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Mark Noll and the potential contributions of Christian scholarship

Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), a book that scandalized the evangelical mind by noting that it wasn’t much in evidence (Noll then scandalized some further when he announced in 2006 that he was leaving Wheaton College after 27 years on the faculty for Notre Dame), was in a sense sequeled in 2011 by Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans).  Life of the Mind moves in a more hopeful direction by reconnecting with one of the most ancient of theological questions, often shorthanded as the distinction to be understood between Jerusalem and Athens:  how does one reconcile the life of faith with the life of the mind?

The very question can seem absurd.  Some Christian traditions have revered intellectualism when understood as supplemental or even constitutive of faith, and the world’s great centers of learning include many dedicated to propagation of the faith, but within the contours of profoundly thoughtful efforts to apprehend God’s creation through both the registers of reason as well as the more affectively sensitive mechanisms of intuition or unquestioning simple belief.  For advocates of those traditions – I have in mind the towering scholarly accomplishments of Catholicism and the scholarly products of the Jesuits or the Episcopalians with their metaphorical three-legged stool, but also the textually rigorous insistence that animates many of the Protestant and fundamentalist traditions and brings intellectual coherence to the “priesthood of the believer” (such as the originary impulse of the Churches/Disciples of Christ, founded by the Campbells and Barton Stone, to find converts by way of rigorous actual interdenominational debates) – a faith inconsistent with the dictates of rationality is a belief not worth having.  Why would one worship a God who cannot be apprehended, if only in part, by use of the very mental capacity that most fully distinguishes humans as God’s creation?

But the New Testament itself provides ammunition to those who see the Gospel as requiring a renunciation of the foolish dictates of reason.  The Apostle Paul thunders at the church in Corinth in a tone that taunts the ivory tower elites of his time:

For it is written:  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”  Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:  a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.  Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  (1 Cor. 1: 19-29).

There is much to say about this passage, and regarding related passages in the Book of Acts that describe moments of encounter between budding Christian doctrine and the worldly philosophers.  But to some, Paul is here recommending the abandonment of scholasticism and the deep methods of inquiry that can incline humans to hubris.  Augustine and others famously warned against confidence in academic inquiry – how might one have confidence that truth will emerge out of the exchanges conducted among fools? – all presumably to be renounced in preference for the interactions that conducted in prayer bring human frailty into contact with Divine perfection.  And yet the New Testament also recounts multiple scenes of attempted conversion predicated not on the performance of miracles or the enactment of loving care but through the incisive work of public argument (e.g., Acts 6:8-10; 9:28-30; 17:16-17; 18:27-28; 19:8-10).  The message regarding scholarship is thus often read as profoundly mixed:  helpful as a tactic of potential conversion but also dangerous, not only because of its possible inducement to hubris but because clever sophistry (of the type Satan practiced on Jesus as he wandered the wilderness for forty days and nights, or attempted in his jousting with God over Job) can lead the innocent astray.

When it comes to those Christians who have made professional commitments to the work of the public university, the issue is further complicated.  A life built on unwavering adherence to the Christian gospel can be understood as profoundly at odds with the spirit of skepticism and unending inquiry that underwrites the academy.  Only several short steps lead many believers to see secular institutions (like, for example, public universities) as inevitably hostile to Christian discipleship.  Meanwhile expressions of doubt, the very lifeblood of academic inquiry, are too easily read as heretical when articulated in religious settings.  Athens and Jerusalem are thus apprehended as two worlds completely divided and incommensurable one to the other.  (This, I think, is deeply unfortunate, and it has always seemed to me that faith traditions would be made stronger by welcoming and working through expressions of doubt.  There is support for this position in the New Testament gospels – in one case, recounted at Mark 9:24, the father of a demon-possessed boy comes to Jesus and asks that his son be healed.  Jesus says something like Everything is possible for those who believe.  The father replies by expressing a paradox often felt by even the most dedicated believers:  I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.  Importantly, Jesus is not offended by the contradiction but heals the boy.  And when the famous doubting Thomas expresses his skepticism about the resurrection, Jesus does not throw him out; rather, as recounted in Luke’s gospel, Jesus replies “Look at my hands and feet.  Touch me and see.”  Doubt is heard as an invitation to fellowship and grace and not read as blasphemy).

The risk that the phrase “Christian intellectual” will be thought a contradiction in terms, and the related consequence that Christianity will, if seen as embracing anti-intellectualism, repel brilliant seekers, is what I take as the animating impulse of Noll’s recent work.  His project is to argue the consistency of scholarship with Christianity, and more than that, to assert that Christians who do scholarship importantly enrich academic work.

A common approach in taking up this issue is to cite scripture on the topic of noble work.  In a number of places believers are called, irrespective of the location or nature of their employment, to excellence in the workplace, and I have heard these admonitions cited to induce even professors into offering their dedicated and best work.  Some examples:  The OT Proverbs in several places advocate for diligence (12:24 – “diligent hands will rule”; 14:23 – “all hard work brings a profit”).  Or from the Acts of the Apostles (5:38), a test that much academic work seems easily to pass:  “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourself fighting against God.”  Or, alternatively, the commendation made in the letter to the Colossian church at 3:17: “Do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (which one might read as a command to dedicate all work, especially the work of the mind, to God’s honor); later (3:23), “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…”  Or, from the first letter to the Corinthian Christians, an injunction essentially to “bloom where you are planted”:  “Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.”  Versions of the same idea are repeated three times in that one chapter (7:17, 7:20, 7:24) alone.  In the letter Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, he writes (6:5-8) “Obey earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ…  like slaves of Christ doing the will of God from your heart.  Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men.”

But this is not the path laid out by Prof. Noll.  Instead, Life of the Mind searches scripture for those places where insights into intellectualism can be abstracted into a philosophy of Christian scholarship.  What Noll finds everywhere are invitations to closer scrutiny and deeper inquiry.  In the Christian creeds and in the major doctrinal worldviews found in the New Testament (such as the first chapter of Colossians (1:16-17) are statements about the created world that he reads as inviting Christians to respond to creation with the impulse to further explore and learn.  In the statements of Jesus to which I’ve alluded already (especially for Noll: “Come, and see!”), Noll apprehends a scholarly impulse which one can credit by faith with always rewarding closer scrutiny.  What Noll advocates is a faithful confidence that deeper engagement with the protocols of learning will lead thinkers closer to God and not further away:

The specific requirements for Christian scholarship all grow naturally from Christian worship inspired by love:  confidence in the ability to gain knowledge about the world because the world was brought into being through Jesus Christ; commitment to careful examination of the objects of study through “coming and seeing”; trust that good scholarship and faithful discipleship cannot ultimately conflict; humility from realizing that learning depends at every step on a merciful God; and gratitude in acknowledging that all good gifts come from above.  If, as Christians believe, “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hid in Christ (Col 2:3), the time is always past for talking about treasure hunting.  The time is always now to unearth treasure, offer it to others for critique or affirmation, and above all find in it new occasions to glorify the one who gives the treasure and is the treasure himself.  (p. 149).

Shortly after its publication, the great Yale theologian Nicholas Wolsterstorff wrote a positive review that nonetheless wondered whether Noll’s three-chapter discipline-by-discipline case studies were rich enough to make compelling the case for Christian contributions to scholarship.  He wrote:

Let me add that whereas the Christological case that Noll makes for Christians engaging in serious learning seems to me both compelling and rich, the guidelines that he teases out of classic Christology for how we actually engage in learning strike me as rather thin by comparison.  Christians, he says, will affirm contingency.  They will affirm particularity.  With the Incarnation in mind they will insist, by analogy, that ascribing a natural cause to some event is compatible with ascribing it to God as well.  They will resist the pride characteristic of intellectuals.  All true; but very general and abstract.

That point is well taken, although given the common radical separation of secular and sacred intellectual inquiry, it may be that the simple articulation of a Christian alternative itself might engage deeper thinking.

For me, the trickier question is whether, despite the intellectual payoffs to be found in the great faith traditions, they should ever be strongly asserted in the public university.  One need not condemn Christians to silence in the public square to recognize that in an institution aiming to welcome and encourage thinkers from all backgrounds and perspectives, the forceful articulation of Christian theological imperatives risks doing as much damage to the open spirit of inquiry (by silencing those who will wonder if they can freely disagree with faith commitments so deeply held) as good.  I wonder.  It may be that the scholarly work Noll advocates is best undertaken in explicitly religious institutions, from which point its findings and main claims can be disseminated more widely as an implicit corrective to the narrower work of a public educational system that will of rightful necessity orient its efforts to reach more widely.

For me, then, Noll’s work finally raises this question:  Even conceding the strongest case for Christian scholarship (which is to say, the case that an articulated Christian worldview can enliven any disciplinary conversation), does it then follow that Christian commitments should be always and everywhere articulated?  Or, put a bit differently, does every workplace obligate the believer to proselytization?  Is it possible that, as Paul made tents to raise money for his missionary journeys, there were days when he simply quietly engaged in craftsmanship without preaching to his colleagues?  As the New Testament figure Lydia made purple silks, which we are told she did to fund the work of the church, did she try to determine how this or that biblical verse might better inform her artistic practice?  Or were these believers content simply to segment their good work, willing to concentrate their evangelism within other locales where Christian testimony would be more gratefully received than the tent or silk workshops?

Remembering Sam Becker and university citizenship

Sam Becker, for whom the University of Iowa Department of Communication Studies building is named, and whose six decades career was highly accomplished, passed away on November 8.  While I was a doctoral student at Iowa in the 1990’s, Becker was already retired but still ever-present, and by the sheer randomness of graduate student office assignment two colleagues and I ended up right across the hall from his small retirement office.  He was often available for conversation and also extraordinarily productive, a professor who gave the lie to the all-too-popular idea currently dominant in the humanities and some of the social sciences that the only way to get real research done is to work in seclusion either behind a closed office door or, even better, from the house.  Looking down hallways of closed faculty office doors, and I mean this as no insult since Iowa is typical, I think, of today’s academic culture, I was always struck by the fact that the most open and accessible professors – Gronbeck, Ochs, Becker – were also among the most research productive.

By my time in the program, Dr. Becker was only occasionally teaching, but he taught one of my very first classes, a one credit hour professionalization seminar that only met, as I recall it, for about 45 or 50 minutes a week.  We were coached on the protocols of academic citation, taught the mechanics of the main communication associations (Sam’s lifelong commitment to the National Communication Association meant we heard most about that one), and we talked about how one best organizes one’s research work.  I believe it was there that he told the story about how he first got hooked on academic scholarship in communication.  He was a young undergraduate at the university in the 1940’s, and was encouraged to turn a classroom paper into a publication, which he landed in one of the lead outlets for communication research.  Over the next sixty years he produced more than 100 peer reviewed research essays, advised nearly 70 doctoral dissertations, and won high degrees of acclaim for his work (NCA president, NCA Distinguished Scholar, recipient of the association’s first mentorship award, and many more, including a number of honors on the Iowa campus that include the rare privilege of a namesake building).

Professor Becker’s death evokes in me, against my better judgment perhaps, a nostalgic desire for a sort of academic culture that likely no longer exists.  The temptation to nostalgia when it comes to the academic past is fraught.  Even as the American public universities threw open their doors and programs in the 1960’s and 70’s, they were far from perfect, and the political constraints under which professors work today are in some respects incomparably different.  And universities look a lot different through the eyes of a professor than they do through the eyes of a graduate student.  It is easier to imagine public university work as a sort of exotic salon culture, the pure life of the mind where professors think great thoughts in communion with their colleagues, when one’s schedule, overloaded as is graduate student life always, consists of one intellectual interaction after another, seminar to seminar and great book to great book.  The academic life performed for graduate students, indeed for all students, is simply not the same as the one lived in a profession as dominated by committee meetings as discussions of big ideas.  Comparisons between past and present too often fail.

But my nostalgia lingers.

Sam Becker represented a style of academic life and an extraordinary commitment to building local programmatic excellence, that I find harder to find today (and in my world so infrequent as to be essentially nonexistent), living as we do at a time when many professors understandably find their main intellectual sustenance from longer distance networking – social media, blog- and listserv-centered – and themselves too informationally enriched (or, alternatively, overstimulated) and even overwhelmed by those gushing sources to desire anything but minimal face-to-face engagement with on-campus colleagues.  Part of this, I believe, is the characteristic connection of rather-shy-and-life-of-the-mind-driven academics with the more controllable interactions of online and distance encounter; it is easier to present a polished, a more clever persona through Facebook and blogging than in the heat of a tedious faculty meeting, and so as a result many gravitate to the New Comfort Zones of virtual engagement.

Entire academic generations have been mentored to the view that their most assured path to professional success is isolation – keep your head down, don’t over commit, set up a home office and be disciplined about working there, spend as few hours on campus as you can because if word gets out that you’re available then colleagues and students will eat you alive and rob you of all your productive energy.  This advice is reinforced because when one resolves only to spend ten hours a week on campus then, not surprisingly, those ten hours quickly fill to capacity as students figure out those are the only opportunities for real access not coordinated by emails.  The approach affords little time to linger, for lingering is time wasting.  Sorry!  I’m drowning; gotta run! becomes an easy refrain.

All this is understandable and not unreasonable.  I’m as prone to the temptations as anyone.  The seductive blend of intellectual (over) stimulation, where ideas can be consumed at any pace one prefers, and staged (or scripted) encounters managed from the comfort of the computer desk chair, can simply feel more enriching than sitting through a long research presentation or a comprehensive examination defense.

Donavan Ochs, a Becker colleague at Iowa, and Sam Becker, both veterans of military service (I have the sense that had something to do with it), put in pretty regular daily schedules.  Ochs, with whom I had the chance to study classical rhetoric and do an independent study on Aristotle, often put in 8-to-5 days.  As I recall it Donovan wore a tie every day, even in the 1990’s when few others did, and his door was always open apart from times when he was in private meetings or teaching.  When I asked him once how he got any work done under those conditions, he was plainly surprised at the question, and his reply – what I do here is my work – led to wider conversations about academic life.  Ochs noted that an open door policy did not prevent his research productivity, since the morning hours typically gave him many undisturbed hours to write and think.  His door wasn’t open to enable empty chit-chat – he was always profoundly encouraging but kept conversations mainly work focused.  And because he worked, seriously worked, for the duration of the regular day, he avoided the guilt so many of us feel at thinking we should be working at all hours of the night.  I always had the sense Ochs went home with a clean conscience – he had a life apart from Aristotle, a healthy set of diverse family and life interests, and retirement presented no apparent trauma for him.

It is simply impossible to generalize about the state of faculty engagement given the diversity of campus environments, and unproductive even to try, and there remain, of course, more pastoral campus settings where relatively smaller student cohorts and perhaps better supported faculty lives enable the creation of close intellectual community that at some level still adheres to the wider mythology of enclaved campus life.  But life for students and professors at the big state universities, and I suspect even in places where campus life is residential and intensively communal, is changing.  If the National Surveys of Student Engagement are to be trusted, students report less frequent conversations with their classroom professors outside of regular class times.  Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University and a key (and controversial) national advocate for delivering high quality and research intensive educational outcomes to very high numbers of enrolled students (ASU is now one of the nation’s largest universities), often repeats the idea that demographic surges require a model of education that is not numerically exclusive (the backward logic that translates so that the more people a school turns away, the better their reputation).  If public state institutions cannot find ways to well serve the students who are academically gifted but not financially or intellectually elite enough to enroll at the most exclusive private schools, Crow often says we’ll end up with a two-tiered system where the rich kids are educated by professors and the rest will be educated by computers.

The truth is that the big public universities are fast veering in the latter direction, not in the sense that MOOC’s educate our students but that the experience, especially in the first couple years, can be awfully impersonal, if not on account of large classes than because so many early classes are taught by graduate students and temporary faculty whose good teaching may nonetheless insufficiently convey a sense of place and local intellectual tradition.  The wider incentive structures are too often negative:  no pay raises, the demoralized sense that follows from the more frequently expressed taxpayer hostility to higher education, the pressures to win grants and relentlessly publish papers, accountability pressures that seem to require more and more administrative meetings, the idea that one must always stay on the job market or you’ll likely not be able to get a pay raise here, the growing number of students and in some states the expectation of higher instructional workloads, a tendency to think of day-to-day intellectual connectivity as simply more uncompensated service.  All this lures professors from the committed work of building local loyalty and into more defensive practices that feel like simple self preservation but are also, I suspect, self-defeating because they only accelerate a vicious cycle of brief and highly focused teaching and mentorship alternated by long stretches away.  Participate in a sustained reading group?  Sorry, I just don’t have any time for that.  Organize a campus colloquium, film or lecture series?  DittoAnd since everyone else is overwhelmed too, what would be the point?  No one would come.  Did you see the lead essay in the new QJS?  I’m curious what you thought.  Gosh, I’m months behind on that kind of reading – all my energy has to go to my book.  What energized you at the last big national conference?  Oh, couldn’t make it – and how could I when the university gives so little for professional development support?

The picture I’ve just drawn is exaggerated, thankfully, but I suspect that even as caricature it retains a certain familiarity.  Fortunately the energetic participation new faculty bring to academic programs is inspirational, and idealism trumps low morale for so many staff and faculty who sustain both distance networked and local connectivity. Whatever the incentives, every department includes professors at all ranks who pour their energies into building real collective intellectual communities.  It might also be added that the struggle I’m describing may be most accentuated in the humanities, where the norms of academic research are only slowly shifting away from the lone-professor-writing-her-latest-book to practices of team-based interdisciplinarity.  The very important beneficial consequences of globally networked disciplinary conversation arose for important reasons – the generation of new knowledge is more dynamic than ever before in human history, even despite data that (at least in communication) the research work is increasingly localized in smaller numbers of publishing faculty (a recent analysis in speech communication showed that something like 85% of all professors have not published anything or received external support for their projects in the previous five years).  But I wonder if the number of high productivity and communally engaged scholars can be sustained when their morale is under assault too, because the dynamics induced by understandable mentorship and reduced support bring into ever-starker relief the old 20/80 rule, where 20% do 80% of the work.  As 20/80 becomes 10/90, this is how intellectual dynamism, and universities, die.

Sam Becker’s career suggests a thought experience that asks whether the considerable benefits of 21st century intellectual life can be improved by some integration of the professional practices of the 20th.  I want to hypothesize that what so often seems like the depressing path of today’s stressed system of public higher education need not necessarily be accepted as a New Normal.  If public higher education is to retain its historical vitality, changes will have to happen on many fronts.  Taxpayers and legislators will need to be persuaded of public education’s value.  Reasonable systems of accountability will need to document the outcomes of pedagogical encounter, I know.  But there is a role for we faculty to play as well, and Sam Becker’s professional life suggests some of the possibilities.  Becker knew that good and committed scholars who simply show up day after day and make themselves open to engaged discussions with others, both online and in person, actually attract other smart students and teachers to join as well in ways that energize the common enterprise, and that calling it quits at the end of the workday creates intellectual sustainability too as people find time away every single day to recharge.  He saw, because he so often created it himself, that the vital and passionate sense of connection that emerges as intelligent participants in the educational experience talk to each other and rev up excitement about ideas one discussion at a time.  He realized that when everyone is present and engaged in program building, service work is made more manageable by division among larger numbers of connected co-workers.  I cannot prove it, but my suspicion is that the great intellectually vital centers of communication scholarship were (are) built more fully by acts of local loyalism than by enterprising free-agent academic nomadism.

The key is not simply hallway cultures of greater presence but also necessarily entail high degrees of intellectual openness, a refusal to see the scholarly enterprise as ideational warfare or zero-sum, even in contexts where resourcing is finite.  And this was another of the Becker legacies.  During his five decades in the department, communication studies nurtured, developed, and then in some cases spun off new academic units, including theater and film.  Those discussions were not always smooth or even friendly, and Becker had strong opinions.  But what he always preserved, as I saw it, was a culture of openness to new and productive work – it led him to shift over his own career from interests in quantitative social science to British cultural studies qualitative research and then back again.  No department is ever entirely free of intellectual entanglements – smart people will tend always to prefer their own lines of inquiry and can too easily fail to see the value of the efforts undertaken by others.  But so long as there are some Beckers around, these inclinations to either/or warfare that have consumed whole programs in acrimony can be channeled productively into both/and collective accomplishment.

Fantasies, perhaps.  But these are ideas whose lifelong embodiment in one Samuel L. Becker – Eagle Scout, decorated war hero, “Mr. University of Iowa,” champion of social justice and the idea that public education enriches us all, extraordinary teacher and scholar and administrator – remain for me compelling, even given the New Normals of this new century.

Counting the humanities

Last week the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a long-anticipated prototype of its Humanities Indicators project.  The initiative – organized a decade ago by the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Humanities Alliance, and funded by the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations – responds to the accumulating sense that (and I guess this is ironic) the humanities haven’t paid enough attention to quantifying their impact and history.  As Roger Geiger notes, “gathering statistics on the humanities might appear to be an unhumanistic way to gain understanding of its current state of affairs.”  But noting the value of a fuller accounting, the HI project was proposed as a counterpart to the Science and Engineering Indicators (done biennially by the National Science Board), which have helped add traction to the now widely recognized production crisis in the so-called STEM disciplines.

The Chronicle of Higher Education summarized the interesting findings this way (noting that these were their extrapolations; the Indicators simply present data without a narrative overlay apart from some attached essays):

In recent years, women have pulled even with men in terms of the number of graduate humanities degrees they earn but still lag at the tenure-track job level.  The absolute number of undergraduate humanities degrees granted annually, which hit bottom in the mid-1980s, has been climbing again.  But so have degrees in all fields, so the humanities’ share of all degrees granted in 2004 was a little less than half of what it was in the late 1960s.

This published effort is just a first step, and the reported data mainly usefully repackage data gleaned by other sources (such as from the Department of Education and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).  Information relating to community colleges is sparse for now.  Considerably more data have been originally generated by a 2007-2008 survey, and that will be added to the website in coming months.

The information contained in the tables and charts confirm trends long suspected and more anecdotally reported at the associational level:  the share of credit hours and majors and faculty hired who connect to the humanistic disciplines has fallen dramatically as a percentage of totals.  The percentage of faculty hired into tenure lines, which dropped most significantly in the late 1980s and 1990s, is still dropping, though more modestly, today.  Perhaps most telling, if a culture can be said to invest in what it values, is the statistic that in 2006, “spending on humanities research added up to less than half a percent of the total devoted to science and engineering research” (Howard).  As Brinkley notes, in 2007, “NEH funding… was approximately $138.3 million – 0.5 percent of NIH funding and 3 percent of NSF… [And] when adjusted for inflation, the NEH budget today is roughly a third of what it was thirty years ago.”  Even worse:  “[T]his dismal picture exaggerates the level of support for humanistic research, which is only a little over 13% of the NEH program budget, or about $15.9 million.  The rest of the NEH budget goes to a wide range of worthy activities.  The largest single outlay is operating grants for state humanities councils, which disburse their modest funds mostly for public programs and support of local institutions.”  And from private foundations, “only 2.1% percent of foundation giving in 2002 went to humanities activities (most of it to nonacademic activities), a 16% relative decline since 1992.”  Meanwhile, university presses are in trouble.  Libraries are struggling to sustain holdings growth.

Other information suggests interesting questions.  For instance:  why did the national production of humanities graduates climb so sharply in the 1960’s (doubling between 1961 and 1966 alone)?  Geiger argues the bubble was a product of circa-1960s disillusionment with the corporate world, energy in the humanistic disciplines, the fact that a humanities degree often provided employment entree for women (especially to careers in education), and a booming economy that made jobs plentiful regardless of one’s academic training.  After 1972, Geiger argues, all these trends were flipped:  the disciplines became embroiled in theoretical disputes and thus less intellectually compelling for new students (some attracted by Big Theory and arguably more antagonized), universities themselves became the target of disillusion, business schools expanded fast and became a more urgent source of competition, and so on.  Today, although enrollments are booming across the board in American universities, the humanities remain stable in generating roughly 8% of B.A. degrees, which may mean the collapse has reached bottom.

One interesting suggestion is posed by David Laurence, who reads the Indicators as proving that the nation can be said to have produced a “humanities workforce,” which in turn “makes more readily apparent how the functioning of key cultural institutions and significant sectors of the national economy depends on the continued development and reproduction of humanistic talent and expertise.”  This infrastructure includes (as listed by Laurence) schools and teachers, libraries, clergy, writers, editors, museums, arts institutions, theater and music, publishing, entertainment and news (where the latter involve the production of books, magazines, films, TV, radio, and Internet content).  And this gives rise to some potential confidence:  humanities programs continue to attract brilliant students, good scholarship is still produced, and the “’rising generation’ of humanities scholars is eager to engage directly with publics and communities” (Ellison), implying that the public humanities may grow further.  An outreach focus for humanists is a double-edged sword, of course, but might enhance the poor standing university humanities programs have, for example, with state funding councils.

SOURCES:  Jennifer Howard, “First National Picture of Trends in the Humanities is Unveiled,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 January 2009, pg. A8; Jennifer Howard, ‘Early Findings From Humanities-Indicators Project are Unveiled at Montreal Meeting,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 May 2007, pg. A12; Essays attached to the AAAS Humanities Indicators website, including Roger Geiger, “Taking the Pulse of the Humanities: Higher Education in the Humanities Indicators Project,” David Laurence, “In Progress: The Idea of a Humanities Workforce,” Alan Brinkley, “The Landscape of Humanities Research and Funding,” and Julie Ellison, “This American Life:  How Are the Humanities Public?”

On student cheating

If you work in education, you likely saw the reports earlier this month relating to a new study on the incidence of high school cheating.  David Crary wrote the Associated Press report I saw, which made me wince:

In the past year, thirty percent of U.S. high school students have stolen from a store and 64 percent have cheated on a test, according to a new large-scale survey suggesting that Americans are too apathetic about ethical standards.  Educators reacting to the findings questioned any suggestion that today’s young people are less honest than previous generations, but several agreed that intensified pressures are prompting many students to cut corners….

Other findings from the survey [done by the Los Angeles-based Josephson Foundation]:

•  Cheating in school is rampant and getting worse.  Sixty-four percent of students cheated on a test in the past year and 38 percent did so two or more times, up from 60 percent and 35 percent in a 2006 survey.

•  Thirty-six percent said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, up from 33 percent in 2004.

Despite such responses, 93 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent affirmed that “when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”

I don’t know the agenda of the Josephson Institute, or if they even have one, but the survey only reiterates findings well known to educational researchers.  Just one example is a study done in 2001 by McCabe et al., which showed well documented long term increases in cheating.

In reacting to the most recent reports, and apart from the director of the Josephson Institute, who is quoted as asking about the social costs of this cheating – what is “the implication for the next generation of mortgage brokers?” – everyone else in the article rushes to defend students.  They live in a more competitive environment, kids are under stress, and the temptation is greater (this, believe it or not, was the defense offered by the National Secondary School Principals Association).  A teacher from Philadelphia is quoted as completely absolving students of all responsibility:  “A lot of people like to blame society’s problems on young people, without recognizing that young people aren’t making the decisions about what’s happening in society.  They’re very easy to scapegoat.”  The fellow from the NSSPA added:  “We have to create situations where it’s easy for kids to do the right things.  We need to create classrooms where learning takes on more importance than having the right answer.”  Easy to do the right things?

These perspectives are, I fear, common, and I think disappointing:  because there are social pressures to unethical behavior, and because we cannot attribute 100% of the blame to individual actors, we should therefore wholly absolve individuals of any blame at all.  And in a culture where mid-level wrongdoing lands one in jail but big-deal wrongdoing gets one a book contract and an appearance on Leno where one can make he requisite public apology and be forgiven and move on, criticizing unethical conduct or pointing out how central integrity is to one’s work and life choices ends up sounding puritanical.  Ok, then, consider me a Puritan. [I should note, by the way, that the quotations in this article do not misrepresent the wider university culture; for example, research reports by Keith-Spiegel et al. (1998) and Schneider (1999) found that faculty tend not to actively prevent student misconduct or confront cheating students.]

Cheating, it is true, is certainly a symptom of wider educational dynamics that need to be addressed.  I often hear it asserted that the No Child Left Behind K-12 testing environment means, among other things, that students come to college with less experience at doing serious research and writing papers.  Ignorant of the protocols of writing, they are said to more easily give way to the temptations of online appropriation.  Gerald Graff wrote a persuasive book a couple years back that argues college sets students up to fail – they come to us Clueless in Academe, unable to participate in research generation but held to standards of work we have never taught them.

Some research also suggests that even bright college students continue to suffer the consequences of their high school environments.  A study reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, done by Mark Engberg (Loyola University-Chicago) and Gregory Wolniak (University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center), using data collected on 2,500 students, found that “those from schools with high levels of violence tended to have lower grades.  Having attended a well-maintained and well-equipped school seemed to offer many freshmen advantages over their peers” (CHE, 11/28/08).  And a related project, done by Serge Herzog (from the University of Arkansas) “found that, even after controlling for differences in background and academic preparation, low-income freshmen tended to post lower grades if their high schools had high levels of violence or disorder.”

As many students arrive at college unprepared, instructors have understandably reacted by reconfiguring their assignments.  Instead of the drop dead system of midterm, final exam, and big research paper, most classes (at least in my experience at public universities) now offer a wider range of low-impact assignments.  Students now get daily journaling grades, may take multiple reading quizzes where low grades can be dropped, are more readily offered extra credit, and so on.  But this dynamic has, I think, contributed to the explosion of cheating.  Too often students don’t see any harm in copying the Amazon book summary (usually taken right off the book jacket) in turning in an annotated bibliography when they know the bibliography assignment only counts as, say, five percent of the grade – it feels like make-work and so it’s handled that way.  Meanwhile, professors are reluctant to impose the academic death penalty (an F in a course or academic suspension) when it was a low-stakes project.  So over time students learn they can get credit for work that isn’t their own and professors live in frustration but feel they can’t really keep up in playing classroom cop.

A lot of attention has been given to the growth of a reported entitlement culture among students, evidence of broader forces at work in the culture and perhaps also the result of a customer is always right mentality that some see at work even in academic, and in a very limitedly anecdotal way I see evidence of that as having emerged over the last five years.  Even five years ago, when I would meet with students accused of cheating, the main reaction was emotional meltdown – crying, apology, please give me another chance, and so on.  Today the most common reaction is anger – how dare you accuse me of cheating! – and this even in cases where the open and shut evidence is laying there on the table.  To some extent these impressions are confirmed by the broader work done on student cheating, which is partly summarized by McCabe, Trevino, and Butterfield in a 1999 report:

With regard to individual characteristics, results have typically found that underclassmen cheat more than upperclassmen, that male students cheat more than female students, and that students with lower grade point averages cheat more than higher achieving students.  With regard to contextual characteristics, studies have found that cheating is higher among fraternity or sorority members, among students involved in intercollegiate athletics, among students who perceive that their peers cheat and are not penalized, and is lower at institutions that have strong academic honor codes.  (211).

Academic misconduct is a symptom of wider problems in the university culture, and part of the responsibility rests with professors who spend too little time helping students see why the originality of work matters so much to intellectual work.  But even in the context of student hostility in the face of accusations, at some level students know that cheating is wrong.  If they engage in it they are more likely to be lazy or overworked than evil.  But dishonesty is not justified as a shortcut in a scene of overwork, or by the fact that many others are doing it too.  The rationalizations one encounters when it comes to plagiarism collapse even under the simple logics of moral conduct any young child should be picking up on the schoolyard playground.

A final paradox produced by all these factors is that even while cheating skyrockets, at least in my world, professor-reported misconduct remains low.  In my own department of roughly fifty full time faculty, in a given year only five or so will report academic misconduct of any kind, and this is the dynamic in a system where reporting cheating only starts a professor-controlled process (that is, professors at my university need not fear that by reporting minor infractions inexorable suspension will be set in motion).  Here again, the research confirms that my experience is not unusual.  Diekhoff et al., report that only three percent of cheaters report having ever been caught; Keith-Spiegel report a faculty survey that showed 71% of professors said confronting student cheating was one of the most negative aspects of their job; and a 1994 study by Graham found that only 9% of instructors who caught students cheating had penalized them (all this is summarized in Vandehey et al.).

Many faculty may simply be living in naivete, imagining that their own creativity in coming up with assignments on which cheating is “impossible” has exempted them from the broader trends.  Others suspect cheating but might feel that getting too serious about it is itself unfair, since the most likely outcome is that the obvious cheating novices will get busted after a five seconds Google-search but the more systematically clever (and thus more objectionable) will still get off scot free.  It is also possible that professors are astonishingly vigilant but simply choose to handle cheating within their own classrooms.

Blogging on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, Laurie Fendrich (a fine arts professor at Hofstra) argued that college honor systems make less and less sense given the wider erosion of an understanding even of what the term honor means:

In our society, nobody has an obligation to own up to the truth.  Instead, we have an obligation to get as far ahead as possible as long as someone else doesn’t stop us.  In no case does honor apply to resisting temptation – which is precisely what’s called for in order for cheating not to occur under the honor system.  Since honor in America doesn’t exist, we should replace college honor systems with an academic penal code. (We should have a penal code for faculty malfeasances as well, but that’s for another discussion.)  I propose that it be phased in slowly, so that incoming students understand the new rules.  The new rules should be something like this:  The first cheating offense earns the grade WC, for “withdrew from course for cheating,” and the student is required to withdraw from the course.  The grade stays on the student’s transcript until graduation, when a “W” replaces it if there are no further instances of cheating.  A second offense earns another grade of WC, and the two grades remain permanently on the student’s transcript.  The third offense follows the American way:  Three strikes and you’re out.  Expelled for cheating.

I like this idea but am also skeptical that it will solve the wider problem.  Still, I think it would a step forward.  I wonder if most professors would be willing to report cheating, since many I talk with are hesitant to take actions that connect to permanent transcript notations.  But maybe I’m wrong – perhaps faculty would favor a system that simply gets the student out of their classes.  I also think Fendrich goes too far in downplaying the role of honor codes on college campuses (the investigation by McCabe, Trevino and Butterfield I mentioned earlier found strong evidence that the existence of an honor code does make a still-significant difference in creating a strong college culture of more honest behavior).  But the actual proposal seems reasonable.

Until we all, students and teachers alike, do more to discuss these issues in our classes, stay vigilantly on the lookout for misconduct that is currently undetected, and make use of the procedures for handling unethical behavior, cheating will persist and likely increase, and the most important opportunities for character formation available in the university environment will be lost.

SOURCES:  Peter Schmidt, “Studies examine major influences on freshmen’s academic success,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 November 2008, pg. A21; David Crary, “Lie, cheat and steal? In survey, many high school students admit those misdeeds,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, 1 December 2008, pg. A3; Laurie Fendrich, “The honor code has no honor,” Chronicle of Higher Education (excerpting her post on the Chronicle Review blog), 12 December 2008, pg. B2; Patricia Keith-Spiegel et al., “Why professors ignore cheating:  Opinions of a national sample of psychology instructors,” Ethics and Behavior 8 (1998), 215-227; Alison Schneider, “Why professors don’t do more to stop students who cheat,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 January 1999, pg. A8-A10; Donald McCabe et al., “Cheating in academic institutions:  A decade of research,” Ethics and Behavior 11 (2001), 219-232; Donald McCabe, Linda Trevino, and Kenneth Butterfield, “Academic integrity in honor code and non-honor code environments,” Journal of Higher Education 70.2 (1999), 211-234; Michael Vandehey, George Diekhoff, and Emily LaBeff, “College cheating:  A twenty-year follow-up and the addition of an honor code,” Journal of College Student Development 48.4 (2007), 468-480.

Harvard’s Arts Task Force

This past Wednesday a Harvard task force appointed by president Drew Gilpin Faust released a report advocating an expanded role for the arts there.  The report is interesting in large part because it calls attention to a circumstance common on many campuses, where the arts are ubiquitous – theatrical productions and exhibitions running all the time – but also marginalized to the work of the modern research university to the extracurricular and programmatic sidelines.  While Harvard’s circumstances are obviously not generalizable everywhere given its tremendous wealth and status as the nation’s leading private university, the Task Force led by the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt makes a compelling claim for artistic centrality.

To those who regularly teach the creative arts none of the main arguments will seem new, but they are eloquently put and I think well suited to the audiences for claims on the collective resources of comprehensive universities who tend, even if only subliminally, to discount the arts (and for that matter the humanities) as mainly doing peripheral or service work while the real useful knowledge emerging from college campuses is being made in science laboratories and in the professional schools.  In addressing such a worldview, and it is pervasive, the report defends the intellectual practices of artistic invention as wholly necessary to intellectual work.  As the report argues:

The quarantining of arts practice in the sphere of the extra-curricular creates a false dichotomy.  It leads students (and, on occasion, their teachers) to assume falsely that the qualities of successful art-making – the breaking apart of the carapace of routine, the empowerment of the imagination, the careful selection and organization of elements that contribute to an overarching, coherent design, the rigorous elimination of all that does not contribute to this design, the achievement of a deepened intelligibility in the external and internal world – do not belong in the work they are assigned to undertake in the curriculum…  On the contrary, the forms of thinking inculcated in art training are valuable both in themselves and in what they help to enhance elsewhere in the curriculum.  These include the development of craft, the sharpening of focus and concentration, and the empowerment of the imagination.  Art-making is an expressive practice:  it nurtures intense alertness to the intellectual and emotional resources of the human means of communication, in all their complexity.  It requires both acute observation and critical reflection.  This self-reflection – the drive to interrogate conventions, displace genres, challenge inherited codes of meaning – encourages risk-taking and an ability to endure repeated failures.  It fosters both intelligent imitation and a desire to conceive and bring forth what has hitherto been unimaginable.

The report also evokes the increasingly accepted claims that the most demanding intellectual problems demand interdisciplinary approaches, and the pedagogical insistence that students learn best by making rather than by hearing, both arguments mobilized to make the case that training in the arts is not just a luxurious supplement but a necessary ingredient to serious scholarly endeavor.  Although the examples are of necessity anecdotal (and for obvious reason limited to Harvard alumni), cases are brought forward where distinguished work was enabled by exposure to the arts:  T.S. Eliot, W.E.B. Du Bois and others are mentioned as having challenged dominant paradigms because of their involvement with a range of disciplines including the arts.

When the arts are mainly championed as extracurricular events in which well rounded individuals will participate but not specialize, another danger is aroused, and “a quite specific view of the arts” is encouraged:  “Art, in this view, is a thing entirely bound up with pleasure.  Purely voluntary, it stands apart from the sphere of obligation, high seriousness, and professional training.”  And when the arts are “deemed… to be extracurricular, many students remain oblivious to the hard work – the careful training, perception, and intelligence – that the arts require.  They know that writing essays is a skilled and time-consuming labor.  They recognize that problem sets in math and science are meant to be difficult.  But ask them to photograph a landscape, compose a short story, or direct a scene rather than write an analytical essay and they will almost universally assume that the exercise will be quickly and easily dispatched.  The problem is not that they believe art-making is trivial but rather that they believe that talent alone, and not thought or diligence, will determine the outcome.”

And yet the report also makes a sustained case for the role the arts can play in nurturing happiness, by which is meant not the fleeting delight that comes from a moving sonata or an entertaining comedy, “something more than the acquisition of technical mastery, something beyond the amassing and exchange of information necessary for the advancement of human learning” – it “entails an intensified participation in the natural and human realms, a vital union of spirit and matter at once facilitated and symbolized by works of art.”

The report obviously moves rather quickly to make Harvard-specific recommendations, including a call for an expanded arts presence on their new Allston campus, concretized support for artists-in-residence, and new graduate programs in the arts.  Some of these will work elsewhere and some won’t.  But even at the level of the specifics, it is hard to imagine that the Harvard Task Force call for such initiatives as using graduate arts programs (especially new MFA degree programs) as a way to leverage artistic excellence, creating an interdisciplinary artistic Hothouse where new collaborations might be nurtured, and thinking of all campus spaces as potential places for exhibition and attention to aesthetic practice would not be well justified on any comprehensive research or liberal arts campus.

These arguments are made with some rhetorical sensitivity, offered in a way I think unlikely either to offend artists who might be inclined to see such a case as slighting their hard work or non-artists whose academic positions would less typically have them thinking seriously about the role art might play.  All the more reason that it should be widely read and its central claims broadly deployed.

The other Williams Ayers

Driving to work yesterday I heard one of Atlanta’s conservative talk radio hosts announce with a mixture of pride and wistfulness that, as a concession to Barack Obama’s victory, he had thrown out all his “research” on William Ayers, whose violent past he had been preaching for months.  Now that Obama has been chosen by the voters to lead the nation, the talk show host noted, it was time to move past Ayers and Jeremiah Wright and onto larger topics.  At the same time, though, while Sarah Palin has been insisting that the association (however modest) still matters, Ayers himself has emerged into the public spotlight, having given some recent interviews (he was on Good Morning America the other morning) and published some op-ed pieces.

As the election unfolded, only passing notice was typically given to the other/older William Ayers, the University of Illinois (Chicago) professor of education.  Now that November 4th has passed, and accepting for the moment the impulse to bracket his past to better understand his influence today as an advocate for educational reform, I’ve been reading some of his work on social justice pedagogy.  It was this work, actually, that led him to cross paths with Obama, since their mutual interest in school reform led both to agree to serve on the same Chicago board of directors, an association that obviously led Obama’s critics to question the wisdom of his political and intellectual alliances.

Ayers has a way of getting right to the point, a trait much on display in the recent interviews but which also makes him an interesting writer.  One book review he authored starts:  “Drawing on traditional methods and straightforward approaches… Vonovskis fails to add anything new to the story of the origins of Head Start despite constant and irritating assertions to the contrary.”  And an essay co-authored with Michael Klonsky begins, “Each day, children in Chicago are cheated out of a challenging, meaningful, or even an adequate education…  Despite the well-publicized crime rate in Chicago’s poor neighborhoods, the greatest robbery is not in the streets, but in the schools.”  But Ayers’ purpose is not just attention-grabbing or op-ed-style hyperbole, for he quickly moves to back up such provocative claims by the presentation of truly appalling data about urban education.  The Chicago research, which appeared in 1994, noted that as of that year, for instance, “reading scores in almost half of Chicago’s schools are in the lowest 1% of the nation.”

Ayers’ work in Chicago does partly mirror the logic of his anti-war activism, which was animated by the view that one must deal with criminal negligence by use of a proportionally urgent response (this was the argument he made on GMA in justifying his participation in anti-Vietnam War insurgency; his view was that what he saw as America’s murderous policies in southeast Asia were so monstrous that they demanded even the use of violent opposition).  In the context of education reform, this has led to the mobilization of what might best be considered a social movement, organized to provide tangible opposition to schooling bureaucracies.  And this, in turn, leads to a wide-scale systemic perspective that attends as much to the macro-allocation (or misallocation) of educational funds as to the local dynamics of this or that classroom.  Schools in Illinois, as elsewhere, are funded by property taxes, and because urban property values tend to be lower they generate less revenue than ends up available in the richer suburbs.  In 1992, Illinois voters narrowly rejected a statewide constitutional amendment to provide funding equalization (a constitutional amendment requires 60% support, while this one received 56%).

The passions elicited by the issue of educating children run deep.  Ayers recounts the firestorm evoked when, in 1988, then-governor of Illinois Bill Thompson resisted higher funding for Chicago schools – he didn’t want to throw more money into a “black hole.”  When one of Chicago’s representatives in the state legislature accused Thompson of having made a racist comment, pundits accused the senator of playing the race card.  But such back-and-forths are not surprising given the complex history of racial politics that has characterized the city’s political history, not to mention the long period of conflict between the city and its teacher union that led to a regular cycle of walkouts in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  One can gather some sense of Ayers’ fuller indictment in the following passage, also written in the mid-1990’s:

Returning to Chicago [from a discussion of schooling in South Africa], a similarly persuasive argument can be made that the failure of some schools and some children is not due to a failure of the system.  That is, if one suspects for a moment the rhetoric of democratic participation, fairness, and justice, and acknowledges (even tentatively) that our society, too, is one of privilege and oppression, inequality, class divisions, and racial and gender stratifications, then one might view the schools as a whole as doing an adequate job both of sorting youngsters for various roles in society and convincing them that they deserve their privileges and their failures.  Sorting students may be the single, brutal accomplishment of U.S. schools, even if it runs counter to the ideal of education as a process that opens possibilities, provides opportunities to challenge and change fate, and empowers people to control their own lives.  The wholesale swindle in Chicago, then, is neither incidental nor accidental; rather, it is an expression of the smooth functioning of the system.

The movement that emerged as a reaction to the frustrating situation in Chicago was in large measure centered on the idea of accountability, a rhetorical rubric that can accommodate both conservatives (who might prefer to emphasize how schools fail to respond to or engage the interests of parents) and liberals (who might prefer to emphasize the need for greater investments, paired with oversight better able to hold bureaucracies to account) both.  Emerging as it did under the leadership of Mayor Harold Washington, the mobilization of parents and educational reformers brought (Ayers and Klonsky argue) African-American parents to the forefront, along with the traditional themes of civil rights organizing (grassroots activity, decentralization, desegregation, community empowerment).  But they were also assisted by the then-recent creation of academic research activity that provided concrete data able to call attention to the true problems.  Early on, Mayor Washington was able to bring together mainly minority parents and white business leaders, all of whom shared concerns about poor schooling, but that coalition was fragmented when the funding issue percolated to the top of the reform agenda (community leaders favored more equitable tax policies and greater funding, while many in the business community were opposed).

Starting with the local reflects an ongoing theme in Ayers’ work, and in an essay he wrote in 1988, it becomes an explicit focus of his account of his past.  Ayers wrote:  “My experience with making change leaves me unimpressed with theories of change, big theories and little theories alike.  Big theories are often compelling because of their bold self-assurance and their tidy certainty…, [but] too often the self-activity of people is lost in a kind of determinism…  Small theories of change promise a different kind of certainty, but they fail as often for missing the larger context…”  Such a view, in turn, has shaped Ayer’s subsequent work on education as social justice, in which he repeatedly insists he is not seeking airy abstraction but on-the-ground changes for children.

Ayers’ departs from social justice accounts of education that see education as a mechanism for improving students’ economic and social prospects.  For Ayers such an approach reflects a certain naivete, since it rests on a basic endorsement of the overall forces and institutions that shape society and often constrain progress even for the well educated (the emphasis in such an approach can too fully rest on the idea of equipping under-educated students for society, without enabling changes in the political and social system that will make the resulting educated citizens more welcome).  Ayers thus also argues that social justice education has to be politically empowering even as basic life skills are inculcated, where schools might be imagined as also fostering real political agency.

The challenge, of course, is that education is complicated and the dynamics of successful teaching cannot be reduced to axiomatic rules teachable in college education classrooms.  In Teaching Toward Freedom, his 2004 book, Ayers (channelling Walt Whitman) cites the following as offering a more hopeful (and explicitly poetic) view of the well formed citizen:

Love the earth and the sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

SOURCE:  William Ayers, “The Republican’s Favorite Whipping Boy, Former Student Radical William Ayers Tells What it Was Like to Be Painted as a Symbol of Evil by McCain and Palin,” Montreal Gazette, 8 November 2008, pg. B7; Colin Moynihan, “Ex-Radical Talks of Education and Justice, Not Obama,” New York Times, 27 October 2008, pg. A22; William Ayers and Michael Klonsky, “Navigating a Restless Sea:  The Continuing Struggle to Achieve a Decent Education for African American Youngsters in Chicago,” Journal of Negro Education 63.1 (1994): pgs. 5-18; Ayers, “The Shifting Ground of Curriculum Thought and Everyday Practice,” Theory into Practice 31.3 (Summer 1992): pgs. 259-263; Ayers, “Problems and Possibilities of Radical Reform:  A Teacher Educator Reflects on Making Change,” Peabody Journal of Education 65.2 (Winter 1988): pgs. 35-50;  Emery Hyslop-Margison, “Teaching for Social Justice,” Journal of Moral Education 34.2 (June 2005): pgs. 251-256; John Pulley, “Former Radicals, Now Professors, Draw Ire of Alumni at Two Universities,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 November 2001, pg. A32.

When college students are “illegal”

Georgia is one of those states (along with Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma) that has passed legislation denying the children of “illegal immigrants” access to lower in-state tuition rates.  Although the decision hits students in that category very hard, I don’t have the impression that the legislature struggled with the issue (perhaps this comes as little surprise to those familiar with Georgia’s political conservatism), nor that Georgia’s citizens were especially upset about this outcome.  This is so despite the fact that it ought to be a little hard to muster antipathy for young people whose academic work has qualified them for university work, and whose “crime” is wanting an affordable education; still, even many liberal voters would reply that such students should not illegally access such benefits, any more than a resident of (say) Rhode Island should be permitted to lie to qualify for Georgia’s in-state rate.

The law reflects one of those avenues taken by states wanting to show how tough they are on the undocumented, although the main victims are often college-aged teenagers who did not make the decision for their families to enter the United States and are thus arguably innocent of the illegalities committed by their parents in skirting legal avenues to American residency.  Perhaps by the time of college such students, having typically attained the age of majority, might be judged as knowingly perpetrating a fraud, but the alternatives are rather brutal:  is a kid who only speaks English and grew up from perhaps the age of 6 months and knows nothing other than the United States really supposed to pick up and move to a parent’s country of origin of which he has no knowledge or real connection?  Of course not, comes the response; let that teen pursue the process of legal residency and American citizenship:  but as one might imagine such a path is not readily available to those who entered illegally and have avoided sanction for perhaps 18 years.

The logic of sparing the younger children of the undocumented access to a state’s educational resources was found convincing by a United States Supreme Court decision (Plyler v. Doe) issued in 1982 (and, as you may recall, this logic was defended on humanitarian grounds by Mike Huckabee in running an otherwise tough anti-immigration conservative campaign for president).  That decision guarantees a free education for K-12-aged children, but for the roughly 65,000 (a long circulating figure first published by the Urban Institute) who lack legal status and graduate every year from American high schools a legal limbo descends.

The decision was close, 5-4, and mainly turned on an intermediate scrutiny analysis that found that states lacked a substantial state interest in restricting their educational systems to lawful residents.  And the reasoning of the ruling makes it hard to extend to college-aged students.  No constitutional right to education was found in that decision, and when the court ruled that undocumented residents are not to be considered a “suspect class,” they also prevented subsequent courts from using the standard of “strict scrutiny.”  That is, in cases where groups have been historically subject to discrimination (such as racial minorities and women), the state has to come up with an especially compelling reason to justify a policy that discriminates against them.  That highest level of scrutiny does not pertain here.

This issue has drifted in and out of the public consciousness ever since that 1982 Supreme Court decision, and the case for providing lower tuition rates has been eloquently made in a number of law review essays.  And I do not want to imply that all of the states that have acted on this issue have repealed such benefits; to the contrary, as many as twenty-five states have assured lower tuition rates to undocumented kids raised in their state, including the main ones where undocumented workers reside (including Texas, Illinois, Washington, New York and California).  In Texas a study done by its Comptroller in 2001 actually found that every dollar invested in higher education for an undocumented worker returned five dollars to the economy in other ways.  Still, states wanting to take protective action must engage in some act of legerdemain, for the 1996 federal “Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act” can be read as preventing such allowances.  The relevant section of that Act reads:

An alien who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible on the basis of residence within a State… for any postsecondary benefit unless a citizen or national of the United States is eligible for such a benefit (in no less an amount, duration, and scope) without regard to whether the citizen or national is such a resident.

Because this provision seems to be backed by a similar provision in the United States Code, the states that have not acted often default to a position that their hands are tied, and benefits thus unavailable.

Advocates of denying in-state tuition benefits to a child who has lived almost her entire life in, say, St. Louis and who wants to attend the University of Missouri at the discounted rate see the issue in zero-sum terms:  every dollar lopped off her tuition bill is a dollar lost that could have been spent to expand access or better quality resourcing for a student there legally.  It is the same logic that sees undocumented workers as “stealing” jobs from American workers and its articulation has a powerful appeal when the scarcity of both jobs and college seats is compounded by economic downturn.  Moreover, although the regulation of immigration is mainly a federal power, the states are sensitive to the financial burdens imposed on their public services (health and education especially) when undocumented residents arrive in their jurisdiction.  Others argue that governments should not invest in the educational development of young women and men who are legally unlikely to work in the States after graduation.

There are no easy solutions short of a federally mandate that would expand the K-12 guarantee into the college years.  In many public systems university presidents have the authority to admit a limited number of students on an in-state waiver – these often go to lure high quality athletes or musicians to a campus – but one might understand presidents reluctant to use those waivers for undocumented students given the adverse publicity such a move might attract.  In several systems, I know that privately connected university fundraising foundations have quietly tried to raise money to handle the tuition demands by tapping private donors, but I’ve also heard (admittedly only anecdotal) evidence that even loyal donors are nervous about selling such a strategy to their boards of directors.

The ramped up animosity against those lacking legal residency status, whether justified or not, has more ambiguous spill-over consequences for the general population of international students, who often have to endure the bureaucratic hurdles raised by post-9/11 security fears and anti-immigration sentiment.  Any mid-level university administrator trying to ease the path for arriving international students or faculty is familiar with the complex, expensive, and frustrating documentation processes that intimidate new colleagues from abroad and complicate the task of internationalizing the educational experiences of American-born students.  Even if adopted for good reason, the system too often seems designed to deter brilliant international students from studying in the United States and enriching the classrooms they would otherwise enter.  At a communication conference recently a colleague told me about an international student orientation held on her campus which began when university officials demanded that all passports and documentation paperwork be handed over for review – the intention was not hostile, and the purpose was apparently just to confirm that everything was in order, but some of the students were terrified, in some cases having arrived from countries where such round-ups foreshadowed deportation or worse.  These were students attending legally at what was supposed to be a welcome orientation, nonetheless caught up in the overly hyped drama created by university officials who fear that letting undocumented students slip through their systems places at risk their campus’ access to federal student loan money for all their students.

Too much of the national immigration debate is underwritten by pure animus, but one can take seriously the principled position that a state ought to have the right to prioritize its investments in its own citizens.  But there is a pernicious cost to enforcing such a principle too rigorously.  Students who have been embraced as welcome equals in our high schools are suddenly forced to encounter a much rougher world of quiet discrimination and the denial of educational opportunity.  These students, denied access to expensive college educations, often lose the hope that intellectual engagement can make their lives and communities better.  Beyond the political repercussions is thus the risk of creating a generation of disillusioned student scholars left with no effective choices.  The kid from Montana who cannot afford North Carolina’s out of state rates can stay home and pay very little for a great education; the children negatively effected by this policy have no where to turn.  And that is a difficult outcome to defend.

SOURCE:  Eddy Ramirez, “The Crash Course in Citizenship – A New Front Line in the Immigration Debate:  Access to Higher Education,” US News & World Report, 18-25 August 2008, pgs. 46-47; Andrew Stevenson, “Dreaming of an Equal Future for Immigrant Children: Federal and State Initiatives to Improve Undocumented Students’ Access to Postsecondary Education,” Arizona Law Review 46 (Fall 2004): 551-580.

Beyond a charmed life, astonishing discipline

About fifteen minutes ago in Beijing, Michael Phelps, with help from his three relay teammates, exceeded Mark Spitz’ seven-medal Olympics record, or should one more accurately say obliterated it:  seven world records.  Amazing.

As I’ve followed the ongoing gold + gold + gold + gold + gold + gold + gold + GOLD saga, along with probably two billion others, I can’t say my reactions are any more sophisticated than anyone else’s:  I believe this record will last for a generation.  I think his mother’s reactions to all this have been moving.  I have admired Phelps’ tenacity and also his modesty in articulating his accomplishments; he has phenomenal poise for his age and the ever-present attention he has received on the world stage.  I thought the exchange broadcast last night between Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps actually rose to a level of eloquence I would never expected from athletes not particularly used to verbalizing their experiences.  And whether one credits the fast pool, the fast suits, or the reemergence of the fast underwater dolphin kick, the pace at which world records have been so regularly superceded is something I never thought I would see.

What makes such feats of excellence so compelling for the vast worldwide audiences watching?  I remember watching Mark Spitz as a young kid, not really aware of what it all meant but I did understand that he had created an extraordinary record, his accomplishment soon darkened by the killings in Munich which were, by contrast, frightening and incomprehensible.  To an eleven year old excellence seemed logical and terrorism nonsensical.

The other day one of the NBC short profiles essentially presented Phelps as this generation’s Bionic Man; the main focus was on his lucky genes, which have given him the perfect body for speed swimming:  big feet, big lungs, big hands, huge pumping heart, tall torso, a rubbery limber frame.  While these factors cannot be denied, I prefer to appreciate his discipline and focus, his thousands of hours of concentrated practice, for I think this is the main inspiration one should derive from all the hype and pathos oozing from the international media coverage.

The focus that leads someone to practice for four or six or ten hours a day to move more speedily through water than anyone else, or better hurl a hammer, or more perfectly navigate two suspended rings or the balance-defying challenge of the narrow beam, or for that matter more beautifully play a Schubert concerto or construct a cathedral or produce the perfectly written Japanese sentence or invent a cancer cure is inspiring and also, in a way, absurd.  The vast attention given such accomplishments reflects this irrationality – the woman or man who someday cures lung cancer will never in a lifetime garner the acclaim Phelps has attracted in the short time since he heard the American anthem played tonight.  And where is the justice in the vastly disproportionate reception Phelps got last night, as opposed to the other fellow (do you remember his name?) who lost by only a 0.01 second fingernail?  Phelps will inspire maybe more than 100,000 American children into the pool – and that is a good thing – but wouldn’t it have been better to inspire those 100,000 children into taking biology classes?

Perhaps not.  Several years ago, Bill Readings ridiculed the ubiquitous excellence rhetoric that pervades higher education, which he said had led to the situation of the University in Ruins.  Excellence, he argued, was an empty signifier that actually represented a failure of vision, a euphemism that covered many of the sins of the increasingly corporatized university and the triumph of business talk, a term no one can quite refuse but that stubbornly defies specification.  But sometimes I wonder whether the admittedly unspecified scramble to compete in the excellence game is really so terrible, since out of the never-ending press releases and hype also arises an urgency to accomplish the unique, and tonight, perhaps, on some college campus someone is thinking through how it might be organized to become the Michael Phelps of neuroscience or literature or debating or history.

Competition can easily turn destructive, and in so many dimensions of human endeavor idealizing the instinct to win makes no sense, even as we slap Academy Awards and Guggenheim Genius and Grammy honors on artists and intellectuals who are not actually competing (this sense of absurdity was often expressed as a criticism several years ago of Charles Murray when he attempted a quantitative/qualitative analysis of Human Accomplishment).  But connecting children to activities in which they can succeed and then fostering their eagerness to succeed in them makes a difference whether they make the professional football team or get a Nobel Prize or fall a fingernail short.

Studying which factors best explain long term interest and performance in an academic subject, Harackiewicz and Elliot et al., found that while a student’s interest in mastering course content does positively correlate to subsequent enrollment in related classes, it was the prospect for perfecting performance that better predicted its improvement.  Another quite unrelated indication of this came several years ago the College Entrance Examination Board segregated out students who had studied music and art, acting, and related topics like art history and theater appreciation.  Students whose interest was animated by those topics scored, on average, fifty points higher on the math SAT.  Now of course this is complicated – it may be supportive families who widely expose their children to all these topics that deserve the credit for the cognitive gains that emerge in all subjects when kids are motivated to practice and try harder (this is a question explored by Crozier, who reviews the long-standing assumption that talent “runs in families”).  But practice does seem to make perfect.  Writing in the context of musical performance, Woody has noted (19) that

Music researchers have presented convincing evidence that cumulative practice – not innate talent – sets expert performers apart from lesser-skilled proficient musicians.  They estimate that by the age of twenty-one, the best student performers have accumulated around ten thousand hours of practice, compared to about half that amount for the next level of proficient musicians.

It seemed striking to me that whenever asked about the secret of his success, Michael Phelps always reverts to talk about long-term commitment and planning, but in fact this is a shared predisposition for those who are asked to explain their exceptionalism.   To name just one example, nationally selected Presidential Scholars credit their success to their own hard work and well roundedness (Lamont et al.).  And the payoffs that come when someone is induced to disciplined work are not all that dissimilar whether they occur in the pool or the symphony hall.  As Kate Hays has argued (pg. 300),

“The artist’s counterparts of tennis elbow or swimmer’s shoulder are clarinetist’s thumb, cymbalist’s shoulder, flutist’s forearm, and violinist’s neck” (Lubell, 1987, p. 253)…  [And] because the performance arena is common ground between athletes and performing artists, it is not surprising that the primary psychological concerns confronting both groups also share similarities…. The practitioner who understands performance issues in relation to athletes is in an excellent position to transfer that knowledge base to other performance domains…  The emphasis on flawless technique and performance puts an extraordinary demand on performing artists.  Whether as student or professional, the artist’s life is permeated with judgment about performance.  Auditions, lessons or classes filled with critique, performance itself, and reviews – all of these often focus less on aesthetics than on perfection.

Whether Deborah Phelps (now a middle school principal) consciously considered all of this when she encouraged her young son Michael’s endless curiosity (as a kid he always “asked 25 zillion questions”), when she deflected the concerns that he was ADHD by agreeing to his young request to come off Ritalin, when she came to the realization that although Michael couldn’t sit straight for a five minute algebra tutorial he would patiently wait “four hours at a meet waiting to swim his five minutes’ worth of races,” or as she watched him this week shatter world records as a now-mature international swimming sensation, her quiet work to nurture his competitive instincts and to channel them into the necessary discipline of sustained practice has paid off in stunning fashion tonight.

SOURCES:  Kate F. Hays, “The Enhancement of Performance Excellence Among Performing Artists,” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 14 (2002): 299-312; W. Ray Crozier, “Individual Differences in Artistic Achievement: A Within-Family Case Study,” Creativity Research Journal 15.4 (2003): 311-319; Judith Harackiewicz, Kenneth Barron, John Tauer, Suzanne Carter, and Andrew Elliot, “Short-Term and Long-Term Consequences of Achievement Goals: Predicting Interest and Performance Over Time,” Journal of Educational Psychology 92.2 (2000): 316-330; Charles Murray, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences [800 B.C. to 1950] (New York: HarperCollins); Denis Dutton, “Of Human Accomplishment,” New Criterion (February 2004): 33-38; Robert Woody, “The Motivations of Exceptional Musicians,” Music Educators Journal (January 2004): 17-21; Michéle Lamont, Jason Kaufman, and Michael Moody, “The Best of the Brightest: Definitions of the Ideal Self Among Prize-Winning Students,” Sociological Forum 15.2 (2000): 187-224.

Educational assessment and helping kids

Several times in the past week I’ve heard teachers criticized for “putting their own selfish interests above the interests of the children” they teach, and although I don’t really know enough about teacher unions to defend or oppose what they do in the details of (say) a normal contract negotiation, I found myself viscerally reacting against this way of framing the issue given what I know about the dedicated and I would argue even impossible work done by teachers in the trenches.

Charlie Rose easily elicited this rhetoric from the head of the District of Columbia school system in a recently loving interview.  Michelle Rhee is a young and energetic reform-minded administrator who apparently has the strong backing of Washington, DC’s mayor, and the grand bargain she is offering DC teachers (we will significantly raise your pay if you agree to contract changes that will give administrators more authority to hold teachers accountable for educational outcomes) was clearly music to Rose’s ears even though this perspective isn’t so loved even by many Washington parents.

This is a deal Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek columnist, was pushing in a recent column (“Obama’s No-Brainer on Education,” July 21, 2008, pg. 35) onto the presidential candidates (he refers to Rhee as Washington’s “brilliant new superintendent”):

…Obama needs to embrace a Grand Educational Bargain – much higher pay for teachers in exchange for much more accountability for performance in the classroom.  Good teachers need to be rewarded with more pay and respect for being members of our noblest profession.  They need more resources.  But they also need to be removed from the classroom when they fail to improve.  Obama occasionally says as much, but goes fuzzy when it comes to how.

And then Alter delivers the infamous punchline, which in standard form he insinuates as a slur against the unions as opposed to the individual teachers who join them:  “The teachers unions, for all their lip service, don’t believe their members should be judged on performance.  They still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children.”  That would be incompetents (as in, human beings who teach for a living) as opposed to incompetence (as in, those foolish ineptitudes in which we all traffic).

I’m skeptical of both this deal and of the rhetoric used to defend it that demonizes teachers as only interested in hiding their own incompetence.  Considerable danger lurks in such a deal, even conceding the urgent need to address collapsing graduation rates (in the last quarter century, as Alter notes, America has fallen from number one in college-graduation rates to 21st) and other mounting evidence of disastrous underachievement.

First, in an age where open hostility toward government is successfully nurtured by the right and too often ceded even by the left, I do not believe the promise of long term pay raises for good teachers will be made good.  I don’t doubt that Rhee is sincere; I just doubt that once she’s gone the voters of the District will vote taxes on themselves necessary to pay the higher bills. The odds are thus good that protections long fought for will be sold away on the cheap, never to be reclaimed.  Such skepticism is well justified by the failure of the federal government to make the promised investments in education legislated into No Child Left Behind that persuaded liberals like Ted Kennedy to sign on to the measure’s tougher accountability measures in the first place.

Second, the case made by the self-identified reformers is overly committed to the virtues of corporate America, which is defended as the end-all of institutional effectiveness despite considerable evidence that worshipping the Bottom Line isn’t so great either and that the High Rationality of the balance sheet is too often a cover for absurd speculation and hopeless managerial faddishness and incompetence.  The case often takes two forms.  In one, teachers are attacked for having tenure or civil service protections.  As Alter puts it:  “teaching is arguably the only profession in the country with ironclad job security and a well-honed hostility to measuring results.”  Well, arguably, no:  ever heard of lawyers (who enjoy their own version of lifelong tenure once their apprenticeship converts into partnership), or Supreme Court justices, or clever media pundits, or priests, or midlevel military officers, or prison guards, or members of Congress, or cops and fire fighters and garbage collectors in most cities, or psychoanalysts, or CEO’s?  The point isn’t to celebrate all these careers – you can be the judge of that – but simply to deflate the common hyberbole that attacks teachers as enjoying amazing gigs when usually they don’t.  In fact, when salaries are not-so-great and retirement options often second-best and working conditions leave, shall we say, much to be desired, the prospect of assuring job security is a not unreasonable way to make positions more attractive.

In another version, business is openly celebrated as the right model for the schools, where phrases like “return on investment” and “value added” and “the customer is always right” are slapped onto children in ways that belie narrow educational visions and the often impoverished idea of the whole person such ways of thinking imply (this is directly though passingly admitted by Alter when he notes, with too glib a use of the word important, that if we wish “to save our children and our economy in the 21st century” the answer will not be found in “more money for important programs like art and music”).

In the same issue of Newsweek, Anna Quindlen tells the awful story of Connie Heermann, an Indiana teacher and 27-year classroom veteran, fired for encouraging her students to read an inspiring book called The Freedom Writers Diary.  The same theme pops into view – Heermann learned “that bureaucracy is more important than pedagogy” – but this time the  story is a cautionary tale told from the perspective of those demonized teachers who are regularly insulted and second-guessed to do right by the kids and accede to this year’s version of the Grand Bargain.

So what is to be done when kids are too often undereducated, when a basically reasonably designed system does sometimes shield the incompetent or the burned out, when even passionately motivated administrators are too readily tempted to the view that more power for them to knock heads will always change things for the better?  Let’s at least start with an agreement on the complexities and a Grand Bargain not to demonize each other.  For the odds are good that the the only solution at hand is to attack the problem on multiple fronts that will require some humility from teachers and bureaucrats and politicians and, yes, parents too:  a recognition that schools need more money, teachers more training and support, students more opportunities to get excited about what they are learning (even if what excites them to engagement is poetry more than accounting), and parents more options when their assigned schools are manifestly failing their children.

Having to defend John Milton

Stanley Fish has recently written an online essay for the New York Times that defends the committed lifelong engagement with John Milton as educationally worthwhile.  I thought the essay eloquent and, to be blunt, entirely unobjectionable, the sort of paean to the liberal arts (or, more narrowly, to the humanities) any literate person would support.  Yes, Fish couldn’t help taking shots along the way at the cult of Shakespeare (he appreciates Milton more because his own voice booms more clearly through his characters; with Shakespeare, Fish argues, there are “many voices but [WS] identifies with none of them”), and that judgment I figured would provoke disagreement, but surely no reasonably intelligent person could deny the value to be derived from a close reading of Paradise Lost or Milton’s indispensable essay in defense of (mostly) free expression, the Areopagitica.

Boy was I wrong.  Days later I’m still reeling from the realization that even among, of all people, the highly educated readership of the New York Times (and not only that, but those who would choose to take the time to read an essay by a literary critic like Stanley Fish in the New York Times), many will dissent from the value from humanistic work so deeply as to say so in print.   It was unexpected.

One respondent weighs in to argue that college students would benefit more from a close textual analysis of the works of Milton Friedman than by wasting their time on a long dead poet (Sam Rainey:  “The fact that an entire academic career can be spent on John Milton speaks volumes about the triviality of academe.  Thank God that the Internet will soon destroy the traditional university and put these tenured featherbedders out of work for good”).  Another seems to express skepticism that “keeping the conversation going” justifies a Milton career.  Yet another accuses those interested in Milton with having what the commenter called “daddy awe” (which seems to refer to the fact that some readers are awestruck by his eloquence).  Ana wonders why Professor Fish and the other readers have missed the real question:  “why only the weakest mind of every class take up literary studies.”  Huh?  And Daniel criticizes academics for preferring the “obscure” over the “popular” (specifically, movies):  “a lot of the feelings about literature stem from wanting to be important.  Take away the importance; would anyone still care about Milton?”

Sometimes the comments at least reflect evidence that Milton has been read; some call attention to his sexism (comment #136 is particularly well argued), others to his sectarianism (Mike writes that “Milton is a Christian bigot, which I could live with” – hmmm – “but he is a bore which I can’t”).  To their credit, many pushed right back at the “featherbedders” commentary.  Others thank Fish for directing their attention to Milton’s work. And I suppose without further information one cannot really generalize (perhaps Ana is a junior high school student; maybe Sam Rainey is playing a joke on everyone).

But what comes through in the negative comments are the stereotypes one might hope would lack salience for the educated:  that scholars are pointy-headed and weird, that they are freeloading on others who are doing real work, that their interest in great fiction is more a fetish than an interest reflecting literature’s true value, and so on.  Whether such sentiments reflect a lack of intellectualism or a refusal to do the hard mental work necessary to engage works like Paradise Lost, or perhaps a failure of humanistic scholars to adequately defend their enterprise, one cannot finally know – and maybe it’s both.  But the expression of such dismissiveness is depressing nonetheless, and especially so for emerging from the readers of the nation’s leading newspaper.