I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

As the weather heats up, so do the interwebs. Here are a few stories we might have missed over the past week:

Stanford students call for greater ideological diversity on their elite campus.

Will individualized classroom material always help students? Not always. Dan Willingham explores a new study of adaptive vs. static practice.

Poaching teachers to North Carolina from low-pay Oklahoma.Bart reading bible

Conservative evangelicals pooh-pooh climate change on religious grounds. Jakob Erickson accuses at Religion Dispatches.

University of Chicago researcher finds—surprise!—left-wingers and right-wingers read very different science books. HT: V(F)W

How to get fired: One Texas middle-school teacher gave out “Most Likely to Be a Terrorist” and “Most Likely to Blend in with White People” awards.

Republicans pressure Secretary DeVos to sweeten the education budget.

Buzzfeed claims Trump is inspiring school bullies nationwide.

How did she learn to be Betsy? The New York Times looks at Secretary Devos’s evangelical schools and those of her children.

Whoops! It looks as if Liberty’s Jerry Falwell Jr. spoke too soon. He won’t be leading a higher-ed task force after all.

Say whatever you want, as long as it makes us look good: The University of North Carolina shuts down a history class that publicized its recent athletics scandal.

Students: Customers, Wards, or What?

The devil stalks the University of North Carolina. At least, that’s the impression I get when I read the progressive Nation’s description of new system president Margaret Spellings. Of all the damning evidence against Spellings, perhaps the worst thing, for these progressives, is that she referred to students as “customers.” I wholeheartedly agree that good education, healthy education, shouldn’t be understood this way. But I don’t think progressives like me have come up with a better analogy. The only other likely candidate makes us even more uncomfortable.

Margaret Spellings

Sympathy for the Devil…?

Spellings has a long career in education. She has been one of the fiercest and most successful proponents of Milton Friedman’s prescriptions for better schools. If markets are allowed to do their magic, this school of thought explains, much of the dead hand of institutional lethargy will be stripped away.

In the K-12 world, market reformers have pushed vouchers, charters, and “choice,” with a lot of success. During her tenure as Education Secretary, President Spellings famously promoted a similar sort of market approach to higher education. The solutions to university blahs, the Spellings Report explained, lay in a new vision of students as “consumers,” with schools competing for their business.

“In this consumer-driven environment,” the report argued,

Students increasingly care little about the distinctions that sometimes preoccupy the academic establishment. . . . Instead, they care—as we do—about results.

A good college, from this perspective, is one that gives students good financial pay-back for their tuition investment. The “results” for “consumers” should be significant, in terms of higher salaries and better economic prospects for families.

Colleges, the Spellings Report insisted, need to adapt or die. If a for-profit college can deliver marketable skills better and faster, it should be encouraged, not deplored. Such law-of-the-jungle competition would push colleges in the right directions, toward “improving their efficiency.” A good higher-education system, the Spellings Report concluded, would give “Americans the workplace skills they need to adapt to a rapidly changing economy.”

Those of us who don’t like this vision of the proper form and function of higher education are not without alternatives. But for progressives, the primary alternative would not be an improvement.

For long centuries, colleges and universities operated on a very different model, what we might call the “family” plan. Students were not consumers, but rather more like apprentices. They entered into higher education with an understanding that they would be shaped according to the guidance of the school.

As historian Roger Geiger explained so clearly in his recent history of higher education, this system persisted much longer than did the apprentice system for young workers. Well into the nineteenth century, students had very few rights, very few choices to make.

They didn’t like it. As Geiger relates, the 1810s were a far more turbulent decade on American campuses than were the 1960s or 1970s. Indeed, if today’s students at North Carolina don’t like Spellings’s consumer model, they might learn a lesson from their predecessors. In 1799, UNC students held a week-long riot, in which they captured and horsewhipped their unpopular presiding professor. (See Geiger, pp. 116-129.)

What made these students so angry? The family model of higher education insisted on draconian rules for student life, including onerous daily recitals and endless rounds of mandatory chapel services. Students did not “consume” higher education in this family model, they submitted to it.

During the 1960s, student agitation against in loco parentis rules represented a late protest—and a very successful one—against the persisting vestiges of the family model. Students demanded an end to mandatory curfews and even core curricula.

The family model never totally disappeared, of course. Indeed, today’s “safe space” protests are usually built on an implicit assumption that the university will protect and shield students, implying a continuing authoritative family relationship.

In general, though, progressive students, faculty, and administrators don’t like the family model. They don’t want to impose a set of readings or experiences for students. They want students to be empowered to design their own educational experiences, to a large degree.

But if we don’t like the old family model, and we don’t like the new consumer model, what else is there?

As usual, I don’t have answers, only more questions.

  • If we don’t want to think of college students as customers, and we’re not willing to re-impose an authoritarian system, what should we call them?
  • Put another way: If the family model is out, and the consumer model is out, what’s left?
  • What could it mean to think of students as producers, rather than consumers?
  • If the nature of consumption has changed radically in the past fifteen years with online shopping and etc., might it mean something very different these days to call students “consumers”?
  • Is there wiggle room in the consumer model? Think of the differences, for instance, between equipping someone with tested, high-quality gear for a life-long expedition and equipping them with shiny junk they really don’t need.

Progressive Microaggressions

HT: DK

Are we progressive professors guilty of our own species of microaggression? Fredrik deBoer says yes.

DeBoer teaches at Purdue and blogs about culture and higher ed. In a recent post, deBoer worried that his progressive colleagues seem strangely willing to mock and belittle their conservative students. Not in the classroom. In spite of conservative laments about overt professorial hostility, deBoer claims that most left-leaning faculty “are so sensitive to the impression that they’re biased against their conservative students that they bend over backwards to accommodate them.”

But deBoer accuses his allies of a curious blind spot. They tend to mock conservative students on Facebook and other social-media outlets. DeBoer comes to the smart conclusion:

People are really, really invested in consistency and fairness. And if academics don’t make a huge improvement in projecting them, they will be the razor with which our throats are slit.

He’s referring to two particular recent episodes. At Duke, some conservative students protested against a leftist summer reading assignment. At North Carolina, a student accused the school of coddling terrorists.

As deBoer reports,

many academics I know have reflexively, unthinkingly laughed off these conservative complaints. They’ve bombarded social media with “lols” and “wtfs.” They’ve mocked these students as rubes. They’ve given every outward appearance of not even attempting to evaluate these students’ claims with the same care, sensitivity, and fairness that they evaluate the claims of progressive students invoking the language of trauma and triggers. In other words, they’ve rushed to confirm every complaint conservative critics of the academy have made, and the most damning one in particular: that we treat our progressive students with more kindness and approval than our conservative students, and that we use the formal procedures of the university to do it.

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. DeBoer’s warnings, but I think he could take it one step farther. Not only do my fellow progressive academics tend to assume too much about their campuses and their social-media worlds, but they do so out of a woeful and widespread ignorance. Some of us assume that young people will somehow naturally sympathize with left-leaning ideas. We couldn’t be more wrong.

If the campaign against microaggressions has any moral heft, it is because it is at heart a campaign against ignorance. Yet as sociologists such as Elaine Howard Ecklund have argued, many scholars display shocking ignorance about their own students.

Even if we progressive professors are polite to our conservative students, are we guilty of microaggressions that only the students themselves notice? Do we betray our own ideals by failing to learn more about our students’ backgrounds? Are there things we don’t even notice about our classes that might make conservative students feel unwelcome?