Saturday, January 12, 2008

Do they know anything about Islam? Rights and wrongs of multicultural ed

I was in Cambridge, Mass., in February of last year when I heard the latest news out of Iraq: The al-Askari Mosque, the so-called "Golden Mosque" of Samarra, had been nearly leveled in a devastating explosion.

It was a Wednesday, and that night I attended my weekly seminar on Cambridge authors, led by James Russell, a prodigious member of Harvard's Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department. He arrived late to class, and was not in the mood to talk about T. S. Eliot when he did. "Do any of you know what the Golden Mosque is?" he asked. Blank stares followed. Smart though they reputedly are, few Harvard undergraduates had heard of the mosque, or knew that it is one of Shiite Islam's most holy sites.

Professor Russell sighed, and his voice took on a mournful tone. "This war is something completely different than it was yesterday. The violence this is going to unleash will make the last few months look positively tranquil." His warnings were prescient, but should not have seemed so gilded by expertise: Only the most cursory bits of knowledge about Islam and its sects were necessary to deduce the gravity of the crime and the reprisals it would inspire. But how many students had even this basic knowledge?

The answer is a sad one, especially for a university such as Harvard, which routinely trumpets its "international" character and insists its students are "generally educated": instructed not to be pre-packaged professionals, but to obtain a broad education that, supposedly, helps one understand our "global society." Yet until the New York Times and The Economist told them otherwise, the attack on the Golden Mosque seemed a pedestrian event to my friends: one bombing in a troubled place where bombings are mundane. In the weeks after, I gently quizzed my friends and acquaintances. Did they know:

* The major theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites?
* The countries in the region with Sunni majorities?
* Those with Shiite majorities?
* Some of the main pilgrimage sites in the Muslim world?
* Whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite?

This is a basic quiz, and its answers are highly pertinent to our modern world. But the results, while informal, spoke to an ignorance so grand as to render meaningless concerns over the margin of error. (And it is not just Harvard students who disappoint. The al-Qaeda question was posed last year to Silvestre Reyes, the Texas Democrat who now heads the House Intelligence Committee; he answered incorrectly.)

It is an oft-repeated criticism that schools have stopped teaching facts per se, touting instead grand theories that organize facts in a manner convenient to theorists' work. Nowhere is this truer than in "postcolonial" studies of the Middle East (as well as Africa and Latin America). In a college course on Islam, a student is more likely to be assigned Edward Said's historiography, as the theory and method of writing history is known, than an actual history textbook. Rarely will a student be held accountable for definitional knowledge--you don't need to know why Shiite Iranians call their religious leaders "ayatollahs," or even when Muhammad lived, but you had better understand how the emergence of Islam reshaped the gender structure of Arab society. There is a good case to be made for knowing all of that, but without the bare facts of people, places, and the dates they intersected, a critical analysis of same is useless. Learning this way is like wearing jeans with a button and a zipper, but no denim: quite impossible.

At times, the grandiose theorizing of academics is harmless, even amusing. But vis-a-vis Islam, students' ignorance is tragic, because, like it or not, we really do live in that much-prophesied global, interconnected world: What happens to a mosque, especially one in Iraq, may well have an impact on us and our cause. For as long a time as that is true, understanding cultures outside our own will be one of the foremost intellectual necessities.

This sounds flaky in the extreme to a good many conservatives. Indeed, their suspicion is well-placed--a true understanding of another culture is very different from the "understanding" fostered in higher education.

These days, to "understand" is rarely about obtaining specific knowledge about a foreign culture through patient study; usually, to "understand" is to excuse, or to change the subject. An example: One week at Harvard, not so long ago, there were no fewer than five panels bemoaning American "militarization," "imperialism," and supposed human-rights abuses. This, as it happened, was the same week when riots exploded across the globe in response to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's publication of several cartoons depicting Muhammad. But a student would have tried in vain to find a panel addressing the question that obviously needed to be asked: Why was the Muslim world burning over a few cartoons, printed in an obscure source?

Apart from extracurricular panels, there is the question of coursework. Or, rather, there's not the question, at least for most students. Add Islam and Muslim society to the long list of subjects, from Shakespeare to American history, that Ivy Leaguers from Yale to Princeton to Harvard can avoid ever encountering in their academic careers. Although schools have moved to embrace "internationalism," this pedagogical vogue exists in portions so small as to be useless. In Harvard's latest curricular review, for instance, it is claimed to be a "serious commitment" to our "global society" that the university requires its students to take one year of a foreign language. Not enough to have a conversation or read a newspaper, but perhaps graduates will be able to order falafel at their nearest Lebanese restaurant.

Harvard undergraduates are also required to take one class chosen from a small but schizoid list of "Foreign Cultures" offerings. Incredibly, in the 2007-08 academic year, none of the "Foreign Cultures" courses concerns Islam or the Middle East. If a student does want to learn something about Islam and have it count for credit, he'll have to wait until next year. And then, he'll be faced with a choice between two. Will he take "Gendered Communities: Women, Islam, and Nationalism in the Middle East and North Africa," taught by the chairman of the department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality? Or will he select "Understanding Islam and Contemporary Muslim Societies"?

He would do well to choose neither. As comprehensive as "Understanding Islam" sounds, it hardly lives up to its grand name, digressing in pursuit of the professor's own passion. That would be Sufi mysticism in India and Africa, a topic that is as obscure as it is exculpatory of Islam's lately radical tendency. (Sufis are to Islam what Quakers are to Christianity.) In any case, Sufism has little to do with why, in the decade in which we live, a student would sign himself up for a course called "Understanding Islam."

Despite the pretense of "understanding" other cultures, or "respecting" or "being sensitive to" them, few universities have moved beyond the platitudinous. A real sensitivity for other cultures entails discerning their differences, perhaps even more than finding their common ground. What is not respectful of Islam would be to assume that those of its adherents who brook no separation of civil and religious authority would be motivated by the same, largely secular incentives that motivate us in the West. A person who truly understands Shiite Islam will be able to comprehend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's millennial behavior and appreciate that he is perfectly serious in his belief that the twelfth Imam, whom God is said to have hidden from human view in the 9th century, will be reappearing soon to redeem the world for Islam.

For reasons that are even more obvious today than they were a century ago, learning the fundamentals of world religions still should be a pillar of a liberal education. A just-the-facts approach may seem pedantic and arcane to students who are themselves mostly agnostic. But in our time, it is not too much to ask that anyone who graduates from a prestigious American university have at least a functional knowledge of Islam and the Muslim world. This is the least effortful and most practical civic duty we can ask universities to bear. And if such a simple calling cannot be fulfilled, then American higher education will have further endangered its reputation as a useful institution.


Britain's failing government schools

More than half a million children are being taught in failing secondary schools that risk closure by the Government. New GCSE league tables published today indicate that 639 of Britain's 3,000 state secondaries have failed to meet the Government's minimum target for 30 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths. Last year, the Prime Minister vowed to shut down or take over schools that did not reach that level within five years.

Overall, the tables show that the rate of progress in improving GCSE results has almost ground to a halt. Fewer than half of pupils (just 46 per cent) last year achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C, up just 0.7 percentage points on the previous year. Selective grammar schools continued to dominate the league tables, with the state Colchester Royal Grammar School in Essex, at the top.

Yesterday Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, said that there would be no let-up in the pressure on low-performing schools, adding that 170 of the 639 were just a few percentage points from meeting the target. "We owe it to parents to make sure low-performing schools turn around quickly. I share parents' impatience for improvement not just in low-achieving schools, but in all schools," he said. He added that the Government would investigate whether to close the worst-performing schools or to "federate" them with neighbouring higher performing schools. Alternatively it could turn them into academies [charter schools] that are independently sponsored and run. But, while results for academies [charter schools] are generally improving, today's results show that 17 of the 40 academies reporting GCSE results were found in the league table of the worst 200 state schools in England.

Michael Gove, the Shadow Children's Secretary, said that the number of pupils at the bottom end of Britain's long tail of underachievement was growing. The number of children not even passing five GCSEs with grade G, including English and maths, is now at 90,000, up 5,000 on last year. Almost 130,000 children are not getting even a single grade C at GCSE. "Until we slash pointless bureaucracy, give teachers real powers to enforce discipline, and focus on the basics, we will fail another generation of our most disadvantaged children," Mr Gove said. [He's got that right! But don't wait for it to happen]

The tables also indicate that the number of immigrant children in GCSE classes who were unable to speak English has risen by 50 per cent over two years to 2,000. While this is a small proportion of the 600,000 or so pupils eligible for GCSE examination in England, teachers' leaders gave warning that the influx was creating "huge turbulence" and disrupting classes. This would suggest a total of 20,000 non-English-speakers if extrapolated to the whole school system.

In science, the league tables show that only half of teenagers in England are reaching the required standard. A new measure, showing the percentage of pupils achieving at least two passes in science at GCSE, was introduced for the first time this year. The results reveal that, nationally, only half of students (50.3 per cent) achieved two grade passes (A* to C) in science. These findings underscore concerns raised recently by employers and universities about the long-term fall-off in numbers studying science at A level and then undergraduate level. Hilary Leevers, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, described the results as disappointing, but said that the new measure would help to track progress.

However, independent schools have fiercely criticised it, because it effectively places subjects such as physics, biology and chemistry on a par with options described by some as "pub subjects", such as environmental and land-based science.


Australia: Leftist education academics reject evidence about phonics

They are too infantile to be able to admit that they were wrong

LEADING Australian education experts continue to reject scientific evidence that teaching phonics improves reading skills in children. The latest results from a seven-year Scottish study show that children taught how to put sounds together to read words, called synthetic phonics, had significantly better reading skills than their peers taught using analytic phonics, breaking whole words into their constituent sounds.

But eminent Australian literacy researcher Allan Luke, from the Queensland University of Technology, questions the validity of using evidence-based research in assessing teaching methods. Professor Luke, a former director-general of the Queensland Education Department and ministerial adviser on education, has dismissed scientific studies showing the benefit of phonics.

Speaking at a curriculum symposium last month, he said the studies provided no evidence that alternate methods had failed. Opponents of a phonics approach in teaching reading argue that it fails to enhance students' reading comprehension. The seven-year Scottish study found that, under the synthetic phonics approach, students' reading was 42 months ahead of the average for their age and spelling was 20 months ahead. But their comprehension was a more modest 3.5 months ahead, which researcher Rhona Johnston said was due to a substantial number of students coming from socially disadvantaged areas.

To counter the criticism, Professor Johnston, now at the University of Hull in England, and her colleague Joyce Watson, at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, compared a group of 10-year-olds from Clackmannanshire with a similarly disadvantaged group of students in England. The Scottish children read words 24 months ahead of what is expected for their age while the word reading of the English students was on target. In spelling, the Scottish children were six months ahead of their age compared to the English students. In comprehension, the Scottish children were on target for their age, while the English students were 6.6 months behind.

Literacy expert Kevin Wheldall, from Macquarie University, said phonics taught children how to decode written language and was a necessary first step in learning to read. "Comprehension comes from a good understanding of spoken English, but if you can't decode words, then it doesn't matter how good your listening comprehension is," he said. "(Critics) seem to be determined not to believe the evidence."

Professor Luke made his comments at a curriculum symposium last month hosted by the Australian Curriculum Studies Association in conjunction with the Queensland teachers union, state education department and the Queensland Studies Authority, which sets school curriculum. Professor Luke's paper argues that the troubled No Child Left Behind program in the US to improve reading skills, which prescribes a phonics approach and standardised testing, shows such an approach would fail in Australia. It says consistent in both countries "has been the rise of a 'gold standard' of evidence-based research as the major criterion for deciding what will be considered 'valid' as evidence of success in literacy teaching".

"It begins from what we term the phonics hypothesis: that there is scientific evidence that literacy achievement can be improved through systematic curricular approaches to pedagogy that emphasise 'alphabetics' or phonics," the paper says. "There is little recognition of the host of contributing factors identified in ethnographic, case-based and quantitative literacy research. Factors like home-school transitions and access; the variable impacts of community cultural and linguistic background; the effects of poverty; the increasing incidence of special needs; and the impacts of differential school resourcing."


Friday, January 11, 2008

U California loses interest in academic achievement

The world gets more competitive every day, so why would California's education elites want to dumb down their public university admissions standards? The answer is to serve the modern liberal piety known as "diversity" while potentially thwarting the will of the voters.

The University of California Board of Admissions is proposing to lower to 2.8 from 3.0 the minimum grade point average for admission to a UC school. That 3.0 GPA standard has been in place for 40 years. Students would also no longer be required to take the SAT exams that test for knowledge of specific subjects, such as history and science.

UC Board of Admissions Chairman Mark Rashid says that, under this new system of "comprehensive review," the schools "can make a better and more fair determination of academic merit by looking at all the students' achievements." And it is true that test scores and grades do not take full account of the special talents of certain students. But the current system already leaves slots for students with specific skills, so if you think this change is about admitting more linebackers or piccolo players, you don't understand modern academic politics.

The plan would grant admissions officers more discretion to evade the ban on race and gender preferences imposed by California voters. Those limits became law when voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996, and state officials have been looking for ways around them ever since. "This appears to be a blatant attempt to subvert the law," says Ward Connerly, a former member of the University of California Board of Regents, who led the drive for 209. "Subjective admissions standards allow schools to substitute race and diversity for academic achievement."

One loser here would be the principle of merit-based college admissions. That principle has served the state well over the decades, helping to make some of its universities among the world's finest. Since 209, Asian-American students have done especially well, with students of Asian ethnicity at UCLA nearly doubling to 42% from 22%. Immigrants and the children of immigrants now outnumber native-born whites in most UC schools, so being a member of an ethnic minority is clearly not an inherent admissions handicap. Ironically, objective testing criteria were first introduced in many university systems, including California's, precisely to weed out discrimination favoring children of affluent alumni ahead of higher performing students.

The other big losers would be the overall level of achievement demanded in California public elementary and high schools. A recent study by the left-leaning Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA, the "California Educational Opportunity Report 2007," finds that "California lags behind most other states in providing fundamental learning conditions as well as in student outcomes." In 2005 California ranked 48th among states in the percentage of high-school kids who attend college. Only Mississippi and Arizona rated worse.

The UCLA study documents that the educational achievement gap between black and Latino children and whites and Asians is increasing in California at a troubling pace. Graduation rates are falling fastest for blacks and Latinos, as many of them are stuck in the state's worst public schools. The way to close that gap is by introducing more accountability and choice to raise achievement standards--admittedly hard work, especially because it means taking on the teachers unions.

Instead, the UC Board of Admissions proposal sounds like a declaration of academic surrender. It's one more depressing signal that liberal elites have all but given up on poor black and Hispanic kids. Because they don't think closing the achievement gap is possible, their alternative is to reduce standards for everyone. Diversity so trumps merit in the hierarchy of modern liberal values that they're willing to dumb down the entire university system to guarantee what they consider a proper mix of skin tones on campus.

A decade ago, California voters spoke clearly that they prefer admissions standards rooted in the American tradition of achievement. In the months ahead, the UC Board of Regents will have to decide which principle to endorse, and their choice will tell us a great deal about the future path of American society.


A new tribute to Australia's Left-run schools

Half of Australians lack modern-world skills

Half of all Australians lack the minimum reading, writing and problem-solving skills to cope with life in the modern world. A new survey on life skills by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals 46 per cent of the population, or seven million people, would struggle to understand the meaning of newspaper and magazine articles or documentation such as maps and payslips.

And 53 per cent reached just the second of five levels in a practical numeracy test, while 70 per cent, the equivalent of 10.6million people, only managed to progress to level 2 in a series of problem-solving exercises. "Level 3 is regarded by the survey developers as the minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy," said the ABS report, Adult Literacy and Life Skills.

The survey of almost 9000 people, which included a written life-skills test, was also done in seven other developed countries. Switzerland and Norway came out well ahead of Australia, while the US ranked much lower across all age ranges. Italy was the poorest-performing country of those participating. One stark difference in Australia was gender. Women were stronger at understanding written material than men, but males were better at understanding documents such as maps. And when it came to numbers, women did considerably worse. [An old, old story. Nothing to do with genetics, of course. It's just all these coincidences that keep piling up] While 53 per cent of men achieved (the acceptable) level 3 or higher, only 42 per cent of women managed the same. And almost twice as many men as women reached the top levels of the numeracy test.

Management consultant and social commentator Wendy McCarthy said the results were further evidence Australia was becoming a society increasingly divided into two classes. Ms McCarthy said a decade of neglect of the public education system was to blame. "It's a huge opportunity lost," she said. "It clearly demonstrates that if you don't invest in public education, except as a safety net, if you don't make it sexy, interesting, exciting, a way to get into the next world, you will slip back - and that's what's happening to Australia. "We will look back over the last 10 years and realise with some horror how much we overemphasised the value of the individual and overlooked the common denominators in our society."

The ACT was the best-performing state or territory in terms of literacy and numeracy, followed by Western Australia and South Australia. Tasmania performed worst. While people whose first language was not English achieved lower literacy scores than the general population, comparisons with a 1996 survey show considerable improvement in literacy levels of this cohort.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

School Daze

If we stopped and thought about it, we'd realize we could, would and should throw out the public [mis]education system

Let's kick off the new year with some out-of-the-box thinking. What if we didn't have public education here in Fairfield County? What if we separated school and state and let education be entirely a private matter? If you hadn't resolved to be more open-minded this year, you might have dismissed this as foolishness. After all, everybody knows without government we would all be illiterate bums. Privatizing education? Come on. It can't be done, people wouldn't do it even if they could, and it shouldn't be done even if people would.

It can't be done? Consider Sundays. As far as I know, every single public school at all grade levels is closed on Sundays. Neither the State of Connecticut, nor any of the 23 municipalities in Fairfield County regularly contributes educational information to anybody on each of the 52 Sundays throughout each year. Yet kids still learn. They go to Sunday school at church. They go to Hebrew school in a synagogue. They go to Chinese school or Russian school. What's more, it's not a cookie-cutter curriculum; they learn what their parents want them to learn.

Marshall Fritz, director of the Separation of School and State Alliance, puts it succinctly: "Two centuries ago, Americans ended government undermining of parents by removing government involvement in Sunday school. Now we need to do the same with Monday school, Tuesday school, Wednesday school, etc." And remember, there is no summer semester for most public school students. Yet kids don't seem to get lost. Parents send them to camps and retreats and are somehow magically able to fill the time they would have spent trapped behind brick.

Fine, sure, the cynic says. It can in principle be done, but people wouldn't do it. It's too much hassle and it's too expensive. Really? Consider martial arts. There is a dojo of some sort on almost every street. You can choose from tae kwon do, judo, karate, and more. Consider piano lessons. Or guitar. Or saxophone. Pick any musical instrument, stroll into your local grocery store, and pick your teacher from the bulletin board. Instructors provide these services precisely because parents want them. Imagine the same with history or English or math.

It's less hassle because there is more accountability. You can't fire your kid's English teacher even if they tell your son or daughter that candy canes are shaped like the letter J for Jesus-as some teachers have been caught doing-and your family is Jewish or Hindu, or just don't want your kid, and other kids, being taught Christianity with your tax dollars. (Besides, the letter-J claim is false; candy canes were bent to represent a shepherd's staff.) Imagine you could switch private instructors for any reason or for no reason at all. And it's less expensive because there is more competition for your dollar.

Still, the cynic scoffs, even though it can be done, and even though people would do it, or at least would have the choice, it still shouldn't be done, because then poor people wouldn't be able to afford an education, or parents would make their kids work instead of learn, and that's just not fair. Talk about fairness. Is it fair to force kids to attend school even if a gifted student could learn the material and pass the final exam after the first class? Is it fair to tax childless adults to pay for a service they do not need?

And consider the poor. Is it fair to force them to do what you want them to do, rather than what they would prefer? Suppose they could move to a nicer apartment with the money that's being paid for their kids' school. Suppose one of the parents could quit a minimum wage job and homeschool the kids. Is it fair that you won't even give them that choice?

A year of education for a child in a Fairfield County public school costs about $13,000. A year of full-time minimum wage is $16,000 in income-before taxes. If the parents simply received the $13,000 as cash, they could work part-time, homeschool their kids, teach them the values they believe, and still come out thousands of dollars ahead.

Consider the children, the concerned cynic sings. If parents fail to have them taught the basic knowledge that public schools provide then they will be unemployable as adults.

In other words, we are putting children through a mandatory 12-year program to make them better workers. Is that really what education is supposed to be about? Is that what the children would choose to spend the money on? At $13,000 per year times 12 years, each high school graduate has received education that cost about $150,000. How many of them would have preferred, as adults, in retrospect, to have maybe received only $10,000, enough to pay a tutor to teach them basic reading and arithmetic, and spend the rest of the money on cars, houses, seed capital for a business, or just tons of candy canes? Is it fair that they should have no choice in the matter?

Public education has mandatory attendance, is funded by mandatory taxes, and is provided by a mandatory monopoly by the government. Perhaps some of these restrictions could be relaxed. This new year, let's resolve to think for ourselves.


Wow! A school with standards

Four Texas teens have been suspended from school for refusing to get their hair cut over the Christmas break. The students had been warned that the district was cracking down on dress code violators after they repeatedly let their locks loose on school grounds. "Our policy states that the hair (on male students) cannot extend beyond the collar in the back,'' said Kevin Stanford, superintendent of the Kerens Independent School District.

"What we were doing is allowing the students to bind their hair, but there was very inconsistent compliance.'' After several complaints from parents in the small rural town south of Dallas, school officials decided to eliminate the hair-binding loophole. Students were told to go to the barber over the break or face the consequences.

"I don't know exactly what the students are going to - the ball's in their court,'' Mr Stanford said. "Persistent insubordination could go as far as a disciplinary alternative school placement. That's the worst case.''

Strict dress codes were common in Texas, Mr Stanford said, and had been upheld by challenges which went as far as the Texas Supreme Court. Students at Kerens high school are also prohibited from wearing sleeveless shirts, excessively tight or baggy pants, mismatched socks, "disruptive hair styles'' and "unnatural'' hair colours, according to an 86-page student handbook. "The Kerens ISD dress code promotes the effective personal presentation skills which contribute significantly to successful living in adult society,'' the handbook explained. "The district's dress code is established to teach hygiene, instill discipline, prevent disruption, avoid safety hazards, and teach respect for authority.''


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

J Edgar Hoover Was Half Right

Comment by a British policeman

I had the misfortune to attend one of our less academic local schools a week or so back. I won't bore you with the details, save to say that, while it wasn't the crime of the century, it had left a young girl quite distressed; on balance, I suppose, it was worth attending, though in my day it would have resulted in six of the best from the headmaster and no 'outside agency' would have been required. (My day is only 20 years ago, but it increasingly seems to have been in another era altogether, and possibly in another country).

Teachers (honest ones), parents (intelligent ones) and police officers now know that a significant minority of the schools in our cities offer almost nothing in the way of education. In the worst 10 per cent, it's far more serious than a simple lack of schooling: drugs are openly sold and consumed, pupils are often drunk and/or pregnant, hardcore pornography is widely available and eagerly swapped, casual sexual assaults and threats of serious violence are commonplace and there is very little, if anything, that the teaching staff can do about any of it. It's heartbreaking, actually.

I looked around. All I could see were lost souls destined for the scrapheap. At 13 years of age, they had literally no hope of ever achieving anything in their lives, without the intervention of a lottery win or some other piece of outstanding good fortune. I thought about my own grandfather. He was one of seven, and grew up in a slum dwelling with an outside standpipe for water. In his 90s now, he still reads avidly, lobs bits and pieces of Shakespeare about and can talk you through you Partition, the Beatles and the Falklands with equal clarity.

I saw a young lad I vaguely knew. His hair had been shaved at the back into an approximation of the letters 'MUFC' and he had a gold stud in one ear. 'What's happening in Afghanistan at the mo, mate?' I said, conversationally. 'You what?' he said. 'Afwhat?'

I happen to know that this lad's father is doing time for murder, and that his mother is an alcoholic and occasional prostitute. I hate to sound like a bleeding heart, but is it his fault he doesn't know what's happening around him? Is it the teachers' faults they can't educate him? What is going on in this country?

J Edgar Hoover was half right when he said, 'The cure for crime is not the electric chair, but the high chair.' To my mind, we need a bit of both.


Dr. Sharad Karkhanis Educator of the Year

Dr. Sharad Karkhanis, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Library Science at Kingsborough Community College, will be the esteemed recipient of the annual Educator of the Year award at the upcoming Lincoln Day Dinner sponsored by the Queens Village Republican Club, America's oldest and proudest GOP group. His most distinguished service concerns his on-going struggle for freedom of speech, conscience and the press, which began as an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's authoritarian rule and censorship of the press in India in the 1970's. His battle for free speech continues today as he refuses to be silenced by a $2 million defamation lawsuit filed by a faculty union official of City University of New York in order to shut down his on-line newsletter The Patriot Returns. We are proud to be honoring him at the history making dinner and fully support his battle for First Amendment rights in an urban academic climate of repression and censorship that harkens back to Mrs. Gandhi's oppressive rule in India....

Dr. Karkhanis started publication of The Patriot Returns in 1992. Written in a satirical tone, it performed a critical function informing the CUNY community of the incompetent and self-serving faculty union leadership that was more concerned with political revolution in America than securing good contracts and benefits for faculty members. He collected useful information, reported and wrote the monthly newsletter, and printed, labeled and distributed over 12,000 issues to 21 CUNY campuses. Since its inception, the ruling radical professors of the CUNY faculty union have been trying to censor TPR, suppress free speech and shut down on-line forums that were critical of their leadership. In 1996, faculty union official and former chair of the CUNY Faculty Senate, Professor Susan O'Malley ordered Karkhanis to stop publication of TPR. Fearing repercussions to their careers, other critics bowed to O'Malley's repressive exploits but Karkhanis refused to be silenced. She recently sent a threatening lawyer's letter and finally filed a lawsuit charging Karkhanis with making defamatory statements in TPR, accusing her of trying to land jobs for terrorists on CUNY campuses. TPR exposed her tireless efforts to secure teaching positions for convicted terrorist conspirator, Mohammad Yousry, and imprisoned Weather Underground terrorist Susan Rosenberg. The lawsuit alleges that by spilling the beans on her malfeasance and radical proclivities, Karkhanis has damaged O'Malley's reputation.

With a lifetime history of standing up against repression and censorship, Dr. Karkhanis will not be silenced now, and friends and colleagues of good conscience are coming to his aid including the Queens Village Republicans. A legal fund for Dr. Karkhanis's defense is being set up and part of the proceeds of each ticket sold for the Lincoln Day Dinner will be donated to the fund. We will also be treated to a speech on the condition of our urban universities by CUNY Trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, one of the keynoters, and one of the principle heroes famed for restoring higher academic standards to CUNY and fighting against political indoctrination in the classroom. This will be an historical event not only for defending freedom of speech and the press, but also reforming the intolerant status quo of higher education today. The combination of Dr. Karkhanis and Trustee Wiesenfeld in addition to the return engagement of last year's Educator of the Year honoree, History Professor Gerald Matacotta, to deliver the Lincoln Day address at one of the major annual Queens GOP functions, signifies the last act of the garish drama by the radical faculty regime now in control of the CUNY system.


Australia: Shakespearean Marxism axed

DESPITE his humiliating electoral defeat, former Prime Minister John Howard has won a final battle against some of his greatest foes - the left-wing forces of political correctness. Postmodernism, under which senior high school students were controversially asked to interpret Shakespeare from Marxist, feminist and racial perspectives, has been quietly dumped by the NSW Board of Studies.

The board is adamant it is just a "normal turnover" of the list of elective subjects offered to HSC candidates in the English Extension 1 course - rather than a reaction to critics who savaged postmodernism as subverting the classics by failing to help students appreciate them or gain full meaning of the texts.

But students who opted for the postmodern elective in previous years are horrified at its passing, among them outstanding all-rounder Mikah Pajaczkowska-Russell. The former Sydney Girls High School student, who has just scored a UAI of 99.75, said critics misunderstood the value of postmodernism for HSC English. "It is so easy to criticise texts . . . but they are not about undermining Shakespeare or traditional texts," she said. "They look at truth and reality . . . I find it invigorating." Ms Pajaczkowska-Russell, who will take an arts/law degree at Sydney University this year, singled out the postmodernism elective for special praise among her 11 HSC units.

But to Mr Howard, who campaigned long and hard to reinstate traditional values in school curriculums, postmodernism was "anything I don't like". His government threatened to cut education funding to states that did not fall into line on a raft of Commonwealth demands. Postmodernism will be dropped from the list of electives available to students in HSC English Extension 1 from 2009.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

British universities refuse credit for soft High School subjects

About time

TOP universities are drawing up blacklists of "soft" A-level subjects that will bar applicants from winning places on their degree courses. They are warning that candidates who take more than one of the subjects such as accountancy, leisure studies and dance are unlikely to gain admission. They say they lack the academic rigour to prepare students for courses and are alarmed at the way increasing numbers of state schools are using them to boost pupils' top grades.

Disclosure of the lists will anger the parents of many pupils whose schools have failed to warn them that the A-level subjects are effectively worthless for entry to the best universities. Ministers will also be concerned that they will undermine attempts to increase the number of state pupils at leading universities, traditionally dominated by independent schools.

Some universities such as the London School of Economics (LSE) and Cambridge University have already published lists of up to 25 subjects on their web-sites. Others are less overt but still operate lists. Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of 20 leading universities, said most top institutions would follow suit in "providing a steer on preferred combinations of A-levels".

She warned that a new analysis carried out by the group showed that a gulf was emerging between state and private schools, as comprehensives opted for "soft" A-levels and independents and grammars tightened their grip on traditional academic subjects. "Clearly if pupils from state schools are increasingly taking a combination of subjects which put them at a disadvantage in competing for a course at a Russell Group university, the task of widening participation in our universities becomes even more difficult," said Piatt, a former deputy director of Tony Blair's Downing Street strategy unit.

The list run by Cambridge advises potential applicants against taking more than one from a list of 25 subjects ranging from business studies to dance and tourism. It warns that such a combination "would not normally be considered acceptable". "Doing these A-levels individually is not a problem, it is doing too many of them," said Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge University. "We know there are bright students on track to get As but in subject combinations that essentially rule them out."

The LSE has named 10 subjects that it deems questionable. They include many of those named by Cambridge, but also others such as law. A spokes-woman for Oxford said that it did not operate a list but that candidates who opted for "meatier" A-levels were likely to gain some advantage.

The Russell Group findings are unlikely to please ministers, who have accused universities of failing to do enough to attract working-class students. In September, John Denham, the universities secretary, called the current system a "huge waste of talent", adding that there was a "social bias" across higher education institutions, "including some of the most sought-after".

The Russell Group research shows the widening divergence between subjects being studied at different schools. In media studies, for example, 93% of pupils were from nonselective state schools, far above the sector's 74% share of all A-levels. The situation is reversed in science, languages and maths. In the state sector, fewer than one in 10 A-level pupils in nonselective schools takes sciences, compared with one third at grammar and independent schools. In further maths, 35% of exams are taken at private schools, far above the sector's 15% share of all A-levels. Meanwhile, the number of independent school candidates taking languages has remained steady, while those in the state sector have plummeted.

"It is overwhelmingly the state school students dropping sciences and languages," says the research. "This is making it increasingly difficult for the Russell Group to recruit large numbers of state school pupils into these difficult subjects." The choice of subjects is increasing the dominance of independent and grammar school students already shown by their higher grades - the two groups together accounted for 52.3% of those gaining three As in 2006, although they made up only 21% of candidates.

Competition is becoming increasingly tough at the top universities, with 94% of the students who entered Cambridge last year securing more than three A grades at A-level. At Bristol, for example, there are 10 candidates for every place. The Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "More young people are staying on at school taking A-levels and achieving - surely that's something we should welcome."



One of the responses I received to my last article Would God Bless America stood out from all the rest for one reason: it was from an individual who admitted being the product of our "new and improved" system of education. Here is the response:
"H0w dare you promote misleading hate towards Humainist. And you know some of us are christians. i am a Humanist and a christian and cause of that i will not celebrate the pagan holiday Christmas. While you put down the humanist which simply means to leave each person better than when you met them. They believe in promoting the goodwill in others. yet here you blast them for doing the same thing Christ would do. Did you know Christ didn't celebrate Birthdays no it was a traditional Pagan thing The jews didnot celebrate Birthday. Nor did they believe in decorating trees that was pagan along with everything else that is celbrated this time of year.,. So your question is why would God Bless America ? Because unlike you me or anyone else he understands and see things from a total different perspective than us. He understands out of ignorance people say or do things but he looks at their heart. Remember you were to take Jesus in your heart and love him and it was your heart that was suppose to change. Not going and expressing this kind of fear which Yahweh says not to fear . But to spread the fear for what. what is your purpose and please let crucified the humanist they only want to help the child who dont have enough to eat or to reach the hand out to the one struggle to be free from Drugs. before you attack a group 0f people do your homework and see what they really are about. And also before judging who is doing what this holiday season find out what the origins are that are Christkmas if we are celebrating his birth well theres enough evidencve it didn't happen than. The time of year was pick to coincident with the pagan Holistice. did you know that. Do you know how much of Christmas is pagan. Seems the Cia has successfully brainwash you and you are ready to attack the very people who are fighting the battle against the elites. oh while you are checking out Christmas also check out Eostere you may find something out about that holiday yup pagan to. Maybe we should celebrate the Holidays of our Saviour and instead of advocating fear we should try to help our fellow man showing his Spirit by our action. And instead of Judging others based on our own faulty understanding of the sitution we should just stand and be quiet. And if you want the norms of society to change than please stand up and go out and state these out in public instead of behind a computer desk./ I have i have gone in public school and proudly proclaim my saviour and stating when will we see the changes of the heart instead of judging people based on who we think they are when will we see them for who they are." (As written.)

I shall call this individual "Ms Muffet" for reasons of anonymity. My response to Ms Muffet, in part, was as follows:
"Your inability to articulate yourself coherently is obviously the product of your government schooling. Were I your teacher, I would give you an F for what you wrote . To begin, you don't even make a logical argument because a logical argument is based on facts and there aren't any in what you wrote, just how you feel. Secondly, your spelling and punctuation are atrocious. Third, you obviously didn't proof-read what you wrote to see if it even made sense, which it doesn't."

In a later e-mail, Ms Muffet stated:
"No the grammer wasn't check my GPA is still 3.40 I'm not writing a college level paper so i don'tt need to check it." (As written.)

In other words, she doesn't feel what she wrote important enough to take the time to present herself as though she were writing the most important dissertation ever. No pride in self, no pride in work product. Yet she truly believes that anyone reading what she wrote should appreciate her, and further, appreciate her point of view. This is the product of misplaced self-esteem. Jake Halpern, writing for the Boston Globe, quoting Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has termed the present product of government schools narcissistic and entitled.

Not long ago, I had an exchange with an government school teacher, incensed by something I had written about government schools. This teacher, in her effort to defend her profession and her failure to properly educate children, finally got around to stating that it "wasn't [her] job to educate children for intelligence", she was educating children to be critical thinkers. Like the critical thinker in the form of Ms Muffet above?

Another teacher, run out of the government schools because he thought educating for intelligence more important, wrote me the following when I sent him the above response from Ms Muffet:
"I think I had this lady in one of my classes. In four years of teaching English, I saw a lot of essays and research papers written this poorly. The student, parent and administrators couldn't understand why I would mark such papers as failing and ultimately fail the student if he or she didn't allow me to teach him how to write an effective paper without grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure errors The System calls `conventions' and which they deem unimportant."[1]

Spelling, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure - commonly referred to as syntax - unimportant? What Ms Muffet wrote has all the earmarks of someone who is functionally illiterate.

How much money are we paying for the government schools to not educate children? Even one penny is too much. A small business owner had this to say recently about children coming out of the government schools: "They don't know anything; furthermore, they don't know they don't know anything; but they can certainly tell you how they feel about everything. And they really and truly believe you should appreciate them endlessly even though they don't deserve it." Notice this small businessman had no trouble articulating himself succinctly. His observations are astute, to the point, and quite accurate.

The new system of education, brought into being by Goals 2000, School-to-Work, and the Workforce Investment Act, along with the strategic plans known as Improving America's Schools Act (Clinton) and No Child Left Behind (GW Bush), has now been in effect for one full education cycle of children, pre-K through 12. This system of education, the American public was told (and swallowed, hook, line and sinker), would improve education, produce smarter children.

There were some of us who knew better because we delved into the writings of those advocating this system of education. From America's Choice, high skills or low wages!, (1990) page 25, comes this little gem that should have clued parents that this system of education wasn't what they were being told it was:
". in a broad survey of employment needs across America, we found little evidence of a far-reaching desire for a more educated workforce."

Get the drift? If not, here is another:
"We will need to recognize that the so-called basic skills, which currently represent the total effort in elementary schools, will be taught in one quarter of the present school day..."[2]

Remember when you were in grade school? Did you ever finish a text book in a year's time? Now, if it took a full school year to cram all the knowledge in that book into your head, such that your brain was growing in knowledge and ability to comprehend, how is it that schools today can do it "in one quarter of the present school day"? The obvious answer is that they can't and they aren't. Children are not being taught what children need to know to grow and comprehend.

Education today is focused on life-related issues (affective domain), knowledge (cognitive domain) is only incorporated as it used and applied in addressing life-related issues. It is easy to see, in the absence of knowledge, how children can be effectively dumbed-down. In what Ms Muffet wrote, this is clearly evident.


Educators can also learn from what already works

Comment from Australia

As our approach to teaching embraces more traditional methods, the overseas experience can inform our choices. Looking back over the past 12 months, it is clear that 2007 was a watershed year for education. Much of what has been argued on these pages in terms of increased testing and more rigorous examinations, adopting a back-to-basics approach to curriculum, holding schools accountable and better rewarding teachers, is now mainstream in terms of the debate and is being advocated by ALP state and federal governments.

How can we ensure, though, that initiatives planned for 2008 and beyond will be effective in raising standards, better supporting teachers and schools and ensuring that students receive a well-balanced, academically sound and fulfilling educational experience? One approach is to learn from what is happening overseas, in addition to our own experience, and to evaluate classroom practice by what the research suggests works.

Ensuring that children are literate and numerate in the early years of primary school is critically important and there is an increasing consensus overseas about the best way to teach such skills. In Britain, the Rose report, in part based on the success of the Scottish school Clackmannanshire, recommends adopting a synthetic phonics approach to teaching reading, a recommendation the British Government has accepted. In opposition to the prevailing whole-language approach -- whereby, on the assumption that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak, children are taught to look and guess and memorise words by sight -- synthetic phonics "is a sounds-based approach that first teaches children the sounds of letters and how they blend into words, before moving to letter combinations that make up words".

Adopting a more structured approach to literacy and numeracy is also supported by the US research associated with Project Follow Through. The billion-dollar nationwide project evaluated different approaches to teaching and concluded that formal methods of classroom interaction, described as direct instruction, are more effective than the type of teaching associated with Australia's adoption of outcomes-based education. Summarising what we can learn from Project Follow Through, Australian mathematics researcher Rhonda Farkota noted: "Student-directed learning has consistently more negative outcomes than those achieved in traditional education ... On all measures of basic skills, cognitive development and self-esteem, it (student-centred learning) was shown to be vastly inferior to traditional education."

One of the most respected and influential international tests is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, held three times since its inception in the mid-'90s, involving 46 countries and testing students at years 4, 8 and 12. On identifying the characteristics of education systems that achieve at the top of the table -- the results place Australia in the second 11 -- it is possible to identify what leads to success. Stronger performing systems place a greater emphasis on competitive examinations and testing (which are often used to stream students in terms of ability), give teachers clear and succinct road maps detailing what is to be taught, and expect students to master essential knowledge and understanding associated with the key disciplines at each year level.

Research carried out by German academic Ludger Woessmann also concludes that top-performing TIMSS countries have a robust non-government school sector, which leads to increased competition and pressure to do well, schools have autonomy over hiring, firing and rewarding successful teachers, and the influence of teacher unions is restricted.

While critics of George W. Bush's initiative No Child Left Behind -- whereby federal funding is linked to education systems setting clear objectives in terms of raising standards, students are regularly tested, classroom practice is based on what the research suggests works and there are consequences for underperformance -- argue that NCLB has failed, the evidence suggests otherwise. As noted by US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, setting performance targets, regularly testing students and holding schools accountable have raised standards, as reflected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. She states: "According to NAEP, more reading progress was made by nine-year-olds from 1999 to 2004 than in the previous 28 years combined. Maths scores have reached record highs across the board."

Given that many overseas education systems have been implementing the types of initiatives on the agenda in Australia for 2008, such as moving to a national curriculum, increased testing and holding schools accountable, it is also vital that we learn from their mistakes. As argued by the conservative US think tank the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, too much testing, forcing teachers to focus on the basics and imposing a centralised, top-down approach that fails to recognise the unique quality of individual schools can be counterproductive.

Forcing unproven and faddish curriculum change on schools and making them conform to inflexible and intrusive accountability measures can also overwhelm and frustrate teachers, leading to the type of situation evident in Western Australia, where teachers are deserting classrooms and it is impossible to attract newcomers to the profession.


Monday, January 07, 2008

In Minn., federal NCLB education program to get more scrutiny

When legislators meet next month, some Republicans will again have their eye on the No Child Left Behind law. Republican senators plan to introduce a bill that would end Minnesota's participation in the federal program. The program is aimed at forcing schools to improve their students' test scores, and hands down penalties if they don't. "What we want is to make a real firm stand for local control," said Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, who added that he represents Senate Republicans on the issue. "We've had five years of the No Child Left Behind regime, and I think it's safe to call it a failure now. We're giving it an F and trying to take back our schools."

Senators and representatives from both parties have tried to yank Minnesota out from under No Child Left Behind's requirements over the last few years, but to no avail. For one thing, thumbing their noses at the federal government has a price: The loss of federal school funds. According to the most recent estimates, Minnesota could forfeit $250 million a year if it decided to buck No Child Left Behind. Also, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been a supporter of the program, though his office was not available for comment on the current proposed legislation.

Many Minnesota educators oppose the program, saying it forces schools to devote too much time and money to testing and can result in tough penalties, such as the forced reorganization of entire schools if they fail to meet their goals for too many consecutive years.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville and the leader of a previous effort to get Minnesota out of NCLB, said she wouldn't necessarily support the Republican effort. "I think they're Johnny-come-latelies," she said. "To me, it's kind of cheap words right now when the president is sinking into the mud on so many issues, and now they can divorce themselves from him on this." Greiling said that her position on NCLB has evolved into an "amend-it-don't-end-it" stance and that she wants to wait for Congress to decide what to do before committing to state action. The law, signed by President Bush in 2002, is up for reauthorization.

Michel said the state can absorb the loss of federal funds because of all the money it would save by not having to adhere to the law. A legislative auditor's report released in 2004 said that Minnesota schools would have to spend tens of millions of dollars to meet No Child Left Behind's requirements. "My sense is that there is bipartisan agreement that (NCLB) is not working," he said. "There may be some who don't want to go quite as far as withdrawing from it. I think we're just negotiating the terms of the divorce here."


Leftist teachers again

The American Federation of Teachers reported spending almost $800,000 last month on mailings and radio advertisements in Iowa and New Hampshire in support of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. The teachers are the biggest spenders among labor unions and interest groups backing candidates in early-voting states. The groups spent more than $2.3 million last month, almost seven times the amount spent in December 2003 before the last presidential-election year, Federal Election Commission records show.

These efforts represent just some of the millions being poured into the early-voting states by outside groups. Also fueling the spending binge is a Supreme Court decision in June that gave companies, labor unions and interest groups the power to run broadcast ads before elections that specifically mention a federal candidate, overturning part of federal law on free-speech grounds.

“You have to look at this as an arms race,” said Steve Weissman, an associate director at the Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks independent spending. Clinton has been the biggest beneficiary - and the biggest target - of the independent expenditures.

On the Republican side, outside groups have been active as well. Log Cabin Republicans, a group that supports gay rights, ran radio ads against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. The Club for Growth, which supports lower taxes and spending, spent $547,963 against former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa, FEC records show.


Educational realism growing in Australia

The booming demand for tradesmen has accelerated a disturbing education trend, with the number of male school-leavers applying for university falling for the 10th year in a row. The latest tertiary admission figures reveal that just 38 per cent of university applicants are male, down from more than 42 per cent a decade ago. Pat Smith of the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre said the latest figures were worrying. "It's getting worse. It is a drain which is a concern for Queensland tertiary institutions," he said.

The overall number of applicants has also declined by about 1000, with 50,400 students applying for the 1400 courses on offer this year. The fall in male applications over the past few years averages 1355 students annually. Many of the male school-leavers not going on to uni have been lured by the big money on offer in the mining and building industries. Qualified tradesmen in some high-demand areas can earn more than $100,000 by the age of 21.

Gold Coast carpenter Kane Anderson, 18, who graduated from All Saints Anglican School, said he decided in Year 11 his best option was to take up an apprenticeship. "After three years' work, you can earn more than $100,000. Then you can start your own company and it just keeps growing and growing. "A lot of my friends are all doing different trades. Carpentry is one of the most popular. I'll be 21 when I finish, still young and earning good money."

But other young men who have decided against a degree in favour of a wage as an unskilled labourer have been urged by education authorities to reconsider and apply mid-year for university spots. The first round of university offers will be released on Thursday, with seven out of 10 applicants expected to get their first preference. The most popular courses this year are natural and physical sciences (up 16 per cent on last year), engineering (up 14 per cent) and architecture and building (up 8 per cent). Education (down 18 per cent) has experienced the biggest drop....

National Union of Students president Angus McFarland acknowledged school-leavers were faced with difficult decisions. University students could be left with a debt which ranged from $30,000 to $500,000, he said. "It's not surprising that a young man or woman who has the option of going to university and studying for four years or going into a trade and getting $100,000 will make that decision to work."


Sunday, January 06, 2008

Students Shiver In Washington, DC Schools

Despite huge funding

Accuweather says that Washington, DC weather is currently pretty cold, but will be warming up a bit later in the week. Which is a good thing, since Washington area school heating systems are breaking down left and right. Despite millions of dollars invested during the 1990s in new heating systems, the school district's abject failure to do routine maintenance has caused the expensive systems to fail in many schools. The damage is so bad that many of the systems are a complete loss. Water treatment for all of the district's boilers would have cost around $100,000 per year. Instead they have spent more than $100 million in emergency repairs.
The Army Corps of Engineers came to the District in the late 1990s on an expensive mission: launch a massive overhaul of decrepit school buildings, which eventually included spending $80 million to replace ancient heating systems with brand-new boilers to last 25 years or more. Since then, 40 of the 55 renovated heating systems have broken down or needed major repair. Public schools officials failed to maintain the new equipment, leading to problems such as damage from mineral deposits that built up because the water was not properly treated, repair records and interviews show.

It would have cost just $100,000 a year to remove harmful minerals from the water flowing into all of the more than 400 boilers in the public schools. But maintenance officials say there was never enough money for it in their budget. As a result, heating systems old and new have been breaking down all over the school district. Administrators had to sink more than $10 million into emergency repairs this year alone, prompted by cold classrooms at 71 schools in February that displaced hundreds of children.

The failing boilers are a testament to the school system's longstanding inability to keep its buildings in shape or make the best of huge infusions of money. This decade, records show, the schools have spent more than $116 million to replace or overhaul heating and air-conditioning units, including the Army Corps projects. This winter, officials trucked in temporary boilers for seven schools where the systems have failed.

Read it all. It is a testament to the absolute inability of the local government in Washington to exercise any kind of intelligent management to the upkeep of the infrastructure. But then, the tax office in Washington, DC could not keep an eye on something like $30 million that was embezzled by employees recently, either. Chief Financial Officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, called those thefts "immaterial" when they were discovered. Just $100,000 of that stolen money could have averted $116 million in additional waste. Read the whole thing - it will enrage you when you read how badly maintained the Washington schools are. Despite huge influxes of tax money, they can't keep the buildings in reasonable working order.



The Modern Language Association frequently helps out its critics with provocative session titles and left-leaning political stands offered by its members. At this year's annual meeting, in Chicago, some MLA members have worried that the association was poised to take stances that would have sent David Horowitz's fund raising through the roof with resolutions that appeared to be anti-Israel and pro-Ward Churchill.

But in moves that infuriated the MLA's Radical Caucus, the association's Delegate Assembly refused to pass those resolutions and instead adopted much narrower measures. The association acknowledged tensions over the Middle East on campus, but in a resolution that did not single out pro-Israel groups for criticism. And the association criticized the University of Colorado for the way it started its investigation of Ward Churchill, but took no stand on whether the outcome (his firing) was appropriate.

The votes by the MLA's largest governing council came in an at-times-surreal five-hour meeting. Cary Nelson, author of Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, was in the position of being the leading moderate, offering alternative language to defeat Radical Caucus proposals. Critics of Israel repeatedly talked about "facts on the ground" to refer to the treatment of Israel's critics on campuses today, and it was unclear whether the term was being used ironically in light of the phrase's use to describe Israel's settlement policy on the West Bank and a recent book at the the center of a Barnard College tenure controversy.

While material distributed by those seeking to condemn Churchill's firing portrayed him favorably, and as a victim of the right wing, some of those who criticized the pro-Churchill effort at the meeting are long-time experts in Native American studies and decidedly not conservative. Many attendees were confused by the parliamentary procedure, and at least one proposed amendment that appeared to have significant backing (in theory) fell apart when questions were raised about its syntax.

After one vote that his side lost, Grover Furr, a Radical Caucus leader who teaches at New Jersey's Montclair State University, called the meeting "a perversion of parliamentary procedures."

The Middle East and Academic Freedom

Furr was the author of the original resolution on the campus climate for critics of Israel. The resolution as he wrote it said that some who criticize Zionism and Israel have been "denied tenure, disinvited to speak... [or] fraudulently called `anti-Semitic.'" The resolution called this a "serious danger to academic study and discussion in the USA today" and then resolved that "the MLA defend the academic freedom and the freedom of speech of faculty and invited speakers to criticize Zionism and Israel." The resolution made no mention of the right of others on campus to embrace Zionism or Israel or to hold middle-of-the-road views or any views other than being critical of Israel and Zionism.

Nelson offered a substitute - which was approved to replace the original by a vote of 63 to 30 - after heated debate. Nelson's substitute noted that the "Middle East is a subject of intense debate," said it was "essential that colleges and universities protect faculty rights to speak forthrightly on all sides of the issue," and urged colleges to "resist" pressure from outside groups about tenure reviews and speakers and to instead uphold academic freedom. Nelson's resolution did not identify one side or the other as victim or villain in the campus debates over the Middle East and said that academic freedom must apply to people "to address the issue of the Middle East in the manner they choose."

In arguing for his version, Nelson - a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and also president of the American Association of University Professors - said that the original version would be "incredibly divisive and quite destructive" to the MLA.

Defenders of the original version faulted Nelson's version for being even-handed. Barbara Foley, a professor of English at Rutgers University at Newark, said that "it's not a 50-50 situation" and that the focus of criticism needs to be on Israel's supporters because of Israel's role as a recipient of U.S. aid, and the way "powerful supporters" of Israel meddle on campuses. "Let's talk about what's real here. It's not anti-Semitic to focus on this particular set of academics who really need our support."

Katie L. Kain of the University of Montana said that the MLA needs to take a stand against pro-Israel groups because of their role in campus debates. She compared the situation today to the McCarthy era. "The substitute resolution does not acknowledge the facts on the ground," she said. Kain said that guest lecturers to her campus had been unfairly tagged as anti-Semitic. Other speakers cited examples of what they said were outside attempts by pro-Israel groups to influence hiring decisions.

Susan O'Malley, a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, said that CUNY's trustees tried to prevent an adjunct at her campus from teaching the novel The Scar of David. CUNY officials could not be reached for comment, but press accounts suggest that the book was in fact taught.

Supporters of the switch to Nelson's version said that they didn't doubt that some critics of Israel have been attacked - in a number of instances unfairly. But they argued that the MLA shouldn't be picking sides, and that the principles behind defending Israel's critics should apply to its supporters as well. One professor said: "Academic freedom is meaningless unless it applies to all points of view." Another said that even if 95 percent of disputes over academic freedom and the Middle East relate to one side of the argument, the principle of academic freedom should be paramount, not helping those 95 percent over the 5 percent.

The Ward Churchill Saga

The case of Ward Churchill also led to a long debate. Churchill was fired in July from his tenured position teaching ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder for multiple instances of research misconduct, including plagiarism and misrepresenting the work of other scholars - charges he has denied. Several faculty panels reached the conclusions that Churchill had committed research misconduct, but they investigated him in the wake of a furor over his controversial comments in which he had labeled some of the victims of 9/11 as "little Eichmanns."

The original resolution before the MLA Delegate Assembly condemned the University of Colorado for firing Churchill and for undertaking an investigation of him as "retribution" for his 9/11 comments. Many politicians in Colorado wanted Churchill fired for those comments, but the university said that to do so would violate his First Amendment rights and never punished him for those remarks. As they entered the meeting, MLA delegates received a letter to the MLA from Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado, and a copy of one of the faculty reports finding Churchill to have committed scholarly misconduct.

In the letter, Brown said of Churchill: "His comments about 9/11 are in our view protected free speech and were not at issue. What was at issue was Professor Churchill's academic work.... I recommended dismissal to the Board of Regents because he fabricated his research. Please read the faculty report carefully before you mischaracterize his dismissal."

The day before the MLA vote, A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke out at a hearing against the original resolution. Ruoff, who has written and taught about Native American literature and culture, said that she was concerned about the process under which the university started its probe of Churchill. But she said that the university appeared to have conducted "careful deliberations" into the allegations against Churchill, and that the MLA wasn't in a position to conduct an investigation that might lead to other conclusions. Groups like the AAUP are better suited to investigating allegations of academic freedom violations, Ruoff said. (The MLA's Delegate Assembly also voted Saturday to consider a number of issues in updating the group's statement on academic freedom and some members urged that one of those changes be to find ways to conduct such investigations.)

Nelson, of the AAUP, noted that some professors believe Churchill received due process and that the faculty role was respected at Colorado. He proposed an amendment - a version of which eventually passed - that criticized Colorado for starting the investigation as it did, but that offered no opinion on the decision to fire Churchill. "We are not set up to judge the character and quality of that investigation," he said.

Several professors said that they were uncomfortable backing even the watered down resolution, fearing it would show support for Churchill. Ruoff asked the group why it couldn't just indicate its opposition to politically motivated investigations and leave Churchill out of it. Charles Rzepka, a professor of English at Boston University, said during the meeting that he was startled to read some of the pro-Churchill material distributed by supporters of the original resolution, and that he was wondering if the MLA would be seen as backing the wrong side. In an interview after the meeting, he said that the MLA's reputation would take a hit for any perception that it was backing Churchill. "I support speaking truth to power," said Rzepka, but that requires truth, he added. (He said he was among the 15 people who voted No on the revised resolution, which passed with 57 votes in favor.)

Others dismissed the idea that the MLA should worry about whether Churchill's record made him worthy of support. One professor cited the history of the civil rights movement, in which some women prior to Rosa Parks were not defended because they weren't seen as perfect from a PR perspective - an attitude this professor criticized.

Foley of Rutgers said that it was true that Churchill had a "flawed history," adding, "I don't think anyone is saying he is the perfect scholar." But she said the relevant fact was that Churchill was under attack unfairly. "We are condemning the university for its politically motivated investigation. They would not have undertaken that investigation unless they wanted to get rid of him," she said. "If we can't support this individual then everything we say about academic freedom is bullshit," she said.

Finley C. Campbell, a retired English instructor at DeVry University, said that Churchill was being punished for being the "uppity" minority person whom the powerful could not tolerate. He said there was no way the MLA could pretend there was not an individual at the center of this issue. "Crucifixions are always personal," he said.