We’re All Neoliberals Now

Yesterday, I came across a tweet proclaiming that this year’s freshman admits to UCSB have an average high school GPA of 4.15. Think about that for a second. On a 4.0-scale, the kids who have been let in to the fourth or fifth-best public university in the state of California don’t just have above-average grades, but above-perfect grades. Imagine the grades of the students admitted to Cal or UCLA!

“But, Dan,” you say, “how is it possible for students to be more than perfect?”

Well, it’s not. That gaudy GPA is just another example of why the current trends in higher education make a lot of sense given what has been going on for years at the K-12 level. The College Board is a nominally-not-for-profit organization that, among other things, administers “Advanced Placement” high school classes culminating in high-stakes standardized tests. Some high schools and many college admissions boards give students a GPA-bump for taking an AP course, thus making a 3.0 (B) student look like a 4.0 (A) student, or a 3.33 (B+) student look like a 4.33 (A++++++++++++++++++++++++) student. And did I mention that students pay $89 per AP exam? No? Well, they do.

In theory, AP classes are supposed to be college-level courses, but as most of my students have told me, very little of the writing that goes on in any of the humanities AP courses (English literature, US History, English Language, etc.) prepares them for the writing they do in college. Most of the essays assigned in these courses are timed, short, in-class affairs designed to help them beat the test at the end of the term. Individual teachers can assign other kinds of essays, but given that students are paying to take the AP exams, it makes sense that these courses often become semester-long test prep. Call it the Kaplanification of high school.

Now, I love UCSB students. I taught hundreds of them in my time there. But touting this inflated GPA does nothing but make the difference between what the College Board claims as college-level work and and actual college courses more difficult for students to accept. Many, and this is true of students at all schools where I’ve taught, feel lied to. They wonder why they paid for these classes that stressed them out but didn’t really prepare them for college. I can see the value in some of the higher AP math courses offered, but many AP classes are just content-dumps that can’t teach critical thinking and clear writing, two skills a student needs to be successful in and after college. And please understand: none of this is the fault of the teachers leading these classes. They’re doing the best they can to give kids a decent education in a system that is constantly being tweaked by administrators and private interests.

Meanwhile, as LAUSD continues on with its disastrous (and possibly illegal) “iPads for Everyone!” plan, Finland quietly builds a functional public education system by de-emphasizing drill and kill testing which, as this intrepid young American reminds us around the 2:40 mark, doesn’t actually lead to knowledge retention. Please note that nowhere in this Atlantic interview does Krista Kiuru,  the Finnish minister of education and science, mention classroom technology, partnering with private corporations, or using analytics to assess teacher and student performance. No, she uses crazy words like “equality,” “trust,” and “support.”

So, our educational system is creating people who have extremely good skills and strong know-how—a know-how which is created by investing into education. We have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others, because those individuals need more help. This helps us to be able to make sure we can use/develop everyone’s skills and potential.

This shouldn’t feel so revolutionary, but we’re trending in the exact opposite direction in the US at both the K-12 and college levels. A few weeks back, I criticized Duke’s Cathy Davidson’s “Remake Higher Education from the Ground Up” MOOC, as well as The Chronicle for giving one of her students a platform to rag on Stanley Fish. Well, the MOOC is done, and Davidson has now written her own piece about the experience. She says that going into the class, she had “so many reservations about MOOCs as pedagogy and as business model that [she] wanted to learn more about how they worked and didn’t work for [her], away from the obsessive MOOC hype and hysteria.” Fair enough. It continues in a good direction when she says that “as presently conceived, MOOCs are not a ‘solution’ to the problem of rising costs at American universities today.” Well, thank you, Dr. Davidson, for acknowledging what many of us “hysterics” have been saying for some time. Might we be on the same page? I doubt it.

The following paragraph is the most important in the piece:

Nor are MOOCs the cause of all problems facing American universities today. MOOCs did not create our adjunct crisis, our overstuffed lecture halls, or our crushing faculty workloads. The distress in higher education is a product of 50 years of neoliberalism, both the actual defunding of public higher education by state legislatures and the magical thinking that corporate administrators can run universities more cost-effectively than faculty members. They don’t. The major push to “corporatize” higher education has coincided with a rise, not a decrease, in costs. The greedy, corporate brutality of far too many contemporary universities is reminiscent of medieval monasteries of old. Let’s call it “turf and serf”: real-estate land grabs, exploitation of faculty labor, and burdening of students with crushing debt. MOOCs may be a manifestation of the problem, but they are hardly its cause. We addressed those harsh, overarching economic realities directly in “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.”

As far as I know, no one has argued that MOOCs caused our crisis in higher ed. That would be silly. However, this distinction between MOOCs as a manifestation of the problems of neoliberalism and the cause allows Davidson to gush for several paragraphs about how her MOOC could be the start of a “movement.” And she may be right, if by “movement” she means a movement toward more MOOCs and less funding for public education. By working within the logic of neoliberalism, Davidson’s MOOC does neoliberalism’s bidding. Her project isn’t radical, like the simultaneously conservative and socialist Finnish education system. It’s using the master’s tools to build up his house while telling yourself you’re tearing it down. Anya Kamenetz makes the same mistake when she assumes that the ideas in her “$10K BA” won’t be used as an excuse to kill public education once and for all by cutting funding to the bone. While I have to assume good will on the parts of both Davidson and Kamenetz, the fact that they seem more interested in exploring “stirring, rich” MOOC environments than fighting for smaller class sizes, increased teacher autonomy and compensation, fewer standardized tests, and student and parent accountability is disheartening. Neoliberalism is winning, folks. Most Americans are losing.

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One thought on “We’re All Neoliberals Now

  1. Pingback: The Commencement Speech Obama Should Give, But Probably Won’t | The General Reader

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