OOPS, Sorry!

Having proselytized aggressively and lucratively for privatized online education (as it were), California supergenius and headset aficionado Sebastian Thrun is now engaged in a quietly massive rhetorical walking-back of those efforts. In one respect, good on him: It would be gratifying to see Wall Street execs do the same now that the Great Recession is limping off into the distance. On the other hand, the way bigger hand, Thrun’s maneuver is infuriatingly meek and selfish. As Rebecca Schuman, fan-object of this blog, points out on Slate, his position boils down to: My shitty product was shitty mainly because its potential consumers were shitty, not because it was a shambling, pointless, greedy waste of human capital. Seriously now, just look at the photo atop the Fast Company story. As many a person on many a bar stool would say, Fuckin’ guy . . . .

Still, if nothing else, the hyperlink wormhole which ensued after I read Schuman’s piece led me to Tech In Translation, which turns out to be the witty, sane work of Amanda Krauss, whom you might know from her former blog-incarnation as Worst Professor Ever, which she wrote after telling the Classics department at Vanderbilt, where she was on the tenure track, to go fuck itself.

Anyway, back to waiting to see how Dr. Thrun gets that horse back into the barn.

Saturday Links

Ayo, readers. Here are some weekend texts to keep you cozy during each November day’s 26 hours of darkness. (Or, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, to give you something to read on your phone so you don’t have to interact with other people.)

  • From The Economist, a brief piece on America’s repulsive penchant for mandatory minimums and life-without-parole for nonviolent offenders. Being TE, the bosom publication of neoliberal trans-Atlantic “moderates,” they have to screw it up by pasting “none too bright” onto “typically poor” when describing inmate demographics, and by pivoting (in fewer than ten words) from acknowledging that the best available estimates indicate that two-thirds of nonviolent lifers are black (ninety-one percent in Louisiana!) to assuring readers that “the problem with the system is not racial bias; applying such draconian, hope-crushing sentences to non-violent offenders of any race is cruel and pointless.” This is like saying that the problem with Stalin wasn’t so much that he butchered and enslaved millions of Soviet subjects, but that killing/enslaving anyone is evil. The fact that the second part is true doesn’t somehow invalidate the first, dear editors of major publication.
  • The branch of the UAW that represents UC graduate students recently released a report titled “Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education.” Read ‘er here. It points out plenty of things this blog has underscored in its own little way: that holding impersonal classes in decaying buildings is bad for the UC; that not investing in teachers and researchers (especially younger ones) is bad for the UC; that going whole-hog for privatized online classes which are demonstrably expensive and shitty is bad for the UC; that reducing the amount of intellectual and material support for low-income students is bad for the UC (and the US); that well-compensated administrators, like UC Irvine’s chief medical officer, do not need quiet little (massive) bonuses, like said CMO’s $73,000 moving-expenses stipend. (Was dude moving to Argentina?) No doubt this report will do nothing to change the situation that inspired it. But hey, the President gave a speech.
  • Labor conditions got you down? Lucky for us, many episodes of The Muppet Show (1976-1981) are on YouTube. Here is the episode where Johnny Cash was the guest. Fair warning, though, if you don’t have a sense of humor or grasp of irony: At one point JC performs with a Confederate flag in the background while Gonzo rides a bronco in the fore.
  • This early half-gem of David Foster Wallace’s is being sold at Urban Outfitters now. Seems like an odd marketing move, considering that among the 200 or so undergraduates whom I have forced to read essays of his, precisely threeas a DFW fanboy I remember the numberhad even heard of the man, let alone read anything he wrote. I am actually hoping that UO knows their target demo and is onto something wonderful. Like, maybe copies of Infinite Jest will be piled next to deep-Vs and cheap boat shoes. Could happen.
  • Now in the Grantland stable, Wesley Morris is my favorite film critic. Like DFW, Morris wields a sophisticated, erudite critical vocabulary when talking about American culture, including some of its trashier prongs, without being self-conscious about the performance. Read some stuff here (at his first home, the Boston Globe), here, or here. A sample sentence, from a review of Spring Breakers: “What [director Harmony] Korine does with the beer-soaked skin, face-devouring makeouts, and piles and piles of barely dressed people is intensify the college-party atmosphere in a way that feels simultaneously orgasmic and repulsive.” He hyphenated the phrasal adjectives! Even though I’m straight, I’m swooning.
  • I live in California, and these short days will only shorten for the next few months. Winter’s coming. So here is Karl Shapiro’s “California Winter,” a wonderful elongated lyric. Don’t worry if you don’t live in California, unless you believe that only English people should read Dickens.

I’m Not Dead Yet!

A few articles making the rounds this week capture the mixed-upness of our feelings about the “value” of writing in today’s society. According to some people, the novel has been dying for quite some, leading critic Sam Sacks to write that “[t]he vocabulary of literary ennui is now so familiar that it produces its own kind of boredom.” Most of the people poking the novel’s exquisite corpse well know that plenty of people still read on beaches, in planes, and sitting in armchairs. The novel, then, isn’t dead or even dying; it’s just not novel enough for some critics. It moved out to the suburbs and invested in some durable, comfy pants.

Now, I’m by no means saying that I think enough people are sitting around reading serious fiction. I find it particularly distressing how many young people I’ve come across in the past decade or so of teaching at highly selective colleges who not only haven’t read many seminal and age-appropriate classics (The Sun Also RisesThe Age of InnocenceBlack Boy, etc.), but can’t name a single novel of any kind that they’ve read within the past few years. It seems that many stopped reading for pleasure once they finished the Harry Potter series, and found ways around actually doing the work in their vaunted AP classes. Thanks, SparkNotes.

Obviously, this isn’t the case for all of my students, and I’ve had and continue to have some who read and write for pleasure. And many, when forced to write for or about themselves, produce thoughtful work. But landing a decent job teaching, writing, or writing about literature feels as realistic as becoming a professional athlete these days, so even kids who are passionate about literature end up majoring in something like Business (whatever that actually entails) or, if they’re smart, one of the science fields. Reading and writing are weekend pursuits, if that.

Regardless of their major, most of these young people spend a good chunk of their time on social media (increasingly Instagram and Tumblr over Facebook) and watching streaming videos via one of hundreds of services, most of which I’ve never heard of. This probably explains why when asked to write about about the status of the written word today, they often end up saying something remarkably similar to the point former USA Today reporter Chuck Raasch makes in a recent piece over at Real Clear Politics. His argument is a warmed-over mixture of Orwell, Carr, and Postman (who himself parroted a lot of McLuhan), but I liked the following passage, if only for its use of the word “devaluing”:

In the century and a half since [the Civil War], we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.

Still (and later moving) images have been a fundamental tool of personal and group expression dating back to cave paintings. Writing itself is a stylized form of the still image, so the sharp distinction Raasch draws between the two is debatable on first terms. But I get what he means, and I think students sense this too, especially when they tell me that they don’t like writing. Full stop. What they mean is that it’s hard to write well, and given the seeming dominance of visual culture, they aren’t sure if all the work it takes to write good prose is actually worth it. In other words, they aren’t sure how valuable writing actually is and will be going forward.

If you read this this blog, you like reading and writing, and are probably old enough to know that being able to write well actually has tangible benefits in the “real” (“business”) world. It may not make you a millionaire, but it’s a skill that you can pair with other skills (and gobs of charm) to support a decent middle-class life. But it’s hard to see this sometimes, particularly when one is young, and I don’t think that a piece like Raasch’s actually helps make the case for the importance of writing, especially because the idea of writing losing its “value” seems silly when you read about the $2 million advance Knopf recently gave Garth Risk Hallberg for the right publish his first novel, City on Fire. You read that correctly. A guy who hasn’t published a novel yet is getting a solid middle-infielder’s payday. Sure, this sum could be based on future film royalties Knopf hopes to get from an adaptation, but that’s still a hell of a lot of money for 900 pages of words our culture supposedly doesn’t value.

Writing isn’t dying any more than the novel itself is dying. False declarations to this effect do more harm to the written word than Instagram or Netflix ever will. Where and how we read are changing, and the relationship between image and text is more important than ever. It is up to people who appreciate good writing of all kinds to make it clear to young people that writing matters because writing is everywhere and bound up with everything they will do if they want a stimulating career and life.

The $10K Race to the Bottom

In a recent article, adjunct activist Rebecca Schuman wrote about the sham $10,000 BAs and “competency models” that Republican governors are trying to push as solutions to the outrageous cost of going to college. As usual, Schuman provides the kinds of insights that only those of us whose primary job is actually teaching undergrads can. She writes:

[T]he $10,000 B.A.—which, again, does not include room, board, books, transportation, or child care for the many college students who are single parents—is largely a chimera. But even if it did exist, what kind of message does it send students, or potential employers, that there is now another stratification of college degree: elite private, public flagship, public regional, and now public regional cut-rate? And besides, if a college education can be given for $10,000, why isn’t it available to everyone?

…A semester-long course is not just the (temporary) accumulation of (dubious) knowledge or skills—it’s a journey in which, if it’s a good class, students come out different than they were when they started. They not only learn course material, but also develop as thinkers, readers, writers, mathematicians, experimenters, useful humans. I guess you have to hand it to the competency model for giving up entirely on the prospect of growing as a person and instead just offering diplomas you can buy.

The push to get people advanced degrees by any means necessary is, as Ryan and I have noted many times, bipartisan, and President Obama is as guilty as anyone of repeating the fallacy that getting any college degree means that money suddenly appears in your pockets. When I was driving home the other night, I heard a story on NPR about community colleges in Michigan that are scouring their records to find students who have qualified for but, for whatever reason, not yet received their Associates degree. Sounds like a great public service, right? Well, there’s this:

[A]ccording to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with an associate degree on average earn $132 more per week than someone with just a high school diploma. People with degrees are also less likely to be laid off.

Lots of community colleges are getting into the act now, trying to lure back students who’ve dropped out or moved on.

…And there’s another payoff: As colleges and universities face pressure to boost graduation rates, finding former students who are ready to graduate right now — but don’t know it — is an easy way to do that.

Hooray for easy! Actually preparing students to be able to graduate (or even keep track of their credits) is soooooo hard! And if people having AAs means that they will earn $132 more per week, why don’t we just give everyone AAs instead of high school diplomas? Problem solved! We look forward to the President awarding TGR the Medal of Freedom at his earliest convenience.

But I digress. Of all of the $10,000 BA programs, one that Schuman’s article doesn’t mention stands out to me as the most awful. Anya Kamenetz has made a name for herself as a mouthpiece for the creative destruction of traditional higher education. She’s trying to build better MOOCtraps and consorts with people dubbed “Edupunks” (how edgy!). She’s the kind of “education” expert folks in Silicon Valley and the editors at Reason Magazine love to quote, in spite of the fact that I can’t find evidence that indicates she’s ever been on the faculty at any college or university.

Kamanetz’s “$1 Trillion and Rising: A Plan for a $10K Degree” was published by the Third Way Foundation, a nominally center-left think tank that apparently turns full neoliberal when it comes to education policy. To be fair, a couple of Kamanetz’s proposals in this paper make sense, and they’re ones that TGR (and just about every other sane observer of higher ed, including Schuman) has advocated: ending administrative bloat and drastically reducing spending on college campus amenities. Both of these things need to happen, like yesterday. Just about everything else Kamanetz proposes though, is pure technocrat crap, and I will tackle each of her six proposals below.

Reduce and Restructure Personnel: Thomas Frank is right when he says that “the business side of the university has been captured by a class of professionals who have nothing to do with the pedagogical enterprise itself.” Kamanetz acknowledges as much, and proposes cutting the amount of money spent on administration. We agree! However, instead of explaining how universities will function with fewer deans, benefits officers, and staff members, she leaps into a plan to reduce and restructure the faculty at universities. I fail to see what this really has to do with cutting administrative bloat. Rather, even in this first step, Kamanetz’s inner utopian comes out.

At her $10K university, there will apparently be three kinds of employees: Advisors, Instructors/Instructional Technologists (such a creepy term), and Professors/Instructional Designers (again, creepy). “Professors” in this model basically exist to produce MOOCs that can be disseminated throughout the university system. “Instructors” are basically glorified TAs who spend 20 hours a week in the classroom helping kids figure out how to do stuff with said MOOCs. And “Advisors” email kids and keep track of their progress via “a computer system.” Are you noticing a trend here? Nowhere in her explanation does she mention who will be responsible for grading and commenting on essays and other assignments. I bet she has a computer in mind for that too.

End the Perk Wars: On this point, I mostly agree with Kamanetz’s suggestion that if it comes down to spending money on education or something else, then something else needs to go. However, her plan to do away with residential facilities entirely strikes me as unwise. Making spartan dorms for first-year students available at a reasonable cost seems like a solid compromise, as the residential experience is often an important way that students begin forming adult social networks that will help them “win the future” at least as much as their BAs will.

Focus on College Completion: Here’s where things start getting nasty. Kamanetz and Third Way are your standard credentialists, as they seem more concerned with people getting BAs as quickly as possible than with them actually learning anything in college. As such, Kamanetz wants to count EVERYTHING for college credit. And if your goal is to graduate people, not teach them, lower standards inevitably follow, and tests that measure competency seem like a great way to simply pass on ill-prepared students who might be able to regurgitate some content once, but without the formal knowledge of how to apply that content later. People graduating from college is a great thing, but only if they actually deserve to graduate.

Scale Up Blended Learning: It seems to genuinely pain Kamanetz that MOOCs have thus far been a total disaster. But rather than look at the data and think, “Hey, maybe it’s kind of a good idea for professors to write their own lectures and cater them to the students and conditions in their classrooms,” and, “Hey, maybe there’s value in students having to actually get themselves to a class and pay attention for an hour straight,” she’s continuing to push for MOOCs as a primary conveyor of content, with professors (or technologists, or whatever the hell weird thing she calls them) serving as a kind of support staff for students. She uses another (equally stupid) acronym for this model: SPOC (Small, Private Online Course).

Anyone who teaches college already “blends” by using course management software. I put all of my readings and handouts up on a school-run website, and my students print them out as needed. Other teachers I know use the site for message boards, chats, and peer review. It’s a wonderful supplemental tool, but not a substitute for what goes on in the classroom and office hours, where students get to know one another, say things they regret but then learn from, debate real breathing people (not avatars), and cultivate important non-cognitive skills, like being attentive to others and NOT multitasking (RIP, Clifford Nass).

Streamline Offerings: The fact that Kamenetz wants to reduce the number of majors isn’t very controversial. I tend to agree that there are a lot of departments on any college campus that could be eliminated by allowing students to specialize within the traditional fields of the liberal arts and sciences. But let’s look carefully at what Kamenetz actually proposes:

[T]he $10K BA should offer challenging interdisciplinary majors in economics (including the practice of entrepreneurship), accounting, and rhetoric (English Language Arts and communication).

The remaining “long tail” of undergraduate majors, and the full universe of learning beyond that, should be covered at the flagships and available for independent study throughout the system. In choosing what degree paths to offer and support from year to year, the system should follow a “vote with your feet” or “student election” model where a critical mass of signups directs resources toward a particular path or paths. The university community will continue to be responsible for developing and updating the full MOOC course catalogue to serve these needs.

More MOOCs, of course, but the bolded line is the real humdinger. Theoretically, funding for one’s major could be cut by a popular vote, leaving students at the mercy of their peers. This would also mean zero job security for any faculty members, as they might get voted off the island if their department is deemed unnecessary (or if they don’t inflate their grades). They’d effectively be adjuncts, which Kamenetz claims her Instructional Technologists wouldn’t be. Any college with no institutional memory or intellectual ethos doesn’t deserve to be called one.

Rethink College Architecture: No, Kamenetz is not talking about knocking down Brutalist buildings. It’s so much worse than that. Kamenetz’s public university system is a four-tiered model of “Cohort Colleges” (basically community colleges), “Adult Online Universities” (basically University of Phoenix), “Flagship Institutions” (more on these in a second) and “”Micro/Pop-Up Schools” (basically Apple Stores of “knowledge”). The Silicon Valley Speak is laid on thickest in this section of the paper. Check out this passage describing the role of “Flagships”:

In a $10K BA plan, the flagship universities most resemble their previous historical role. Each consists of a physical teaching and learning campus maintaining a large professional payroll of faculty engaged in both research and teaching. Prominent among the interdisciplinary departments will be a robust research faculty, combining the latest in cognitive science, artificial intelligence, data analysis, human-computer interaction, psychology of motivation, user interface design, and other components of technology-enabled teaching and learning.

This is Google’s dream university, where teaching people to read, think, and write is less important than doing cool things with analytics. But the worst is yet to come:

Flagship institutions in the $10K BA plan will have different entrance requirements than the old top-tiers. In recent years, flagships like UC Berkeley have had low acceptance rates, around 20%. In a few short years, however, the MOOC model has allowed millions of students from hundreds of nations and all backgrounds to experience classes as taught by professors at Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. A few of these students have proven themselves as able as any one of the undergraduates at these ultraselective campuses. Accordingly, $10K flagships will focus on openness, not exclusion.

While there is certainly a place for excellent students at the flagships, there needs to be significant cognitive, social, and economic diversity, because the flagships will be serving as testbeds for the learning technology that is disseminated far and wide. The freshmen admissions process will take into consideration not only the typical transcripts and test scores, but students’ demonstrated ability to create and participate in engaging learning experiences. In addition, the students who excel in the other learning models will be offered the opportunity to rotate through the flagship campus to complete their degrees.

This is, to my mind, absolutely unconscionable. What she’s basically doing here is making the gap between public universities and elite private schools wider. Anyone who knows even a little bit about higher ed can tell you that the professors at Harvard aren’t what make it an elite school. They have the same degrees (PhDs from great universities) that professors at San Jose State have. The difference is that Harvard’s selectivity creates a hothouse environment of motivated, competitive students who challenge one another to do better work. By saying that “Flagship” universities must let in just about anyone who applies, Kamenetz is ensuring that the excellent students in a public system aren’t getting an excellent education. They’re getting a mixture of MOOCs (some of which are just recycled from elite private schools with their AMAZING professors), huge courses filled with wildly unevenly talented and motivated peers, and some facetime with an Instructional Technologist (maybe even an Instructional Designer!). Excellent students who graduate from $10K UCLA will no longer be thought of as on par with Ivy League students, because they won’t be. And while I don’t want to imply that Kamenetz has anything other than pure motives in trying to dismantle traditional modes of public education, it must be noted that she graduated from Yale. She should know that high admissions standards lead to better educational environments, and she should want that for public school students.

But as I said earlier, better educational environments aren’t what Kamenetz and Third Way really care about. They care about credentialing people, and if that’s your ambition, letting everyone in and focusing on getting people through as quickly as possible is the best way to do it. Standards are so pre-internet. Now, I will concede that there may be some crazy logic to all of this. Perhaps by degrading higher education so much the $10K University will help force the necessary changes at the K-12 level that will make it so people don’t need fake credentials to get jobs that don’t require a college education. But seeing as Kamenetz never mentions any K-12 reforms, I don’t get the impression that she really understands what our most pressing educational problems actually are. Maybe she should listen to some of her own parting words:

Acting to create a radically low-cost version of public university education is risky. The primary unintended consequence would be the use of the model as a pretext to continue to defund public education and to exacerbate and reproduce existing social inequalities. The focus of the redesign is to bring the highest quality education possible to as many people as possible, which the current system does not do.

What’s that saying about the road to hell?

Cultural Literacy Redux

I know I bash on the late-1960s morality play that is the “XX” blog over at Slate a lot, but outside of this little pocket of cliched topic sentences in search of evidence, Slate really is a great site. Troy Patterson is a big reason why this is so. Aside from being Slate‘s resident man of taste and class, he also has real chops. He’s the only person at that site (maybe save David Weigel) who I trust to use a term like “Tory” in an intellectually honest way. So I can’t say I was surprised to see that Patterson’s a man who takes E.D. Hirsch’s work seriously.

For those unfamiliar with Hirsch, he’s the kind of academic who would never get a tenure-track job today, even though, as Patterson points out (with an assist from one of this blog’s patron saints, Christopher Hitchens), many states are coming around to the idea that kids actually need to learn content in order to acquire skills. The fact that Hirsch’s concept of “cultural literacy” was ever controversial is evidence of the sad decadence and arrogance of some influential English and “Education” departments since the 1970s, when “theory” came into fashion and substituted Orwellian jargon for intelligence. Now, let me be clear (thanks for that phrase, Obama), most English departments are filled with people who really don’t care about what Derrida wrote (or said, or uttered, or whatever stupid word he mandated that we use). But even many of these people have to pretend like Derrida (or Foucault, or Butler, and…) is responsible for more than like 3 useful pages of ideas. One day this will change, but by then English departments may have specialized and de-literatured themselves out of existence.

In any case, Hirsch was and is a real weirdo: a tenured English professor who cares about teaching more than anything else. And not only teaching, as most profs will defend to the death their right to teach graduate seminars, but teaching K-12. What kind of suicidal English professor cares about kids he’s not actually teaching at the moment? One who understands that he will have to teach them at some point. More importantly, Hirsch is the kind of guy who actually thinks about the world beyond the classroom. While his love of testing and data makes me uncomfortable, if I had to pick a side in the education debate, it wouldn’t take me long to choose his over Dewey’s disciples preaching confidence over competence. Competence breeds confidence in the long run, and Hirsch understood that the best way to help the poor is to give them an education that will allow them to converse with and challenge those in positions of power. This is something David Foster Wallace also understood, and if you haven’t read “Tense Present” recently, go do that right now.

Back to Patterson though. I would have loved to see him extend his discussion of how the internet has changed what should be on Hirsch’s famous list of 10,000 terms/ideas/people/events that all Americans should know to consider how it has changed attitudes toward the value of knowing anything at all. Patterson writes:

Is it too bold to suppose that one must now know 10,000 basic things? Obviously, a lot has happened to general knowledge since the book’s publication, not a little of it connected to what now appears to be a lacuna on Hirsch’s list—a gap that developed between International Monetary Fund and interrogative sentence. The Internet is a force of information inflation, and much of the stuff on the list remains relevant, give or take a few relics and some slang terms (pop the questionbite the dust) now fully embedded in mainstream vocabulary.

He’s gazing down on what’s important here, but perhaps it’s too mixed up and awful for him to really get into. I know that feeling. For the last few years I’ve had students sincerely question why they should have to remember (let alone memorize) anything, as the internet will always be there for them as a handy outboard brain. Thankfully, some of my students look horrified when they hear a classmate say this, but the fact that this scene keeps playing itself out is worrisome. I tell them that the internet is not going to be there for them when they’re having a conversation with some smart guy/gal who might be able to give them a job. If they don’t know (or have to look up cultural references on their iPhones) mid-conversation, s/he ain’t going to be impressed. This obviously isn’t the only reason why remembering stuff is important, but if the fact that a job in an increasingly awful and bifurcated economy might hinge on it won’t sway people, I don’t know what will.

And people accuse us humanists of being romantics…

Stir It Up: Rebecca Schuman Lands Some Punches

Back in April, Rebecca Schuman published a piece on Slate titled “Thesis Hatement.” (Come on, lulz: low-hanging puns can be great.) Dan actually mentioned it as part of a “Saturday Links” blast. Despite the fact that it is sane, reality-based, and urgent without being shrill, “Thesis Hatement” caused a lot of Slate commenters (including a fair number of academics), to go batshit. She addresses the haters in a delightfully acidic response on her blog, Pan Kisses Kafka, which is part of the rapidly emerging “postacademic” community. (Post-acad stuff from other writers here and here and here and here, for starters. And also a recent piece RS wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education).

Given the seething response the essay got from some quarters, it bears repeating that Schuman’s piece is a humane, valuable polemic. I re-read it today as I sat in my studio apartment, just after I paid this month’s student-loan bill, in fact. (Back when I started graduate school I actually believed insane bullshit like “Student-loan is good debt.”). Her work is based on personal experience but is not narcissistic or even all that autobiographical. It is precise and witty. And it underscores some dreadful things that any reasonable person (even many tenured Boomers!) with a functional knowledge of US academic culture would have a difficult time refuting: that the present labor environment at too many American colleges and universities puts terrible psychological and social demands upon too many faculty, especially younger PhDs and graduate students; that it offers little material incentive for facing these challenges; and that it trains the tormented not only to accept their torment as a professional duty, but to view any escape from that torment as a personal and professional failure.

A bummer, I know. So here is a picture of Iggy Pop vacuuming his living room. Cheer up, y’all: it’s the weekend.

Nodding Along

If you are having a great weekend and would rather not think about something completely depressing, something like, say, America’s fundamentally broken K-12 education system, then please do not click on this. If your weekend’s already all shot to hell though (hungover; alone again, naturally; hunting for a job; etc.), I’d like to encourage you to read Jerald Isseks’ honest and disturbing essay about the lies most of us tell and are told about public education. He makes a point that others have made before but can’t be made often enough:

Americans want to talk about how much our kids are failing these days. Those outside the educational system all have their fierce, personal criticisms. And on the front lines, in those faculty meetings, data sessions, and behind the closed doors of ruinous classrooms, teachers and administrators are telling the same stories. There’s the one about the unfocused kids who need to be taught discipline and compliance so they can get a job; the one about the parents who are setting a bad example and creating a negative home environment; the one about the teachers who aren’t a good fit because they aren’t holding their students accountable for doing work that renders them comatose. We tell these stories as we busy ourselves, trying to reassemble the parts of a machine we refuse to admit is fundamentally, and fatally, flawed. Just like we are. Meanwhile, our students are losing interest, losing hope, and vanishing from our records altogether, and for all the productive work we do, we aren’t doing much to bring them back.

Just like Bush before him, Obama has been a complete disaster on education. But Ryan and I have both said this before, and there’s honestly only so much a president can do about a byzantine system of interlocking federal and state policies designed to line the pockets of textbook publishers, tech companies, test companies, test prep companies, union bosses, accrediting agencies, and [insert just about anyone other than students and teachers here]. So yeah, I don’t expect the president (or a senator, or a governor) to come up with some plan to fix K-12 all at once. But I do expect them to be as honest about the state of things as Isseks is. Instead, we get conservatives bleating that collective bargaining is the source of all of our problems, liberals screaming that dumping more money into horribly managed schools is the only obvious solution, technocrats acting like giving every kid an iPad is something other than a giveaway to Silicon Valley, and parents, teachers, and students absolving themselves of any responsibility.

The truth is that we’re all to blame for what’s happening. I teach college in part because the idea of teaching high school kids how to write is terrifying and depressing for all of the reasons Isseks outlines in his article. That’s lame on my part, and I should own that. Still, if Isseks and I are willing to admit our own complicity, shouldn’t everyone else? Shouldn’t our elected officials and technocrat class admit that they totally didn’t see how their fulsome embrace of neoliberal globalization would lead to the hollowing out of the middle class, effectively making a high school diploma worthless to anyone trying to earn anything other than minimum wage? Shouldn’t teachers unions acknowledge that granting K-12 teachers tenure so quickly and placing so much emphasis on seniority at the expense of quality can lead to some pretty perverse consequences? And shouldn’t the president take a step back and think about how his “college for everyone” rhetoric might be hurting more than it’s helping?

Obviously, none of this will happen. We live in a country where a not insignificant portion of the population would rather see us go back into an economic depression than live under the other party’s health care system (which was originally their party’s health care plan, but whatever, nothing to see here). People seem to care more about being right even if that means being completely wrong. Liberals can be just as bad. And so we’ll keep doing the same things we’ve always done, just worse and with apps that make us think we are smarter and more advanced than we are. Happy f’ing Sunday, folks.

We Should be Concerned

Peyton Manning’s 7 TD, 450-yard passing performance the other night leads me to believe that this NFL season will be one of the best yet, as the league’s talent level among both players and coaches has never been higher. That’s a statement that could get me hissed at by some old people who think the game peaked with Johnny Unitas or Dan Marino, but I stand by it. But the recent massive settlement the NFL reached with former players about the still-not-totally understood ramifications of football-related concussions reveals that all’s not well in the NFL, and watching the first game the other night was enough to make me queasy: heads snapping back and forth after guys took massive hits; knees bending the wrong way as three-hundred-pound men undercut other three-hundred-pound men; and subtler blows on every play that could be stripping these men of the ability to function later in life. Football is a nasty, awful sport that no kid of mine will play. And, of course, I’ll watch every game I can this year. Call me a hypocrite. It fits.

I have no time for people who hate on sports or act like they aren’t a significant part of what constitutes a culture. You’re allowed to be uninterested, but not dismissive. In general, Americans love sports, and in this way we’re not unlike people in other countries. However, our relationship with sports is uniquely screwed up. In a short and smart “Daily Comment” over at The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert thinks about the ramifications of the fact that sports play such a central role at many American high schools. She writes:

…I was watching my fourteen-year-old twins play soccer. It was the day before school began, but they had already been going to J.V. soccer practice two hours a day for nearly two weeks. I wondered what would have happened if their math teacher had tried to call them in two weeks before school started to hold two-hour drill sessions. My sons would have been livid, as would every other kid in their class. Perhaps even more significant, I suspect that parents would have complained. What was the math teacher doing, trying to ruin the kids’ summer? And why should they have to make a special trip to the high school so their kids could study trig identities?

As she makes clear, we miss the point when we worry about or praise the effect of playing sports on a kid’s academic performance. What we should be concerned about is the messages we send when we make sports seem like a stitch that holds the fabric of education together. It isn’t true. In other countries, people who are excellent at sports are paid from young ages to train and entertain. And other kids either throw pickup games together. In the U.S., kids are taught to do it for their schools. For free. Who cares if the schools they’re doing it for aren’t giving them rigorous educations? FOOTBALL!

Obviously, this problem continues on past high school into higher education, where it gets even smarmier. Major college football and basketball programs serve as de facto minor leagues for the NFL and NBA, and small college programs exist to entice alums to donate money. There’s nothing essential to the educational mission of a university about a football program sending hundreds of people on chartered flights to go give concussions to kids at another school. And yet today I’m sure I will find myself watching several college football games . Again, hypocrite. Meanwhile:

Poland is a surprising educational success story: in the course of less than a decade, the country raised students’ test scores from significantly below average for the developed world to significantly above it; Polish kids now outscore American kids in math and science, even though Poland spends, on average, less than half as much per student as the United States does. One of the most striking differences between the high school Tom attended in Gettysburg and the one he ends up at in Wroclaw is that the latter has no football team, or, for that matter, teams of any kind.

Nothing to see here, folks. Enjoy the games.