Tuesday, September 13, 2011 9:57 AM
American higher education is on the cusp of change. Figures for average tuition and cumulative debt are skyrocketing, while the value of degrees is deflating. Newcomers to the job market are defaulting on their loans more than ever. At the same time, disruptive new technologies and educational strategies are usurping the dusty, sprawling, bureaucratic, green-fisted university system. Solving the large, complex institution’s problems has proven thorny (at best). How to best serve the students? The faculty? The university? The country? Humanity?
“Education has one salient enemy in present-day America,” writes Mark Edmundson in an essay for Oxford American’s education issue, “and that enemy is education—university education in particular.” As a teacher, Edmundson understands and takes issue with the profit motive of higher education. He doesn’t say that American education is categorically “bad.” For example, of professors he writes that “[t]he people who do this work have highly developed intellectual powers, and they push themselves hard to reach a certain standard.” Fair enough. One problem: “That the results have almost no practical relevance to the students, the public, or even, frequently, to other scholars is a central element in the tragicomedy that is often academia.”
Edmundson’s catch-all solution goes beyond the usual Hail Mary defense of liberal arts, a panacea partly pragmatic and partly delusional: memento mori. Remember that you only live once and that most people only have one chance to attend college.
He recalls a formative episode sitting at the dinner table and telling his father—a hardscrabble, near-dropout, middle-class, by-the-bootstraps man—that he was thinking about pursuing a “pre-law” education. As Edmundson tells it, that’s when his father “detonated”:
He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in the subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times. If I had such info, pre-law would be fine, and maybe even a tour through invertebrate biology could also be tossed in. But until I had the reincarnation stuff from a solid source, I better get to work and pick out some English classes from the course catalog.
As is often the case with this type of essay, Edmundson only obliquely confronts the issue of rampant unemployment among recent graduates. Rather than littering his conclusion with reassuring statistics about the job prospects of a liberal education, he defers to Robert Frost:
If you advance in the direction of someone else’s dreams—if you want to live someone else’s life rather than yours—then get a TV for every room, buy yourself a lifetime supply of your favorite quaff, crank up the porn channel, and groove away. But when we expend our energies in rightful ways, Robert Frost observed, we stay whole and vigorous and we don’t weary. “Strongly spent,” the poet says, “is synonymous with kept.”
Source: Oxford American
Image by Carnoodles, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, October 18, 2010 4:50 PM
Are our institutions of higher learning becoming dens of corporate complicity? That’s the thread running through a spate of recent stories that reveal how a trio of heavies—Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and Big Pharma—are pulling strings at U.S. universities. Each tale, on its own, is unsettling. Taken together, they paint a picture of collusion in which intellectual freedom and moral decency take a back seat to the mighty promise of profit:
• Oil giants spent $880 million over the last decade to support energy research at 10 large universities, according to a report covered by Kate Sheppard on the Mother Jones website. The report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, “Big Oil Goes to College,” concludes that these ties constitute a threat to academic independence and good science.
• Mother Jones details in its Sept.-Oct. issue how a young man having psychotic episodes was coerced into a pharmaceutical industry study at the University of Minnesota—and ended up dead. The tragic tale, based on a great piece of newspaper reporting by Paul Tosto and Jeremy Olson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is a vivid glimpse into the dark side of market-driven drug trials.
• The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on “The Secret Lives of Big Pharma’s ‘Thought Leaders,’” also known as key opinion leaders, or KOLs: the influential academic physician-researchers who are paid by drug companies to basically shill for their brands—but not overtly, of course. That would be unseemly. Instead, they deftly blend their conflicting roles and realize substantial payouts for their credibility-lending efforts. “The KOL is a combination of celebrity spokesperson, neighborhood gossip, and the popular kid in high school,” writes Carl Elliott for The Chronicle. The piece makes me want to read Elliot’s new book, White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine (Beacon Press).
• The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently reported on an incident in which Big Ag seemed to be calling shots at the University of Iowa: A shoo-in candidate for a sustainability program position was brushed off after he suggested that cows eat grass—not a message that sits well with the factory-farm titans who are entwined with the university.
• Finally, a recent blowup at the University of Minnesota carried another strong whiff of Big Ag influence. An environmental documentary film, Troubled Waters, that ascribed water pollution in part to farming practices was pulled from a public television broadcast amid criticism from a university dean that it “vilified agriculture.” Ultimately, the film was reinstated after a public backlash to the move—and the university vice president who canceled it publicly apologized. Paula Crossfield covered the controversy at the blog Civil Eats (later reposted at Grist and Huffington Post), although Twin Cities Daily Planet reporter Molly Priesmeyer broke the story and stayed on it.
It’s not lost on me that several of these conflicts of interest occurred at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. If I were the type of person who displayed my degrees on the wall, my B.A. from the university would be losing a bit of its luster right now. University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said after the film imbroglio that academic freedom is the “cornerstone of all great American universities.” I see signs of that cornerstone crumbling—and I hope that hard-working journalists keep drawing attention to it before there’s a complete structural failure.
Sources: Mother Jones, Chronicle of Higher Education, Civil Eats, Grist, Huffington Post, Twin Cities Daily Planet
Image by minnemom, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, August 09, 2010 3:19 PM
Cows eat grass. You wouldn’t think it’s a big deal to state this, but at Iowa State University a highly qualified job applicant who had the temerity to voice this simple biological fact was ejected from consideration for a post leading a sustainable agriculture program, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:
Among those who study sustainability, saying cows should eat grass is not a controversial statement. But saying so in Iowa—which grows more corn than any other state—is likely to attract attention.
Well, it sure did. Ricardo Salvador is a well-respected sustainable agriculture expert and a former professor at Iowa State—and a natural, many observers thought, to lead the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture as its new director. A finalist for the position, however, he didn’t get the post even when the top candidate turned it down. Apparently, his cow comment came back to haunt him:
The remark that may have sunk Mr. Salvador’s candidacy came 37 minutes into his on-campus presentation. While discussing a research project in New York State, he mentioned meat being “produced in the natural way that meat should be produced, which is on land suitable for grasses and perennial crops.”
If this were a TV game show, a loud buzzer would have gone off and Mr. Salvador would have been escorted from the stage that very moment. Because apparently he was supposed to say that cows should eat corn. Even if that’s not natural or sustainable, it’s simply how things are done in Iowa, a state built on big agriculture:
Corn allows cows to get fatter faster and be ready for slaughter sooner. But there are downsides, including the fact that cows have trouble digesting corn and must be fed antibiotics to prevent them from becoming ill. What’s more, the beef from corn-fed cows tends to have more fat.
The danger of the truth is so great that the Chronicle couldn’t even get Wendy Wintersteen, the dean of Iowa State’s agriculture school, to go anywhere near it. When asked whether cows evolved to eat grass, she replied, “I don’t have an opinion on that statement.”
Sheesh. Consider, for a moment, the man that the Leopold Center is named for, famed conservationist Aldo Leopold. In 1939, in the essay “A Biotic View of Land,” he wrote:
Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains. The deer eats a hundred plants other than oak, and the cow a hundred plants other than corn. Both, then, are links in a hundred chains.
Sorry, Mr. Leopold, but I’m going to cut you off right there before you say anything more inflammatory. Some university officials are not going to be happy about this.
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required to read full article)
Image by twicepix, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, February 11, 2010 5:15 PM
Republicans including Sarah Palin have taken to attacking Barack Obama as a “professor.” Palin recently told a group of Tea Party activists, “we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.” According to Inside Higher Ed, this line of attack taps into a long history of anti-intellectualism, stereotypes about higher-education, and possibly racism in American politics.
The “professor” label “implies dry, hectoring, unemotional, self important, all of the negative stereotypes of somebody who is vainly certain of his own superior mental capacities but doesn’t have a human connection,” Geoffrey Nunberg told Inside Higher Ed. The article also quotes experts who believe the attack resonates because of the racist undertones of portraying Obama as “different” and “not one of us.” The attacks may work in the short term—and among people pre-disposed to dislike Obama—but many believe the strategy won’t work in the long run. Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree says, “Do you want to tell your children we don’t want smart people in government?”
Source: Inside Higher Ed
Image by the Center for American Progress, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008 10:27 AM
A recent dispatch from the Chronicle of Higher Education plants a headstone for that erstwhile newspaper institution, the higher-education beat. Well, maybe not a headstone, but certainly an earnest get-well card with a detailed, well-reported story printed on the inside. As Richard Whitmire laments, regional newspapers have been shrinking their coverage of higher education, sometimes assigning just one reporter to cover the gamut of local education issues, including elementary, secondary, and higher ed.
The rub is this: As Whitmire points out, regional higher-ed reporting has scooped some of the most important education news of the last few years. For instance, Iowa’s Des Moines Register and Florida’s St. Petersburg Times uncovered shady dealings between local colleges and student loan providers. Moreover, he argues, regional newspapers have a stake in covering the local economy, in which nearby universities and colleges are significant employers and workforce-generators. An informed readership ought to know the condition of local schools, including typical debt burdens and drop-out rates. Without reporters on that beat, however, there will likely continue to be a void in coverage.
Image by Alexander Steffler, licensed under Creative Commons.
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