Friday, May 26, 2017

Diversity of thought continues to be decidedly unpopular at America’s top institutions of higher education

According to a new survey from Young America’s Foundation, top colleges invited 45 liberal commencement speakers this year … and a measly four conservatives. (Not all of the universities, which were drawn from U.S. News and World Report’s list, had announced a commencement speaker. Others had multiple speakers or speakers without clear ideological viewpoints.)

The four conservatives are Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke Sunday at the University of Notre Dame; Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer; sports commentator Ernie Johnson; and Mayor G. T. Bynum of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The liberals include former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg (who recently donated $1 million to Planned Parenthood); New York Times columnist Frank Bruni; and comedian Will Ferrell.

Of course, these numbers aren’t surprising. But they’re still concerning.

And while the media is fixated on the hundred or so students who walked out of Pence’s speech at Notre Dame (never mind the vast majority who stayed seated), the bigger story is the lack of ideological diversity at America’s colleges. Consider these facts:

— “By 2014, liberal identifiers [among college faculty members] jumped to 60 percent, with moderates declining to 30 percent and conservatives to just 10 percent,” wrote Samuel J. Abrams, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, in The New York Times. In other words, for every one conservative professor, there’s about six liberal ones.

— A 2007 survey found that “Faculty members were more likely to categorize themselves as moderate (46.1 percent) than liberal (44.1 percent). Conservatives trailed at 9.2 percent,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

I have no doubt many liberal professors believe themselves to be open-minded and perhaps even cultivate classrooms where conservative students feel free to speak and make their case. But for nonpolitical students, having almost entirely liberal or moderate professors may further solidify their liberal or moderate mindset—and they’ll never have to encounter a solid argument from the other side.

And that’s a shame.

After all, too many millennials these days may be rejecting conservative principles not because they have found those principles unpersuasive, but because they’ve never been exposed to a serious argument advancing them.

Universities once prided themselves on freedom of thought. It’s too bad they’ve become such safe spaces for conventional liberal thinking.

In his speech at Notre Dame, Pence decried just that, saying, “Far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe zones, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness—all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech.”

“As you, our youth, are the future, and universities, the bellwether of thought and culture,” he added. “I would submit that the increasing intolerance and suppression of the time-honored tradition of free expression on our campuses jeopardizes the liberties of every American.”

Pence is right that the lack of diversity of thought in colleges could have long-term effects. Culture matters—and if colleges were more interested in spurring intellectual debate and discussion, commencement speakers would be a lot more ideologically diverse.


Turning British education into welfare

Both Labour and the Conservatives want to turn schools into wellness retreats.

‘Strong and stable leadership.’ ‘For the many, not the few.’ These slogans, repeated ad nauseam by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn and reproduced on posters and leaflets, have come to dominate the pre-election debate. Their incantation acts as a shield, protecting the speaker from further questioning and closing down discussion. Politics becomes reduced to seven syllables.

Recourse to soundbites in this election campaign is disappointing. Last summer’s referendum ignited an interest in political debate that had long lain fallow. As a result, 72.2 per cent of those registered voted in the referendum – up from 66.1 per cent in the previous General Election and a pitiful 59.4 per cent in 2001. On buses, in pubs and cafes there was an appetite for discussing Brexit and the implications of triggering Article 50. Now politics is in danger of being drowned out by sloganeering once more.

Some blame Tony Blair (always a convenient scapegoat), others the Tory election strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, for the dominance of the slogan. Crosby, a fan of neuroscience, argues ‘message matters most’ and that the art of persuasion ‘is creating, solidifying and activating networks that create primarily positive feelings toward your candidate or party’. But the real issue is why politicians are so readily convinced by the likes of Crosby and the American linguist George Lakoff, who similarly argues that winning political arguments is all down to how debates are framed.

Politicians are all too ready to accept advice about endlessly repeating the same slogan because they don’t think voters are capable of understanding complex arguments. This view of people as generally a bit stupid is there in arguments that the media, an image on the side of a bus, and Russian attempts to influence social media, all helped sway the Brexit decision. It’s also evident in both Labour and Conservative proposals for education that seem premised on the belief that children are not actually able to learn.

When children are considered to be incapable of learning, the goal of education becomes welfare. Teaching becomes less concerned with the transmission of subject knowledge and instead shifts focus to children’s wellbeing. The project of schooling switches from intellectual to emotional concerns. This confusion of education with social work, the blurring of the role of the teacher and the role of the parent, this replacement of learning with formal care policies (which are, in practice, often anything but caring), underpins all parties’ education proposals.

Labour’s lengthy manifesto devotes 10 whole pages to education under the heading ‘Towards a National Education Service’. The National Education Service (NES) is a deliberate rhetorical echo of the NHS. But the parallels are not just linguistic. Labour intends the NES to provide ‘cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use’. We’re told: ‘The NES will be built on the principle that “Every Child – and Adult – Matters” and will incorporate all forms of education, from early years through to adult education.’

Lifelong learning sounds a noble enough idea – but there’s little sense here of what people will learn, and when, if ever, they will move from being learners to knowers. We’re told the NES would be about providing skills and ‘giving people confidence and hope’. The idea of being given ‘cradle-to-grave’ confidence and hope sounds less like education and more like coerced participation in a wellness retreat. Education – through teaching knowledge – should lead to people being critical, intellectually independent and morally autonomous. The NES proposes to be the very opposite of this – creating lifelong dependents who never get to grow up and leave the classroom, always kowtowing to the teacher who knows best.

The paternalistic thinking behind Labour’s NES confuses education with care, to the detriment of both. The ‘cradle’ part of the NES would mean more free childcare places with better qualified staff – a great idea. But it’s justified on the basis that time in a formal educational setting in the early years can boost a child’s later GCSE results. Rather than giving young children the attention they desire, and the freedom they need to grow up at their own pace, the NES would always have one eye on their future exam success. Likewise, giving all primary school children a free school meal makes for a sociable shared lunchtime experience for teachers and pupils. But when it’s done to aid attainment (despite the fact there is no evidence to suggest free meals do lead to exam success) it can appear to be more about schools stepping in to take over the role of the parent.

By contrast, smaller class sizes and free university places are presented by Labour as less about academic attainment and more a matter of social justice. Scrapping tuition fees will no doubt win the backing of Labour’s core demographic – students. But when university becomes separated from intellectual challenge and the pursuit of knowledge, free education takes on a different meaning. Students would be getting a very different education to that of previous generations.

The Conservatives’ headline education policies have been widely publicised. The expansion of the duties of the teacher to encompass the role of the parent – and the transformation of education into welfare – is again all too apparent. Theresa May has proposed every school should have staff trained in ‘mental health first aid’, and that children should receive lessons in mental health, keeping safe online and cyber-bullying. As children are taught to see the routine experiences and emotional ups and downs of growing up as diagnosable conditions, the number of children reported to be suffering from mental health problems is likely to increase further.

The Conservatives talk of using school time for mental-health workshops, while at the same time wanting to reintroduce grammar schools and high-stakes selection tests to separate off the most academically able from the majority of children. May’s grammar schools would not mark a return to a classical liberal curriculum – they’re designed for one purpose only: to promote social mobility. Proposed new grammar schools would be less about academic rigour and more about getting working-class kids into good jobs.

It seems that neither of the main political parties can see a role for education that goes beyond social welfare. Schools are presented as being about looking after children’s mental health or getting people into work, and little else. What most parents want, it seems to me, is quite straightforward – a good local school where children come home each day knowing more than they did when they left that morning. Yet neither Labour nor the Conservatives are offering this.


Students at Boston-area school hold sit-in over bias concerns

There is very little specificity below.  I suspect that mountains are being made out of molehills

Hundreds of Milton Academy students staged a sit-in Tuesday at administrators’ offices, the latest in a series of actions protesting what students describe as racism at the prestigious school and a failure by school leaders to act decisively.

High school students at Milton Academy say that in recent years racial slurs have been hurled at black students, hate-laced letters appeared in the mailboxes of at least two teachers of color, and pictures mocking black and Asian students were widely circulated on social media.

More than 100 alumni wrote a scathing letter addressed to Milton Academy this week, decrying what the authors condemn as “the complacency of Milton Academy’s administration in dealing with these racially abhorrent events.”

A statement issued by a Milton Academy spokeswoman Tuesday evening acknowledged the challenges faced by the school, which was founded in 1798 and includes kindergarten through 12th grade. The statement noted that the protests took place at the high school.

“Milton Academy’s administration is engaging with students and faculty in productive discourse and action, addressing the critical and challenging topics of identity, inclusivity, privilege, and race,” spokeswoman Erin Berg said in a statement.

“This work is all aimed at ensuring a school culture true to Milton’s mission, in which all individuals feel safe, heard, valued, and supported,” the statement said.

This week’s protests at Milton Academy, which included a walkout by students Monday during a school assembly and a sit-in by hundreds more that day, are the most recent instances of racial concerns at schools in Greater Boston.

At Milton Academy, anger and frustration over racial issues extend far beyond the students, as the letter dispatched by alumni expressed outrage at what they say are “blatant acts of racism” repeatedly dismissed to “maintain the facade of the Milton Academy brand at our expense.”

“No justice has been served and no changes have been made,” the letter said. “You use us, students of color, for your posed catalogue pictures, but fail to recognize us as more than just as a representation of your diversity. This action not only saddens us and our allies, but also breaks our spirit.”

The letter, circulating among graduates and others in the school community, was signed by more than 100 alumni who graduated from 2008 to 2016.

The pictures ridiculing black and Asian students surfaced a year ago but began recirculating on social media in recent weeks, according to a student.

“This institution is supposed to stand unwavering behind students that are hurt, angered, and broken when the very values Milton Academy attempts to instill in them are disregarded,” the letter from alumni said.

Parents of children of color at Milton say the school has failed to keep them informed about actions it is taking, or plans to take, to address longstanding racial tensions.

According to the school’s website, 41 percent of students are people of color. Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, is among the school’s famous alumni.

“We will have meetings and we discuss things, but once you leave the meeting nothing is done,” said one parent who asked that her name not be used because she fears her child, who is in high school, will face retaliation.

The parent said racial discord has worsened noticeably in the past year, and she traces the spike to last year’s divisive presidential campaign pitting Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton.

“There has been a lot of chatter among the kids about who has voted for Trump and who voted for Hillary, and it’s given the kids a voice to speak out on both sides of this,” she said.

Another parent who also asked that her name not be used said her child, who is in eighth grade at Milton Academy, is worried about racial conflict roiling the high school. “My child is afraid, saying, ‘I am going there next year, and is this what I am in for?’ ” the parent said.

One student, a junior who asked that his name not be used because he fears retaliation, said administrators have failed to explain why they have not taken action against students who use racial slurs or mock black and Asian students on social media.

“Myself and a group of kids have asked questions of administrators about why perpetrators of racism, why they are not given a [punishment] because we need to fight racism, and they were not able to give us a concrete answer,” he said.

The problems, he said, have been going on for at least two years, “day, after day, after day.”


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