Monday, November 05, 2012

On the Waters of Oblivion

Just about as far as one can get from the trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Park Slope is Gerritsen Beach, a small neighborhood of cheek-by-jowl houses with small yards and great access to the water. Few have heard of it; fewer are paying attention to it now.

A week ago today, when the storm surge came, the residents were hunkered down like the rest of us whose homes are in Zone B (and so, had not been told to evacuate like Zone A), awaiting the blow. For them, it came (we were spared, in nearby Marine Park). Water rose with startling rapidity, leaving basements submerged, first floors waist deep, and cars pushed hither and yon.

We walked over there yesterday, after depositing the bottled water and batteries we hadn't needed in the storm (along with paper plates, plastic cutlery, can openers, toilet paper and paper towels--all things in desperate need, along with warm clothing) with our neighborhood youth soccer group (AYSO 266--good for you!). If you also want to help, here is a bit of information on how to do so.

After checking on the pet-supply store we use (it is down a few steps from the street, so must have been completely flooded--there was no one there, but people had clearly been cleaning it out, for a few ruined displays and bits of merchandise were stacked on the street--it is called Bargain Bow Wow), we helped sort clothes for an hour or so at a distribution point, then went down to the Resurrection Church to see what we could do there--not much, it turned out, but we will try to help once more. The real need is for power and shelter. Then food and clothing.

It's getting cold. There's no power, as of yet, and not even gasoline for generators. One woman, in tears at the distribution point, was picking up a little food and a couple of sweaters. She told me she was used to giving, not getting.

People's yards were filled with belongings set out to dry, and the sidewalks were high with material that had to be discarded. Cars with windows misted from the moisture still in the seats and carpets and looking like they'd been parked by drunks attested to the power of the water.

If things don't change soon, if real help does not arrive, I don't know what the people will do (here's a link to a Times article on all of the people in all of the neighborhoods in similar circumstances).

As we walked through Gerritsen Beach, lines from Bob Dylan's "Too Much of Nothing" kept coming to my mind:

When there's too much of nothing
It can cause a man to weep
He can walk the streets and boast
Of what he'd like to keep
But it's all been done before
It's all been written in the book
And where there's too much of nothing
Nobody should look.
But we all can help or, at least,  keep attention on the needs of these and all of the other people whose homes are unlivable because of Sandy, not just in Gerritsen Beach, but in the rest of New York City, all along Long Island, on Staten Island particularly and, of course, in New Jersey.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The New York City Marathon: Why So Many Were Glad to See It Gone

Students in one of my developmental-writing classes last year were in there--or some of them were--because they had failed to write a competent essay based on a reading relating to the New York City Marathon. I was interested, of course, in what had happened, and talked with them about the experience... which led to discussion of attitudes about the marathon.

I quickly discovered that my students--mostly urban youths from poor and/or immigrant backgrounds--knew little about the marathon and cared even less. What has been, for over 40 years, a mainstay of yuppie New York, is meaningless to millions of others in the city.

At most, it is an annoyance, making it more difficult to get around on marathon day.

Their feelings about the marathon, I decided, are quite a bit like those of the people in Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, and Williamsburg toward the annual Caribbean Day parade on Labor Day. It's something for other people on a day when its better just to stay at home.

Few of my students or their families have the time for a sport like running, a sport that demands long hours and a years-long regimen. A little basketball can be snuck in here and there; the same's not true for an endurance sport like marathoning. Most of my students, and most of their families, see joggers as creatures from an intruding middle class, if they see them at all. The runners that they do know are running for another purpose, as football players or even cricketers. The sport as a sport in and of itself has never caught their imagination, not as a group.

The same is true of the people of the rather working-class neighborhood where I live, Marine Park. It's quite like Breezy Point (most of us in this neighborhood, including me, know people who lost their homes in the massive fire there) or Gerritsen Beach (where many of us, including me, end up with some frequency) or any other of the neighborhoods near the water on the southern edge of Brooklyn, Queens, and even Long Island--areas extremely hard hit by the storm (Marine Park was extremely lucky: we had three days without power on my street--on a few it is still off and on others it was only out for hours, trees are down and a few cars and houses damaged, but the water didn't reach us).

Even at the best of times, the New York Marathon is little more than a blip on the screen here. There are few people to be seen jogging in the neighborhood and fewer still who take the time even to watch the runners. It's not like Cobble Hill, where once I had a store, where runners dodge around pedestrians and dog walkers each morning and evening, a major part of street traffic.

My point is that most of the people who work for New York media, or in New York government, come from a class and from neighborhoods where the marathon (like running for sport) is a big thing. But it is not a big thing everywhere. In fact, to most New Yorkers outside of the southern half of Manhattan and the yuppie areas of Brooklyn, the marathon never has meant much. It gets media attention not because of widespread support but because of support in the very neighborhoods the members of the media live.

The marathon gets widespread support at top levels of city government not because the people love it so, but because it is an international event, drawing spectators as well as runners from around the world. It brings in money.

But that money, too, is narrowly focused--at least as far as most New Yorkers can trace it. It goes to hotels and bars in midtown and on the East Side of Manhattan. It does very little for the rest of us.

So, it was no surprise to me that, this morning, when we were walking our dogs in the park that gives Marine Park its name, we talked to only one person who thought it had been a bad idea to cancel the marathon--and he thought so because there had been no outcry against the Giants game over in New Jersey--hit harder even than Staten Island and South Brooklyn.

But, and I hate to tell you this, Mayor Bloomberg, football is a great deal more important where I live (and to my students) than is your marathon. All of those students of mine could have written passing essays, I am sure, if they had been asked to write about football.

The point? Bloomberg's failure, in first deciding to hold the marathon, lay in an inability to recognize that what may have seemed important to him might not seem so to many others.

Though I haven't much time for Charles Murray or his book Coming Apart, he does make one very important point: the members of the "new" upper class need to get out more, to see how the other 99% live and what their needs and interests are.

Then they won't make such stupid mistakes.

Clean-Up and Responsibility

When I was 16, I had a summer job waiting tables in a fancy hotel. One day, the waiter with the greatest seniority dropped a tray in the middle of the dining room. I ran over and started to help clean up. He stepped over to the manager, who can come into the room, alerted by the smashing crockery, and whispered something.

Of course, I was blamed for the accident, though I didn't discover that until later. And all I had tried to do was help out.

Barack Obama is still being blamed by Republicans for their own mess with the economy in much the same way. Even when this is pointed out, they still blame him--for not cleaning up fast enough.

The same may prove to be true for Sandy. Though it wasn't the Republicans who caused the storm, they (except for Governor Christie) are already casting around for some way to use it against Obama. Over the next few days (until Tuesday night, at the very least), we'll certainly see criticism of Obama for shortages of gasoline, for lack of electricity... for anything else that goes wrong as he tries to lead a response to a situation that is beyond the control of any of us or all of us.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

West Africa's Illusory Development

Twenty-two  years ago, I sat on a bench in Lomé, Togo watching a stream of people running in anger toward the central marketplace. Moments later, black smoke was billowing from the market. Soon, the panicked crowd was moving in the other direction as police reacted to the rioting. The government of Gnassingbé Eyadéma, controlled by his Kabye ethnic group, was tottering. I thought it would fall. It did not.

Today, in The New York Times, I read:
Where legitimacy has been questioned from the outset, leaders can expect trouble. That series of events has been playing out for weeks in the small coastal nation of Togo, where antigovernment demonstrators have repeatedly filled the streets of the capital, Lomé. The police fired tear gas at hundreds of them last week, just as they had the week before.[...]
The country has been run by the same family for more than 40 years. When the dictator Gen. Gnassingbé Eyadéma died after 38 years in power in 2005, the military put his son Faure Gnassingbé in power. Not surprisingly, he won a dubious election later that year — a victory accompanied by the deaths of nearly 800 protesters and the flight across borders of thousands more, according to Togolese human rights groups — and again in 2010.
Things haven't changed much. The illegitimate government of then is the illegitimate government of now.

And the talk of an African "miracle" then is the talk of an African "miracle" now.

I remember listening to American ambassador Rush Taylor talk of Togo as the next "tiger," referring to the Asian nations whose economic growth was a major story of the time, the late 1980s. is almost as optimistic today, projecting 4.2% growth this year and slightly higher, next. The organization writes:

Reforms are under way to improve the business climate and parliament approved a new investment law in January 2012. These changes, backed by the country’s development partners, will continue in 2012. A milestone in the fight against corruption was creation of a court of accounts and general finance inspectorate. A three-year programme to modernise the state bureaucracy through “e-government” began in 2012.[...]
Many opposition parties staged protests in 2011 and student strikes, sometimes violent, occurred in the capital, Lomé. The government reacted calmly and sought reconciliation and direct talks with the protesters.
This is nonsense, as the current rioting shows. And almost all of our talk about West Africa has been nonsense since long before I sat on that bench drinking coffee from a street vendor and watching a riot.

As the Times article points out, there is upheaval in West Africa far beyond Togo. In Guinea, in Gabon, in Ivory Coast rioting is going on almost as we speak. And Mali, which so recently seemed a bastion of stability and even democracy, is degenerating into a civil war that may end up in Somalia-like chaos. Nigeria contains constant strife brought on by religious, economic, and ethnic problems.

What goes on? Why do things not change? Why are the people at the bottom so continually poor while the rich make great claims of progress?

There are myriad reasons, of course, but a major one is that these are not nations, but are states created by colonial masters with no consideration of the peoples to be governed. With no national cohesion, no sense of identity or commonality, the only way these states can be controlled is through force. There have been exceptions, but the exceptions have not held. Look at Liberia, look at Mali. Today, Senegal and Ghana seem to be doing well. Tomorrow? Who knows?

According to, over 20% of urban Togolese youth are unemployed. I'd bet the real number is much higher than that. And I'd also bet that rural employment is primarily in subsistence agriculture of the most back-breaking kind. Is it any wonder so many want to leave, to get to the United States or to Europe? Is it any wonder that frustrations explode into rioting?

Let's stop the applause for African states whose only means of survival is draconian abuse of their own populations and corruption that keeps the petty bureaucrats and low-level police and military in line. The growth and progress we see will always be illusory and temporary until there is systemic change that wipes away the legacy of colonialism--that breaks down the "states" that England and France established and replaces them, somehow, with real nations of African design.

If this does not happen, someone who observed the rioting in Lomé this year will surely be writing, 22 years from now, exactly what I am writing now... for the same thing will be occurring.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Collapsing "Corporate" Education

Cross-posted from the Academe blog:

The other day, I wrote on this blog:
With the big money leaving the equation, maybe we can get back to the education we were trying to develop in the first place, education that, in many cases, is still quite the best in the world. It is best because the residue of the truth–that education depends on people and their interaction and not on machines or money–still remains.
Today, I read this:
Since the end of World War II two business models have defined the operations of American higher education.  The first was the Dewey model that lasted until the 1970s. The second, a corporate model, flourished until the economic crash in 2008.  What the new business model for higher education will be is uncertain, but from the ashes of the status quo we see emerging one that returns to an era before World War II when only the affluent could afford college and access was limited to the privileged few.
It seems that more than a few of us are recognizing that the "corporate model" of higher education is in the early stages (or later) of collapse. The question is, what are we going to do about it.

Personally, I hope that we can resurrect the Dewey model in some fashion but, like David Schultz, author of the above-quoted "The Rise and Demise of Neo-Liberal University: The Collapsing Business Plan of American Higher Education" in Logos (Spring/Summer 2012), I worry that the coming economic crisis in higher education will lead, instead, will lead to a two-tier system of elite colleges and universities serving the upper classes and a trade-school model for the rest. It doesn't need to, but it will--if we don't develop and demonstrate an alternative.

Schultz describes the corporate model as one where "decisions... are determined by a top-down pyramid style of authority." He points out that too few of the decision-makers, who have pushed aside traditional shared governance that included faculty, have backgrounds in education. Furthermore, he writes:
The new business model found its most powerful income stream in profession education. Professional education, such as in public or business administration, or law school, became the cash cow of colleges and universities.  This was especially true with MBA programs.  Universities, including traditional ones that once only offered undergraduate programs, saw that there was an appetite for MBA programs....  They were sold to applicants that the price would more than be made up in terms of future income earnings by graduates.
As I wrote in the post quoted at the start, this future earning is no longer assured--and the gamble of taking on debt against it is increasingly seen as a bad risk. This very fact endangers the whole structure.

According to Schultz, universities are now trying to offset this new problem by turning to online structures as new revenue streams. But that's not enough. Essentially:
The corporate business model functioned as education Ponzi scheme.  Higher education paid for programs by raked in dollars from rapidly expanding professional programs and selling degrees on the promise that the high tuition costs would be worth it to students.
Schultz ends where, essentially my own post does:
Likely business models for higher education are not good.  They threaten to erode the strengths that American higher education enjoyed for years, while at the same time not articulating a plan that is financially sustainable.
That is, the only way forward for American higher education is to move away from business models, replacing them with education models. Yes, funding procedures and processes will remain, but they cannot be the controlling forces for successful, sustainable education. Anything like what we have now, ultimately, will revert to another Ponzi scheme--and Ponzi schemes, by their very nature, always do collapse.

We in education, rather that sitting around wringing our hands and casting blame, need to start proposing new models for education and finding ways of trying them out. After all, we are the specialists.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Society, Education, and John Dewey

Cross-posted from the Academe blog:

Wesleyan University president Michael Roth wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times that appeared yesterday. Titled "Learning as Freedom," it brings us back to John Dewey and his vision:
Education should aim to enhance our capacities, Dewey argued, so that we are not reduced to mere tools.
Roth is responding to critics who see much of contemporary higher education as a waste of time
[T]he call for a more narrowly tailored education — especially for Americans with limited economic prospects — is not [new]. A century ago, organizations as varied as chambers of commerce and labor federations backed plans for a dual system of teaching, wherein some students would be trained for specific occupations, while others would get a broad education allowing them to continue their studies in college.
Dewey rejected this tiered approach to education for a democracy where all citizens should have the opportunity for education allowing them to fully participate. Dewey also saw a broad education as a necessary underpinning for specialization and as part-and-parcel of life within a society. That is, education should build from the social elements of the student's life in all their breadth, keeping away from specialization until certain social competencies have been achieved.
In "My Pedagogic Creed," he writes:
I believe that the social life of the child is the basis of concentration, or correlation, in all his training or growth. The social life gives the unconscious unity and the background of all his efforts and of all his attainments.
I believe that the subject-matter of the school curriculum should mark a gradual differentiation out of the primitive unconscious unity of social life.
I believe that we violate the child's nature and render difficult the best ethical results, by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc., out of relation to this social life.
I believe, therefore, that the true centre of correlation of the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities.
I believe that education cannot be unified in the study of science, or so-called nature study, because apart from human activity, nature itself is not a unity; nature in itself is a number of diverse objects in space and time, and to attempt to make it the centre of work by itself, is to introduce a principle of radiation rather than one of concentration.
I believe that literature is the reflex expression and interpretation of social experience; that hence it must follow upon and not precede such experience. It, therefore, cannot be made the basis, although it may be made the summary of unification.
I believe once more that history is of educative value in so far as it presents phases of social life and growth. It must be controlled by reference to social life. When taken simply as history it is thrown into the distant past and becomes dead and inert. Taken as the record of man's social life and progress it becomes full of meaning. I believe, however, that it cannot be so taken excepting as the child is also introduced directly into social life.
I believe accordingly that the primary basis of education is in the child's powers at work along the same general constructive lines as those which have brought civilization into being.
I believe that the only way to make the child conscious of his social heritage is to enable him to perform those fundamental types of activity which makes civilization what it is.
I believe, therefore, in the so-called expressive or constructive activities as the centre of correlation.
I believe that this gives the standard for the place of cooking, sewing, manual training, etc., in the school.
I believe that they are not special studies which are to be introduced over and above a lot of others in the way of relaxation or relief, or as additional accomplishments. I believe rather that they represent, as types, fundamental forms of social activity; and that it is possible and desirable that the child's introduction into the more formal subjects of the curriculum be through the medium of these activities.
I believe that the study of science is educational in so far as it brings out the materials and processes which make social life what it is.
I believe that one of the greatest difficulties in the present teaching of science is that the material is presented in purely objective form, or is treated as a new peculiar kind of experience which the child can add to that which he has already had. In reality, science is of value because it gives the ability to interpret and control the experience already had. It should be introduced, not as so much new subject- matter, but as showing the factors already involved in previous experience and as furnishing tools by which that experience can be more easily and effectively regulated.
I believe that at present we lose much of the value of literature and language studies because of our elimination of the social element. Language is almost always treated in the books of pedagogy simply as the expression of thought. It is true that language is a logical instrument, but it is fundamentally and primarily a social instrument. Language is the device for communication; it is the tool through which one individual comes to share the ideas and feelings of others. When treated simply as a way of getting individual information, or as a means of showing off what one has learned, it loses its social motive and end.
I believe that there is, therefore, no succession of studies in the ideal school curriculum. If education is life, all life has, from the outset, a scientific aspect; an aspect of art and culture and an aspect of communication. It cannot, therefore, be true that the proper studies for one grade are mere reading and writing, and that at a later grade, reading, or literature, or science, may be introduced. The progress is not in the succession of studies but in the development of new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience.
I believe finally, that education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.
I believe that to set up any end outside of education, as furnishing its goal and standard, is to deprive the educational process of much of its meaning and tends to make us rely upon false and external stimuli in dealing with the child.
When we make education simply training, we reduce the life of the student. Education builds on the life of the student and also builds that life. To make it narrower than that hurts both student and society.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

"They Are Different"

Cross-posted from the Academe blog:

This morning, Diane Ravitch quotes from Mike Lofgren's story in The American Conservative, "Revolt of the Rich." She comments:
What is so astonishing these days is that the super-rich... have control of a large part of the mainstream media. They can afford to take out television advertising, even though their views are echoed on the news and opinion programs. And the American public, or a large part of it, is persuaded to vote against its own self-interest. A friend told me the other day that his brother, who barely subsists on social security, was worried that Obama might raise taxes on people making over $250,000. How can you explain his concern about raising taxes on those who can most afford it?
Twenty years ago, I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg and saw the remnants of the super rich of the czar's time, including bejeweled carriages that had signaled a remove from the "moochers" (as Ayn Rand, whose family lost everything in the Russian revolution, called them). A passage in Lofgren's piece reminded me of them:
Being in the country but not of it is what gives the contemporary American super-rich their quality of being abstracted and clueless. Perhaps that explains why Mitt Romney’s regular-guy anecdotes always seem a bit strained. I discussed this with a radio host who recounted a story about Robert Rubin, former secretary of the Treasury as well as an executive at Goldman Sachs and CitiGroup. Rubin was being chauffeured through Manhattan to reach some event whose attendees consisted of the Great and the Good such as himself. Along the way he encountered a traffic jam, and on arriving to his event—late—he complained to a city functionary with the power to look into it. “Where was the jam?” asked the functionary. Rubin, who had lived most of his life in Manhattan, a place of east-west numbered streets and north-south avenues, couldn’t tell him. The super-rich who determine our political arrangements apparently inhabit another, more refined dimension.
The extraordinary rich don't "get" the rest of us any more than we "get" them. Ravitch mentions a famous Fitzgerald/Hemingway "exchange" on the difference. Read this, if you will, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1926 story "The Rich Boy":
There are no types, no plurals. There is a rich boy, and this is his and not his brothers' story. All my life I have lived among his brothers but this one has been my friend. Besides, if I wrote about his brothers I should have to begin by attacking all the lies that the poor have told about the rich and the rich have told about themselves--such a wild structure they have erected that when we pick up a book about the rich, some instinct prepares us for unreality. Even the intelligent and impassioned reporters of life have made the country of the rich as unreal as fairy-land.
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.
That's the passage that Ernest Hemingway used in his story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro":
The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, "The very rich are different from you and me." And how some one had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money.
Hemingway, of course, cherry-picked Fitzgerald's passage for the sake of his own point (as I am doing here, a bit), for Fitzgerald had no "romantic awe" of the super rich--at least none is exhibited in "The Rich Boy." In fact, Fitzgerald's attitude in the story is quite a bit more sophisticated than the cartoon Hemingway inks.

But the conceit remains. We often retain it as a question: "Are the very rich different from you and me?" Though we may pretend to answer by brushing the question aside with Hemingway's rejoinder, deep in our hearts we feel that they may, in fact be different. And that we, if we could, would like to be "different," too. 

In terms of education, they certainly are different--and are making sure they become more so. Lofgren writes:
To some degree the rich have always secluded themselves from the gaze of the common herd; their habit for centuries has been to send their offspring to private schools. But now this habit is exacerbated by the plutocracy’s palpable animosity towards public education and public educators, as Michael Bloomberg has demonstrated. To the extent public education “reform” is popular among billionaires and their tax-exempt foundations, one suspects it is as a lever to divert the more than $500 billion dollars in annual federal, state, and local education funding into private hands—meaning themselves and their friends.
A few years ago, Peter Schmidt wrote an opinion piece for The Boston Globe titled "At the Elite Colleges - Dim White Kids." He had asked:
Who are these mediocre white students getting into institutions such as Harvard, Wellesley, Notre Dame, Duke, and the University of Virginia? A sizable number are recruited athletes who, research has shown, will perform worse on average than other students with similar academic profiles, mainly as a result of the demands their coaches will place on them.
A larger share, however, are students who gained admission through their ties to people the institution wanted to keep happy, with alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians topping the list. 
Applicants who stood no chance of gaining admission without connections are only the most blatant beneficiaries of such admissions preferences. Except perhaps at the very summit of the applicant pile - that lofty place occupied by young people too brilliant for anyone in their right mind to turn down - colleges routinely favor those who have connections over those who don't.
With the looming student-debt crisis, "elite" colleges are going to be even further out of reach for most of us as fewer and fewer of even the best of us who are not rich are going to be willing to chance a huge debt burden on the possibility of crossing the barrier and joining the elite.

One of the reasons so many of us, like Ravitch's Social Security recipient, want to keep taxes low on the rich is that most of us are continual optimists. Even in the face of reality, we believe we will one day join the rich. What the real rich are banking on is that this belief continues. Otherwise, resentment will start to build--maybe not to the extent exhibited in Russia in 1917 or France in 1789, but enough to seriously compromise the complacency of the seriously well-to-do.

We members of the broader American faculty aren't immune to that optimism. Few of us would turn down a position at an "elite" institution, even if (like me) we love teaching the immigrant, minority, and first-generation college students of our public institutions. Nor are we loathe to use whatever little influence we might have, as Schmidt indicates, to move 'our own' a little further toward the elite.

The irony of David Horowitz's condemnation of The Professors as left-wing zealots is that we members of American faculties, for the most part, are active supporters (by our actions, though rarely by our words) of a widening gap between the elite and the rest of us, of the very system that backs Horowitz in his conservative activism. We may talk another line but, given the chance, we jump just as quickly to elite status as anyone else. Even when we teach at low-barrier colleges, we encourage our best students to leave, to transfer to "elite" institutions--and are flattered when they manage it.

Last spring, while walking in one of the less elite areas of Brooklyn (Flatbush), I heard a yell, "Hey, Professor!" It was an ex-student of mine. After finishing her Associates degree at City Tech, she told me, she had gained admission to Columbia University, had graduated, and was starting on a Master's program there. I was flattered that she remembered me and was proud of her--prouder than I am of students who simply graduate from City Tech. She was on her way, if not to the elite of the super rich, at least to the other side of the widening divide between what promises to become two Americas--if it has not already.

Like the rest of the professoriate, I need to seriously re-evaluate my attitudes toward my students, my institution, my profession, and even myself. Many of my attitudes, just as much as those of, again, that Social Security recipient, put me in service to the elite, and not to those I tell myself I would rather serve. I am helping increase the difference, the gap between the rich and the rest of us when I should be trying to, as they say, lift all boats.

I wonder if I'll ever learn; I wonder if any of us will.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


The following is cross-posted from the Academe blog:

Paul Solman of PBS, says “Student loan debt is actually a crushing burden for many, especially in the current jobless maybe-it-is/maybe-it-isn't recovery.” Students now starting college--or a year or two away--are absolutely aware of that burden. Their choices are going to be determined by how much of it they are willing to take on. Their decisions are going to affect colleges and universities across the nation--they already are. City University of New York (CUNY) enrollment has grown over 10% since 2008. Even with tuition increases and new restrictions on financial aid, it is still a better bargain than any other higher-education institution in the New York City area.

Though tuition at public universities rose at an average of 15% from 2008-2010, costs at private schools are not far behind,  going up at an average of 4.6% for 2011 alone. Last year, tuition alone cost half of American students more than $10,000. For public four-year schools, the median was about $1700 less than that. For four-year private schools, it was nearly three times as much (closing in on $30,000).

Yes, there are advantages to the (usually) more elite private schools, but are they worth the burden? American graduates, some 37 million of them, owe a combined trillion dollars, an average of something like $30,000. Some owe simply a few thousand; others upwards of even $200,000. Which, given the weak job market, are incoming students going to aim toward?

The students are answering that already, as can be seen in the burgeoning enrollment at cheaper public universities. As can be seen in the for-profits jumping at the chance to offer and "education" at what seem to be cut-rate pricing. As can be seen in all the hoopla about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Cost is becoming more of a driving force in education choice than ever before.

What is this going to mean?

In some corners, it means panic. It means jumping on whatever bandwagon passes by quickest and loudest--as seems to have happened at the University of Virginia with its temporary firing of its president.

What it should mean is leadership, a forward-looking re-examination of just what is being offered students from the most financially stable of the private institutions as well as from the public institutions who are already benefiting from the changes. It should mean a look away from the concept of education-as-investment (it is not always a good one for every potential student at every possible school) to education-as-preparation, with a resulting paring away the bells-and-whistles we have added over the past generation to attract what have come to be seen, to often, as "customers," not students. It should mean, therefore, abandonment of the business model for education in favor of a service model attempting to place graduates in the strongest possible financial and educational position that can be created.

It should mean a re-evaluation of what is studied, and why. With the Bachelor's degree becoming a commonplace, it is also devalued--even as it costs more. What should colleges and universities be doing to make it an important and significant (and not simply traditional) certification for today and for tomorrow? A college degree was never meant as simply skills training, though that is certainly a part of it. How does the rest fit into the needs of employers, communities, and the nation? What do people need to know for life in the 21st century--and how can colleges and universities best supply it?

We are stuck in a vision of the college education that was created well over a century ago, but one that we have souped up without any real restructuring, making it more expensive and more glitzy but no better.

It's time we started concentrating on making our colleges and universities better. Not by increasing "standards" or by tougher "assessment" (these are both backward-looking by their very natures) but by finding new ways of helping students engage with the world and learn its ways. Because we can no longer pretend to do this simply by throwing more money into it--providing fancier labs, more technology, spiffier dormitories--we're going to have to find ways of better using the real resources of our institutions of higher education, our faculties.

For the past generation, we've seen a movement toward considering faculty members simply as employees instead of integral partners in all educational endeavors. Some years ago, to make a few extra bucks, I taught for a time for an online for-profit where I found that teachers could even be replaced in the middle of the semester without the losing of a beat. There was nothing for the teachers to do but what they were told. This is where our business model of education has been taking us.

With the big money leaving the equation, maybe we can get back to the education we were trying to develop in the first place, education that, in many cases, is still quite the best in the world. It is best because the residue of the truth--that education depends on people and their interaction and not on machines or money--still remains.

It is time we start reinforcing that.

With money going away, maybe we can--as long as the people remain.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Using" the Work of Others

The recent incidents concerning Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer have brought all sorts of issues to mind--far beyond the simplistic tsk-tsking for failure to provide attribution (accidental plagiarism?) and the making up of quotes. Though these shouldn't happen, they are commonplace occurrences. These writers just happened to get caught.

Careers are made on such things, and have been for generations. One of my favorite novels is Budd Schulberg's 1941 What Makes Sammy Run? It contains this passage:
"I read it," I said. "Maybe you'd like to know he copied that first paragraph from Somerset Maugham?"
"Maybe that's where you need to go for your stuff," he said....
The funny part of it was the kid's stuff wasn't bad. He was just smart enough never to crib from the same writer twice....
He even found a way of turning... retractions into a good think. For instance, if some bigshot happened to demand a correction, Sammy would call him by some private nickname and say, "Sorry, Jock," or "Pudge" or "Deac, thanks for the help."
I remember reading a biography of Elizabeth Taylor a couple of decades ago that was filled with quotes that exhibited exactly the style and cadence of the author. Usually, I have to take a breath when entering into a blockquote, reminding myself that the "feeling" was going to be different from what I had been reading. Not in this case. A person who had been a researcher for the author confirmed to me that much of the source material had been made up.

All who write base their work on those who have written before, and all bring work of the past forward, making it new (to paraphrase Ezra Pound). Many biographers do 'make up' conversations out of scanty information, doing so to make vivid what their research has shown to be true. Personally, I am not sure they should do that, even when it is clear that they are not taking the words from any one recorded source but are extrapolating from other information, but it has become something of a standard practice The problem is in knowing when one has gone too far, when one has reached Sammy-Glick status.

Personally, I don't think Zakaria did. His mistake seems to have been honest, and he admitted to it immediately. Lehrer? He tried to cover it up. Plus, he did something a little different from providing what is, in most cases, clearly a reconstruction. The way he used his Dylan "quotes" gave them a much more direct link to the source than an imagined conversation has. The same was true in that Liz book.

The thing isn't really to pillory either Zakaria or Lehrer, but to work to establish new tools for writers and researchers, tools that allow them to ensure that the words of others that they are working with don't get intermingled with their own, and new standards for sourcing what we are writing. Only when these become commonplace will it be possible for these--and the hundreds of other unnoticed incidents--situations to disappear.

Update: After posting this, I came across this piece by David Carr in The New York Times. He says it all better than I.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reading Film

When I was writing Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes, I decided not to attempt a standard film book. Not that I could have: my background is in literature and my inclination is toward cultural studies. Film studies has grown into its own conversations and I really could not be a part of them without engaging in a great deal of study.

The first thing I do in the book is try to put my study into a different context, doing so by coupling Tarantino with novelist Thomas Pynchon and talking about what I see as artificial distinctions between the ways we look at filmmakers and the ways we look at novelists. Following that, I write:
Whatever the reasons, we hold movies to a standard different from fiction. When Robert Coover and John Barth and Don DeLillo write novels about writing novels, they are esteemed. No one implies that they degrade their craft by "only" writing about writing. We always assume, with novelists who show their craft as they write, that much more is going on beyond simply showing off one's skills and knowledge. With Tarantino, though his work is related to fiction as much as to film, we are not so sure. (2)
As I do when writing about literature, I wrote the book with the movies constantly beside me, referring to them constantly through the process of composition. I did not think back on them or think about them... I thought with them. And I had a glorious time flipping back and forth from scene to scene, shot to shot.

I was taking advantage of new possibilities for the study of film brought about by digital access, possibilities that allowed me to work slowly and carefully and to make connections not quite so easily made when watching a film as a discrete unit over a limited viewing time.  I was discovering what film and digital media scholar Virginia Kuhn knows, that "digital technologies endow films with the same infinite patience that books possess."

Though I had not been able to express that so elegantly, the pleasure I found in writing about Tarantino's movies stems exactly from what Kuhn points out. I expect it will be the basis of a new and expanding method of considering film (far beyond what I did in my book) as we move further into a digital culture.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why the Business Model Doesn't Work for Education

It's simple, really. In our adoration for free enterprise that has been built into cult-like status over the past generation, we have forgotten the prime rule of business: failure is the norm.

Let me say it again: failure, in business, is far more common than success. When we opened Shakespeare's Sister in 1994, the cliche was that 90% of new businesses close within the first two years. By the time I closed the store for good in 2008, I had seen enough businesses come and go to know that the cliche is not far from the truth. Yes, many businesses are created for a limited time only, but most start-ups do fail.

We cannot afford that with schools. When they don't work, closing them isn't an effective option--as New York City is learning right now. Closing a business affects only the owners and employees. The business failed (generally speaking) because it did not meet demands, whatever they have been, so the impact of its closing on customers is negligible. Closing a school disrupts its community and sidetracks education. Its impact on students is huge. Furthermore, it fails not because it does not meet demands, but because it did not reach benchmarks. As any entrepreneur will tell you, benchmarks do not make or break a business--they are only tools created to aid the entrepreneur. In education, however, they are used to destroy, not to improve. It is meet them--or else. That is artificial. It has nothing to do with concepts of free enterprise, the marketplace, or business in any way. And it is destructive, hurting students and communities, not to mention.

Trying again, for an entrepreneur, is difficult and emotionally draining, but it is the individual's choice to keep trying to find something that will work in the particular marketplace around the endeavor. It doesn't even have to be done. If there is real demand, another business will step in: that's the nature of supply-and-demand.

The same isn't true for education. It doesn't work on an entrepreneurial basis and never has. A community can't just wait for an educational entrepreneur to step in and found a new school on his or her own. For another thing, for the sake of the students one really should not displace them from school to school the way one can move from store to store. Ask any of us who attended multiple schools growing up: it's not a good experience--and, for most students, it impedes the flow of education rather than enhancing it. Closing and opening schools buffets students about but does not improve their learning--as we are seeing today in the wake of the current school-closing mania.

The fact that allowing a school to fail is not the same as allowing a business to fail should be obvious. It is, to anyone who has been a real entrepreneur, who has tried to build a business from scratch and who has experienced (or seen) the frequency with which businesses fail. Business is risk, but the risk is taken by the entrepreneur--it is not passed off onto the customer. It should not be passed on to the student, who many now mistakenly view as a customer. For, in the putative business model of education, the real risk is put on the student, something one should never do to a 'customer'; the 'entrepreneur' loses nothing when the enterprise fails. That is exactly the opposite of what happens in the real business world.

All of those people who tout the business model for education? For the most part, they are either government types or corporate types (neither has much experience with start-ups or with education). They don't know what they are talking about, not when the subject is education, but they do know how to pass money from government to corporations. School closing (and the charter-school movement in general) is a great way for doing that.

Even though it leaves students--and communities--in the lurch.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

"And All the Pundits Are Below Average"

In January, Thomas Friedman wrote:
In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.
 Today, he followed up:
Yes, this is a simplification, but the trend is accurate. The trend is that for more and more jobs, average is over. Thanks to the merger of, and advances in, globalization and the information technology revolution, every boss now has cheaper, easier access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. So just doing a job in an average way will not return an average lifestyle any longer.
How does he justify this? Through test scores. What do test scores rely on? Averages.

Friedman, of course, is displaying a little slight-of-hand in his use of the word "average." He is conflating a statistical term with the common 'good enough.'  It leads him to gobbledygook like the above, where he says average is over but also talks about above-average software, which can't exist, of course, without average software. If the above-average is cheap and easy, the average disappears and the above-average becomes average. So what is he talking about?

What he is talking about is testing and comparative results. He is 'concerned' that Americans aren't testing as well on standardized international assessments as some other countries. We are, he finds, below average.

A little ironic--if average is over.

What he doesn't understand is that tests, and averages, don't provide any real indication of a school or schooling. In fact, they do little more than tell how well the test-takers have done on that particular test on that particular day. Their correlation to anything else is meager, at best. I once watched the second of two IQ tests given to an eight-year-old. On the first, he scored below 90, which would have put him into a 'special' classroom (this was over thirty years ago). On the second, when the tester kept a pile of nickels that grew with each correct answer at her side where the child could see it, his score came up almost to 100. Which is the 'real' score, and why?

Yesterday, a student came in for advisement. She has a stellar GPA but had failed a placement test for an extremely competitive program. I asked her what had happened. She told me that, seeing that time was running out, she simply filled in answer bubbles at random, to get something down for each question remaining. I explained to her how this was not good test-taking strategy, especially if the grading took into account (as many do) the chance factor. If so, she might have done better to leave all of the remaining questions blank (again, depending on the scoring strategy). This excellent student failed the placement test, I am certain, simply because she is not skilled in test-taking.

Friedman quotes Andreas Schleicher of the Program for International Student Assessment:
“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ”
This is a scary thought: who is to say if this "information" has any value? Because there are test results doesn't mean those results mean anything.  The person taking this information to a superintendent has no idea (or likely has no idea) just what that information represents. Schleicher, and the other proponents of standardized testing, imply that they know what education is--and can measure it. And the rest of us should just take their word for it.

Personally, I don't trust numbers-crunchers to evaluate education. All they are looking at is averages.

And, as Friedman says, average is over.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

PolicyDirect: Educational Policy Research for Dummies?

Cross-posted from the Academe Blog:

When I teach my technical-writing students about executive summaries, I tell them to imagine that their boss is either too dumb or too hurried to look carefully at the material behind the summary. They laugh, but they get the point: the boss (who is probably smart, actually, and a good judge of time) doesn’t want to be bothered with the details of a report unless she has to be. I also warn my students never to try to fool their bosses, never try to slip something by. Always be on your employer’s side; never act on another agenda.

Making sure that goals are identical is one reason for doing as much research as possible “in house.” Another is that your own experts will always know more about your situation than will outsiders. Yes, there are times when bringing in someone makes sense—but generally just do so to evaluate what has been done locally, and only if the outsider has been carefully vetted.

There are other reasons for doing one’s own research or, at least, keeping it local and open. As anybody who has attempted real research knows, the value of conducting research isn’t only in finding what you are looking for, but in the other things you discover along the way. Narrowly directed research, without the possibility of accidental findings, generally does little but confirm what we already “know.” This, of course, is why database searches can only be a small part of any research project, a ‘review of the literature’ at most.

Even then, the search needs to be broad, covering as much ground as possible. Just finding an article or two is never enough—nor is using a single database: there is no ‘one stop shopping’ in library research.

I saw a website today, for something called PolicyDirect, saying it is “connecting postsecondary education research with decision makers.” At the bottom of the page is a paragraph starting with this: “PolicyDirect serves as a one-stop, easy-to-use resource for quality research that illuminates critical findings and further challenges around important student outcomes.”

Aside from language that seems more like a smokescreen than illumination, what bothers me is that there probably are higher-education “decision makers” out there who would be grateful, without questioning it, for such a service. What bothers me even more is that this completely bypasses the century-old concept of shared university governance. That is, it should be assumed that the “decision makers” include the faculty—who just happen to also be the primary movers of postsecondary research. The research and the ability to connect to it is already there. Why establish another pathway? But that's a topic far larger than I can tackle in a blog post, so I will keep to something simpler.

What bothers me, too, is that PolicyDirect does not even represent best practice in business. It asks the “decision makers” to rely on the judgment of outsiders whose purposes may be far from those of the very “decision makers.” On its “About Our Reviewers” page, PolicyDirect says:
Selection of the Academic Fellows were based on the fellows. [sic] promising body of research and interests, recommendations from senior scholars in the fields of higher education and public policy, as well as input from national philanthropic leaders. This prestigious selection allows a unique opportunity for the fellows to influence the national postsecondary education agenda by evaluating critical research to elevate the current policy discourse. New Fellows are selected each year, in partnership with former Fellows in order to preserve consistency.
Nowhere is any indication given about who these “fellows” actually are. Maybe they are listed on the pages of the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP) or Lumina Foundation pages (for these are the sponsors of the site), I don’t know, but nothing at PolicyDirect tells anything about them. “Decision makers,” it seems, are supposed to simply trust that these “fellows” are impartial, that they aren’t steering people toward specific articles or types. My students, who now know something about the possible follies of research, would be appalled.

In addition, the articles are presented through “excerpts,” not abstracts or summaries of some other type. Strangely enough, the site even mentions “full excerpts,” an odd phrase....

Just to see what PolicyDirect is doing, I tried a number of searches. One thing I noticed immediately was that a single article kept coming up at the top, a piece by Clifford Adelman who, it turns out, is a “Senior Associate” for IHEP.

At some point, I decided to compare PolicyDirect results with Google. Wanting  to use something neither too common nor too obscure, I searched on “Fred Keller Personalized System of Instruction.” PSI is something I know about but that has not been part of education discussions for quite some time. From Google, I came up with 180,000 hits; from PolicyDirect, 100. The first one from Google links to an .edu site with a .pdf specifically on PSI. All of the following three or four pages worth dealt directly with PSI.

On PolicyDirect, after that same Adelman article, which doesn’t mention Keller at all, came 99 hits. None of them seem to have anything to do with Keller or with PSI.

Thinking I had perhaps been too esoteric, I tried another search, on “early college high school,” a topic that should be of interest to PolicyDirect, given its connections to IHEP and Ilumina. Google gave over 400 million hits, each on the first few pages directly relevant. PolicyDirect?  99, if you count that ubiquitous Adelman article. Here, at least some of the articles did pertain to the topic, though many seemed a little far removed. Little of it seemed like it would be helpful in developing an understanding of the 'early college high school' movement.

My question, through all of this, is what’s the point? I quickly established that I can get more pertinent results through Google than through PolicyDirect, so why would I want to use PolicyDirect? Especially since I have no idea what the databases are that PolicyDirect has searched in order to prepare its own “excerpts,” and to what ends, I really cannot trust what I am finding there. I mean, Mr.PolicyDirect, just why are you trying to help me? I can carry my own bags—and if something is missing, I have only me to blame. Why should I trust you, a complete stranger, to do my work for me?

I hope our “decision makers” are asking just this as they look at the PolicyDirect site. My students, who are right now working on guides to effective web research, certainly would be.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Who Taxes Who, Anyway?

Benjamin Franklin wrote this in 1758:
"Friends, says he, and neighbors, the taxes are indeed very heavy, and if those laid on by the government were the only ones we had to pay, we might more easily discharge them; but we have many others, and much more grievous to some of us. We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly, and from these taxes the commissioners cannot ease or deliver us by allowing an abatement.... " 'An old man' quoted in "The Way to Wealth"
Our own idleness, pride, and folly account for the lion's share of the real taxes we pay, the real loss to our income--government a far fourth. Yet it is government only that most of us complain about.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

In the Land of Manufactured Controversey

Developments in two manufactured controversies recently--one serious and one trivial--bring me back again to that well-known feeling of helplessness at the core of twenty-first-century existence. The first was Richard Muller's mea culpa in The New York Times. After two years of study, he acknowledges that human-sparked climate change is real--something anyone with any sense has known for a generation. The second was Mitt Romney's little slips while out of the country. They are what is to be expected from him, are what he has been doing consistently for years, and they have no impact on whether or not he will be president.

What's astonishing and frustrating is how, in a time when we are surrounded by real crises, we allow ourselves to be sidetracked so easily. So what if Miller finally 'fesses up to the obvious? Climate-change deniers aren't going to simply shrug and give up because one of their numbers defects. It's not science, it's not logic that's behind them anyhow. They created this controversy not for truth or exploration but for their own convenience. They don't care that what they are arguing is patently ridiculous. They only care that the continued argument keeps them from being immediately discomfited. They don't want to be bothered so make up a controversy to make sure they aren't.

The same is true--intellectually--of creationism. The people who argue for it are simply deflecting, keeping themselves from facing real questions of the systems of their own belief. They don't really believe in creationism (the evidence is too overwhelming against them) but its implications are unpalatable. So, they push.

The whole voter-fraud controversy is manufactured not to make sure only legitimate voters vote but to keep as many who would likely vote for Democrats from voting at all. It is a controversy in response to no underlying problem, as Pennsylvania legislator Mike Turzai admits. The "schools fail" controversy does nothing to improve our education, the "reformers" acting only as point people in an attempt to pry huge public funding from public hands--with the result, as I am seeing as a college teacher, of our students entering higher education more unprepared than they were a decade ago.

None of these manufactured controversies solves anything. They all just make sure real problems are not addressed (and that real profits are made or are not threatened today, in many cases). The problem is, when they are raised with force we have no choice but to address them, turning us away from the real problems of our time--which, in many cases is the point.

Climate change denial? If you are invested in the way things are and believe you have the resources to survive even if others don't--no problem. Don't want to question your own beliefs and think the world's going to end soon anyhow, proving you are right? Just make up something in the meantime. Want to make sure growing resentments don't lead to a forcing out of manipulative and dishonest government? Make sure that those most likely to be affected negatively can't vote. See money going in huge amounts into schools that you can't touch? Make those schools seem toxic and offer an alternative that has the appearance of doing something better, an alternative whose money you control.

To hell with the rest of us. To hell with the future.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Benefits

When writing of James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain had pedantic satire in mind. His purpose, really, had little to do with the possibilities of enjoyment through Cooper's work; his goal was amusement of his own audience. Cooper's reputation was well established and, I am sure, Mark Twain thought he would have little impact upon it. One current parallel would be all the fun that is had at the expense of Ernest Hemingway. The sale of his books has been little affected.

But literary reputations are fragile, especially when attacked by those at the top of the current literary establishment. Where, by 1895, Mark Twain surely resided.

Half a century later, Edmund Wilson lived there, too. Like Mark Twain, he was in a position for the easy breaking of a reputation and, like Mark Twain, he did so--for American scholars, at least. In a New Yorker article published on June 8, 1946, he wrote:
It has happened to me from time to time to run into some person of taste who tells me that I ought to take Somerset Maugham seriously, yet I have never been able to convince myself that he was anything but second-rate. His swelling reputation in America[...] seems to me a conspicuous sign of the general decline of our standards.[...] There are real writers, like Balzac and Dreiser, who may be said to write badly. Dreiser handles words abominably, but his prose has a compelling rhythm, which is his style and which induces the emotions that give his story its poetic meaning. But Mr. Maugham, whose use of words is banal, has no personal rhythm at all, nor can he create for us a poetic world.
That clearly echos Mark Twain on Cooper:
Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words.
The impact, in both cases, has been long-lasting. Look at syllabi for 19th Century American Literature and for 20th Century British Literature courses in most American universities: you won't find much of either Cooper or Maugham. Yet Cooper remains well read and even loved, and Maugham is still one of the most popular writers in English, worldwide.

Both Maugham and Cooper were extremely prolific. Perhaps, following Ben Jonson's plaint about Shakespeare, it would have been better had they blotted out thousands of lines. But they remain two of the most popular writers from their times and need to be recognized as real contributors to the great tradition of English-language fiction--and not just in passing.

I have long disagreed with Wilson about Maugham. Among my favorite novels are The Razor's EdgeCakes and Ale, and The Moon and Sixpence. Maugham's short stories, I find, are always worth returning to--and I do, often.

This comes to my mind as I re-read The Pioneers, the first time I've looked into Cooper since a class with Cooper biographer Wayne Franklin thirty years ago. I have been a bit shocked by what I have found, for one rather personal reason and for another due to events of this summer. Through the combination, I am learning that I have long underestimated Cooper--basically by ignoring him--to my own loss. And I have been doing it through buying in to the commonplace attitudes toward him best exemplified by Mark Twain.

The personal reason for my surprise results from my subway reading. With two hours a day on trains and buses, I realized two years ago that I have the perfect opportunity to catch up on some of the 19th-century British fiction that I skirted in graduate school. I've been reading (and loving) things like Charles Dickens' Domby and Son, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, George Elliot's Adam Bede and Middlemarch, Anthony Trollope's The American Senator and Doctor Thorne, and William Thackery's Pendennis and Vanity Fair--and loving them. Steeped in all of this, I returned to Cooper with a better frame for reading him than I ever before had.

What I found is a delightful, engaging, and smart writer every bit the peer of his fellow novelists on the other side of the Atlantic. His flaws are their's as well (especially in relation to class and assumptions about breeding) yet his strengths are his own. He is not the tedious novelist, master of 'over-writing' that I had imagined and even remembered.

Then there's the greater reason: As we finally begin to face the reality of the human impact on global warming through a summer of drought and forest fire, I am struck by the three stances toward European interaction with 'natural' America presented by Cooper: Natty Bumppo's 'zero footprint' approach, Marmaduke Temple's concern for sustainability, and Richard Jones's take-as-much-as-you-can attitude. These aren't so different from major attitudes today (which is why I couch them in contemporary terms), though Bumppo's has been rendered obsolete.

Furthermore, the fire at the climax of the novel is exacerbated by cutting that left the tops of trees in the forest where they dried into a kindling-like mass that allowed the fire to spread with rate and force that it never could have achieved on its own.

Cooper, to my surprise, is not only a better writer than I had thought, but he is much more relevant to problems we face today than I could ever have imagined. Not only does he lay out attitudes we still struggle to understand and, in some cases, to overcome, but he provides recognition that these are not modern creations but are things that have come down to us through generations of Americans. If we don't deal with that fact, we will never manage to build any sort of consensus allowing us to successfully address what is quickly becoming a critical problem. Using Cooper to bring our contemporary debate into context is a very good idea.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


As of the first of this month, I began assuming duties as Faculty Editor of the AAUP magazine Academe. Cat Warren, whose shoes I will be trying to fill, is editing the issues finishing out this year; I will be responsible starting with the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue (fortunately, Cat has agreed to help me through that first one).

Anyone with articles or ideas relating to faculty concerns is encouraged to contact me directly or through the magazine's "Manuscript Submission Guidelines" page.

Because of my new responsibility, I won't be blogging as frequently here, but will be splitting my posts between One Flew East and the Academe blog, where I will concentrate on issues of faculty governance, academic freedom, and the role of the scholar in society.

Monday, July 16, 2012

"You Can't Quote Me!"

In the 1970s, I spent a few nice months as a reporter for a small New England daily newspaper. I loved it. Though I covered outlying school boards and town council meetings during the evenings, daytimes were devoted to feature stories. I wrote about county fairs, parks, and people. This, I thought, would be my career.

At the same time, though, I was learning things that would soon drive me away from journalism.

The business, I came to understand, was corrupt. Unless I was willing to be part of the corruption, I would have to find another career. The problem was cronyism and money, of course.

Those who didn't matter, who weren't connected to power in the community or to advertising money, could feel all the weight of the press. Those who did matter? Not only were they treated with kid gloves but they had what amounted to veto power over stories concerning them. I was informed quite bluntly, for example, that I was never to quote anyone of importance without calling them and confirming the quote with them--not even if they had been speaking in a public forum.

A couple of times, I had to change my stories when confirmation was refused--even though the quote was acknowledged as accurate.

In today's New York Times is a story telling me little has changed. Oh, I knew that: reporters are so protective of their "access" that they will bend themselves into pretzels rather than lose it.
“We don’t like the practice,” said Dean Baquet, managing editor for news at The New York Times. “We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”
Journalists clearly know this is wrong, but they do it anyway. Their own careers are more important than professional responsibilities.

It has been that way for a long time, and isn't likely to change now.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Two Brooklyns

Or three. Or four. Whatever.

When my parents moved to Brooklyn in 1970, I was in college. My experience of the borough had come through visits to my aunt and uncle, who lived off Grand Army Plaza, first on the east side of it and later on the Park Slope side. My parents bought a brownstone in a middle-class enclave between Crown Heights and Prospect Park called Lefferts Manor, a mile or so south of my aunt and uncle. I spent a few months there the next summer, taking a couple of classes at Brooklyn College. A year later I was back, working for four summer months in Manhattan.

It wasn't until 1975 that I lived and worked in New York City on my own, taking an apartment in an Italian neighborhood called Carrol Gardens because it was cheap and close to the F train. Leaving in 1976, I returned in 1978, staying for about eight months. In 1988 I was back again for a few months before entering Peace Corps but it wasn't until 1992 that I decided to make a real commitment to Brooklyn. I bought a house across the street from my mother's (my father had died the year before) and took a job at Brooklyn Friends School for a year before a couple of partners and I opened up Shakespeare's Sister back in Carroll Gardens, which had become something of a coming, trendy neighborhood. Later, I would bounce back and forth a bit between Pennsylvania and Brooklyn, but was never away for more than a week at a time.

Today, I live in a neighborhood called Marine Park and work downtown, traversing the borough daily by bus and subway. We're here because we can have a house and yard (we have lots of pets and do love the flowers), but it is, in many ways, isolated from what has brought Brooklyn such cachet over the past decades. We can't get into Manhattan (or anywhere) easily, there is no elegant architecture around, and the trendy youth culture of Williamsburg and, yes, even Carrol Gardens hasn't even a clue that we exist.

Today, in the New York Times, an article ran titled "As Brooklyn Gentrifies, Some Neighborhoods Are Being Left Behind." Now, I might complain that one cannot be left behind when one never was expected on the express--or even wanted to be on it, but I won't. The Times, after all, sees itself as the center and the motion that everyone aspires to. There's no way I am going to convince anyone there that some of us never wanted to get on their train, so I won't even try.

Though I do like what has happened to Brooklyn over the past twenty years, it's not the only Brooklyn or even what Brooklyn should be. This is a huge, diverse borough. That the trendy Brooklyn gets the press doesn't mean that it is the best of Brooklyn. We get better bagels here than anyone will find in Park Slope and the best Italian restaurant that I know of isn't anywhere near the trendy neighborhoods, but sits in Dyker Heights (it is called Tommaso's). Plus, we are close to Coney Island and the little minor-league park where the Cylcones play... much cheaper and, frankly, as much fun as the majors.

Left behind? Nah. Just a different track.

Oh... and I completely forgot: A friend has prepared for the day when Marine Park becomes trendy. It will be known as Mapa ("Ma, pa")... well, maybe it already should be, so old fashioned is it.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Teaching... or Managing?

Again, Diane Ravitch has led me on a saddening path. She links to this post, by a young Teach for America (TFA) trainee. For me, the most disturbing part is not the post itself (which is frightening enough) but one of the comments, one made by someone called "CAT." In response to concerns about progress at the training institute, CAT writes:
Perhaps if I said to you – hey, what basic management skills have you gained this summer? – you might reply in terms of BMC, or tracking, or anything along those lines. Taking this a step further we could say – well how would you apply those skills to the last few days of class? – where I assume the obvious answer is 1. Keeping the class ordered 2. Meeting the objectives you have time to meet in an orderly fashion, and 3. Taking something away from this experience yourself to grow as a manager.
I don't know what BMC is, but "management skills"? Certainly, a teacher has to be able to "manage" a classroom, but the skills necessary for that are quite different from those of the management one finds in business. Meeting "objectives" has little to do, as anyone with any real teaching experience knows, with educating students. It removes the students from the center of the process (where they belong, and where they must be if the education is to succeed), replacing them with artifice.

It is this distinction, the one between managing and teaching, that the education "reformers" don't understand. One does not become a better teacher by becoming a better manager. The two sets of skills are distinct. Keeping the class ordered and meeting "objectives" do not lead to good teaching or to learning. "Growing" as a manager has nothing to do with growth as a teacher.

I don't know what TFA does in its training, but if this post is any indication, there's not much pretense of preparing teachers. Only of building managers.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Research Without a Hero

Recently, I wrote about the astonishing (well, it should be astonishing) story of Herbert Mayes' "biography" of Horatio Alger, Alger: A Biography Without a Hero. So enamored was I that I searched for a copy of the book, finding a 1978 reprint with a new Introduction by Mayes himself and an Afterword by Jack Bales, who would soon be working on The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr. with Gary Scharnhorst, the book that first alerted me to the story. What's even better is that the book is signed by both Mayes and Bales (and the publisher). Of course, I bought this treasure.

In his Introduction, Mayes writes that his book, on first publication:
was not accepted for what it was: a deliberate, complete fabrication, with virtually no scintilla of basis in fact. Any word of truth in it got in unwittingly. I made it up out of nothing. Most of the few facts I uncovered were intentionally distorted. But the book was regarded then, with no known exceptions, as a genuine biography. (ii-iii)
Wow. As a result, as Bales writes in the Afterword:
The greatest obstacle to studying the life of Horatio Alger, Jr. is the fact that most of what has been published about the author since Herbert R. Mayes' work appeared in 1928 is fictitious. (242)
Not even the debunking that has occurred, starting in the early 1970s, has managed to derail the misinformation:
But writers, I am sure, will continue to perpetuate these absurd myths. In 1974 I was asked to write a short piece on the Mayes book for the Journal of Popular Culture [Jack Bales, "Herbert R. Mayes and Horatio Alger, Jr.; Or the Story of a Unique Literary Hoax," Journal of Popular Culture, 8(Fall, 1974), 317-319]. One can imagine my disgust when recently in the same journal I read an article on Alger based almost entirely on Mayes' fiction [Eric Monkkonen, "Socializing the New Urbanites: Horatio Alger Jr.s's Guidebooks," Journal of Popular Culture 11 (Summer, 1977), 77-87]. It is obvious that the fallacies which have been so repeated and accepted for five decades will be related again and again in future years. (244-245)
The elegance of the internet is that it can stop such things. The absurdity of the internet is that it perpetuates such things.

The determination of fact or fiction, then, is the responsibility of each of us. Our research tools alone won't suffice. Only care, learning, and constant attention can do that.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Things We Rarely Notice

New York City's streets are blanketed with emergency call boxes, none (or few) of which work. We in the city pass them every day without notice. Just as a reminder, here are four of them found two blocks apart in Brooklyn's Marine Park neighborhood:

Quentin Road and Marine Parkway

Quentin Road and E. 32nd Street

Quentin Road and #. 34th Street

Quentin Road and E. 36th Street