For Father’s Day, my daughter Kate sent me a t-shirt featuring David Pelham’s dust jacket of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange (Penguin, 1962). Director Stanley Kubrick turned Burgess’s cautionary tale into a surreal film masterpiece (Warner Bros., 1971) with graphic scenes of violence, sex, gangs, rape, and aversive conditioning, choreographed and set to thundering, Moog-synthesized Beethoven (and "Singin’ In the Rain"). The film, now reissued on Blu-Ray for its 40th anniversary, has a turbulent history. Originally rated X, Kubrick had to re-cut it for an R but also withdrew the film from distribution in the UK where it was re-released only in 2000, after his death. The American edition of the book which inspired Kubrick had itself been bowdlerized by the publisher (Norton) who amputated the final chapter creating a dark, ambiguous conclusion where Burgess’s 21st chapter offered a consoling one. Once, Kubrick’s opus was required viewing in my class about what a human being is and isn’t. When Burgess/Kubrick’s sociopathic narrator, Alex, is arrested, he is subjected to aversive conditioning and becomes incapable of violent action (the conditioning also destroys his ability to enjoy “Ludwig Van”). He is now “a clockwork orange,” what you get when you treat something organic as if it were a programmable machine; Alex’s prison chaplain protests that "When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man." Voila, Kubrick’s film was perfect for the class, but, like Kubrick, I too withdrew it after one student became hysterical during the viewing, curling into a fetal position and shaking for an hour after class. Apparently, Alex’s “ultra-violent” acts but ingenuous “of-course-you-understand” intimacy remain disturbing, even dangerous, enhanced by the timeless music, John Alcott’s cinematography, and Kubrick’s notoriously clinical eye. The opening 90-second dolly back shot still chills the blood. Yet, cold as Kubrick’s films feel, he was an eminently sane man presenting a perennial dilemma--freedom vs. order. In an interview with film historian Michel Ciment, he said
I think that when Rousseau transferred the concept of original sin from man to society, he was responsible for a lot of misguided social thinking which followed. I don't think that man is what he is because of an imperfectly structured society, but rather that society is imperfectly structured because of the nature of man. No philosophy based on an incorrect view of the nature of man is likely to produce social good.”
Indeed . . . . If only the outcomes-and-assessment-addled mandarins who run our “imperfectly structured” education system would take Kubrick’s words to heart, the job of rebuilding the humane studies might finally begin.
There are many more flaws in his article. Here’s another that really bothered me.
One of the glaring weaknesses in the “College is good for everyone!” case is the mounting evidence that many students learn little or nothing. Leonhardt tries to escape that by noting the recent conclusion by Arum and Roksa that a large percentage of college students they sampled made scant academic gains, then writing, “But the margin of error was large enough that many more may have made progress.”
Yes, but it’s equally likely that the margin of error could go the other way and that “many more” may have been wasting their time and money. Leonhardt knows what “margin of error” means, but he’s writing an advocacy piece, so he evidently feels justified in slanting the data his way.
Then he tries to blow off the entire matter by writing, “The general skills that colleges teach, like discipline and persistence, may be more important that academics anyway.” Small problem here: there is no evidence that colleges are better at teaching discipline and persistence than they are at teaching about math, history, or how to write a good paragraph. Lots of students manifest the same aversion to work, to deadlines, to personal responsibility as seniors that they had as freshmen.
In The Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein makes a nice distinction between those who see man’s essential self as defined by what he hides and those who see man’s essential self as defined by what he does. "More people who have been infected by contemporary college education are likely to fall into the Hide camp than people who have been brought up free of higher education . . . . If one believes that we are what we hide, responsibility drops away.”
At the Chronicle, April Kelly-Woessner has an incisive piece on outcomes assessment at her university and in higher education at large. She argues that the nation is less concerned about measuring how much students have learned than with ascertaining whether universities are being efficient stewards of funds to educate. Her summary of the problems with outcomes assessment is compelling. Peter Wood's 2009 evaluation of the movement reached similar conclusions.
The Lumina Foundation's new "Degree Qualifications Profile" is supposed to help colleges have a shared framework to describe what students should be able to do when they graduate. Peter Wood says he'll hold out for something "better grounded in science, philosophy, history, and higher education’s own better sense of itself."
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, I review Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. The book has been getting a great deal of attention -- and deserves it. To put the authors' case in a nutshell, college and university education in the U.S. (with a few exceptions) costs much more than it needs to and delivers much less education than it should. It's a splendid deal for administrators and tenured professors, but bad for the rest of us who foot the bills and especially the students who get little education of lasting value. Do we have the beginnings of a left-right convergence here? The critique Hacker and Dreifus give echoes themes familiar to those who have read Charles Murray and Thomas Sowell. (In fact, Sowell blasts Hacker's book Money in his Intellectuals and Society, but they're in agreement on the waste and folly of our higher ed system.)
In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, Emory University history professor Patrick Allitt discusses the research finding that college students are putting in less and less time on their coursework, yet expect (and mostly get) high grades. I'm particularly glad to have Professor Allitt comment on this because his 2004 book I'm the Teacher, You're the Student was such an eye-opener, detailing his difficulties in getting students -- at a pretty strong university -- to take the work seriously. You can read my review of his book here.
The Regents of the University of California just voted to embrace a pilot program testing the efficacy of an online undergraduate degree. Until now, like most research universities, UC has been leery of the online environment because of the thorny problems it poses: questionable security, dubious academic integrity, loss of “voices around the table,” substantial and perpetual costs. Conversely, online education does seem inevitable given our technological dependence, a Beltway “college-for-all” mindset, corporate customer service business models, and ruthless competition. "It's the future," gushed Regent Bonnie Reiss. Despite teaching online for years and running an online program, I remain ambivalent about the marriage of technology and education. Showing INXS’s “Devil Inside” to spice up “Young Goodman Brown” used to be stimulating; now it’s just disruptive. Why jerk students back to the terrain they already inhabit, filled with insistent, continuous, cognitive shifts whose interruptions prevent learning? Handling electronic information, Nicholas Carr says,
We become mere signal processing units, quickly shepherding disjointed bits of information into and then out of short-term memory.
As one online student just posted, “During the time it took me to read for this assignment, I received 1 phone call, 6 emails, 4 text messages and 1 Skype message.” At the Young Rhetoricians’ Conference in June, the most instructive point about online education was made by Porsche, a young African-American college student, who said, “I don’t want to study organic chemistry on my computer. My computer is where I go to have fun.” The UC Regents would do well to heed her words because Porsche really is the future.
The careful image campaign that the higher ed establishment has conducted for decades seems to be wearing off, if this Washington Examiner piece is any indication. The writer observes that lots of American students now get their high-cost college degrees, but can't even do basic math. Many of them can (and will!) hector you about "sustainability," their concerns about social justice, institutional racism and so on -- but they can't work out the simplest of numerical problems. A large number of jobs now "require" college degrees, but that requirement rarely has anything to do with actual knowledge. It's a screening device to keep out supposedly less prepared and trainable high school graduates, but it's becoming clear that many college graduates are no better.
David Brooks of the New York Times writes a fine column on the power of books in the age of the internet. His observations are prompted by a study which finds that low income elementary school students who receive books prior to summer break become better readers than peers who do not. Working with colleagues, Dr. Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee carried out the study, which will be published in Reading Psychology later in the year. This kind of book distribution program can be seen as a low-cost alternative to summer school, which brings up a couple interesting questions. Would it be a realistic and adequate substitute for summer school? If so, will it be adopted or will challenges arise to prevent or limit its implementation? Tomorrow is the last day of summer school for the local school district, in which I volunteer. I'd like to think the students have learned and grown in ways that they wouldn't have if they weren't there. However, there's no substitute for young students reading on their own and working with their parents at home. Ceteris paribus, students and society would seem to be better off not with summer school but with this alternative. In terms of politics, it will be interesting to see the unions and the rest of the public education bureacracy react to this. If expanded, the program could presumably be a small but important step towards today's holy grail in education policymaking - closure of the achievement gap. However, ditching summer school means school districts have a lower demand for labor. When was the last time a teachers union embraced anything of the sort?
The November-December issue of CCA Advocate contains a front page story on how Lassen Community College is challenging Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) with the California Public Employment Relations Board:
In what may be the first test case, the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) will decide whether a college can require instructors to submit Student Learning Outcomes without having bargained them into the contract. The case stems from a charge brought by the Lassen College Faculty Association against the Lassen Community College District in December when the college administration unilaterally changed its policy and started requiring certificated employees to submit a student assessment plan whenever they submit a course syllabus. When the administration topped off the demand by proposing that faculty be evaluated based on its Student Learning Outcomes, (SLOs) the chapter took the matter to PERB.
For the full story, click here.