Are Universities Too Liberal to Provide a Real Education? Sounds Like Conservative Sour Grapes to Me

Over at Narratively, Natalie Axton reports on a theory promoted by many conservative thinkers, both inside and outside of academia, that says that liberalism dominates academia to such an extent that these schools can no longer provide a real education, since they can't provide the kind of balance necessary to produce real debate. The the article makes the straightforward and convincing case that the best critics of specific policies of academic institutions will come out of the Right (self-proclaimed outsiders generally do), but the more sweeping argument falters, and the broader it gets, the more utterly it fails. She even cites unschool advocates who promote traveling and a lot of self-selected reading as worthy replacements for a college education. I could rant for hours about the flaws in the philosophical underpinnings of unschooling (it's not scalable, people who truly want to learn should read things they didn't pick out themselves, classroom discussion can't be replicated in any other setting, etc.), but I'm most irritated by a particularly tired argument repeated in the piece.

The conservatives Axton quotes lost me when they trotted out one of their more tired criticisms, the old trope that liberals are hypocrites for advocating tolerance and then being intolerant of conservative ideas. I've heard this line of argument many times before, and I always find it unpersuasive; it denotes an understanding of tolerance that is so limited it's downright deceptive. Tolerance doesn't mean an idea will be adopted. It just means it will be studied and weighed. Liberals in academia, in my experience, are more than willing to tolerate conservative ideas. They just don't buy into them. Liberals can tolerate the study of monarchy, too. You don't hear a lot of people going around claiming liberals are intolerant of monarchic ideas. In my experience, the only reason conservatives complain that liberals are intolerant of conservatism is that they feel conservatism is fundamentally correct, and that anyone giving it a fair hearing would ultimately conclude the same. It's a kind of rhetorical trap; either you will prove you are tolerant by agreeing with me, or I will call you a hypocrite for being intolerant. The third option, that conservative ideas, especially on social policies like gay marriage and women's reproductive rights, have been weighed carefully and found to be objectionable or outdated by the majority of the general public, is not considered. Certainly liberals share the same notion that their ideas are so correct that anyone who hears them should share them. When liberals even hint at this, they're derided for being snooty and condescending. But the conservative version is equally condescending and more than a little juvenile due to its "gotcha'" quality. While the assumption that one's own ideas are correct is completely understandable (as Wittgenstien pointed out when he wrote, “If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely,' it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.”) but liberal tolerance does not dictate a conservative education. It just demands that ideas get a fair hearing. It doesn't even mean that the ideas which rise to the surface will be True with a capital T. The implicit assumption is that liberal tolerance will produce ideas which are popular. Combined with the notion that people are essentialy decent, this should produce a positive outcome. If, on the other hand, one holds that people are "fallen" or essentially rotten in some way, then it should also come as no surprise to conservatives that liberal ideas are more popular at universities; from a conservative perspective,  the fallen people have made the evil, liberal ideas into the popular ideas. 

Not that liberalism holds the universal sway over academia that the article seems to imply. In fact, libertarianism is alive and well on college campuses. I'll bet Ron Paul would have defeated Mitt Romney at a lot of schools, and I'd also guess that libertarian ideas about legalizing marijuana would defeat liberal compromise positions or a more progressive limited-legalization-with-taxation scheme at most ostensibly "liberal" universities. I was particularly struck by this quote: "Part of the argument at Minding the Campus is that political ideology in the form of race, sex, and gender studies has captured the humanities and social sciences and that as a consequence, American students spend their time practicing identity politics instead of learning history, philosophy and literature." I would argue that the best defense of the study of Western culture, and of Western culture itself, involves learning the role identity politics has always played in history, philosophy, and literature. It wasn't called "identity politics" two hundred or two thousand years ago. If some student escapes from a university without knowing the roles race, sex, gender (and, I'd add, class and sexual identity) played in history, philosophy, and literature, he cannot count himself an educated person, and stands as a testament to the persistence of white, male, straight, upper-class privilege. I understand and share the opinion that there's a lot about Western culture that deserves to be protected (though I may disagree with conservatives, and even with libertarians, about what deserves that protection). Any attempt to excise the study of race, sex, and gender from the studies of history, philosophy, and literature will not defend Western culture any more than building a base consisting solely of white, Christian males will defend the Republican Party. Complaining about the intolerance of a changing world is just petulance. A higher education has to tolerate a recognition of a changing reality.

My Greatest Professional Triumph is Anonymous

Perhaps it's a bit hyperbolic, but among an English teacher's dreams, the idea of having a student become a published author or poet ranks pretty high. Well, thanks to one of my creative writing students, I've now accomplished this dream.

Note the focus. She has an accomplishment. I talk about myself. This is intrinsic to the profession; her accomplishment is mine, even though I played a tiny role. A whole lot of other teachers taught this student to read and write, and clearly she has a great deal of innate talent, but when she becomes a published poet, I get to brag.

After hearing about her publication from a colleague (who deserves just as much or more credit, but this is about me here, right?) I asked the student if I could brag about her tonight. I hope she felt proud in that moment, because I'm certainly proud of her.

But she chose to have the poem published without her name! When you read the poem, you'll understand why. It's quite personal, and though it might not be her actual experience that she's expressing, it must hit close enough to home to make her hesitant to share her identity. Fine. I still get to claim my little piece of credit. I do wish she'd put her name on it though, because, separate from her emotional experience, it's a fine work of craftsmanship. When I link to it, you can see that she has skill which goes beyond the considerable power of the content.

My other reason for wanting her to get credit is that it messes with my own. Instead of being able to say, "I taught ---- --------, the one who had that powerful poem published a few years ago," I have to say, "I taught Anonymous."

On second thought, that's plenty poetic. So, thanks Anonymous. Thank you for the inspiration to me, as a teacher, and thanks for your courage in sharing your work, even if your name isn't attached. You'll be known (if only to the few readers of this poem, but they will remember you) by your work alone, and there's a special dignity to that which is rare in our world of people obsessed with taking credit. I'm glad you didn't learn that particular impulse from me. Your poem is wonderful.

So, without further ado, I give you Anonymous' "No Lollipop."

Now just try and tell me that didn't kick you in the gut. Yeah, she was one of my students.

Why Reading Literature Is Essential

One of my colleagues (and, I'm proud to say, my former student teacher) Sam Cornelius has given me a homework assignment. He found this piece by Nancy Atwell, "A Case for Literature" and assignment to weigh in. Atwell's concern is that the powerful forces pushing for national curriculum changes do not recognize the merits of reading literature because it does not satisfy their interests in profiting from more expensive curricula, more expensive testing, etc. She cites some research that shows that independent reading literature, and lots of it, not only increases reading proficiency, but is one of the best predictors of over-all academic success. At first glance, this is preaching to the choir, and I don't know how I'm going to satisfy Sam's assignment.

Luckily, the very first commenter on the comment page, Tomliamlynch, after claiming to agree with Atwell, writes, "English education has never had a convincing rationale for teaching literature; thank heaven for writing, as at least a teacher knows when a student does it! Literature has always been--and continues to be--use-less: it doesn't have a clear use that translates into a value for non-literature-teachers... Teachers don't know if and when students really read. They can't know; reading is wonderfully private."

Oh boy.

First of all, we don't teach literature for its own sake. Literature, on one level, is entertainment, just like films or music or any other art. We wouldn't expose a student to a famous painting just so they can say they've seen it. Similarly, when I teach a book (or a film, or a short story) my focus is always beyond the text itself. Now, that work of art can do many things, and I'm hesitant to tier them because they're all important, so these are not in a particular order.

Literature, like any art, teaches its appreciators how to participate in that art in the future. Tomliamlynch alludes to this by making a connection to writing, and that's certainly one part of the value. Reading makes students better writers. But if that were the limit, that a piece of literature might allow a student to become a professional novelist someday, we would be devoting far too much time to prepare such a tiny fraction of the population that we would be criminally negligent. But reading literature not only allows a student to participate in the art form as a creator, but as a different kind of consumer. Beyond simple comprehension (essential, but merely foundational) a reader or literature learns to make connections between a work and other works in that medium, in other media, in their own lives, in their culture, and across cultures. A bad reader can understand that Jack and Jill go up the hill to fetch a pail of water. A good reader asks why these two children are going up to get a resource that's usually found a lower elevation, what the task says about their socio-economic level, what the pairing might imply about a familial or romantic relationship, what the language might tell us about the time frame, how this might be different in another country, culture, or time, and what this might relate to in the reader's own life. These processes might be private if the student is reading at home, and eventually I want my students to be able to do this on their own, but as a teacher it is my role to make sure these processes are public, conscious, and intentional.

These skills are not useful in some tiny, compartmentalized way. Last night I was sitting with a couple dear friends arguing about the TV show Lost. All of the language we were using came directly from specific and targeted instruction provided by out English teachers. But these skills don't just allow us to interpret other art. They allow us to interpret Narrative with a capital "N". Whether I'm trying to follow the story of the debacle of the health care bill making its way through the Congress, or studying the way The Big Bang produces a singularity, then energy and time, then later matter, or the process by which the used car salesman evaluates his costs and benefits as he negotiates with me over the price of a '91 Isuzu, I need to be able to interpret a narrative.

Which brings us to the greatest virtue of literature (I know I said I wouldn't tier these, but I lied): We are stories. In fact, we are stories within stories within stories all the way down. If I can't understand the arc of a plot, the influence of a character, the consequence of a choice, the vagaries of fate or coincidence, then I cannot understand my self, my family, my faith, my community, my culture, my country, my world, or my universe. Try teaching history without narrative. Every discipline has a history. For that matter, try successfully teaching science without narrative (imagine teaching the water cycle without sequence). The skills one acquires when learning how to interpret literature cross over into every other field. In fact, if there is some kind of brain injury or developmental disorder which prevents a person from understanding all stories, I would bet that person also cannot be successful in any other field. (Somebody do some research on this for me.)

It should also come as no surprise, consequently, that people who do not know the same stories have trouble relating. Our culture is a composition of our stories. On the surface it just might seem like a person can't get the clever jokes on The Simpsons, or some off-hand Biblical allusion tossed out in a conversation. But it goes far deeper: if a person doesn't know the same stories, they can't understand another person, validate (or even fully respect) their decisions, or work effectively with them toward a common goal. Find two people in a crisis situation working toward some shared goal at the base of Maslow's hierarchy (a subsistence farmer in a third world country and the Peace Corps volunteer who's come to help provide emergency relief) and I'll bet you'll find two people telling each other stories. They are interpreting each other's literature, because if they don't they will only understand even the most basic needs from their own cultural contexts, and will not be able to make larger plans or connections.

This sounds hyperbolic, but without narrative we cannot make meaning of our life experience. In short, without stories, life is meaningless. The more stories we are exposed to, and the more skilled we become at interpreting those stories, the more meaning we can make.

Education without literature (on paper, encoded digitally, filmed, etc.) is not only diminished; it's pointless.

Who's to blame for the Drop Out Rate?

Debra Franciosi, my friend, former mentor teacher, and current associate director of Project CRISS, an education think tank in Kalispel, Montana, turned me on to an education blog called McRel, which disseminates educational research along with analysis. I read some posts and immediately took issue with one of them.

In "Addressing High School Dropout: Taking a Look Inward", David Rease Jr. analyzes some survey data regarding drops outs. The AT&T Foundation's report "On The Front Lines of Schools" examined why various stake-holders in education believed so many kids are dropping out of school. It found that district level personnel blamed principals, principals blamed teachers, and teachers blamed parents, and only the drop-outs blamed themselves.

Rease's conclusion was that we should all take responsibility. "Our dropout crisis will persist until each of us takes a look at those fingers pointing back at us, and identify our own culpability in our nation’s dropout crisis."

Here's where I take issue. I agree with Rease that kicking the blame down the ladder is wrong. I also agree that personal responsibility is a virtue, and self-analysis makes all of us better at our jobs. But, by that same rationale, perhaps the answer to the question of the drop out rate is actually presented in the report itself, and staring at the four fingers pointing back at us is a means to avoid aiming our index fingers in the right direction. In short, maybe the drop outs are right. They are taking personal responsibility, and are, belatedly, performing some self-analysis of their own role in their education. Why should we second guess that?

I know I'm going to sound like a curmudgeon when I start any sentence with "When I was a kid...", but let's face it: If I'd come home and tried to use any of the excuses Rease encourages us to consider when I got a bad grade, my parents would have been aghast, or maybe they would have laughed in my face because they would have been so incredulous. The district level employees were not being properly overseen by their administrators, so I was failing? Ha! My teachers' "lessons were boring and disengaging"? Too stinkin' bad. Admittedly, I have great parents who were willing to "create space, time, and the expectation [I] complete [my] homework", but part of that expectation was that no one was ultimately to blame for my academic achievement or failure except me. The drop-outs in this study have obviously internalized that lesson, and aren't blaming their parents for failing to teach it to them, so let's take them at their word.

Every year, in my Creative Writing class, almost half the kids fail. Is this because my lessons are "boring and disengaging"? Not according to the students. They chose to take the class because they felt it would be the most entertaining of their options for Senior English (composed of various elective courses at our high school). They are there because they expect to be entertained and engaged. But that half of the class fails because they, amazingly, do no writing outside of class. Zip. Zero. Every year I pester them about this. Why, in the name of all that's good and holy, would you choose to take a creative writing class if you have no interest in or intention of writing except when I'm leaning over your shoulder, making you? I've never received a satisfactory explanation from a student beyond "I don't need this credit to graduate." I try to explain, until I'm red in the face, that they are doing themselves a disservice, that they are missing out on the learning by not doing the work, that they are wasting their own time and an opportunity to better themselves. To this, I occasionally receive a downcast glance of something passing for shame, but generally I get shrugs. Have these parents failed to "create space, time, and the expectation [they] complete [their] homework"? In some cases these parents are atrocious, even criminal, but in other cases the parents are wonderful, so this doesn't seem to be the operative variable. Have I not made the class challenging enough? They are failing. I can't make it any harder on them. Have I not been entertaining enough? They picked the class for the entertainment value. Should my principal have mentored me in some way, or given me a stern lecture? If anything, she's been supportive even though, when students do need the credits and I fail them, I make her job harder by creating a scheduling nightmare for her the following year. Have the folks over at the district office failed "to adequately coach, monitor, and evaluate" my principal? What would they have said to her which could have trickled down, through me, and transformed into inspiration for my students? If someone has these answers, that's great, but I have a feeling that if we stare at the fingers point back at us all day long we won't answer these questions.

On the other hand, we could trust the drop-outs themselves. Or my students, who write self evaluations as well as evaluations of the class and of my performance as their teacher at the end of each semester. At the end of each class the ones who fail say they wish they'd worked harder. Instead of navel-gazing, perhaps it behooves us to ask how we, not just as teachers or parents or principals or superintendents, but as a culture, can better communicate this need for more motivation to students before it can only take the form of regret.

Here's the good news and the bad news on that front: I used to get so frustrated by parents who would actively undermine my attempts to motivate their kids when they would tell them "I didn't graduate, and I'm doing fine," or "I didn't go to college and look at me now". I would try to explain, without criticizing the parent, that the labor market is shifting, and that the same opportunities that existed for them will not exist for their child. Well, thanks to a combination of globalization and the current recession, I'm having to make that argument less and less. As much as there will be a lot of losers in this economic climate, and a lot of folks who are punished undeservedly, the upside will be a renewed focus on competitiveness. As much as I worry, as a teacher of the Humanities, that we'll place all the emphasis on math and science, that's a problem I'm willing to exchange for no emphasis on education at all. As we fully engage a global economy, we'll need to re-evaluate the way we carry on our debate about education. Teachers in India don't worry too much about entertaining their students, and parents in South Korea don't worry to much about being nurturing (they beat the crap out of their kids, in fact, which does not lead to improved educational outcomes), but those students will be taking jobs from our students because they came into their classrooms with a different attitude. Our kids will figure this out eventually, just like the drop-outs in the study did. Our job, as I see it, is to help them catch on before it's too late.

Europe Trip

I haven't posted in a bit, save for the clip of the great Hardee's add, because I just got back from taking 40 parents and students to London, Paris, and Barcelona for an educational tour. I blogged the whole thing, so if you're interested, the whole site is here (now with pictures!):

Central High Europe Trip

or check it out by city:

London (here and here)

Coventry, Warwick, and Stratford (here)

Bath (here)

Paris (here and here)

Barcelona (here, here, and here)

plus some funny accumulated quotes (here and here)

and one very embarrassing typo (here).