It’s not uncommon for politics and policy to be distorted by a romantic vision of human nature, but nowhere is that more true than education.
Here at Purdue, we have a strong freshman composition program, Introductory Composition at Purdue (ICAP). One of the reasons for its strength, in my opinion, is our conference system. English 106, the largest ICAP course, is a five-day-a-week teaching commitment. All students meet with their ICAP instructor in a one-on-one or small group conferencing sessions every week. As you can imagine, having to teach every weekday is not a thrilling prospect for many of our TAs. Despite what most people think, teaching a college class is a major time commitment; lesson planning and preparation for in-class activities is an even bigger time commitment than grading, which is a bear itself. The conferencing requirement also has major cost implications for the university; because the course meets so often, it carries a higher credit load, meaning that our TAs typically teach only two sections a year, rather than the one/two schedule typical of graduate students. Multiply that across hundreds of sections of the course. It’s a major commitment.
Why make it? I wasn’t sure I knew the answer to that myself, when I first came to Purdue. I remember being surprised that a college class met every day. It was just so far out of the norm. After just one semester of teaching ICAP, my feelings had changed entirely: I was now worried about a possible future of teaching freshman composition at other universities where I wouldn’t have one-on-one conferencing with students worked into the schedule. Because there, more than in our regular classroom, computer lab, or online course site, was where the actual educating happened. It was in those very small groups, where I could give the individual students individual attention, that I was able to go through their work with them line-by-line and show them where and how they could improve their writing. I’ve tried all number of ways to do that outside of class meetings– marking papers extensively, using Track Changes, real-time online collaboration– and it never, ever works. Most them don’t look, and most of them don’t care, unless there’s the basic human accountability of sitting down with them at a table and going through the changes together. That’s how I drag them to the skills they want.
I will have lost some of you with that verb. “Drag them! How presumptuous! That’s so insulting.” I assure you: no, it’s not. No, it’s not insulting to use the word “drag” to describe educating undergraduates. I promise you it’s not. Of course, there are in most classes one or two or three students who are both very bright and self-motivated. They’re wonderful to work with. But most students require a frankly endless amount of pushing, pulling, cajoling, motivating, and yes, dragging to competence. Some actively resist. I’m not complaining: this is what I love to do, and it’s why they pay me. I signed up to be a compositionist knowing that many, both within and outside of the university, see nothing to respect in the discipline. I did because I love teaching people to write and love researching ways to do it better. I’m just relaying reality, in context with an education media that simply doesn’t want to hear it: our college students are not an army of young autodidacts who are pursuing knowledge out of a love for learning. They just aren’t. They’re here, in very large measure, to collect a degree that they identify as being a largely or purely economic instrument. Who could blame them? That’s what their culture is telling them education is for: making money. So they proceed rationally from that premise.
So you work, and you work, and you work, and you sit with them in conferencing and you revise their papers again and again and you chase them down when they don’t submit by deadline and you make your instructions explicit again and again and you hope that they’ll bother to come back to class after spring break and you work, work, work to get them to a reasonable level of ability. And then when you give them a B+ they write outraged emails to the dean about what a horrible injustice that is. But of course they do. Again, it’s natural: their culture teaches them that everyone is equally capable of everything, and that any problems in education are necessarily the fault of educators and not of students, so they rage when they get a grade that is commensurate with their work. They’re a product of their culture.
Again: I love teaching. I love my students. I’m not trying to insult them, at all. I’m trying, instead, to speak honestly about them in their actual, real-world humanity. And trust me: my students here at Purdue are not unusually unmotivated or unintelligent. Just the opposite; they’re remarkably bright, attending a competitive public research university, in a period where getting into good colleges has never been harder or more competitive. Yes, they’re a restricted range. They’re restricted near the top, not the bottom. Still, it’s a struggle to educate them. I’m just trying to be honest with you.
So maybe you can see why I am so deeply frustrated with the Clay Shirky vision, which is really just the consensus view, and pretty much Obama’s major vision for the next era of the American economy. It’s a common saw: the next stage of American abundance requires all of our workers be educated, it’s too expensive to teach them in the conventional academic setting, and so we need to replace the physical university with online colleges, staffed by adjuncts teaching many sections of huge classes. And not only will we be erasing the very notion of individual instructor attention, we’ll be particularly targeting the most vulnerable, most difficult to educate students, the ones who now either never make it to college or drop out at huge rates. This is the perfect expression of an educational discourse that has no connection to the reality of what most schooling is like for most students.
At my MA institution, the University of Rhode Island, there’s a great program called Talent Development. It’s a program for minority students from urban parts of Rhode Island; they’re offered admission into the school on a probationary basis, with the requirement that they undergo a summer program before their freshman year and maintain an additional accountability and support program for their first two. Such programs are an essential part of the academy’s mission; they are a moral necessity. And the program does enjoy some success: TD students have better outcomes than other students from similar backgrounds. But notice that the Talent Development program works by doing precisely the opposite of what Shirky sees as the future of education. They’re not reducing face-to-face time; they’re increasing it. They’re not reducing individual instruction and attention; they’re increasing it. And even so, while the TD students do better than other students from similar circumstances, my understanding is that they still on the whole do significantly worse than the median URI student.
Because educating “nontraditional” students– administrator speak for poor students, students whose parents are themselves uneducated, minority students, and students who struggled in high school– is really hard. Look, I don’t doubt that the American university system has failed these students in any number of ways. I could go on at length about those failures. But at some point you have to actually grapple with reality, which is that for a complex and controversial set of reasons, some people are harder to educate. Not everyone is equally capable of educational success. They just aren’t. I’m dedicated to the task as getting as many marginal students in and through as possible, and I think that’s an absolute moral need for our colleges and our society. But it’s not going to work for everyone, and it’s going to take great efforts, and online models are precisely the opposite of what’s likely to work.
We’ll be debating the causes of that inequality for the rest of my life, with liberals asserting that it’s the product of unequal circumstances and systemic forces, and conservatives asserting that it’s the product of natural talent and work ethic. But at a certain point, the reason becomes irrelevant; by the time they reach adulthood, people just are unequal, and we have reams and reams of empirical research that demonstrates that. The refusal to grapple with that reality will prove ruinous to the long term economic justice of the United States, as people like Shirky and Arne Duncan and President Obama articulate a vision of education as a great equalizer that denies the reality of unequal ability.
Andrew Sullivan linked to Shirky’s piece by saying that Shirky “wants the academic world to face reality.” Well, I think it’s Shirky and those like him who need to get real. Efforts to change the long-term economic futures of vast social classes through education are the de facto answer to poverty and inequality among the Davos set, despite the fact that education has never been proven to be equal to that task, as people like Matt Bruenig keep pointing out. We are risking the future on a vision that, it seems to me, has no justifiable grounding in either experience or empiricism. Pleasant lies about everyone’s ability to succeed in college, particularly in a new kind of college where by design individual students receive far less attention, are politically pleasing but practically destructive.
I’m not teaching freshmen now, but rather grad students. It’s a lovely experience. And I think it’s what most people think most college teaching is like: working with self-motivated, committed students. But there’s a reason why grad students are rare, and without judgment, I’m telling you that most undergrads simply are not like my grad students. They just aren’t. Fooling ourselves that they are is a huge mistake.
Although my readership is quite modest, I have still enjoyed more attention, in online politics, than I ever expected to get. I have been making some version of this argument for a long time. I have never been able to get even minimal purchase with this argument. People not only don’t agree about it, but just don’t engage. The Atlantic has an entire education “channel,” but you could go weeks there without reading a word of genuine educational pessimism. This is par for the course.
The rhetorical mechanism through which this kind of argument is dismissed is ostensibly liberal– you’re saying that people can’t learn! You’re saying that people are unequal! But I’m not saying that people can’t learn. I’m saying that not everyone can learn the same things, and shouldn’t be expected to, but the dictates of “the economy of tomorrow” dramatically narrows the horizons of what education can try and do. And I’m not saying that people are unequal in their rights, their dignity, or their inherent value. But I am saying that people are deeply unequal in their ability to satisfy certain educational demands which, again, are dictated by the same people who are calling for an economy based on everyone selling smartphone apps. And I am saying that whatever the complicated reasons for that fact, it is a fact, and one that most people actually believe even as they deny it publicly.
The people pushing this vision, tellingly, are almost exclusively people who have little to no connection to the day-to-day work of educating undergraduates in basic skills. Either the people arguing for this are journalists and pundits who have never educated, or they are deans and administrators who haven’t taught undergrads in 20 years, or they are celebrity intellectuals who barely teach and when they do, teach at elite institutions where only the most equipped to succeed are present. The greatest division in educational discourse today is not best understood as progressive vs. neoliberal or something similar. The greatest division, at all levels of education, is between those in the world of media and policy who assert that we have the ability to make miracles happen, and the educators who are actually out there, day-to-day, trying to get students to standards those students cannot meet. We can begin to let our policy discussions reflect on what’s actually happening in our actual schools, or we can continue to engage in pleasant fantasy. We can build a vast edifice of online higher education where, as happens with for-profit online schools now, we all agree to juke the stats, grading and graduating students who lack even basic skills, and degrading the very notion of higher education. That’s an option.
The other option is far more direct, has a far better history, and a far better moral outcome: give people money. Redistribute. Institute some sort of guaranteed minimum income. Unlike large-scale educational reform, giving people money has a great track record for changing their material conditions. Social Security is one of the most wildly successful anti-poverty programs in history. They just cut checks. Extend those benefits to all Americans, paid for through steeply progressive tax rates, and eliminate the massive bureaucracy through which we now deliver our arbitrary and inadequate safety net. The positive effects on educational outcomes are likely to be massive. Freed from the need to secure their immediate material survival, many people will choose to go to school for subjects that they actually want to study. Many others will opt not to go to college, rather than pursuing a degree despite a lack of interest and prerequisite skills, which will be better for them and better for the colleges. I think a guaranteed minimum income would result in an incredible flowering of human productivity, and incidentally a great outburst in small businesses, which should make conservatives happy. But even if the results are more modest, they will be far better at eliminating poverty and human misery than hoping against experience that we can give everyone a quality college education, and that such an education would be a ticket to the good life.
I am a socialist precisely because I know that, whatever the causes, human beings end up substantially different in their abilities, and good people are denied access to a good life because what they are good at is not what the labor market wants to pay for. I believe in equality of human value, but I do not believe in equality of human ability. So I want to force a minimal level of equality in material security and comfort with a simple mechanism that works.
There’s a chance. I’m pessimistic. There’s too much money in the other vision, too many profiteers and too many people making careers as iconoclasts, selling unproven, fanciful visions of the next stage of our economy. We are likely to institute this plan or something like it, and then watch as it fails, and then resist, resist, resist the reality that it’s not working, until finally it’s become too obvious to ignore. Then, maybe, we’ll get real about redistribution. The question is, how much preventable failure and unhappiness will we generate in the meantime?