Celebrating 2013 in Education

Peter Wood

A week ago I published my list of top ten stories—highs and lows—in higher education in 2013.  I was generously rewarded when Powerline picked it as #2 in its list of top ten top lists. But there are still some minutes left in the season of top ten lists, which ought to extend to January 6, the traditional date of Epiphany.  Then we have the (lower case) epiphany that it is time to get on with things. 

My new list is mainly about people who did something original, creative, noteworthy, or surprising in 2013 whose accomplishments deserve a little more attention.  I set out to list only positive accomplishments, but unfortunately a few infamies sneaked in.  What follows are the top ten best surprises: the gifts you didn’t know you wanted until you unwrapped the package.  First up:

1. Thug Notes. This YouTube site debuted in June, with Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. explicating Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Since then, Dr. Sweets has offered his taut plot summaries and explications de texte for Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, The Sun Also Rises, The Inferno, Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, and many more canonical works of literature.  The intro to each piece is a pastiche of Masterpiece Theater, the camera scanning across a shelf of beautifully bound volumes accompanied by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 3, then cutting to a book-lined study in which Dr. Sweets sits in a comfortable chair, in gold-chained muscle shirt and do-rag, announcing this week’s selection.  “What’s happening, yo? This week on Thug Notes we get regal with Hamlet by William Shakespeare.” 

This could have been a one-off parody, hitting the two birds of pretentious British TV and mass-marketed cheat sheets with one gangsta, but Dr. Sweets has developed the idea further.  His wordplay (Hamlet serves up “Elizabethan hater-ade”) is smart and his rapid-fire analyses delivered in character as a street-smart thug really are smart. 

The series has conferred minor celebrity on Dr. Sweets.  He takes what he does seriously, telling one interviewer that he created Thug Notes because “literature is enshrouded by a veil of unnecessarily pedantic terminology and intellectual one-upmanship,” and that his calling is to bring it to “people on the opposite side of the social stratum.”  Dr. Sweets holds that “the gift of literature is universal.” 

2. Leaked!  Harvard’s Grading Rubric. A+++ to Nathaniel Stein, who published this satire of Harvard’s grade inflation in The New York Times. Presented as a memorandum from the Dean of Harvard College, Leaked! purports to explain the criteria that qualify a term paper for an A+, including the stipulation that the “The paper contains few, if any, death threats.” Grades of A++ or A+++ are designated “A+ with garlands.”

3. Farewell. College presidents come and go and typically there is there is no reason to celebrate one’s leaving.  The next is likely to be as bad or worse.  But occasionally one comes and stays.  And stays.  And stays.  In June Gordon Gee announced his retirement as president of Ohio State University.  Gee became president of West Virginia University in 1981 at age 37, and then served in succession as president of the University of Colorado, Ohio State University, Brown University,  Vanderbilt University, and then back to Ohio State again.  He distinguished himself mainly by his soaring remuneration, becoming by 2003 the highest paid university president in the U.S. (and no doubt the world) with compensation of over $1.3 million. 

It would difficult to understate Gee’s other accomplishments, though he did manage an uncommonly graceless departure by sneering at Roman Catholics and the University of Notre Dame (“those Damn Catholics”) and mocking other colleges.  The remarks didn’t sit well with the Ohio State board of trustees.  But let’s let Dr. Gee settle into his well-upholstered retirement.  Few men have profited more from higher education than he.

Update:  It seems Dr. Gee has decided not to retire after all.  He has accepted his seventh appointment as a college president, back at West Virginia University.  He is stepping in after WVU’s president abruptly resigned to become president of Clemson.  The chairman of WVU, James Dailey, was easily able to see that Dr. Gee was the right man for the job. Dailey and the board considered his “credentials and pedigree -- that is certainly stellar -- and we knew how much he loved West Virginia and how much he cared about us and what he accomplished when he was here.”

4. Rant Man.  Several times a year it seems that an enterprising student somewhere in the great academic archipelago brings a hidden camera to class to document a splenetic rant or arrogant screed by a hyper-partisan professor.  This year we were treated to a Michigan State professor of creative writing, William Penn, who stars in a video where he explains to his students that Republicans are “dead skin cells” who “steal our stuff” and who “raped” the country.  Professor Penn (“I am a college professor. If I find out you are a closet racist, I am coming after you.”) is, according to his faculty webpage, a founding member of the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, and winner of several awards, including A North American Indian Prose Award. His works include The Absence of Angels and Feathering Custer.  Penn thus appears to belong to the well-defined category of academics who pursue careers by retailing identity group resentments. He was probably caught by surprise that his stand-up act occasioned actual controversy.  The surreptitious video gave him his Ward Churchill moment.   

Michigan State was embarrassed by the video and responded by suspending Professor Penn from teaching.  He was, however, allowed to keep his $146,510 salary and the year ends on a happy note for him: the university has reinstated his teaching for the spring semester. 

5. Ice Age. The helicopter rescue of 52 passengers from the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy has added a dramatic touch to a bad year for those who claim the world faces existential peril from global warming. The ship had been chartered by an expedition, led by Australian climatologist and professor at the University of New South Wales, Chris Turney, to explore evidence of global warming in Antarctica.  Rather than the open waters that the original explorer of the region found one hundred years ago, Turney’s group ran into ice and became inextricably trapped.

Few topics engage passions on campus more than global warming. The year ended as it began with tough-minded declarations from both sides. Nature published an article by Turney’s colleagues, University of New South Wales professor Steven Sherwood, in which he declared that global temperatures will rise 4 degrees Centigrade by 2100 because of increased carbon dioxide emissions. Sherwood’s prediction bumps up the magnitude of the increase by saying that the atmosphere is even more sensitive to increased CO2 than climate scientists have been saying. But scientists on the other side of the debate, such as physicist Chet Richards, continue their counter-assault on global warming orthodoxy.  Meanwhile, Al Gore has closed all the field offices for his Alliance for Climate Protection and laid off 90 percent of his staff. 

American higher education, which could and should have been a neutral party in this controversy, content to let the disputants battle it out with good science, has instead acted like a plunger in a casino, putting all its chips on the manmade global warming hypothesis. The “consensus” that supports this theory is largely a fiction of the universities, which work hard to marginalize anyone in the scientific community who breaks ranks. It also rewards those who police the consensus. For example, in October Harvard appointed Naomi Oreskes as a professor of the history of science. Professor Oreskes is best known for her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, which is a vitriolic attack on scientists who break with the orthodoxy on global warming, comparing them to scientists who obscured the dangers of smoking. 

The “consensus” needs all the shoring up it can find in light of the growing evidence that the predictions about global warming were wildly overstated.  Even the International Panel on Climate Change, which since 1989 has championed the theory of manmade global warming, has climbed down.  In its 2013 report, the IPCC does its best to come to terms with the discrepancies between predicted rises in global temperature and actual observations.  The models are dramatically wrong.  This, of course, does not mean that the hypothesis is necessarily wrong; just that we need better models.  And better universities.

6.  Flipped. The “flipped classroom” has been a big trend story in higher education this year.  The idea is that students do the “lecture” portions on their own time via online material, and the classroom is used for more intense interaction between the teacher and the students.  This is, course, not so much a new idea as a rediscovery of the age-old idea of the seminar.  But it’s great to see it back.  Maybe more flipped classrooms will mean fewer alumni flipping burgers.

7.  Unequaled. New York City has just inaugurated a new mayor, Bill De Blasio, who promises to end “inequality” in the Big Apple, and who intends to use the schools as a major part of this program.  Education as the great lever for overcoming inequality is a central American conceit. 

 Let’s give praise to the hearty souls across the political spectrum who have begun to express public doubt about the idea that more education means more social and economic equality.  The “more education means more equality” trope rests on some increasingly doubtful assumptions. We seem to have entered an era in which many college graduates are unemployed or significantly under-employed, and in which considerable numbers of college-avoiders are prospering. 

Conservative Bill Bennett wrote in Is College Worth It? that the “return on investment” is too low for many students.  Libertarian Glenn Reynolds writes in The New School that students shouldn’t pursue a college degree if it requires going into debt.  Liberal writers Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton write in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality that students from affluent backgrounds can dither away their time in college and still get good jobs but the students from lower on the income scale pay a steep price for getting caught up in the party culture on campus.  And David Callahan, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank Demos, dares to question President Obama’s assertion that more education can reduce inequality.  “Equality of opportunity doesn't count for all that much against the backdrop of deep structural inequality.”

That’s a breathtaking collection of doubts about one of the tent poles of American higher education.  It represents a shift from thinking that college education is the engine of positive social change in America to thinking that college education is a limited good that plays a shrinking part in a complicated game.  

8.  Camille Paglia.  Someone should declare Camille Paglia a national treasure and it might as well be me. Paglia is University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which is not exactly in the upper reaches of academe’s hierarchy, but from her throne in this side gallery she dispenses sweeping judgments on art, literature, popular culture, and national mores with more authority than the whole membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences meeting in plenary session. Starting with her 1990 book, Sexual Personae, Paglia has made a career out of provoking establishment feminists with her own brand of radically libertarian feminism. 2013 ended with Professor Paglia dispensing her wisdom in an interview with the Wall Street Journal which commences, “What you’re seeing is how a civilization commits suicide.”   One of her enduring themes is what she sees as the misguided attempt by feminists to downplay the biological differences between men and women, a project that she sees being executed in higher education: “This PC gender politics thing—the way gender is being taught in the universities—in a very anti-male way, it's all about neutralization of maleness.” 

Paglia, of course, is far from alone in aiming that slingshot.  Another notable iconoclast on stage in 2013 was Bruce Bawer, whose book The Victims’ Revolution offered an extended eye-witness account of the witlessness that now passes for scholarship in the identity studies precincts of higher education. 

Paglia, who is a Lesbian, and Bawer, who is gay, are far from standard-issue cultural conservatives. They are outsiders by temperament who have chosen to remain outsiders as identity-group-solidarity became a dominant force in colleges and universities. 

9.  Thrun-der.  Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have disappointed nearly all the early enthusiasts for the concept that students would flock to this low-cost alternative to college.  The trouble is that few students have the self-discipline to complete the courses.  Among the disenchanted, Sebastian Thrun stands out for his surprising candor.  He is the co-founder of Udacity and a key figure in the MOOC movement but in an interview in the December issue of Fast Company magazine, Thrun declared, "We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product." He has decided to refocus Udacity on “corporate training.”

10.  Toycott. Praise is due to the college presidents who have denounced the boycott of Israeli academics approved by the membership of the American Studies Association in December as a gesture of solidarity with Palestinian activists.  The call for a boycott boomeranged on the ASA. Not only did it draw broad public attention to the anti-Americanism of the organization, it moved numerous college presidents to repudiate the boycott and chastise the ASA.  College presidents seldom speak against positions favored by academic left, but this case proved to be an exception.  At this point (January 2) 99 college presidents have spoken out, including Pomona College president David Oxtoby, Boston University president Robert Brown, New York University president John Sexton, and Brandeis University president Fred Lawrence

The decision of these presidents to oppose the boycott is not necessarily cost-free. Inside Higher Ed is reporting on a “faculty backlash against the backlash,” from faculty members, such as a group of 21 at Trinity College who accused their president, James F. Jones, Jr. of issuing a “wrong-headed” letter and urging him to read works such as Democracy in the Arab World, edited by Ibrahim Elbadawi and Samir Makdisi (2011).  

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