May 11, 2011

the university, a bud forever green

This is the beginning of Section II of William Carlos Williams' long poem Paterson (1946), which is a kind of portrait of the author's home city in New Jersey.

Robert Lowell confidently says that the "bud forever green / tight-curled, upon the pavement, perfect / in juice and substance but divorced, divorced / from its fellows" is the university, scholarship, or science, divorced from the city and its democratic life. I cannot vouch for that allegorical reading (bud=university), but the poem is surely about some kind of "divorce" between abstract thought and human needs. We know how things are going--badly enough to howl--but not why. Intelligence does not shape the flow; we watch coldly from afar.

These are challenging words for us who enjoy being inside that tight-curled bud.

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April 27, 2011

college students expect service, study abroad, and extracurricular clubs but report stress and low emotional health

Trends in Expectations for College (CIRP Freshman Survey)

Using data from the College Freshman Survey of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), John H. Pryor reports that incoming college freshmen are increasingly likely to expect that they will participate directly in extracurricular activities, community service, and foreign study--all experiences that have civic purposes and benefits.

But the same study also shows that incoming college students report increased levels of stress and historically low levels of emotional health. A record-high proportion of incoming freshmen (73%) say that the "chief benefit of a college education is that it increases earning power."

For institutions of higher education, these trends raise several questions: Are we meeting the expectations of our incoming students? Can meaningful service activities be antidotes to stress and poor psychosocial well-being? Can they enhance students' economic opportunities? Or do some students report being "overwhelmed" because they are pursuing civic experiences as well as academic work and jobs?

(Cross-posted from the CIRCLE homepage.)

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February 11, 2011

keep on TRUCEN

Flying from Boston to Washington: I was in DC briefly today for a meeting of The Research University Civic Engagement Network (TRUCEN): representatives of research-oriented, selective, four-year universities that are trying to work with communities to address public problems and strengthen democracy.

Overall, higher education is a powerful sector. In the United States, it spends $136 billion annually, holds $100 billion in real estate, employs many thousands of individuals, and operates in most communities. "Civic engagement," however you choose to define it, has not been a strong focus for these public or quasi-public institutions. But today the leading engaged universities are contributing at substantial scale.

One category consists of state universities, often Land-Grants, which (by both charter and tradition) operate major public programs other than scholarship and education on their own campuses. Those programs include hospitals and clinics, agricultural extension offices (operating in almost every county of the United States), consulting and training opportunities for adult citizens and organizations, museums, and enrichment programs for k-12 education. One example gives an indication of the scale of this work: the Industrial Extension Service at North Carolina State reports that it "hit its target of $1.0 billion" in impact on local businesses in 2010. Today, many state universities coordinate such programs under the heading of "civic engagement," combining their public service functions with education, research, and partnerships with communities. Many now have either centers or senior administrators, or both, to coordinate civic engagement across their campuses.

Another category (more common at well-endowed private universities) consists of multi-purpose centers that provide specialized courses with community-service components, that sponsor research in and with their local communities, that develop partnerships with local NGOs, and that invite speakers and organize faculty fellowships and seminars. Some of these centers are large: for example, the Center for Social Concerns at Notre Dame, which conducts research, education, and outreach related to civic engagement, has about 32 full-time employees.

A third category involves intensive and widespread civic opportunities for students. For example, Duke Engage has funded more than 1,000 Duke undergraduates who conduct individual or small-group projects in Durham, NC, the rest of the state, and 44 other countries. Increasingly, "study abroad" programs are being tied to service objectives. For instance, UConn "emphasizes community engagement through is 200+ Study Abroad programs around the world." At the same time, many TRUCEN campuses have chosen particular local neighborhoods or towns in which to invest heavily.

One factor that works against civic engagement in the TRUCEN campuses is a set of expectations for tenure and promotion that favor abstract, generalizable, methodologically complex research over applied or collaborative research. But many TRUCEN institutions are reforming their expectations. For example, the University of Minnesota now says that "'Scholarly research' must include significant publications and, as appropriate, the development and dissemination by other means of new knowledge, technology, or scientific procedures resulting in innovative products, practices, and ideas of significance and value to society." That definition permits a broader range of research to be rewarded, as long as the research is done well.

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February 2, 2011

the greedy ghost of market madness in the university

Simon Head writes:

The Golden Compass author Philip Pullman makes a similar argument about British public libraries in a speech about the "greedy ghost of market madness" that is widely circulating online. (Eighteen thousand Facebook users have "liked" it so far.) Both authors treat several phenomena as part of one package:

I would unpack this bundle because I don't think the elements all deserve the same response. Just because a policy originated at McKinsey & Co.--or Margaret Thatcher liked it--it doesn't mean it's wrong. The United States should not be synonymous with Philistine market fundamentalism, especially since our state universities have long been beacons of scholarship and service.

Nor is it gauche to think of scholarship and publishing as economic enterprises. They do cost money (which other people pay in taxes, tuition, or gifts), and they yield products. We must be able to answer questions about our efficiency and value; those questions are not out of bounds if we expect people to subsidize us. Any amount spent on universities or libraries is not spent on hospitals and wetland restorations--unless we are willing to raise taxes, which has real costs for taxpayers and which requires their assent.

The cuts in British social services sound draconian to me: they are damaging as macroeconomic policy as well as unjust to the people who need them most. But one could introduce accountability and competition while raising the amount of funds--that is the central direction of US education policy under Obama.

Simon Head rightly notes that American universities exploit adjunct faculty. That is unconscionable. But a four-year American college education is extremely expensive already, and if the only reform we make is to pay adjuncts fair wages, tuition will rise substantially. The whole model of selling students hours of exposure to professors may not be sustainable. We are only making it work by substituting graduate students and adjuncts for most of the professors. We may need entirely different models of learning, such as computer-based simulations, to complement the traditional classroom.

Ultimately, I think we need to be accountable for quality, efficiency, and impact, but we should borrow business and market methods only if they fit the situation. The British have adopted a foolish policy of measuring the quantity of peer-reviewed books and articles and the number of times they are cited. This truly is "market fundamentalism," because it assumes that decisions to publish or to cite someone else's work are evidence of demand, and demand is evidence of quality or relevance. Those assumptions make some sense when people choose to buy consumer goods with their own money. But citing someone else's work costs me nothing. It is not a valid "market signal."

One can easily imagine a group of 250 professors who do entirely cheesy and useless work. But they all busily cite each other, give each other favorable peer reviews, and demand that their universities subscribe to the journals that they produce for themselves. They look like a highly "productive" scholarly community, worthy of public support. Meanwhile, the solitary scholar who spends ten years writing an unfashionable magnum opus looks like a complete dead weight for at least nine of those ten years.

Although the British government has taken to a ludicrous extreme the habit of evaluating quality as a function of citations, American universities do that, too--on the ground that we lack the expertise to assess the intrinsic merits of our colleagues' work. (So we leave the assessment to other specialists in their field.) But whole fields can be worth more or less than other fields. There is no substitute for deciding what is good. Evaluation must be discursive; we must be able to offer and assess reasons and explanations.

Universities, literary publishing houses, libraries, and other cultural institutions should certainly fight brutal cuts, foolish ranking systems, and ignorant critics. But the responses of Head and Pullman strike me as overly defensive, as if we have always served the public fairly and well and all our problems originated "in American business schools and management consulting firms." Part of our response must be to explain how we will do better in the future.

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January 20, 2011

making guest lecturing pay

I think guest lectures are helpful: they broaden the perspectives and expertise available in a given course. In general, they happen as the result of a kind of "gift economy": you agree to give a guest presentation in a colleague's course without expecting any kind of reward, even a return visit from that colleague. Gift economies can work quite well--sometimes more efficiently than market economies. But there is no norm in academia of offering to give guest lectures. Instead, you have to ask someone to be a guest in your class, and that can be awkward. It's a gift economy in which the recipient initiates the arrangement: not a recipe for success.

Thus, if guest lecturing is beneficial, we should switch from a flawed gift economy to some kind of exchange system. Professors should earn credit for giving guest lectures. I am not sure I would define the credit as a right to receive a guest lecture in one's own course, because there might be no one available to provide appropriate material. Instead, I would identify some modest good that is in short supply and offer it to professors who amass sufficient credits for guest-lecturing.

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January 11, 2011

Not Even Past, from the historians at UT-Austin

I am impressed by "Not Even Past," a brand new online history magazine that will present some new content every day. It is meant for lay readers but is produced by the History Department of the University of Texas-Austin: about 60 professors and their graduate students. Some appealing features include feature articles, mini-reviews of classic works of history, which explain their enduring relevance, and audio interviews. It is stylishly designed and well written.

I like the fact that it's a collaborative effort by a whole academic department: that represents a different kind of work for professors, although fully compatible with their traditional practices. I like the relationship it creates between the public and a profession (for it reflects professional historians' interests and methods but is meant for all intelligent readers and permits them to comment). Finally, although we are used to everything being free now, I like the fact that public employees have created material that is free of cost and of other barriers. They are contributing to the knowledge commons.

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December 14, 2010

federal leverage as an employer, and higher education

The federal government provides full-time employment for 2.8 million civilians. In a given month, the feds may hire 50,000 new employees. Imagine if they said: "We are looking for people who have civic skills, who can analyze complex public or social issues and problems in collaboration with other people, including lawyers, scientists, and laypeople. Moreover, we propose to measure those skills in our potential employees--either by giving evaluations to individuals, or by evaluating the educational programs that they have completed." The result would be a scramble to provide more effective civic education at the college level. Private employers might also take the government's lead, since many civic skills are also job skills useful in the private sector.

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October 19, 2010

deliberation on campuses

"Public deliberation" is a positive synonym for "talk"; and definitions of "public deliberation" tend to list positive characteristics like fairness, non-coercion, freedom of speech, seriousness, relevance, use of valid information, and civility. Since these are supposed to be characteristics of academic discourse, as well, it is natural to try to bring public deliberation to college campuses as a form of civic education and as a service to broader communities.

The Journal of Public Deliberation devotes a whole new special issue to the topic, with articles on everything from an overview of the prevailing practices to academic libraries as hubs of deliberation. For full disclosure, eight of the authors are friends and collaborators of mine, but I think the quality is objectively high.

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August 19, 2010

the best colleges for service-learning

US News & World Report has a list of the 30 best colleges for service learning. (It explains that "volunteering in the community is an instructional strategy [in which] service relates to what happens in class and vice versa.") US News also provides lists of seven other approaches to enriching the traditional academic format of college, from "undergraduate research projects" to "study abroad."

I am glad that service-learning is treated as a technique that is "believed to lead to student success." It does help at least some students academically when it's well implemented. I am also pleased that both my current and previous universities--Tufts and University of Maryland--make the top-30 list. These choices were made by an expert panel who reviewed formal nominations. They do not have the final word or ultimate wisdom; their list may be biased in various ways. But if you take it as a valid list, it supports a few generalizations about the field:

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April 26, 2010

using technology to cut the costs of college

Anya Kamenetz has a good article in The American Prospect about the need for colleges and universities to cut costs. The problem isn't just predatory lenders or cheap state legislatures; the real costs of college are rising far too fast and imposing unjust burdens on young people and their families. A major cause is probably the failure of higher education to achieve efficiencies that have cut costs in manufacturing and service industries. If everything else gets more efficient, but your activity doesn't, you become more expensive. That's the situation with both medical care and higher education.

Kamenetz is excited about initiatives like MIT's Open Courseware, which is an impressive repository of materials created at MIT that can be used free anywhere else. The materials include notes, syllabuses, readings, illustrations, problem sets, and assignments. It is generous and helpful for MIT to contribute in the way (sometimes at a cost of $15,000 or more for each course, as Kamenetz notes). But the benefits will be substantial only if (a) the expense of developing course materials is normally a significant component of tuition, and (b) "courseware" can be used effectively by faculty who didn't develop it in the first place. Both premises are possible, but I'm not overly optimistic.

I see two opportunities that might be more important.

First, I'm obsessed by the sheer number of people who are employed per student at particularly expensive colleges and universities. For instance, Harvard employs 2,163 faculty, 5,102 administrators and professional staff, and 4,800 clerical and technical workers for its 19,500 students. Only 18 percent of the total work force are professors. There are three students for every five workers. (I'm counting graduate students as students, even though most also teach, so the ratio is even higher.) Thus I wonder whether there could be significant efficiencies in administration. On the other hand, it may be that most of the administrative and professional staff are involved in externally funded research or clinical medicine, in which case shrinking their numbers doesn't cut the cost of education.

Second, I do see prospects for new types of course that would be based on computers, would be cheap per student, and would complement the rest of the curriculum. Imagine that we continued to offer a college education that was broadly similar to what we provide today, with seminars, lectures, labs, and office hours. But students were expected to take one course that was a large-scale simulation of a complex phenomenon. They might, for example, be asked to play various roles (appropriate to their majors) in a fictional town that faced a health emergency. Students would have to conduct research, plan, and communicate as part of playing this game. Developing it would be extremely expensive (if it was any good), but it could be offered nationally at a marginal price of just a few dollars per student. Small local teams of faculty could customize the game for their own campus.

I wouldn't want the computer to do the grading, but it could dramatically cut the costs of assessment by tracking the completion of assignments and scoring multiple-choice tests, leaving only writing to be hand-graded. If ten percent of students' credits were earned in such courses, the saving would be almost ten percent of tuition. And if these courses were offered in residential universities along with traditional seminars, lectures, and labs, there would be little loss of face-to-face learning and community.

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April 2, 2010

students are not customers

Colleges and universities commonly talk about serving "customers." For example, Tufts University officially promotes a "Customer Focus" for its employees, which means: "Pay attention to and focus on customer satisfaction • Develop effective and appropriate relationships with customers • Anticipate and meet the needs of both internal and external customers."

I understand and even endorse the motivations here. Students and others pay us lots of money, and we should try treat them respectfully, efficiently, and in a way that satisfies them. We can draw lessons from consumer-oriented businesses. For example, we mustn't make students wait on long lines for no apparent reason, as was traditional in higher education even 20 years ago.

But we aren't actually a business, and we don't have customers. Our main products are education and new knowledge. That means that the people we "serve" include students, readers (and other users of our research), and collaborators in research or educational projects. Students and readers are not customers, because the customer is always right. His or her preferences should be met, if possible. In contrast, our job is to challenge, guide, and assess, whether the student or reader wants that or not.

Further, a customer is basically passive. Consumers actively choose what they want, but the company produces it for them. In contrast, our students, readers, and community partners actively co-produce knowledge with us. They are colleagues rather than customers. We need to teach them to see themselves that way (not as people who have purchased services).

We also have obligations that are not to any individuals but to abstractions, like truth and fairness.

Finally, the implication that we are providing an expensive customer service leads not just Tufts but the whole sector (including public institutions) to spend lavishly on things like residences, student activities, and support services. Harvard, for example, employs 5,102 "administrative and professional" staff (excluding clerical and technical workers and those in "service and trades"). Harvard has 112 full-time professional and administrative workers in its athletics department alone. This compares to 911 tenured faculty (or 2,163 total faculty). Harvard students no longer have personal servants assigned to them, as their predecessors did in the Gilded Age. But they have a similar number of service workers at their beck and call.

Meanwhile, the cost of higher education has far outpaced inflation for several decades, and four-year colleges have ceased growing even as the young-adult population expands. I am not sure that their core educational mission benefits from all this spending, but problems of access are becoming acute.

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March 18, 2010

what is a university?

I'm taking a training course for managers at Tufts, in which I learn techniques for assessing staff performance, mentoring, and so on. The idea is that Tufts University is a single entity that succeeds or fails as a whole. The job of managers is to maximize the degree to which all Tufts employees promote the organization's success. We can use carrots and sticks--but also the softer skills that I'm learning in the course, such as how to give advice effectively. For anyone who has absorbed a dose of Foucault, these softer methods may seem the most troubling, because they promise to reshape people's souls, not just their behavior, to fit the organization's imperatives.

My value-judgment is less negative. Tufts is an entity--a nonprofit corporation--that charges nearly $50,000/year for its main service (undergraduate education) and is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Those of us who receive Tufts paychecks need to promote the valid goals of the university in an efficient way. We could call Tufts a "bureaucracy," but that isn't a term of abuse. Bureaucracies arise to reduce slack and get things done.

At the same time, Tufts is several other things:

It can be a seen as a partially democratic community, in which autonomous agents (especially faculty and students) make collective decisions after giving reasons in public. Hence the faculty "senate," the student government, the newspaper, and the right of tenure, meant to protect freedom of speech. The Tufts community does not stand alone; faculty, in particular, also belong to disciplinary associations that are self-governing and quite powerful.

It can be seen as a zone of individual autonomy. An academic doesn't want to be The Man (or Woman) in a Gray Flannel Suit. Academics set a high value on doing what they think is right in relation to their own readers, students, colleagues, and The Truth. Autonomy trades off against bureaucracy and also against democracy, since one's colleagues may not know what is right.

It can be seen as a market competitor. Tufts is like a firm, competing with other universities (and some private companies) for faculty, students, grants, and contracts. Insofar as Tufts is a competitor, it must operate internally like a bureaucracy in order to ensure that its "agents"--faculty and staff--promote Tufts' interests and not their own. But it is not autonomous. The market, not the Tufts administration, decides what to value. If, for example, a senior professor gets an offer from Brown, we must match it to hold onto her. So Brown has made a decision about our personnel.

Finally, Tufts can be seen as a collection of individual entrepreneurs who are maximizing their own salary, security, status, fame, and quality of life in a marketplace. They are expected to seek external offers, publish for international audiences, form teams with colleagues at other universities, and otherwise pursue their own market position.

I don't actually believe that the ideals of democracy or autonomy can prevail, although they have some actual force and deserve moral respect. I think a university must be something of a bureaucracy and something of a platform for individual entrepreneurs. The hard part, for me, is when these competing values clash in borderline cases. For example, there may be a single process for evaluating, supporting, and disciplining all employees. But if the tenured faculty cannot actually be disciplined, the process is merely formal for them while it is highly consequential for receptionists and food workers. It is important to be clear about when we are each kind of institution, and why.

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February 11, 2010

be true to your school

I spent this morning at a training/discussion for administrators at Tufts. One topic was the need to strengthen collaborations within our university, especially ones that combine several departments or schools. Collaboration has evident value, whether for research, social impact, or teaching. But often the best collaborators are not colleagues within your own institution. Tufts happens to be a relatively small research university in a metropolitan area with a remarkable array of other universities. Even on a direct journey from our own medical school to our own school of arts and sciences, one must pass by or under Harvard, MIT, Lesley, Emerson, and Suffolk universities. This means that collaborating with colleagues at other institutions is especially tempting for Tufts faculty. But the same opportunities are really available to scholars anywhere. Even if you teach at a relatively large and remote university (like Penn State), you can easily collaborate with colleagues around the world.

Collaboration across a single university is good for the institution. Collaboration among several universities is sometimes better for the actual research or service, because it allows the strongest and most coherent group to form.

I think we should care about our own universities. They pay us, after all. And Tufts is a good community, worthy of loyalty. The world is better off when Tufts is stronger as an institution.

That does not mean that collaborating within a university is better than working across institutions. The tradeoff is undeniable. I simply believe that there is value to intra-university collaborations, and they deserve deliberate attention and resources.

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January 15, 2010

could a college education prevent Wall Street greed?

At the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, we are in the business of civic education (and therefore character education) for college students. At CIRCLE, we study the same topic. Given my role, people frequently ask me how colleges and universities should improve the character of their graduates so that they do not act like the Wall Street barons who recently wrecked our economy in their own selfish interests.

Unfortunately, most research finds that human beings are profoundly influenced by their immediate contexts. It's a bit of a myth that we have stable characters that will determine how we react in various contexts. If you place people in charge of an unregulated hedge fund, it doesn't matter whether they are religious, empathetic, and reflective; their behavior will be determined by immediate opportunities and expectations. Any hedge fund dealer will behave very differently from anyone placed in a seminary. Moreover, we tend to opt for the worst behaviors expected or allowed within a given context--we make the most selfish and short-sighted available choices. That's because we have internal defense attorneys who vigorously advocate our self-interests during our mental deliberations. I have seen no evidence that education can lastingly change those calculations.

But we do choose what contexts we place ourselves in. In 1970, 5 percent of male Harvard graduates worked in the financial sector. In 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard seniors said they were heading for finance jobs. It seems pretty clear to me that the shift of creativity, talent, and ambition from manufacturing and government to banking has deeply damaged us as a nation. And at a personal level, it has put those Harvard graduates in contexts where they are likely to sin (if you'll excuse the theological terminology).

Although I have never seen evidence that education can change people's choices within a given context, I have seen research demonstrating that educational programs and curricula influence career choices. Once someone works on Wall Street, the only way to influence his or her behavior is to change the rules: punish risky and socially damaging decisions. But before our students decide to go to Wall Street, we can open their eyes to alternatives.

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October 1, 2009

assessing higher education

I used to think that a "good" college or university was one where the students had excellent skills and the professors published lots of fine scholarship. But colleges and universities can select students and faculty who are already great before they show up. An institution that has very strong market position basically uses its admissions office to guarantee a talented student body and its hiring committees to produce an illustrious faculty. It doesn't have to educate well.

One might hope that the way to attain a strong market position is to provide an excellent education. But I think that's only one factor among many. Imagine two schools:

1. Low Budget State starts with no reputation. It has a fairly drab campus; entering students have low average SATs. The dedicated faculty and staff have really thought about curriculum and pedagogy and deliver a great education, appropriate for their students. Prospective applicants may realize that the teaching is good, although this is a little hard to tell because test scores and job prospects are not too impressive. What's more, prospective students know that they won't get much reputational advantage from attending this school, nor will the amenities be very comfortable, nor will the other students be especially stimulating, nor will they enter powerful alumni networks. So the best qualified students may turn their attention to ...

2. Legacy University, which was was founded in 1750. Its campus is on the Register of National Historic Treasures and three of its alumni have become presidents of the United States. People have heard of it as far away as China. It only accepts one in 20 of its applicants and is able to screen for very high SATs. The faculty and staff are quite uninterested in undergraduate education. However, there are tremendous amenities, including the palazzo in Venice and the observatory at the South Pole. Discussions among students are very stimulating and educational, because the university is so selective. Graduates run the country, thanks to the advantages of a diploma.

This imaginary example hints at some real problems. The system provides few incentives for actually teaching students. Young people from advantaged background have a huge leg up in the admissions process and thereby reap most of the advantages. Public subsidies (grants and tax deductions for alumni donations) help to underwrite this stratified system. The whole thing might be justifiable if it were the best way to generate high-quality research and culture. But I am not sure this works, because it is easier for Legacy University to hire established scholars than to develop their scholarly skills. As for Low Budget State--its faculty have little time for publishing and are locked out of prestigious scholarly networks.

It's modestly helpful to have alternative rankings that don't use reputation or entering students' SAT scores, as US News and World Report does, but instead try to measure "value added." Washington Monthly is the leader here. But such alternative rankings won't help if there are rational reasons for students and faculty to opt for reputation over impact.

Another approach is to evaluate the impact of teaching and scholarship and let incentives (such as tenure, salary, and government grants) go to those who add the most value. This strategy makes professors nervous because they imagine someone giving a simplistic, multiple-choice assessment of subtle material. For instance, if the purpose of reading the Phaedrus is to spark in the student's soul a yearning for wisdom, can you imagine a pre/post survey that measures what's important? ("Mark the answer that comes closest to your opinion. 1. My soul completely shuns wisdom. 2. My soul is indifferent to wisdom. 3. My soul is strangely drawn to wisdom ....") There are also valid concerns about restrictions on intellectual freedom--not to mention illegitimate concerns about having to work harder.

I think it's incumbent on us to figure out better ways to assess impact. That won't solve the problem, but it will at least help prospective students and faculty who want to go where the education is best.

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May 25, 2009

a college curriculum defined by active citizenship

This is a complete list of the departments and subject areas that would be offered at an imaginary college. The idea is to provide all the most important fields of study that people need if they want to sustain and improve a community to which they belong. (That's my definition of "citizenship." The community can be anything from a small religious congregation to the earth.) Each student would major in one of the first four departments. There would be mandatory courses in all seven.

Department of Ethical Reasoning
Courses in moral philosophy, normative political and social theory, literary criticism and history (with emphasis on ethical analysis), religious ethics

Department of Cultural Interpretation
Courses in cultural history, literary criticism, cultural anthropology, history of art, musicology

Department of Institutional Analysis
Courses in economics (markets as institutions), political science, public law, institutional history, organizational sociology, social psychology, and abstract methods of analysis such as game theory and network theory

Department of Policy
General courses in policy analysis and focused courses on international relations, education, environment, health, etc.

Office of Community Partnerships and Placements
Providing an array of internships, research, and service opportunities; also, courses about the local community based on accumulated research by students

Department of Methods and Tools
Courses in statistics, psychometrics, foreign languages, qualitative research, accounting, evaluation methods, rhetoric (written and spoken), and pedagogy.

Department of Natural Context
Courses in environmental sciences, cognitive science, human development, and health, all taught with relevance to questions of active citizenship

I do not believe that this civic focus is the only valuable one. If all colleges and universities adopted this model, the natural sciences, aesthetic values, and such abstract fields as mathematics and metaphysics would become too marginal. I dissent from the instrumental pragmatism of reformers like Mark C. Taylor, who wants to focus all education on addressing "important problems."

On the other hand, I admire coherent educational programs--both for individuals and for whole communities of scholars and students. No student can learn everything; breadth degenerates into superficiality. A large university can offer practically every field of study in some depth, but then there is no common set of issues and values for everyone to debate. "Great books" colleges, religious programs, experiential curricula, and Mark Taylor's "zones of inquiry" are worthy examples of attempts to bring some coherence and focus to undergraduate education. We badly need more experimentation and more diverse models, and this "civics" curriculum seems a promising one to add to the mix.

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April 20, 2009

a theory of free speech on campus

Last Thursday, students at my university (Tufts) assembled to protest an incident described as follows in the Boston Globe:

The incident (as described by several witnesses, but not yet independently adjudicated) is extremely ugly. It has no place on a campus and requires a response that goes beyond the case itself. But the protest--to judge by comments in the Tufts Daily--was itself controversial, provoking complaints of "political correctness." At the risk of responding rather abstractly and cerebrally to a raw case, I'd like to say something about speech in academia.

The central value, in my opinion, is not freedom but quality. A university is not like the state, which has to be extremely careful about using its dreadful powers to assess or influence expression. A university is all about influencing expression. Every grade on an essay, every tenure decision, every invitation to a visiting speaker, and every revision of an administrator's memo is a judgment of quality, with consequences. A university is a voluntary community dedicated to improving discourse. Members are entitled to leave, and the university is entitled to discipline or even expel them for what they say.

We are the heirs of the Free Speech Movement, which dramatically improved colleges by ending bans on political expression and loyalty oaths. We should be grateful to that movement--but understand it correctly. The old rules against political expression had reduced the quality of discourse on campuses by bracketing a whole set of essential questions. Such bans were invidious. But the alternative was not freedom per se; it was a new environment in which discussion of politics was allowed--and even favored.

One famous free speech case, Keyshian v Board of Regents, struck down loyalty oaths in New York State schools on the theory that:

I'm 100% against loyalty oaths, but I don't think the "marketplace of ideas" metaphor can really justify freedom in classrooms. First, a marketplace requires incentives. A marketplace of ideas only works if you obtain rewards for being correct. In the classroom--and more broadly, in academic institutions--the main incentives are grades, degrees, speaking invitations, and jobs. These are not handed out neutrally; they are given in recognition of quality. The system that awards these incentives is rather hierarchical and centralized. So there is no market within a university, although universities compete with each other in a market for students. They promise--not freedom--but the ability to assess and reward excellence.

Second, "truth" is not the only mark of quality--contrary to the passage from Keyshian quoted above. Elegance, relevance, originality, respect for others, and social value also count. Universities are in the education business. Their students, and others whom they influence, are supposed to learn to think and speak well. Telling Korean-American students to "go back to China" is thus a failure of higher education. The precise remedy is a matter of judgment, but it certainly cannot be tolerated on grounds of "free speech."

(See also Justice O'Connor's theory of academic freedom.)

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April 13, 2009

universities as economic anchors

Gar Alperovitz, Ted Howard, and their colleagues at Community-Wealth.org have argued for some time that we need economic institutions that are anchored in communities. It doesn't matter so much whether they are public or private, non-profit or for-profit. What matters is that they cannot move, so that they have to invest in their communities (or at least minimize their damage).

From that perspective, one of the most significant facts about colleges and universities is that they are economic enterprises that cannot move. They collectively do tens of billions of dollars of business. Their impact can either be helpful or harmful, and their students and faculty have some influence on how they behave. Thus the discussion of universities and democracy must broaden beyond education and research to include economic issues. A great guide is Gar Alperovitz, Steve Dubb, and Ted Howard, "The Next Wave: Building University Engagement for the 21st Century," The Good Society, vol. 17, no. 2 (2008), pp. 69-75, available in PDF. They end with some interesting policy recommendations, including an urban extension service and a new federal initiative in ten pilot cities.

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March 6, 2009

critical thinking about "critical thinking"

Here are three interestingly complementary comments. The first is from the moderate-conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks:

The second comment is from the influential Yale literary and queer theorist Michael Warner (hardly a moderate conservative, nor a pundit--although he might be a pandit). In a chapter entitled "Uncritical Reading," Warner writes that the standard justification of college-level English is to teach students to be critical readers, ones who aren't fooled by various forms of ideology, emotion, bias or writerly tradecraft.

Warner ends with a quote from the philosopher Bernard Williams (who, considering his politics as a British social democrat, makes a nice third leg of this stool):

Williams is skeptical about this ideal of separating the "criticizing self" from "everything that a person contingently is." To put the point in my terms (not his): We can criticize any value. We can always ask, Why? Why should people have freedom of speech? Because they have equal dignity. But why should they have equal dignity? When moral words and phrases have emotional appeal, we can learn to disassociate ourselves from the positive emotions by asking critical questions. That process, carried to its relentless conclusion, leaves nothing.

Thus a good life is not simply a critical one; it also requires appreciation of contingency and solidarity for others. In my opinion, it is right to appreciate the diverse values that people have inherited (for contingent reasons) and to feel solidarity with them despite these differences. In that case, critical thinking and critical reading are not satisfactory goals of education, at any level. Some critical independence is valuable, but there must also be a positive affective dimension.

A separate question is to what extent critical thinking really dominates at institutions like Harvard. My sense is that the faculty report that Brooks quotes is only part of the picture. Universities also powerfully teach respect or even reverence for various institutions and traditions. Indeed, they try to teach students to revere academia itself--not mainly as a venue for critical debate but as a social gatekeeper and arbiter of norms. The fact that "critical reading" takes place in the seminar room helps to justify the institution's major function, which is to bestow membership and recognition on some and not on others.

permanent link | comments (4) | category: academia , philosophy

January 16, 2009

people who flop at Oxford

Reading Ingrid Rowland's very enjoyable and insightful biography of Giordano Bruno, a parallel occurred to me:

In 1583, in mortal danger from the Inquisition, a European exile comes to Oxford University in search of a professorship. He has wild and evocative ideas, writes brilliantly, but has not organized his thought into a consecutive or comprehensible system. He is equally adept at fiction, poetry, philosophy, and magic. He disdains the mainstream mode of philosophy (Arisoteleanism) and refuses to use the standard method of analysis (syllogistic logic). He hates the vulgar crowd but has egalitarian and libertarian theoretical ideas. English dons seem to him provincial, naive, and ill-mannered; he dispenses backhanded compliments about their distinguished academic garb while privately noting that they know more about beer than true philosophy. They find him laughable--passionate, irascible, nonsensical, and almost impossible to understand because he insists on pronouncing Latin like Italian. (Whereas they pronounce it like Elizabethan English.)

In 1934, a young philosopher comes to Oxford in search of a teaching job and a refuge from Nazi Germany. He has radical but somewhat inchoate ideas. He largely shuns the logical positivism and empiricism that are mainstream at Oxford and dabbles in phenomenology, music, sociology, and other disciplines. He writes beautifully and allusively but also elusively. He is a Marxist with very refined aesthetic principles. Oxford academics find him "a bit of a comic figure" (A.J Ayer), partly on account of his "anxiety." He finds them naive. "It is quite impossible to convey my real philosophical interests to the English, and I have to reduce my work to a childish level."

Giordano Bruno, Theodor Adorno: two guys who got "job talks" at Oxford that never panned out.

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October 24, 2008

where were our business schools?

There's some blogospheric talk about the failure of economics (the academic discipline) to predict, explain, or help to remedy the current financial crisis. Economists are being blamed for using mathematically complex but empirically ungrounded models instead of studying things that matter. They have, for example, little to say about whether it's wise to inject public money into banks during liquidity crises.

Economics probably is excessively theoretical and too enamored of complicated math instead of observation and application. But at least economics contributes powerful methods and theoretical models, some of which turn out to be useful (or at least provocative) across the social sciences. For instance, even though Don Green has shown that game theory is incompatible with empirical facts, it remains a powerful and insightful conceptual scheme. So it wouldn't be the worst thing if economics departments were irrelevant in times of crisis--as long as they were great centers of theoretical inquiry.

The most obvious place where professors should study public issues related to business is not the econ. department--it's the business school. Businesses can pay for their own training. Yet we subsidize business schools and provide a whole structure of benefits and protections, such as tenure, for their faculty. Why? I can only think of three rationales:

1. To equip disadvantaged students with skills that make them more competitive in the job market;
2. To give their graduates some kind of ethical orientation or concern with the public interest; and
3. To provide citizens, policymakers, and consumers (overlapping groups) with reliable and independent--and sometimes critical--insights about business.

I'm not sure how well business schools are doing with #1 or #2. They certainly seem to have failed with #3. Last year, if business school professors were having serious discussions and conducting research on the roots of today's crisis, they failed to share the results in a timely or prominent way.

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September 30, 2008

ideological diversity on campuses

On one of my recent visits to a college campus, I met a bunch of students who began by telling me all the excellent ways they are involved in civic and political affairs. One young woman mentioned some hospital volunteering and research overseas. A couple of others said (among other things) that they worked for Democratic candidates. The conversation then turned political and very anti-Republican, with students saying that it was important to vote because the GOP had practically ruined the country over the last eight years.

I noticed some quiet people at the table. I intervened and asked them to speak freely. It turned out that the hospital volunteer was also the president of the Young Republicans on campus. Apparently, she hadn't wanted to mention that role when we introduced ourselves.

Once, at the University of Maryland, a senior who was working on a scholarship essay "came out to me" as a conservative. A conservative thesis seemed to fit his essay best, as I observed; but he thought he'd better not own up to such ideas. He said I was the first professor to whom he had admitted his conservative leanings.

I don't think these stories support the right-wing charge that academia has been captured by lefties. If we can generalize from them at all, I think they show our polarization. We have liberal campuses and conservative campuses just as we have liberal zip codes and conservative zip codes. People sort themselves. What we lack are mixed places.

I'm as progressive as the next person, but I think we are losing valuable educational opportunities this way. I used to find that many of Maryland's best students, who came to me for help with their applications for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, had never encountered conservative ideas. This made them rather naive debaters. A liberal today who cares about homelessness--for example--ought to be very familiar with the thesis that the government worsens homelessness through rent control (which reduces the supply of housing), or that homeless people need spiritual help from "faith-based" organizations. Maybe these ideas are wrong, but they should not be new to college graduates who care about homelessness.

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August 19, 2008

a wooden house at the edge of campus

Last Friday, I visited the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership. This is an important organization that provides "classes, global research, internships, workshops, simulations and international symposia" for Tufts students and for many other people in the US and overseas.

But I don't want to write about the Institute today; I want to mention the building. It's a modest-sized wooden house near the edge of Tufts. It contains meeting spaces with chairs pulled up in circles, cubbyholes with young people hunched over computers, and lots of books, framed photos, news clippings, and gifts of art from around the world. When I visited, Kurdish folk music was playing on the speaker.

The Institute's building is more attractive than most of its type. TGI focuses on documentary photography, so many of the pictures are stunning. Its international programs have yielded handsome works of art. And someone with an aesthetic sense has helped pull it all together. But what struck me most was the familiarity of this place. I have enjoyed visiting similar institutes and centers in former private houses on the margins of campuses from Berkeley to Oxford. I think especially of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana; or Telluride House at Cornell, where I spent my 18th summer; or the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers. These are my favorite parts of academia. In contrast to most teaching departments, they house collaborative projects that provoke intense debate, reflection, and interaction of people from different backgrounds on common issues.

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August 8, 2008

studying discrimination

I've come across a fine small college with this requirement: "The race and ethnic studies requirement assesses the systematic discrimination and exploitation of African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans that have figured so critically in the history of this country. This requirement is met by taking one course that focuses primarily on one or more of these four groups in the United States."

I'm glad when students study the history and cultural contributions of minority groups in the United States. I'm not so happy when the lens with which we study their contributions is discrimination and exploitation. The injustice has been very severe (taking the form, indeed, of mass murder as well as mere "discrimination"). But to study a topic like African American literature to satisfy a requirement related to injustice seems to make the authors into victims rather than creators and leaders.

Furthermore, this requirement is somewhat parochial. If the issue is discrimination and exploitation, there are many cases to pick from that lie outside of the borders of the US or that involve class, religion, and ideology rather than race/ethnicity. Probably, however, the motive behind this requirement is what I would call "civic." In other words, graduates of this college are expected to become active members of the United States as a political community (voters, advocates, volunteers); and the college is especially eager that citizens reflect on racial discrimination.

I too want American citizens to understand discrimination. But I also want them to understand voting, alternative forms of civic participation, the rights and powers they have under the Constitution, real and possible political institutions, and mechanisms of social change. Surveys typically find very low levels of such knowledge even among students at selective universities. Thus I'd only support a requirement to study discrimination as part of a civics curriculum if students also had to study democracy, citizenship, and law.

I find myself falling between the ideological stools here. I'm more enthusiastic about racial and ethnic diversity than most conservatives are (although I see such diversity as an asset, not just as a stimulus to guilt). At the same time, I'm less inclined than most campus lefties to emphasize discrimination as the essence of civic education.

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May 30, 2008

evaluating community projects

(At Fordham in New York City for the day) Here is a further reflection on the "Tenure Report" from Imagining America, which I summarized on Wednesday. I think if I were involved in campus politics or administration, I might advocate one strategic reform to promote "engagement." I would argue that projects undertaken in communities ought to be assessed on a par with peer-reviewed publications for the purposes of hiring, tenure, and promotion. Standards for evaluating such projects should be rigorous and stringent, so that most would not be deemed fully successful. Launching a community project is no more commendable than opening Microsoft Word and starting to type; in either case, one is accountable for the quality and impact of what one achieves. An impressive community project should be:

  • Generative: producing a substantial array of performances, events, programs, exhibitions, curricula, experiments, organizations, institutions, policies, maps, research instruments, data, peer-reviewed publications, college courses, and/or graduate student work.

  • Intellectually ambitious: driven by challenging and innovative hypotheses, narratives, or methodologies and designed to test the organizers' own presumptions and biases.

  • Coherent: capable of being summarized in one story about its purposes, activities, and results. (Although a project should be flexible over time and should include diverse people and agendas, the whole should be worth more than the sum of its parts).

  • Ethically responsible: sustained (no "drive-by scholarship"), accountable to relevant people inside and outside the academy, transparent, including real dialog with all the participants.

  • Effective: demonstrating real outcomes appropriate to its own objectives at a reasonable cost in terms of money, time, and political capital.
  • Methods of assessing the quality of projects will vary, but one should at least consider using portfolios and peer reviews by independent, reliable community members.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia

    May 28, 2008

    tenure, promotion, and civic engagement

    "Scholarship in Public" (pdf) is a very important new paper published by Imagining America on behalf of a strong group called the Tenure Team that includes the historian Thomas Bender, Dean Nicholas Lemann of the Columbia Journalism School, several college presidents, and many of the smartest people who think about public engagement.

    "Publicly engaged academic work" means various kinds of collaborations between university-based scholars or artists and laypeople in their communities. It generates public products, such as museum exhibitions, radio programs, k-12 curricula (and sometimes even whole schools), databases, maps, and websites--as well as peer-reviewed journal articles and books. It often involves comprehensive projects that generate numerous artifacts for different audiences--in contrast to standard academic work, which tends to produce one publication at a time. These projects create knowledge and understanding that we cannot obtain anywhere else, while strengthening culture, community, and democracy.

    Public engagement also serves some professors' valid and worthy personal objectives. Craig Calhoun, a Tenure Team member and one of the most insightful people in the business, notes an enthusiasm in our culture today for "making things, .... making and building institutions, rather than only commenting on the institutions." He says, "You have a lot of the smartest young people trying to build something, and I think that carries over to academia, where people are saying, 'I want to do that. I want to create.'"

    But public engagement must be done well. Even ambitious, well-intentioned, and labor-intensive projects can fail, just as books and lab experiments can fail. Public engagement can also be superficial or trivial. I know departments in which some scholars labor hard in the library or lab in the hopes of being able to make presentations at international scholarly conferences. Others give occasional lectures--which they might also present to their own undergraduates--at local churches or civic groups. These local lectures or performances may be covered in the local press, but they are not scholarship. Rewarding such superficial projects with promotion, tenure, and other awards is unfair. Worse, it submerges the much more difficult and ambitious work that deserves the name of "public scholarship" or "public art."

    As Calhoun says, "This is about making scholarship better, making knowledge better. It is not about concessions in the quality of scholarship and knowledge." That means that public scholarship must be critically assessed, not given a pass because it is well-intentioned. Critical assessment will require new techniques, and the report suggests several: use community partners as peer-reviewers; evaluate projects rather than individual publications; allow professors to assemble portfolios; develop plans for projects and evaluation when new professors are hired.

    The report also tackles a sensitive and important issue within this field, which is the role of minority professors. Obviously, academics who are African American, Native American, or Latino may want to pursue highly academic and theoretical research. But a disproportionate number of minority scholars are involved in community-engaged work, because they tend to be motivated to change society; they often have roots and networks outside academia; and they may have cultural skills that allow them to "cross over" effectively. If these scholars work in partnerships with laypeople, and such work is not rewarded, their careers suffer. This is also a problem for whites, but scholars of color face an extra layer of obstacles. The negative stereotypes that persist against them in academia often take the form of an assumption that it is just to hire a person of color even if his or her academic work is weaker. That's highly patronizing to the individual scholar. And if a minority professor's work takes the form of community projects, then the stereotype about minorities reinforces the stereotype about civic engagement, and vice-versa, adding up to an almost insurmountable barrier to success.

    The solution, again, is to create rigorous, independent, tough measures of quality for civic engagement. Then any professor, including a scholar of color, can choose to try public projects, and the ambitious and successful ones will bring just rewards.

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    May 2, 2008

    nothing new

    The sorting of students into colleges and the marketing of colleges to prospective applicants sometimes seems a corrupt business, a marketplace in which prestige is sold to the highest bidder. It's a domain of glitzy advertising, coaches and test-prep services, rankings, scouts, and networking. At least none of this is completely new. In 1506, the principal of an Oxford college called Staple Hall allegedly promised six shillings and eight pence (6s 8d) to a man who would introduce him to the Bishop of LLandaff so that he might persuade said Bishop to send a boy of his household to Staple Hall. A ward of a bishop was a good prospect to donate money after graduating. The principal allegedly failed to pay the promised 6s 8d, leading to a suit whose outcome I don't know, but whose proceedings would probably seem perfectly familiar half a millennium later.

    (Perhaps justice caught up with the principal of Staple Hall, for not long afterwards, his institution lay in "ruynes." Around 1570, William Lambarde wrote about the halls of Oxford: "I have hearde that theare hathe been dyvers others of this kinde, and it seemeth true by the ruynes that yet appear in syghte. I redd in a case that theare was some tyme a house of learninge called Staple Hall; but where it stoade, I have not hytherto learned.")

    Sources: W.A. Pantin, Oxford Life in Oxford Archives, 1972, p. 6; John Alan Giles, History of Witney, 1852, p. 46.

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    April 15, 2008

    imagining a new college

    This is part of a largely abandoned section of my home town of Syracuse, NY. It's very close to downtown and there are some lovely Victorian houses in the neighborhood, mostly boarded up today. A lot of it consists of empty parking lots where once there were factories. I'm surprised that this aerial shot makes it look so green. Most of the green areas must be overgrown but abandoned lots.

    Imagine if a government or private donor had the resources to found a new college or university. Such an institution could be designed to create a vibrant new urban neighborhood in a place like this--enriched by students and faculty but not reserved for them alone. To create such a community, planners should harness and direct market energies, and thereby magnify the impact of their investment.

    Here's one way to do this: Obtain most or all of the property, perhaps with some use of eminent domain. Select some non-contiguous blocks in which to build campus buildings. Each block could be designed by a different architect in order to promote variety. At the same time, each block would share some common features. They would all provide a mix of student residences, some apartments for faculty and staff, spaces for eating and studying, and classrooms. I like to imagine all these blocks being built around central courts, and each one might have a tower to create a dramatic skyline.

    Then the remaining blocks could be sold or leased to developers. The college or university could use its market leverage to select proposals that contributed variety and quality of design. It could even impose unusual zoning rules, such as requiring developers to build a public inner courtyard in each block. If every courtyard opened to the street in the middle of every block, pedestrians could cross the neighborhood from court to court while traffic passed on the streets.

    I'd keep the traditional street plan and retain any historic buildings and major trees. If new streets had to be laid out, I would make them narrow in order to concentrate foot traffic, slow cars, and generate a feeling of energy.

    I suppose there are two basic models for universities, with various hybrids and exceptions. One is a park-like campus with the buildings set on lawns and connected by paths or private roads. The other is an urban neighborhood with academic buildings and student residences scattered throughout--the standard European model, which we also see at Boston University, the New School, and some other American institutions. I do not prefer the European model overall; both can be nice. I do think that integrating a new university into an urban neighborhood would be a powerful way to spur economic development and turn abandoned property into valuable real estate.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia

    January 2, 2008

    "both sides now"

    My sister, Caroline Levine, has an essay in Inside Higher Education about the responsibilities of peer reviewers to the authors they evaluate. She begins:

    When I was a struggling junior faculty member, every publication mattered so much that rejection letters felt like physical blows. And it wasn't only the brute fact of the rejections that caused pain: Readers' reports on my manuscripts were often written in a tone of sharp annoyance. Touchy and ill-tempered, they seemed to see only the flaws. It was as if I'd somehow insulted these readers, breaking rules that I didn’t know existed. There’s no question that I’ve had much to learn about framing, pursuing, and clinching an argument. But I've certainly never had any intention of irritating my readers.

    Caroline doesn't argue that reviewers should be lenient or nice to would-be authors, but she makes the case for an ethic of respect.

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: academia

    November 7, 2007

    disparities in college opportunities

    Today, CIRCLE releases a major report based on 47 focus groups, with a total of 386 student participants, conducted on 12 four-year college and university campuses. The report contains many interesting findings and documents a hunger for open-ended, civil conversations.

    Although this is not our main finding, I am personally struck by the tremendous disparities among colleges. The "Millennial Generation" or "Generation Y"--those are abstractions. Individuals of the same age differ dramatically from one another depending on the institutions they attend.

    Predominantly White students at a northeastern urban public university have extremely negative views of politics and government, seen as manipulative and controlling. They see both the college and the government as wasteful of their money and unresponsive. To the extent that they can list political acts that they have taken, these acts have often proved discouraging (even frightening, in one case). They believe that if you get involved in politics, you will pay a very heavy price. At first, they cannot think of any policies that affect them, but then they say that they are victims of the government, as welfare recipients and as immigrants. They believe that government would have a better reputation if it helped anyone effectively. Their volunteer activities appear episodic and not very educational, although one person was involved in local politics. Their efficacy is low.

    In a historically black private college in the South, the students have deep distrust for the institution, the media, and the national government. They refer to powerful people in the government and the college as an undifferentiated "they" that wastes their money and treats them unfairly. The students use words like "evil" in relation to the government and fear surveillance and manipulation. They mention few political acts that they have taken. One man says that politics is a game that's already been decided: "So it's like why play the game[?]" Some take positions that might be identified with the right, such as a belief in self-help and a strong opposition to welfare and foreign aid. (These are pervasive themes.) Several believe that the curriculum is too focused on slavery and Black history in general.

    They can mention very few opportunities for civic learning in high school or college and are pessimistic about all approaches to social change except (perhaps) organizing on the model of the Civil Rights Movement. However, they like the discussion in the focus group itself, seeing it as "political" (in a good sense). "And it's not necessarily the gift card or the food that got me here. I just wanted to come and express my opinions so somebody else will know."

    In contrast, students at two highly selective private institutions have learned a lot about politics in college--not only from classes, but also from political speakers, events, the campus newspaper, lengthy, organized travel, and fairly intense informal discussions, including political conversations with faculty. These students are aware of their own privilege. Their complaints about the government and politics are analytical rather than passionate. They criticize the government for mistreating other people, not themselves. One Ivy student says that she wanted to be "in politics" (as a career) since high school; most are already "in politics" (as an activity) in college. One says that politics is "fun."

    They are quite sophisticated; for example, one or two students in each of the three groups recognizes a candidate (Senator Snowe) among the photos they are supposed to use as prompts for conversation. They have had civic and political opportunities from early on--an Ivy student whose father is a prominent elected official is only an extreme example. They almost all provide direct voluntary service, but often their work has a direct policy link as well. For example, one student has lobbied in Congress. Several have conducted elaborate research projects on social issues. Most of the students from both schools are liberals and equate the words "liberal," "activist," and "political"--basically seen as positive adjectives. The lone conservative student in the one of the groups complains about liberal bias but says he has moved toward the center in college.

    In short, these undergraduates seem to have chosen campuses that are activist and predominantly liberal and have then received deliberate civic opportunities that have cemented their political identities.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia

    October 19, 2007

    college, from scratch

    (On an airplane between Denver and Charlotte): I'm sure people learn something in college, but the evidence is not strong that, on average, they learn very much. Students perform better on assessments of knowledge and critical thinking at the end of college than at the beginning. But the gains are fairly consistent regardless of the type, size, and mission of the institution.* This finding suggests to me that students aren't much affected by the educational opportunities that colleges offer. And that doesn't surprise me, because their main opportunity is the chance to sit in a large lecture-hall listening to a distant figure who might as well be on TV.

    If students don't learn all that much in college, why do they (or their families) pay tuition? And why do students struggle away on schoolwork for four years? One answer is: sorting. Students with good grades from fancy institutions get better jobs than students with poor grades from easy-to-enter colleges, who get better jobs than people with no degrees at all. This is because employers use admission, graduation, and grades as measures of how desirable students are. The fanciest colleges, being the hardest to get into, can pick the applicants who are on course to being the most desirable employees. Merely by admitting a kid, they raise his lifelong income, especially if he performs as well or better than his peers.

    In order to attain a privileged position in the market, colleges need not actually educate students. Instead, they need need a reputation for being difficult to get into. To attract applicants, it also helps to provide very comfortable facilities and lots of services outside the classroom; and to appear in the newspaper often for excellent research or athletics. Harvard, for example, employs 5,102 "administrative and professional" staff (excluding clerical and technical workers and those in "service and trades"). Harvard has 112 full-time professional and administrative workers in its athletics department alone. This compares to 911 tenured faculty (or 2,163 total faculty).

    I exaggerate this picture, of course. But I fear there is truth in it.

    If you wanted to start completely over, you could imagine a college like this:

  • No frills. Minimal student services, no intercollegiate athletics, but virtually all the tuition money goes to faculty, who are required to teach.
  • The admissions office looks for students who are likely to benefit from the education, not for students who have beaten the competition in high school. Those most likely to benefit will be motivated and will have baseline skills; but they will not all be at the top of their classes in prep schools and suburban megaschools.
  • All courses are seminars or labs, with lots of assignments that require collaboration on lengthy projects. Working with others is a crucial skill that should be learned in college. Besides, such collaboration would compensate for a lack of extramural sports and other expensive extracurriculars
  • Residences for students, classrooms, professors' offices, and apartments for some of the faculty are combined in the same buildings. All these buildings are constructed simply and cheaply, with techniques to reduce energy use, and are designed to be decorated over time by the students. All arts, architecture, design, and landscape architecture courses are devoted to beautifying the campus.
  • The faculty is selected for excellence of teaching and research, but with no attention to their fame either within their own disciplines or in the media. Criteria for excellence are set by the institution itself; external offers, peer-reviews, and other measures of market value are proudly ignored.
  • A system of assessment or evaluation involves graded group projects at the beginning and end of each academic year. The college discloses changes in the students' scores on these projects over time and claims any positive changes as evidence of its actual impact. When the impact is weak or negative, the college changes its curriculum.
  • *Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: academia

    April 12, 2007

    academic freedom and accountability

    More than a week ago, Harry Brighouse wrote a Crooked Timber post entitled "What's the point of academic freedom?" It provoked a lively, focused, and intelligent discussion. One of Harry's main points was that academic freedom is not primarily a matter of individual autonomy. Universities, disciplines, and academic departments control what is taught, what is published, what work qualifies advanced students for degrees, what research is funded, who is hired, promoted, and tenured, who is invited to speak publicly, and on what topics. In all these respects, academia as a set of institutions constrains the free speech rights of individual academics when they are on the job.

    The main questions, therefore, are: (1) To what extent should academic institutions be autonomous--collectively-self governing? (The alternative is for some outside power, such as the state government, to regulate them). (2) How should academia govern itself? For example, should the faculty of a whole university (which combines many disciplines) influence tenure decisions within a particular department? (3) To what extent should academic institutions decide to govern themselves by granting maximum individual autonomy to professors over such matters as course topics? To what extent should the internal norms of academia be libertarian, as opposed to meritocratic, egalitarian, or communitarian?

    Much of the discussion in the comments thread favored institutional autonomy for academia on the grounds, first, that outsiders lack the expertise to make judgments of quality, and second, that politicians and students have untrustworthy agendas. The examples that arose include medieval studies, philosophy of language, and Victorian English literature. In these cases, research costs relatively little (thus is can be sustained with tuition money). Such research has relatively little impact on public policy or public issues. And such research can be particularly technical and hard for outsiders to judge properly. Thus it seems unnecessary and unwise for outsiders, such as politicians, to try to influence how these disciplines are practiced.

    But the core liberal arts represent only a small fraction of academia. Some professors are engaged in pure research that is very costly, requiring particle accelerators or massive door-to-door surveys. These researchers are surely accountable to the taxpayers or foundations who fund their work. Even if legislators cannot understand particle physics, they must make judgments about whether it is worth money that could otherwise be spent on child health or returned to taxpayers. There is no expertise on that essentially moral matter, which is for the public and its representatives to decide.

    Other professors teach and study fields like elementary education, accounting, marketing, planning, forestry, law, public health, librarianship, and nursing. These fields have direct relevance to public institutions and policies. For example, planners actually determine the shape of our cities; education professors profoundly influence aspects of our public schools. Academics are also gatekeepers to licensed professions, such as law and teaching, that are very powerful within the state sector; in this respect, their political power is evident and direct.

    The expertise that these professions develop is at least partly problematic. For example, it is good to have rigorous, quantitative research on education. But it is also crucial for parents and other citizens to judge what their schools are doing and why. If education becomes dominated by highly technical jargon, our schools are no longer genuinely "public." Genuinely public schools are ones in which many adults participate and influence the outcomes and norms. Participatory schools work better than others, but that is not the main point. The main point is that people have a right to shape the education of the next generation.

    If one starts with the example of a philosopher of language, writing a paper in her own home after teaching classes to pay her salary, the arguments for academic autonomy are at their zenith. As one commenter writes, such "professors only answer to other professors." But if one starts with a professor of educational administration or urban planning, I think it's pretty obvious that the public has some rights of oversight and review. How exactly that should be exercised is a more complicated question.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia

    March 19, 2007

    making comparative judgments

    Prof. Brian Tamanaha says that that he's "losing [his] stomach for honest academic exchange," meaning that he no longer wants to write critical reviews of peers' work. He writes, "I feel like a coward, shirking my responsibility as an academic." I can sympathize, having been deeply involved lately in making comparative judgments. I'm the chair of a job search committee that's choosing among more than 225 applicants for--at most--three jobs. That inevitably means making comparative judgments about publications and presentations. I also do a fair amount of peer-reviewing. And I'm on the other side of the table all the time, with plenty of pending articles, grant proposals, and other applications of my own. A book manuscript of mine was recently rejected after a 15-month wait because of a negative peer-review.

    It is our academic duty to make such critical judgments. My Institute cannot give jobs to all 225 applicants, so we must judge their merits, or at least their "fit" for our positions. Publishers cannot print even a small proportion of the manuscripts they are offered; they must try to pick the best ones. Even the search for truth requires critical judgments. If you argue that P and I believe that not-P, we cannot both be right. To establish whether P or not-P is the case, I should try to show why you are wrong. I need to do that in public so that you and others can follow and assess my arguments.

    Still, making comparative judgments of merit is only one mode of academic interaction. We can also cooperate and learn from one another. Even if you argue P when P is not the case, I may be able to get a lot out of your argument, your evidence, your methodology, or your style. I share Professor Tamanaha's feeling that making comparative critical judgments is one of the worst parts of academic life--a necessity, but not a pleasure.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia

    February 21, 2007

    building alternative intellectual establishments

    Think back to the year 1970. ....

  • Almost all university professors are men. They seem to be interested only in male historical figures and male issues. They select their own advanced students and colleagues and decide which manuscripts are published. They defend their profession as rigorous, objective, and politically neutral. Feminists respond by criticizing those claims; some also try to create a parallel set of academic institutions (women's studies departments, feminist journals) that can confer degrees and tenure and publish.
  • Certain academic disciplines, including law, history, and political science, are seen as predominantly liberal. They seem to support a liberal political establishment that has considerable power. For example, law professors are gatekeepers to the legal profession, which produces all judges. Professors in these fields choose their own successors and claim to be guardians of professionalism, expertise, independence, and ethics. Conservatives--disputing these claims--decide to build a parallel set of research institutions, including the right-wing think tanks and organizations like the Federalist Society (founded 1982).
  • The National Endowment for the Arts gives competitive grants to individual artists. NEA peer-review committees are composed of artists, critics, and curators. They are said to be insulated from politics and capable of choosing only the best works. The artists they support tend to come from the "Art World" to which they also belong: a constellation of galleries, art schools, small theaters, and magazines, many based in New York City. Most of the funded work is avant-garde. It is usually politically-correct, aiming to "shake the bourgeoisie." Critics complain about some particularly controversial artists, and ultimately the individual grants program is canceled.
  • Almost all professional biologists are Darwinians. They assert the legitimacy of science; but their religious critics believe that they depend on false metaphysical assumptions. Biologists use peer-review to select their students, to hire colleagues, to disperse research funds, and to choose articles for publication. Religious critics cannot get through this system, so they build a parallel one composed of the Institute for Creation Research, Students for Origins Research, and the like.
  • The most influential news organs in the country (some national newspapers and the nightly television news programs) claim neutrality, objectivity, accuracy, and comprehensiveness: in a phrase, "all the news that's fit to print." Critics from both the left and right detect all sorts of bias. They try (not for the first time in history) to construct alternative forms of media, including NPR (founded in 1970) and right-wing talk radio.
  • If you are influenced by Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals and Foucault, you may see all knowledge as constructed by institutions to serve their own wills to power. Then you must view all of the efforts mentioned above with equanimity--or perhaps with satisfaction, since they have unmasked pretentious claims to Truth. If you believe in separate spheres of human excellence, then you may lament the way that various disciplines and fields have been enlisted for political organizing. You may concede that all thought has a political dimension, but you may be sorry that scholarly and artistic institutions have been used as strategic resources in battles between the organized left and right. (I owe this idea to Steven Teles.)

    I guess my own response is ad hoc and mixed. For example, I think that conservative ideas about law, history, and political science are interesting and challenging and should be represented in academia. I'm sorry that some legal conservatives have found their way to the Supreme Court, but the solution is to win the public debate about the meaning of the Constitution--not to wish that conservatives would go away. The Federalist Society provides liberals with a valuable intellectual challenge.

    I suspect that the NEA's peer-review committees of the 1970s and 1980s often identified the best artists: meaning those who were most innovative, sophisticated, and likely to figure in the history of art as it is written a century from now. (Although who can tell for sure?) But I'm not convinced that taxpayers' money should be devoted to the "best" artists. Other criteria, such as geographical dispersion, various sorts of diversity, and public involvement, should perhaps also count. If it's fair to say that the New York Art World dispersed public money to itself, that sounds like a special-interest takeover of a public agency.

    Finally, "creation science" and "intelligent design theory" strike me as both scientific and theological embarrassments, destined to disappear but not before they have done some damage. Nevertheless, the anti-Darwinian organizations reflect freedom of association and freedom of speech and must certainly be tolerated.

    (These ad hoc judgments are probably not consistent or coherent at a theoretical level.)

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia , philosophy

    February 12, 2007

    the Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship at Tufts

    I'm just back from visiting the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, which is a very unusual and courageous experiment. At Tufts, there are several prominent experts on "active citizenship"--political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and staff who guide students in service projects. To build on this strength, the university founded--and Jonathan M. Tisch, the chairman of Loews Hotels, endowed--a College of Citizenship and Public Service. The College does not grant degrees, enroll students, or offer courses. Its founders felt that a standard school or college would only affect a subset of Tufts' students and faculty. It would become a specialized program, perhaps devoted to training future civil servants. Instead, the Tisch College exists to infuse active citizenship throughout the undergraduate education, graduate and professional schools, extracurricular activities, research, and community relations of Tufts.

    The Tisch College is still in its early years, but it has already produced a stream of publications, programs, and events.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia

    January 15, 2007

    why colleges should embrace a civic mission

    I'm traveling today to Oglethorpe University in Martin Luther King's city of Atlanta. Oglethorpe has begun a major initiative to incorporate service and civic engagement into the whole experience of its students. I'm going to moderate a day of discussion for the faculty. I won't talk much: I want to listen and help the professors to develop their own ideas. However, I have promised a brief opening presentation about why colleges and universities should embrace their civic missions. My outline follows:

    In the 19th century, citizenship and higher education went together. The good citizen, like the good college graduate, knew his or her duty and did it.

    In politics, for example, voting was a public act. You voted for your party�s candidate, and your neighbors watched you do it. Most people were brought up within a party and were expected to stay loyal to it. The parties were defined by ascribed identities that were difficult for individuals to escape: class, race, religion, and region.

    Newspapers routinely mixed editorializing with factual reporting, and each one aimed at a specific identity group. They advocated fiercely.

    In colleges and universities, there was little choice among courses. Most college presidents were clergymen; teaching involved lots of moral exhortation. Moral development was a central function of the institution. Student bodies were homogeneous--often from the same denomination, race, and community. Oglethorpe University had a rather typical founding purpose: to train young men of Georgia to be ministers for the Presbyterian Church.

    A new model of citizenship arose in the 20th century, and a new form of college and university developed to embody it. Now the good citizen was an independent, informed maker of free choices.

    In politics, voting became a private act (thanks to the secret ballot). Because voting for a party is a crude way to choose one's political preferences, there were efforts to disaggregate the choice. Party-line voting was discouraged; citizens were supposed to choose individual candidates. The referendum, initiative, and recall were launched.

    The best newspapers now aspired to neutrality and separated fact from opinion. Their role was to inform the private reader who would then make choices.

    Higher education changed accordingly. Students were given choices among courses and majors. Professors won autonomy and academic freedom. Knowledge and critical thinking became the chief educational goals. Graduates were supposed to choose their beliefs, their political preferences, and their social roles based on information. Indoctrination was seen as a fault, and as a result there was much less moral exhortation.

    This model reached its apogee soon after World War II. The Oglethorpe Idea (launched in 1944) was unusual in that it put an emphasis on "citizenship." More typical was a statement by the University of Chicago's president, Robert Hutchins, in 1933: "'education for citizenship' has no place in the university." Hutchins led a modern research university devoted to dispassionate academic study.

    This ideal came under attack after the War:

  • Conservatives noted that the alleged neutrality of the modern university was misleading, because the curriculum and ethos were pervasively secular. (See William Buckley, God and Man at Yale, 1951).

  • Liberals and leftists noted that the supposedly independent and neutral university won contracts from the Defense Department and prepared its graduates to run corporate America. It was also the gateway to the middle class, yet its admissions decisions were hardly neutral.

  • Others (regardless of ideology) argued that a university devoted to choice lacked any central purpose. It had become a hollow shell without a meaningful set of values that could orient young people.
  • Meanwhile, there were gradual but substantial declines in the actual proportion of Americans who were participating in public life. Presented with a free choice among civic or political groups and causes, many chose not to engage at all. Between 1975 and 2005, the decline was 14% for belonging to at least one group, 31% for being interested in public affairs, 38% for working on community projects, 38% for regularly reading the newspaper, and 44% for attending community meetings.

    Clearly, higher education did not deserve all the blame for this disengagemrnt. (Indeed, people without college degrees were the most likely to drop out of public life.) But higher education wasn't doing enough to help--to develop interests, skills, and habits of participation.

    Colleges and universities also had another good reason to worry about civic engagement. They were now trying to attract and retain a broader range of students, many of whom were not comfortable or motivated in institutions devoted only to academic knowledge and critical thinking. These students needed to see applications and purposes for what they were learning.

    Therefore, a new set of teaching practices have developed that go beyond both the 19th and the 20th century university. These practices include service-learning, community-based research, living/learning communities, and exercises in public deliberation.

    At their best, these forms of education avoid indoctrination and mere moral exhortation. They prize and teach critical thinking and independence. Nevertheless, they deliberately develop skills, habits, and values that will connect graduates to public life. In short, they don't tell students what to think about controversial issues, but they do train them to think, to care, and to act on public matters.

    Some controversies and challenges to consider:

  • Can civic education avoid indoctrination? [Stanley Fish says no: "Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform (by replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching."]
  • Are colleges and universities competent to develop character, especially if such education requires them to work with non-academic institutions and communities?
  • Is it fair to put a university's resources into service or civic education, when students have paid their tuition and alumni have given money on the understanding that the institution is devoted to academic study?
  • permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia

    November 17, 2006

    Linda Faye Williams (1949-2006)

    Dr. Linda Williams died on Oct. 16. She had been a senior professor of Government & Politics at the University of Maryland. Before that, she had taught at Howard and other universities and had served in senior positions in most of the African American political organizations, notably the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Congressional Black Caucus.

    Linda was a fighter. She battled prejudice against Blacks, women, people from tiny, poor Texas towns, activists with PhDs, and professors who spend too much time in politics. She battled stupid policies, shortsighted leaders, and very serious illness. She fought on her own behalf but mainly for her students, her community, and all oppressed people.

    But to call her a fighter, while completely true, is also misleading. She was one of the very warmest, funniest, most caring, cheerful, and generous of our colleagues. The picture above captures her wry smile and her fondness for the photographer (who happens to be our mutual friend Margaret Morgan-Hubbard). The books and the punching bags in the background are perfect symbols. Linda was a careful scholar who also took swings at the powerful.

    At today's memorial service, a dozen young African American professors from across the country took the stage together. They were among Linda's PhD students from the 1990s. She had broken down doors for them, challenged them intellectually, and given them courage. But for me the most moving testimony was about their children. It seems that in homes where a parent has studied with Linda, the children know "Dr. Williams" as a shorthand for excellence. That is an astounding legacy.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia

    November 16, 2006

    bridging the gap between what universities can offer and what students can do

    At its best, a college education offers students--regardless of their career plans--opportunities to participate as apprentices in real research that addresses unanswered and pressing questions. That experience is good for the mind and the character. I think people understand the value of such work in a scientific context; they realize that they (or their children) would benefit from a summer's work in a biology lab. The humanities, the arts, and the social sciences offer comparable benefits.

    It is largely in order to create such opportunities that we train college teachers in PhD programs that emphasize research; that we grant them tenure in return for a record of active scholarship; and that we expect them to publish in peer-reviewed journals.

    But the fact is that most students never experience actual research. Most do not come to college with the skills and knowledge necessary to take advantage of such opportunities. Many would not willingly choose to participate in research. A majority of American professors are not actually and currently involved in scholarship. And some of the most prolific and talented scientists and scholars are uninterested in teaching of any kind. The combination of those factors reduces the set of students and faculty who work together on real research problems to a very small number.

    I'd resist any reforms that would reduce the size of that set or that would limit such experiences to elite institutions. Thus I'd resist efforts to move professors away from scholarship. But I also reject the status quo. We can't be satisfied if most students miss the intended benefits of higher education--benefits that are supposed to derive from tenure, peer-review, and graduate education. Nor can we simply wring our hands in despair or blame other institutions, such as high schools, if there is a gap between students' backgrounds and the best opportunities we offer at our institutions. We have to take responsibility for the gap.

    Some of the most promising answers, such as the Gemstone Program at my university, pull together teams of students to conduct ambitious collaborative projects over more than one semester. This is a different model from the individual student in the lab or seminar room. The research is student-led, hence not really at the frontier of an academic discipline. In some cases, students pursue questions that have already been answered; they reinvent the wheel. But their projects are challenging, and the professors who coach them can draw on their expertise.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia , education policy

    May 4, 2006

    The secret thoughts of a Maryland School of Public Policy prof

    No wonk has ever won a vote, yet we're the ones who rule.
    For us, the whole of Washington's become a kind of school.
    The politicos are our students; they show up from the sticks
    With shiny smiles, fancy suits, and campaign-finance tricks.
    But when we talk cost/benefit, chi-squared, or Freddie Mac,
    Their brains feel slow, their spirits, low; their mouths look kinda slack.
    "You profs," they drawl, "it seems y'all know exactly what to do.
    You write the bill, just as you will, and tell us when you're through."

    In College Park, we've students, too; they're the ones who pay us.
    But they don't exactly have the clout to make us into playahs.
    That's why we love the World Bank, C-SPAN, or a think tank,
    Anywhere that cameras roll and the offices are swank.

    Civic engagement? Sounds like a drag.
    Public deliberation? Don't make me gag.
    A populist revolt? Not in our time.
    The people only care about celebrities and crime.

    Youth are dumb and selfish, but that's really no surprise.
    Their parents can't detect the most patronizing lies.
    Voting's overrated: I've hardly ever done it.
    As for the government, who'd really want to run it?
    And while I'm getting all of this off my panting chest,
    What about the folks who think that Maryland's the best?
    Please, a Terp is a turtle with his head up in his ... shell.
    Against a Blue Devil, he's got a snowball's chance in hell.

    The Terps are meek, the ozone's weak, our troops are up a creek.
    Philosophy's obsolescent and the future's looking bleak.
    Net intelligence is constant, but the population keeps on growing.
    We're out of cash, ideas, and friends, but the mess is still ongoing.
    The end is near, I sadly fear, for planet, country, school.
    But I get paid for opinions, so my future's looking cool!

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia , verse and worse

    May 1, 2006

    loyalty to place in the age of jet-set academia

    I grew up with Jason Stanley, who wrote a thoughtful post on the Leiter Report about changes in academia since our days as fellow faculty-brats. His father, Prof. Manfred Stanley (whom I knew well and miss) was committed to his institution and community, to such a point that the idea of moving "bewildered him."

    He tended to value conferences, reading groups, and the development of links between the university and the community at least as much as his own written work. ... His own production clearly suffered from his other activities. For example, he spent years working with a poor town near Syracuse on a project concerning the responsibility of companies to the communities they abandon. A lot emerged from this project; a documentary, several town-meetings, and a civics class for high school students in that town. But very few publications emerged from it. He also viewed his obligations to his community as extending to his family. For example, he sent his children to Syracuse city public schools. As a professor at the local good university, he felt an extra obligation to be a member of the community, rather than a lesser obligation.

    Jason believes that our "generation of academics is quite different." We change institutions regularly, or hope to do so. We think of ourselves as "free agents," willing to obtain better salaries, working conditions, and status by moving or threatening to move. Our communities are not composed of colleagues, let alone neighbors and fellow citizens, but specialists in our field whom we "see at conferences and talks, and chat with on e-mail and on the phone."

    I think at the deepest level what has happened is a form of Weberian rationization. (That seems a fitting theory to apply in a post that invokes Manny Stanley.) Increasingly, the whole population of college-bound students and faculty have in mind the same criteria of excellence. They rank all institutions on one great Chain of Being that has Harvard and MIT at (or near) the top, and the local community college near the bottom. Lew Friedland and Shauna Morimoto find (pdf) that all high school students in one midwestern town-- including those who are struggling in school--envision the same status hierarchy and believe that their life-prospects will be determined by how high they can rise on it.

    When everyone is trying to move up a single scale, certain practical consequences result. Actual, published rankings circulate and are influential. Rising in the rankings makes an institution more competitive, thus allowing it to admit better qualified students who are easier and more fun to teach. In turn, the rankings are affected by institutions' international reputation for research. As in any Weberian system, quantifiable and generalizable criteria begin to count: e.g., the number of publications, or the rate of publication in the most competitive journals. Professors are highly aware of their institutions' reputations and are very tempted to try to move up when possible. Hence there's a lot of moving around. Building a local reputation (on or off campus) doesn't increase one's market value, so we put our energy into national publications for the people who might write us recommendation letters.

    As Jason notes, there are advantages to Weberian rationalization. We always had a status system, but now it's more transparent and more open to people (students and faculty alike) who play their parts well. Back in the 1980s, we faculty-brats knew the best colleges and how to get into them, while our peers in other regions and communities were still happy to attend local institutions. Now everyone reads U.S. News & World Report and tries to get into the "best" college that will admit them. If you get high SATs and grades and make sure to log some hours of community service, you too can go to Yale.

    Jason fears, however, that "market forces [are] impinging on academia," which should not be "just another way to be a success." I agree and would elaborate his thesis by making the following points:

    1. There is no reason of principle always to prefer generalized knowledge over local knowledge, yet the academic marketplace certainly values the general. Manny Stanley's deep knowledge of a particular community near Syracuse would not help him to get a more prestigious job elsewhere or move his institution up the national rankings.

    2. Engaging patiently with particular communities is often a way to learn. That is especially true in certain disciplines, such as sociology, which Manny Stanley professed. I'm not saying that a medieval art historian should spend her work time listening patiently to her neighbors, but some of the best social theory (from John Dewey and Jane Addams to Elinor Ostrom and Jenny Mansbridge) has emerged from such engagement.

    3. When institutions are concerned about their national and international rankings, they tend to run away from their local communities, unless they happen to be located in glamorous spots like Greenwich Village. For instance, my university, which is extremely conscious of status and currently ranked 18 on the list of public research institutions, would like people to forget that it is located in the State of Maryland, let alone Prince George's County, MD. It also hopes that everyone misses its land-grant charter. We want people to think of us as a global organization with programs in China, Nobel laureates, and convenient access to the nation's capital. As a result, there is no serious investment in local work; and Prince George's County suffers.

    4. If being a successful college means being able to select a low percentage of applicants, and if attending a highly selective institution brings economic benefits after graduation, then there is no need for colleges to put resources into education. To demand good teaching might only drive away the faculty who have the best prospects elsewhere, thus making an institution look less prestigious. When experts investigate student outcomes from very different kinds of colleges (e.g., local state schools versus fancy private ones) they find differences in "career and economic attainment" after graduation, but few differences in what students actually learn. "These findings could be expected because in the areas of career and economic achievement, the status-allocating aspects of a college and what a degree from that college signals to potential employers about the characteristics of its students may count as much if not more than the education provided."*

    5. Belonging to communities is psychologically valuable and a great way to learn. At an institution like mine, which runs away from its geographical community, it is hard for students, faculty, and staff to belong to place-based organizations and networks. They participate in various dispersed (sometimes global) communities, and that is fine. But I think our students miss something like 40% of the opportunities for membership and participation that they would have if we were connected to our geographical area. Connections would be tighter if, for instance, faculty conducted research in the community. But that would be a bad strategy for advancement.

    6. I think that competition for status is fundamentally unsatisfying. Friedland and Morimoto detect a hollowing-out of adolescence as teenagers spend all their time doing activities they think will look good on their resumes. Many adolescent volunteers cannot explain why they perform particular service activities, other than for career advantage. For faculty, constant jockeying for position makes you into the "man in the grey flannel suit." There is no fundamental reason why you should publish more articles in competitive journals in order to receive offers from higher-status institutions. However, it can be profoundly rewarding to use one's academic freedom and skills to improve the place you are. As Albert Hirschman showed,** we have two strategies for addressing shortcomings in institutions: "exit" and "voice." When you try to use voice even though you could exit, you are loyal. And the best parts of life come from loyalty. I think the fact that modern academics prefer exit is what Jason means when he talks about "market forces." And we're the ones who lose.



    *Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students, vol. 2 (Jossey-Bass, 2005), p. 591
    ** Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard, 1970)

    permanent link | comments (1) | category: academia

    March 30, 2006

    scholarship & teaching

    (Pasadena) Sometimes I find it strange that we pay scholars to teach young people. Scholarship and teaching are often such different affairs. A society could employ scholars to conduct research and teach apprentice scholars but never expect them to come into contact with regular undergraduates.

    However, last weekend, I found myself at an academic conference session that reminded me why it's important for researchers also to teach. It was a very strong panel of pyschologists who study adolescents' engagement in school (not their civic engagement; their commitment to academic work). That's an important subject, because kids who are disengaged tend to drop out of school and then pay a very serious price for the rest of their lives. The presentations described rigorous and relevant research. I had a somewhat detached perspective on the whole business, because I've never even taken a psychology course; I had few preconceptions or opinions about "scree charts," "eigenvalues," and "confirmatory factor analysis"--the topics of the discussion. It occurred to me that when social science works well, matters of great public importance are divided up into chunks that can be addressed through rigorous, cumulative research. Scholars build on previous work and use the most advanced available tools on manageable questions. Everyday presentations and discussions within the discipline tend to be narrow and technical. All of that is fine--as long as the whole enterprise moves toward important general conclusions. Thus it's valuable for specialists to have to present their whole subject to novices who want to know why it matters. I watched last weekend's presenters talk about factor-analysis with their colleagues from around the country and imagined them also lecturing to undergraduates about American education. It seemed to be just the right combination.

    permanent link | comments (0) | category: academia

    February 27, 2006

    a market failure in higher ed (the Summers case)

    In the highly competitive global market for college students and faculty, Harvard is the leader. A major consulting firm that was hired to advise Oxford (I think it was McKinsey & Co.) found that Oxford could potentially compete with any institution in the world except Harvard. In a business obsessed with rankings, Harvard sits on top, and everyone else emulates it.

    President Larry Summers was popular with students (Harvard's "customers"), but unpopular with faculty (the employees). He was forced out by the Trustees, who have a fiduciary duty to protect the institution. Although we know that students never have much clout, it's a bit of a puzzle that the faculty should prevail in an organization that is so successful at attracting student-applicants.

    Of course, it's possible that Summers was forced to resign because he was wrong on the merits, and the Trustees saw that. I suspect, however, that the issue was not his comments about women scientists or his confrontation with Cornel West (on which the Trustees might have thought he was wrong). The issue was a set of curricular and budgetary reforms that promised to enhance Harvard's actual education while eroding the power of tenured professors in the Arts and Sciences. On those matters, Summers was very likely correct.

    I want to emphasize that I don't see students as customers. Nevertheless, an economic analysis is useful for revealing how institutions actually work (as opposed to how they should work). Here are two contrasting views of the economics of the situation:

    1. Gary Becker, in the Becker-Posner blog:

    The American college and university system is widely accepted as the strongest in the world. This is why American universities are filled with students from abroad, including those from rich nations with a long history of higher education, like Germany and France.

    I conclude from this that the American university system must be doing many things right, at least relative to the other systems. And what is right about this system is rather obvious: several thousand public and private colleges and universities compete hard for faculty, students, and funds. That the American system of higher education is the most competitive anywhere is the crucial ingredient in its success. ...

    Given the effectiveness of the American higher education system, its governance, including the role of faculty, is probably on the whole along the right lines.

    Becker thinks that Harvard made a mistake by removing Summers and that its internal structure might be improved by strengthening the president; but the overall incentives are appropriate, and the best institutions will prevail.

    2. John Tierney in the New York Times (Feb. 25):

    In most industries, a company would cater to customers paying $41,000 per year, but Harvard has been able to take its undergraduates for granted. ... Harvard has long known that the best students will keep coming, not for its classes but simply for its reputation. Smart students want to go where other smart students go.

    Suppose people picked hotels based on how intelligent they expected the other guests to be. Once a hotel got a reputation as a brain magnet, smart people would automatically go there, and hotel employees could afford to get complacent. ...

    Senior professors can shunt off the more tedious jobs, like teaching freshmen or grading papers, to low-caste graduate students or visiting lecturers.

    Tierney is pointing to a market failure. I think he's onto something. Each Harvard matriculant gets intellectual stimulation from smart peers, plus the reputational advantage of having attended the most competitive institution (regardless of the quality of the education offered there). Harvard is, as Tierney says, a "brain magnet."

    In a sense, that's an arbitrary distinction; one year, the most successful high school students could all decide to apply to the University of Maryland, and they'd be fine if they all ended up here. But some signal must direct them to Harvard. The main signal is the reputation of the faculty. The senior professors don't have to teach; they just have to lend their names to the institution. In fact, they could probably resign and, for a time, Harvard would continue to sit on top of the rankings, simply because of its competitive applicant pool. However, Harvard must worry about the reputation of its faculty, because that is what creates the competition for students. Thus the faculty have a strategic position; thus they prevailed with the Trustees.

    [PS: In passing, Becker makes a classic economist's observation: "What survives in a competitive environment is not perfect evidence, but it is much better evidence on what is effective than attempts to evaluate the internal structure of organizations. This is true whether the competition applies to steel, education, or even the market for ideas." That kind of reasoning leads people to try to increase competition in K-12 education--through vouchers--rather than analyze how schools themselves should function. Note, however, that someone must "evaluate the internal structure of institutions." Otherwise, there will be no rational plans for improvement. Competition changes incentives, for better or worse. It does not itself solve problems.]

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    December 21, 2005

    a proposal for college reform

    Last week, I wrote that it pays for colleges merely to select the most qualified high school students and then put their energy into attracting and retaining famous scholars. They don't actually have to educate their students, because their graduates will succeed anyway. Those admitted to selective institutions are on a track for success at age 18; a college degree will certify their talent and thus give them a big income boost. Parents, students, professors, administrators, and prospective employers have little incentive to worry about how much value the college actually provides though courses. Only the state and the taxpayers have a reason to care.

    Here is possible strategy for a college that wants to break the mold:

    1. Select applicants who are most likely to benefit from the education that the college offers, based on a whole new admissions process that is not designed to cherry-pick the applicants who are already most advanced at age 18. When students are ready to graduate four years later, evaluate them using a comparable assessment and boast about the "value-added." If a college uses this approach, its SAT scores and average high-school GPA may fall, and then it will sink in the US News and World Report rankings. I would make a virtue of that result and brag about adding value instead of selecting applicants who are bound to succeed.

    2. Both during the application process and at graduation, assess students on their ability to address complex, multidimensional problems, ideally in cooperation with others. (My university's Gemstone program is an example.) Set them problems that require a combination of interpretive skills, quantitative analysis, management and communication ability, and strategic thinking. Develop the assessment with input from private-sector employers and civic leaders who can certify that a high score means readiness for work and citizenship.

    3. Constantly reform the curriculum and pedagogy to maximize gains for all students on the assessments described above. Perhaps a good approach would be to assign teams of students to address elaborate, multimensional problems over six weeks or longer. Given the same faculty-student ratio and the same faculty work-load that we have today, a college could reassign its professors to interdisciplinary teams that would advise teams of students working on projects. I'm not sure that this is a great idea, but it certainly seems more promising than having professors lecture to huge classes and rely on graduate students to translate their thoughts.

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    December 16, 2005

    college teaching isn't very effective

    Yesterday's post was long and meandering. I was thinking as I wrote about several different (but related) topics. I'm beginning to plan a speech that I'll give in Texas in January, and yesterday's post was preparatory. Anyway, I think I "buried the lead." If anything I wrote was interesting, it was this paragraph:

    College students score higher on tests of knowledge and critical thinking near the end of their undergraduate careers than at the beginning. The best estimates suggest that college exposure has a positive effect--between one quarter and one half of a standard deviation, depending on what outcomes we measure. However, there is remarkably little evidence that the type of college matters, even though colleges differ extraordinarily in size, selectivity, and mission. To me, this finding suggests that little of what a college does intentionally to educate students has an impact. Students grow, in part thanks to the college experience (which includes extracurricular activities and living arrangements); but they do not benefit to an impressive degree from college teaching.

    As Hellmut Lotz noted in his comment yesterday, "course work provides valuable focus to the learning experience in dorms and friendship circles. If young adults went to ... day care [for a year], they would probably learn less." I agree. Students benefit from being congregated with other students in institutions supposedly dedicated to learning. Even the title of "student" probably has a positive effect. Nevertheless, the direct impact of the instruction that colleges offer seems remarkably small, given how much we charge for it. I blame large classes, unhelpful exercises, poorly prepared and motivated teachers, and inappropriate curricula--but the underlying problem is the incentive structure that I described yesterday. Neither colleges nor students have enough reason to care about the "value-added" from higher education.

    The source, again, is Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass, 2005), p.145-6; 205-6.

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    December 2, 2005

    effects of faculty ideology

    In the debate about the alleged liberal bias of universities, some people say that it doesn't make any difference if most professors are left-of-center, because most of their students soon become moderates or conservatives. In other words, professors' political opinions have little impact.

    Indeed, the impact of faculty can easily be exaggerated. Students form their own opinions, and to the extent that they are influenced by others, professors are by no means the most important guides. Peers, parents, clergy, and the mass media almost certainly have more impact. Nevertheless, longitudinal survey data show that the ideology of a given college's faculty affects its students, even if we hold constant undergraduates' attitudes when they enter.

    The "political climate" of a college, measured in terms of average student opinions and average faculty opinions, has significant and consistent effects on individual undergraduates, influencing their likelihood of voting, their commitment to social activism, and their views on a wide range of contested current issues from the death penalty to taxation. The effects of faculty and peers are independent; the peer effects are considerably bigger. Sometimes, studies find that the peer effects completely negate the faculty effects. However, it may be that liberal students elect to attend certain colleges because their faculty have a reputation for being liberal. Then peer effects would reflect faculty effects.

    Incidentally, having a liberal faculty is also associated with increases in students' interests in the arts.

    Pascarella and Terenzini find that "Participation in racial or cultural awareness workshops and enrollment in ethnic or womens studies courses, for example, are both likely to nudge students' political orientations toward the left side of the liberal-conservative political spectrum and increase their support for social activism."

    Students in private colleges and selective colleges are most likely to change their opinions in a liberal direction. (This finding is based on measures of attitudes toward a few policy issues.)

    Source: Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Vol. 2, A Third Decade of Research (Jossey-Bass), pp. 286, 294-5, 292 306, 294.

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    November 29, 2005

    universities and civic education

    A 1911 committee of the American Political Science Association recommended that elementary school students should cooperate with local government agencies or community associations to beautify vacant lots, as a way of learning civic skills. They also suggested that high school students should become critics of their own education and be asked to write papers on topics like these:

    "What changes have been made in your high school course of study in the last ten years? ... What changes would you suggest in the content and methods of teaching the studies you are taking to make them more useful to you?"

    In 1906, a distinguished political scientist recommended that boys be sent to live on empty land near town for several summer weeks. The boys would form a self-governing and self-sufficient "republic" of adolescent farmers and thereby learn democracy. These facts come from Hindy Lauer Schachter, "Civic Education: Three Early American Political Science Association Committees and their Relevance for Our Time," PS Online (1998).

    I'm reading this and other articles to prepare for a meeting that CIRCLE has organized along with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Political Science Association's Civic Education Committee. The subject is the civic role of universities. We will be looking at statistical studies of the civic effects of college education. So far, however, I have been reading historical papers.

    The received wisdom is that American colleges were primarily dedicated to moral and civic education until the early years of the 20th century. As the anecdotes in Schachter's article reveal, many leading academics favored a highly experiential approach to civic education--both for k-12 students and for undergraduates. However, under the influence of German research universities, the leading American institutions gradually devoted themselves to objective, scientific research and specialized professional training. A 1914 APSA Committee recommended that citizens "learn humility in the face of expertise." As universities focused on the education of experts, they lost their moral and civic focus (for better or worse). They ceased recommending or implementing the kind of experiential civic education described above.

    This is now a fairly standard story. Some of the best recent scholarship complicates it, noting, for example, that there was a powerful civic vision embodied in the new research universities. See William Talcott's "Modern Universities, Absent Citizenship," which is CIRCLE Working Paper # 39 (pdf).

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    September 30, 2005

    ideology and the professoriate

    I'm in New Brunswick, NJ, for the Imagining America national conference. I'll speak tomorrow. My assigned theme is "difficult dialogues." The other panelists will discuss a large, Ford-funded initiative by that name that seeks to "promote pluralism and academic freedom on campus."

    When I think about "difficult dialogues" in relation to the arts and humanities, the dialogue that strikes me as the most difficult and most necessary of all is a conversation between academics--who tend to be liberal or radical--and the 62 million Americans who voted for George W. Bush last November. I plan to argue that:

    1. Academics are overwhelmingly liberal, especially in the arts and humanities. (I'll cite some data to this effect.)
    2. The gulf in attitudes between academics and the median US voters is causing tangible problems for intellectual culture and academia.
    3. We can take some constructive steps to improve the situation.

    I've covered several of those points on this blog before. However, I haven't previously considered the following explanation for the gulf in attitudes between academics and median American voters. In global perspective, it is the US electorate, not the American professoriate, that is out of the mainstream. American professors are cosmopolitan, and thus share more with foreign peers and colleagues than with the ideological outliers back home.

    Indeed, on a one-dimensional ideological scale from left to right, the median American voter is quite far to the right compared to the world's population, and the median American academic is closer to the global middle. But this one-dimensional scale conceals all kinds of complexities. There are ways in which American voters-populist, anti-authoritarian, libertarian, multiculturalist, and rights-oriented-can be more "radical" than Europeans. There are certainly homegrown traditions of radicalism that are concealed if one applies the international definition of the "left."

    Besides, even if it's true that American academics are centrists in the global dialogue and outliers only in our own country, that's still a problem. Our country is where we live, earn our salaries, find our students, and-in many cases-hold citizenship. The gap may not be out fault, but it is our problem, because no one else is going to solve it for us.

    I believe that a solution lies in an idea that Harry Boyte is developing. Boyte wants us to see ourselves as "culture makers" in a democratic society. Many Americans consider mass culture to be coarse, commercial, celebrity-driven, and violent. It's very slick and doesn't provide openings for ordinary people to create anything for a public audience. Culture also feels dangerously uncontrollable. You can't shield yourself or your children from the vulgar aspects of mass culture without also insulating yourself from the news and public life. Hollywood and the music industry occasionally respond to targeted protest campaigns, but they don't seem in general to care about people's thoughtful and deliberative opinions about quality.

    Democratic action through the state probably can't make much difference. The First Amendment rightly protects media companies, even if they create coarse and violent material. But there is great potential for partnerships between lay citizens and professional "culture-makers" who want to create alternatives that are more responsible, ethical, and serious. Academics, along with clergypeople, entertainers, journalists, and other professionals in the knowledge and communications business, can exercise powerful leverage.

    I don't imagine that there is consensus about what's wrong with pop culture. For some people, it's the pervasive anti-gay prejudice; for others, it's the increasingly tolerant representation of homosexuality. But we don't need consensus; we just need more chances to reason together about what culture should mean and to create things--not in one big, homogeneous group, but in diverse and sometimes overlapping communities. Universities should be at the heart of this work.

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    August 29, 2005

    autonomous youth culture

    In yesterday's Washington Post, Darragh Johnson has a long article about 14-year-old Calixto Salgado, a devout altar boy, first-generation American of Salvadoran ancestry, nice, soft-spoken guy, and C student. He attends Gaithersburg High School, a large suburban school in a fairly affluent Maryland community (median household income: $60k), where the overall graduation rate is 87.2% (pdf, p. 189), 72% of seniors take the SAT (pdf, p. 40), and college is expected, at least for the White kids. The Latino kids, however, face a lot more challenges. About one third of them score "proficient" on the state exams, compared to 61% of whites (pdf). As for Calixto, he is under intense pressure to join a gang. I feel that I almost know him, since he resembles some of the Salvadoran and Mexican kids I have worked with at Hyattsville's Northwestern High School, which is 23 miles to the southeast across Washington's suburbs.

    To varying degrees, adolescents live in their own world, separated from adult life. This is especially true for a person like Calixto, whose parents immigrated from El Salvador and lack knowledge or experience relevant to his life. Besides, gangs like MS-13 try to make youth culture as opaque as possible to parents and other adults, going so far as to require their recruits to commit violent crimes so that they will be tied together in a secret conspiracy. But such tactics are in some ways just extreme versions of the general (modern) adolescent urge to have a separate culture.

    It matters enormously what that culture is like and how each student navigates it. According to the Post article, White/Anglo students at Gaithersburg High School recruit youth for groups like Key Club by saying, "It looks great on applications!" There is presumably a fair amount of pressure to do well in school, and respect for those who do. Students who belong to that culture are very likely to go to college and then live another 6-8 decades in affluence, safety, and good health. (In Gaithersburg as a whole, almost half of adults have college degrees--compared to 36% for the US.) But Calixto is "at risk" of entering an alternative gang culture, in which case his future will be far bleaker. The stakes are extremely high.

    There are things that parents and schools can do to improve young people's odds. (For example, I'm still enthusiastic about making high schools smaller than Gaithersburg's 2,200 enrollment.) However, to a considerable extent, Calixto and his peers have a problem that only only they can address--collectively. For any individual kid, the pressure to join a gang (for self-respect, for safety, to impress the opposite sex, to satisfy the older brother who's already in) may be overpowering. It's a lot easier to resist pressure if you have company. Most of the school's clubs appear to be dominated by Whites, and Calixto doesn't have the grades to play sports. But if there were groups within the school that were created and led by Latinos, they could become safe havens. Ideally, Latino students could work together to change school policies so that the official anti-gang efforts were more effective.

    This is a tall order. I'm suggesting that Latino kids in the DC suburbs should do something harder than anything I have ever done--create an alternative youth culture in the face of MS-13. But that may be their best hope, and it requires civic skills and habits that adults may be able to teach and model. (Indeed, Calixto is a member of an after-school group called Identity that seems to be helping him.) Kids instinctively understand the need to organize, but some have responded to MS-13 by creating rival gangs like Cien Por Ciento Latino and Sangre Pura. Somehow, they need to steer a course between those groups and the Key Club, which is unlikely to help them--or even to admit kids like Calixto.

    Calixto's situation underlines why we should care about what people in my business clunkily call "youth civic engagement" and "civic education." Teaching kids to work together effectively can be a deadly serious business. It's for that reason, and not merely because I want young people to know the three branches of government, that I'm in this business.

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    August 5, 2005

    ideology in academia and elsewhere

    In September, I am supposed to give a talk that's essentially about the relationship between academics and other citizens. Based on anecdotal experience, I assumed that professors tended to be secular, internationalist, and skeptical of capitalism, whereas the median American was religiously Christian, nationalist, and pro-market. That gap in opinion would affect debates about spending on higher education, academic freedom, and the role of scholarship.

    I wanted to go beyond personal impressions, if possible. The General Social Survey allows us to compare the political views of people by their profession. In order to include enough "post-secondary teachers" in the sample to get statistically meaningful results, I had to combine all years from 1980 to 2002. That is a misleading method if there were big changes in the professoriat over those 22 years. However, I still find the results interesting.

    The first graph (above) shows the distribution of self-reported ideology among professors and everybody else. Non-professors formed a bell curve during the period 1980-2002, with the median at "moderate" and roughly symmetrical tails in either direction. Professors were far more liberal.

    This comparison could be misleading if professors defined "liberal" differently from other people. However, a second graph provides direct evidence about opinion on issues.

    Professors had about the same views of gun control as everyone else (presumably because most people favored it). On all other issues, professors were more liberal--although not by gigantic margins.

    [Update, 9/29: Chris Uggen offers better data than I provide above--although my data are also relevant--and he scores some good points in arguing that the ideological tilt in sociology is a real problem.]

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