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.