In retrospect, it’s clear,” he notes, “Diana would have been better off with a mug of cocoa and an art history book than with jetting around Europe with Dodi Al Fayed.”

Yesterday in class, my students discussed media images of women and the out-of-school education those provide. We talked about how much more the media is a part of our lives than ever before and why girls and women hold themselves to the standards of beauty sold to them by television, magazines, the internet, music, film and ads at every turn. And we talked about how to raise girls possessed of self-respect, dignity, insight and resistance to manipulation. At times, the prospects looked hopeless. The education that teachers and parents can offer our girls and boys seems a frail opponent to the forces of popular culture. But the notion of a college educated British princess makes me hopeful. Parents and teachers everywhere can now say this to all those little girls begging for tiaras: If you want to be a princess, first you have to get a higher education.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Is there a "Virulent Left-Wing" Bias in Education?

[Cross-posted from Technopaideia]
It's no secret that the people who control public schools are at war with our nation's history, culture and achievements. - Phyllis Schlafly
I’ve recently become interested [again] in the question of whether an allegedly liberal bias in educators and academics has had a large impact on American schools and…through them…on the beliefs of Americans at large.The question has come up most recently because of something my Dad wrote in a comment on a discussion I was having with a couple of my (professor) colleagues on Facebook.  We were talking about the ways in which Kant's philosophy of education (especially his optimism about progress through education) reflected a modern viewpoint, and that that viewpoint had faded with the rise of post-modernism. A colleague asked me if I blamed "po-mo," and I said that I didn't, but instead blamed the reaction to po-mo, and then another asked if Kant could be called "pre-po-mo," or if that was reducible to "mo."  

In any case, we were playing with some of the common tropes in academia. My Dad (with whom I've had a number of heated discussions about politics on Facebook and elsewhere), wrote:  
NOW I know what we conservatives are up against. Thanks guys for enlightening me.
One of my colleagues asked him what he meant by that, and he wrote:
It's not just Big Government, Pubic programs and Tax and Spend that makes the liberal tic. That's just the symptoms. It goes to a deep seeded need to make mankind better and socially equal and they feel that they know better than the public in general what's best for them.

It all boils down to an ideology. You guys will never see my arguments as having any worth to the discussions. I'm trying not to lower myself to name calling but you guys consider yourself to be the elite, the educated ones that knows best. You talk about what you've learned and read and have been lead to believe that there is no alternative to your philosophies in education and to life in general.

No, there is no sinister plot by the Liberal. You truly believe that what you know is the only way. On your side you have most of academics, Hollywood, the media and the Democrats. There's a new meaning, for me, about what a liberal education really is. With each generation of graduates, you're getting exactly what you want in our children. They will think the same as you do.
Now, there's a lot in my Dad's comment that serves as food for thought.  For example, I'm not sure why he believes that me and these particular colleagues think alike (I don't think we do think completely alike, although we are all education professors with a strong interest in furthering our own understanding of the history of ideas and culture in general, and we all know what "po-mo" refers to. Well, okay, I'll admit it, these two colleagues and I are all Democrats).  For another, I don't know why we're more guilty of believing that what we know is the "only way" than any, say, group of Sarah Palin fans (of which my Dad is one).  For a third, I don't really think that a deep-seated desire to make mankind better is the same as thinking we know better than the public in general what's good for them. (Although it's interesting to contemplate the obverse of this statement...do conservatives think they know better than the general public that has been allegedly brainwashed by liberals in the educational system? Maybe only when conservatives lose elections to liberals?!?...but I digress.) Those questions aren't what I'd like to address here.

Instead, I'm intrigued by this idea that we academics (educators, teachers) are somehow "getting what we want in our children" and that "what we want" is that they think "the same" as we do.  This is quite an interesting claim, to me.  It seems to imply not only that "we" all think alike and that "we" all have the same desire to produce graduates who think in the same way as "we" do, but it also suggests that we're pretty successful in getting our graduates to think like us.  And since we have "Hollywood, the media, and the Democrats" on our side, we don't even have to be especially effective at schooling the kids in the liberal ideology...we can rely on the culture at large to aid and abet our conspiracy.

Once you look around on the Internets, my Dad's notions here about a liberal conspiracy that includes the schools don't seem unusual.  In fact, it seems to be a pretty common belief.  Here are just a few examples I found in just a few minutes:

1. In an article about the political realities of climate change given the recent elections, it was stated that young people are more likely to believe in global warming than older people are.  The article included this paragraph:
Anthony Watts, a prominent climate skeptic who runs the popular and controversial site “Watts Up With That,” blamed the “liberal” education system for the lack of young climate skeptics. “I suppose such a group would be unlikely because our children are conditioned by textbooks and a generally liberal education process to believe in the [man-made global warming] premise as factual and without question,” he said.
The article went on to address the fact that the older people are, the less likely they are to believe in man-made climate change or in the need for drastic governmental efforts to avoid a catastrophe.  It's interesting that one of the theories offered as to why people seem to change their minds about this as they get older is that they come to understand the economic costs of seriously addressing the issue, and are less willing to pay those costs.  They're also supposedly less alarmist...probably having survived more "the sky is falling" situations in their lives...being a bit jaded, perhaps.  But the fact that older people tend to understand the costs of addressing climate change doesn't--it seems to me--explain why they also don't think these efforts should be made...but I guess I underestimate the degree to which people vote their pocketbooks on things like this.

Watt's view that young people today have been "conditioned by textbooks and a generally liberal education process" is the core of what I'm addressing here.  The implication, of course, is that this has gotten worse in recent years...thus explaining why young people today are more likely to believe a "liberal" point of view (their elders went to school before this bias took hold, perhaps?).

 2. In an opinion piece in the Washington Times in April of this year, Deborah Simmons wrote:
Academia [is] leading young minds in a direction that [will] come to affect every aspect of American tradition and policy. Pity the enemies of liberalism and our children because, well, here we are. Same-sex marriage laws are sweeping the states. So-called medical marijuana laws are, too. The public option almost made it into the health care reform bill, and union demands mean weak-kneed politicians and lawmakers are turning their backs on fiscal conservatism in favor of continuing failed one-size-fits-all education policies. That's the short list.
(Of course, this kind of talk (that our liberal education system is leading the American people to vote in certain ways is...well...only really salient after elections which result in the election of more liberal politicians.  So, after the 2008 elections, the liberal bias of schools seemed particular strong.  After the 2010 elections?  Not so much.)

Simmons goes on to talk about an interview she conducted with David Horowitz:
Mr. Horowitz talked about how "deliberate liberal bias" has ruined America's schools. Teachers unions, he said, are the root of the problem. "They don't want another voice in the room," Mr. Horowitz said. "The teacher unions and the Democratic Party have a monopoly on the public school systems. ... Teachers get paid for showing up. No one in the world gets paid for showing up." And, he continued, "the kids fail and there's no incentive to teach." "Teachers," Mr. Horowitz said, "are overpaid and underworked, and protected ... by the Democratic Party," and unionized teachers will "fight with their last breath."
Teacher bashing and complaining about the liberal bias in curriculum and content seem to go hand in hand.  This begins to explain why many on the right prefer to have schools run by corporations...through charters...most of which aren't unionized.  By reconfiguring schools so that teachers must teach instead of sitting around--the reasoning goes--the schools will be less likely to brainwash the kids...right?  (I'm not sure I get this...the teachers don't work hard...so they effectively brainwash the kids? If they worked harder...they would brainwash less? Clearly, there's a view here of what the "real work" of teachers ought to be.  More on this later.  But first, let's go on.)

3. (Okay, I admit, this next one is a low-hanging fruit.) Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly wrote earlier this year on her Eagle Forum about the fight to revise the Texas state curriculum guidelines, titling her post "Texas Kicks Out Liberal Bias From Textbooks." The whole piece is really interesting to me, but I'll just include a few excerpts here:
For years, liberals have imposed their revisionist history on our nation's public school students, expunging important facts and historic figures while loading the textbooks with liberal propaganda, distortions and cliches. It's easy to get a quick lesson in the virulent leftwing bias by checking the index and noting how textbooks treat President Ronald Reagan and Senator Joseph McCarthy.... [The link doesn't exactly prove that textbooks treat Reagan badly...but does cite one book that gave the credit for ending the Cold War to Gorbachev and not Reagan...one book...clearly virulent.  And the alleged expert who was cited about this...a not-so-liberal professor at the University of Dayton who blogs about "the liars in the government-controlled media." The government controls the media?  But I thought it was the liberals who controlled the media...and that conservatives can't succeed in academia... But let's go on...]
In most states, the liberal education establishment enjoys total control over the state's board of education, department of education, and curriculum committees. Texas is different; the Texas State Board of Education is elected, and the people (even including parents!) have a voice. ...
(Parents actually have a lot of control over schools...everywhere...as anyone who has spent any time at all in school board meetings know.  Principals, in fact, have as their primary job keeping the parents from getting so upset about things at school that they begin to call school board members...who control the principal's jobs. In fact, one could say that increased parental control over schools has had a considerably stifling effect on teachers in the past few decades. But that doesn't fit into the "liberal bias" storyline...and it's another story for another time.)

Now that I think about it, Schlafly's editorial is worth quoting at some length:

After a public outcry, the [Texas State Board of Education (SBOE)] responded with common-sense improvements. Thomas Edison, the world's greatest inventor, will be again included in the narrative of American History.[Huh? What's this got to do with liberals and conservatives?]
Schoolchildren will no longer be misled into believing that capitalism and the free market are dirty words and that America has an unjust economic system. Instead, they will learn how the free-enterprise system gave our nation and the world so much that is good for so many people.
Liberals don't like the concept of American Exceptionalism. The liberals want to teach what's wrong with America (masquerading under the code word "social justice" [on which, more below]) instead of what's right and successful. The SBOE voted to include describing how American Exceptionalism is based on values that are unique and different from those of other nations. [Don't all nations think they're "unique" and "different"?  What's exceptional about the American beliefs in their own exceptionalism?]
The SBOE specified that teaching about the Bill of Rights should include a reference to the right to keep and bear arms. Some school curricula pretend the Second Amendment doesn't exist. [From the linked source: "Let me say point blank that one of the objectives of this [federal] curriculum is to eliminate the Second Amendment." There's an interesting side story here about this so-called "federal curriculum," but again, for another time.]
Texas curriculum standards will henceforth accurately describe the U.S. government as a "constitutional republic" rather than as a democracy. [Yes, not a democracy, really. Something to get my preservice teachers to think more about!] The secularists tried to remove reference to the religious basis for the founding of America, but that was voted down. The Texas Board rejected the anti-Christian crowd's proposal to eliminate the use of B.C. and A.D. for historic dates, as in Before Christ and Anno Domini, and replace them with B.C.E., as in Before the Common Era, and C.E.
The deceptive claim that the United States was founded on a "separation of church and state" gets the ax, and rightfully so. In fact, most of the original thirteen colonies were founded as Christian communities with much overlap between church and state.
History textbooks that deal with Joseph McCarthy will now be required to explain "how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of Communist infiltration in U.S. government." The Venona papers are authentic transcripts of some 3,000 messages between the Soviet Union and its secret agents in the United States.
And, finally:
It's no secret that the people who control public schools are at war with our nation's history, culture and achievements. Since taxpayers foot the bill, it is long overdue for a state board of education to correct many textbooks myths and lies about our magnificent national heritage and achievements.
(Whew! "At war with our nation's achievements"! Damn, those "people who control public schools" must be a virulent, biased, even nefarious bunch! Who are those people, again?) But let's go on:

4. Here's some excerpts from a blog produced by Intellectual Takeout (ITO), "a non-partisan, educational 501(c)(3) institution [whose] vision is to become a national leader in educating and mobilizing conservatives, libertarians, independents, and progressives [?!?] in order to play a pivotal role in expanding individual and economic freedoms while reducing the size and scope of government."

According to many studies [not cited; see below], bias in academia more often than not is liberal bias. Many professors and students admit to possessing liberal ideologies or Democratic voting tendencies. It is natural and right for liberal students and professors to freely express their liberal philosophies, but is it right for liberal professors to continually advance their ideas in the classroom while squelching all other opinions? No.
As many of the pieces in this section suggest, universities are the breeding grounds for a variety of ideas and thought processes. Students who attend American colleges and universities should be able to gain a well-rounded view of their country, its founding principles, and the ideas – from all points on the political spectrum – that continue to shape and mold its future. Unfortunately, today’s colleges have drifted away from these ideals and become bastions of liberal thought and activism.
I dug a little deeper into Intellectual Takeout, which organizes their "information similarly to most university course offerings," by topics. I was curious that one of the topics under "Education" was "Colleges of Education."  "Hmmm....I thought...this should be interesting..." And so it is.

There are two sub-topics under Colleges of Education. One is about teacher certification, and the other is called "Education and Social Justice." This phrase "social justice," which seems on its face to be a nonpartisan ideal (who is against justice in society?), appears again and again in writings that claim an alleged left-wing bias in schools. (It's also become one of my Dad's favorite phrases when describing the conspiracy toward a New World Order that me, Obama, and our liberal friends are working toward.) The article in Intellectual Takeout explains the phrase's significance:
As has been mentioned numerous times before, the American education system has undergone major changes in the past fifty years as the principles of teacher-directed education have gradually given way to student-centered learning philosophies. [The history of progressive education is certainly an interesting one...but this quick summary seems a bit...simplistic to me.  Anyway....] Although seemingly recent, the changes that have occurred in the classroom were actually initiated many years before in the classrooms of education schools. [Okay...progressive educational ideas certainly achieved a sort of critical mass...say...in the 1940s. So this makes a bit of sense.] The training that occurs in these education schools has a great influence on the social, cultural, and intellectual path that a nation will choose, and due to this fact, it is important to understand what exactly our nation’s education schools are instilling in the minds of our future teachers. The “latest and greatest” education philosophy that education schools are pushing is the central focus of this library section: social justice education.
This is truly interesting.  Now comes a bit of a doozy: 
Social justice education is also commonly referred to as “critical pedagogy.” [Oh boy!] Although its ambiguous titles suggest virtuous American ideals such as truth and justice, its core principles revolve around a pervasive Marxist ideology. Championed by men such as Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and William Ayers, critical pedagogy seeks to turn students into activists with an anti-capitalist mindset. Education schools are increasingly promoting this idea among their students by encouraging them to reject their “privileged” status, recognize their own racial biases, and focus on the “oppressed” facets of society. Today’s elementary and secondary classrooms are beginning to reflect these ideologies. As a result, American schools are slowly moving away from their old purpose of instilling academic skills and factual knowledge in children and toward a lopsided political indoctrination.
Wow! This is beginning to get a little personal.  I work in a college of education. One of my occasional duties is to teach courses in the  history and philosophy of American education...to preservice teachers (those who are just getting their teaching credentials). The course that I most often teach in that area is called "Social Justice Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of American Education."  (Yes, it is!)  Here's the catalog description:

FND 510:  Social Justice Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of American Education (for M.A.T. students)
This course critically examines the social, cultural, political, and economic forces, and the philosophies of education that have influenced policy, laws, school structure, and practices throughout the history of American education. Issues addressed include ability and disability, race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Students lay the foundation for the development of a personal philosophy of education and reflectively examine issues of education from legal and social justice perspectives. This course includes a field project requiring at least 15 hours of work outside of class. 3 semester hours
Notice the key phrase "critically examines..."  On the very face of it, this seems to confirm ITO's view.

What's more, the National College of Education's conceptual framework includes the following:

NCE Faculty and candidates use scholarly habits of mind and methods of inquiry in order to affect P-12 student learning by:
  • Envisioning, articulating, and modeling democratic and progressive education
  • ... 
  • ...
  • Advocating for democratic values, equity, access and resources to assure educational success for all
I think this is what we faculty members in the National College of Education at National-Louis University mean by "social justice."  Social justice, to me, and to my colleagues, means working for a society that is democratic...where every child has access to a quality education.  This means paying attention to the social, political, and economic conditions that affect the quality of schools and that impact the experience that children have in school. It involves attention to what has come to be known as "culturally-relevant" pedagogy...which suggests that teachers must be sensitive to the values, traditions, and perspectives of the families that children come from, and the effects that prior experiences have on their experiences in school. (Click here for more on this approach.)

The thing is, none of this suggests that what we want is to create teachers well-versed in what has been called "critical pedagogy." Rather, our goal is helping new teachers to understand the broader social forces that pertain to their work in classrooms with particular children, so that they can be more effective teachers. (Although, we must admit, colleges of education aren't necessarily doing a great job with this; see here for one take on how poor they are.) We faculty members also want our teacher-graduates to be true professionals who use their understanding of history, sociology, and cultural psychology to further the profession and increase the effectiveness of schools and of the American educational system in general.  We most definitely don't believe that teachers should just teach academic skills and factual knowledge...we expect them to know and care about the larger context of schooling and about the daily lives of their students, now and in the future. Thinking critically about education means knowing that education requires more than just getting the kids to be effective in computation and decoding and memorization...and, more importantly, it means more than just teaching lower-income kids to follow orders and upper-income kids to be creative and problem-solve. (Which is what tends to happen in schools; see Anyon, 1980)

Certainly some of us do talk about critical pedagogy in some contexts. Personally, I don't think you can teach a course in the history and philosophy of education without some attention to thinkers who are considered left-wing. Some of us even assign readings, in some contexts, from Freire, Giroux, and Ayers (and...gasp!...even John Dewey!).  But we also assign readings from John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, James Conant, and Diane Ravitch, the books of which do not appear on the list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" (Dewey's Democracy and Education does, though.) John Locke's Two Treatises of Government even appears on the Ultimate List of Conservative Must-Read Books. He's no "critical pedagogue," as anyone who has compared his Some Thoughts Concerning Education to Rousseau's Emile (for example) can attest.  Actually, I think most teachers of the history and philosophy of education in colleges of education are pretty balanced, overall, because...


...well, because in many of our courses (especially those in the Foundations of Education), we're trying to get our students to think. That's right:  to think.

"But what does "to think" mean?" you ask. "What does having prospective teachers read left-wing ideologues like Freire or Dewey or Rousseau have to do with teaching them to think? Even presenting these thinkers as if they are worth reading is introducing a bias right there, is it not?"

Hmmmm....soooo...let's see: having them read Locke or Jefferson isn't introducing bias?  Or..are you saying...it's okay to introduce certain kinds of bias? Or are these thinkers not biased? Some of the other readings I assign my students are clearly biased toward the right: articles by people like William Bennett and Chester Finn, who are known Republicans...and such documents as "A Nation At Risk," a report issued while Reagan was president.)  The goal is to help students to understand the wide range of perspectives on educational topics...not to indoctrinate them to think a particular way!

But as I'm writing this, I'm having an internal conversation that is flowing more rapidly than I'm able to write.  I'm thinking about what I consider to be the purposes of education, of what it means to be educated...of what it means to be a thinker.

And yes, in my conception of an educated person is....a willingness to read the works of people across the political spectrum, and a willingness to think about the variety of perspectives that exist, and a willingness to accept that each of these perspectives offers something important philosophically, historically, and educationally...and that the only way a reader can understand a reading is to understand that any reading reflects the values, experiences, social positions, and...yes...biases of its author.  This is what is meant by critical thinking: gaining the capacity to critique without merely condemning...to understand without condoning...to compare and contrast and contextualize while coming gradually to one's own conclusions...in short, to think for oneself.
Critical thinking, in its broadest sense has been described as "purposeful reflective judgment concerning what to believe or what to do." (source)

"But wait! Then you do have a bias," you're thinking.  "Your bias is that multiple perspectives need to be encountered, understood, digested, and then synthesized in the forming of one's own viewpoint.  Your bias is that education is about teaching each person to think for him or herself...rather than to merely accept the values and perspectives of a particular group (their parents, their peers, their community, the government, those in business, multinational corporations). In other words, you are trying to indoctrinate teachers into the view that getting their students to think for themselves is a worthy goal!"

Um, yes: guilty as charged.

"So you would rather have a young person form their own political beliefs than just vote the way their parents want them to?"  Yes.

"So you believe that all young people should be exposed to a variety of values, beliefs, and perspectives in school, and that they should be taught to evaluate these different perspectives critically rather than unquestioningly"? Yes.

"So you believe that there's no right or wrong...that everything is relative...that capitalism is not always great...that Communists shouldn't be ruthlessly investigated and "outed"...that students should understand why the Constitution prohibited the establishment of religion...that they should understand that the Constitution isn't perfect...that it allowed slavery to continue...and didn't let women or poor people vote.?" Well...maybe.

"So you admit a virulent left-wing bias?!?" Um...if by that you mean a set of values about what education consists of and how best to move young people towards a broader understanding of their world, ...then yes, I do.

"And you admit that your colleagues have the same beliefs about these things that you do?" Well, for the most part, yes...we pride ourselves in our commitments to democratic values, as shown in our Conceptual Framework.

"Okay, then: case closed."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Glenn Beck takes on John Dewey

Given his high level of animosity toward American Progressivism, it was, perhaps, inevitable that Glenn Beck would eventually have something to say about John Dewey. In his latest book, Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government, he dedicates a whole chapter to education. A healthy portion of this chapter is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to progressive education, which Beck hates.

Beck’s opening comments about progressive education leave no doubt about where he is going with the narrative:
Education is about learning. Learning, like weight loss, is sometimes hard. You have to stay committed and push yourself day after day to see results. Don’t ever say this in front of a progressive (don’t worry, none of them are reading this book), but some people are better learners than others.
The problem with progressive education, in other words, is that it is too sentimental and soft-hearted. School should be a competitive institution that should act as a mechanism to figure out who can survive in the tough business of learning.

Beck then offers a couple of Dewey quotes to illustrate the alleged wooly-headed softness of the progressive educators:
Existing life is so complex that the child cannot be brought into contact with it without either confusion or distraction; he is either overwhelmed by a multiplicity of activities which are going on, so that he loses his own power of orderly reaction, or he is so stimulated by these various activities that his powers are permanently called into play and he becomes either unduly specialized or else disintegrated.
I believe that the teacher’s place and work in school is to be interpreted from this same basis. The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.
Both these quotes are taken from My Pedagogic Creed (1897), which is a useful summary of Dewey’s early views. The Creed is not, however, a statement of Dewey’s considered views on education—it’s a quick one-off piece that simply lists a number of beliefs (“I believe X, I believe Y, I believe Z”) without any further explanation.

I’m not really sure why Beck (or his co-author) picked the first quote. Although it contains some questionable 19th century psychology, it is actually relatively uncontroversial. Everyone knows that “real life” is complex and that children are not immediately prepared to appreciate all of its complexity. Little Johnny isn’t interested in what, say, actuaries do or in understanding the nuances of bureaucratic procedure.

The second quote is a more promising choice, at least from the perspective of Beck’s argument. The point of this second statement is to emphasize Dewey’s rejection of the traditional approach to education. Quoted in isolation, it makes Dewey appear to be a partisan of a hands-off variety of progressive education. Yet although Deweyan education might have been relatively freewheeling according to the standards that prevailed in the 19th century, the Dewey School was still a carefully structured educational environment. Katherine Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards’ account of life at the Dewey School makes this clear--Dewey wanted children to be active inquirers rather than passive recipients of knowledge, but the learning situations were carefully planned.

This is not the conclusion that Beck draws, however. He remarks:
In other words, teachers aren’t there to tell a child if he or she is “right or wrong” (especially not in red ink), they’re there to help the child through a touchy-feely period of self-awareness and discovery.
Beck wants to establish Dewey as the apostle of “touchy-feely” progressive education, but this is a hopeless mission. As I’ve pointed out in a recent article in Studies in Philosophy and Education, Dewey was actually opposed to sentimental approaches to education. He felt that these approaches posed significant dangers to children’s development and hindered the growth of their habits of inquiry.

So much for Dewey’s appearance in Beck’s book. As we know, however, books are not really Glenn Beck’s métier—he is more of a TV and radio kind of guy. Has Beck been saying anything about Dewey on TV? On the July 12th edition of the Glenn Beck program, which featured Larry Schweikart (author of 48 Liberal Lies) and Burton Folsom (The Myth of the Robber Barons) as guests, someone posed the following question:
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes, my question was in the Progressive Movement and its original roots. How did public education play a role in that with our founders such as John Dewey who are big advocates of public education?
It is hard to tell exactly what the question is, at least from the transcript, but that did not stop Beck and his guests from commenting on it.

The initial response is telling:
SCHWEIKART: Well, you know, that's a great question.

BECK: Good question.
Clearly, Beck and his guests have absolutely no idea how to answer the question. Still, the wheels creak into motion eventually:
SCHWEIKART: The answer goes to the essence of reform, I keep coming — of progressivism, I keep coming back to this, is reform. It's all about reforming to what? To perfection. The idea whether they're children, whether they're corporations, whether they're city governments, you can if you just keep reforming them long enough, you will finally get to perfection. It's a view that denies human sin. I hate to go there. But that is the point, it denies human sin.
We’ve gone completely off the rails here, at least as far as Dewey is concerned. Deweyan education is non-teleological—there is no specific endpoint in mind. But Beck picks up this strand of thought and runs with it:
BECK: I mean, it is really the collective salvation. If you look at it, it really is the whole misunderstanding of humans can be perfect, if you just have administrator administrate all the time and keep them in a box. Humans can be perfect, which is a lie and that there is collective salvation that we will all be saved together, right?


BECK: So it is really kind of, the roots of it —

SCHWEIKART: The roots, yes.

BECK: — are extraordinarily spiritual, evil, really. Right? Yes.
It’s really hard to tell what exactly is going on in these statements, conceptually speaking. The line of reasoning seems to be that Deweyan progressivism involves a toxic, perfectionist ideal. Now, one could see how this could be a problem, if it were true, but there is no evidence to suggest that it is.

The comments about evil are interesting because they move us from a potentially rational conversation about the dangers of utopianism into the realm of paranoia. Remarks like this probably the constitute the heart of Beck’s appeal to the radical fringe—he is a truth-teller, a man who is unafraid to reveal the dark heart of progressivism, of which others are either too cowed or misled to speak. Folsom, the quieter of the two guests, seems puzzled by these odd comments and returns to the facts about John Dewey that he knows:
FOLSOM: Well, and John Dewey was a progressive. That was a good question. Dewey was a progressive, supported the progressives.
Evidently, the understandings that Beck and his guests about Dewey are a blend of misinformation and fear. They know that John Dewey is someone that they shouldn’t like, but they don’t have a clear idea of exactly why they shouldn’t like him.

Since the few facts that Beck possessed about Dewey in his book seem to have eluded him when it came time to respond to this audience member’s question, perhaps some good old drill and practice might help him be better prepared for the next time a Dewey question comes his way.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Big Slam Dunk for the University of Phoenix

An angry owner, bitter Clevelanders, jubilant Floridians, and even Jesse Jackson! No matter which way you slice it, there's been a lot of hullaballoo about Lebron James' recent decision (announced in an hour long ESPN special) to move to the Miami Heat. In many respects, the coverage has been exhaustive. Yet, in the midst of the media circus, there is one aspect of James' announcement that hasn't received much attention: the fact that the lead sponsor of the ESPN special was the University of Phoenix.

University of Phoenix logos were prominent throughout the broadcast, and the company was mentioned several times. Brand Freak reports the story as follows:

The eight brands in the broadcast got nearly $3 million worth of exposure, according to media research firm Joyce Julius & Associates. (We can safely assume that's a whole lot more than they paid.) Top of the list was the University of Phoenix, with its banners, on-screen graphics and logos appearing for a total of two minutes and 22 seconds, and earning 11 verbal references, for more than $1 million in value.

Notably, James also made a personal appearance with Phoenix officials. The corporation agreed to donate $500,000 to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and provided five full tuition scholarships to the University of Phoenix. Here's the video of the love-in:

Lebron James and the University of Phoenix clearly viewed this partnership as a win-win situation, and it is easy to see why. Lebron gets to appear as though he cares about education, while Phoenix manages to burnish its brand image by appearing to be charitable. Furthermore, the donation of scholarships makes Phoenix look more like a traditional university--one can now win a scholarship to University of Phoenix, just as one might win one to NYU. The aura of legitimacy, of course, is precisely what this for-profit corporation craves.

The University of Phoenix now enrolls an incredible 443,000 students, up from 362,000 in 2008. Notably, it is also the #1 recipient of federal student aid, having consumed an extraordinary $938,591,658 in federal student aid in 2009. Other for-profit universities (DeVry, ITT) are also well-represented on the list of top student aid recipients:

The full list of aid recipients is here--you'll note that University of Phoenix hoovers up an incredible 4% of all federal student aid.

The growth of this for-profit institution highlights the key question: do students get a solid education at the University of Phoenix? It's difficult to say. Certainly, a recent whistleblower lawsuit about a cash for enrollments scheme raises some serious doubts about practices at the institution. I think there's a strong argument to be made that a lot of Phoenix students would be better served at public institutions like state universities and community colleges. Yet the fact remains that somehow, Phoenix is managing to persuade a significant number of students to pay for its offerings. This is a trend that should worry those of us who work at more traditional institutions.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Arizona Bill and the Politicizing of Education: A Response to NY Times Commentator Stanley Fish

(Cross-posted from the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog)

The meaning of Arizona HB 2281 that we posted is perhaps best understood by analyzing it within the political and social context that motivated its passage. In the May 17th issue of the New York Times, commentator Stanley Fish chooses instead to examine the conflict within two philosophical paradigms. Fish’s concern is not with the motivation behind HB 2281 but rather with arguments around its justification or lack of justification. His argument leaves open many questions.

What is Fish’s argument? On the one side, Fish portrays the ethnic studies program at the Tucson Unified School District as an example of attempts to politicize education by indoctrinating students into certain beliefs about social justice that will lead to actions consistent with that political agenda. He writes:

The Social Justice Education Project means what its title says: students are to be brought to see what the prevailing orthodoxy labors to occlude so that they can join the effort to topple it. To this end the Department of Mexican American Studies (I quote again from its Web site) pledges to "work toward the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student" and "promote and advocate for social and educational transformation."

While students may act on beliefs they are exposed to, Fish objects to teaching that sets out to agitate rather than educate. Fearing indoctrination, Fish sees the Tucson program as a “Trojan horse of a political agenda” and one that ”the people of Arizona should indeed be concerned.” Let’s disentangle a few points first. Is Fish intending to include in his charge that the ethnic studies program is violating the new Arizona bill. If one looks at the website http://www.tusd1.org/contents/depart/mexicanam/model.asp , nothing that is mentioned seems to violate the details of the law that stipulates that curriculum should not: "promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." And, of course, this is the argument that the school district is making. Perhaps, Fish isn’t accusing the district of this. His argument is more subtle, and as a result, more in need of critical examination.

On the other side, Fish sees HB 2281 attempts to ban certain ethnic courses in the public school as a similar attempt to politicize education. Rather than removing politics from schools, House Bill 2281 mandates an opposing political ideology of individual rights. Fish writes:

The idea of treating people as individuals is certainly central to the project of Enlightenment liberalism, and functions powerfully in much of the nation’s jurisprudence. But it is an idea, not a commandment handed down from on high, and as such it deserves to be studied, not worshipped. The authors of House Bill 2281 don’t want students to learn about the ethic of treating people equally; they want them to believe in it (as you might believe in the resurrection), and therefore to believe, as they do, that those who interrogate it and show how it has sometimes been invoked in the service of nefarious purposes must be banished from public education.

Fish is right in seeing the state’s solution to what it sees as politicizing education by politicizing it to serve its own agenda as wrongheaded. In his attempt to avoid both the school district and the state legislature's attempts to politicize education, Fish proposes that we should return to an objective, neutral concept of education as a pursuit of knowledge where all sides are presented in a fair-minded way. Fish’s concept raises a number of questions that need to be further examined because his critique of an approach that apparently is serving an underserved population well will have consequences.

What does it mean to politicize education? What would constitute a neutral, objective approach to education? In one sense, public education is a political endeavor in the broadest sense of the word. It serves to reproduce in the young the necessary skills, knowledge and dispositions to function effectively in the political life of the nation. But perhaps Fish has in mind a more narrow sense of politicizing, one which narrows the choices available consistent with a particular ideological stance. Indeed, this more narrow sense is contradictory to the larger understanding of the political philosophy of a liberal democratic society. Although this larger political philosophy rules out the narrowing of the curriculum to reflect only a particular partisan view, it isn’t clear that a neutral presentation of both sides of an issue will necessarily provide the kind of critical awareness that Fish values. If students come with certain assumptions that are often embedded in the conventional thinking of their time, would a neutral presentation of sides largely leave the dominant assumptions unexamined in any meaningful way? And would students really care about the implications of their thinking?

This is the thinking that not only underlies Paulo Freire’s thought that Fish criticizes, but it also underlies the approach that goes back to Socrates. For in any philosophical dialogue, Socrates always starts with where his opponents are and simply challenges them with questions until they come to see the problems in their own ways of thinking and realize that what they thought they knew they never really knew at all. Creating cognitive dissonance was part of the educational journey. Indeed, an education that reveals and uncovers the injustices embedded in the dominant forms of thinking that have been internalized in the minds of the students leads to a truer, more objective understanding of the reality that Fish so values. That such an education becomes transformative and may lead to action follows not from the attempt to indoctrinate or agitate that Fish claims, but rather from the journey that the student has embarked upon. Of course, any particular incident of teaching can involve a betrayal of the intent here, but it shouldn’t lead us to the kind of generalizations that Fish makes.

Stanley Fish, "Arizona: The Gift That Keeps On Giving," New York Times, May 17, 2010


Afterwords: Stanley Fish disagrees with some of my characterization of his position. You can see his comment at the end of the original post on the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Crunch that celery! Quebec teachers union uses unorthodox tactics in work-to-rule campaign

A splinter Francophone teachers union, the Federation Autonome de l'Enseignement (FAE), has been in the headlines around here lately due to an ongoing contract dispute with the Quebec government. However, the union has made the news today for another reason: a controversial handout on pressure tactics that was leaked to Jean-Luc Mongrain, a populist TV host who is famous for his tirades (here's a good one about a man who was fined for feeding a squirrel).

The handout is pretty interesting. It begins with a directive in caps--"IT IS VERY IMPORTANT NOT TO MAKE PHOTOCOPIES OF THESE STRATEGIES OR TO OTHERWISE CIRCULATE THEM." This is followed by 30 specific ideas for teachers to disrupt meetings with school administrators. Each strategy has its own name.

A few of the more interesting/extreme ones:

1. Operation "The administration is blinding me."--All personnel wear sunglasses during the meeting.

4. Operation "I'm burning calories."--All personnel should munch loudly on celery throughout the meeting. Eating celery burns more calories than you're taking in. Crackers, carrots, or other noisy foods can also work.

10. Operation "We speak good French here."--This is a matter of continually correcting the administration's usage of French--whenever they make an error, you say, "What you want to say instead is..."

19. Operation "Gilles Latourette."--During the meeting, you take turns making random gestures like raising your hand, shaking your head, rocking in your chair, etc. You can also add some words to your gestures by saying random things.

22. Operation "I do the wave."--In turns, during the meeting, move your chair back and forth, cough, raise your hand, etc. Regardless of the method, it's a matter of enacting a magnificent human wave which will submerge your administrators. Do this wave many times throughout the meeting.

Mongrain's reaction to the list is here. As you'll see, he re-enacts several of the strategies for his viewers. His line is basically that these strategies are unworthy of the teaching profession. It should be noted, however, that Mongrain is not exactly what one would call a fountain of innovative educational commentary.

Personally, I have to admit that I find the idea of doing the wave during a meeting kind of fun.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Social media disaster? A Québec teacher is suspended for a controversial YouTube video

Michaël Pratte, a Québec Grade 9 "univers social" (social studies) teacher, was recently handed a controversial 20 day suspension for his participation in a student film.

The Journal de Montréal reports the story (in French) as follows:

The troubles of this 7th year teacher began when he agreed to participate in a student film in which he agreed to pretend to lose his temper, to the point of being about to hit a student. The students' idea was to parody other similar clips which have been circulating on the internet, unbeknownst to the teachers who are the unwitting stars.
The student film was posted to YouTube, where school board officials later discovered it.
Note that Pratte never actually hits the student in the film--the film stops before the climactic moment.

Pratte's students, who had already apologized to the administration for making the film, were extremely upset by this decision. A group of current and former students have created a Facebook group to support their teacher, which now has more than 1500 members. There's an abundance of student testimonials (in French) on the site in support of Pratte, like this one:

A high school teacher that is capable of making us love his subject gives us an interest that will last throughout our entire lives. The impact of a good teacher, especially at the high school level, is incalculable.

For its part, the Commission Scolaire des Trois-Lacs (Three Lakes School Board) commented that Pratte bore "a responsibility" for the affair. Collette Frappier, a school board spokesperson, remarked, "Perhaps if the video was accompanied by a message of non-violence, we wouldn't have gotten to this point."

The interesting thing about this case is that Pratte doesn't seem to have done anything that was particularly harmful to student learning. He is clearly well-liked by many of his students, who enjoyed making the film. Certainly, one can understand why the school board would prefer that the film not be on YouTube. On the other hand, a formal suspension seems a high price to pay for a relatively small mistake by an apparently dedicated and popular teacher.

Clearly, there is clearly a question here of teacher freedom of expression. If Pratte was operating within the bounds of the "univers social" curriculum by making this film with the students, does he deserve to be censured for how this student activity turned out? In a 2002 court decision, Richard Morin, a PEI teacher, was found to have had his freedom of expression violated when the school administration prevented him from showing a film that was critical of Christian fundamentalism.

In addition, this story raises the issue of how schools are going to deal with new media technologies. Obviously, technologies like Facebook and YouTube bring with them the potential for PR disasters, but young people are avid users of these tools and will continue to upload interesting and sometimes controversial content.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Original Articles on John Dewey Sought

We are seeking original articles on John Dewey for our upcoming issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy on "The Education our Children Deserve." The issue will include some of the most significant progressive writers of our time and we would like to include an historical piece on Dewey. The controversy posed for that issue is:

"The politicizing of education at the national level has centered on issues of standards, accountability, global competitiveness, national economic growth, low student achievement on worldwide norms, and federally mandated uniformity. There has been little discussion of the public purposes of our schools or what kind of education is necessary for an individual’s development and search for a meaningful life. There is a paucity of ideas being discussed at the national level around topics such as: how school practices can be aligned with democratic principles of equity and justice; how school practices can promote the flourishing of individual development as well as academic achievement; what skills and understandings are needed for citizens to play a transformative role in their society. Without conversation at this deeper level about the fundamental purposes of education, we cannot develop a comprehensive vision of the kinds of schools our children deserve. We invite authors to contribute their conceptions of the kind of education our children deserve and/or the kinds of schools that serve the needs of individuals and of a democratic society."


Charter School Campaign Report: Wall Street Journal tells "A Tale of Two Students"

The Wall Street Journal has published a very touching article -- one might call it the perfect propaganda piece -- in its campaign for school privatization.

The story depicts two similar kids -- two Latino "baddies" -- who were already going off in the wrong direction in middle school. Ivan, the young man, then goes to a charter school and at 18 is attending a flagship university and aiming to be the first Latino Governor of Oklahioma. His former running buddy Laura, a spunky Latina who went to the public High School instead, is now going nowhere.

It's a good conversation starter, and could be valuable in an Introduction to Education course to begin a discussion about charter schools.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Race to the Top: Is the AFT Losing the Race?

Steven Brill, in a comprehensive article in the New York Times, details the impact that Race to the Top is having on education legislation at the state level.

As states compete for portions of the $4.3 billion dollar Race fund, legislatures are passing new laws eliminating or reducing teacher tenure and mandating inclusion of test score results on teacher compensation, in order to conform with the demands of the Race.

Gradually, the national AFT and the local unions are loosening their long-held demands regarding both issues. If the states have not achieved the Race goals, they must submit memoranda of understanding (MOUs) in their Race proposals regarding agreements to achieve them. At this point some of the states claim to achieve these goals, but the MOUs include clauses such as "as consistent with state laws" that in effect nullify them. Nonetheless, the pressure on the unions is severe.

Brill appears to me to be a cheerleader for the Reformers, a tightly organized group of political and business elites. So the article must be read with some caution.