More (on) Country

Every year when the Grammy Awards show is on, I find myself wondering who its audience is. No one ever seems happy with the nominees, let alone who wins, and most people are generally unmoved by the really contrived “live” (lip-synced) performances. This past year, Kendrick Lamar (who’s a talented MC, but not the next coming of Nas, as some have claimed) not only lost a statue to these guys, but also had to perform with these guys:

 

Watching “country singer” Taylor Swift awkwardly dance to this crap is pretty funny, but it also underscores something important: the Grammy spectacle isn’t about music at all. It’s TMZ, a reality show singing competition, a couple soap operas, and a weird Judge [Insert Name Here] show all rolled into one. It’s an advertising delivery mechanism meant to titillate Two-and-Half Men viewers, even as they express moral outrage at all the flesh, flash, and crudity on display. It’s maybe the most Hollywood thing on television in that it’s not even trashy enough to be interesting.

If you’re someone who reads this blog and inexplicably finds yourself watching the Grammys, we advise that you go take a leak or pass out during the ten minutes when they announce the country awards or have some generic, horrifically bedazzled Nashviller perform. Ryan’s ably documented the godawful state of contemporary country, with its pop chanteuses, bros of all varieties, and faux outlaws raging against nothing. I would say that we deserve a better class of country musician, but we really don’t. We deserve the crap we’re willing to pay for, and Carrie Underwood concerts alway sell out.

So thank god for YouTube, where you can not only listen to the likes of Dwight Yoakam, but also watch this performance from the 1991 Grammys:

Jiminy Crickets, where to start? You’ve got Gary Shandling, whose Larry Sanders managed to combine the poofy hair of Jerry Seinfeld with the appalling suits of Frasier and Niles Crane. Folks, there was a time when media execs wanted Gary Shandling to host the Grammys. Then there’s Garth Brooks’ shirt. I think we once had some outdoor furniture cushions in that pattern, but I gotta admit, it looks great with a cowboy hat. Then there’s the premise of the vignette that just follows the lyrics of the song:

Grammy Writer: “It’s like a high-society party scene out of Designing Women where Garth is looked down on by snooty types, and then *poof* we’re magically transported to a “dive bar” peopled by Juliard graduates that make him feel right at home!”

Hollywood Suit: “You’re destined for greatness, kid!”

Someone could do a humdinger of a terrible grad seminar paper on this video. Please cite me if you do. From the dinner-theater acting, to Kathy Mattea’s camera face, this marvelous turd is more interesting than anything the Grammys will ever produce again because it’s not even trying to be cool (see the above), a grail quest that has ruined just about everything in our culture. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the song, which didn’t win a Grammy (because Vince Gill won this category *7* times in the 90s), is a classic in genre that seems determined never to churn out another one.

Los Angeles Country: Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs”

Country music has a split heritage: rural Protestantism on the one hand, hillbilly hedonism on the other. All those mean little nondenominational churches in the South can’t change the fact that music is great, partying is fun, and getting drunk is restorative and beneficial until it becomes terrible. Sin and forbearance and all that—it’s how you get George Jones’s music and George Jones’s life. And in its purest form, the genre is workers’ music, poor man’s music, jams out of coal hollers and county highways, every song shadowed by poverty and boring, ordinary disappointment.

Like many cultural phenomena, country flourished when it spread beyond its geographical roots, like how the Brits invented the Anglophone novel but Americans perfected it (1). When the Dust Bowl and then World War II drew poor whites (primarily Appalachians and the Okies) out west, country music got California all over it. Despite its financial capital and production heft, Nashville doesn’t have shit on Bakersfield. In turn, Bakersfield needed Los Angeles, the urban hub just over the mountains through which country’s best tendencies were distributed. When the genius who is the subject of today’s post went to Nashville at the dawn of the Reagan era, saw a bunch of New South rhinestone schlock, said “Fuck it,” and moved out west, he was copying dudes like Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons, pursuing his own version of the n’er-do-well proto-punk aesthetic that Johnny Cash and Hank Williams (two artists who never really fit in the South even though they were Southern boys, as JC emphasized by stomping out the floor lights at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965) had articulated.

Dwight Yoakam settled in LA in the 1980s, developing his style in shitty punk clubs and similar dives, and dropping his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., toward the dismal end of the Reagan years (1986). One of the best country debuts ever? Survey says YES. It’s the creation of an Appalachian transplant who liked tight jeans as much as he dug Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Creedence, AOR pop singles, and the Carter Family. Country music? Grimy at heart. (See above.) Los Angeles? Grimy at heart and in all the other ways.

But he wasn’t some subaltern master that America didn’t ever appreciate: Yoakam was huge in the late 1980s and 1990s, selling out stadiums and hogging the airwaves. Indeed, he was a Boyd family staple in our blue Ford Ranger. His videos dominated the limited space MTV gave to country artists, and while I wouldn’t call them cool (some of them are downright terrible), compared to what Garth Brooks and his headset were subjecting America to, Yoakam’s grunge-hunk look is tight enough to redeem all but the worst media rollouts (2). In general, these pleasant visual adjuncts underscore his ability to write fantastic pop songs (3), much like his physical doppelganger and stylistic cousin Tom Petty.

His first five albums did serious Billboard-chart damage, and they are all great, but the one I keep bumpin’ in my jalopy is Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. My own dear favorite track is “South of Cincinnati,” but the title-ish song “Guitars, Cadillacs” offers a better idea of what makes Yoakam’s best work so fascinating and inventive. The song is fun with a sad edge. In other words, it is like the better parties you’ve been to lately. Have a weekend, LA and beyond.

NOTES
1) Unfortunately it also works the other way around, as when white people grow dreadlocks.
2) For a demonstration of how standards of taste and style are historically contingent, watch the video for Yoakam’s enormous (and still awesome) hit “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” Most of it is perfectly adequate cable-TV fare, but there’s a shot around 1:40 that is titanically, hilariously awful; I need someone to make me a GIF of it. The lady’s hair-toss!
3) The most beautiful musicians can make accessible music, even pop music, if they want to. Examples: Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Chopin’s piano bits, Tom Petty, the Beatles, the Pretenders, Brian Wilson, Jay Z. Something is missing if an artist’s work is always difficult, just like if it were constantly enjoyable only on an unreflective, immediate level. High art isn’t continually highbrow. Jane Eyre exemplifies this, as do the deft, sad lyrics below, which arrive near the end of “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose,” one of DY’s singles from If There Was a Way [sic]:

If a tear should fall,
If I should whisper her name
To some stranger I’m holding
While we’re dancin to an old Buck Owens song,
I know she won’t mind
She won’t even know–
She’ll be dancing with a memory, crying teardrops of her own.

Required Reading: “The State of the American Dog”

Hi, I’m Ryan, and sometimes I wish the Internet were made of paper. I worry about our culture’s mind as we transition to a heavily visual, Cloud-hosted mode of living; I distrust the conceit that the humanities will survive and perhaps even prosper through digitization; and I dislike that popular Web writing is often bracketed by and/or sliced up with images that distract readers, myself included, who nonetheless feel anxious without images in view. As a discursive conservative, I think writing-intensive, preferably printed texts are better at conveying complex ideas and feeding thought.

But it would be stupid to claim that these texts are always superior to visually intensive media when it comes to serious inquiry. Done well, hybrid digital texts can rise to the level of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Tom Junod’s essay “The State of the American Dog,” published this week in Esquire (a magazine I’ve griped about before), is in that league. The article would be staggering on its own, but the gallery of pictures that accompanies it might cause things to get a little, uh, misty near your computer. Junod builds the text around his family’s experience owning pit bulls (Dexter and the late Carson), beautiful, emotionally intuitive animals whose lives provide the basis for an ethnography of America that doesn’t reflect well on us. Ever met a pit bull or a pit mix? If their owner isn’t a creep, then that dog is probably one of the best creatures you’ll ever encounter. Pitties are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people.

The problem is, pits are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people, which means that terrible humans can easily train them to fight other dogs and generally project menace. The fact that such reptiles are a small minority of owners does not matter much at this point, because for thirty years American popular media has slotted pit bulls into paranoid cultural fantasies about race (the canine lieutenant of black/brown gang-bangers FROM THE CITY), while at the same time the breed has fallen victim to the worst impulses of a frantically consumerist society. (When Junod describes watching a young professional casually dump her pet at a shelter before work because her new condo doesn’t allow dogs, you’ll want to scream for several reasons.) What this means is that today Petey from Our Gang would most likely die in a shelter or on the street.

The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide. We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts; indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds an ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers. We have always counted on our dogs to tell us who we are. But what pit bulls tell us is that who we think we are is increasingly at odds with what we’ve turned out to be.

Gore Vidal liked to point out that Americans (“The United States of Amnesia”) don’t have much of a historical memory unless memory suits a present desire. It strikes me that this also enables us to feel less and less shame about how little our contemporary institutions and behaviors resemble the founding theory of America. As Junod has it:

America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal.

But hey, they’re vicious kill-beasts, so they had it coming.

Topical Weekday Verse: Thom Gunn, “Nasturtium”

When he started publishing, Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was quickly grouped with other young British poets who were poised to follow W.H. Auden’s lead, rejecting what they saw as the gratuitous, reader-alienating Difficulty of modernists like Pound, T.S. Eliot, Stein, and Stevens. In other words, they disliked how hard it was to decipher, let alone enjoy, many canonical modernist poems—the Cantos, anyone? (Most of them also detested Dylan Thomas’s lush neo-romanticism.) Starting in the mid-1950s, journalists hoisted the label “the Movement” onto Gunn, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and others; then New Lines, an influential 1956 anthology that Conquest edited, presented them as cohesive, not just contemporaneous.

Like all narratives this one simplifies a lot, which is why most of the so-called Movement poets refused the term (1). Yet there are discernible patterns in the work of these individual writers, who sought a poetics that was aesthetically pleasurable (it rhymed and scanned in meters that English poets had been using for centuries) and less thematically opaque: none of The Waste Land‘s maddening footnotes. More accessible, more public, in other words. Larkin turned out to be Auden’s greatest heir, but Gunn has also staked a place in the anthologies. (Amis wrote fine poems, too, but he is known more as a brilliant comic novelist.) Larkin, whose letters sometimes have a nasty provincial streak disguised as half-ironic Tory wit, claimed to detest Gunn’s work—”What a genius that man has for making an ass of himself”—but then again he also preferred Sylvia Plath to Robert Lowell. Even geniuses have moments of shaky taste (2).

No doubt Gunn’s lifestyle, or stories about it, also bugged Larkin, who saw himself as a conservative. By the time he was being touted as a new voice in British poetry, Gunn had moved to San Francisco. He spent the rest of his life there. An openly (by the late 1970s) gay man who rode motorcycles, dropped lots of acid, hung out with lovers in leather, taught at Berkeley, and generally appeared just fine with hippies, queens, bikers, and other Bay Area species, you probably wouldn’t peg him as a Royal Army veteran educated at Cambridge.

His life in the Bay supplies a lot of his subject matter; as such he might seem fully Americanized. However, in terms of its formal structures, Gunn’s strongest poetry derives from an English lyric tradition which prizes conceptual lucidity, metrical cohesion, pleasing rhymes, and a frequently ironic (not to say cynical) view of human life. He may write about surfers and sometimes mess around with free verse and syllabics (like a damn Frenchman!) but ultimately he’s a traditionalist who leans toward patterned meters.

As far as Anglophone poetry goes, there are two main species in this metrical genus. Accentual-syllabic verse, where you look at the placement of stressed and unstressed syllables within lines that have the same total number of syllables, is the most common. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is probably the best-known example, but accentual-syllabic forms have been the foundation of English lyric since the 1500s, and you can draw a line from Marlowe to Ben Jonson to Marvell to Pope to the nineteenth-century British giants (e.g., Keats, Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Housman) to modern poets like Auden and Larkin. You could also throw in certain Americans, like Robert Frost, the Fugitives, and Yvor Winters, the aesthetic arch-conservative whom Gunn studied with at Stanford (3). Straight-up accentual verse, where you only count the number of accents (not the syllables), regardless of where they fall in a particular line, is also a Gunn mode. Gerard Manley Hopkins is the king of this one, which ultimately goes back to Old English texts like Beowulf, but Coleridge and Milton also experimented with it.

Now, like any skilled formalist poet, Gunn rarely sticks with a totally regularized beat. A lyric’s meter serves as a baseline, not a straitjacket, because the poem will get boring and shitty if it bounces along the same track the whole way. Even when working with, for example, rhyming couplets—the ultimate in neoclassical regularity, favored by eighteenth-century wig bros like Alexander Pope—Gunn will shift accent-placement and line-length, or occasionally swap in a slant rhyme where the pattern would seem to call for a full one. Indeed, you often get texts that seem to hover between accentual and accentual-syllabic verse; hey, most literary classifications are somewhat imprecise.

So what’s the poem for this edition of Topical Verse? It’s “Nasturtium,” from Gunn’s 1992 collection The Man With Night Sweats. More lit-crit talk below.

Born in a sour waste lot
You laboured up to light,
Bunching what strength you’d got
And running out of sight
Through a knot-hole at last,
To come forth into sun
As if without a past,
Done with it, re-begun.

Now street-side of the fence
You take a few green turns,
Nimble in nonchalance
Before your first flower burns.
From poverty and prison
And undernourishment
A prodigal has risen,
Self-spending, never spent.

Irregular yellow shell
And drooping spur behind . . .
Not rare but beautiful
—Street-handsome—as you wind
And leap, hold after hold,
A golden runaway
Still running, strewing gold
From side to side all day.

This is a love poem, devoted to the community where Gunn found a home and to the nasturtium itself, a common flower of resplendently strange appearance. (This is what a nasturtium looks like up close, and this is what they look like in tumbling, spilling floods of color.) The flower is a metaphor but it’s a flower too.

Nasturtiums, which have shallow roots and reproduce via seeds that look like tiny shriveled craniums, are rapacious spreaders and excellent climbers. Perfections up close, they are even better en masse; repetitive and profligate, they lend themselves to filigree, and illustrators, designers, and other artists have long prized them (3). Gunn uses a weedy, light meter—generally three accents distributed over a six-syllable line, though some lines can be read with four accents, all of it arranged into three stanzas of equal length—that mimics that plant’s organic form. Nasturtiums do well in poor soil, loving a “sour waste lot,” and will in fact produce fewer blooms if you water or fertilize them too much.

Iambic pentameter is the workhorse of English poetry because lines with ten-ish syllabus and five-ish beats are long enough to do complicated stuff with, in terms of sound and image, but not so long that they run out to the page’s edge, which would tax the reader. (Poems that care about musicality usually need the propulsion that comes from line breaks and new starts after that drop.) But even with relatively scrawny lines, Gunn does some cool stuff. For example, although the meter and the rhyme scheme used in the first two stanzas persist into the third, in that final unit the punctuation partially abandons the syntactical conventions of standard English. In its closing exuberance, the stanza’s punctuation serves mainly to organize sensuous impressions.

Read metaphorically, the nasturtium represents survivors, in particular the gay men who made it to the big free city (free compared to the places many came from, at least) and settled in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Castro after “poverty and prison / And undernourishment.” Seen in terms of the “golden runaway,” Young-Man-Escaped narrative, the lyric is hopeful.

However, its surroundings are grim: The Man With Night Sweats is largely a meditation on the first terrible decade of AIDS, the plague years that tore through urban gay communities. Gunn lost a lot of friends. A few pages after “Nasturtium” the book’s last section begins, opening with the titular poem. The noun “prodigal” has a dark slant, and Gunn builds cold irony into the dream of nonchalance, pure subjective freedom, and endless “spending” (a verb poets have used for centuries as a half-comic euphemism for ejaculation). There is no “all day.” Life is always preparing forms of suffering.

At the end of Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007), a man named Stefan Pashov, who drives machines in Antarctica, says something beautiful:

Suffering reproduces aggressively, as do viruses (bad) and nasturtiums (good). Poems are diffusive too, hauled out of the languages we’ve devised and passed from writer to reader. Texts are partially biological. You see this vividly when the same poem demonstrates both the human compulsion to make metaphors—plundering nature for tropes to help us describe our lives—and our urge (still flickering in 2014) to admit the otherness of living things.

NOTES
1) In the second appendix of Kingsley Amis’s mammoth Selected Letters (seriously, it could stop a bullet) you’ll find some superb parodies of Movement poets that Amis mailed to Larkin (one of his best friends) in 1956. Titled “All Aboard the Gravy Train: Or, Movements Among the Younger Poets” and written by one “Ron Cain,” it pokes fun at the tics and tendencies of Gunn, Robert Conquest (another one of Amis’s bros), Larkin, D.J. Enright, Amis himself, and others frequently deemed Movement types.
2) Letter to Robert Conquest, 20 February 1962, reprinted in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 341.
3) Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are also handy with traditional forms, though both were perfectly comfortable writing lots of free verse.
4) Plus the blooms are edible. Very tasty in fact, a spry pepper. Makes you look cool if you put them in the salad you bring to a picnic.

Weekend Beats: Claudine’s Back in Jail Again

We’ve written before about the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls (1978), an album that is both a dirtbag disco joint and a Bakersfield country classic. Beauty is grime, and grime beauty, that’s all we know. The whole performance raises questions. Among them: Can a total English-to-American conversion happen to someone, or even to an entire band? Well, can it?

The American impulse entails (but doesn’t often admit the coexistence of) exultation and failure, success and loss, clarity and muck, all of it in richly conflicted individual versions (we still call them citizens), which makes sense, given our roots in Calvinism and the slave trade, in both of which you’re either a blessed success or close to a deserved, preordained death. If we’re talking poetry, this is why Emily Dickinson, not Walt Whitman, is the Big Bang of modern American poetry (OK, OK, they split 60/40), because Whitman, for all his genius, only half-compromised in later, post-Civil War poems with the darkness.

Anyway, the Stones released their posh two-disc Deluxe Edition of Some Girls a while back, and it’s just great. The second disc emphasizes country-fried songs that didn’t make the final cut, including the scuffling, speedy track we’ve got here, “Claudine.”

The original public version has the masterpieces that became hits: “Some Girls,” “Beast of Burden,” “Miss You” (some Puerto Rican girls that’s just dyyyyin to meet-cha), “Shattered” (after which the 1980s’ best pop songs could happen). But the restored cuts on Disc 2 are almost as fantastic, because their pose is more artfully ragged. If you like that kind of setup. It gets grimy down there, son. The American impulse needs plenty of explaining, and sometimes English visitors and settlers can clarify things: Dusty Springfield, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, the Men in Blazers, Aldous Huxley (who for better or worse nurtured Southern California’s mystical inclinations), Thom Gunn (more on him on this blog soon), Steve McQueen the director, Thomas Paine, Led Zeppelin.

Et cetera. Enjoy the weekend, y’all.

A Very Merry Birthday to Walt Whitman, American

May 31, which is still Today on the American west coast, is Walt Whitman’s birthday. Born in 1819, he would be almost 200 years old today if science would hurry up and cure aging. Right now we only have poetry.

Walt Whitman

Along with Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, Whitman invented American poetry. In the man’s honor—as thanks for what he wrote—here is a short poem from the 1860s that is usually named by its first line. You will almost certainly like it if you enjoy the English language and are human. The text below is from Michael Moon’s superb Norton Critical edition of Whitman’s work.

Come for the erotic politics, stay for the ecological sensibility, that’s the Whitman way here.

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the 
         branches; 
Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous 
         leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think 
         of myself; 
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves
         standing alone there without its friend its 
         lover near, for I knew I could not, 
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of 
         leaves upon it, and twined around it a little 
         moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in 
         my room, 
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear 
         friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of 
         them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me 
         think of manly love; 
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there 
         in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a 
         lover near,
I know very well I could not.

Weekend Beats: Kool Keith on “Drugs”

I wish I had a cooler origin story for my appreciation of Kool Keith, but to be honest I discovered him on the Office Space soundtrack. Don’t judge—it was 1999 and I was 17. Because I couldn’t find a free Web clip of wherever in the film “Get Off My Elevator,” with its mangy, peristaltic beat and pop-culture garbageman-poet lyrics, gets played, here is another scene from Mike Judge’s Clinton-era masterwork:

Later, when I got to college and, still a corny young white man (just like Michael Bolton above), began working at the school’s radio station (WCWM represent), people who actually knew about hip hop introduced me to gold like the Ultramagnetic MCs, the group Keith rapped with from the late 1980s till the mid 1990s, and Spankmaster, an album he dropped in 2001. That the latter cracked the Billboard Top 50 for rap albums (#48) in the early 2000s, or any era in which human beings have had the ability to record music, is shocking. You may remember Ja Rule and Crazy Town from the early aughts.

My favorite track on Spankmaster is “Drugs,” a profane, batshit tall tale of Keith’s supposed assignations with various narc-addled celebrities. In an odd way, though, the text controls itself. Sort of. Its ragout of cultural allusions and strange hypothetical scenarios is held within demanding rhyme and accent schemes. The beat is an eerie, growling, fenced-in space for the lyrics to roughhouse. It is pricked with empty-theater piano taps. It’s like a scene from Under the Volcano—simultaneously goofy and horrible. A sample:

Packed up my bag and met Darryl Strawberry in the mall
I told James Brown, “Stop smoking angel-dust in the piss stall”
He wanted to go up to the Olive Garden and start a restaurant brawl
Mary J. Blige, my son don’t accept them type of phone calls!

If you want to do a Harold Bloom-style tree of influence, then Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Tyler, the Creator (all very different MCs) aren’t possible without Kool Keith.

You could also have some dark fun imagining an updated roll call of celebrity drug disasters: Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Pimp C, Heath Ledger, Mitch Hedberg, Whitney Houston (still living when KK recorded this track, which mentions her and Bobby Brown). All men must die and all that.

Oh, also: the cover. Aesthetically, Spankmaster‘s packaging alludes to Eighties porno and Seventies blaxsploitation films (but mainly porno), and its ideological, uh, thrust amounts to a reeling parody of rap’s, uh, problematic sexual politics. That said, Keith does fervently endorse female backsides, which some people find quite fetching but which might not be universally palatable as presented here, KK’s prophylactic, partial irony notwithstanding. You can’t spell “Trigger Warning” without a T, a G, and an R.

To put it another way, there is a lady’s covered (but only just!) butt on the YouTube link, and no, there aren’t other freely accessible links without that tailfeather. But it is a remarkably un-erotic image anyway.

Good luck not cracking up six or seven times while you bump this. There’s a new kind of hero in the streets. Have a safe and fulfilling weekend, y’all.

The One Where I Disagree (Slightly) with Rebecca Schuman

It’s a well-known true fact (see, students, see how bad that sounds?) that we here at TGR are fans of Rebecca Schuman. She’s a big reason why people are talking more about the labor problem in higher education, which for too long was a kind of open secret kept from graduate students until they felt like it was too late to bail out. For her advocacy on this front, we cannot thank her enough.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we never disagree with Dr. Schuman. I understand her arguments in favor of grade inflation, but I’m not persuaded by them. Inflating grades just contributes to our culture of credentialism where merely starting something is seen as practically finishing it. I may be fighting a futile battle, but I think being totally honest with students matters. Grades are one way of doing that. But again, I take Schuman’s point and understand why someone in a more contingent position than me (I exist in a middle space between adjuncts and tenure-track folks) might inflate grades “Because Screw It.”

Earlier this week Schuman wrote another piece that I think is a little wrong-headed. If you read this blog, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of the White House’s new plan to rate colleges like we rate blenders. Schuman does a great job of describing and pointing out some flaws in the plan, but her general defense of it boils down to this: “Colleges are run by corrupt administrators. These corrupt administrators are mad about what President Obama and HIS team of corrupt administrators are doing. The plan is therefore worth supporting in spite of its flaws because it pisses off the people I dislike more.” It’s “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, which again, I get. But in the case of the specific metrics the White House is pushing, this new rating system has the chance to make an already twisted system even worse.

As Schuman rightly notes:

Another important concern I share with the critics of the system is tying aid to attrition rates, which are often higher in schools that serve more first-generation and minority college students—the very students deserving of more aid. The White House should recognize that without some serious caveats, tying aid to retention would not encourage better student support, so much as coerce faculty to pass all students, no matter what. I should know—my first teaching job ever was for a for-profit school in New Jersey. On my first day of work, the dean told me, point blank: “Everybody has to pass. Otherwise we don’t get their government money.”

This is frankly my biggest fear with this rating system, but the problem goes beyond simply fetishizing graduation rates. The front end of this problem is privileging “accessibility.” People define this term differently, but the bottom line is that we do not have a college accessibility problem in this country. We have debt problems, funding problems, labor problems, administrative problems, and many other problems, but what we don’t have is too few colleges (as of 2011, there were over 4,500 colleges in the United States) or, thanks to the predatory loan system run by the federal government, a lack of funds to pay for tuition up front. If we continue to focus on expanding access and credentialing people, it will allow the federal and state governments to avoid doing what actually needs to be done: radically reform K-12 education so that most people don’t need to go to college.

President Obama’s plan makes sense in light of his “winning the future” rhetoric that equates college education for all with a booming American marketplace. But the strength or weakness of the American economy has very little to do with how many people have college degrees. We can give everyone a STEM degree today (which we might as well if we basically destroy college standards) and nothing will change. What would fundamentally change our economy is making a high school degree matter again by implementing the kinds of traditional educational methods (small classes, engaged and autonomous teachers, difficult curricula) of posh private schools at public schools, particularly those in poor areas. This would mean concessions by state governments, federal officials, and teachers’ unions, but given how much we spend on education compared to a place like, I don’t know, Finland, it’s clear we can and must do a lot better for our money. More testing, technology, Common Core, and rejiggering college rankings aren’t the answers. We know what works, but unfortunately there isn’t a huge lobbying group for old-school humanism these days. If we want to actually fix education in this country though, making a college degree easier to get is precisely the wrong way to go about it.