The CLA+ and the Two Cultures: Writing Assessment and Educational Testing

Whenever I start a sentence “My dissertation…,” at least when speaking to a non-academic, I smile a little inside. It makes me think I’m in an episode of 30 Rock. I guess it’s just that I’ve absorbed the ambient cultural  critique that grad students are inherently ridiculous. Like a lot of grads I have a kind of built-in presumption of other people’s antipathy towards what I do. It’s self-defense. Well: I’ll still risk saying that my dissertation is finished, it’s been in the hands of my committee for the last 10 days or so, and I think it’s good. I’m happy with it and I think it talks about important stuff and that it was worth doing.

That’s not universally true. A lot of people find their dissertations are compromised documents, whether because of a lack of resources (such as inadequate sample size) or institutional constraints or disagreements with their advisors or just because it doesn’t turn out the way they thought it would. I know someone who had more than half of her sample drop out over the course of her research, for example. So I feel particularly fortunate that I’ve ended up with a couple hundred pages that I think represents high-quality work about issues that are of pressing importance in our society. And while researching and writing it was often draining and frustrating, and there were several times when I thought I would simply not be able to complete the necessary research, it was also one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. It ate all my time and kept me from a hundred different other projects, but then it’s supposed to; it’s supposed to be an obsession, after all. That enables a kind of deep dive that is very rare for most adults. For example, at one point I literally read six volumes of Eisenhower-era educational reports. It was boring, sure, but it was also great to dive in that way. If you aren’t wired that way (and it’s healthier if you aren’t), that might not make sense to you, but for someone like me it’s a joy.

When I started out, I wasn’t sure that this was a book-type project. The hyper-localism of my original research seemed to limit the audience. But I’ve been encouraged by faculty, who feel strongly that the text has great relevance to other institutions, and the way that the conflict between the Mitch Daniels administration and the faculty over the test played out makes it a very useful lens through which to consider neoliberal higher education reform. As a book, I’d love to make the text more political, to pull in more questions about the future of higher ed in general, and also to make a more direct, critical response to Academically Adrift, which used the CLA as its empirical mechanism and which is rife with methodological and theoretical flaws. Ideally I’d like to make the book an academic-popular hybrid. Once I’m done with revisions and have deposited the dissertation with my institution, I’ll start talking to faculty about potential publishers and writing up a proposal.

Below you’ll find a little information about my project. I don’t blame you if you’re not interested! I defend today at noon.


My dissertation is titled The CLA+ and the Two Cultures: Writing Assessment and Educational Testing. It concerns a standardized test of college learning, the Collegiate Learning Assessment+, and its proposed implementation here at Purdue University. I locate the current higher education assessment movement in a historical context of a perpetual crisis narrative concerning our colleges and universities, demonstrating that the notion of a crisis is adapted to fit contemporary national concerns. So in the Truman era, it’s educating millions of soldiers returning home from war; in the Eisenhower admin, it’s the Red Scare; then the space race; economic competition from Japan and West Germany; in the Reagan era, perceived moral decline; and so on. Crisis becomes the justification for enacting controversial changes. The higher education assessment movement has culminated in the Obama administration’s proposal to generate college rankings based on “value” and to tie those rankings to availability of federal aid, a threat that even the most deep-pocketed colleges can’t afford to ignore.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment+ is one of several tests that is currently competing to become the primary instrument in the creation of such rankings. The CLA+ is a product of the Council for Aid to Education, a New York-based nonprofit that has traditionally researched philanthropic giving to higher education. I will say up front that, though I am skeptical of this type of instrument for reasons I will discuss, I believe that the CAE are the good guys in the educational testing industry. People like Richard Shavelson, Steve Klein, and Roger Benjamin are genuinely committed to improving college education, and while I think they are sometimes misguided in that pursuit, I think their dedication is genuine. That is not always true of people within the educational testing industry, which is big business.

The CLA+ is made up of two major parts, the Performance Task, which is the larger portion of the test and student scores, and the Selected Response section. The Performance Task is a written response by students that places them in a scenario, provides them with several different types of information, and asks them to reach and explain a decision using several different types of evidence. The test is rated by CAE personnel that use a rubric concerning Analysis and Problem Solving, Writing Mechanics, and Writing Effectiveness. The Selected Response, meanwhile, is a fairly conventional set of multiple choice questions concerning critical reading and argument critique. A model Performance Task prompt is below; you can peruse an entire practice test here (PDF).

Performance Task

Like all tests, the CLA+ has its strengths and weaknesses. I find the Performance Task to be a novel and intelligent means to test how different student abilities work together in concert. The CLA+ uses a criterion sampling approach that intends to examine student abilities in concert, as the CAE argues that student abilities cannot be meaningfully de-aggregated into constituent elements. (How that comports with the various divisions in their rubrics is unclear.) I am also pleased that the test evaluates student writing itself. But there are major challenges to this type of test. Typical concerns of scaling, ceiling effects, attrition, natural maturation, and so on apply. No challenge is deeper than the issue of student motivation.

Consider a test like the SAT. Whatever criticisms of the test we might have, we can say with great confidence that most students who take it apply their best effort. They do because they have intrinsic motivation to do so; they want to get into the best possible college. The problem with a great deal of educational testing, and particularly collegiate testing, is that students have no such intrinsic motivation to do their best work. You can (and have to) provide incentives for the students to show up and take the test, typically things like low-value gift cards or discounts on graduation regalia, but this does not ensure that students will work hard. Empirical research demonstrates the threat that this poses to the validity of these tests. A major 2012 study found that students who were told their test results were high-stakes and would follow them in their later lives significantly and consistently outperformed students who were not. Differences in motivation therefore present a serious confound for interpreting these results. Other research (PDF) indicates that time on task, a crude but effective proxy for motivation, has a significant impact on student scores, with many students using far less than the maximum time allotted. That is particularly concerning given that the CLA+ is intended to demonstrate “value added” through a test-retest mechanism, and we can conjecture that graduating seniors will be even less motivated to apply their best effort than incoming freshmen. Even Benjamin, the president of the CAE, has admitted that this motivation issue is a major challenge to the validity of these instruments.

These types of challenges are part of what has been at issue in a major conflict between the faculty of Purdue University, my institution, and Mitch Daniels, former Republican governor of Indiana, presidential candidate, and current university president. Daniels has been controversial from the start of his presidency, as is perhaps to be expected with a lifelong politician with essentially no academic expertise or experience. Daniels’s selection by the Board of Trustees — many of whom he nominated himself when serving as governor — was seen by many as part of an ongoing  corporate takeover of the American university. Controversies like the Howard Zinn debacle haven’t helped. Still, there have been aspects of the Daniels presidency worth praising. For example, his efforts to freeze tuition are abundantly necessary in an era of exploding student loan debt, and his work to consolidate various administrative functions and in doing so reduce payroll are a necessary element of stopping the rampant rise of administrative bloat in higher education. And while I disagree with Daniels about many aspects of education, I do believe that his efforts to enact assessment at the university stem from a genuine belief that  doing so is in the best interest of our students.

How to assess, however, is the question, and that is the issue that has caused a long-simmering conflict between the faculty and Daniels to turn into a boil. That conflict is laid out here in this story from our local newspaper. At issue is not just the specifics of the assessment effort but the notion of faculty control of curriculum and, in the larger sense, of the university. The administrative wrangling of the implementation of the CLA+ or a test like it is the focus of my original research. For the past year, I have investigated what’s been going on at the university, what the fight is about, what the sides are, what the stakes are, and what it all says about the future of the American university. I’ve conducted interviews and collected texts and assembled information, working more as a journalist than as a typical academic researcher. I’ve gone through it all because I feel strongly that the  research of higher education is far too biased towards the bird’s eye view, with many books and articles concerning policy decisions made at 10,000 feet but far too little examining how these changes actually occur in real, local institutions. I wanted to know: what’s the distance between the rhetoric at the top and the reality in the local world?

It’s been a remarkable investigation, and a remarkably frustrating one. That’s because I’ve been met with a great deal of avoidance and obstruction. Though I talked with dozens of people in the university community casually, only a small handful consented to undertaking a formal interview with me, with a couple others agreeing to discuss with me only under the condition of anonymity. (I admit that it’s something of a thrill to write a dissertation that include phrases like “a senior administrator said under the condition of anonymity…”.) While I was able to assemble all of the information I needed, and in fact gained access to a great deal of material that was initially confidential, I was repeatedly frustrated by my inability to get people to talk to me. Both those on the administrative side and the faculty side seemed to find little reward and potential risk in speaking to a researcher like me. For example, despite repeated requests, the only direct communication I ever received from Daniels came in the form of a brief email. This is one of the more important findings of my dissertation: that while these assessment efforts are represented as matters of accountability, they lack transparency, making those claims somewhat toothless. This isn’t just true of institutions like Purdue, but of test developers like the CAE, which jealously guard the secrets of their tests and prevent us from taking a real, close, independent look at their mechanisms. How can we trust that their tests do what they say they do when they  constantly cry “test security” or “industry secrets” when we ask to look under the hood?

I am happy with the history that I’ve assembled, but in my research — much of which I have recently  deleted, out of a somewhat paranoid fear that I will be compelled to reveal it — there is a much deeper, more inflammatory story. Due to reasons of ethics and institutional policy, I am not able to reveal some of the things that I learned in the course of my research from interested parties who were willing to share information with me but never to go on the record. For example, faculty members and administrators alike shared private memorandums and emails with me, some of which contained frank language that would be quite embarrassing to those involved if made public. I have no interest in causing such embarrassment. I do wish that more people involved had been willing to let me go on the record, as the distance between the carefully managed outward formality common to institutions of higher learning and the private communications about the same says a lot about institutional culture.

The ultimate decision about the assessment effort at Purdue has been delayed, but there is no doubt that assessment is coming, both to Purdue and to many other institutions of higher education. How we assess, and how assessment drives institutional and pedagogical change, is the key question. I’m often asked if I’m pro or anti the CLA+; many people, meanwhile, assume that I am blanket opposed to such instruments, given my thoughts on ed reform writ large. That’s not the case. The real answer is, it depends. It depends on how the test is interpreted. If it is viewed with appropriate skepticism, if it guides decisions that are institutional rather than individual, if it is taken as one piece of much more varied ways to assess how well we are doing, such as the Purdue – Gallup Index, then I’m fine with the test. Whatever else is true, there is little question that it is perfectly legitimate to ask how well we are doing and how much our students are learning. The problem is that too often these conversations devolve into  misleading, reductive, and politically-motivated arguments like that of Academically Adrift. Compared to some other tests, I find the CLA+ a useful instrument and its developers principled. The implementation is all.

Writing studies is particularly vulnerable in this conversation. For a long time, writing studies featured a robust wing of empirical research, alongside its theoretical, political, pedagogical, and aesthetic work. My paternal grandfather was a member of the field, or of the proto-field, and he published a great deal of empirical research alongside more traditional English scholarship. But that wing of writing studies has shrunk considerably, largely due to the “social turn” of the 1990s, in which scholars like Carl Herndl, Elizabeth Flynn, and James Berlin argued against empiricism as inherently masculinist, hegemonic, or similar. Empirical research examining the contents of our biggest journals and the programs of our largest conferences has demonstrated that the field has largely abandoned empiricism, and along with it the specific focus on student writing and writing pedagogy that is our traditional purview. We instead publish a tremendous amount of work on cultural studies, pop culture, digital theories, and multimodality, leaving traditional writing pedagogy and empirical investigations of the same to marginal status. I have written a great deal about this recently.

I am part of a movement within the field to return to more empirical work (whether qualitative or quantitative) and to more writing pedagogy in the traditional sense of prose, of putting words into order in a way to  satisfy one’s communicative and argumentative needs. The CLA+ and tests like it are part of the reason why. What my research has demonstrated to me is that we are totally marginal in these processes. We do not  contribute meaningfully  to these debates, largely because so many of us refuse to engage in the discourse of empiricism. While I lament the ways in which empiricism is defined reductively or simplistically, and I wish that there was more room for traditional humanistic ways of meaning in policy debates, the fact is that the discourse of the social sciences is privileged in that environment. We have used that discourse in the past, and we can again. Doing so does not mean abandoning our values or our political commitments. It means instead utilizing our best rhetoric, matching our discourse to our context in order to defend our institutional autonomy and integrity. I firmly, firmly believe that we can engage in policy conversations, using the language and assumptions of the social sciences and empiricism, in a way that ultimately strengthens our discipline and protects other types of work. But we must be willing to pull our heads out of the sand and to see the reality around us.

The two cultures named in my title are the cultures of writing assessment and educational testing, traditionally divided by these epistemological, political, and theoretical worldviews. I do not believe that we must surrender to the educational testing industry. Instead, I believe that we can, and must, adapt our research to make it a more effective check on that industry, to meet empiricism with better empiricism, and to refuse to cede that ground to for-profit entities. If we do that, we can operate more effectively both within our institutions and in the national policy conversation. The humanities can, in fact, be defended. The doors are not  completely closed to us. But if we self-marginalized, we will certainly be silenced.

The higher education assessment movement might peter out. Such policy initiatives have a way of being enormously important and then suddenly forgotten. But the broader questions of who owns the university, how we can save it from itself, and what the future holds will not go away. This dissertation has been an attempt to write my own  little chapter in that long book, and I’m so happy to have written it, and if you’ll forgive me, to have written it well.


A chapter-by-chapter breakdown and the Table of Contents are printed below.

Chapter One provides an overview of my study and establishes exigency for this project by placing it into a socioeconomic and political context. By situating my project within Purdue University, writing studies, and higher education, I argue that college educators must study tests like the CLA+ in order to respond to the unique challenges and opportunities such tests represent.

Chapter Two provides an in-depth history of the higher education assessment movement. I place the recent push for standardized assessment of higher education in a historical framework, explaining the recent and historical policy initiatives that have led us to this current moment. I describe how a crisis narrative has taken root in the public conception of higher education, and demonstrate that from era to era, the crisis narrative is perpetuated to meet particular political needs. I demonstrate how recent changes to the American economy  contribute to both this narrative and the perceived need for standardized assessment of college learning.

Chapter Three considers the CLA+ in great depth, discussing its history, its assessment mechanisms, its competitors and analogs, and the extant empirical research conducted using it. I consider the test’s context among other tests of secondary and post-secondary education, consider the strengths and weaknesses of its approaches to assessment, and discuss the policies and procedures that its developer enacts around its implementation. I discuss possible challenges to the validity and reliability of the instrument and the ways in which the test attempts to measure “value added.”

Chapter Four uses the CLA+ and higher education assessment movement to consider the traditional cultural and epistemological divide between the field of writing studies and the field of educational testing. I provide a brief history of practitioner writing assessment, and describe the differences in how writing instructors and researchers have typically cast concepts such as validity and reliability when compared to the educational testing community. I investigate the traditional sources of this cultural divide, and detail some of the consequences, particularly in terms of the (in)ability of writing studies to influence policy arguments. I ultimately argue that the true conflict is within writing studies, regarding its long turmoil about the appropriate place of epistemology in the discipline.

Chapter Five develops a local history of the assessment effort at Purdue University, detailing the rise of the Mitch Daniels administration and its extensive controversies. I examine the selection of Daniels as Purdue president, his many reforms on campus, and the development of what would become the CLA+ assessment effort. I interview multiple stakeholders and detail various perspectives from faculty, administrators, and other Purdue community members. I present information about the piloting efforts undertaken by the Office of Institutional Assessment as part of the assessment effort. I discuss the conflict that arose between the faculty senate and the Daniels administration over the test, and what that conflict says about higher education assessment writ large.

Chapter Six concludes the dissertation and presents my perspective on the various issues contained within it. I discuss the dangers that the current state of higher education presents to writing studies, the humanities, and the American university system itself. I claim that the lack of transparency in the development and implementation of standardized assessments undermines claims that these are accountability systems and reduce public information about high-stakes, high-expenditure systems within  education. I argue that scholars in writing studies must become more conversant in the techniques of empiricism, social science, statistics, and educational testing, in order to defend our traditional values and institutional autonomy, in a hostile political and policy environment.



A Growing Movement for Change
The Assessment Mandate
The Role of Writing
Understanding the Present, Facing the Future
Statement of the Problem
Data & Methods
Chapter Summaries


Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy: Three Reports
A Nation at Risk
Response From Accreditation Agencies
The Spellings Commission
The Obama Administration


Early Precursors
The Old Standards: The GRE and Similar Entrance Exams
The Council for Aid to Education
The Collegiate Learning Assessment
The Performance Task
The Analytic Writing Section
From CLA to CLA+
Criterion Sampling and Psychometric Assessment
The CLA and the SAT: Is Another Test Necessary?
The Slippery Measurement of Value Added
Future Directions


A Brief History of Practitioner Writing Assessment
Sources of Friction
The Higher Education Assessment Movement and the Two Cultures
The Contested Role of Quantification in Writing Studies
The Road Ahead: Reasons for Optimism?


Local Contexts
Previous Assessment: Accreditation
A Controversial Catalyst: the Administration of Mitch Daniels
Perceived Needs and the Foundations of Excellence Plan
Identified Issue: Administrative Redundancy
Identified Issue: A Campus Divided
An Early Reform: the Core Curriculum
The Initial Assessment Push
The Roots of Conflict
Initial Results
Internal Skepticism
Faculty Resistance
Was the CLA+ Preordained?
Buying Time
The Road Ahead

Some Form of Assessment is Likely Inevitable
Critical Thinking Measures are Inadequate
Accountability Cuts Both Ways
Writing Studies Must Adapt to Thrive




bankrupt on selling

I’ve never thought of myself as a creative writer; I’ve always assumed that I wouldn’t have the talent for it, if I ever tried. But I do envy creative  writers in the simple sense that they have much less pressure to make everything explicit. I am bored to tears of other people’s explanations and even more bored of having to explain myself.

I don’t pretend that my frustration is just a facet of some grander evolution in whatever we call all this. I’m sure 90% of it is idiosyncrasy. But I do suspect that the current moment in people throwing opinions at each other is uniquely hostile to any point of view that does not come with instructions. We’ve taken deliberate misreading to a level of art undreamed of by the ancients, and the penalty is death in a world where shame has become a quality of such ubiquitous and stale ambiance that people seem as resigned to it as humidity. And  forgive me, I know that these narratives are always wrong, but it does seem like there’s more proud stupidity online than ever before. I know that one of the fundamental functions of broadband is to tap directly into a vein of “WELL ACTUALLY”s in general, but now half of them are just restating exactly what I just said. It is incredible how you can say “X and Y and also Z,” and have some aggressive idiot pop up to saying “WELL ACTUALLY, also Z, if you would just do some deeper research and consider it from the perspective of….” Nobody reads anything. Nobody.

But even aside from direct, basic misreading or failure to read there’s just an increasing demand that you explain every little morsel. I feel like a sommelier– “this metaphor has an oaky flavor, not too dry, pairs well with a thinkpiece about hot takes.” I hate how explicit everything I write these days is. It’s self-defense but it’s also customer service. What do you mean by this, what’s the connection here, WHERE’S THE LINK?!? I like allusive writing. I like disconnected writing. I like having to pedal for myself. And yet I feel increasingly hectored to write it in precisely the way that I would enjoy reading least. I don’t know when the expectation became that every potential reader is a simpleton but it’s tiring and insulting, particularly to the people who ask the loudest. I want to say “even the people who like me best,” but honestly it’s more like especially than even.

If I make a reference now, I fear that I have to make some sort of nod, to include a decoder ring, or be accused of plagiarism. It’s that exhausting. At this point I hate the word “citation.”

I’m more and more inclined to just tell people to do their own homework. I am not in the explainer business. The point of the question “you dig?” is first to signal that it does take real effort and second that it’s your job. You have to dig it out. If that’s not interesting to you, that’s fine; know that I’m even less interested in explaining to you than you are in working to understand me. There’s a whole world of writing out there that flatters you by assuming your fundamental idiocy. Read that, or read the other stuff, the disinterested, uncaring stuff that has no particular desire to be understood. Forget about me, in particular; just look for people who respect you enough to know that you can operate on your own. Do your homework. Wander around. Maybe we can reverse this growing editorial culture that mistakes incompleteness for failure. The writer writes the contract but the reader signs it. Sign or don’t, I don’t care anymore.

I am so bored, so hungry for the new. I wish some weird looking animal would come along.

young and free

When my father got sick, the insurance company sent him to Los Angeles. He was on the organ donor list and I guess the hospital there was better, or cheaper, even though living in Connecticut, we didn’t suffer for world-class hospitals. Like so much of life as a teenager, that decision seemed bewildering at the time; “why is this happening, right now?” was for me the constant refrain of my teenaged years, the feeling that life was directed by a series of remote and inscrutable decisions. But I suppose there was something comforting in the decision, too. To send him to the other side of the country meant that there had to be a good reason, that the place they were sending him to had to be a better place for him to get healthy. Surely Los Angeles was a place where people went to get well. I remember standing outside of Cedars-Sinai on a visit to see him and thinking, at the time, that no human beings could possibly die in such a vast, vastly expensive hospital. But it turns out that they do.

I was never there for long. My family, such as it was, was mostly heading to California – my father, sick and weak and as vast as ever; his wife, who I did not talk to then and will not talk about now; her children; and my younger brother, 12. My older sister was safely away at college. My older brother and I, though. For us, the timing was bad. 15 years old, I was about to start my sophomore year of high school, he at 17, his senior year. We had classes to take and credits to earn and college resumes to build. And for me, the transition from junior high to high school was a change from loneliness and misery to, eventually, social acceptance and friendship. This was not an ideal time to pack up and leave for the west coast. So we didn’t.

My father let us stay, at home. He gave my older brother an ATM card and the keys to the Mercury Sable. We stayed for most of that school year, alone, in the home he had bought to house our blended family, though the blending was and would remain aspirational more than actual. A couple adult friends of the family were told to keep an eye out and check in on us every once in awhile. Our life alone was probably illegal and technically a secret, but not one we much bothered to keep. We didn’t go telling any guidance counselors or principals, but our friends knew and I suspect some of our teachers knew too. They left it alone. There can be kindness in neglect.

My father knew we could handle it. His parenting style was built on the premise that freedom is a powerful teacher. We were allowed to watch any movie or show, read any book. We made most of our own decisions. Like a lot of kids in the 80s, we were free range. We had a beautiful little white house, surrounded by trees, fields, and a public housing project. We would wander for hours. The father of a friend of ours tells the story of the time he came to pick up his son, so my father simply stepped outside and shouted our names at the top of his lungs. We ran scampering back from deep in the woods. That was how it was. And sometimes it hurt; sometimes watching any movie meant lying awake at night, terrified. Sometimes running through the woods meant sprained ankles and bee stings. But if that made the world more painful, it also made it less scary. It taught us how to explore and how to play and how to fill time, and it also taught us how to be on our own. His choosing to let us be on our own helped prepare us for a time when being on our own was not a choice.


Nowadays,  that kind of parenting can get you thrown in jail. It seems like every day, there’s some news story about parents getting arrested for letting their children play alone in the park, or walk to school by themselves, or otherwise occupy any time free from the immediate anxious gaze of an adult. It’s as though we made a decision to fundamentally change our legal and cultural expectations about parenting, while no one was looking, and to enforce it with the power of the state. This panicky intrusion into parental rights does not exist in a vacuum, but rather reflects a broad cultural embrace of overparenting, the presumption that more parenting is always better and that a child left alone is a child waiting to be victimized.

The defense of this kind of aggressive enforcement of overparenting norms is as obvious as it is wrong: the notion that we live in a new world, a fallen world, one which is filled with far more dangers for children than the one I grew up in during the 80s and 90s. This notion is simply, factually false. As with all violent crime, violent crime against children has declined precipitously in the last several decades. The Crimes Against Children Research Center reports that in the period from 1990 to 2007, child sexual abuse declined 53%, physical abuse 52%, aggravated assault 69%, simple assault 59%, on and on. (Now, as in the past, children face vastly greater threat from their own parents than they do from strangers.) Add to this reduction in violent crime the remarkable advances in medical care of the last several decades, and across all causes, the mortality rate for American children dropped from over 140 out of every 100,000 in 1935 to under 30 by 2007. American children are safer now than they have ever been.

But the presumption of the imminent dangers of youth is not built on facts. Such feelings emerge from animal spirits, cultural drift, and vague convictions about the state of the world that are usually wrong. Those forces now compel many among us to imagine the duty of a parent as akin to that of a smiling, benevolent prison guard, and they are prepared to enforce that notion.


The sad reality, for those who would keep their children on a leash and punish those who refuse to do the same, is that my younger brother, the one who lived in LA, with his father, with his family – he had it worse than my older brother and me. It’s true that my older brother and I were 2,886 miles from our surviving parent. It’s true that we lacked for guidance and support. It’s true we were alone. But my younger brother was also alone, in a different way, and friendless in a strange school in a strange city, at a time in life where kids are cruel even to those they’ve known their whole lives. That is not my story to tell. But I assure you: proximity and watchfulness were for him no balm. Your children can suffer while they are clutching your hand.

And that’s the real sob story: all of us are beyond saving. You can ward off a host of threats, petty and large, but in the end, your children will learn the meaning of human devastation. Anxious parents and those who aggressively enforce a culture of constant supervision are wrong in both ways at once. They overestimate the physical dangers they imagine, the boogeymen they believe hide in every alleyway, eager to drag children away. And at the same time, they underestimate the inevitability of pain, mistaking constant watchfulness for a panacea against the world’s ills. Loneliness, heartbreak, disease, disillusionment, the simple brute reality that you don’t get what you want in life – each will come to your children in turn, and if you raise them under glass, they will not be equipped to confront the world as it is.

My brother and I were on our own, in all the good and bad senses. It was a strange, exhilarating time, and it ended suddenly and with finality. Freedom had its virtues and its price. What we could not know, and what the culture of endless supervision cannot comprehend, was that the hardest times were yet to come, and would have come no matter how closely we were watched. Better, then, that we had for awhile a parent who recognized the inescapable brokenness of this harsh world, and let us come to know it too.

this, again

Allow me to reiterate.

Awhile back, Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece echoing the widespread claim that anti-Semitism is rising in Europe. That piece was bad. It was bad in large measure because it made large claims with little evidence. Worse, it almost entirely walked back its own claims in the last paragraph, admitting “The degree of danger that Jews in Europe actually face is beyond my knowledge.” In other words, “I don’t actually know anything about the inflammatory claim I just spent hundreds of words making.” I found this professionally sloppy, as well as dangerous: claims of rising anti-Semitism in Europe are constantly invoked as justification for harsh reprisals on Europe’s Muslim population, an overwhelmingly poor, politically powerless group of immigrants who are so hated that their mere existence has fueled the rise of ultra-right parties. Friedersdorf knew that; he wrote it anyway. And in that, I also saw another phenomenon, which is people at his publication trading on its almost impossible level of pomposity to throw lazy work out there and expect it not to matter. What’s more, because so many people feel so intimidated by the accusations of anti-Semitism that flow like water on the internet, I’m sure Friedersdorf knew he stood little chance of getting any push back. So far all of these reasons, I dinged his essay.

That’s what I did: I made fun of an essay because I thought it was bad. That brief post of mine wasn’t, and couldn’t be construed as, my take on anti-Semitism in Europe in general. Both before and after that post, I’ve written thousands of words on the subject, after all. Anyone who really wants to know what I think about that subject could just check those out– if they’re honest, I mean. If they care about what I actually think. As it happens, my basic point remains the same: that the fact that people constantly assert that anti-Semitism is rising without evidence, indeed without even betraying the presumption that they are required to marshal evidence at support that claim at all, in the long run does no favors to the fight against anti-Semitism. And as the endless throngs of commenters who show up at The Atlantic to call for a war on Islam to save civilization show, this conversation has teeth. So let’s wage that conversation well, and let’s take care with our claims, and let’s not walk back some of the most inflammatory accusations you can make near the end. Because I take the question seriously.

The internet is hung with writers who are desperately trying to make it. That is the way of things and it has been for as long as I’ve been online. These are the people who send you emails asking you to guest blog on your site, the ones who tag 50 people on Facebook, the ones whose Twitter feeds are little more than constant blasts of grubby self-promotion. I don’t mean to mock; the economics of online writing are brutal and life is not a meritocracy and talented people struggle all the time. There are very good writers out there who are struggling to make it. John-Paul Pagano is not one of them. He marries professional incompetence to professional failure in a way that makes you want to believe in the perfection of the market and bootstraps and just deserts. He hasn’t caught on because his writing is somehow simultaneously sophomoric and pretentious, clearly the product of desperate effort and yet often barely coherent, and more than anything, serially dishonest.

But he has one thing going for him: shamelessness. That is a talent that will take you a long way. Why, just look at this hot little opinion, published the day after Sandy Hook, and see a man who wants you, so desperately, to know who he is, to care. Look at a man stand on a pile of dead children, waving his arms like a lunatic, just so you’ll please please notice him.


That’s John Pagano. And since there are publications out there that match this level of shamelessness– publications like Tablet– he may just have a bright future ahead of him.

Jamie Kirchick is the more successful iteration of Pagano. He, too, is someone whose writing talents are incapable of rendering his constant accusations particularly readable, but then his writing talents are almost entirely incidental to his writing career. Kirchick is a propagandist for empire, someone who never met a war he didn’t like, the kind of guy who writes notes on the movements of Muslims he sees at the airport, a professional proponent of  xenophobia who would like very much for you to be afraid of the world around you and all of its shiftless brown people. Kirchick, whose sweaty, desperate bigotries could power a city, has been busily signal-boosting Pagano’s sketchy attempt at a takedown. Not because he believes it’s particularly accurate; I don’t think Kirchick is unintelligent, just professionally motivated to see every weak attempt at character assassination of this type as worthy of championing, even when it busily avoids referring to the actual words that spell out the actual opinion of the actual person it’s intending to slander. Kirchick thinks thinks of himself as a man with a cause, although to all outside parties, he appears to be only a man with a career. At that career, he’s very successful.

I am still writing about Pagano’s profoundly motivated reading and sad attempt at polemic because, as he and Tablet’s editors knew when they pushed that piece onto the internet like parents sending their kid out to intentionally infect other children with chicken pox, the fairness of its representation of my actual views is totally irrelevant to its reception. Pagano didn’t link to or quote my ample writing on the question at hand because he never had any intention of representing what I actually thought about the subject at hand. Tablet certainly doesn’t care about whether what it publishes is honest, as long as it is in the service of the website’s rapidly-congealing conservative political agenda. WordPress tells me how many people click over from a site that links here. Anyone could check the actual post I wrote and realize that it is not about European anti-Semitism but about a bad essay published in a national publication. But almost no one has actually come over from Tablet; they can’t. There’s no link.

Let this fact wash over you: the post of mine that Pagano is reacting against is not linked to in his essay. Tablet employs editors; it’s ostensibly a professional enterprise. This is the behavior of children.

If you care about whether I am or am not an anti-Semite– if you actually think that such accusations should depend on their accuracy; if you think that anti-Semitism is actual serious business, not a playground insult to be thrown around casually and without consideration; if you’d care to be honest– you can peruse this website and read my own words. You can’t do that at Tablet; Pagano quoted almost none of them. He had business to get to and a career to build, a propaganda outfit willing to help him do so to advance its political agenda, and champions like Kirchick who have images to maintain. That’s how their little cottage industry keeps on puttering along. That’s how they take a sin they say they hate and trivialize it, making accusations of it so ubiquitous as to dull their force, packaging and repackaging it like breakfast cereal, never noticing or caring that in doing so, they make it harder to confront the real thing. I hardly figure in that awful work. My own words barely register in their accusations because I am just a convenient pit stop; they all have other places to get to.

true vs good, again

As time goes on, I’m more and more convinced that the fundamental contemporary political failing is the inability or the refusal to sort “this is true” statements from “this is good” statements.

So check out this piece in Gawker by Donovan X. Ramsey, titled “White America’s Silence on Police Brutality Is Consent.” It makes a moral argument that begs a political argument, but can’t bring itself to make that political argument. Ramsey lays out an indictment of white America for its silence on the continuing war against black America by the police. Although I agree with some of this commenter’s critique about how Ramsey is representing the polling, I don’t  generally disagree with Ramsey much at all descriptively: this is a country of hideous racial inequality, particularly when it comes to police violence, and while I believe most white Americans are consciously opposed to racial inequality, their failure to actively work to end it amounts to tacit support. I’m on board, there.

But where is the prescriptive element? I mean, I get that Ramsey wants white Americans to rise up and work to fix things. But how does he propose that we actually inspire them to do so? Sure, it should be enough to show them the reality to provoke them to fight for change. But should is a word of remarkably little relevance in the real world. 50 years after the most important Civil Rights legislation, it seems obvious that just pointing out that our society is unjust is not enough to provoke the white majority to create change.

In other words, the piece recounts in exacting detail a political problem but does nothing to establish a political solution. It begs for a next step– “here’s what I would do to convince white Americans to get on board with a political movement against racial inequality”– that it never takes. And in not taking that next step, it falls perfectly into line with the general, bizarre trend, the trend to say “it’s not the job of oppressed people to educate you.” Really? Then whose job, exactly, is it? I hear that all the time, and I find it such a bizarre attitude for self-described activists to take. To call yourself an activist is precisely to say “It is my job to educate you.” Change is active by its nature. The status quo doesn’t need activists. Change requires that you make it your job. So where’s the political strategy? I don’t pretend that it would be obvious or easy– in fact I think it’ll be incredibly hard– but, well, 200 years ago you could buy people, and the ability to do so was deeply embedded in the economy. Things can change, but you’ve got to make them happen and you have to motivate people who aren’t inherently predisposed to be motivated in order to do so. That’s me making a “this is true” statement, not a “this is good” statement.

It’s ugly that positive political change so often involves having to motivate precisely the people who you see as responsible for the problem. But life’s ugly. The world’s a broken place.

There is no plausible scenario in which racial inequality is ended in this country without the support of the white majority, a majority that is likely to endure for quite some time, despite what you might have heard. So what do you want to do? If people have alternative possibilities, I’m all ears. Seriously. Drop me an email. But from my vantage, I just don’t see how change is going to come without making much better progress with convincing white people to care about black lives, and I don’t think that the current rhetoric of most left-wing race politics is oriented towards convincing them. I see a lot of pieces like Ramsey’s: long on “these people are bad,” short on “here’s how to make them good.” I don’t think that’s working, and I don’t think saying so makes me a bad ally.

Success Academy Charter Schools will never, ever scale

I will leave to others the task of debating the actual educational conditions of Success Academy Charter Schools, as discussed in this deep, disturbing profile in the New York Times. I will further let others debate the actual meaning of standardized testing and the paucity of evidence that constant testing actually generates superior educational outcomes. I merely will say this: even if you believe that this is a model of education that should be replicated on a larger scale, the fact is that this it can’t be replicated on a larger scale, and will not be, ever.

In recent years, many reform types have started to walk back their previous, absurd goals for massive, short-term, nationwide educational improvements across demographics and cohorts. No Child Left Behind was merely the sharp policy edge of a wildly unrealistic set of expectations from reform types. It is worth saying that no previous attempt to achieve educational gains of such size and universality as dictated by NCLB have ever before been attempted in the history of education, let alone achieved. Now, reformers are faced with decades of false promises and few gains, typically relegated to sui generis institutions that have the benefit of massive effort, sky-high teacher turnover, unusual attention from policymakers, and sponsorship from deep-pocketed institutions and individuals. Little wonder, therefore, that ed reformers who once shouted “No excuses!” are now more likely to grumble about marginal gains.

Success Academy is the kind of institution that keeps their transformative dander up. It’s also an object lesson in how the only truly important questions in school reform concern replicability and scale. Success Academy is part of an evolution in typical ed reform practices. Rather than developing some new base of charter-specific professional teachers, these schools now often feature a teaching class that is essentially Teach for America in all but name. That is, they are frequently staffed in large part by affluent graduates of elite private colleges who come with the specific intent of only teaching for a few years for the benefit of their resumes and for cocktail party righteousness, with the intention of eventually bolting for more lucrative, less emotionally-draining work. That condition can be seen in this article in the sky-high turnover rates at these schools. Teacher turnover is huge in this country in general, reflecting the profession’s relatively low pay, high stress, and long off-the-books hours. Little wonder that it is frequently higher in contexts like this, with the constant grinding surveillance, absence of emotional and social protection of fragile young children, and corporate philosophy of harsh punishment for failing to achieve “success.”

But it is possible in the relatively small number of Success Academy schools — in New York. Because New York is the destination for precisely the type of young overachievers that these schools churn through. Because New York is a place full of desperate people looking to latch on at all costs. Because New York offers vast cultural and social riches to balance the long hours and brutal evaluations. Because New York offers many aspirational economies for these young teachers to dream of eventually entering, once they have had their fill of playing drill sergeant to poor brown children. Now: recall that, in order to achieve the kind of change that ed reformers say they want, this system will have to be scaled up to the tune of thousands upon thousands of schools, and hundreds of thousands of teachers, almost half of whom we can assume will follow the general trend and drop out of the teaching profession within five years. Does this sound like a plan, to you?

If you’re a reform type and you read about Success Academy Charter Schools and their success, as defined by rigid metrics of standardized testing, and you set aside concerns about the emotional and social health of these children,  you must ask yourself this question. Do I believe that I can replicate the labor conditions of New York City, which sees an annual influx of endless thousands of educated young strivers who are desperate for work and any foothold into professional life in  the city, in the Mississippi Delta? In the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia? In Camden, New Jersey? In the secluded rural agricultural communities of inland California? In the destitute Indian reservations of the northern Midwest? In the blighted urban centers of America that have all of New York’s poverty and inequality but none of its arts, restaurants, or nightlife? Can we attract thousands upon thousands of young teachers, reliably, in mass and at scale, throughout the country, at adequate numbers and in requisite consistency,  with constant replacement of the endless dropouts, while eliminating tenure, and without being able to achieve the kind of tax hikes necessary to actually offer meaningful increases in teacher pay?

I’m guessing… no.

Paul F. Campos shows how not to talk about data

Here Paul F. Campos, a law professor in the University of Colorado system, shows how not to write about data and policy.

1. He cites essentially none of his data. There’s nothing to evaluate here because there’s no way to tell where he’s getting his numbers from. Most of his data gets no citation at all; there’s also a reference to Department of Education data and “an analysis by a professor at California Polytechnic University.” I don’t know what to do with any of this: where are you getting your numbers?

2. He constantly mixes federal and state spending, which is deeply unhelpful, given that there are profound differences in how state and federal aid can be spent  and how that aid affects students and their tuition dollars. Campos moves breezily from one to the other, talking about Pell grants, a federal program, and then about state appropriations. It’s possible I could sort this stuff out myself… if he had cited his data.

3. Campos is contradicted by other data that actually spells out a methodology and where the numbers came from.

From the Government Accountability Office:

“From fiscal years 2003 through 2012, state funding for all public colleges decreased, while tuition rose. Specifically, state funding decreased by 12 percent overall while median tuition rose 55 percent across all public colleges. The decline in state funding for public colleges may have been due in part to the impact of the recent recession on state budgets. Colleges began receiving less of their total funding from states and increasingly relied on tuition revenue during this period. Tuition revenue for public colleges increased from 17 percent to 25 percent, surpassing state funding by fiscal year 2012, as shown below. Correspondingly, average net tuition, which is the estimated tuition after grant aid is deducted, also increased by 19 percent during this period. These increases have contributed to the decline in college affordability as students and their families are bearing the cost of college as a larger portion of their total family budgets.”

Slightly older numbers from the American Council on Education:

“The NIPA data count $103.7 billion spent by state and local governments on higher education in 2010. This was 34.1 percent of all federal, state, and local government spending and personal expenditures on higher education in 2010, which totaled $304 billion. The state/local share was down from the peak of 60.3 percent in 1975. The Grapevine data count $76.4 billion for public higher education operations in state fiscal support in fiscal 2011. This was $6.30 per $1,000 of state personal income—down from a peak of $10.58 in fiscal 1976.

The 2011 funding effort was down by 40.2 percent compared with fiscal 1980. Extrapolating that trend, the national average state investment in higher education will reach zero in fiscal 2059. In other words, states are already 40 percent of the way to zero. At this rate of decline, it will take another 48 years to finish off the remaining state support for higher education.”

Could they be wrong and Campos be right? Sure. But since they provide me with a methodology and a source for their numbers, and Campos does not, I have to take theirs more seriously. This is particularly the case because they provide valuable state-by-state breakdowns, and Campos speaks almost universally in generalities.

4. You’d get the impression from Campos, as you would from almost everyone who writes about this stuff, that college tuition has been rising faster and faster. In fact, tuition rose fastest in the 1980s and has risen slower since then, according to the College Board and NCES:

Of course rate of increase is less important to individual students than total debt load, but we need to speak carefully about this stuff. It’s way too expensive to go to college, and Campos is right to identify administrative costs as the prime mover. But let’s be rigorous. (Another huge problem, as you can see here, is in the rise of ruinously expensive dorms and dining halls, which I’ve been harping on forever. Unfortunately, colleges keep spending on that stuff– because that’s what incoming students care about.)

4. Campos admits that per-capita funding has fallen since the 1990s, but harps on the total cost to the system. But of course total expenditures are up– we’re educating vastly more students than ever before. According to the National Center for Education statistics, the total enrollment in degree granting institutions rose 11% from 1991-2001, and then a massive 32% from 2001-2011. Of course we’re spending more when we’re educating so many more students! And as that same report states, those students are significantly more likely to be Hispanic or black than in the past. Given the socioeconomic realities of America, we can presume that many of those students are in need of Pell grants, increasing federal expenditure.

Here’s why college spending has grown: we’re sending a far higher number of students to college, and the students were sending are more likely to be from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Meanwhile, the state aid that has been the lifeblood of public education in this country appears to have declined precipitously– at least according to the people who give me a methodology and sources for their numbers.

Will anybody bother to check? Ombudsman Margaret Sullivan? The op/ed editor? His readership? I doubt it. After all, Campos is writing in the august New York Times….

Update: I should say that I like Campos and agree with him on most issues about higher education. I just thought this  piece was misleading.

you shall be disciplined

So I could go on at length about this hatchet job about me in Tablet, but there’s really not much point: almost nothing that John-Paul Pagano writes has anything to do with what I actually believe or what I’ve actually argued. The essay is simply one misrepresentation after another, a string of deliberate misreadings and strawman arguments that don’t accurately reflect what I think about anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, and who is actually most threatened in modern day Europe.  Pagano does not bother to quote or cite month-old posts in which I expand in great detail on the relationship between anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia, about as clear and direct a failure of intellectual honesty as I can imagine. A brief perusal of Pagano’s work demonstrates that he is a professional accuser of anti-Semitism, someone whose life as a writer appears to have little direction other than to serially accuse others of anti-Semitism or near anti-Semitism or quasi-anti-Semitism, typically for the crime of criticizing Israel and its violent, racist occupation of Palestine. He is also the kind of person to refer to someone like Rania Khalek, an experienced and respected journalist, as a “sidekick,” in the process of insisting that Max Blumenthal must be sick and that his criticisms of Israel amount, of course, to a libel.

Tablet, for its part, has increasingly degenerated into a site devoted to little else but apologetics for Israel and punishment for those who dare to criticize it, such as Spencer Ackerman’s notorious “but I’m a progressive!” bit of conversation-policing, which helpfully came packaged with a cartoon Hitler to let you know just what level he was operating on. The website has published some good stuff, but as the world increasingly recognizes that Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories violates our most basic concepts of human and democratic writes, Tablet has grown angrier, more shrill, and ever-ready to lob the accusation of anti-Semitism to silence dissent. Indeed, part of the evidence that BDS and the larger campaign for justice in Palestine is working lies in the increasingly transparent attempts by Israel’s defenders to equate criticism of the country with anti-Semitism and in doing so silence debate. I am not so easily silenced, myself.

There is no alternative scenario in which Pagano finds some other conclusion than that my skepticism towards Conor Friedersdorf’s or Jeffrey Goldberg’s reporting on anti-Semitism in Europe is itself anti-Semitic. Check out his website; it amounts to little else than that accusation. So why would I bother to respond at length? At least in being accused of playing in the world of anti-Semitism by Pagano, I find myself in good company.

The difference between my academic scribblings and Pagano’s, of course, is that Pagano’s have teeth: accusations of anti-Semitism, or proximity to anti-Semitism, after all, can cost people their jobs. Accusations of Islamaphobia never do. People publish critiques of the very idea of Islamaphobia on a daily basis; it is not only risk-free to deny that Isamaphobia is happening in any individual instance but that Islamaphobia exists at all, in perfectly mainstream publications. In contrast, questioning any individual accusation of anti-Semitism is enough to be rendered ipso facto an anti-Semite. This in and of itself tells you what you need to know about the difference between how Muslims and Jews are perceived: the former do not even earn the right to hypothetical protection from bigotry. There is no risk to being perceived as Islamaphobic, in this culture, in this country, and profound professional risk in even appearing to be too closely associated with criticism of Israel. That’s reality.

Now, will Alan Jacobs, or Friedersdorf, or others who have undertaken the proscribed flagellation of me for questioning  The Atlantic‘s constant neoconservatism and Islamaphobia, stand up and cheer for Pagano? Do they recognize a distinction in the way that Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism are discussed in the national media? Does it occur to them that, were someone to write about Judaism the way that Graeme Wood writes about Islam, that person would find their professional life very swiftly destroyed? I don’t know; I’m not sure if they care. But I care. I care that our professional media has every incentive to minimize its interest in a worldwide campaign of violence against Muslims, or the expression of that campaign in anti-Muslim bigotry, while treating the call for responsible evidence in reporting on anti-Semitism as itself inherently anti-Semitic. If you would like to call treating Muslim life as being of equal inherent value to that of all other groups “the deBoer Tendency,” you have my blessing. I wear it with pride.

you do you

11084757_1587432884841311_1326297576_nIt will probably not surprise you to learn that I really love this Alana Massey piece on why chill is dumb and destructive and shitty. It’s important and funny and so well written.

Massey is writing from the perspective of social life and relationships, which is a very good place to write from. I have made something like this case in a different context for many years. I think that the same basic dynamic crops up in a cultural expectation that pretension is the worst of all sins and that being straightforward in your desire to live a life of depth and meaning is somehow ridiculous. It is the voice that tells you that you must spend your time in an art museum making little cracks about how you know it is somehow self-involved to want to look at artwork worth looking at. It is the expectation that a novelist is very high status but an MFA student is very low status. It is your desire to be seen as smart but never to be seen attempting to become smarter, to have read important books in the past but never to be reading one now. It is never mentioning the fact that you actually liked your thesis and thought it was worth writing. It is the way in which you are trained to see your impulses to live surrounded by beauty and intellectual challenge and meaning as somehow a matter of vanity and self-absorption instead of as the most understandable desires a human can have.

I have told the story about my old African philosophy professor in undergrad. I would have questions for him after class and he would humor them with patience and understanding. He was very tall and impossibly skinny and I would follow him up the stairs to his office and he would take them two at a time and I would struggle to keep up, panting along as I asked directionless questions about existentialism and racism. We talked about negritude one day. He had been saying in class about how negritude was a type of passionate cool, an explicit decision to live with a certain and utter commitment to the narrative of your own life. I asked him how they could do that and avoid being pretentious. He laughed his laugh and said, “I don’t think they could!” Well I don’t suffer from other people’s racism and I can never access negritude but I think that there is something to be said for believing in the narrative of your own life out of the recognition that failing to do so leaves you defenseless against the pitiless accumulation of tragedy and petty indignity that are the beat that set the rhythm of adult life.

Sadly these thoughts are often misunderstood, in the Think Piece sense. They are taken to be a rejection of irony or an embrace of smarm or a collapse into glurge or, worst, a New Earnestness. This is all wrong. As soon as you have named these things they are useless  to me. The villain is never irony. In fact romance and irony are husband and wife. Besides, the purpose is never not to find yourself ridiculous. The purpose is to recognize that your ridiculousness is a product of living as a human being in a world that tempts you at all times to be anything other than human. Yes, those tweets are very dry, but they are written by people whose knuckles go white with effort as they compose them, who are sitting in the green light of a laptop screen in a dark room alone.

I’m just saying: self-ownership can keep you going in a world where violence is relentless and every communicative tool is a new means of mutual misunderstanding. Meanwhile, I know many people who are hopelessly devoted to never appearing pretentious and I have no idea what that does for them; they mostly just always seem frightened. I was very unpretentious when I was 20 and I used to lie in a ball curled up on my carpet, for hours. I don’t do that anymore.