Jesus at Georgetown
President Obama came to speak at Georgetown University on Tuesday. He made his address in the University’s icon-bedecked Gaston Hall, in front of a pediment inscribed with the letters IHS (commonly the first three letters of Jesus' name in Greek). But on Tuesday the IHS was gone. Georgetown had covered the gold inscription with what appeared to be a triangular piece of black-painted plywood. The University said that this was done in compliance with the White House’s request to cover all Georgetown signage and symbols behind the President’s speaking platform.
In his speech, Obama referenced a passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:24-25: 24"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock”). Obama said, “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock.”
Since the U.S. first found itself in the present economic crisis, it seems everyone has been advising, “Go back to school until this is over. By then you’ll have a higher degree and be more likely to get a job. There aren’t any jobs now anyway.”
I’ve read this advice in articles and overheard it on the subway. But lately, some authors have been arguing that this is exactly what not to do. According to Slate’s Emily Bazelon in “Help, My Degree is Underwater,” going back to school will only sink the student into debt and delay him from acquiring marketable skills. “[The data tell us] that college and graduate school are generally a good bet. But it doesn't tell you that every single degree pays off financially at every single point in time,” she writes.
Bazelon quotes from individuals who have emailed her:
"It's wrenching to have a Ph.D. in engineering and not even earn my rent in a bad month."
"I have a B.S. in sociology, and its value bears a strong similarity to its initials."
Another Ph.D. named Laurel, whose doctorate is in art history, sighed, "Many of the academic jobs that I applied to were cancelled...I am hurdling toward being the saddest type of graduate student—the one who has finished and is at a loss for what to do next. I'm going to be the one sitting on the front steps of that Ivory Tower with my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands just begging to be let back in."
Economists assert that those with degrees will be first in line for jobs, in high demand as soon as the recession is over. But until then, the education treadmill may act more like a millstone than a life jacket.
Is Higher Ed Mortal?
Along with the question of whether higher education is worth pursuing right now comes the question of whether the industry can survive and thrive through uncertain days. In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Peter Stokes writes, “Beyond survival, however, higher education has to be thinking about its own sustainability.” Stokes mentions that a senior executive at a large, private university told him, “We’re not persuaded that the business model or the economics of higher education are sustainable. We’re asking the question, ‘What if we were to start from scratch?”
Yet President Obama and the Lumina Foundation are setting ambitious goals for the expansion of higher ed. Obama has appealed to “every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training,” and the Lumina Foundation aims to ensure that 60 percent of the adult U.S. population has earned at least an associate degree by the year 2025. NAS has weighed in on this conversation. We are skeptical that these goals are desirable or even feasible.
At the end of his article, Stokes calls on higher ed leaders to rethink why they do what they do.
Now is the time to reflect on our strategic objectives, our missions, and our success measures...It may well be that we need to do something truly audacious to generate lasting value – for our institutions, our students, and our economic health.
Think about it.
We will think about it. Initially, however, we already have an idea of how to “generate lasting value.” As long as we’re going back to the fundamentals of the academy, why not try educating students in the pursuit of truth? Now that would be truly audacious.
Students Protests: Divided in Texas, United in New York
University of Texas students are protesting bills that would allow individuals to carry concealed weapons on Texas college campuses. Some “counter demonstrators” showed up to represent the pro-guns stance. Both sides cited the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech as the rationale for their argument:
Anti-guns: More guns will only cause the shedding of more blood. It would increase the threat of another shooting like the one at VT.
Pro-guns: If people on the VT campus had had guns, they could have prevented the killer from taking as many lives.
Meanwhile, in New York City, student protesters are showing more solidarity. Students from the New School are still rallying against their president, Bob Kerrey. And last night the protesters marched to Washington Square Park where NYU students joined them. Police arrested at least three students, whereupon part of the band marched to the 6th Precinct and chanted “Let them go.”
Back at NYU’s Kimmel Center, Green party candidate Bill Talen arrived and was supposed to give a speech about the protests that had taken place at both schools. Finding himself part of the rowdy crowd on the street, he took the opportunity to “preach” into a megaphone: “Universities should not be mega corporations. Amen, Hallelujah? CHANGE-elujah!” The students, however, were disdainful of the “Rev” and many heckled him as he tried to rabble-raise. Protesters refused to speak with Fox News but were willing to communicate with student journalists.
At the Chronicle of Higher Education, John L. Jackson, Jr. has written a blog article about Virginia Tech’s announced intention to rework its promotion and tenure policy to exclude a requirement that faculty members report “diversity” achievements. Except, Professor Jackson frames the decision as a step in the wrong direction:
At a moment when some American universities are re-emphasizing their broad-based commitments to diversity (re-doubling their efforts at diversifying faculties and student bodies), Virginia Tech has taken an institutionalized step in the other direction.
He worries that other schools may follow Virginia Tech’s lead. That seems to imply that other schools already have policies that, like VT, require faculty members to take part in “diversity” initiatives. If he is right, then we certainly hope they will follow VT’s lead.
Based on Robin Wilson’s representation of VT Provost Mark McNamee in a Chronicle article, Jackson asserts that “a Virginia Tech spokesperson has been very clear about the fact that a conspicuous commitment to diversity was never a formal requirement for promotion.” But NAS and FIRE have shown that this was clearly not the case.
Jackson also takes a swing at FIRE and other “conservative organizations” which see the decision at VT as a victory for academic freedom, saying that for them, “there are no legitimate social/political constituencies other than national ones. We are individuals, and just about anything else is an ideological straitjacket.” By national constituencies, we suppose he means American citizens. And by other legitimate social/political constituencies, we suppose he means groups marked by race, class, sex, etc.
We also note the stunning predominance of views opposing VT’s policy and the diversity doctrine in general found in the string of comments following Jackson’s story.