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?

Monday Links

  • Your humble editors were lucky to have some good teachers in graduate school. One of them, Stephanie LeMenager, is about to publish her second book, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. If you’d like to see an example of weight and erudition merged with readability, consider it. I am looking your way, university libraries.
  • Britain’s perfectly OK version (I kid, I kid) of the New York Times, the Guardian, recently posted a good 15-minute interview with David Simon, who created The Wire. It complements his role in a 2012 documentary on the drug war, The House I Live In.
  • Thomas Frank has a poignant, righteous essay in The Baffler. It is about US higher education. It is reality-centric. It anticipates what will become a significant literary posture over the next decade: melancholy shame at how we all, but especially the Baby Boomers, constitute one big benumbed “generation that stood by gawking while a handful of parasites and billionaires smashed it for their own benefit,” “it” being the incredible public-university system America put together in the mid-twentieth century with the goal of sustaining a vibrant middle class. Which the system did. For a while. A vibrant middle class being the basis of political and cultural modernity. Then billionaires.
  • Big Ghost is one of the web’s best music critics. I hope his gritty urban slang and frequent aversion to commas don’t upset my progressive white friends. (Hi, almost every reader!) Here is BG’s viciously profane, incisive reading of a Drake album.
  • Finally there is this, a thing existing on the Internet, a movie poster for something called The English Teacher, which apparently earned Julianne Moore a paycheck to spend on a new villa in Monaco. The movie looks lame and forgettable. Further, it is childish to get riled up over a movie. Nonetheless, for some reason the expression on Greg Kinnear’s face makes me want to throw a TV through a wall. He looks like he’s doing a George-Bush-during-press-conferences face. I am going to venture out onto a metaphorical limb here and guess that this film is a nominally literate cornball dipshit’s idea (to use the proper academic terminology) of what teaching consists in. The English Teacher (TET) loves leatherbound books so much that she sits on them. No time for chairs! She’s got students to inspire. And you know she’s smart, because she’s wearing glasses.

Old Ghosts in the Grand (cough) Old Party

As an aesthetic object, the Confederate battle flag is kind of cool, what with that vivid blue field and the concise yet assertive “X” of stars. Its worth to civilization ends there, however, because it was flown by traitors and villains who sought to destroy the American republic so that some rich people could keep making money from an abomination. Even as a Southern boy, raised along the Virginia-West Virginia border, I have to say, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and their men betrayed the country. Yet you still get dongs like this guy, people who don’t seem to grasp that flying that flag means you don’t like America.

But as a Southern boy raised inside that ridge-and-valley moonshine truckstop range of the east Appalachians, dongs like that guy don’t surprise me. At least twenty cars in my high school’s parking lot (school pop. 950) had the Stars and Bars somewhere: on a bumper sticker or a rear window, tied around an antenna, on a trucker hat jammed on the dash, or translated via a custom horn blast. One could arrange for “Dixie” to sound whenever you leaned on your used F-150’s wheel: DOH I WISH I was in the land of DERP DERP.

Yeah, I know. Real catchy. I’m sure the ninety or so black students at my school liked it even more than I did, given that the near-universal understanding of Confederate paraphernalia is something along the lines of “I’m a country person who doesn’t much like nonwhites who aren’t from the country.”

While most Tea Party . . . uh, people . . . won’t do anything so crass, the Republican Party’s reactionary mood that they’ve stoked and embodied has roots in some gross racialized politics, as Jelani Cobb points out over at the New Yorker: “The Tea Party–inspired eruptions that have recurred throughout Obama’s Presidency represent something more complicated than a reactionary backlash to the sight of a black President; they are a product of the way he so tidily represents the disparate strands of social history that brought us to this impasse. The problem isn’t that there’s a black President; it’s that the country has changed in ways that made Obama’s election possible.” She’s one of their best new writers. Go read now, you.

Nativist racial angles aside, the Tea Party–deeply white, very rural–is appalling in another way, one that is ultimately more dangerous than simple wailing about the Kenyan guy and his coastal pals. Radicals like Ted Cruz and the Bachmann ghoul might call themselves conservatives, but traditionally, conservatives don’t try to tear down constitutionally functional governments in order to destroy the world’s economy. Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at this:

But the Confederate flag does not merely carry the stain of slavery, of “useful killing,” but the stain of attempting to end the Union itself. You cannot possibly wave that flag and honestly claim any sincere understanding of your country. It is not possible.

If politics comes up in whatever situation, I tell most people that I’m a conservative just like Barack Obama. If I need to bob and weave with a subsequent justification, it goes like so: “[Person], the Conservative/conservative party in every other industrialized democracy on the planet is OK with socialized health care, gay humans, solid public education, and organized, rational approaches to climate change.” I tell them that I fear any faction whose spinal impulse is to malign modern science, disdain art and literature and other pillars of civilization, and sabotage the global economy.  Then I start talking about Andrew Sullivan and try to explain that Burkean conservatism as a philosophical orientation toward historical change is compatible with beliefs that are typed as progressive in the contemporary USA. Then I try to chill out and talk about sports, like, for example, the wonderful 2013 Boston Red Sox.

Go See Cal

Before he died, quite suddenly, a few years back, my uncle and I had a Cal Worthington moment. If you were lucky enough to see one of Cal’s commercials, you know what I’m talking about. If not, here:

We were rapping about something, I don’t remember what, but somehow we got on to TV, which led to commercials, which led to Cal. My uncle swore Cal had been run out of Bakersfield on a rail, which is how he ended up in Long Beach. Near as I can tell from reading Sam Sweet’s great little Paris Review blast, that probably didn’t happen. But it also totally could have! Mid-century papertrails were made of actual paper, so tracing Cal’s movements up and down the spine of California would require work most of us just don’t want to put in anymore. But it’s almost better not knowing. Cal’s commercials were charming in their complete lack of cultural content. Compare Cal’s wingwalking and ape talking with this creepy garbage:

This paean to middle-American, conservative, rural, masculinity is the kind of fantasy Klaus Theweleit would tell us is an indication that we’re about two clicks away from fascism. It imagines a world where working class men are driving around in $40K trucks smiling about the prospect of going home and holding hands with high school sweethearts. In reality, the men who can afford to drive these trucks and the men who “get to work on time” aren’t the same dudes. In fact, there probably aren’t even jobs for the working class guys to go to anymore. And if this fantasy man ever did marry his best girl from high school, they probably got divorced a few years back when money got real tight. But Chevy thinks it’s best to lie to people about the country they live in. And they’re probably right.

Cal wasn’t interested in selling us an ideal. He just wanted to sell us cars. There’s a level of honesty in his ads that we’ll probably never see again. We’re so desperate to be cool, authentic, and, above all, validated by ads that we can only appreciate Cal’s spots ironically. “They’re so bad, they’re good!” To hell with that. They’re good because they’re memorable without being emotionally manipulative. Unlike Apple, or American Apparel, or Chevy, Cal Worthington respected us enough to make himself the fool in our place. That’s something worth buying.

Full Disclosure About Our “About” Page

Since a footnote doesn’t look sexy on the actual “About The General Reader” page, here is a footnote on where the phrase “self-facilitating media node” comes from: the promising, bleak, unfortunately short-lived BBC show Nathan Barley (February 2005-March 2005), which was created by Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris, whose pedigrees as satirists will be evident if you do some Googling. I should have explicitly posted on this sooner, because it is dumb and lazy to assume that just because nobody reads your blog, and just because the allusion is meant as a homage, you needn’t cite your sources. Consider this my apology, framed as a plug.

Nathan Barley is well worth a test-view on your part, and you can watch some of it on YouTube. “Self-facilitating media node” is how the astonishingly, (sort of) endearingly fuck-witted main character describes his website,, which is, yes, registered in the Cook Islands. Cock Islands. No, no, Cook. At times the episodes falter, which is understandable given that the show only had six episodes to work things out, but the comic high points remain vicious. Nathan’s invented slang is especially good, or, as he’d say, “well weapon.” (Hoot your trap off, mate.) When you watch, keep in mind that this was made in 2004-2005, and be suitably unnerved by its anticipation of Vine, “selfies,” the Vice empire, web shows, iPhone commercials, Reddit, and a wealth of other slick brain damage.

2014 UPDATE: Our “About” page doesn’t use this language anymore. Go watch Black Mirror.

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.