my piece in Consider Magazine

I was asked to write a piece on Obama’s recent tuition proposal for Consider Magazine, and was happy to provide one. You can check it out here.

The format of the magazine is point-counterpoint, which requires a certain degree of tunnel vision. Also, the word count limit was a constraint. I will just add this: when I say, in the piece, that the details are what matter, I mean it. I spend a significant portion of my life  researching , thinking, and arguing about education reform efforts. One point that I insist on is that assessment methods must be proven before they can be responsibly argued. In the realm of education reform, the cart is constantly put before the horse; we are forever debating the political and economic fallout of proposed reforms before we have adequately demonstrated that they actually work. To my dismay, reform advocates often deliberately misrepresent my insistence that proof of efficacy come first as resistance to any kind of reform, or even of improvement at all.

What matters in this reform effort is that the assessment metrics work, that they actually identify schools that are working to reduce tuition costs and the actual financial load on students. And these assessment metrics must be limited to the purpose that Obama articulated in his speech.

But something has to be done. These spiraling tuition costs undermine the most fundamental commitments of the university and cause considerable suffering for those we are tasked with educating.

1 Comment

  1. I’d like to suggest that there are some other essential aspects nearly always missing from discussions of education reform and that these omissions fairly guarantee that the discussions remain on the useless and futile level.

    First, foremost– not only in the U.S. but especially in the U.S. and in English-speaking cultures in general–there is a long-standing and continuing near-total loss of sight as to what education is “for”, that is, what its central points and purposes should be. For generations in the U.S. education has been pursued from all points of view–from the lowest, most defenseless student to the “highest” levels of elite, privileged academia’s directorial management, as something defined and limited by the imperatives of employment-driven means and ends. You, also, remark that in your key decisions about your education, prospects for employment figure very importantly or even decisively in your ultimate course of pursuit. In that, you are in the company of the truly overwhelming majority. For many, the employment-driven choice is so paramount because the student’s financial circumstances are so precarious that no other criterion can compete with the supposed-according-to-convential-wisdom (though often terribly mistaken) employment as the decisive factor.

    This alone means that education from start to finish is a woefully impoverished enterprise. Its pursuit is automatically reduced, cheapened and debased so that other more respectable spiritual motives are lost in the mad shuffle. Many educators know this; but years of desperate demoralization in the face of relentless and spiritually-destructive entertainment-driven mass-communications technology have left them so jaded and cynical that they no longer even have the heart to object. In short, they’ve resigned themselves to a place where their roles do not rise above that of a technician’s. The exceptions are so rare that I warrant you can count on one hand the number of educators in your personal experience who defy the dismal archetype.

    Notice, for example, that typical of all contemporary western industrial societies, in the U.S. and Europe and Japan, and all similar societies, there exists virtually no place at all for an independent, self-directed, scholar “without portfolio, without ‘home’ institution. No one in professional academics even takes such a creature seriously–no matter what pious bullshit they may spew about how they are devoted to “the life of the mind”. Two terms in particular describe an independent scholar who isn’t fortunate enough to possess a personal fortune: destitute and starving–just as describes many devoted writers trying to complete a first work of fiction or non-fiction.

    Intellectual life in the U.S. is so neglected that it does not even rise to the level of being despised. It’s not given that much consideration. It simply doesn’t come to mind for most people. One thing and one thing only encompasses the mental universe of the vast majority: will this sell? And for how much will it? Other cultural debasements go hand in hand with such a stupified culture: being “nice”, polite, courteous, has now displaced such things as honesty, frankness, intellectual courage and imagination. All of these bow to the imperative to be nice, to never give offense. Taken together, the three things on which most important judgments turn–and, in our time, according to prevailing stupidity, it is simply wrong to engage in acts of judgment at all in any case: one’s formal professional position, one’s annual income and one’s impeccable record in having never given offense. From these priorities it follows that culture is made shallow and stupid –and that this may not, must not, be pointed out. To do so is impolite.

    It follows as well that by hewing to such priorities, society’s academic life reverts to the practices which characterized for the worst the scholasticism of the Middle Ages and, with all our dazzling technology contemporary society resembles much that was characteristic of this intellectually backward period.

    Your blog, Freddie, stands apart in my experience–now more than ten years on–in public discussion fora. Here, unlike nearly anywhere else I’ve seen, opinions so terribly taboo elsewhere may be hazarded. That, too, speaks volumes about our shitty contemporary circumstances. Let’s also admit and dispense with the oft-made objection that “in all times, people routinely hold that their contemporary world is going to the dogs”, “it was ever thus”. So what? To a certain limited degree, it’s true that in the process of maturing, one notices that the rosy appearances of childhood prove illusory. That’s granted. It remains the case that, even so, societies can and do regress relatively in ways both important and demonstrable. If you need examples which have a more objective basis, consider what passes today for quality prose, for challenging reading, for intellectual stimulation.

    Nor am I offering a rehash of Allan Bloom’s dreary and mistaken thesis in The Closing of the American Mind–however, and by the way, how many readers today have even heard of that text? My position is well-represented, rather, in the work of Neil Postman, Wright Mills and others in their tradition.

    Outside this very unusual blog, where can these matters be discussed in these terms? My answer, which speaks to our absurdly poor situation, is nowhere else.

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