What's Cooking

Peter Wood

The fall semester is hardly begun and we dedicated observers, critics, and reformers of American higher education have our hands full.  In August Yale University Press stunned free speech supporters with its decision to banish images of the cartoons depicting Mohammad from a  forthcoming book about those cartoons.  Last week, the House passed a bill advancing President Obama’s ambitious agenda for higher education. It abolishes the subsidized student loan industry and replaces it with a single-payer loan system run by the Department of Education. 

Some issues left over from the spring are back. Remember Virginia Tech’s proposed policy of tying faculty promotion and tenure decisions to each faculty members “demonstrated” contributions to diversity?  NAS broke the story and stayed with it.  FIRE, ACTA, and the Virginia Association of Scholars also advanced the case against the policy as a violation of academic freedom.  And ACTA succeeded in getting the university’s Board of Visitors to promise a comprehensive review of the policy. Now FIRE has written a fifteen-page letter to the Board of Visitors along with thirteen enclosures showing how the policy actually works.  Adam Kissel brings the story up to date here. Short version: Virginia Tech tells professors what they must believe and threatens their jobs to make them uphold the doctrine in word and deed.

We are watching a case at East Georgia College that FIRE has also noted.  Professor Thomas Thibeault spoke out at a sexual harassment training seminar on August 5, criticizing the lack of protection under the College’s policy for the falsely accused.  Two days later he was fired for sexual harassment, as FIRE puts it, “without notice, without knowing his accuser or the charges against him, and without a hearing.”  He was escorted from campus by police. At this stage there is no evidence that Thibeault harassed anyone. East Georgia College president John Bryant, who conducted the firing himself, offered no specific allegation but told Thibeault that he was “a divisive force in the in the college at a time when the college needed unity.”  On the face of it, Thibeault appears to have been fired for criticizing the College’s sexual harassment policy.

Higher education in America praises “tolerance” but comes down hard on certain forms of dissent. Last spring we wrote about the case of Julea Ward, a student expelled from Eastern Michigan University’s counseling program because she refused to affirm that homosexuality is morally acceptable.  Phi Beta Cons recently linked a video of Julea Ward telling her own story.  When Ashley Thorne reprised the story here,  we started to hear stories to the effect that Ward’s case may not be exceptional at Eastern Michigan University and that the University’s eagerness to ensure fair treatment of gays and lesbians has acquired a dimension of unfair treatment of other students and faculty members. The campus makes The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students’ list of top 100 colleges for gay students, which gives it an “18” on its Gay Point Average scale. In 2005, gay porn producer Derek Ward came to EMU to hold a series of promotional events aimed at recruiting and filming students on campus. 

Right Answer, Wrong Reason

The question of how the academic community should respond to the gay agenda also has come up in the context of conference meetings.  The Conference of Latin American Historians (CLAH), an affiliate of the American Historical Association, will hold its next meeting in San Diego in January as part of the AHA’s annual meeting.  In August many CLAH members received an email from Unite Here, a labor organization in San Diego, urging that they boycott the meeting or try to have the venue changed from the San Diego Manchester Hyatt. The reason was that the owner of the hotel, Douglas Manchester, had supported California’s successful Proposition 8, prohibiting same sex marriage. (The complaint also mentioned the working conditions of employees at the hotel.) 

CLAH’s executive board in turn issued a statement on September 10, conveying its decision not to cancel or move the meeting.  The NAS member who brought this to our attention commented that the executive board did “the right thing for the wrong reason.”  The executive board said nothing about the attempt to engage the scholarly association in partisan politics, but focused instead on the expense and inconvenience of moving meeting. CLAH president Mary Kay Vaughan noted that “The space used for the CLAH Annual Meeting is provided by the AHA, free of charge;” that the contract with the hotel allows for cancellation in the case of a labor dispute, but there is none; and that hotel owner Douglas Manchester acted as an individual; and that the hotel would walk away with $800,000 of AHA money without having to provide any service if AHA cancelled. 

Not a word of dissent on the propriety of a scholarly association implementing the agenda of a special interest. Rather, the CLAH Executive Committee offered up a series of placations to those eager to turn the organization of Latin American historians into avenger of Proposition 8.  They promised to publicize “events and sessions exploring historical perspectives on same-sex marriage,” have the CLAH president address the CLAH luncheon on “equal rights regardless of sexual or gender orientation,” and organize two special sessions in 2011 on “sexual/gender diversity, marriage, and family formation and legal protections in historical and contemporary perspective in Latin America,” and on  “social and civil rights of Latin American or Latin American-origin workers, overwhelmingly but not exclusively female, in industries unprotected by labor unions.” 

It’s valuable to have the glimpse inside the decision-making of a scholarly association as it addresses a matter of whether to turn itself into an advocate of political position entirely outside the range of its animating purposes and responsibilities. Usually we just see the results.

21st Century

Last week, the organization Common Core issued a letter signed by Diane Ravitch, E.D. Hirsch, Chester Finn, John Silber, Randi Weingarten and others expressing doubt about the educational program promoted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (commonly called “P21”).   Several of the signatories are NAS members, including Mark Bauerlein, Will Fitzhugh, Sandra Stotsky, and me.  I have written on the 21st Century skills idea, several times, last week in Horse-Hair Justice,  and last spring in 21st Century Ignorance.   The movement, which first gained its footing in Massachusetts, might best be thought of as an attempt by poorly trained teachers, ignorant of much of what they should know about the subjects that they ostensibly teach, to gain a self-esteem-enhancing label for purveying their ignorance. 

Is that too harsh?  Well, let it stand. “P21” came out of the internecine battles in Massachusetts over the curriculum. Nearly twenty years ago Massachusetts decided to do something very serious about school reform.  It spent a lot of money, enunciated some tough-minded plans, and put in place some impressive watchdogs.  It worked. Massachusetts vaulted to the top in a whole range of measures of student performance.  And the teachers, by and large, hated it.  They got their champion in the Bay State’s current governor, Deval Patrick, who has spared no effort to undermine school reform—although with the usual cover story that he only wants to “improve” it. 

21st Century Skills are just one more re-packaging of the old educational progressives’ conceit that schools can best serve their students by teaching them up-to-date soft skills: relationship building, global awareness, diversity, critical-thinking, etc. Inevitably to do this, the teachers have to be relieved of at least some of the responsibility of teaching actual knowledge.  There are only so many teachable minutes in the day, and half an hour marinating young minds in a vision of “a multitasking, multifaceted, technology-driven, diverse, vibrant world” is half an hour not learning the substance of important subjects. 

The Common Core letter goes to the heart of this nonsense. P21’s supporters have responded by claiming that Common Core has distorted the movement’s goals. The executive director of the National Educational Association, John Wilson, is a founding member of P21.  He says the 21st Century skills the movement advocates simply supplement core knowledge.  He told Education Week that the letter’s signatories: 

“pit core knowledge against 21st-century skills, when our students need both. ... I have witnessed first-hand teachers using 21st-century skills and new technology to enhance the teaching of core subjects. To relegate today’s students to rows of desks, a teacher at the front of the classroom espousing content, and a textbook with paper and pencil is to guarantee that our students will be left with the lowest skills and the lowest-paying jobs."

I suppose the question is, “Who is caricaturing whom?” We learn skills and content in tandem, and I don’t know anyone who seriously thinks they can be segregated or that we should even try. The issue is really whether school curricula should be built around a specific body of knowledge, the acquisition of which inevitably drives the necessary skills, or whether we should build curricula around a set of abstract ideals, such as “critical thinking” and “global awareness.” 

The latter can be made to sound awfully nice, but in practice they tend to be simply awful.

Campus Reform.org

We welcome CampusReform.org to the world of web-based efforts to repair American higher education. It bills itself as a site “to provide conservative activists with the resources, networking capabilities, and skills they need to revolutionize the struggle against leftist bias and abuse on college campuses.”  And its agenda includes “connecting up-to-date communications technologies to a principled stand for limited government, the free market, national defense, and traditional values.” 

The website is laid out as something that could grow gigantic.  It offers opportunities to start campus groups, and “report leftist abuse,” as well as blogs, articles, tweets, job listings, and events. I envy the manpower that Campus Reform must have available.  Ashley Thorne will post a more thorough review of the new website after we have had a better chance to take its measure. 

Clearly it is a site that embraces a particular political perspective. Organizations such as FIRE, ACTA, and the NAS do not. Instead we (in our several ways) attempt to advance key principles such as academic freedom, the university’s obligation to pursue the truth, and the enduring importance of civilization.  To the extent that CampusReform.org represents the emergence of an ally on some issues and a counter-balance to left’s one-sided political dominance of American higher education, we are happy to see it arrive. But we have some trepidation about CampusReform’s declared interest in helping students develop “skills they need to revolutionize the struggle against leftist bias.”  Reform and revolution are seldom the same.  

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