Friday, November 19, 2010

Private vs. state schools and free speech

Much fuss is afoot now about how various schools, especially colleges and universities, are dealing with the airing of controversial topics. Although by my count this isn’t some kind of epidemic, in several schools the administrators have decided they do not want students to air ideas (or invite guest speakers to do so) when the ideas are controversial or a possible source of emotional reaction from some members of the community. So, for example, when students at Bucknell University tried to make a point about mandated affirmative action policies by differentiating the price of certain items for sale on campus, they were told by the administration to desist. Something similar has happened at UC Irvine, presumably all so as to spare offending some members of the college community.

This phenomenon, though not quite new, has been noticed by some news reporters and commentators, for example Fox Business Network’s John Stossel, who have found it paradoxical that some speech is being regulated, even banned, by administrators at institutions that are supposedly committed to the examination of controversial issues. Some administrations have attempted to cope with the problem by creating “free speech zones” on campus, which effectively moves those who present controversial ideas–mostly, it seems, ones held by conservative student groups and their guests (e.g., Anne Coulter)–into special areas on campus, away from the general population, where they aren’t likely to offend people with insulting ideas.

Of course, such ideas could be about anything but mostly they would have to do with certain politically correct issues, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and so forth. Affirmative action policies, when imposed by law, are a favorite target of conservative speakers when they apply the principles of differentiation to some unexpected areas of life, such as pricing goods and services, even though these same principles are deployed under the protection of the law in the treatment of students and faculty at the institution in question. The idea is, “How come you find it offensive when, say, blacks and whites are charged different amounts of money for the same items for sale even though you think they should be treated differently in the admission or promotion process at your institution?”

One matter that’s often overlooked in discussing all this is the difference between public and private institutions. Public institutions are funded by funds confiscated from all taxpayers, while private institutions are not, which can make a difference in what policies are legally justified at them.

A private college, for example, has the right to institute a policy concerning the airing of controversial ideas that its administrators believe might work to facilitate the educational mission there, while a public institution must abide by the principles of the US Constitution. This is like the fact that in your own home you can restrict and ban speech–say by refusing to allow some guest to talk about some subject–whereas you don’t have the authority to do this when someone speaks out in public, say at a city park. Broadly put, the former isn’t under the jurisdiction of the US Constitution whereas the latter is.

When a private college administration deems it wise and prudent to keep discussion of certain topics confined to special places, it may do offense to the spirit of academic freedom and the tradition of open discussion associated with educational institutions but there is nothing in this that violates either the spirit or letter of the American legal system. But if a public university does the same, that same legal system’s principles are being violated. Yes, even there the administration has some discretion but normally it may not decide in ways that do offense to the public philosophy of American law.

So, then, if a private university institutes a policy of keeping speakers on controversial topics away from the general population, at some kind of “free speech” region, this can be justified in the American legal tradition but if a public university does the same it cannot. That fact may shed some light on how the issue of airing offensive ideas at colleges and universities is being dealt with across the nation’s higher educational institutions.


The economy the American curriculum prepares you for

A common argument in favor of American education is that it exposes students to a wide variety of career options. How are kids supposed to decide their course in life if they don't know their choices? Unfortunately, this argument has a big problem: The career options for which the typical American curriculum prepares you are almost completely disconnected from the modern American economy. Indeed, they are almost completely disconnected from any economy - past, present, or future.

Imagine what the American economy would have to look like for the American curriculum to make sense:

* Kids spend at least 10% of their time on art and music. This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional artists or musicians.

* Kids spend at least 10% of their time on P.E. This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional athletes.

* Kids spend at least 10% of their time on literature and poetry; this would make sense if 10% of kids became novelists, playwrights, or poets.

* Kids spend at least 10% of their time on history and social studies; this would make sense if 10% of kids became historians and social scientists.

* Kids spend at least 5% of their time on foreign languages. On the surface, this seems reasonable; 5% of American jobs arguably require some knowledge of Spanish. But well over 5% of Americans acquire Spanish outside of school. And almost no American jobs use French, the second-most studied foreign language.

* Kids spend at least 5% of their time on natural science; this would make sense if 5% of kids became biologists, chemists, physicists, astronomers, etc.

The best you can say about the American curriculum is that it also includes reading, writing, math, and computers - all of which are important in modern occupations.* But that's not saying much. Schools still spend at least half their time exposing people to knowledge that matters for jobs that virtually no one will ever have. If we really wanted to teach our children about their career options, we wouldn't pretend that poetry and astronomy are major employers. Instead, we'd start with the modern economy and design a curriculum that fits it.

* Even this is exaggerated: The kind of reading, writing, math, and computers you learn in school is only distantly related to the kind most people use on the job.


British government schools slipping behind

Declining numbers of comprehensive school pupils are winning places at university, it was revealed yesterday. That is despite the number of acceptances overall reaching a record high. Figures show how privately-educated youngsters are tightening their grip on top universities after forging ahead in the race for elite A* grades.

The number of places awarded to comprehensive pupils dipped by 0.5 per cent on last year, while acceptances of fee-paying pupils was unchanged. The number from comprehensives winning university places dropped from 120,544 in 2009 to 119,955 this year. The decline came even though they put in 5.8 per cent more applications.

Teenagers from state sixth-form and further education colleges increased their share of places.

The figures suggest that some of the best state pupils may have suffered because their teachers failed to predict the A* grades they would go on to achieve. This is important because universities partly base their offers on the grades predicted by teachers.

Universities offered more places than ever this year after increasing recruitment from overseas.

The figures show more than one in five places at prestigious Russell Group universities went to students from private schools, who make up just seven per cent of pupils.

Many of the 209,253 applicants who missed out this year will try again in 2011, heaping further pressure on admissions.


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