Tag Archives: higher education

Remembering the Lessons of Dr. King: An Inclusive, Quality Education for All

Steve Volk, April 9, 2018. Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Two weeks ago, I explored John Dewey’s understanding of how reflection impacts teaching in the “Article of the Week.” For Dewey, I noted, reflection was an intricate process in which we derived meaning from our experiences in a systematic and disciplined way, “in community,” and in a context that led to growth not just of the individual but of others as well. Reflection was a central part of learning and, learning, in the context of an educational setting, always took into consideration the purpose of education itself. For Dewey, this purpose was not simply the abstract intellectual development of the individual, but the way that the individual’s intellectual, emotional, and moral understandings came to support and sustain democratic society.

I was drawn back to Dewey’s views on the purpose of an education this week as I, and millions of others, solemnly observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of us used the moment to search for lessons from Dr. King that could inform a search for ways to counter the dismal moment the country is living through. In particular, I was looking to understand what are our responsibilities as a community of educators at this time. Like Dewey, Dr. King understood that an education that only taught one to “think intensively” or to think “efficiently” was insufficient. “The most dangerous criminal,” King wrote while still a student at Morehouse College in 1947, “may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”  “If we are not careful,” he warned, “our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington Temple Church (1963), Library of Congress and World Telegram & Sun photo by O. Fernandez. Public domain

I was not surprised, then, to learn that the United Federation of Teachers awarded Dr. King its “John Dewey Award” in 1964. King’s acceptance speech, delivered on March 14, 1964, was not one of his more memorable talks, but I was staggered to see its continuing relevance more than a half-century later, a sign both of the power of King’s insight and of the fact that so many struggles that he took on remain uncompleted today.

For Dr. King, 1963 represented a high-water mark in terms of the accomplishments of the non-violent direct action movement in its fight for civil rights. Still, he warned that the “civil rights issue…will now be faced and solved or it will torment and agonize the political and social life of the nation.” To read, only in the last two weeks, of the shooting by police of Saheed Vassell or Stephon Clark is to recognize that the killing of black people by law enforcement continues to be a national crisis, and that the political and social life of the nation is still agonized by racism, King’s unsolved civil rights issue.

Dr. King and Education

In his speech accepting the John Dewey Award, Dr. King identified education as a central “battleground in the freedom struggle.” Because he understood that education was a road, perhaps the road, to equality and citizenship, he argued that “it has been made more elusive for Negroes than many other rights.” Depriving Blacks access to equal and quality education was “part of the historical design to submerge [them] in second class status.”

Racism complicated access to a quality education for Blacks, but that wasn’t the only factor involved. “First,” he charged, “education for all Americans, white and Negro has always been inadequate. The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its abundant resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige their work justifies. We squander funds on highways [at least, we used to], on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on an over-abundance of over-kill armaments, but we pauperize education.”

Draft of King speech, UFT-Dewey Award, 1964: Courtesy of King Center archive: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/notes-uft-address#

And yet, although he saw all children, White and Black, as well as all teachers, as being negatively impacted by the “pauperization” to which education was subjected in the United States, for Blacks, the quest for education was “literally a question of life or death…In a society requiring ever higher standards of knowledge, the Negro is doubly handicapped by discrimination and lack of education.”

Dr. King’s sobering words were fresh in my mind when I read two reports on education issued this week. They underscore that not only does the “civil rights issue” remain unsolved today, but that this country has in significant ways retreated from the explicit demands, not to mention the implicit hopes, of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), as well as from many of the legislative landmarks passed 50 years ago, especially the Voting Rights Act. Public schools in the U.S. are now more segregated by race (and class) than at any time since Brown. As Beverly Tatum recently observed,

Nationwide, nearly 75 percent of Black students and 80 percent of Latino students attend so-called ‘majority-minority’ schools. Both Black and Latino students are much more likely than White students to attend a school where 60 percent or more of their classmates are living in poverty. Separate remains unequal as schools with concentrated poverty and racial segregation are still likely to have less-experienced teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, inadequate facilities, and fewer classroom resources.

In 90 of the 95 largest cities in the United States by population for which data is available, more students of color than White students attend public schools where most of their classmates are poor or low-income – and this by a substantial margin.

It is nothing less than a national disgrace that 64 years after Brown, as the Rev. Dr. William Barber II recently critiqued, “we’re still funding schools with property taxes where the quality of a child’s school can be determined by the size of the parents’ bank account rather than the potential of the child’s brain.”

Punishing Students of Color

The first of these studies released this past week examined “Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities,” and it both confirms and adds to the stark evidence of the discrimination faced by students of color, particularly Black boys, that had been published previously. According to the authors of the GAO report, using the latest data available from 2013-14, Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined through suspensions and expulsions in K-12 public schools. Further, “these disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.”

Black students, for example, accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented some 39 percent of students suspended from school—an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points. Black students were similarly overrepresented in other types of discipline including corporal punishment and arrests (see chart below). (Students with disabilities were also overrepresented in each of these categories, but not by as high a proportion.) Earlier studies have shown that disproportionate levels of suspensions and expulsions for Black students begin in pre-school. Black children represented 18% of preschool enrollments in 2014, but received more than one out-of-school suspension in 48% of cases.

What the new GAO study indicates that other studies haven’t examined is that Black students were overrepresented in all forms of punishment regardless of the income level of the school, although the degree of overrepresentation does go up in conjunction with the poverty level of the school. In terms of suspension from school, for example, Black students were overrepresented by 12% at schools at very low poverty levels and double that amount at schools with 75-100% poverty levels.

The GAO study recognizes that the issue of who gets disciplined and why is a complex one, but the authors reviewed a variety of studies that maintain that “implicit bias—stereotypes or unconscious associations about people—on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behaviors differently based on the students’ race and sex.” (See, as well, Smolkowski et al, 2016.) The report also cites studies that have found that the types of offenses that Black children were disciplined for were largely based on school officials’ interpretations of behavior. One study, for example, found that “Black girls were disproportionately disciplined for subjective interpretations of behaviors, such as disobedience and disruptive behavior.” Finally, a different research study used eye-tracking technology to show that, among other things, teachers gazed longer at Black boys than other children on video clips when asked to look for challenging behavior. 

Persistent Inequality in Postsecondary Education

The second study to emerge this past week that calls our attention to all that remains to be done to advance Dr. King’s work, concludes that students of color are systematically underfunded at the postsecondary level compared to White students.  In “Gaps in College Spending Shortchange Students of Color,” written for the Center for American Progress (CAP), Sara Garcia examines how the underfunding of schools that serve students of color in the K-12 years carries over into higher educationl. It is well known that public school funding for K-12 education has persistently discriminated against students of color, creating understaffed and underperforming schools. The CAP’s report confirms that “these inequitable patterns do not end when a student graduates from high school put persist through postsecondary education.” According to the study, public two-and four-year colleges spend, on average, more than $1,000 less per year on students of color (identified in the report as Black and Latino) than what is spent on their White counterparts. When added up nationally, “public colleges spend approximately $5 billion less educating students of color in one year than they do educating white students” (emphasis added).

A variety of factors contribute to this significant funding disparity; the CAP report suggests that one of the most important is that students of color are “disproportionately more likely to attend institutions that have lower revenue and government funding per student—meaning that those institutions also spend less on education for each student.” To take California, a state with a relatively high level of postsecondary education funding, as an example: California is slated to spend $33 billion on higher education this year, but considerably less is directed to the state’s community colleges where students of color are overrepresented. Louisiana offers an example of a state which spends comparatively little on higher education: While there is no major gap in spending across different racial or ethnic groups, the state spends around a third less on higher education than the national average, and so all students, White as well as students of color, are disadvantaged financially.

How does state spending impact the chances for student success? A recent Harvard study determined that a 10% increase in total college spending could produce an additional 55 bachelor’s degrees per year at a typical four-year university. Further, while about 60% of students enrolled at 4-year colleges will graduate within 6 years, only 38% of students at community colleges will obtain their credentials either at their initial institution or at an institution to which they transfer in the same time.

Fighting for the Education of All

In 2017, 53 years after Dr. King’s award, the Rev. William Barber II, architect of the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement, received the UFT’s John Dewey Award. His address, like Dr. King’s, highlighted the central role that education must play in the democratic struggle, observing that “the only way we as a nation cannot educate every child is to argue that some don’t matter like others matter, and some children are inferior because of their race, their zip code and their class.” Like Dewey and King, the Rev. Barber said that “fight for the humanity of all children” is central to the “moral revival” of the country. “Public education and access to a high-quality, well-funded, diverse public education and access to college, to community college, and [to the] development of the soul and the brain is a moral issue.”  

So, where does that leave those who teach in private, selective, majority White liberal arts colleges? Is this of concern only for K-12 teachers? Only for those at community colleges or in state-funded, public institutions? Not at all. In fact, we must recognize, as Andrew Delbanco recently put it, that private institutions “need to do a better job of meeting their public responsibilities.”

These responsibilities, I would suggest, point in two directions. In the first place, it means working towards inclusive excellence on our own campuses. Inclusion and equity demands that we look farther than enrollment numbers as we measure whether we are actually inclusive, and that we go beyond what is traditionally valued in terms of how we measure “excellence.” This is not in any sense a “lessening” of standards, but rather expanding our capacity both to recognize and to value the multiple strengths and cultural knowledges and skills that students bring with them from their (less represented) home communities. Sasha Eloi-Evans, of the University of Rochester, captured this when she argued that “Institutions must be supportive of the social and cultural needs, in addition to the academic ones, of all their students, and do so by instituting inclusive habits of the mind and heart in the entire community. Looking forward, the focus should be about eradicating the exclusionary practices that require students to change who they are or fight herculean battles in order to be successful. Diversity efforts at all institutions should be about acknowledging and appreciating students for who they are – making it difficult to dismiss them or their concerns.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses Oberlin College in Finney Chapel, on Oct. 22, 1964. Photo courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives

Secondly,  private institutions, regardless of the size of their endowments, the depth of their resources, or the sweep of their histories, face an uncertain future if they do not take on the struggles of the public sector, both K-12 and postsecondary, as their own. There are many reasons why that is the case. The battles that public sector educational institutions must wage to get the funding they require are, in the end, battles that will determine whether voters see education as a public good or a private consumable. As polling indicates the impact of declining support for higher education in general, will be felt on private and public institutions alike. Further, the walk-outs that teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and elsewhere are carrying out not only to be paid a living wage but to teach in classrooms where their students can learn and thrive, are efforts that demand our support if we are to fulfill Dr. King’s call to stop “pauperizing” education, “pay our teachers as professionals,” and “surround them with the prestige” their work demands. Finally, the struggles that public school, K-12 educators take on as they try to provide quality, inclusive, free education for all students is a struggle that educators in private higher education must join if, now and in the future, we want to have students in our classes who represent the great diversity of the national and international community, and not just the children of those few who can absorb ever-increasing tuition bills.

In private as well as public institution, our efforts as educators must be, as Dr. King understood, and as the Rev. Barber reiterated in the present, an effort not just to “sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, the facts from the fiction,” but an education that is rooted in both meaning and morality. “The complete education,” King argued in 1947, “gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” Those objectives are before us.


2017 – The Year in Higher Education

Steve Volk, January 22, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

It is stock-taking time; time to think about where  higher education stands one year after “45’s” inauguration, time to figure out how we as educators at liberal arts colleges have weathered what all agree was a very stormy year. Attempting to draw meaningful conclusions as to how our sector has been impacted by events in Washington, and how current developments will play out in the long run, or even next year, is challenging. But with this in mind, let’s look at the past year in higher ed, at where we stand on January 20, 2018 compared with January 20, 2017.

Attacking the Foundations: Alternative Facts and Fake News

Antonio Marín Segovia, “El asesinato de la verdad (No fue el mayordomo),” Flickr CC

When beginning to think about the year past, I recalled Antonio Gramsci’s often repeated remark about  “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”  The essence, the very heart, of what we do demands to some degree that we never abandon an optimism of the will. But it is fair to say that the year heaped yet more challenges on to higher ed’s already over-loaded plate. Perhaps the most serious challenge faced by educators came with the Administration’s on-going attack on facts, evidence, and truth. Two telling moments book-ended the year. The Trumpian year began, in case we’ve forgotten, when senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway defended on NBC’s Meet the Press, Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inauguration two days earlier had drawn record numbers. This, despite all evidence, photographic included, to the contrary. What could have been ignored or laughed away instead became a cornerstone of the the new Administration’s approach to information when Conway defended Spicer’s assertion as “alternative facts.” (Within 4 days of her linguistic rebranding, sales of Orwell’s 1984 had jumped 9,500%.)

The year ended with Trump’s “highly anticipated” (ahem!) “Fake News Awards,” which were intended to blast the media by pointing to some of its miscues and factual errors, mistakes which are typically corrected and updated. As everyone knows, the “awards” were fundamentally about branding as “fake” any news that challenged Trump’s view of himself or the world and casting the media as an “enemy of the people.”

Many commentators have analyzed the Administration’s continual and often bewildering resort to lies (PolitiFact is among other news organizations keeping count). The most perceptive, in my opinion, is Masha Gessen. In comparing Trump with Vladimir Putin, she argued that “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” While it can test one’s patience (and sanity) to hear denials of charges for which evidence (including photographic or audio) is readily available (“Who are you going to believe,” another of my favorite Marxists, Groucho, once questioned, “me or your own eyes?”), the point of the lie is not to demonstrate the accuracy of one’s own “alternative fact,” but to cast doubt on all facts; not to suggest that one’s own favored news source has better access to information, but that all “news” sources are the same – so just pick the one you like. In the end, as Gessen suggested, lies are often about the power of the speaker.

As this approach rolled out over the course of the year, it has presented a huge obstacle to educators.

The task of helping students research, analyze, and argue on the basis of reliable evidence in a world already staggering under a mountain of information is formidable. It goes beyond a simple affirmation that you can trust this source and should be wary of that. We are faced with working with students to help them understand that information is shaped within and by social and historical contexts, that neither science nor history, for example, are fields of inquiry intended to produce definitive and timeless truth. But when the Administration’s approach to information would make all facts fungible, transactional, and based on the knowledge that your political base will agree with you when you say that day is night and black is white, it means that our task as educators, and as citizens of a democracy, is complicated by magnitudes of order.

Traveller_40, “Alternative Facts,” Flickr CC

One indication of what such an environment can foster is on display in Wisconsin, where, last June, a legislator introduced a bill to the Assembly ostensibly intended to protect free speech rights on campus (more on this below). The bill stated in part, “That each institution shall strive to remain neutral, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day, and may not take action… in such a way as to require students or faculty to publicly express a given view of social policy.” When the sponsor of the bill, Jesse Kremer, was asked whether a geology professor would be allowed to correct a student who believed the earth to be 6,000 years old, he replied, “The Earth is 6,000 years old. That’s a fact.”

And still, thanks to physics, we know that for every action there is a reaction (even if it’s not always equal, at least in the world of politics and power). Faculty and researchers have begun to address the demand to help students develop their understanding of information, to distinguish reliable sources from questionable ones, and questionable sources from invented ones, and to approach evidence with a critical eye, aware of its contextualized production. (See, for example, here, here, here, and here.)

Access to Data, Control of Language

One of the most immediate challenges introduced by the Trump Administration was its seeming determination to remove or limit access to certain sources of government data which it found to be incompatible with its policy goals. Officials took down the data and websites providing scientific information about climate change that were maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Most alarming, the EPA removed its two-decades old website of data on climate science, threatening to undermine current and on-going research. The Republican leadership in Congress, for its part, has blocked attempts to measure accurately the effects of its health care and tax cut legislation. The Census Bureau is being starved of funds, and even the F.B.I. has cut back on its publicly available crime statistics.

Gita Wilén, “När DATA brukade vara framtiden,” Flickr CC

Most recently, according to the Washington Post, policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were “forbidden” to use specific words in budget proposal documents that circulated in the administration and Congress. These included “evidence-based,” “science-based,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.” The CDC denied that words were banned, but did acknowledge the importance of being “sensitive” to the impact of certain words when building a case for congressional funding or White House support. Fair enough, but educators must recognize how thin is the ice on which we skate when the mere mention of “evidence” or “science” is thought to raise political hackles.

But here, too, action produced positive reaction. The Sunlight Foundation began keeping track of federal open data sets removed from government websites, posting updates to a spreadsheet hosted on their site. Protesting against the disappearance of the EPA website, officials in Chicago posted the site online as it existed under the Obama administration. Fear of the loss of decades of valuable environmental and atmospheric data led some universities, UCLA among others, to begin a large-scale, professional data harvesting operation. And run-of-the-mill citizens were encouraged to participate in a nation-wide effort to save, store, and upload government reports using a tool kit that required nothing more than a downloadable plug-in program and internet assess.

Free Speech…

Media discussion of higher education in the past few years has focused to a considerable extent on free speech issues. A substantial amount of media coverage has been taken up by incidents on liberal arts campuses such as Middlebury and Claremont McKenna, colleges where invited speakers were prevented from speaking. The media also widely reported incidents of students disrupting faculty from teaching their courses at Reed, as well as the tumultuous year at Evergreen State. While those events provoked a reaction in the national debate on higher education, they also encouraged a deeper discussion on many campuses of the complexities involved in balancing free speech rights (particularly on private campuses where there is no obligation to host everyone who demands a platform) with an appreciation of the emotional, psychological, cognitive, and physical toll on students of color or marginalized students caused by “invited” speakers whose primary intent is to denigrate them. It is understandable that these discussions have become more widespread in the Age of Trump as examples of the corrosive power of racism at the highest levels lends urgency to the task. While the disruption of speakers cast students and liberal arts institutions in general in a negative light, it also opened a discussion of the very devastating impact words can have on historically marginalized populations. For every action…

Walt Jabsco, “Free Speech for the Dumb,” Flickr CC

This past year has also seen a critical evolution in the direction the free speech debate on campuses has taken. Spurred by last year’s election, the so-called “alt-right,” white nationalist, movement saw a fertile moment to move out from the fringes. Particularly following Trump’s equating of white nationalists (“Jews will not replace us!”) with counter-protesters at an August rally in Charlottesville, alt-right spokespeople such as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Matthew Heimbach, Mike Enoch and others hijacked the free speech debate to insert their hate-filled messages on campus. Their purpose was as much to disrupt the academy (forcing it to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in security fees) as to find willing acolytes. Universities including Berkeley, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Penn State, and Florida, among many others, have been forced to negotiate this territory, which they increasingly see as difficult to manage, with some banning speakers (Ohio State, Penn State), and others allowing them (Florida).

Media reports of the disruption of Charles Murray and “snowflake” students seem as plentiful as ever, but the debate has broadened and become more nuanced as universities and colleges have had to consider the impact on their students of speakers whose main purpose is to traffic in hateful messages targeting specific and vulnerable parts of the community.

The issue has taken on added urgency as the incidence of hate crimes grew over the past year. According to FBI data released in November, more hate crimes were carried out in the United States last year than in previous years, with an uptick in incidents motivated by bias against Jews, Muslims and LGBT communities, among others. Racial incidents and hate crimes were also up on college campuses. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education keeps a tally of reports of the latest incidents, listing dozens and dozens of events in the past year alone.

…And Academic Freedom

As alt-right speakers sought to “weaponize free speech,” in the words of Joan W. Scott, and as conservative organizations such as “Professor Watchlist,” established by Turning Point USA, encouraged students to publicize any professor who advances what they called a “radical agenda in lecture halls,” more faculty began to reflect on the relationship of free speech to academic freedom. If the former references the constitutional right of speakers to deliver any and all messages in public settings – including public universities – academic freedom protects the right of faculty to teach as we determine, free from outside interference, yet within well established professional guidelines. Speech in an academic context is guided (at least aspirationally, if not in every instance) by evidence-based argument and critical thinking. That, Scott insists, is “not a program of neutrality, not tolerance of all opinion, not an endorsement of the idea that anything goes.” Rather, it is about “how one brings knowledge to bear on criticism; it is a procedure, a method that shapes and disciplines thought.” The past year, then, has produced a much richer debate on how we, as educators, struggle to balance these two ideals, cautioning those who would silence unpopular viewpoints rather than debating them, and refusing attempts of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and others to slip their racist agenda into academia under the cover of free speech protections.

Viewminder, “Strange Bedfellows,” Flickr CC

In many ways, the shoe has been on the other foot in 2017. Those who criticized students for shutting down speakers on liberal arts campuses in 2016, a critique which was often well deserved, are now silent when protests are aimed at progressive guest speakers. Chelsea Manning’s invitation to speak at Harvard was rescinded in September, with some Republican politicians going so far as to suggest that Harvard should lose all public funding for its decision to invite Manning (they had nothing to say when her invitation was withdrawn by Harvard). The Reverend James Martin, author of several books arguing that the Roman Catholic Church should find ways to interact positively with gay and lesbian Catholics, was disinvited from an engagement at the Catholic University of America; California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was shouted down at Whittier College in October.

Challenging the rights of faculty to speak as citizens by targeting them with online harassment became a more common, and deeply dan­gerous, practice over the past year. Faculty of color are over-represented among recent examples of those on the receiving end of internet attacks: Johnny Williams at Trinity College, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Princeton University, Lisa Durden at Essex County College, Dana Cloud at Syracuse University, Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa, Tommy Curry at Texas A&M University, and George Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel University. Dr. Laurie Rubel, who examined the relationship between race and the notion of “merit” in an article which appeared in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education in December, has been the target of daily email threats of physical and sexual assault after her article was crudely caricatured by Campus Reform, a conservative website.

Legislators have been particularly active in attempting to influence campus debate. Consider the following bills introduced and other actions taken during the past year:

  • A Republican legislator in Arizona proposed a bill that would prohibit state colleges from offering any class that promotes “division, resentment or social justice” without defining what he meant by those words – Arizona earlier banned the teaching of ethnic studies in grades K-12.
  • A state senator in Iowa introduced a bill that would allow the use of political party affiliation as a test for faculty appointments to colleges and universities.
  • A Republican legislator in Arkansas filed a bill to ban any writing by or about the progressive historian Howard Zinn, author of the popular A People’s History of the United States.
  • In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker tried to remove all references to the university’s commitment to the “search for truth,” and the legislature stripped state workers and professors of their collective bargaining rights.
  • A leader of the College Republicans at the University of Tennessee intent on “protecting” students from intimidation by “the academic elite,” proclaimed that “Tennessee is a conservative state. We will not allow out-of-touch professors with no real-world experience to intimidate 18-year-olds.”

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League observed that white supremacists have stepped up their recruiting in more than 30 states.

The Public and Higher Education

I was not shocked (shocked!) in the past year to learn that the polarization that underscores the public’s view of most institutions has now divided popular opinion as to the utility of higher education as well. Pew Research Center polling in 2017 indicated that 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents felt that colleges and universities were having a negative impact on the way things were going in the country, while just 36% thought that their effect was largely positive, according to Pew’s survey. More striking, only two years ago, attitudes were reversed with 54% of Republicans and Republican-leaners expressing the opinion that colleges were having a positive effect on the country, and 37% claiming a negative impact. Gallup polling revealed a sharp partisan divide in terms of institutional confidence in higher education. In 2017 only 33% of Republicans expressed a “great deal” of or “some” confidence in higher education while 56% of Democrats showed support.

Obviously, these distressing numbers are driven by many factors, not least of which is a sense among Republican legislators that colleges and universities have become progressive encampments where privileged young “snowflakes,” fawned over by their tremulous teachers, spend all their time railing against Trump, cultural appropriation (which they would put in ironic quotes), or any requirement that has them reading Homer or Shakespeare. Even Democratic legislators have backed away from enthusiastically supporting higher education in the face of climbing tuition, mounting student debt, and concerns (sometimes accurate, sometimes ill-informed) that the academy is too stodgy, too protective of its own interests, and too implicated in deepening social and economic inequalities in the country. As a result, the huge majority of the 20.4 million higher ed students in 2017 who are struggling to do what students have always done – get an education and get ahead in the world – are more and more left out in the rain.

The unwillingness of government at all levels to fund education was fully evident in 2017. Education is increasingly seen as a private consumable, not a public good, by which we mean something that is not simply “good for the public” but which benefits many people, including those who do not pay for it. The growing lack of confidence in higher education, combined with a dominant neoliberal suspicion of the public sphere in general, has underscored the decreasing support by legislators for funding higher education. As Secretary of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos continues to demonstrate her disregard for the public K-12 sector and willingly overlooks the often predatory activities of for-profit institutions in higher education. In June, for example, she suspended Obama-era regulations designed to make it easier to forgive loans for students who had been defrauded by for-profits and intended to prevent future abuses.

At a time when the benefits of a college education have never been greater, state policy-makers have made going to college less affordable and less accessible to those most in need. State spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historic levels. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2016-17 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, adjusting for inflation. The downward-spiral that this places many institutions on is obvious, as administrators see increasing tuition or reducing educational quality as the only way to balance their budgets. They have turned to limiting course offerings, closing departments and programs and, most frequently, reducing full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty and replacing them with well-qualified but immensely over-worked adjuncts and part-timers who simply lack the time to provide students with needed guidance and instruction. The percentage of tenured or tenure-track faculty and contingent faculty has essentially flipped since the 1970s, with the proportion of tenure-line faculty now at less than 30% of the total.

The recently passed tax bill is likely to deepen the challenges faced by the higher education sector;  perhaps that was its intention. With the move to limit deductions for state, local, and property taxes, the tax bill raises the effective tax rate for individuals in high-tax states (which just so happen to be blue states: California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc.). Even in states that support public funding for education, it is now less likely that legislators will raise taxes again to make up for a shortfall in education dollars. Furthermore, the bill, by increasing the standard deduction and making itemization less likely, will probably negatively impact charitable giving — one study estimates that it will decline by 4.5% next year — particularly by middle-income households.

Title 9 and #MeToo 

In September, Secretary DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance on Title IX, allowing universities to modify the standard of evidence in campus sexual assault cases. The department’s Office for Civil Rights will use the new guidance document to assess institutions’ compliance with Title IX until a promised federal regulation dealing with campus sexual misconduct is finalized. The new guidance from the department grants colleges the ability to set their own evidentiary standard for misconduct findings, to pursue informal resolutions such as mediation and to establish an appeals process for disciplinary sanctions. The rules-change was challenged by a lawsuit filed in October by a national women’s rights group and three Massachusetts women.

Alter1fo, “[25 Octobre 2017] – Un jour, une photo… Agresseurs, violeurs… à vous d’avoir peur!” Flickr CC

These changes are generally seen as providing more protections to those accused of sexual harassment, and they come in the midst of one of the most significant developments in higher education in 2017, the spread of the #MeToo movement from the world of entertainment and the arts, to politics, and, now, higher education. As the Chronicle of Higher Education noted in November, “Higher education had already had moments of confrontation with harassment, assault, and the cultural and structural forces that underlie them. Women have described the cultures in some disciplines, including philosophy and astronomy, as corrosive and hostile. Campus officials have struggled to determine how to punish abusive employees — and how to avoid simply passing them on to other universities. Scholarly societies have taken a more vigilant approach to conferences that have long been seen as incubators for misconduct.” In the past year, accusations of sexual harassment in higher education have led to numerous firings and resignations, as well as some denials. (The Chronicle maintains an updated list of such charges here.)

Optimism of the will

While most commentators would credit the women who revealed Harvey Weinstein’s predations with opening the floodgates to the #MeToo movement that soon reached academia, it is certainly no coincidence that this opening took place with an admitted sexual predator in the White House.

Similarly, the upsurge of hate crimes in the nation and on campuses this past year, targeting people of color, Muslims, Jews, and the LGBTQ community, has produced vigorous movements to defend the rights of all students and a growing awareness of what it means to be a welcoming and inclusive institution. The demands for inclusion and equity have been growing on campuses in the past few years, spurred since 2013 in large part by the Black Lives Matter movement. That there is still a long way to go in this regard is beyond doubt. But the fact that these issues have been given greater consideration during the past year is probably another indication that actions produce reactions, if not equal in force, then at least significant.

It is hard not to conclude that the year past was massively challenging for those of us in higher education. And yet, if we maintain an optimism of the will, we can more readily address those areas in which we can have an impact, certainly by creating more equitable and inclusive institutions, challenging them to be true to their missions, and developing practices and honest narratives that better explain what we do to a skeptical public.


Republicans to Mrs. Nelson: Drop Dead

Steve Volk, December 4, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

“What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade”

by Brad Aaron Modlin
(reprinted from Krista Tippett’s “On Being”) 

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.

Photographer: Howard Lieberman, 1942. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

Poor Mrs. Nelson, I thought as I contemplated the tax bill recently passed on near party-line votes in Congress (Senate and House versions remain to be reconciled as of this writing). Combing through the bill, looking for something to suggest that the future that was being created by the tax bill included all the Mrs. Nelsons of the country, I could find nothing to give me hope. Indeed, all indications are that quality public K-12 education has been consigned to the dust bin, and that higher education has become just so much road kill.

In a House bill filled with an abundance of shameful initiatives, the removal of one small benefit stood out for me as the embodiment of the Republican Congress’ disdain for teachers. First, here’s what teachers are currently allowed to deduct from their taxes, according to the IRS:

If you’re an eligible educator, you can deduct up to $250 ($500 if married filing jointly and both spouses are eligible educators, but not more than $250 each) of unreimbursed trade or business expenses. Qualified expenses are amounts you paid or incurred for participation in professional development courses, books, supplies, computer equipment (including related software and services), other equipment, and supplementary materials that you use in the classroom.

Let’s be clear: this is not a tax credit (where tax liabilities are reduced on a dollar for dollar basis), but a deduction. Most estimates suggest that it puts about $40 a year into teachers’ pockets. Does it matter? According to a 2013 estimate, teachers spend about $1.6 billion of their own money each year on school supplies, on average $945 per teacher. This matters because schools have long since stopped supplying things like paper towels, tissues, and cleaning products for classes, expecting teachers, parents or PTAs to cough up the items. Districts have also stopped buying books, software, and even chalk. Does it make a huge difference to the teacher’s family budget? Probably not a lot, and it is my guess that teachers being teachers, they will continue to provide for their students with or without the deduction. But yanking away the deduction speaks volumes about the low regard in which the Republican-passed tax bill holds teachers and education. Perhaps the tax writers in the House were just looking for something to make up for their doubling of the estate tax exemption (currently paid by the top 0.1% of tax-payers, some 2,200 individuals) which will cost the economy $151 billion over the next decade. Let them eat cake.

What does one say about a tax bill that eliminates a provision allowing low- and middle-income student debtors to deduct up to $2,500 in student-loan interest? At a moment when tuition at public and private colleges and universities is painfully high and growing?  At a moment when total student loan debt stands at $1.3 trillion and more than two-thirds of college graduates must borrow to go to school? And what does it say about all this given that cutting the corporate tax rate from 35-20% will cost $1.5 trillion?

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and wife. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

And are there words to adequately convey what it means to conjure up, let alone pass into law (on the House side) a measure that would treat the unpaid tuition of graduate students as income while giving millionaires a $1,650 child tax credit? (OK, let’s be fair: those earning minimum wage would see a whopping $75 credit which they can use for, um, wipes for their daughter’s kindergarten class.) Writing recently in the New York Times, Erin Rousseau, a grad student in health sciences at MIT, reports that she earns about $33,000 a year as a stipend for the 40-80 hours a week she works as a research and teaching assistant; she is also waived from paying tuition, which is about $50,000 a year for her program. This is not money that goes into her bank account, that she can use to pay her rent or medical expenses (of which she has many): it’s an expense that she is freed from paying. Under the House plan, with the waiver counted as income, she would have to pay an extra $10,000 in taxes each year, a burden that would likely drive her out of grad school. Well, at least the top 1% of tax payers, according to the Institute on Taxation on Economic Policy (ITEP), will get a  tax break worth the same $50,000 that Erin will now be paying taxes on. That’s $50,000 that stays in their bank accounts to be used for whatever they need.

Look, I will be the first to admit that I’m not an economist and likely should stick to what I (perhaps) know the best, teaching, learning, and maybe even history. But taxes, who pays and who benefits, are more than numbers; they speak to our values, and the Republican tax bills in both houses of Congress record at deafening volume the disregard with which they hold public education in general and higher education, in particular. So, no. Now is not the time to remain silent in the face of a massive assault on the educational foundation that we, as teachers, struggle to maintain, improve, and respect.

From Public Good to Private Consumable

A recent article in the Atlantic by Erika Christakis provides ample details of the attack on public education that has been building for years and now threatens to be frozen in legislative concrete. George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, called the National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the United States, a “terrorist organization” in 2004. President Obama criticized the nation’s schools for falling behind in the world. And Trump used his inaugural address to charge that (“beautiful”) students had been “deprived of all knowledge” by our nation’s schools. (He sought to rectify that by proposing to cut $9 billion from the education sector). His Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, referred to public schools as a “dead end” and a “mundane malaise” for too many kids.

Two arguments stand out in Christakis’ article: the consolidation of the belief that the public education sector, which serves 90% of the 51 million students in pre-K through 12th grade, has been failing students for decades, and the notion that education is not a public good but rather “private consumable.” In terms of the first, she notes that:

Since the early 1970s, when the Department of Education began collecting long-term data, average reading and math scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen significantly. These gains have come even as the student body of American public schools has expanded to include students with ever greater challenges. For the first time in recent memory, a majority of U.S. public-school students come from low-income households [and, I would point out, public schools are now majority minority]. The student body includes a larger proportion than ever of students who are still learning to speak English. And it includes many students with disabilities who would have been shut out of public school before passage of the… Individuals With Disabilities Education Act…

As for the second point, Christakis observes that “Americans have in recent decades come to talk about education less as a public good, like a strong military or a noncorrupt judiciary, than as a private consumable… “[T]he current discussion,” she continues, “has ignored public schools’ victories, while also detracting from their civic role. Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole.”

The tax bill steaming towards reconciliation strengthens the war on public education in ways both petty and monumental, but all of which suggest the low regard that congressional Republicans hold for the public K-12 system and higher education in general. Senator Ted Cruz’s late-night amendment to the Senate tax bill, a measure that would allow “529’s,” special tax-free college savings account, to be used to shield income to pay up to $10,000 a year in tuition for private and religious K-12 schools, falls in the first category.  The Cruz amendment, a provision that would largely benefit wealthier families who can already afford private schools, was welcomed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who called the plan, “a good step forward,” in that it reflected “that education should be an investment in individual students, not systems.”

Further, in a move whose only logical intent seemed to be the destabilization of public school financing, the tax bill would prevent school districts from using  tax-free “advance refund bonds” to refinance school bond debt, a move that will raise costs for local school districts.

Starving Public Education

Both House and Senate versions of the bill curtail the federal deduction for state and local taxes, a measure which likely will have the most severe and destabilizing impact on all public education, from pre-K through university. This is the most poisonous of all the tax bill’s provisions because public educational institutions receive nearly all their income from state and local tax revenues, which individuals will no longer be able to deduct from their individual tax bills. If the measure seems modest, consider how it works. Eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes raises an individual’s effective tax rate, particularly in high-tax states (which just so happen to be Democratic states, like California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc.). How likely do you think legislators will be to raise taxes again to make up for this shortfall in education dollars – particularly when states will also have to shoulder a larger portion of health care costs that the Federal government seems intent on sloughing off? Of course, low-tax states (e.g. Alabama or Mississippi or Arizona) don’t provide a lot of funding for their educational systems to begin with.

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities focuses on what has been a long-term trend in states cutting back on educational funding, particularly at the higher education level. In the 2015-2016 school year, 46 states — all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — were spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession. In response, at the higher education level, public colleges and universities across the country have increased tuition to compensate for declining state funding and rising costs.  Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has risen by 33% since the 2007-08 school year, by 90% in Arizona, and by more than 60% in six other states, including California. And at the local level: it’s back to Mrs. Nelson buying supplies for her class.

What can we expect in the future, given the tax bill and experience from the past? According to the CBPP, states will rely disproportionately on cutting budgets rather than raising taxes or fees in order to deal with the budgetary shortfalls to come; that’s what they did in the last recession. And budgets were being slashed between 2008-09 and 2013-14 at a time when enrollments increased in public higher education (by nearly 900,000 full-time-equivalent students) and in public K-12 schools (by 803,000 students). When you add to this state and local expenses for a prison population that tops out at nearly 1.6 million and is expected to grow under a “lock-’em-up” Attorney General, and exploding health care costs as the ACA is driven into the ground, it is not a stretch to imagine a consolidation of the shift towards a privatized educational system that serves only those who can afford it.

Higher Education? Don’t Count on It

While the pressure on state and local budgets will be the biggest driver moving education costs from the public sector to private individuals, other elements in the tax bill hone in with laser-like precision on the education sector. Besides the elimination of the provision that allows low- and middle-income student debtors to deduct up to $2,500 in student-loan interest each year, mentioned earlier, the new bill would:

  • eliminate the tax-free status of employer tuition reimbursements, up to $5,250 a year;
  • repeal the Lifetime Learning Credit, available for low- and middle-income families (which offsets 20% of the first $10,000 of qualified education expenses, reducing a tax bill by as much as $2,000) and which typically allows workers to deduct the cost of part-time classes; and
  • axe the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit (which allows taxpayers a credit of up to $2,500 per student, per year, if they paid qualified tuition and related expenses for the first four years of post-secondary education).

And then there’s the endowment tax, a levy on endowments over a certain amount of endowment per student (the precise amount has been batted around between the House and the Senate). This proposal even offered a stunning midnight amendment that would have exempted just one college, Hillsdale, a tiny conservative Christian college in Michigan, from paying the new tax. Hillsdale has been a pet project of the DeVos family. Ultimately, this morsel proved to be too much for four Republican Senators (just four) to swallow. Now, it seems reasonable to me to debate the tax status of endowments that, at institutions like Harvard ($36 billion) or the University of Texas system ($25 billion), have grown to gargantuan proportions and are often used to gobble up local properties while driving out low-income renters from Cambridge, New Haven, and Harlem. But to tax large educational endowments as a means of paying for corporate tax cuts and billionaire pass-throughs  is an act of exceptionally distorted values, and one that, cynically, will bolster the chances that the wealthy who benefit from the tax bill will continue to send their children to those same universities.    

Education as a Partisan Food Fight

Arguments can be made to promote the theory that the corporate tax rate is too high in this country, that the tax structure is too unwieldy, complex, and counterproductive. These can be reasonable arguments (although one would also have to note that annual corporate profits, both gross and net, are near historic levels). What doesn’t seem sustainable, according to the most economists, is that the tax bill rocketing through Congress with nary a hearing, let alone the time to decipher the illegible notes handwritten into the bill at the last minute, will produce a well-funded, publicly supported, high quality educational system. In fact, it seems perversely designed to do just the opposite: to dismantle the public K-12 system, to make it harder to finance both public and private higher education, to discourage low- and middle-income students from completing college without absorbing enormous debt, and to dissuade workers from going back to school for further training.

It’s fair to ask why are the Republicans pushing a measure that is so hostile to higher education. Perhaps it’s because a majority of Republicans, according to a recent Pew Research Center report say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. Perhaps it’s because liberal arts colleges and elite universities have become favored punching bags for conservative writers, bloggers, and journalists. Perhaps, as Nate Silver argued, “education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump,” and Republicans sense that college-educated voter aren’t their strongest supporters. Or perhaps, as David A. Graham recently argued in the Atlantic, Trump has decided to simply ignor colleges while offering blue-collar workers a return to the good-paying, non-degree required jobs that they held in the 1950s.

I don’t know which is most accurate, or perhaps all are. What I do know is that the tax bill racing to Trump’s desk will make educational achievement at all levels more difficult for the great majority of the population while eroding a central pillar of civic life in the United States. In the end, it remains up to those of us who care about creating an equitable, inclusive, and high-quality educational system to step up to the challenge.


Meet the First Years!

Steve Volk, September 4, 2017

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

One thing we learn as educators is that all students are different and need to be taught in ways that can best promote their learning and growth. I’m not talking about the “learning styles” literature, which needs to be approached with a good degree of caution and should not be confused with Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” research. (Indeed, a veritable “learning-styles-industrial complex” has developed around the approach, giving rise to dozens of companies all trying to sell their particular “learning-styles” product, even though, as many researchers have discovered, there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.) Rather, I mean that one of the great joys of teaching is getting to know students on an individual level so that we can provide the most appropriate help when needed. And, the other side of the coin, one of our great frustrations is lacking the time to do this to the extent that we would desire.

Nonetheless, there is something to be gained by examining an incoming class as a whole, not just at our own college, but across the country. At Oberlin, for example, we have just welcomed 765 new students (College and Conservatory combined). 58% of the class are women, 42% men, which puts us just slightly above the national figure of 55% women). We have learned that approximately 26% of the class are students of color, and that 88 foreign students from 40 different countries now call Oberlin home.

What about the national picture, where some 20.4 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in 2017 (an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000)? For many years, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has published The American Freshman: National Norms, an annual survey of full-time first-year students (FTFT). I always find the survey a useful means to follow trends that are developing in higher education, some of which are mirrored on our own campus.

This “Article of the Week” will present some of HERI’s data for students entering in 2016 which were published a few months ago, as well as figures from a few other sources. The HERI data were compiled from a survey of 137,456 students including 80,000 students at baccalaureate institutions, of whom about 49,000 were from private 4-year colleges. While HERI and other sources I’ve examined report on a multitude of topics, here I just including a few snapshots that I found most informative.

Political Orientation

It will come as no surprise to learn that the entering cohort of full-time, first-time college students in the fall 2016 semester was the most polarized in the 51-year history of the Freshman Survey, in general and by gender. (Any guesses as to what the results will show for the 2017 entering class? I shudder in anticipation.) Fewer students than ever before (42.3%) categorize their political views as “middle of the road,” while an all-time high of 41.1% of women self-identify as “liberal” or “far left” with respect to their political views. This compares with 28.9% of men who consider themselves in the same categories, yielding the largest gender gap in self-reported political orientation to date.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

More broadly, here is how incoming first-years thought of themselves politically:

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Openness to other viewpoints:

The fact that more students nationally are moving away from a “middle-of-the-road” self-definition is not, it itself, either surprising or necessarily troubling. It could suggest that entering students are more aware of political issues and more willing to define themselves in relation to on-going debates. What IS troubling – you thought I’d skate away from this one, didn’t you? – are the findings regarding the degree to which politically defined students profess that they will “tolerate” others with different beliefs. (What “tolerating” other beliefs means isn’t fully defined.) Somewhat less than one-third of self-identified right-of-center students indicated a low tolerance of others with different beliefs. This compared to 82.0% of “middle of the road” students and 86.6% of left-of-center students who said that they “strongly” or “somewhat strongly” would “tolerate others with different beliefs.” The complexities of teaching in an environment where those who hold different political beliefs aren’t “tolerated” are enormous.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Why are students going to college?

For many years after the financial crash of 2008, students focused on economic criteria as the primary reasons for going on to post-secondary education. As the unemployment rate began to decline from 2012 to 2016, the trend was paralleled by a decline in more purely job-related or financial reasons expressing why a high school student wanted to continue on to  college – although such reasons are still very important. The percentage of students concerned about going to college to get a better job has modestly declined from an all-time high of 87.9% in 2012 to 84.8% in 2016, hardly a dramatic decline. First-time, full-time college students in 2016 were ever-so-slightly less likely to consider “making more money” as a very important reason to attend college (72.6%) compared to their peers who started college in 2012 (74.6%). It’s heartening (at least from my perspective, others might disagree) to see a rise in the desire to gain “a general education and appreciation of ideas” and learning “more about things that interest me,” as reasons for going on to college. But we be foolish to neglect the underlying economic considerations when thinking about our students.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Here’s a chart listing the “top objectives” that in-coming students named as  essential or very important goals they wanted to achieve by going on to college or university.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

First-Generation Students:

Of course, there are significant variations among student cohorts. First-generation students, for example, are more likely to consider the cost of their selected institution and being offered financial assistance as very important factors in selecting their college (56.1% and 58.2%, respectively) compared to continuing-generation students (45.1% and 43.9%).

Over the past 10 years, the proportion of first-generation college students enrolling full-time in four-year institutions has hovered around 20%. In 2015, approximately 17.2% of incoming first-year students self-reported as first-generation, the lowest proportion of first-generation students in the history of the survey. In 2016, roughly 18.8% of the cohort of incoming students identify as first-generation college students.

If it’s hard to understand exactly what these numbers suggest, the demographic composition of first generation students is striking and suggests the changing racial and ethic composition of higher education which is already strongly underway. Only 10% of first generation students were white, whereas 27% were Black and 57% Latino.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Mental Health Concerns:

Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such conditions. Distressingly, the number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. According to studies published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 33% of students in the past 12 months felt so depressed that it “was difficult to function.”

The trends are likely to continue based on data on incoming students. More than one-third (34.5%) of incoming first-time, full-time college students reported frequently feeling anxious. Students identifying with any of the disabilities, psychological disorders, or chronic illnesses listed on the instrument have a greater likelihood than other freshmen to have frequently felt anxious in the past year.


Last year Oberlin graduated 178 students who had been registered with the Disabilities Services office. This number included students with regular accommodations (i.e., those whose documentation was in order), students considered as “provisional” (those whose documentation was not up to date or incomplete); and temporaries (about 3-5% of students with broken arms, concussions, etc.). By the end of the spring 2017 semester, the office had seen about 700 students, or approximately 23% of the student body. Think about it, people. That’s a very significant number.

The Oberlin figures are generally in line with national trends. Overall, nearly 22% of incoming first-year students identified as having at least one disability/disorder. All reports indicate that the figure is increasing. A decade ago (2007-08), 11% of undergraduates reported a disability.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

For those interested in reading more about students on the autism spectrum, I can recommend two recent articles: Jan Hoffman, “Along the Autism Spectrum, A Path Through Campus Life,” New York Times (Nov. 19, 2016), and Paul Basken, “Colleges Are Trying a Broad Approach to Autistic Students. What Will That Cost?Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2017). [Note: “premium” content available via the library.]

Gender Identity and Sexuality:

The HERI survey for the first time in its history asked students to identify themselves by gender identity, and then used this data to ask about levels of confidence in specific skills or attributes. Compared to the nationally normed sample, students identifying as transgender have far greater confidence in their artistic ability (52.0% vs. 30.7% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”) and creativity (64.0% vs. 52.6% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”). By contrast, transgender students rate themselves lower than first-time, full-time students in the areas of social self-confidence, leadership ability, and physical health.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offered an overview of the sexual orientation or identity as self-reported by in-coming first year students.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Social Media Use:

I found it both interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive that increased social media use on the part of in-coming students didn’t reveal any decline in the amount of time they spent with face-to-face contacts. Full time, first-year students entering college this fall do not seem to substitute more frequent use of online social networks for in-person interactions with friends. Three-quarters (75.2%) of students who spent at least six hours per week using social media during the past year also spent at least six hours per week socializing with friends in person. By contrast, roughly half (48.2%) of students who averaged less than six hours each week connecting in online social networks also spent six or more hours socializing with their friends in person. More time online = a greater likelihood of more face-to-face interactions? I need to think about that one more.

If you, like me, wondered where all this time was being spent, here’s some indication.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Wait — one might say at this point — students are spending more (or the same amount) of time on average socializing, exercising, and hanging out online as studying? Obviously, the data need unpacking, and will vary widely by the type of institution. But when we think despairingly of “today’s students” (as in “what’s the matter with students today”), I’d strongly recommend reading Gail O. Mellow’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. Mellow, the president of La Guardia Community College, observed in “The Biggest Misconception About Today’s College Students” (August 28, 2017), that “Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full-time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.” Four in ten students work at least 30 hours per week; 25% work full time and go to school full time. My guess is that they aren’t the ones exercising or socializing with friends during their “free” hours.

Whatever the numbers and the trends suggest, we all know that all students bring their own stories, strengths, and concerns to college and that, if the statistics can help us better comprehend the state of higher education, only by getting to know our own students can we provide them with the support and guidance they deserve.


Listening to Smart People

Steve Volk, February 6, 2017

When the inarticulate blathering radiating out of Washington becomes too much to bear, I think about turning to really smart people as a kind of lime-scale remover for the brain, dental floss for the mind, if you will. Smart people help me reconnect my moorings with reality and build my confidence that we actually can rise to higher levels, think clear thoughts, and do the work of education.

With that in mind, I recently returned to the composer John Luther Adams. I have been mesmerized by his work for some time, and wrote about him in this space a few years ago. To refresh your memories, let’s not confuse John Luther Adam’s with John Coolidge Adams, the composer of the opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” among other master works, and certainly not with John Quincy Adams, whose greatest hit was the Monroe Doctrine, the prelude to a long suite on U.S. expansionism. The music of John Luther Adams is deeply bound to the natural world; some have called it “sonic geography.” So, stick with me for a few minutes and I’ll soon get to some lessons that this smart person offers to teachers.

As a kid, Adams played drums in a number of rock bands, one of which, Pocket Fuzz, opened for the Beach Boys at a local New Jersey gig. Like many of us of a certain age, he was drawn to Frank Zappa, and it was through Zappa’s music – or, actually, because of a quote (“The present-day composers refuse to die”) in the liner notes of one of Zappa’s LP’s, that Adams stumbled upon Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, a 20th century French avant garde composer. As I wrote in an earlier post, the music of Varèse was not easy going; Adams couldn’t figure out how to make sense of what the composer was doing. “It all sounds…just like a bunch of noise to me,” he lamented. Which wasn’t too far from the mark since Varèse once observed that music was, in essence, “organized noise.”

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa

In any case, Adam’s response, as he told Nina Serota, the host of WQXR’s “Q2” Meet the Composer program, was to immerse himself in Varèse’s “noise.” This approach was his typical response to any new and challenging material: “Gimme more.” After throwing himself into Varèse’s work, he began to hear what he hadn’t earlier: “Oh, there’s that repeated note on the oboe; OK that’s a landmark, I can grab on to that. And here’s this place where there’s sort of this tattoo figure with the snare drums…” And gradually, he said, he began to hear the forbidden deserts of Edgar Varèse. And here’s Adam’s first lesson for teachers. We occasionally encounter students who, when faced with seemingly impenetrable problems, will throw themselves at them, banging away without our assistance until they see what they previously couldn’t. But many more students will need our help to find their way in, to find something that they can grab on to. Teaching is about appreciating the difference between these kinds of students: standing back and letting the John Luther Adams among them find their own solutions while helping the others discover their particular ways in.

Making All the Wrong Choices

James Tenney

James Tenney

As Adams’ interest in composition developed, he was invited to study music at Columbia. Which he never did. Before committing to the school, a friend grabbed him “by the scruff of the neck” and told him, “You’re not going to Columbia, you’re going to this new place in California.” So, one fine day, Adams finds himself in the office of James Tenney at the California Institute of the Arts. Tenney, another giant of contemporary music, had studied with Varèse among other composers, but this was his first year on the job at Cal Arts. As Adams tells it, here was this young kid — himself — “knowing nothing, thinking [he] knew everything, walking into” James Tenney’s studio at Cal Arts and immediately launching “into some tirade.” Adams continues:

Jim sat very patiently and listened to this mouthy kid. And then I took a breath, and he looked at me and asked in a wonderfully innocent way, ‘Why are you here?’ And so it began. Jim Tenney had my number from the get go. He realized that nobody was going to teach me anything. That I had to feel that yes, I was reinventing the wheel, rediscovering fire like primitive man, but he had this uncanny knack for asking just the right gently pointed question at just the right moment. I cannot imagine what would have become of me if I had not had that supreme good fortune.

This the second lesson Adams offers to those of us to teach and advise our students. A lot comes down to asking just the right question at the right moment. It’s not a skill easily learned. Tenney seems to have had it from the get-go. Many of us never can develop that deep instinct. But if there’s a key to it, it is in listening carefully, patiently, and without prejudice to the young people who come into our offices, ready to tell us how little we have to offer, serving up something that can sting, or simply feeling lost and perhaps alone…and then responding with just the right question.

Adams talks about how he “made all the wrong career decisions” in his life. He didn’t go to Columbia, didn’t study with the right people, didn’t enter the proper competitions, dropped out of graduate school and everywhere else as well. He ended up in a remote corner of Alaska. “I’m not sure that really I knew what I was doing but, in retrospect, I find that every time I came to a crossroads and had a choice to make, I made the wrong choice…which turned out, of course, to be the right choice.” He was neither courageous nor insightful, he notes. Rather he was running away: from his family, from competitive careerism, from academia, “from all the right things.” But, as he puts it, he was “actually running to something, I just didn’t know what it was until many years later.” Lesson three: Students often feel they need to know with certainty what they will be doing years after they graduate, what they will be when they “grow up.” Certainly, as the pressure builds to turn higher education into nothing more than job-preparation (“college and career ready” has become a constant theme literally from kindergarten on), students (and their parents and state legislators) feel panicked if they can’t answer that question. Without ignoring skills preparation, however, it is up to us to do more than prepare students for a career that they can’t yet imagine. We can provide them with the dispositions, resilience, and reflective insight they will need to run towards a goal that they may not recognize for many years.

Weaving into Dense Fabrics

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/song-of-the-earth

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/song-of-the-earth

Adams moved to Alaska in 1975, interested in hearing new things still employing acoustic sound. “I lived alone in a cabin down in the black spruce forest,” he later wrote in the New Yorker. There I would roll out of bed in the morning, crawl down the ladder from the sleeping loft, and find myself standing in the middle of my work. I loved it. And I couldn’t imagine living any other way.” He listened, in particular, to the birds, trying simply “to take dictation” from them. “The birds became my teacher, after James Tenney.” The result was songbirdsongs which he composed between 1974-79. (He later wrote of an oriole nest that the writer Barry Lopez gave him and which he placed on a windowsill in his Alaskan cabin: “Woven into the dense fabric of moss and twigs are long strands of cassette tape. In the note that accompanied it, [Lopez] wrote, ‘songbirdsongs, no doubt. But where do they buy the tapes?’”)

Adams sees composition as a process of “sculpting away the whole field of sound” in order to work with “one big shape, or image or color or atmosphere that I had in mind that I can’t quite hear that I want to hear.” I often think of teaching (lesson four) as a process of building up, of gradual accretion through multiple iterations. But perhaps, at its heart, it is also a process of “sculpting away” until we reach the central principles, the key lessons.

This is probably a good point to pause and note that Adams was appointed Associate Professor of Composition at Oberlin’s Conservatory in 1998, where he taught for four years. He was drawn to Oberlin by the “lushness and diversity” of the eastern hardwood forest, the songbirds and, to be sure, the artistic and intellectual community at the College and Conservatory. He was excited to be able to connect his work with the contemporary visual arts displayed in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and taught a course on “Music, Language, and the Sounding Image.” Adams describes himself as having a chronic case of “painter envy”: “I’ve always envied the hands-on relationship that painters and sculptors have with the materials of their art, the way they can get paint and clay on their clothes and under their fingernails.” He often elaborates on the impact of artists, including Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jasper Johns, on his own work, Stella in particular. Living in Alaska, Adams frequently travels by way of the SeaTac airport at Seattle where he has spent countless hours contemplating Frank Stella’s “York Factory A” which hangs in Concourse A. The work is one of Stella’s “Protractor Series,” loosely based on Persian designs, with “sweeping arcs of brilliant colors weaving in and out of each other” in an impossible fashion. Adams argues that it “doesn’t add up visually,” but that he was eager to do “something similar” on the piano. The result was Among Red Mountains. “If those ensemble and orchestral pieces are multi-dimensional sculptures,” he writes, “then Among Red Mountains is more like a drawing.”

Frank Stella, "York Factory A," SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Frank Stella, “York Factory A,” SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Adam’s music explores the boundaries between nature and culture. “I think of sounds of musical forms as forces, as natural elements in some way. It may sound ridiculously grandiose or laughably naïve,” he continued,

but I’ve always imagined that I might be able to work in a space that’s just outside of culture. Of course, it’s patently absurd. There’s no way that we work outside of culture, and these days so many cultures. And yet, as my friend Barry Lopez, the writer, says landscape is the culture that contains all human cultures. And I believe that everything we do, everything we think, everything we think we create, everything we are derives from the world we inhabit: our language, our music, our minds, everything is shaped by this incredibly complex and wondrous world that we inhabit. So, ultimately this nature/culture dichotomy in a way doesn’t exist. But it’s been a useful conceit for me to feel that I’m after something that is not part of a musical tradition; it’s not specifically cultural, it’s somehow more elemental.

Adam’s music represents a desire to connect with the world that “we still inhabit,” but that we’ve forgotten. His attempt to connect the earth and its sounds directly to his music led him to Jim Altieri, an Oberlin double degree student who graduated in 2000 with majors in geology and TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts). Adams called Altieri out of the blue one day and, as Altieri recalls, says, “So, hey, I’m beginning to write a grant for this piece; not sure yet what it is but I want to take all these geophysical data streams and it’s going to make sound and light with them.” Altieri didn’t hesitate: “I said, great, I’m your man.” The idea was to translate raw geophysical data into music. Currently installed in the Museum of the North, in Fairbanks, the Place Where You Go To Listen takes data from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations across Alaska and feeds them into a computer where they are transformed into a “vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.” (Adam’s book, The Place Where You Go To Listen, is available from Wesleyan University Press.)

The Lessons of John Luther Adams

As I noted earlier, higher education faces a continual challenge to respond to those who argue that education is only, and narrowly, about “preparing students to be maximally productive, economically speaking.” At a moment in which selective liberal arts colleges have been shown to actually widen social inequality by imposing a tremendous debt burden on those less able to pay, the aims of higher education do, indeed, raise serious “problems of morality and justice,” as the subtitle of a recent book (The Aims of Higher Education, Univ. of Chicago, 2015) by Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson put it. But, as well, John Luther Adams’ work provides a compelling argument for the expansive and inclusive role of higher education can play when we take advantage of all that it offers. Adams’ life and work tells us of the critical and timely importance of the advice that we give students, the imperative to be attentive to the different paths to success that they will follow, how to best nurture, encourage, challenge and defend students as they prepare for a bewildering world. From his work at Oberlin, we learn the critical importance of taking advantage of the opportunities for connection that exist in these small but powerful communities, how geology can enrich composition, how art informs biology. From his music, we learn about the beauty of our surroundings, and how we are shaped by the world that enfolds us.

Adams left Alaska a few years ago. What had been the source of much of his creativity began to diminish. The impact of climate change was profound, he began to have problems with his eyes, which made the long Alaskan winters very difficult, good friends had died or moved away, and “the vision we’d shared of an ecological utopia…had faded…Even as so-called reality TV perpetuated the myth of the last frontier, it had become painfully evident that Alaska was a colony of Big Oil.” He and his wife moved to the Sonoran desert in Mexico where “any lingering fears I had about losing my inspiration soon disappeared.” It was there that he composed “Canticles of the Holy Wind,” “Become River” for chamber orchestra, and “Become Ocean” which won the 2014 Pulitzer for music.

John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams

Adams tries to “resist composing” for as long as he can. He told Nina Serota in the Q2 interview that “I really want to get at something essential before I start manipulating the notes, pushing things around. I try to hold things in my mind’s ear as long as I can … I find that if I try to hear something that I can’t quite name it focuses my attention in a certain way…” Good advice for us all as we are barraged by the cosmic radiation of tweets, social media, and news feeds. It’s time to focus our attention…in very certain ways.


You can access John Luther Adam’s music on YouTube and a number of other online sites, many of which are linked in the article, besides purchasing it on iTunes, Amazon or elsewhere.

Back-To-School Lit

Steve Volk, September 13, 2015

They arrive on our electronic (or real) doorsteps as punctually as the back-to-school adverts, and seemingly in the same quantity. Late August and early September in the United States is the season when the public is called on to contemplate the world of higher education… most often, what’s wrong with it. Today’s (Sept. 13) New York Times is devoted to higher ed. It includes an insightful piece on college tuition by Adam Davidson, a thought-provoking article by Annie Murphy Paul on whether college lectures discriminate (“A growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students”), a terrific essay by Edward E. Baptist on the challenges of “Teaching Slavery to Reluctant Listeners” (“Whenever we dredge up the past, we find that the rusty old chains we rake from the bottom are connected to some people’s present-­day pains and others’ contemporary privilege”), and Syreeta McFadden’s contemplation on “Teaching Martin Luther King Jr. in the Age of Freddie Gray.” Read them.

Eva Hesse - Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Eva Hesse – Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Along with these types of stories in the New York Times one encounters a raft of articles that chronicle a student arrival at college for her first semester, describe high schoolers teetering on the cusp of the college-decision-year, follow parents unsure of whether they can afford the university that has plucked their daughter’s heartstrings, and sermonize on how higher education has sold it soul.

And then there is the burgeoning journalism (back-to-school lit, I call it) that falls into the subgenre of “What’s-The-Matter-With-Kids-Today,” a nod to “Bye, Bye Birdie” of Broadway fame (“Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”). These are the articles that lament the “The Coddling of the American Mind”, the rise of intolerance on campus, or, in the latest to appear, and in which Oberlin takes pride of place (The Atlantic, Sept. 11, 2015) , the spread of a new “victimhood” culture, an argument first described in the research of two sociologists.

There is much that can be said about the issues raised in these latter articles, and I would hope that faculty, staff, and students can discuss them further in a variety of settings. Here, I will only say that while many of us are confused or upset or angered by what not only appears to be, but is in specific instances, a fundamental disregard for the principles of academic freedom, we should also be aware of the context in which these articles continue to appear. Not to discount some of the arguments made, nonetheless the tendency in some of the reporting to generalize a relatively few examples of specific behaviors into a new student culture raises the question of how widespread these trends are within higher education. Similarly, to dismiss what scholars have found to be real and significant barriers to some students’ learning (what scholars have termed “microaggressions” ) by decrying or ridiculing the fact that a few students have deployed the concept in ways that are no longer recognizable or defensible, does not encourage a deeper understanding of what are important issues, and principles, for those of us who teach and interact with students on liberal arts campuses. Nor do these articles open the way to a productive discussion of the subject, something which is desperately needed. (Those looking for a well-researched introduction to the topic of microaggressions, for example, should consult the work of Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College, Columbia University – you can start here and here – or Kevin Nadal of John Jay College, CUNY – try here.) There certainly is much which we can, and should, discuss, including what I would term the emergence of a “safety” narrative on some campuses (usually elite, selective colleges or flagship university), but the seeming intent of the back-to-school-and-the-liberal-arts-colleges-have-all-gone-crazy articles to ramp up outrage against the education that takes place in these colleges should be interrogated along with the behaviors they describe.

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

We (the approximately 130 residential liberal arts colleges that remain) are a tiny percent of the overall higher education framework in the United States today (just over 2%, to be exact). There are nearly 20 million post-secondary students in the U.S. today, and many are struggling with debt, thinking about future employment, juggling studying with jobs and families, and just trying to learn in a political environment which disparages teachers and belittles actual knowledge. While writers in the Atlantic enjoy skewering liberal arts colleges as hotbeds of “political correctism” and left-wing students run amuck, and while we can share the anxiety of those wondering how any but the very rich will be able to afford a university degree, we are, in fact, doing many things right, and the back-to-school season is a good time to remind ourselves of this. Even researchers who have launched the most serious critiques of higher education for not adding to students’ capacity to think critically (Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift, for example) have concluded that liberal arts colleges are getting it right.

So, what is it we do (and, I could add, why does it seem to make our detractors so angry)? To help answer this question, I turn to my polestar in these matters, John Dewey, and to a lovely article that the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1989 (“Education as Socialization and as Individualization”). In the article Rorty offers an explanation of why liberals and conservatives see the purposes of education so differently. Conservatives, he suggests, stress the importance of education for socialization while liberals argue in favor of education for individualization. (Interestingly, he observes, in the United States, education up to the age of 18 or 19 is mostly a conservative stronghold; it’s mostly about socialization, “of getting the students to take over the moral and political common sense of the society as it is.” Higher education, on the other hand, has been mostly a liberal’s domain, about encouraging Socratic skepticism, a place where “we hope that students can be distracted from their struggle to get into a high-paying profession, and that the professors will not simply try to reproduce themselves by preparing the students to enter graduate study in their own disciplines.”

Ernest C. Withers, The "Little Rock Nine" first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Ernest C. Withers, The “Little Rock Nine” first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Dewey’s approach, Rorty writes, wasn’t based on either conservative or liberal precepts. He offered “neither the conservative’s philosophical justification of democracy by reference to eternal values nor the radical’s justification by reference to decreasing alienation.” For Dewey, the promise of an education was its democratic value as an on-going experiment engaged in…by us. Dewey asks that we “put our faith in ourselves – in the utopian hope characteristic of a democratic community…” For Dewey, hope, “the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past – is the condition of growth.”

We, on campus, have been thinking much about both the value and valence of hope, as we pondered the words of Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, who was on campus last week and continue to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in our reading groups.

For his part, Rorty sadly observed that there now are certain aspects of the U.S. educational establishment that Dewey couldn’t have foreseen, but that we should not hold this against his vision of hope. Dewey “could not have foreseen,” he wrote, “that the United States would decide to pay its pre-college teachers a fifth of what it pays its doctors. Nor did he foresee that an increasingly greedy and heartless American middle class would let the quality of education a child received become proportional to the assessed value of the parents’ real estate.”

Rorty is a Deweyan, and, as he put it, “We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the student see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centered is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to make themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts, as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Susan B.] Anthony, [Eugene] Debs and [James] Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings. With luck, the best of them will succeed in altering the conventional wisdom, so that the next generation is socialized in a somewhat different way than they themselves were socialized…To hope [this way] is to remind oneself that growth is indeed the only end that democratic higher education can serve and also to remind oneself that the direction of growth is unpredictable.”

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

There are politicians and pundits, and, yes, some administrators, who, when reading the back-to-school lit which will make its way to their desktops, think that higher education is too important to be left in the hands of professors, let alone allow the students to have a voice in it. But I think of what it is that we have done and what we should continue to do. And I am reminded of what the Civil War historian, James McPherson, pointed out in his 1975 book, The Abolitionist’s Legacy (Princeton): an extraordinarily high percentage abolitionist leaders were shaped by their colleges. In a sample of 250 antislavery leaders, nearly 80% either had college degrees or spent time in college. This, at a moment when less than 2% of the overall population was college educated. If we are doing what we should be doing, our students, even those who might not get everything right as they attempt to cope with the world around them, what they bring with them, and what they are learning, will succeed in “noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surrounds” – and try to change it.

Only Connect? What is the Future of Higher Education

Steve Volk, March 3, 2014

Last November, our colleague, David Orr, delivered the Presidential Lecture entitled: “Only Connect: A 4th Gyre.” (If you missed it, you can catch up with it on YouTube).  David borrowed E.M. Forster’s phrase, “only connect” to underline what is needed to “turn vicious cycles into virtuous cycles that eventually transform our politics, economy, cities, buildings, infrastructure, landscapes, transportation, agriculture, technologies, and our manner of thinking.”

Forster’s injunction, from Howards End, spoke to the importance of bringing all the parts of one’s life together: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

EM Forster, Howards End

This charge, to “only connect,” ricocheted around my brain as I read a new study produced by the Gallup organization for the Lumina Foundation.  “What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign,” argues that “the importance of post-secondary education in preparing and connecting people with a good job” should be at the center of a redesign of higher education. By stressing that single purpose, the study stands Forster on his head, arguing in favor of a life in fragments, one in which students are disconnected from community and purpose, to say nothing of passion and prose.

Now, Lord knows, I have nothing against our graduates getting “good jobs.” Indeed, we would do well to think about this more. But the study so assiduously frames its findings within a master narrative of an education system that has failed in its mandate to prepare workers for the labor market that it ignores not just the larger purposes of a higher education, but its own data. To cite just one example, the poll highlights the finding that 95% of the public judge the quality of the college or university on the ability of its graduates to “get a good job.” 95%! That’s hard to argue with – the U.S. public want a higher ed sector that “only connects” graduates and jobs.

And yet an even higher percentage of respondents (98%) judged the quality of a college or university not on its connection to the job market, but on the qualifications of the faculty, and a substantial majority (86%) found the percentage of students who pursue further education to be of significant importance when determining the worth of colleges and universities. These points weren’t included in Lumina’s bullet points or picked up by the press; neither particularly fit into their seemingly preferred degree-to-job narrative.

Even more disturbing was the second part of the study which polled “business leaders” (also defined as “thought leaders”) in executive positions (but not further described). Nearly 70% of those polled said they would consider hiring employees without a post-secondary degree or certification, and only 16% of them agreed that “most jobs at my business require a post-secondary degree or credential to be successful.” Thought leaders? A myriad of other polls have underscored the importance of a post-secondary education for future success in the labor market(See, for example, results from the American Association of Colleges and Universities and here and Northeastern University). But, evidently, not those questioned by Lumina/Gallup.

Let me be clear. We do want our graduates to earn a living, to be able to find meaningful employment. If the employers at Google or Genetech or Ford express a dissatisfaction with college graduates, shouldn’t we pay attention? Yes, at some level, we should. But not, it would appear, from Lumina’s particular group of 623 business leaders. A further data point from the study (one that, again, didn’t make the highlight reel) discloses that 68% of the employers surveyed said that it was somewhat to very likely that employees at their businesses who earned a post-secondary degree while working for them would leave their current jobs for employment at other firms.

Student working in Statistics Machine Room, 1964, London School of Economics

I’m no wizard at statistics, but what we seem to have here is a poll taken of “thought leaders” who (in significant percentages) don’t think post-secondary education is important for hiring at the present time, don’t think that post-secondary education will be needed for a large percentage of their firms’ jobs in the future, and recognize that most of their employees would abandon ship if they actually did manage to earn a post-secondary degree. Yet the study headlines the fact that only 11% of those polled strongly agree with the statement that higher education is actually graduating students to meet their needs. Huh?

As troubling as I find this instrumentalist view of higher education, I think the Lumina/Gallup data is useful in three respects. (1) It encourages those of us in the very rarified atmosphere of liberal arts colleges (only 4% of the total higher education sector) to think about how we relate to the sector as a whole and, more to the point, what we believe higher education should do for all who pass through its doors. (2) It draws attention to the fact that employment is what will be in the future for almost all our students, and while that employment will not be as narrowly defined as Lumina suggests, we do need to think about the connection between the education we provide and preparation for that future. (3) Finally, and importantly, it begs the question of what it is that we do in higher education.  I’ll only address the last point here by circling back to the charge to “only connect.”

David Orr was not the only writer on higher education to look back to Forster. In 1998, another environmentalist, the historian William Cronon, published a lovely article in The American Scholar titled, “‘Only Connect…’ The Goals of a Liberal Education.” (You might remember Cronon from 2011 when the Republican Party of Wisconsin subpoenaed his emails in an attempt to intimidate environmentalists at the University of Wisconsin.) As opposed to the Lumina Foundation, whose study suggests that higher education is solely about preparing graduates for their first, entry-level (and apparently dead-end) jobs, Cronon takes a broader view of what it is we do, one that is so engaging I hope you will read his article, which I’m offering as this week’s “Article of the Week.” (You can find it here, and in CTIE’s Blackboard site: CTIE>Article of the Week>March 3, 2014.)

What do we mean by a “liberal education,” Cronon asks? He points out that “liberal,” is derived from the Latin (liberalis) meaning “free.” But it’s also rooted in the Old English word lēodan (“to grow”) and lēod (“people), not to mention the Greek word eleutheros (“free”) and even the Sanskrit word rodhati, meaning “one climbs,” “one grows.” As he sums up: “Freedom and growth: here, surely, are values that lie at the very core of what we mean when we speak of a liberal education…it aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom” (74).

Lieut. F. Schwatka, Wonderland; or, Alaska and the Inland Passage (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1886), 13.

In his essay, Cronon considers what should go into a liberal education curriculum. But, in the end, he remarks that it’s not really about the items in the curriculum, the boxes you check off, so much as the values we seek to instill in the students who share that educational process with us. To this end, he describes ten such values. I’ll list them here, but recommend that you read the article and discuss the points raised with colleagues.

How does one recognize liberally educated people, Cronon asks?

1. They listen and they hear.

2. They read and they understand.

3. They can talk with anyone.

4. The can write clearly and persuasively and movingly.

5. They can solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems.

6. They respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth.

7. They practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism.

8. They understand how to get things done in the world.

9. They nurture and empower the people around them.

And, of course,

10. They follow E. M. Forster’s injunction from Howard’s End: “Only connect…”

If I had to choose between Lumina’s idea of higher education and Bill Cronon’s…well, no contest.

I’d like to periodically return to these points and see how we can develop a discussion around each of them. Are these the characteristics we want to see in our graduates? Are there others? How are they reflected in our curriculum and our graduation requirements?  Much to think about.

Texas A&M System grades faculty — by bottom line. An idea whose time has…oh, never mind

Vimal Patel, TheEagle.com [Bryan-College Station, Texas], Sept 1, 2010.

Frank Ashley felt the shifting winds several years ago: As state officials embarked on accountability measures for K-12 teachers, he said, he told his faculty colleagues that public sentiment would eventually demand such measures in higher education.

Now, Ashley, the vice chancellor for academic affairs for the A&M System, has been put in charge of creating such a measure that he says would help administrators and the public better understand who, from a financial standpoint, is pulling their weight.

A several-inches thick document in the possession of A&M System officials contains three key pieces of information for every single faculty member in the 11-university system: their salary, how much external research funding they received and how much money they generated from teaching.

The information will allow officials to add the funds generated by a faculty member for teaching and research and subtract that sum from the faculty member’s salary. When the document — essentially a profit-loss statement for faculty members — is complete, officials hope it will become an effective, lasting tool to help with informed decision-making.

“If you look at what people are saying out there — first of all, they want accountability,” Ashley said. “It’s something that we’re really not used to in higher education: For someone questioning whether we’re working hard, whether our students are learning. That accountability is going to be with us from now on.”

Peter Hugill, the head of the local chapter of a national faculty group, calls the measure simplistic and crude, and views it as an idea spawned from a conservative think tank in Austin that has advocated faculty accountability and has the support of Gov. Rick Perry and the A&M System Board of Regents.

“As being partly paid by the public purse, I believe we owe the public some degree of accountability — I don’t have a problem with that at all,” said Hugill, an A&M geography professor and local president of the American Association of University Professors. “What I have a problem with is silly measures.”

The project, tentatively called “The Texas A&M University System Academic and Financial Analysis,” will be presented to the A&M System Board of Regents, and, when complete, be available to the general public, officials have written in documents.

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