I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week in the archives–1818 feels closer than 2018 these days. But 2018 went on without me. Here are some of the stories that came across our desk this week:

Fear and the evangelical Trumpists: John Fea in The Atlantic.

No AP for these fancy prep schools, at WaPo.

Would the real campus conservative please stand up? Turning Point USA rebuts criticism from Young America’s Foundation, at CHE.

turning point USA

Turning Point USA appeals to campus conservatives…

The high cost of campus free-speech protests:

Christian in America: Eric Miller interviews Matthew Bowman at R&P.

Pokin’ the academic bear: National Association of Scholars republishes pro-colonialism article, at IHE.christian politics of a word

Trump’s latest: Merging the Ed and Labor departments into DEW.

George Will: Vote Democratic to end GOP “misrule,” at WaPo.


I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Those of us who live our lives in semesters are feeling a dizzying sense of high-speed hoopla as we take the final plunge toward the end of the semester. In all the huff and stuff, here are some ILYBYGTH-related news stories you might have missed:

Why do conservatives hate higher education? At The Atlantic, Jason Blakely offers an explanation.

No more safe spaces—except for conservatives. House higher-ed bill throws some brontosaurus-sized bones to campus conservatives, as reported by Politico.

The conservative National Association of Scholars claims another win. AP European History changes its standards in response to NAS criticism. HT: DR

Selling the naming rights to your local school—Peter Greene objects.Bart reading bible

Is Silicon Valley taking over classrooms? Larry Cuban says yes and no.

The latest crisis in public education: Good News. The graduation rate is at an all-time high.

It’s all Greek to me: At The Atlantic, two opposing ancient concepts of free speech.


At CHE: Can Sexual Predators Be Good Scholars?

Of MOOCs and Monsters

Does Monsters University have a conservative anti-MOOC message?

I took my daughter to see it the other day.  It was great.  I laughed.  I cried.  There were lots of creatively imagined monsters, smart dialogue, and sight gags.  Plus a heartwarming story of friendship and dedication.

Monsters_University_poster_3But was it also a Disney-fied version of conservative arguments about the fate and future of higher education?

I couldn’t help wondering what the conservative intelligentsia would have to say about the movie’s implications for the future of higher education.  Especially about the latest craze to sweep the educational establishment, Massive Open Online Courses.

Conservatives have been divided about the moral and practical implications of MOOCs.

Some free-market aficionados have trumpeted the promise of the new approach.  By providing courses for free from elite universities such as Harvard and MIT, MOOCs make world-class learning more widely available than ever.  Economist Richard Vedder, for example, argued that a MOOC approach could cull out inefficiencies in higher education.

More recently, Benjamin Ginsberg fretted that MOOCs represented just another way for administrators to cut apparent costs, at the real cost of abolishing real learning.

Other conservatives have agreed that the MOOC model abandons the proper goal of higher education.  Rachelle DeJong complained that higher ed must take more responsibility for the formation of young minds and spirits. “The student,” DeJong wrote,

as yet unformed and uneducated, cannot judge what studies best suit his needs, his vocation, or his intellectual development. How can he discern a steep ascent to the mountaintop from a difficult dead-end, when all he knows are the briars, the rocks, and the stitch in his side?

In the pages of Minding the Campus, Peter Sacks warned that MOOCs will generate a crushing mediocrity and exacerbate the existing class divide among institutions of higher education.  Rich students will get a full learning experience, Sacks insisted, while less well-off students will only hear distant digital echoes of profound learning environments.

Such conservative arguments make sense to the historian in me.  Even a nodding acquaintance with the history of technology and education makes anyone skeptical of any new technological “revolution” for classrooms.  As Larry Cuban has demonstrated, new technologies often garner enthusiasm and enormous investment, only to crash against the reefs of complex educational reality.

Perhaps the best example was the flying broadcast technology of the 1950s.  The US government and the Ford Foundation poured tens of millions of dollars into this program, which sent planes circling over the Midwest and Great Plains.  These planes broadcast educational television programs to schools in those areas.  The idea was that the very best teachers could supply content for audiences of schoolchildren nationwide.

The program failed because schooling is about much more than simply receiving information from a TV screen.  CAN young people learn this way?  Of course.  Is such learning the equivalent of all the complex interactions that go into our notion of “school?”  Of course not.

A similar future seems in store for MOOCs.  Such distance learning is nothing really new and some students will likely benefit greatly from it.  But it will not replace the entirety of higher education, since that entirety includes such a broad range of ingredients.

What does all this have to do with adorable monsters?  I won’t give away any of the plot of Monsters University, but I can say that the movie centers around the dreams of a young adorable monster who yearns to attend Monster University.  The film includes long sweeping vistas of colored foliage and ancient-looking buildings.  It revolves around the intense traditions and intense personal interactions that make up higher education for monsters.

The main character, to be sure, went to MU for vocational reasons.  He wanted to earn a certain type of job.  Without giving away the plot, I can’t comment here on some of the movie’s ultimate implication about the career efficacy of those choices.

But for the main monster character, the allure of MU was at least as much about personal relationships between students and a hard-nosed dean as it was about attaining information.  The attraction of MU depicted in the film was at least as much about learning from fellow students as it was about downloading information from star professors.  The campus and its social scene played crucial roles in the education depicted in the film.

If the film gives us anything beyond two pleasant hours in an air-conditioned theater, it is an emotional, playful articulation of the drier anti-MOOC arguments made by conservative intellectuals.  College, in this film, is a whole-life experience.  College includes formal education, but it also requires a whole lot more.  In order to be educated, the film implies, young people must submit to a stupendous tradition.  Institutions of higher learning, as portrayed in this summer fantasy, are literally supernatural conglomerations of love, life, and learning.

Such conglomerations can never be replaced with online learning platforms.  No matter how much star power goes into them.


Illiberal Arts Colleges

What should liberal-arts colleges teach?  The conservative National Association of Scholars warns that elite schools such as Bowdoin have mutated into anti-liberal-arts indoctrination centers.  Instead of guiding students through the rigors of arts and sciences, NAS suggests, schools such as Bowdoin train students only to mouth hackneyed slogans.  Instead of guiding students through the difficult work of mastering an intellectual tradition, Bowdoin sends its professors off to conduct research and releases students to wander in an intellectual meadow.

Bowdoin is not the first college to come under criticism from NAS recently.  The conservative higher-ed association also published a study of the ways American history is taught at the University of Texas—Austin and Texas A & M University.  At those prestigious schools, NAS concluded, an ideologically slanted focus on race, class, and gender had supplanted traditional interest in diplomatic, religious, and political history.

The Texas report naturally generated some opposition.  Diplomatic historian Jeremy Suri, now of UT—Austin but formerly from my alma mater, called the NAS study “misleading, and frankly dumb.”

The kerfuffle at Bowdoin had its roots in an awkward golf game.  Thomas Klingenstein, who calls himself a “conservative” “Wall-Streeter,” described his golf game with Bowdoin President Barry Mills.  Mills had told a Bowdoin audience that they needed to address the problem of liberal bias on Bowdoin’s campus.  Too many of Bowdoin’s graduates, Mills suggested, would otherwise never be able to make sense of this “Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin moment in our history.”  Klingenstein accused Mills of understating the problem of liberal bias at Bowdoin and many other schools.

During the golf game, Mills and Klingenstein disagreed on the scope and nature of the problem.  For instance, according to Klingenstein, Mills believed former Harvard President Larry Summers got what he deserved for suggesting that women might have some sort of innate difficulty with science.  Klingenstein disagreed.  Klingenstein also disagreed with Mills’ definition of the goals of “diversity.”  While “inclusion” was a worthy goal, Klingenstein argued, “diversity” had come to include “too much celebration of racial and ethnic difference (particularly as it applies to blacks), and not enough celebration of our common American identity.”

As a result of this “civil” disagreement on the links, Klingenstein supported the NAS inquiry into Bowdoin’s ideological slant.

As Peter Wood describes in the preface, the NAS Bowdoin study had three aims:

The first is to provide an accurate, vivid, and up-to-date account of what Bowdoin attempts to teach its students.  The second is to analyze whether that teaching has been compromised by contemporary ideology. . . . Our third purpose is to look at elite higher education in America using Bowdoin as a representative example (pg. 14).

In the end, the NAS report concludes, since a 1969 decision to abandon general-education requirements, Bowdoin has decayed into a state of “internal disorder” (pg. 356).  Though the report notes that Bowdoin still offers an excellent array of courses and that a diligent student could still get a thorough education, since 1969 Bowdoin had made the all-too-common problem of making each student

the autonomous authority on the content of his education.  Having turned the student into a consumer with complete freedom of choice, it became insurmountably difficult to declare that the college itself had both the better insight and the authority to require students to meet some substantive general education requirements (pg. 356).

Compounding this problem, research needs of the faculty came to overshadow faculty teaching requirements, the NAS report concludes.

In the end, the study argues, Bowdoin gives “privileged prominence to some political ideologies and squelches opposition to those views” (358).  Instead of true diversity, Bowdoin embraced a deeply flawed interpretation of the laudable intellectual goal of “critical thinking,” according to the NAS study.  All students will be drilled in such shibboleths as “The importance of diversity, respect for ‘difference,’ sustainability, the social construction of gender, the need to obtain ‘consent,’ the common good, world citizenship, and critical thinking” (359).  But such notions, often worthy in themselves, were not part of a process of “open debate.”  Bowdoin students, instead, learn to repeat mantras and “certainties on some of the most contentious issues of our time” (359).  As a result, the NAS study warns, “When critical thinking is most necessary, it is most absent” (359).

The NAS study is titled, “What does Bowdoin teach?”  It concludes with a punchy list of things that Bowdoin does not teach:

Intellectual modesty.  Self-restraint.  Hard work.  Virtue.  Self-criticism.  Moderation.  A broad framework of intellectual history.  Survey courses.  English composition.  A course on Edmund Spenser.  A course primarily on the American Founders.  A course on the American Revolution.  The history of Western civilization from classical times to the present.  A course on the Christian philosophical tradition.  Public speaking.  Tolerance towards dissenting views.  The predicates of critical thinking.  A coherent body of knowledge.  How to distinguish importance from triviality.  Wisdom.  Culture (pg. 360).

Ouch.  Not just Bowdoin, but liberal-arts education as a whole stands accused.  We can be certain that defenders of Bowdoin’s vision of education will soon offer a rejoinder to this conservative broadside.