Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Don't believe the hype

This is a follow-up on a previous post, "Academic Economics."

One of the paradoxes of grading is that it can be tedious and time-consuming that it forces me to take breaks. I procrastinate. I read through my issues of The Nation that have been piling on the table. Then I start to read through The New Yorker.

So, I have my ANTH 100 and ANTH 215 students to thank for having been able to read Nicholas Lemann's Comment in the September 27th Talk of the Town, "Schoolwork."

In the piece, Lemann describes the ways in which both public education (K-12 schooling) and higher education are being cast as "in crisis" at exactly a time when there are indications that they might not be. Or in the case of public education, schools have been "in crisis" for some time - in particular, underserving poor, urban, and minority children.

However. Lemann wants us to see also how we might be being told a story:

It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes.... And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much.

In higher education, Lemann tells us that "the reform story isn't so fully baked yet, but its main elements are emerging." From where I perch, they include such black hats as "research" (which becomes opposed to "teaching") and "tenure" and white hats as "assessment" and "efficiency."

Here is the part of the Comment that had me throwing my chapeau in the air with cries of huzzah, huzzah:

Large-scale, decentralized democratic societies are not very adept at generating neat, rational solutions to messy situations. The story line on education, at this ill-tempered moment in American life, expresses what might be called the Noah’s Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles. One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.

We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken.

We all know - we all feel - how tough the times are. However. The problems of public education and of higher education predate these times. As do a number of the proposed "solutions." Moves to discredit "research" as part of the mission of higher education and to increase "efficiency" had been made before The Economic Crisis, which as an element of the narrative has begun to take on a larger-than-life reality of its own. So, it makes me nervous to hear and see evidence of the ways in which The Economic Crisis is being used as cover to, say, push back against teachers' unions and the large, old, unlovely system of higher education that even now still inspires awe and aspiration around the world. Which could be said also of The Great Experiment that is American democracy. Why bring that into this conversation? B/c today it might be public education and higher education that is being washed away to be rebuilt more neatly and rationally, and tomorrow it might be democracy. Or is this happening already?


Why is that the anger that I hear these days seems to come only from the Tea Party? What about the rest of us? If there is one thing I think Carl Paladino has right, then it is not that we ought to be mad as hell, but also that we ought not to take it. The mad (and I think at least moderate) silent majority needs to pull the levers on November 2.

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