Saturday, January 30, 2016

Athena's Owl: A Final Flight

Although I haven't posted here in ages, I still get mail from folks who look for new essays, so I thought I'd put the blog to bed for good, tuck it into the archives, and direct anyone interested to the Farm or the Cabinet, where most of the material had been duplicated anyway.

It's particularly fitting that I close things down during what is most likely my penultimate quarter of teaching. Although I gave up my full-time position last summer, I've held on for three quarters part-time, teaching two or three courses each. But I've been seduced by leisure and have become painfully aware that there's little energy left in body or mind to fight the good fight any longer.

So after next quarter (or before, if the Powers decide that I'm already redundant), I'll turn in my Official Teacher Badge and spend the rest of my educational life on myself: books, MOOCs, research, museums, wildlife refuges, national parks, old British television shows, and a few films. I'll keep writing and blogging, but the focus will shift a bit, back toward more serious philosophical inquiries (on the Farm) and less serious adventures in curiosity (the Cabinet). The archived Owl of Athena will abide in cyberspace for as long as Blogger keeps it here.

Speaking of owls, I decided to illustrate the final post with a particularly appropriate group of works by one of my favorite Romantic painters: Caspar David Friedrich's owls.  The opening image is his Owl in a Gothic Window (c. 1836), a pencil drawing washed with sepia ink--which I discovered many years ago whilst keeping a sketch and idea notebook for my art history classes.

Although I thought the following to be a bit too morbid (even for me) for a final post, I'm including them because they're just lovely:

Landscape with Grave, Coffin, and Owl 
This is another of Friedrich's sepia-washed drawings, from 1836/37. And the next one is from about the same moment, using the same media:
 Owl on a Grave
Finally, a painting (oil on canvas) from 1834, and a nice final comment on this owl's (meaning me, not the one in the painting) perceived position in the universe:
  Eule auf schmucklosem Baum
(roughly translated, Owl in a Bare Tree) 
Please do come visit on the other two blogs. The Owldroppings website will continue on, although expect changes in design and content to go along with the life changes. As Hegel tells us, philosophy can only happen in hindsight, and I've got sixty-eight plus years of hindsight to mull over. 
Image credits: All images via Wikimedia Commons, using "Caspar David Friedrich Owls" as search terms.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Exploiting Archaeology

For the next eight weeks, I'm participating in my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through Coursera.  It's called "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets," and taught by Brown University archaeologist Sue Alcock.  The first week's material and assignments have done more to stimulate my little grey cells than almost anything I've done in the last year.  So: I've decided to post any writing assignments for the course here and (when appropriate) on Owl's Cabinet of Wonders--not just because I don't have much time to write these days, but because the fist assignment, at least, seems to fit right into the scope of the Cabinet; it's also about education, at least obliquely, so The Owl seems like another suitable venue.

Of the three available exercise topics for this week, I chose one called "Archaeological Expressions," which asks students to "Find one form of artistic expression (poetry, film, literature, trash fiction, music) that draws on archaeology and archaeological uses of the past" and write a reaction piece; Indiana Jones is proscribed, and I don't blame the course team for forcing us to think of something else.  I chose the original version of The Mummy, and here's my response:

The discovery and excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the early 1920s, and helped create a wave of Egyptomania in the United States and Britain. It probably acted as the midwife to the horror film genre as well, with all the media hype about curses, and the first Mummy movie, now a classic, was produced in 1932.  I use this film to open a discussion on popular perceptions of archaeology in my Intro to Humanities classes, and compare it to other films, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stargate, and Tomb Raider. Film clips and a trailer are available on the Turner Classic Movies page, and a special edition DVD is available for anyone who’s never seen the film.

In the first segment of The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff in the title role, a brash young archaeologist, Norton, expresses impatience with Sir Joseph Whempel’s insistence on strict archaeological method (dealing with each find in the order in which it was uncovered,  etc.), noting that the only item that would earn the expedition any “medals from the British Museum” would be “that fellow over there.” Leaning against the wall is a casket, containing a rather robust linen-wrapped mummy.  There’s also a small chest, inscribed with a hieroglyphic message.

A sign over the tent reads, “British Museum Expedition 1921.” Members of the team include not only Sir Joseph, a renowned archaeologist, and his assistant, Norton (a newly-minted Ph.D.?), who can decipher hieroglyphic text, but also Professor Muller, an “expert in the occult sciences.” Muller himself interprets the inscription on the chest as a curse on anyone who opens it, and thinks it contains the “Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life.” He proposes that they rebury both the sarcophagus and the chest, refusing to participate in “sacrilege.”

When Whempel and Muller (who discovers that the mummy has not been embalmed in the traditional manner, and that there are signs indicating a live burial) leave the room to discuss what to do next, Norton is left alone to piece together fragments of inscribed stone. But the young punk can’t resist the temptation, and withdraws the scroll—reading it aloud as he translates it. In a long, brilliant shot, the camera focuses on the mummy’s face, catching the gleam of an opening eye and the slow recovery of movement in its arms. Norton watches, incredulous, as the mummy awakens, takes the scroll, and leaves.  The scene ends as an hysterical Norton announces that the mummy “went for a little walk.” We later find out that he has died mad.

The film is well worth watching, especially for those who were under-impressed by the most recent remakes.  The clips available on the Turner Classic Movies web page include several telling moments that illustrate many of the presumptions Sue Alcock outlines in her first lecture: All real archaeologists want to find “goodies,” have to be lucky, and are white, male, and macho.

In later films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, and Stargate, the archaeologist characters combine different aspects of those from The Mummy: brash, greedy daredevils or iconoclastic scholars. The earliest female version of this character I can think of (besides Marion Ravenwood) is Vash, who appeared in a couple of Star Trek franchise episodes.

Despite the stereotyping of archaeologists as tomb-plundering adventurers, it’s the archaeologist-as-occult-scientist aspect that’s done the most damage, I think.  Even as women like Lara Croft come into the picture, the emphasis of their explorations seems to focus on mysterious, supernatural forces as generators of all those important artifacts.

What these pop-culture, somewhat iconic figures do is to perpetuate the “our ancestors were dummies” perception which produces the consummately unscientific view that the aliens must have done it.

The unfortunate result of all this is that the movie-archaeologists engage in pseudoscience and suck in gullible youngsters already starved of solid science education.  Using these films to expose the myths and set the record straight may be a sleazy way of attracting attention, but if, like The Mummy, it provides a platform for discussion, perhaps the enjoyment we get from watching them is something of a reward for our diligence in promoting a healthier view of history.

I’d highly recommend The Mummy to anyone who teaches introductory archaeology, or who explores the impact of film on culture.  The first twenty minutes exposes a number of popular misconceptions, and offers a starting point for a more accurate exploration of archaeological method.

Image credit: The theatrical poster for The Mummy, via Wikipedia's article on the film.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cynicism and Utopia

 Note: This essay also appears on Owl's Farm

This is rather a momentous day, what with President Obama's second inauguration coinciding as it does with Martin Luther King Day.  It's also still the new year's honeymoon period, when folks haven't yet given up on resolutions made under the influence on New Year's Eve.  And, it's been a month since the world didn't end, and I turned 65. The days are getting longer, and I saw my first robin (although I'm not sure he ever went anywhere), but the weather's still in flux (50s today, up to 70s by Wednesday, back down to 50s at the weekend) so I don't imagine spring is exactly around the corner.  February is typically the coldest month around here, and although Christmas was the worst weather day we've  had this winter so far, things could always get worse.

I didn't really want my first post of 2013 to be a downer, and perhaps it won't be.  But what's on my mind these days tends to keep my spirits lower than I'd like.  I am by nature an optimistic person; I try not to be, because pessimists are frequently happily surprised when things don't go as badly as they expect. But when confronted by adversity, I tend to accept it as a challenge and try to make things better--or at lease accept what's not in my power to alter.

But I do worry about the future, because I'm faced every day of my working life with evidence that this country has no idea of how badly its educating its children.  Not a day goes by when the Daily Poop doesn't offer some "solution" to a variety of perceived problems in the schools:  inefficiency, lack of career and/or college preparation, inability to engage students in essential skills.  In Texas, our legislators are constantly trying to find ways not to fund educational efforts because they think that both schools and the gummint need to be run like bidnesses (sorry; government, businesses).  Teachers should be able to teach 35 kids as easily as 25; students don't need access to real books when they can be reading them online on antiquated computers.  Teacher salaries are a joke (and not a very funny one), and Texas doesn't want to raise them unless they can tie compensation to student performance.  And that leads us to the testing regime that assesses all the wrong things and puts so much pressure on students and teachers that nobody has the time or energy or desire to really learn anything. It's not any better for college teachers, either (at least in proprietary schools and community colleges), because we're under the assessment gun as well, since rising student debt is giving administrators the willies.  More and more pressure is applied to colleges to run students through in the minimum amount of time (whether it's four years, two years, or 12 quarters).  However, students come to us with less and less preparation, and they're finding it harder and harder to successfully navigate the demands of a college-level curriculum. 

Even if they do graduate successfully, what do they have to look forward to?  Wages are stagnating (raise? what raise?) while we're being asked to more for what we're already getting.  So productivity is up in the U.S., while paychecks don't change.  I was wondering the other day why it is that in 2007 I could sit down at my computer a couple of mornings a week and write a post for Owl's Farm--and being able to do that encouraged me to start the others.  These days, however, I have to have a four-day holiday in order not to feel guilty about working on this post for a couple of hours.  What I realized while I pondered the situation is that I am working longer every day to find ways to compensate for the fact that my students are so unfamiliar with the past that putting art into context is impossible without recounting the historical moment in which works were created. Talking about Jacques Louis David to people who know nothing about the French Revolution isn't quite like facing the guillotine, but it certainly does recall Goya's contention that "the sleep of reason produces monsters."  In order to set the stage, I have to consult high school teachers in Hawaii, who (being younger, more energetic, and more with it) have created music videos on historical topics to engage their students.  Lady Gaga's music as a background to the events of 1789 is a lot more fun than listening to me try to summarize them in an art history lecture.

So I read advice in the Chronicle of Higher Education, look online for what others are doing, search for engaging videos, and try to find ways to make information more accessible without dumbing down the course or lowering standards.  Finding ways to connect fashion, video, animation, and other programs to art history is now a full-time job, added to my other one--teaching, with all it encompasses (research, lectures, grading, learning new delivery technologies). 

Have I mentioned that I just turned 65?

I didn't really make any resolutions for the new year; but rather than grouse about the state of education in the state of Texas, I really need to have more fun looking for new material.  I've already located a couple  of promising avenues--connections between paleolithic painting and animation--and as long as I can keep myself entertained, perhaps I won't bore my students silly.  The Cranky Old Bitch persona, which can be amusing to some, wears thin after a bit, and I'll  have to don another Trickster costume if I'm to make it through to spring. I'm looking to new sources (The Encyclopedia of Informal Education) and old (Morris's essays on education), in hopes of becoming more hopeful.  What I really need to become is more cynical--though not in the contemporary understanding of the term.

As Daniel Halpin points out in his article for Infed, "Hope, Utopianism and Educational Renewal," "A cynic today is not the same person the Ancient Greeks meant by the term. For them the cynic was a critic of contemporary culture on the basis of reason and natural law - a revolutionary rationalist, a follower of Socrates." In fact, the word "cynic" comes from the Greek word for "dog,"  so Cranky Old Bitch isn't inappropriate.  We love dogs because they know whom to trust (us, we hope), and they're naturally suspicious. Cynics are naturally anarchists, so I've always been rather sympathetic anyway.

Now, I'm not about to go live in the marketplace in a barrel or piddle in the street, but I think we could learn something by revisiting the teachings of the cynics, and by recognizing, as Diogenes did, that there is a toxic aspect to civilization itself.  We've been trying to come to grips with this realization since before the hippies started dropping out in the '60s, and folks started camping out on Wall Street.  I'll write more about this in a future post, but for now, I think we could consider the influence of money on everything we do.  The utopian in me wants to try to find ways to find ways to educate on the cheap: do what I can with what little I have, and see where it leads.  Since I've got a shelf full of William Morris, I think I'll start there, and spend the rest of Inauguration Day/MLK Day snuggled up with my two mongrel cynics and some Morris essays, and try to figure out how to save the world.

How's that for optimism?

Image credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Looking Backward(ly)

One, almost palpable, aspect of growing older is the increasing amount of nostalgia that permeates one's view of the world at large.

As we grow older, and as change becomes a significant feature of the presentness of the world we inhabit, we begin to remember the past almost as a physical space: houses, landscapes, objects, people. Historians and archaeologists probably suffer more than most, because we "remember" not only our own pasts, but those of others. Whether or not we bathe our visions in some kind of gauzy, golden light, masking difficulties, injustices, or even horrors, we nevertheless tend to paint our ideas of the future with the palette of the past.

Several recent events and observations have brought all of this to mind, the most recent of which is the Academy Awards ceremony (with its focus on early cinema), coupled with Pat Buchanan's departure from MSNBC.

Mind you, I've never thought much of Buchanan's picture of the world which, as Brian Stelter mentions in today's New York Times, is firmly rooted in the idyllic Ozzie and Harriet past that coincides with my own childhood in the fifties. But while my childhood was populated by multi-racial people and multi-cultural life, Buchanan's was white, straight, Catholic, and (in his mind, at least) hewed to those fine Republican values inherited from our Founding Fathers. In my case, although both of my grandmothers and one of my grandfathers were of Canadian extraction, immigration wasn't really part of our background; both my father's and mother's families had been in North America since the Revolutionary War. I'm not sure how long Buchanan's people had been in this country, but like many of his fellow (Tea Party) Americans, he seems to think that early immigrations from Europe were somehow different from those occurring now.

Buchanan's beliefs and politics were informed by Catholicism as practiced in America the Beautiful, while mine were informed by Catholicism practiced in Japan and Taiwan, preached by priests from Italy and China, and were severely tested by Vatican II. By 1963 I had left the Church, primarily because it had rejected many of the traditions it had accrued through time (Latin masses, smells and bells) and that had kept me "faithful" for as long as I was. Having not grown up in suburban America, however, I never did form an attachment to its mythical elements. Not being exposed much to television probably helped.

I try to be a realist, and to ground my hopes for the future in a clear sense of what has actually happened rather than some imaginary Golden Age. In doing so, I am constantly reminded of the criticism directed at William Morris's Medievalist socialism. Whenever I mention his work (at least when the immediate response isn't "Oh, yeah, the wallpaper guy"), the comments that follow usually point out that the Middle Ages he so admired had been radically depopulated by plague, and, besides, who would want to live that way, anyway? And post-apocalyptic films and fiction play on the notion that "Medieval" equals "Stone Age." Get rid of what we have now, the novels all suggest, and we'll be wandering down interminable roads, eating one another, living in squalor, and/or we'll become victims of one or another rampantly repressive ideology. (Update, October 24: a terrific new example is the television series, Revolution.)

All of the above will, according to the Buchananesque prognosis, be caused by lowered birthrates among the middle class (due to the use of abortion as birth control), increasing immigration from third-world countries, rising diversity in the armed forces (gays, women, folk of color), godless humanists, and all manner of plagues and diseases brought on by our increasingly wanton ways. Liberals in general, and Barack Obama in particular, are "destroying America," as I've heard over and over again from participants in the Republican caucuses As Seen On TV. What can only follow is the end of Western Civilization, or at least of American Exceptionalism, as we know it.

Of course, I'm not at all convinced that this is a bad thing. A smaller, multi-racial, more culturally diverse populace might well lead to innovative solutions to economic and social problems. If the self-described Conservatives want smaller government, the only way we can accomplish it is to decrease our population. If we want to increase self-reliance, we need to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, foodstuffs, and technology from foreign sources, and re-learn how to make many of the products we now buy from others, such as textiles.

Pat Buchanan's idyllic mid-century America was only half the size of the current one. Women were only just beginning to acquire the ability to pursue careers other than child-rearing, and Blacks were still being seated at the back of the bus. We were involved in or heading into an interminable series of conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq and Afghanistan), and barely averted World War III more than once in subsequent years. Divorces were rarer (although not in my family), but perhaps only because they were harder to get. Infant mortality has declined significantly since 1950, but minority children die at a much higher rate than whites, and the overall rate in the US is rather embarrassingly higher than for any other developed country. The effects on BabyBoomers' lives may not have been as devastating as the Black Death, but neither are they all that laudable.

If nostalgia is, at best, an ambiguous condition, I'm not sure that future generations will be affected by it much at all. As I struggle to reach new crops of students by instilling an interest in the past and what it can teach us, I find myself swimming in a rip-current of apathy, if not antipathy. Fewer and fewer of my pupils consider the past as particularly valuable; instead, they wonder what it has to do with them, now. "How is this information going to help me in my career?" they ask. The question is genuine rather than churlish. They really do want to know what utility I can offer, but I'm never sure how to answer them. The old saws about how general education will make them better people, or how knowing the past will help them avoid making the same mistakes don't hold much truck with a group hell-bent on fame and fortune in the game or fashion industries. The best I can offer is that the past, especially in the visual arts, represents a gold mine of ideas and images. At least as long as you cite your finds properly.

From an archaeological perspective, the present is the surface, under which lie immeasurable treasures. Education provides only what amounts to a surface collection of odds and ends that indicate what one might find underneath. The more practical contribution schooling makes to our future lives is to provide us--if we're fortunate to have decent teachers--with the tools we need to excavate the past, connect the ideas and objects we locate there with our contemporary needs and desires, and interpret them carefully and fairly. My parents and grandparents told me stories about my ancestors that made me want to know more about "the olden days." But they also insisted on telling me how hard it had been, and ultimately how unfair things were for others who didn't fare as well as we had.

If real knowledge and wisdom don't somehow emerge from the massive piles of information being heaped on this generation, in their future nostalgia might simply become a dismal undertaking, rather than a potentially rewarding exercise in plumbing memory. Rather than longing for imagined, distant glory, we should be showing our kids how to reflect critically on what they remember in order to faithfully craft the stories they tell their own children.

Note: This essay has concurrently been posted on Owl's Farm.

Image credit: In truth, I don't know where I got this; it was just in my archives for use in class. But the image is a bas relief designed by Philip Webb and executed by George Jack on a cottage in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire. I think the relief was commissioned by Jane Morris, in memory of her husband, and certainly captures his pensive demeanor. I have a copy of it at my desk at school.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Education and Citizenship

The arguments for smaller government that buoyed the ascendancy of tea-party conservatives in the midterm election can be very compelling. What is, after all, not to like about lower taxes? Why should the government be telling us how to live--by mandating warnings on cigarette packages, toying with restrictions on high fructose corn syrup, telling us what our kids need to eat at school, or insisting that everybody have health insurance whether they want it or not?

At the heart of the problem, however, is the fact that most of the public "argument" (such as it is) is based on faulty premises and a critical misunderstanding of history. Fueling the fight against the "socialistic" policies of the Obama administration is a badly painted picture of life at the birth of our republic, and the character of the (white, propertied) men who wrote the Constitution--and this dooms reason from the beginning.

No claim based on problematic reasons can ultimately succeed without rhetorical smoke-blowing and obscuring evidence to the contrary. Thus, many of the claims that opponents of "Obamacare" offer, for example, are supported by scary suggestions (not evidence) that health care reform will ultimately bankrupt our children, or that it will drive Granny to an early grave. Now, I'm more than willing to listen to your views, but only if you ground them in evidence; if the evidence is lacking, you can't just make stuff up. So if you're going to argue that "the Government" is violating the Constitution, be sure you've read it carefully, read commentary on what the articles mean (from more than one source), and pay some serious attention to the context in which it was written.

According to U. S. census figures for 1790, the first year a census was held, the population of the country in the year after the Constitution was ratified numbered around 4 million people. The figure for 2010 is upwards of 309 million. In 1790 there were no major roads, no electricity, no natural gas lines, no safe, reliable water supply--and thus no real upkeep or major infrastructure issues to fund. The U. S. Treasury fact sheet on the history of taxation notes that early taxes were raised from sources that varied widely from state to state:

Before the Revolutionary War, the colonial government had only a limited need for revenue, while each of the colonies had greater responsibilities and thus greater revenue needs, which they met with different types of taxes. For example, the southern colonies primarily taxed imports and exports, the middle colonies at times imposed a property tax and a 'head' or poll tax levied on each adult male, and the New England colonies raised revenue primarily through general real estate taxes, excises taxes, and taxes based on occupation.

One of the causes of that war, in fact, was the felt need of England to levy taxes on the colonies to pay for its wars abroad. The last straw was the tax levied on tea--and this seems to have also led to the future reluctance of American citizens to pay any taxes. The modern "Tea Party" seems to have forgotten that the battle cry of the tax protesters in 1773 was "Taxation without representation is tyranny." Like 'em or not, however, both houses of Congress are made up of elected representatives these days--so we're hardly being taxed without representation. If we don't like the results, we can throw the bums out. Which happens about every two years.

The point toward which I'm meandering is this: things are mighty different today than they were then. We no longer restrict the vote to propertied white males. There are gazillions more of us, a huge national transportation system that includes highways, railways, and airways, enormous electrical grids, gas pipelines, and all the other bits of technology that glue us together as a nation. And despite our overall wealth (even in these just-post-recession times), we do not have a measurably higher standard living than other developed countries that tax themselves silly.

Comparing the country now to the colonies in 1776 (or even the United States in 1790) is ridiculous. It's like comparing Adam Smith's idea of capitalism (kept in reign by the Invisible Hand) to the kind of capitalism that led to the recent depression. We're not even talking apples and oranges here; it's more like apples and lawn furniture.

The main purpose of government is to look after the public good by overseeing what can't be handled effectively by individuals or by individual states. And the first responsibility of governed citizens is to participate in their governance by electing representatives who have that good at heart. In order to do so, however, we have to be knowledgeable about processes and context; we can't just hop off and vote for any knucklehead who puts up a scary ad. The best defense against tyranny is an educated populace.

Now that the Supreme Court has declared that groups (corporations, unions, non-profits, and others) count the same as individual citizens, the job of educating ourselves becomes more difficult, because we have to be able to peel away all the subtexts that inform the ads that can be funded anonymously in favor of or against particular candidates. And because we've become not only less well-educated about but also less involved with national politics, we're much more susceptible to scare tactics and misinformation. On top of it all, we now get most of our news from commentators and pundits (whether Glen Beck or Kieth Olbermann) who specialize in verbal heat, rather than from reading newspapers and mulling over differing positions.

In the end, our value as citizens, and our ability to solve problems and insure the survival of the republic depends significantly on education. The more, the better, according to a 2005 report from the College Board. Participation in our own governance occurs in several ways, not the least important of which are through voting and paying taxes.

Now, I know the post-election mantra is all about reducing taxes. Some folks seem to think these are nothing but an imposition, and are used only to fund welfare queens and deadbeats. But in a country as large as ours, that depends so completely on the condition of its economic delivery systems (like transportation and other infrastructure), we cannot keep going without taxes. And the more prosperous we are, the more we seem to depend on these same systems--which means that our taxes need to be commensurate with our use of national facilities.

Remember that we all breathe the air, we all used the interstate highways, we share large public water sources, and so we do need oversight to keep individual states from deciding that they don't give a whiz about anybody else. (And if you think states don't do this, you don't live in Texas.) That means that in addition to paying taxes, we need to make sure the government regulates commerce to the extent that it affects individual citizens within the larger structure of the nation.

Education is about much more than just getting a job that pays well. A good education will provide us with worthwhile, interesting work that's more than just a paycheck. But it also helps us to fulfill our obligations as citizens by providing us with tools: critical thinking and mathematical skills (so we can evaluate arguments and understand statistics), historical perspective (so we remember what really happened in the founding years of our nation), and the general ability to articulate our positions and beliefs in order to make our voices heard.

It's extremely important to remember, in these almost radically anti-intellectual times, that our founding fathers were much better educated than most of us are today. Many of them read Greek and Latin, knew the classics, and were well-acquainted with the Enlightenment philosophies of their contemporaries: John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, George Berkeley, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Thomas Hobbes. Some of them, notably Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Madison, occupy the same pantheon as the Enlightenment thinkers from Europe.

I doubt seriously that many of those touting their love of the Constitution as a reason for opposing the duly elected President and Congress could hold a conversation with any of these guys--much less really understand what they were espousing. This isn't just an indictment of the noisy Right, but also of an uncritical Left. The architects of our government disagreed on many issues, but they were united in their belief that they could build a solid, enduring alternative to colonial rule.

I really hope we don't prove their faith to be ill founded.

Image credit: Junius Brutus Stearns, Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, 1856. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Gainful Employment Debate

The current kerfuffle over the Education Department's efforts to make sure folks get what they pay for in higher education has, understandably, caused a bit of a stir in our hallowed halls.

Rather than offer my own view here, primarily because I'm still working through the arguments, I thought it might be helpful for my students and colleagues if I were to list some online sources that offer various perspectives.

The proposed legislation itself can be found here via the Federal Register, from the Department of Education:

A Summary of the Advisory Committee's Hearing (Department of Education's Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance) includes testimony from interested parties.

The Chronicle of Higher Education weighed in with this article, Federal Proposal Could Jeopardize For-Profit Programs, Especially Bachelor's Degrees. Another article from the Chronicle offers another perspective: For-Profit Colleges Offer Another Way to Measure 'Gainful Employment.'

Inside Higher Ed pretty much defined the issue last December when it published its article on Defining Gainful Employment. A subsequent article from April was one of the first volleys fired in the most recent barrage of commentary. Going Ahead With Gainful Employment continues the discussion on the issue. Related articles are linked in the side bars.

The PBS program, Frontline, featured a segment called College, Inc., about the proliferation of for-profit colleges. The link is to the feature website, which includes teaching materials and student handouts with charts and statistics.

Greenwood and Hall, a consulting firm that focuses on relationships has published an interesting article that offers some solutions: Gainful Employment into Gainful Advantage: How Non-Profits and For-Profits Can Turn the Tables.

A Google search on "Gainful Employment Act" serves up a number of other sources, but those I've listed above provide fairly clear perspectives for those interested in constructing reasonable arguments and responding appropriately. Numerous proprietary schools have made public statements, and consumer groups and other interested parties are weighing in as well.

Stay tuned.

Image credit: The second panel from Louis Comfort Tiffany's Education, 1890, via Wikimedia Commons. This is the "science and religion" segment, situated between "art" on the left and "harmony" on the right.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Back to the Future

Nincompoopery is still alive and well in Texas, no thanks to our current Board of Education and its insistence that Joe McCarthy be rehabilitated and considered in a more positive light than he had been previously in the state-wide social studies curriculum.

This is, of course, the same board responsible for wanting Thomas Jefferson omitted from discussions about the philosophical grounding of the nation, primarily because he advocated erecting a wall between church and state (designed, as I remember it, to keep the state out of the church's business). Jefferson (my father's favorite founding father, and to whom I was referred for sound political advice at my father's knee--as soon as I was old enough to ask questions) was eventually reinstated, but the denial associated with Sen. McCarthy stayed in.

No sooner have I begun to absorb this latest absurdity, when newly-crowned Kentucky Republican Senatorial candidate Rand Paul admits to Rachel Maddow, God, and everybody, that even though he abhors racial discrimination himself, people seem to have a basic right (in his view, anyway) to discriminate against anybody they please.

Remember that Santayana guy? You know, the one who told us that if we forget history, we're condemned to repeat its mistakes? Remember that Orwell guy, who showed us what it would be like if rewriting history were to become national policy?

Not that anybody seems to be reading much history these days anyway, but shouldn't we be able to look back and admit that we were once stupid, and we managed to fix things and become less stupid?

We once thought it was okay (or even a right) to think that folks of a different color or religion were somehow less than human, and therefore didn't need to be treated like one of "us." But, thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for which Rand Paul's now not sure he would have voted (because it infringes on white peoples' right to discriminate?), we're required by law to treat everyone as a fellow human being, at least in public facilities.

Some people once thought that it was okay to accuse people of treason on hearsay, and to put them in jail (or otherwise ruin their lives) if they didn't agree with a very particular political view. Socialism was at very least a thought crime in this perspective, and any opinion not deemed "American" or patriotic enough got a significant number of people fired, blacklisted, or worse.

As white as I am, and as secure in my Anglo-Saxon protestant heritage, I'd be in serious trouble today with my communitarian political pronouncements and my adopted Judaism. I could be blacklisted by McCarthy and/or refused service in a bar by Paul. Of course this is a silly notion as it stands, and makes light of serious problems since I'm not really a member of an oppressed group (unless you count women, but that's a whole other rant); the implicit danger is nonetheless disturbing.

The sheer absurdity of these actions is pale comfort in times when critical thinking has given way to emotional ranting, and my inadequately prepared students struggle to be able to support an opinion with evidence or reasons.

My forays into training students to conduct effective research over the last couple of weeks have discouraged me more than I thought possible. Not only is it difficult to make them understand that curiosity is an important aspect of creativity, but they can't seem to divorce themselves from the idea of doing research is inexorably connected with a plastic notion of "research papers" as taught in high school.

Gone is the idea of essaying into a topic, a la Montaigne, posing questions, meandering through discoveries unearthed in the process of answering them, and ending up somewhere unexpected. No, the idea of "doing a research paper" is confined to coming up with a thesis and proceeding to "prove" it. Students rarely use evidence against their basic notion in their papers--even if they do manage to configure a search that locates any. Instead, they home in on statements, frequently out of context, that support what they assume, use them (usually badly quoted), slap in a few in-line citations (if we're lucky), and turn in the result.

Although this is not what my assignments ask for (I want them to use research to inform their solutions to design problems, and then write essays that describe the process involved), it's what I all too often get.

Unless educators can figure out how to stem the tide of abject irrationality that threatens to overwhelm higher education once we start enrolling the products of the absurdist theater performance going on in Austin, our jobs are only going to get tougher and tougher.

And unless adult citizens in this country start thinking again, rather than yelling and waving badly-phrased slogans decorated with tea bags, the likes of Rand Paul are going to get into office and make it easier for closet racists to claim that their inalienable rights are being violated if they're told to serve that black guy who comes in and sits down at the counter. Rachel Maddow's tuning fork analogy reminds us that when some national figure is talking about an issue, he or she is likely voicing the views of many like-minded constituents.

If everyone really wants good government (even if what they mean by "good" is "less"), better policies, wiser spending, and other measures of a sound political economy, we have to start by allowing our students to engage in thoughtful research, critical evaluation of evidence, and cogent reasoning. This can't be done if we spend all of our time screaming at one another, ignoring bad mistakes, or burning books--even if the burning is only figurative.

Looking backward, acknowledging our mistakes, correcting them, and preventing similar mistakes in the future requires a rational and reflective turn of mind. Our students deserve to know how to do this, because they're the ones who are going to have to correct the mistakes we're making right this minute.

Image credits: the McCarthy photo is from Wikimedia Commons; I messed with it.