Monday, June 21, 2010

The relentless decay of real scholarship in American universities

Not many people will see Arkansas as a fortress against the barbarism that is threatening to bring this nation down. This kind of barbarism is often displayed by college students -- and not with old-fashioned Animal House hijinks, but by Obama zombies who celebrated in front of the White House by tauntingly singing the old Beatles "Good-bye" song and waving the Soviet flag.

Today's college students have also graduated to high-level anti-Semitism, inquisitions about fellow students' attitudes on such things as gay marriage, and a belief in confiscating private property to redistribute wealth. All this is done after childhoods spent being pampered and flattered while being put into little groups to discuss such problems as global warming -- after watching a former vice president narrate a film about the coming environmental apocalypse.

Very few people knew that the University of Arkansas WAS a holdout, maintaining hearty general education requirements for the past fifty years. ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni) recently awarded the university a rare A on its report card on general education requirements. It praised the university for a healthy 66-hour general education requirement that included math, science, foreign languages, literature, and philosophy.

ACTA is not a fashionable group in academic circles. They provide donors and trustees information about what goes on behind the ivy-covered walls, where faculty, indoctrinated by the 1960s radicals, devise classes, determine requirements, and plot to keep out critics.

In May, ACTA president Anne Neal wrote two letters to the trustees and an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette deploring the dumbing down of the curriculum.

But according to John Ed Anthony, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, the fact that a student at the University of Arkansas will be able to substitute Gender Studies for Introduction to Philosophy and graduate with only college algebra, eight hours in science (which could include "Chemistry in the Modern World"), no literature classes, and no foreign language does not mean that the curriculum is being dumbed down.

Anthony, in a letter to Neal, states that such changes are overdue because...the core curriculum has not changed in fifty years! He describes the university's ambition as twofold: "to bring the university's core curriculum in line with peer institutions across the nation, and to empower faculty at the departmental level to determine what their students need to be successful." The passage of Arkansas's Act 182, which makes it easier for students to transfer from community colleges, "expedited a process that was already underway and very much needed."

Chancellor G. David Gearhart, in his editorial published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in response to Neal's, echoed Anthony's call to "empower" faculty, saying, "Faculty must be the driving force on setting the new requirements."

That might explain why Intro to Gender Studies will count as a class to fulfill the six hours required in Fine Arts/Humanities, and why someone earning a bachelor of arts degree no longer is required to the take the sophomore-level philosophy class previously required. At some colleges, such classes in gender oppression are required as standalone classes or are the focus of other mandated classes, like "American Gender History."

The love of wisdom is being replaced by the love of grievances.

Of course, to the newly minted Ph.D.s in such fields, Intro to Gender Studies is more important than those old-fashioned subjects like philosophy, math, science, and foreign languages. They are carrying out Woodstock nation's poet-warriors' battle cry: "Hey, hey, ho, ho. Western civilization's got to go!"

The old subjects are deemed guilty of "Eurocentrism." They encourage linear thinking. They are remnants of the old patriarchy that values logic and skills. Capitalists think those abilities are worth much more than the circular, emotive (illogical) thinking used in gender studies. Philosophy, math, science, literature, and foreign languages do not encourage students to become social activists and community organizers. They encourage students to study the structure of language, learn the philosophical and literary heritage of the West, weigh evidence, solve problems, innovate, express ideas logically, and seek truth.

Gearhart's response to Neal's op-ed demonstrates the rampant institutional decay of higher education. He charged that ACTA's criteria for curriculum "lie outside generally accepted academic norms," noting that ACTA "issued less favorable letter grades of 'D' and 'F' to the following institutions: Vanderbilt, Harvard, University of California-Berkley, and the University of Virginia." He sniffed, "In light of Ms. Neal's column, it appears we are now in danger of joining the ranks of these institutions."

Then he offered, "If so, we are prepared to be judged by the company we keep."

The company the University of Arkansas will keep will be Henry Louis "Beer Summit" Gates at Harvard; Kelly Oliver, philosophy and women's studies professor at Vanderbilt, whose latest book deals with "animal studies"; Michael Mann, former professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, now at the University of Pennsylvania, implicated in Climategate; and all those partaking in the proud tradition of radicalism at Berkley, from the "free [profanity] speech movement" in the 1960s to protests for continued largesse from taxpayers.

When students aren't even exposed to dialogues on justice and love or the Socratic method, how can they think in a truly "critical" way about "hope" and "change"? If the idea of evidence and truth is dispensed with in favor of perspective (such as that of women or any number of groups), how can students recognize the origins of "spreading the wealth"? Does anybody care if they don't know that there is no such language as "Austrian" or that a pop star president can't get a simple phrase right in the language he says Americans should be teaching their children? Or if the vice president talks about President Roosevelt addressing the American people on television? Doing a Google search doesn't help if you can't distinguish between sources, or if your grade depends on attitude, and not academics.

Chancellor Gearhart wrote, "We are committed to increasing the number of degree holders in the state of Arkansas."

Arkansas is in forty-ninth place in terms of percentage of citizens holding college degrees. And under a system of federal aid that follows bodies in classroom seats, it's to administrators' benefit to make it easy for students to enroll and graduate.

President Obama, in (of course) asking for more spending on education, recently announced his of goal making the U.S. the country with the highest percentage of college graduates by 2020. Gee, I wonder why.


Global warming book withdrawn

Millard Public Schools will stop using a children's book about global warming -- but only until the district can obtain copies with a factual error corrected.

A review committee, convened after parents complained, concluded that author Laurie David's book, "The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming," contained "a major factual error" in a graphic about rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels.

Mark Feldhausen, associate superintendent for educational services, this week sent a letter to parents who complained, including the wife of U.S. Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, outlining the committee's findings.

"Although the authors have pledged to correct the graph in subsequent editions, the committee recommends that this correction be made to all MPS-owned texts before using it with students in the future," Feldhausen wrote.

Corrected versions will continue to be used in Millard's sixth-grade language arts curriculum, he wrote.

However, the district will cease to use a companion video about global warming, narrated by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, he wrote. The committee found the video "without merit" and recommended that it not be used. Robyn Terry, the congressman's wife, had described the video as a "political commercial."

Lee and Robyn Terry released a statement saying they were pleased with the decision and "impressed" by the district’s handling of the case. "We are pleased with their decision not to use the politically natured global warming video as a classroom instruction tool and that they have set a standard that information-based texts must be factually correct to be put in front of our children," they wrote.

A committee of five middle school parents, three teachers and one administrator met to determine whether the book and video served a proper purpose within the curriculum.

The book, new to the Millard curriculum this year, was part of "Plugged in to Non-Fiction," a collection of books on a variety of subjects. Parts of the book were required reading for sixth-graders in Millard reading and language-arts classes.

Three parents, including Robyn Terry, complained to the district. The Terrys’ 12-year-old son attended Beadle Middle School last year. Mrs. Terry said that the materials used in his class portrayed global warming as fact when scientists disagree.

In the video, DiCaprio attributes global warming to mankind’s "destructive addiction" to oil. He says "big corporations" and politicians gained too much money and power "on our addiction," making them "dangerously resistant to change."

In the letter to parents, Feldhausen said the committee recognized there are "multiple viewpoints" on global warming. The committee recommended that all teachers using the book "make students aware of both sides of the global warming theory," he said.


The Tories have a precious chance to save British schools from the state

The educational establishment has seen off previous reforms – but this time, the revolution could finally take hold , writes Matthew d'Ancona

In the past few days, we have heard much sound sense from the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, about schools reform. But here is what the Prime Minister had to say, and it is worth quoting at length:

“No one will be able to veto parents starting new schools or new providers coming in, simply on the basis that there are local surplus places. The role of the LEA [local education authority] will change fundamentally. There will be relentless focus on failing schools to turn them round. Ofsted will continue to measure performance, albeit with a lighter touch. But otherwise the schools will be accountable not to government at the centre or locally, but to parents, with the creativity and enterprise of the teachers and school leaders set free.”

The PM continued: “Where parents are dissatisfied, they need a range of good schools to choose from; or where there is no such choice, [to be] able to take the remedy into their own hands. Where business, the voluntary sector, philanthropy, which in every other field is an increasing part of our national life, want to play a key role in education, and schools want them to, they can. Where local employers feel local schools aren’t meeting local skill needs, they can get involved. The system is being empowered to make change. The centre will provide the resources and enable local change-makers to work the change. We will set the framework and make the rules necessary for fairness. Where there is chronic failure, we will intervene. But the state’s role will be strategic; as the system evolves, its hand will be lifted, except to help where help is needed.”

Good stuff, isn’t it? Except that I am cheating. The Prime Minister who spoke those words was not David Cameron but Tony Blair, and he did so in October 2005, rather than June 2010. But a good idea is a good idea. The Coalition’s plans to enable parents, teachers and other groups to set up free schools, liberated from the dead hand of town-hall control, is a logical extension of the structural education reforms to which Blair (as opposed to his party) became converted all too late in his premiership. Ministers are happy to quote this speech as the ur-text for what they are now doing.

Beyond this ancestry, the free school plan, launched last Friday, is also a practical example of what Cameron means when he talks about the “Big Society”: an idea which achieved negligible traction with voters during the election campaign. As with most stories, political or otherwise, it is better to show than to tell. At the level of political rhetoric, the “Big Society” sounded much too abstract, too formless, too vague. In practice – when translated into specific policies – it is easy to grasp, and appeals to the fundamental human instinct to seek control over our destinies and our communities. The opportunity to set up a school may not animate every citizen: but it has already attracted interest from more than 700 groups. Those who say that the Cameroon campaign to fire up community activism is doomed are dead wrong.

The best book I have read for ages is Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working With Your Hands, an inquiry into the nature of manual work which has caused great excitement in America. Although the book is notionally about Crawford’s own decision to stop being a think-tank director and become a motorcycle mechanic, it is actually a profound exploration of modern education, work and capitalism. One of its many arresting conclusions is that legions of 21st-century white-collar employees who consider themselves “knowledge workers” are in fact little more than clerks, merely following rules and stripped of all discretion. In Crawford’s phrase, they are nothing more than cogs, subject to the “intellectual technology” imposed upon them by centralised bureaucracy.

I mention this book in this context both because I happen to know it is in Mr Gove’s in-tray, and because its analysis applies with horrible precision to our education system. Teachers have been incrementally stripped of the discretion that used to define them as professionals. Most schools are outposts of the town hall and local branches of the Department for Education before they are autonomous civic institutions. The Gove plan for free schools, inspired by similar policies in Sweden and the United States, completely recasts the role of the state in secondary education. No more command-and-control: central government will assess applications (so no state-funded madrassas, Jerry Falwell Academies, or Satanist Sixth Form Colleges), provide funding, and stand well back, intervening only in extremis.

In common with most good plans, this will not be easy to implement. Although Tuesday’s emergency Budget is unlikely to include any major decisions regarding school funding, the spending review later this year is another matter. The Treasury has already made it clear that other sectors of the education budget will need to be cut if the free schools programme is to be fully funded. “Efficiency gains”, the closure of quangos and the axing of redundant schemes will save some money, but nowhere near enough. If it means business about its free schools programme – and I am sure it does – the Cameron Government faces some very thorny decisions this year. The language of priorities, as Nye Bevan said, is the religion of socialism. It is also the reality of fiscal retrenchment.

Second, the free schools plan will be opposed by the education establishment with every fibre of its being. Already, the Anti Academies Alliance (whose patrons include Lord Hattersley, Tony Benn and Fiona Millar) is hard at work opposing the plan. The teaching unions will soon follow. So will the town halls. And we have been here before. In the early Nineties, John Patten, the Conservative education secretary, fought a lion-hearted campaign to enable schools to opt out of local authority control, keeping a totaliser of those that did so on his desk. Lord Patten could tell Mr Gove a tale or two about the lengths to which the education establishment will go to frighten parents and spread misinformation.

In particular, ministers and the New Schools Network (which will assist those seeking to set up free schools) must nail the lie that this is all about entrenching social and educational segregation. In fact, the opposite is true. The status quo is centralised segregation: that is, a multi-tiered system about which parents can do nothing, except by paying fees direct to a private school or the stealth fees of higher house prices near to good state schools. The free school programme gives parents and community groups the chance to take the initiative in the most radical sense.

No government can prosper simply by taking things away, even when a fiscal crisis gives it no option but to do so. Margaret Thatcher won elections because of what she offered: council house sales, shares in privatised utilities, an end to penal taxation. This week will be dominated by bleak news of cuts, and the price we must all pay for Labour’s recklessness. So Mr Gove’s invitation could not be more timely or reassuring: a reminder that there will be gain, as well as pain, in the transformative years ahead.


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