Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Be Thankful For Higher Ed's 'Perfect Mess'

    Despite its flaws or perhaps because of them, American higher education has become the engine of both public and private good for the U.S. and the world.

There's no shortage of books about how terrible American higher education is: From The Five Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It to Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life to Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, there's not much about higher education that hasn't been raked over the coals. And unfortunately and sometimes tragically, news from colleges and universities these days often bears out the criticisms. It's a wonder that parents continue to send their children off to these supposed cesspools of vacuity and depravity. All that on top of the pressure and anxiety of trying to be admitted in the first place.

Without diminishing the importance of any of the problems affecting higher education such as big-time sports, fraternity hazing, declines in full-time teaching professors and the shrinking of liberal arts departments, it may be helpful to get a little perspective on a system author David Larabee calls "a perfect mess." In A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, he calls the chaotic American college and university system one that "never should have happened" in the first place. Yet its very incoherence actually became one of its strengths, enabling it to "become the dominant system in the world--with more money, talent, scholarly esteem, and institutional influence than any of the systems that served as its models."

Media outlets each year breathlessly report the shrinking admit rates of "elite" schools as if they were the only game in town, which is more or less true in every other country in the world. There are the national university and all the other ones. Getting into that one institution dominates the lives of students so much in Japan, for example, cram schools and even cram "cities" exist to help students study for the entrance exam, the only thing that matters for gaining admission. If you don't pass, you don't go.

But here in the U.S., just about every student who wants to attend a post-secondary institution can, and aside from the perceived status of each one, they are more similar than different. Most American colleges accept more than 50% of their applicants and colleges and universities vie for the attention and attendance of students everywhere. Without an official "national university," the academic marketplace in the U.S. is a jumble of institutional types bumping against each other. Deciding which type to attend is just the first step in a long process that's full of possibilities.

Students have an amazing array of options when it comes to higher education, all of which, according to Larabee, provide a "balance" that "helps account for the success of the American university." Those options can be grouped into three general categories: The undergraduate college (what Larabee calls the "populist element" that "brings in large numbers of undergraduates, who support the rest of the operation financially."); the research university (the "elite element [that] focuses on establishing academic credibility for the institution at the highest level."); and the land grant college, which provides "utility" by being practically "relevant" (think agricultural or engineering schools) as well as "providing a practical education in vocationally useful skills that will prepare students to be adept practitioners in professional roles."

Larabee makes a good case that this variety is what has made the American system of higher education so strong and powerful. Each element competes in an educational marketplace that compels it to be as strong as it can be. For better or worse, that means they compete not only educationally but also socially and culturally, which is where the downsides of competition come into play.

With no single college or university having a monopoly on providing education, American institutions of higher education have to compete to stay alive. Since undergraduates are their bread and butter, that means providing what adolescents want and need besides the promise of a good education. Hence the appeal of climbing walls, "lazy rivers," elaborate food courts and residence halls (don't call them "dorms"). And athletics, of course.

Providing these things can backfire, especially in the public mind. Football coaches get paid more than university presidents (sometimes many multiples more), spending on amenities can starve libraries and fraternities can become centers of any number of horrifying behaviors. But their importance is seen in the difficulty schools have trying to reform or eliminate them; for better or worse, they're a part of colleges' DNA. And while some of these things may be ridiculous, they're part of the messy system that is American higher education. That kind of variety ultimately enables students at every level of talent, ability and interest to find a place there.


As Florida Flouts America’s New Education Law on English Language Learners, Will the Feds Take a Stand?

It’s a new week? Must be time for another episode of “States Trying to Circumvent Federal Education Law!” Florida, step right up!

The Sunshine State has over a quarter-million English language learners. The state’s graduation rate for ELLs is just 56 percent, 20 points below the rate for non-ELLs. And yet, in its outline of what the state will do for its students learning English with the approximately $800 million in federal education dollars it will receive this year, Florida has decided to test whether the U.S. Department of Education is paying attention.

Specifically, the state is proposing to leave ELLs’ progress toward proficiency out of the state’s system for measuring school quality. This is a terrible idea. It also happens to be illegal. The Every Student Succeeds Act says states must include these students’ progress learning English in schools’ ratings under these new systems (cf. ESSA Section 1111(c)(4)(B), to be specific).

Civil rights groups are incensed. In an email, Miami Dade College professor — and president of Miami-Dade’s TESOL/Bilingual Education Association — Ryan Pontier writes, “Rather than striving to continuously improve and provide an equitable education for its almost 300,000 ELs, Florida is engulfing itself in ignorance by rejecting decades of research, boundless personal stories of struggle, and the new federal law. ”

But Florida education leaders need not worry. Who cares what ESSA says? The Trump administration has already gladly approved plans from other states that wholly ignored the law’s language. ESSA has turned out to be the limp, tough-as-tapioca document that folks like me said it was.

Which, improbably, recalls a famous insight from American pragmatist philosopher William James. “Grant an idea or belief to be true … what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

Grant a rule to be true. Declare: Every state must hold schools accountable for ELLs’ progress learning English using tests designed to measure English proficiency. Does the declaration make it so? Florida’s proposal dares the federal government to decide.

If the state’s plan is approved, we’ll have further proof that the letter of ESSA’s law won’t be enforced, and that its meaning is nothing more or less than what’s politically and ideologically expedient for Republican leadership in Washington, D.C. In the world of experience, its “cash-value” is appreciably nil.


Britain's new national curriculum? Brainwashing and propaganda

Our education system teaches the young what to think, not how to think. And if you ever wonder why so many things don’t work properly any more, or why you can’t get any sense out of so many organisations, this is one of the main reasons.

But it’s also getting harder and harder to think or say certain things. This week I experienced this mixture of brainwashing and propaganda at two different ends of the system.

I was sent a rather sinister questionnaire given to new arrivals at a secondary school I won’t name. And I was the target of a bizarre and rather sad counter-demonstration at one of Oxford’s most exalted colleges. They are, in a way, connected.

The questionnaire is part of what has now become PSHCE, Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education. It is not anonymous, but it seeks, in a slippery sideways manner, to discover what the children involved think about immigration.

The cleverest question asks 11-year-olds to say why they think there is a shortage of jobs for younger people. One answer on the multiple-choice form is ‘competition from international applicants’.

They are asked to agree or disagree with such statements as ‘I like to be around people from other countries’ and ‘meeting students from other countries is interesting’. They are also invited to say how much they agree or disagree with the statement ‘immigration is bad for the country’.

They are asked if they have close friends from different countries, and how they would speak to a person whose first language isn’t English. And they are asked if immigrants should have the same rights as everyone else, whether they should be encouraged to speak the language of this country or encouraged to continue in their own traditions.

Well, I agree very strongly with the parent who sent this to me because she thought it was sinister probing into the minds of children, and also into her own opinions, none of the business of the school or the State.

Might some little symbol be placed against the name of any pupil who answered in the wrong way? Might it affect that pupil’s future and the attitude of the school towards the parents? If not, what is the educational purpose of this?

There’s no doubt a terrible conformism has infected our system. When I went to speak at Balliol College in Oxford about the restoration of grammar schools, I was met by a smallish, silent crowd holding up placards objecting to my presence there.

Judging from the righteous looks on their faces, they knew they were right. When I asked them to explain their point of view, they said nothing (unless you count one small raspberry). But I was handed two sheets of paper in which I was thoroughly denounced and hugely misrepresented as ‘Transphobic’ and ‘homophobic’.

I was, this indictment said, ‘a figure of hostility and hatred’. It ended in a sort of farce. A young woman positioned herself in front of me, walking slowly backwards while holding up a home-made placard proclaiming ‘History will forget you’. It hasn’t even remembered me yet.

Alas, she was walking backwards towards a large and prickly bush. She was so set on scorning me that she paid no heed when I warned her of her peril, and she duly reversed into it. No shrubs were hurt in the making of this protest, but it put her off her stride.

Still, history repeats itself. And if on this occasion the first time was farce, the next time could be tragedy. Such people will very soon be fanning out into politics, the law and the media. How long before they have the power to silence and punish me and you? Not as long as you think.


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