Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Chris Hedges “The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff”

December 11, 2008

It isn’t unusual to hear conservatives criticize the elite institutions of higher education—despite the fact that many of the Republican and conservative leaders are products of those same institutions. Critiques from the left are far less common, which the recent essay by Chris Hedges rather intriguing.

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Princeton and New Haven to the financial and political centers of power.

The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers and rigid structures that are designed to produce certain answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service—economic, political and social—come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the “specialist” and of course the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political and cultural questions. Those who defy the system—people like Ralph Nader—are branded as irrational and irrelevant. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement and information systems are the only things that matter…

…While public schools crumble, while public universities are slashed and degraded, while these elite institutions become unaffordable even for the middle class, the privileged retreat further into their opulent gated communities. Harvard lost $8 billion of its endowment over the past four months, which raises the question of how smart these people are, but it still has $30 billion. Schools like Yale, Stanford and Princeton are not far behind. Those on the inside are told they are there because they are better than others. Most believe it…

…These universities, because of their incessant reliance on standardized tests and the demand for perfect grades, fill their classrooms with large numbers of drones. I have taught gifted and engaged students who used these institutions to expand the life of the mind, who asked the big questions and who cherished what these schools had to offer. But they were always a marginalized and dispirited minority. The bulk of their classmates, most of whom headed off to Wall Street or corporate firms when they graduated, starting at $120,000 a year, did prodigious amounts of work and faithfully regurgitated information. They received perfect grades in both tedious, boring classes and stimulating ones, not that they could tell the difference. They may have known the plot and salient details of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but they were unable to tell you why the story was important. Their professors, fearful of being branded political and not wanting to upset the legions of wealthy donors and administrative overlords who rule such institutions, did not draw the obvious parallels with Iraq and American empire. They did not use Conrad’s story, as it was meant to be used, to examine our own imperial darkness. And so, even in the anemic world of liberal arts, what is taught exists in a moral void…

…Intelligence is morally neutral. It is no more virtuous than athletic prowess. It can be used to further the rape of the working class by corporations and the mechanisms of repression and war, or it can be used to fight these forces. But if you determine worth by wealth, as these institutions invariably do, then fighting the system is inherently devalued. The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system. College presidents are not voices for the common good and the protection of intellectual integrity, but obsequious fundraisers. They shower honorary degrees and trusteeships on hedge fund managers and Wall Street titans whose lives are usually examples of moral squalor and unchecked greed. The message to the students is clear. But grabbing what you can, as John Ruskin said, isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists.

Most of these students are afraid to take risks. They cower before authority. They have been taught from a young age by zealous parents, schools and institutional authorities what constitutes failure and success. They are socialized to obey. They obsess over grades and seek to please professors, even if what their professors teach is fatuous. The point is to get ahead. Challenging authority is not a career advancer. Freshmen arrive on elite campuses and begin to network their way into the elite eating clubs, test into the elite academic programs and lobby for elite summer internships. By the time they graduate they are superbly conditioned to work 10 or 12 hours a day electronically moving large sums of money around.

“The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name,” Deresiewicz wrote. “It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.”

“Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul,” he went on. “These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers. Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. I don’t think there ever was a golden age of intellectualism in the American university, but in the 19th century students might at least have had a chance to hear such questions raised in chapel or in the literary societies and debating clubs that flourished on campus.”

Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden Cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege and comfort and entitlement. They are endowed with an unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find “solutions,” such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us ( “The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff” )

Then if we don’t ban them, they’ll infiltrate our schools…

October 29, 2008

My wife and I like to have nieces and nephews over for over-nighters whenever we have the chance. On one such occasion a year or so back, we took a batch of them to Liberty Park to play around on the Saturday evening. They splashed gleefully in the Seven Canyon’s fountain among the dozens of other kids. Suddenly the oldest neice, a rather impetuous girl perhaps seven years old at the time, suddenly froze. She pointed accusingly.

“Hey! They’re smoking!” She called out in her best tattling tone. “We’re not supposed to do that!”

I glanced over at the two women conversing about twenty yards away, holding their cigarettes. We smiled wryly at my niece’s lack of discretion. Reflecting upon the situation later, I should hardly have been surprised. This is the same niece who on an earlier trip to the park had seen a family celebrating a birthday, and had immediately gone and asked for a piece of cake. Nobody has ever accused her of timidity nor restraint.

While these offenders meandered along their way, I explained to my niece that while we don’t smoke, we also believe in free agency. People can choose to smoke. We need to respect their right to make those choices in public places.

Recently, my wife received one of those political email chain-letters which are often passed around in LDS circles. This one encouraged everyone to be active in promoting California Proposition 8. It contained a video created by the Family Research Council, talking about the insidious effects of normalizing homosexual marriage. The case was centered on a situation in Massachusetts. As part of diversity education, the video points out that elementary school children were presented stories revolving around married homosexuals or those courting to marry. The parents interviewed were aghast that elementary school children would be exposed to such ideas, and that this forced them to have conversations for which they did not feel the adolescents were prepared. The only thing missing was Helen Lovejoy wailing “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”

I don’t think it is necessary nor inevitable for schools to teach about homosexual families. But so what if they do? As I experienced with my niece, children are frequently exposed to ideas which run counter to the moral beliefs of their family. Many LDS familys uphold moral prohibitions on drinking coffee, tea, or alcohol, using tobacco, engaging in commercial or other everyday pursuits on the Sabbath, watching r-rated movies, Monday night activities, clothing styles, tattoos, etc; all of which are presented as acceptable by significant elements within society. At some point, we will be required explain to our children why we choose to believe or act differently than others in society. To expect everything about our communities and our schools to conform to our particular beliefs would be unreasonable. Do we have so little faith in the moral compass of our children? Despite several teachers in jr. high and high school (not to mention a grandfather) who treated coffee as perfectly acceptable, I’ve never touched the stuff. If I am doing my job as a parent, teaching my children to reason, to make righteous judgments, and to listen to the spirit, it doesn’t matter what the schools teach on important moral issues. And if I am not being an effective parent, no amount of prohibition, indoctrination, or censorship in the schools will keep them pure.

Our children will be exposed to the concept of homosexuality at some point in their childhood. Ultimately a family member will come out of the closet, or there will be homosexual couples in the community, or a peer will have homosexual parents. To use the fact that they might learn of it in school through a book as a reason to ban homosexual marriage is absurd.

Symbols and Public Classroom Displays

February 11, 2008

A Utah Senate committee recently passed SB 190, which would require all public school classrooms to display the U.S. flag and Constitution, and each school prominently display the national motto (“In God We Trust”).

I very much agree with the stated intent of the bill, as listed in section 1.

The Legislature recognizes that a proper understanding of American history and government is essential to good citizenship, and that the public schools are the primary public institutions charged with responsibility for assisting children and youth in gaining that understanding.

I think that the means described in sections 3-5 by which it is hoped that the bill will help develop that proper understanding are very sensible—if perhaps a bit intrusive on the local school boards. I strongly encourage people to explore the documents by which our nation is governed, the principles upon which the nation was founded, and the words and lives of the men who were essential in establishing those documents and that nation.

But then the Senate committee got to what seems to have been the primary thrust of the bill, with sections 6 and 7 requiring the display of the flag and Constitution.

What, do the Senators believe that the students will absorb patriotism by osmosis? “The latest physics research indicates that the convection and radiation of citizenship from patriotactive materials will increase patriotactivity of all citizens within a forty-foot radius (though it may cause patriotactive poisoning in illegal immigrants).”

I suppose it is a fairly small thing—aside perhaps from the “unfunded mandate” issue (the inability of conservatives like Senator Christensen to distinguish between legitimate dissent over an unjust war perpetrated on false pretenses and a lack of patriotism is another issue altogether). It certainly doesn’t hurt to hang the flag in a classroom. Yet it is indicative of a larger issue among conservatives.

Items like flags are nothing more than symbols. Symbols are very important in the way humans process abstract information. But problems arise when people turn the symbol into a fetish. The Right seems to struggle with this tendency, as indicated by Orrin Hatch’s flag burning amendment, Chris Buttars’ attempt to dictate recitation of the pledge, the email-forward tizzy over Obama’s decision not to cover his heart during the national anthem (as addressed several months back by The Life that I’m Living), and this bill. These conservatives seem to forget that a symbol is only representative of an abstract concept, not an actual manifestation or avatar of that concept. The concept is in no way harmed by neglect of a symbol, or even outright desecration. Symbols are not voodoo dolls.

In fact, principles and concepts aren’t necessarily nurtured by the strict observance and veneration of their symbols. The pharisees very proudly maintained the symbols of their faith/culture/nation, strictly observing the outward rituals associated with those symbols—yet Jesus denounced them as vipers and hypocrites.

I would suggest that many in our history have tarnished the principles of this nation while wearing flag pins, waving the flag, saluting the anthem, and otherwise performing outward rituals of respect. Conservatives must learn that pride is not patriotism. Similarly, many who decline superficial observances have done much to buttress those important principles. External trappings really mean very little.

Hopefully the Utah Legislature as a whole will display a less shallow understanding of patriotism and citizenship, and will look at more meaningful methods by which to promote these virtues.

Give Teachers a Break!

February 7, 2008

A few days ago, on my post about year-round school, one individual left a complaint about teachers.

You know I am getting very tired of the school teachers getting everything they want, yes there are some very good teachere [sic] but most of them couldn’t get a job anywhere else so they became teachers.

I’ve heard this gripe time and time again, and I still don’t buy it. The vast majority of the teachers under whom I studied throughout my k-12 years were great teachers with a passion for their vocation, dedicated to inspiring. They put in many extra, unpaid hours to accomplish their goal, and many voluntarily spent their own money on supplies. I can’t claim to have done any substantive research on the subject, but I have a hard time believing that my school was unique. I’m sure that there are schools out there, particularly in poor urban neighborhoods, where the teachers struggle to remain motivated and enthused because of the pressures of their situation. But I have yet to see any evidence that the k-12 teaching profession is staffed with the dregs of society.

This sentiment is a consequence of the commodification of our society. Because teachers are not highly compensated in our public school system, we assume their work is of poor quality. What a shameful insult to those who have dedicated their time to helping educate our children! It is a rather black mark on the record of the vaunted market as well. The service our teachers provide is of far greater value than that of the entertainment stars in Hollywood or the moguls on Wall Street. Yet we begrudge them the comparatively modest raises they ask for their services. Perhaps we should get our priorities in order.

Positive School Ideas in the Utah Legislature

January 24, 2008

It is refreshing (and frankly pleasantly surprising) to see that the Utah legislative leaders have (seemingly) finally given up on their school voucher fetish and begun to look at more productive and sensible methods of improving our school system. I’m particularly pleased to see year-round school being proposed, both by Senator Howard Stephenson in SB-41 and by Governor Romney Huntsman (guess the presidential coverage is getting to me…) in his 2008 State of the State address.

I’ve long been a fan of year-round school. The traditional school schedule was fashioned to meet the needs of rural/agrarian communities and family farms—a community type and lifestyle which describes a smaller minority of Utahns each year. This antiquated system provides no real benefits to our students. The smaller breaks would aid retention and make smoother the transition between grade levels. With significant breaks every couple months, students would experience less scholastic burnout. On the other hand, the lack of any one monolithic break would reduce the summer doldrums, that time a few weeks into summer vacation when mothers start to hear that dreaded “I’m bored.” From a financial perspective, year-round school system would enable more efficient use of our school facilities and alleviate some of the problems with overcrowding—which, in a state challenged to educate an enormous student population in as cost-effective a manner as possible, should be a paramount consideration.

No system is perfect, and year-round school does have its disadvantages. Accommodating a family’s need to keep all their children on the same track can be tricky. Traditionally summer events (summer jobs, family vacations) are compromised. Various extra-curricular programs would experience challenges. But I believe that the drawbacks pale in comparison to the educational benefits. Year-round school is not the only nor final answer to the dilemma in education (increasing funding is still crucial). But it can and should play a key role in improving the quality of education in Utah.

Public Schools Win!

November 7, 2007

Nice to see that community interest still trumps market ideology in education. Hopefully our conservative legislators will now end their private school crusade and look at ways to actually improve the quality of education in the underperforming—and perhaps not coincidentally, underfunded—schools in our public education system.

Pro-Public Education Bloggers

September 30, 2007

The fight over vouchers continues unabated here in the state of Utah, and there have been a great number of very worthy arguments against over the course of the last month or so. Here are some of my favorites

Many have responded to the voucher defence by Sutherland Institute spokesman Paul Mero (who prefers his quiver privately fletched at public expense). The Voice of Utah and The World According to Me both challenged the flawed arithmetic, research skills, and reasoning of Mero’s press release (If the staff of the Sutherland Institute was largely publically educated, would that mean the flaws in the press release actually help their case?).

Mero not only presents inaccurate information, but makes the ludicrous assertion that public education has threatened the LDS faith with “cultural extinction” (yes, Paul, the LDS faith is certainly dwindling in Utah, isn’t it?). Accountability First, a great source for exploring many aspects of the voucher issue, condemns Mero’s use of religious demogogury. Jeremy’s Jeremiad takes Mero to task for pining for the idyllic early days of Deseret. Rob at the Utah Amicus does as well, and also points to an article by BYU emeritus professor of history Thomas G. Alexander challenging Mero’s vision of Days Gone By (must be one of them Ivory Tower liberals!).

But Mero wasn’t the supporter of welfare for the rich whose data seems flawed. The Third Avenue notes that one advocate determines the average cost of private schools by excluding the more expensive schools from his average. This makes perfect sense—why account for data which doesn’t support your previously determined conclusion?

Voucher-supporting legislators apparently don’t mind using manipulation and bully tactics in support of their pet cause. The Third Avenue finds it reprehensible that key Republican legislators have threatened to blackmail local businesses. The Voice of Utah, however, sees another, more understanding excuse for their behavior.

Wasatch Watcher questions the integrity of pro-voucher campaign leader Jeff Hartley, who attempts to mislead the public about the nature of the pro-voucher campaign.

The Davis Dijeridu links to the astounding lack of quantifiable data in support of the theoretical claims of the voucher folks.

And finally, Steve Olsen at Utah Amicus boils both sides down to their essential arguments, with the aid of the Ogden Standard Examiner.

There are plenty more good ones where those came from. But I’ll stop at these, a sampling of the best responses to the voucher argument.

PCE Push Polling

August 17, 2007

After reading the SL Trib’s report on the PCE’s push polling today, I was all afire to write up a quick piece on the moral bankruptcy of the organization and the ideology which spawned it.

But then I saw that others in the Utah blogosphere had already adequately covered the topic. Now that the most recent events which have been chapping my hide are out of the way, I can get back to work on the social justice series.

From 3rd Ave:

That is not a “opinion poll,” Julia Lyon, it is a push poll. They are smearing the other side assuming that Utah’s homophobia will overwhelm its desire for good public schools.

Jeremy’s Jeremiad:

Voucher proponents have already begun digging into their bag of dirty tricks and its only August. Pathetic? Yes. Surprising? No.

It will be interesting to see how low the pro-voucher movement will go in pushing this lost cause on Utah’s voters. I’m betting they’ll go much lower than this latest push poll as the election gets closer.

And for the most shrewd observation, The World According to Me:

…PCE is calling people to “ask” them if their minds would be changed on the voucher issue if they knew that the same orginization opposing vouchers favored same-sex marriage.

Which, to begin with, is false.

It’s also a practice known as “push polling,” where the results of the poll aren’t important, it’s the impression you leave in people’s minds&hellips;

…This is unfair and dirty. And, if PCE has to resort to dirty tricks to win, what does that say of the validity of their position? [emphasis added]

‘Nuff said.

The Utah State Board of Education Takes a Courageous Stand

May 16, 2007

The battle over school vouchers in Utah is just gearing up, and the State Board of Education is beginning to feel the heat. Yesterday more than 1,000 people rallied at the Utah state capitol in protest over the Board’s decision to postpone implementing vouchers at least until some legal clarification comes through, and perhaps until the referendum vote provides some direction.

Angry with the decision, groups favoring the public subsidization of private education are rumbling about court action. Even Senate majority leader Curt Bramble, a leading advocate of subsidization, has suggested that the legislature might sue the School Board.

The School Board, led by Chair (and Davis County resident) Kim Burningham has shown great courage and ethical integrity in refusing to implement the vouchers until certain issues and questions are resolved.

I understand that there are a number of thorny issues regarding the vouchers, what with two bills being passed, one with a challenge-proof majority. But this shouldn’t be about legal technicalities. This should be about the will of the people. If the majority of Utah agrees that subsidization is in the best interest of the public, then the referendum will fail and the program can go forward as planned. Pro-subsidization forces will have ample opportunity and resources, considering their well-documented corporate and out-of-state special-interest funding (see also here), to convince Utahns of the benefits of private school subsidization.

If the majority of Utah doesn’t approve of the idea of increased corporate welfare and the referendum passes, then the program should be revoked, regardless of multiple bills and legislative minutia. Curt Bramble’s threats of a lawsuit are rather petulant. Rather than throw tantrums, they should wait it out. Postponing their pet project a few months won’t hurt anything. And if the vouchers are rejected by Utah, they He and his cohorts need to remember that as legislators, they are public servants. They are there to promote the interests of the people of Utah. They do the people of Utah no service by aggressively pursuing an agenda against the possible will of the public.

Voucher Ads

April 7, 2007

I’ve noticed some pro-voucher ads on TV these last few days. For out-of-state readers, The recent Utah legislative session finally saw the passing of a voucher bill, HB 148, after years of efforts of determined conservative effort. Utahns for Public Schools quickly mobilized to gather the 92,000 signatures necessary to have a bill put up for a public vote. Apparently, the wealthy special interests who stand to benefit from the bill are concerned enough about the referendum to produce a TV ad campaign promoting vouchers.

The ads make the referendum an issue of choice. HB 148 introduces choice into the Utah education system, they claim, and signing the petition to put hb 148 up for a public vote threatens that choice.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the purported advocates of choice don’t want the public to have a choice on this bill, as they would if it were put up for a public vote?

More than merely hypocritical, these ads are entirely specious. There is choice built within the system. I home-teach a family whose children are enrolled in a cooperative elementary school. Another close friend in the ward has their child in a school emphasizing bilingual and cross-cultural education. Another woman in the ward with whom we’ve become friendly is planning on enrolling her daughter in a school emphasizing a personalized, project-based education. None of these families have the funds to afford private school—even with the vouchers HB 148 promises. But by taking advantage of Utah’s impressive and growing selection of charter schools, these families have been able to make choices from a wide selection regarding the educational opportunities for their children (for more information about Utah’s charter schools, go to the Utah State Office of Education’s page on Charter Schools). But these duplicitous ads don’t deign to mention the choice our charter schools offer.

If these special interests were so concerned about choice, why isn’t their first priority a widescale expansion of Utah’s tried-and-true charter school program? Why not provide a massive increase in the funding of the charters? Could it be because some of them seek to profit from what would essentially be state subsidization of private schools? Is it because their wealth won’t give them any advantage in enrolling their children in specialized schools under charter schools? Is it because they merely want the state to subsidize their particular, expensive choice? If not, why are they so obsessed with privatization of the educational arena? Why are they so supportive of a system which will in reality only aid the choice choice to a wealthy few, rather than extending choice to Utahns of all economic levels?

I understand that Utahns for Public Schools is fighting an uphill battle. Even if it succeeds, there is reason to believe that the vouchers will still go forward because of a second bill, HB 174, amending HB 148 (Utah Attorney General Shurtleff addressed this issue on Midday Utah here). But the fight is still worth fighting in order to hinder the implementation of the vouchers. Governor Huntsman, himself an advocate of the vouchers, has stated that if the public votes down vouchers, he is willing to bow to the will of the people. I hope, for the sake of the rising generations, that this step into the privatization of our education system is defeated.