Jacobinghazi, tragedy and farce

I don’t know who came up with this, but it’s the truth.

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the broken logic of getting rid of teacher tenure

School reformers have scored, in their view, a major victory in their efforts by winning a key court battle against teacher tenure. (Through the financial power of a Silicon Valley oligarch, naturally.) Unfortunately for the reformers, getting rid of tenure can’t fix schools– especially by their own logic.

Let’s walk through this step by step for clarity’s sake.

One major source of disagreement within educational debates is the size and scope of the problem. Among other things, I would point out that the United States has never been a leader in education or close to it, and that when our deeply econonically unequal student population is normed for economic class, our students perform quite well. But let’s focus on the very bad outcomes at the bottom of our distribution, which almost no one questions. So people like me contend that these problems are related to structural economic and sociological factors within our country. And I particularly argue that the most sensible and empirically supported position is that student-side factors are far more determinative of outcomes than teacher- or school-side factors. Who you are as an individual and who your parents are has far more to do with how you perform in educational metrics than what school you go to or teacher you have. I would argue that most people, even those who prefer ed reform policies in the abstract, assume that fact intuitively as they go about their lives. And we see this is a basic fact about education: individuals can and do move around the distribution, but for the most part, outcomes are fairly static. High kids tend to stay high.  Low kids tend to stay low. Again, I think that this comports with intuitive and lived experience.

School reform types, on the other hand, ascribe very high determinative power to teachers and schools when it comes to student outcomes. They believe that student outcomes are more or less the product of teacher and school inputs. And they believe that our very poor outcomes for the bottom of the distribution are poor because of bad teaching. Further, they believe it’s hard to fix this problem because teacher unions have made it hard to  fire bad teachers. Additionally, there’s the Matt Yglesias-style argument that poor parents lack the economic power to move to school districts with good teachers. I think that gets the causation precisely backwards, but it’s a coherent set of arguments. The solution, these reformers argue, is to give principals and administrators broad latitude to fire teachers, which they will take advantage of, and we will then hire more talented, more dedicated people to fill those roles.

Set aside my disagreements about where educational failure comes from and focus simply on the logic of getting rid of tenure: it’s bizarre that people who think that the problem with teaching is a talent shortage are cheering for a decision that makes teaching a less attractive profession. High school teachers make a median of about $58,000 dollars a year, elementary about $56,000 a year. Salaries top out, for the best paid in the country, at around $85,000. Meanwhile, the median salary for lawyers is about $114,000 a year. Even the lowest paid attorneys make just a little less than the median elementary school teacher. The top performers in the legal world, corporate lawyer types, can easily earn in the millions of dollars a year. And this is all true despite an enormous labor crisis for lawyers in the post-financial crisis world. Surgeons and physicians make close to $200,000 a year, with primary care physicians making close to a quarter of a million dollars a year and specialists making even more. I could go on.

Part of the deal for teachers for years has been accepting lower salary– and, increasingly, little respect, particularly from the media– in exchange for job security. With the demise of tenure, that attraction would be gone. So that’s suppose to get more talented people into the system… how, exactly? I cannot understand that logic. Teacher attrition is sky-high, with best estimates of between 40-50% leaving the profession within five years of starting. That amounts to something like a thousand teachers quitting for every school day of a given year. Anecdotally speaking, most successful, Ivy League striver-types do not consider teaching as a serious option. But why would they, when there’s so many more remunerative, less stressful, less emotionally grueling, and better respected options out there? If your argument is that a profession’s problems stems from a talent deficit, you should be doing everything to make the job more attractive, not less.

Now there’s a standard bit of argumentative kabuki that happens when this point is brought up: people announce that they would be fine with trading  tenure for higher pay, a kind of more money for less job security swap. I have heard that from people all over the ideological and political map. The problem is that we’re not going to get higher pay, not on anything like a system-wide scale. Paying teachers more would require more revenues and that would mean more taxes. What’s more, American public schools are funded primarily through local and state taxes. Does anybody think that we’re going to get broad and coordinated state and local tax increases across the country to pay teachers more? Anybody? We can have a discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of this kind of a swap, but it’s irrelevant, because we’re not going to get the additional pay part and essentially nobody really thinks we are. That makes this “concession” very frustrating for me. It’s a concession that isn’t. Instead, what we’re likely to get is the demise of tenure and the same bad pay and lack of respect relative to other professions. How does that possibly jibe with an effort to hire a ton of talented and hard-working people into teaching?

And this, really, is the broader problem for ed reform types in general: they are pushing an agenda that requires them to attract and keep talented and dedicated people to teaching as a lifelong profession, and in order to create the kind of national change they want, they have to do so on a vast scale. But their preferences have the effect of making teaching a less desirable position, and more, their constant scapegoating of teachers contributes to a deep, class-ridden perception that teaching is not a profession worthy of admiration or respect. Every time reformers blame teachers for massive social and economic problem, they make the job less appealing to potential educators.

I think ed reformers have badly misidentified the source of poor performance among our poor students. But more, I think the logic of their movement just  doesn’t make sense. I wish that all of these neoliberal reformers would think like neoliberals and consider the cold logic of incentives. And I would ask the big media types to be ruthlessly honest with themselves about why they didn’t go into teaching, and why so few of their elite peers did, either. They might find themselves reconsidering the value of those who go into teaching and stay there.

Posted in Education | 20 Comments

cautionary tales: “from my place of lack” edition

“From my place of lack,”

- Sameer Pandya, “The Spelling Bee: America’s Great Racial Freaks and Geeks Show

No, man. Just no. Great piece, overall. But nothing good can ever come from “From my place of lack.”

Posted in Prose Style and Substance | 1 Comment

did Nir Rosen deserve an expectation of privacy on Twitter?

In 2011, after Laura Logan was brutally attacked in Tahrir Square, the journalist Nir Rosen said some deeply ugly things on his public Twitter feed. He suggested that the attack was somehow a way for Logan to compete with Anderson Cooper, and said that it would be funny if a similar thing happened to Cooper. His tweets swiftly received broad public attention, prompting widespread outcry and his resignation from his position at NYU. I’ve heard little from him since.

I thought Rosen was a good journalist, at the time, and I thought the incident on the whole was a shame. But I wept no tears for Rosen. What he said was despicable, and as a seasoned, adult journalist speaking in a public  forum, he should have known better. Things said in public, on a deliberately, explicitly public forum like a public Twitter feed are subject to public review. If Rosen wanted to express those thoughts privately, he could have set his Twitter feed to private, or contacted people he knew via any manner of private communication. He didn’t. Instead he used a medium that has the deliberate and intrinsic intent of generating publicity and engaging in public dialogue, and because what he  said was so ugly and so deserving of legitimate criticism, he has paid a heavy social price.

We are now once again fighting over whether tweets on public Twitter feeds are public. I would say as I’ve always said: that tweets are public is a “this is true” statement, not a “this should be so” statement. Whether or not we think tweets on a public Twitter feed should be available to public review is irrelevant: they are. Anyone with a web browser can see them, and you naturally and necessarily have an audience of however many people follow you. That’s reality. You cannot expect that a medium can be used for public dissemination of your opinions and your work while simultaneously expecting no one to repeat, link to, share, react to, or criticize what you say on that medium. The very idea is unworkable.

But let’s suppose that we set that aside for a minute and agree that people have an expectation of privacy about what the say on Twitter. Doesn’t it necessarily follow, then, that Nir Rosen was terribly wronged? If that is the standard, surely he has an equal claim to that right to Twitter privacy. So to the people saying that it’s inherently wrong to link to tweets, do you think that Nir Rosen enjoyed that same protection? How can the answer possibly be no, given the arguments that people are making?

I have a funny feeling that the answer will in fact be no, from the self-same people who are insisting that public Twitters are private. Which again gets to fact that there appears to be literally no expectation of consistency in principle when it comes to these fights. Just as the notion that men have an obligation to shut up and listen when women talk about feminist issues only applies when it’s certain  women speaking, the notion that public Twitter feeds are really private only seems to apply to certain people, and to be based on no meaningful principle whatsoever. Which, aside from the poverty of integrity involved, is a surefire way to lose the people who actually have to be convinced in order to make the world a safer place for women.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing | 58 Comments

what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote

If you repeat “mocked raped threats” or “minimized rape” or whatever on Twitter enough times, people on Twitter will believe it’s true. Because people are dumb. So: you must keep insisting on the truth. Here is what Amber A’Lee Frost  actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

That is the opposite of minimizing rape; that is the opposite of mocking rape threats. It is literally the opposite.

Here’s what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

You can lie about what she said. You can lie about what she said, Christopher Carbone. You can lie about what she said, Adam Kotsko. You can lie about what she said, Josh Foust. You can all keep lying. What did Amber A’Lee Frost actually write?

Here’s what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

Does the dude from Newsweek who wrote this know that this is what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote? Does Robert Farley know that this is what is being represented as “mocking rape threats”? Why is the actual sentence nowhere to be found in this Twitter storm? Why are people not engaging with the actual sentence she actually wrote? Why are they dissembling and hiding from what she actually had to say, if not because they know that what she wrote does not constitute mocking or minimizing rape threats in any way, shape, or form?

Here’s what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

If you are fighting this battle, insist on dealing in reality. Force people to tell you how, exactly, saying that we should use serious language to discuss a serious topic like rape threats amounts to minimizing that topic. Point out that, in fact, what she wrote is the literal opposite of what she’s accused of writing. Put it to them directly: what does your conversation have to do with what she actually wrote?

Here’s what Amber A’Lee Frost actually wrote:

“And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be used to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats.”

That’s the truth.

Update: Here’s Elizabeth Stoker:

unorthodox views can, especially for women in left academic feminism, result in precisely that form of discipline: withdrawal of community, overwhelming assassination of character, a very sudden onslaught of negative feedback and demands for apology. It strikes me that this method of disciplining members is another symptom of the problem Amber gets at in her article: the community is not so concerned with what is true or false as with who is good and who is bad

Unorthodox views are punished via phenomena like the Twitter storm, and that’s what’s happened to Frost, and Stoker thinks that’s unfortunate. OK? Cool. And here’s how Sarah Kendzior characterizes that:

Last RT is re: Elizabeth Stoker, who said that I had to be “disciplined” through “character assassination”, as I received rape threats

I do not have words. I simply do not have words to describe that.

Update II: Putting comments to bed on this one.

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which women deserve the protection of feminism?

Jacobin published an excellent piece by Amber A’Lee Frost. I would love to discuss the piece, because it has a ton to say about empiricism and the left-wing and how we talk about research. But I can’t, because it’s been swallowed by yet another bullshit controversy.

In her piece, originally, the line “And I just don’t think the diminutive label of ‘bro’ should be to describe more insidious sexism, let alone violent aggression like rape threats” included a link to a tweet by Sarah Kendzior in which Kendzior complained that a “bro” had sent her rape threats. Frost was arguing that, as a jokey diminutive, “bro” is not appropriate when discussing rape threats, because rape threats are so important. In other words, she was saying that rape threats are very, very serious business, which she would know, since as a woman she lives with the ambient threat of sexual violence. Kendzior complained, vociferously, about the link to her tweet. It was swiftly deleted, without argument. But Kendzior, and a growing Twitter mob, pressed on. Their charge: Frost was “mocking rape threats.” I find that, simply, a direct and unambiguous misrepresentation of Frost’s point. Frost was arguing to take rape threats more seriously, not less– the opposite of what she is accused of. You can read Kendzior’s side here. You can read Elizabeth Stoker and Matt Bruenig with contrary opinions here. Ultimately you’ll have to adjudicate that argument yourself.

The bigger question this controversy brings up is simple: which women deserve the protection of feminism?

Megan Kilpatrick, an editor at Jacobin, argued as I am that Kendzior has been misrepresenting Frost’s point. Because no woman with an opinion online goes unpunished, Kilpatrick was swiftly, crudely, and constantly attacked. See, because Kilpatrick is a woman, she is required by this style of “leftist” to have certain opinions, and since she violated that expectation, she has been and continues to be attacked, being accused of not caring about sexual violence against women. In these insults, arguments that Kilpatrick is a bad feminist go hand in hand with sexism against her. Take, for example, Sexism-Enabling Defender of Feminism Christopher Carbone, who claims that Kilpatrick is okay with Jacobin “endangering a woman’s life.” (!) Carbone then went on to mock Kilpatrick’s supposed lack of expertise, bragging that he has 14 years of experience as a journalist. In other words, a dude writer belittled a woman educator and writer because he’s such a big deal in big deal journalism, which is about as straightforward an act of mansplaining sexism as I can imagine. Carbone is far, far from alone, among these he-man male feminists mocking, degrading, and condescending to Frost and Kilpatrick. Because feminism.

Stoker pointed out that all this has the effect of forcing women into a box– Frost, and now Kilpatrick, are being told that they are bad feminists or, ludicrously, actually misogynists for failing to fall into immediate line with Kendzior. The message of this Twitter mob is that feminism means women are not free to form their own opinions, not about the right language to discuss rape and rape threats, not about the public nature of public tweets, not about how to honestly criticize others in a productive way. Feminism, to this Twitter mob, means that all women fall in line or are ostracized. As Stoker writes, “unorthodox views can, especially for women in left academic feminism, result in precisely that form of discipline: withdrawal of community, overwhelming assassination of character, a very sudden onslaught of negative feedback and demands for apology.” For pointing this out, of course, Stoker immediately became a target herself. A pro-life Catholic (though still a self-identified leftist), Stoker is an easy target, and they lined up to come after her. Apostasy has to be punished. I think Stoker is terribly wrong about abortion, and I’m no fan at all of the Catholic church. But to see her called a conservative, an anti-feminist, a misogynist… these insults are ridiculous and untrue, and palpably sexist, in their assumption that Stoker has an obligation as a woman to hold any particular point of view at all.

In the name of feminism, then, three women have for days had men lecturing to them about what it means to be a woman who fears sexual violence. I’ll let you marinate on that one for a bit.

So: does Frost not deserve the same protection, under the name of feminism, as Kendzior? Does Kilpatrick not deserve those rights? Does Stoker not deserve those rights? Why do the dictates of feminism not protect them from being lectured to by men?This argument resulted in the typical phenomenon of men telling other men to “shut up and listen” because Kendzior is a woman and is giving her opinion. Why do the women who disagree with Kendzior not receive the same benefit, I wonder? Why are the many men attacking them not themselves compelled to shut up and listen? Because this has nothing to do with feminism, and it has everything to do with teams. It has everything to do with the Great Twitter Outrage Game, which is waged for publicity, for social positioning, for digital strokes. That none of those things contributes one iota to a more just, less sexist, less violent world does not occur to the people involved.

That some women seem to lie outside of the protective sphere of feminism should be clear to anyone whose ever navigated the progressive blogosphere. Megan McArdle is the most glaring example. In liberal Democrat blogs and comments, it has been open season on McArdle for a long, long time. I have argued with Megan about a ton of things, for years, but the way people talk about her in these supposedly feminism-friendly environs turns my stomach. I have always cultivated a combative atmosphere in my comments section, out of the conviction that there is value in real, harsh debate. I allow comments about myself that are, well, not kind. But every time I write about McArdle’s work or she shows up in comments– every single time– I feel compelled to warn commenters that I will ban them if they say sexist stuff to or about her. I have to. I am forced to. There are others. Kathryn Jean Lopez, SE Cupp, Hanna Rosin, Michelle Goldberg, pretty much any woman who has ever written for Reason…. If I wrote out a list of my disagreement with these women, it would take hours to complete. But under the most basic principles of not only feminism but simple, human fair conduct, they deserve to be protected from attacks that border on sexism or step right into sexism, and six years of experience in arguing online tells me that they aren’t.

What this whole incident has revealed is that this is a cross-ideological phenomenon: whether Marxist or conservative or anything in-between, if you are a woman whose opinions do not jibe with those of the self-appointed owners of feminism, you have no right to expect to be shielded from sexism. Feminism no longer applies to you. If you think differently, they’ll sick the pathetic male “allies” like Christopher Carbone to mansplain at you for awhile.

Nothing happened to the benefit of women or to feminism, this weekend. None of this made the world a safer or more just place. Patriarchy was not attacked, in any way. Rather, a small group of vocal people put their own self-interest, and their interest in martyring themselves, ahead of principle and of practical political victory– which is what actually matters, in a world where reactionary power wins simply by doing nothing. And that is indicative of privilege, the privilege enjoyed by people who don’t care that they diminish our capacity to generate outrage when they blithely throw around terms like “the pro-rape left” to describe feminist women, who have so overused the term misogynist that people don’t take it seriously anymore, who have started controversies over such minor or nonexistent slights so many times that potential allies roll their eyes at us and stay away in droves. They have spent the finite capital of outrage and attention with no regard for the cost of that waste. Only the comfortable could care so little about actually winning that they sacrifice real political gain to self-aggrandize. Those who are not privileged require actual results, which means that they care, desperately, about political efficacy, the kind Frost was writing about, the kind we badly need to discuss.

Meanwhile, sexism rolls on, hurting women– Marxist women, conservative women, liberal women, libertarian women. If only the people who think they own feminism cared equally for all of them, and not just for those who tell them what they want to hear.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Rhetoric | 6 Comments

everybody’s a little scared of the Gates Foundation

Last fall, I worked as a research assistant for the late Linda Bergmann. Linda was a brilliant academic and a great mentor; her particular area of of expertise was writing centers, where students of all levels come to work on their writing with expert tutors. I’ve long felt that writing centers are a symbol of what the university can be at its best, with students and teachers collaborating to improve work from a whole variety of departments and disciplines, on texts ranging from freshman compositions to doctoral dissertations, from poetry to resumes. Linda’s work, as a teacher, researcher, and administrator, flowed from Purdue’s Writing Lab and the Purdue OWL, and she was talented and dedicated at all of it.

I worked with Linda on a project that was attempting to port some of these virtues to the digital space. The project is ongoing and involves many researchers, so I won’t discuss it in depth. But at the time I was working on it, I was also diving into the growing media reports of resistance to the Common Core. I was inspired, in part, by the growing perception that the Common Core was being forced from above, without proper vetting or public debate, and in a way that cut the most important stakeholders– parents and teachers– out of the loop. More, I was interested because of the influence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on this sweeping, rapid adoption. Doing educational and pedagogical research, talking with ed research in person and online, the Gates Foundation is unavoidable. Their influence is everywhere, and many people worry about what that means for the future of American education.

Then, literally an hour or two after I had been reading up on this type of concern and criticism, Linda mentioned in passing that the money they were paying me was Gates Foundation money. I had been working for the foundation without even knowing it.

I should say from the outset: it is absolutely a good thing that they provide money for that research, and all the other research they fund. As a grad student whose financial situation got a little bit easier thanks to that funding, I’m personally grateful. And while it’s essential to the integrity of any research that there be a firewall between the funders and the researchers themselves, I don’t pretend that organizations that fund research have no legitimate interests in the direction of that research. I’d rather this money be out there in the system than not. But there’s a certain size threshold beyond which that kind of influence can become something pernicious. With its incredible size, and the swiftly declining research support of governments in an age of austerity, my fear is that the Gates Foundation long since crossed that threshold.

I bring this all up because of this great piece of reporting by The Washington Post‘s Lyndsey Laton, on the way in which the Gates Foundation was able, with disturbing ease, to implement the Common Core throughout much of the country. I encourage you to read it in full. There’s two points I want to stress. First, that the evidence to support the claim that the Common Core will result in learning gains is thin on the ground. As the WaPo story reads,

Tom Loveless, a former Harvard professor who is an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said the Common Core was “built on a shaky theory.” He said he has found no correlation between quality standards and higher student achievement.

“Everyone who developed standards in the past has had a theory that standards will raise achievement, and that’s not happened,” Loveless said.

This is in keeping with a much broader divide between the rhetoric of education reform and the results of ed reform programs. So many of the boilerplate policy preferences of the ed reform movement, from charter schools to eliminating teacher unions to merit pay, have seen inconclusive or negative research results, and yet that never seems to pierce the elite conversation. Layton:

Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, says the Gates Foundation’s overall dominance in education policy has subtly muffled dissent.

“Really rich guys can come up with ideas that they think are great, but there is a danger that everyone will tell them they’re great, even if they’re not,” Greene said.

That problem would not be nearly as acute if not for the size and power of the Gates Foundation. And this is point number two: above a certain size, funders like the Gates Foundation become a problem even if they have all the best intentions. I don’t doubt for a second that Bill and Melinda Gates personally, and most of the people who work for the Foundation, have all the best intentions in what they do. But then, the history of the ed reform movement is a history of the failure of good intentions.

There’s a palpable sense of worry among a lot of education researchers and people in the education nonprofit world, around the Gates Foundation. They’re just so dominant in funding and, through funding, influence. That manifests itself in a fear of publicly criticizing the foundation and its policy preferences. That may be a small fear, it may represent itself subtly, but if you multiply it across the broad world of education research and policy, it can have a major impact on what gets studied, how results are reported, and what is considered realistic policy. It’s easy to make this sound like some kind of explicit corruption, but it’s not that simple or that easy to judge. It isn’t so much a matter of people saying “I want that sweet Gates cash, I better get in line on charter schools.” It’s a matter of identifying what kind of research gets funded, of worrying about funding in the future, of recognizing that plummeting state and federal research dollars can make private foundations like Gates the only game in town. It’s not sinister, on either side of the equation, but it can have pernicious effects.

It’s also a matter of access. Layton describes Gates becoming frustrated and angry when pressed on questions about how the Common Core was implemented. It seems strange to me that he would grow flustered by what are very common concerns about the standards. But then I wonder: how often does he really encounter strong rebuttals to his own preferences in day-to-day life? There is a tendency for rich and powerful men to be surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear. And I think that’s what I worry about most, when it comes to these people at the elite end of the policy spectrum. Are they hearing the kind of criticism of ed reform policy they desperately need to? Does Gates understand that the dominance of demographic factors in educational outcomes is one of the most powerful and consistent findings in the history of education research? Has he seen the research that undercuts claims of sweeping gains from charter schools or merit pay? Has Obama? Has Arne Duncan?

I am not “against” the Gates Foundation. I think that the commitment Bill and Melinda Gates have made to dispersing their immense fortune in charitable ways is remarkable and admirable, however strongly I feel that philanthropy is not a substitute for government intervention. There are some educational projects that have been spearheaded or funded by the Gates Foundation that I find very admirable. But there’s also a set of policy preferences that they push that seem immune to evidence. The tendency of educational technologies to have no meaningful impact on student outcomes is another consistent research finding, and yet the notion that technology will solve our problems is so intrinsic to the Gates Foundation that I doubt they can ever come around on that issue. We’re sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into tablets and ebooks and smart whiteboards…. And yes: some people are getting very, very rich off of this expenditure of public funds. Will it work? We have to have researchers who feel comfortable and free to say no, if that’s what their research shows.

I don’t mean to overstate the case: such negative research is published regularly, and for all of its faults, the structure of our academic institutions, particularly tenure, helps researchers to feel confident in reaching conclusions that are contrary to the interests of entities like the Gates Foundation, Pearson, and the Department of Education. But for graduate students, for adjuncts, for those not yet tenured, for those worried about funding for the future, size alone can be an implicit threat that changes behavior.

None of these problems would be problems if not for the relative size and power of the Gates Foundation. If there were entities of comparable size, if government funding for research was more certain, if Gates was just one powerful force among many, there would be far fewer potential negative consequences. I will be completely upfront in saying that I am opposed to the education reform movement, because I think its proposed solutions don’t work, because I think it is captured by the profit motive, because I think it reduces complex social problems to simplistic, moralizing narratives, because I think it scapegoats teachers, because I think it’s an impediment to social progress. But there’s nothing illegitimate about foundations and nonprofits and individuals pushing for ed reform policies. What’s dangerous and unfortunate is when they are able to dominate the conversation without skepticism, review, and contrary evidence.

As it stands, well… read Layton’s piece. Bill Gates dictated one of the biggest changes to education policy in this country’s history, and though it was expensive, it was not hard. We all of us, left-wing and right-wing and center, have to ask ourselves whether it can possibly be healthy for a system made up of students, parents, teachers, and administrators to be so radically changed without the input of essentially any of them. We need to ask who owns our educational system, and why.

Posted in Education | 16 Comments

Sturgeon’s Law and challenging art

Look, I won’t belabor the current fight about Young Adult fiction, because anyone who’s read me on these topics before probably already knows more or less where I stand. I will say that I am an unabashed fan of some YA fiction. Diana Wynne Jones remains my favorite author. Ever. I wrote, a long while back, about why I love some YA fiction.

But only some, and that reading only takes up a little of my reading time. Because there’s a whole lot that’s out there, and yes, there are certain kinds of artistic and aesthetic pleasures that are vanishingly rare in YA fiction, and those pleasures, difficult or challenging or labor-intensive or discomfiting or not for everyone, are worth pursuing as well. Which gets to  really the only central point that should ever be made about these types of controversies: it is never shameful to love something, but it is always shameful to love only one thing, or one kind of thing. And the problem, with the cultures that spring up around these faux-forbidden art forms like YA fiction or romance or comic books or sci-fi, is that the endless complaints about being oppressed or disrespected contribute to the tendency to like only those things. To read nothing but romance, to read only comic books, to read only sci-fi. And yes: that is childish. That is indeed shameful. I’m told that there are people who read through The Lord of the Rings and the flip right back the beginning when they’re finished and start again. That’s not fandom, that’s pathology.

Everybody wins in this current controversy, really. Because people don’t actually like it when they think their preferred art is universally beloved. Raging against the notion that they’ve been disrespected– that’s what they actually like. Just observe their behavior.

If you want your favorite genre or medium to be more celebrated, you should insist that it get better. Alan Jacobs invoked Sturgeon’s Law in this instance. But I actually think that Sturgeon’s Law is precisely the problem with these discussions. Yes, it’s totally true: most of anything is crap. The large majority of every genre or medium is bad. But 90% implies that every genre and medium has an equal admixture of good and bad, and I just don’t think that’s true. I don’t. Look at video games. Of course video games are art, and the very best aspire to the heights that all great art does. But the median video game is absolute trash, as art. By the aesthetic, narrative, thematic, and emotional criteria that we apply to all art, the average video game is just a failure. When 90% of the product you put out there takes remorseless killing as its central focus, that’s not hard to achieve. And while the percentages are better with YA fiction, it’s still the case that so, so much of what gets professionally put out there is terrible. Which is not an insult to the people who read the genre or the people who make the best of the genre. It should instead be a call to get better. But you can’t make that call if you simply say, hey, 90% of everything is crap. That’s just phony egalitarianism.

As I’ve said many times, I simply do not recognize the world that people are talking about now, as though pleasure is forbidden and challenging art is inescapable. But you’ve heard that from me a thousand times.

There are pleasures that can be had in art that cannot spring from that which puts out its lips to be kissed. The art that begs you to love it is fine. We need it. I need it. But it’s the other kind of art that needs defending. That art needs friends. It needs critics. It needs professionals to tell people why they should get outside of the comfort zone, why the work is worth it. But that kind of criticism is the kind that is dying fast, not the kind that takes The Fault in Our Stars seriously. That’s reality.

Posted in Popular & Digital Writing, Prose Style and Substance | 4 Comments

against biological determinism

So I’ve been meaning to write something in response to conservative dweeb Kevin Williamson’s dweeby screed against Laverne Cox for dweeb magazine The National Review, but Jacob Bacharach pretty much beat me to it:

the Internet bravely rushed in to declare that scientifically she is. “He doesn’t understand the complexity . . .” And we were all treated to a series of semi-coherent expostulations on various human intersex conditions, as if that hasanything to do with the social right of an autonomous human individual to decide whether she wants to live her life as a man or a woman or both or neither, less yet to determine against which physical expression of our species rather aesthetically unfortunate genital she wishes to press her own. If we make the concretized and inevitably temporary axioms of popular (I emphasize) science the preconditions of moral acceptability, then we are in big trouble, people. If Laverne Cox decides tomorrow that she wishes to be referred to by the pronoun Qfwfq  and that her gender is henceforth Parthogenetic Quintsexual Proteus Universal then it’s still no skin off my ass, whether ratified by double-blind or by dungeon-master.


For some time, I’ve been deeply uncomfortable with the “their genes are totally gay” defense of gay marriage. For one, the specific genetic cause remains entirely unproven. More importantly, “they can’t help it, so I guess we should let them do it” argument is insulting, and not at all a call for greater sexual or romantic freedom. I get that people were dealing with real political exigency, and the tangible gains have been impressive. But the movement should be for freedom and equal dignity and respect, not for a narrow biological determinism that constrains more than it frees. I mean, think about the logic here: if the right to engage in homosexual behavior stems from an immutable biological attribute of some people, then doesn’t that mean that people who don’t have that attribute can fairly be barred from that behavior? “Sorry, Gary, I know you’d like to sleep with Jim here, but we ran the test and you just aren’t gay.” If we could identify the gay gene, would people applying for gay marriages have to be tested for it before they got one? It would be an absurd impediment to freedom, but it’s also a perfectly logical extension of that kind of thinking.

As the great Yasmin Nair once wrote, “The biology argument, taken to its logical end, suggests that we turn around to the Right or, for that matter, many on the so-called Left who also grant rights based on ‘nature,’ and tell them that it’s okay to discriminate against, kill, maim, brutalize those who might be seen as ‘choosing to be this way.’”

Gender is, of course, a related but separate issue from sexual identity. But I think the same bad logic reigns in a lot of progressive circles: adopting a vision of trans people as being straightforwardly conditioned by their biology and, consequentially, deserving of the right to live the way the want to. This stands in contrast with the alternative, which is that they have the right to pursue whatever self-identity they choose because they are human beings with self-determination and it costs the rest of us absolutely nothing to recognize that right. Andrew Sullivan wrote of the Williamson piece, “the insistence of many transgendered people on the need to permanently reconcile their physical bodies with their mental states is in some ways a rather conservative impulse.” No, the impulse to reconcile yourself in that way is the impulse to own yourself, and that is an entirely non-ideological impulse; it’s the impulse to live as a free human being. What’s conservative is the notion that people have only the right to be that which they can’t help being.

This attitude’s limitations towards gender are revealed in the phenomenon of the young child coming out as trans article. Some 5, 6 year old child will live with a gender identity that’s not the same as the one they were assigned at birth, the parents will allow the child to exist with that identity, the media will pick it up, conservatives will fume, and allies in the progressive world will come to that child’s defense. Well, better than the alternative where it’s just the Kevin Williamsons of the world yelling at parents for loving their child in the best possible way. But whenever these controversies flare up, these progressive allies have a very discomfiting tendency to celebrate these kids precisely to the degree that they represent a symbol of progressive assumptions about gender. “This kid is a boy/girl/intersex! How dare anyone call him/her/they something other than a boy/girl/intersex! They have no choice! They were born that way!” By the time they get done, they’ve pinned the kid down like a butterfly on the wall of a museum. They are just as aggressive in policing someone else’s gender identity as the conservatives they decry; they just police it the other way. I always end up thinking, you know, guys, maybe someday this kid will have something to say about it.

And that leads to the biggest problem with biological determinism: it is profoundly unfriendly to people whose gender identities continue to evolve. Because as people who have exposure to many actual trans people know– in contrast with those who are simply internet allies– it is not that rare for trans people to transition to a particular gender identity and then, later, transition again. Yes, there are certainly many trans people who are born thinking that they have a gender identity other than that they were assigned at birth, who transition to that identity, and who remain comfortable within it for the rest of their days. That’s great. But there are also people who experience their own gender as a shifting and complex phenomenon. I’ve known some in my real life. Some people who were assigned the male gender at birth transition to female for awhile, then transition back. Some refuse to adopt one particular gender identity at all, because that does not reflect their own, lived experience and feelings. Life is complicated, gender is complicated. So: are these people deficient? Should they not have the right to continue to explore and evolve and change? Are they somehow guilty of dishonesty? That’s an absurd, ugly stance to take. Yet if you say that gender transitions are not always a permanent phenomenon,  in some environs of the online world, you will be immediately labelled transphobic and a bigot. And so a movement that is meant to liberate subtly conditions some people to distrust their own, real, personal experience of gender identity. “Trans people are born that way and that’s it, says I, progressive ally” is just another way to tell some people they’re living the wrong way.

None of this is to say that gender is a choice or that trans people are just acting or that there’s nothing intrinsic about what they feel and experience. As Bacharach says,

I’m sure genetic inheritance and gene expression do influence sexuality; likewise, intelligence and hair color and the desire to eat, or not to eat, cilantro; but the desperate reductivism that keeps popping up to declare that this or that immensely complex trait is the result of some butterfly-pinned nucleotide—and the attendant desire to draw some kind of socioeconomic conclusion therefrom—reeks of both the alchemical and the eugenic.

Are some conservative jerks going to exploit the mutability, complexity, and sheer variety of human gender experience to undermine the right to live the way you want to live? Yeah. Sure. To adopt a biological determinist viewpoint simply because it’s rhetorically or politically convenient is a terribly misguided thing to do, a choice to play ball on the conservative home court. Don’t do it.

I think, frankly, that people who have a strict “born this way” attitude towards gender are guilty of thinking like Kevin Williamson. Maybe they wanted to think that through.

Posted in Uncategorized | 36 Comments

Laufer and Waldman on collocations

It’s a real pleasure to see a thorough and effective definition of a term that is frequently contested or confusing. Here’s Batia Laufer and Tina Waldman’s definition of collocation from their article “Verb-Noun Collocations in L2 Writing” from the June 2011 issue of Language Learning. 

“We regard collocations as habitually occurring lexical combinations that are characterized by restricted co-occurrence of elements and relative transparency of meaning. Restricted co-occurrence distinguishes collocations from free combinations in which the individual words are easily replaceable following the rules of grammar. Relative semantic transparency of collocations, on the other hand, distinguishes them from idioms whose meaning is much less transparent than that of collocations and is very often opaque because it cannot be understood from the words that compose them. Some examples of restricted co-occurrence are the following: tea collocates with strong but not with powerful, discussion collocates with hold or have but not with deliver, and speech collocated with deliver but not with hold. Relative semantic transparency is illustrated by the following example: face in ’face a problem’ is not used with its original meaning, but the expression is clearer than ’face the music,’ an idiom that means ’show courage.’ Many collocations are totally transparent if the learner is familiar with the individual words (e.g., ’apply for a job,’ ‘make a decision,’ ‘submit a proposal’). Restricted co-occurrence and semantic transparency place collocations on the continuum between free combinations and idioms. Thus, according to the definition used in this article, we consider ’throw a disk’ and ’pay money’ to be free combinations, we consider ’throw a party’ and ’pay attention’ to be collocations, and we consider ’throw someone’s weight around’ and ’pay lip service’ to be idioms.”


Posted in Language and Linguistics | 1 Comment

John Wayne and “John Wayne”

I appreciate the many responses to my piece on traditional masculinity. The hate mail was interesting, in the way that hate mail is always interesting. A few emails and many, many comments that I refused to unleash from the filter were illustrative, and not just in their many creative spellings of the word “faggot.” They were so angry, and so defensive about a conception of masculinity that they represent as straightforwardly superior. There’s an awful lot of sensitivity about an ideal that includes the rejection of sensitivity. Which again suggests my point that part of the anger of these men comes from their inability to truly believe in their own performance of masculinity. What they mean to be a display of their strength is a display of their weakness. More than anything, it’s again a very important reminder: this is what it’s like to be a woman who writes on the internet, all the time. I’ve learned to value these responses because they give me a tiny inkling of what women with opinions face online every day.

I do wish that some of the people responding to me had been less concerned with my choice of the term “traditional masculinity” and more concerned with the deeper point of the impossibility of achieving idealized masculinity, and how that contributes to this destructive rage, but I’ve learned that when many people respond to your piece in the same way, it’s your own fault.

Ross Douthat’s response to me raised a point that many have, and he and they are right. Douthat writes, “Wayne himself, of course, was just as self-consciously performative in his way as any contemporary pick-up artist guru: He didn’t have a blog, but he was an actor with a stage name …” True. I picked a bad example of someone to represent as a symbol of uncomplicated manhood. I was glib and as a result said something stupid. John Wayne’s was a performative masculinity. Douthat continues,

From De Boer’s description of what “traditional masculinity” entails, you would think that the archetypal movies of Wayne’s genre celebrated mass murder and sexual entitlement, or throbbed with palpable misogyny, or made true manliness look like a matter of imposing your will at gunpoint and then reaping your reward in bedpost notches. But watch some famous Westerns from the pre-Peckinpah era: Do you regularly see characters bedding a steady stream of willing women while shooting their way to fame and fortune? Surely not as often as you see men, in the style of the lead characters in “High Noon” and “Shane,” reluctantly shouldering a burden of violence and paying a heavy moral price;

I take this to being the real nut of Douthat’s complaint: the traditional man is not actually the villain, here, but something that came after him… and, crucially for Douthat’s position, after the culture wars. Which is accurate and fair. I would defend myself simply: we aren’t in the pre-Peckinpah era, and the John Waye era led to the Peckinpah era, led to the era where people mistake Tony Soprano for a hero. Douthat would likely ascribed this slouching into sexual aggression and violence to the culture wars and 60s-era rejection of conservative mores; I would likely chalk it up to the deprivations of capitalism and the way in which traditional mores were actually a cover for the violent sexual entitlement of people  in power. But either way: we’re here.

Perhaps the vision of masculinity I described as traditional masculinity is really just “traditional masculinity.” But the men who create this culture of neo-traditionalist masculinity think they’re endorsing traditional masculinity. They see themselves as part of a lineage of masculine ideals, which is threatened by women and “political correctness” and feminism and every other conservative punching bag. Yes, John Wayne’s masculinity was itself performative. But he is emulated by men who believe in “John Wayne,” rather than John Wane. And while Douthat might be right in thinking that it’s unfair to judge traditional masculinity based on those who distort it while trying to achieve it, the fact is that they do distort it. Which I would argue is inevitable. Maybe traditional masculinity is preferable to “traditional masculinity,” but we have every reason to assume men will end up with the latter rather than the former.

And this is a permanent problem for traditionalists: there is no guarantee that the pursuit of a traditional ideal actually gets you to that ideal, and in fact the pursuit itself is likely to lead to a outsized, exaggerated grotesque. It’s like people who try to believe in prehistoric religions in the contemporary world, the back-to-paganism movements that have popped up in the last several decades. They inevitably exaggerate the aspects of these practices that they see as the most primitive or wild, and in so doing end up not much like the traditional ideals at all.

The fetid swamp that produced Elliot Rodger includes endorsements of scientifically invalid “alpha male” theory, obsession with “T” (testosterone) as some sort of magical elixir, bizarre fixations on physiognomy….  Douthat is perfectly free to point out that these things have little to do with actual traditional masculinity. He is free to lament this corruption of the masculine ideal. I mean, in some ways I lament it too, though we will always disagree about the virtues of that real, traditional masculinity. But what frustrates me is that Douthat, on this issue and others, fails to convincingly argue that the conservative social mores he prefers could actually have been preserved into contemporary times, or could possibly be brought back into a beneficial form given our economy and our culture. If Douthat is frustrated by the left’s tendency to fail to see the negative consequences of the social evolutions that we ourselves have pushed, I’m frustrated by the failure of traditionalists and social conservatives to see the lines that extend from their preferences to where we are today. Maybe John Wayne shouldn’t have led to Scarface. But that’s what happened.

In any event: we are tasked with the enormous responsibility of trying to fix a virus within a substantial portion of men. It’s true that very few turn to a spree of misogynist violence in the way that Rodger did. But many, many more will act violently out of the conviction that this makes them manly or valuable, will commit acts of sexual coercion or rape or assault against women because they think they’re entitled to, will speak or act homophobically because they think that’s what men do…. And here’s where I have to be unfair to Douthat. Because whatever our disagreements, he is taking this challenge seriously. What makes it so much harder to confront these problems is that so, so few conservatives do. They instead spend so much time undermining and mocking and resisting and dismissing these problems as problems at all. If conservatives have some other, more conservative model for opposing this sick, destructive culture of idealized masculinity, then please, get out there and express it, instead of concern trolling and minimizing and distracting.

I wrote my piece in the immediate aftermath of six people being killed thanks to this revanchist masculinity movement and its effect on a broken person. Some people asked why I had to be so extreme– why destroy traditional masculinity, why not reform it, why use that kind of rhetorical violence? I am trying to match the stakes of what we’re fighting against here. I’ll say again: if this was the kind of thing our society chose to call terrorism, we would devote all of our resources to fighting it. Instead, the relentless push of the news cycle means the story is already fading away. Women have been telling us for years: they are forced to live in an environment of ubiquitous threat, threat of physical and sexual violence. And we got to the present through the past. So I am searching for a way  forward against a current conception of masculinity that seems thoroughly corrupted and unfixable. If anyone has practical suggestions that we can implement to start to fix this terrible problem, I’m all ears, whether you call yourself conservative, liberal, radical, reactionary, or other. But we have to start fixing this and we have to start fixing it now, or more people are going to die. Because misogyny kills.

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it’s just so stark

Sometimes you just kind of can’t wrap your mind around it all.

I mean  just look at recent stuff. Thomas Piketty’s book provides a mountain of empirical evidence that wealth grows faster than income and that wealth inequality tends to get worse over time. Gregory Clark shows that wealth persists within particular families for as much as ten to fifteen generations. Neil Irwin points out that the notion that economic growth reduces poverty hasn’t held true for something like 40 years. Corey Robin’s blog houses an endless litany of deprivations that people have to endure at work. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a massive history of the systematic exclusion, bias, and inequality that black people have faced, from the end of slavery through Jim Crow and right up to present day. A 30-year study finds that of the 800 poor kids it tracked, only 33 made it into a high income bracket by adulthood. And empirical research, and common sense, tell us that we lack the political power to change these things because our system of governance has been captured by the wealthy. And this fucking guy is seen by some to be the future of the party that’s supposed to oppose all of this stuff.

Despair is a luxury, one denied to the truly suffering, and I try not to invoke that privilege out of solidarity with them. But I really  cannot see a way out of all this. In an unprecedented financial crisis, the world’s wealthiest elites crushed the global economy, due to unambiguous greed, fraud, and incompetence. They were bailed out thanks to the passive blackmail that is “too big to fail.” In response, the world has retrenched to austerity, preserving the wealth in the hands of that self-same elite rather than pursuing policies that might benefit those who were their victims. Yet the movement towards a more just and equitable distribution of resources has rarely seemed bleaker in my life. Where do you go from there?

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

just plugging away, here

You know I started my old blog on a public computer at my local library. At the time, I was poor, directionless, and terribly unhappy. (Today, I’m poor, somewhat directed, and happy.) I knew no one in media, had no professional resume to speak of, and had no reasonable expectation that anyone would read me or take me seriously. But people did, and gradually, I got a small but very appreciated audience. I’ve maintained a status as a mostly-amateur writer since. I blog for no money. I’ve written for some publications, places like Salon and Jacobin and The New Inquiry and n+1 and some others, and now when I write elsewhere, generally it’s for money. Again, I appreciate this opportunity, and I don’t take it for granted. If I keep getting those opportunities, I’ll appreciate them. I have raised a little money from my readers here, and I have also gotten a steady stream of books from my Amazon Wish List. In fact I got one just today, and as always I’m immensely grateful. If these opportunities and compensation stop, they stop. I am familiar with having nothing and I am prepared either way. It’s all been a blessing. My point is just this: I’ve never considered myself to be a remotely big deal, and I am very easy to ignore. I get the readers I get and that’s enough.

So recently I did what I do here and I wrote a piece about traditional masculinity and its bankruptcy. Ross Douthat took the time to respond to what I had to say. I’m glad he did, and I owe him a response in turn. Andrew Sullivan did too. Alyssa Rosenberg was also kind enough to weigh in. I appreciate each and others who have commented on my piece, and feel entitled to the attention of none of them. Then someone at Lawyers Guns and Money wrote a post about that piece, and well, the comments went the way LGM goes.

I’ll only say this: I can either be enraging to you or irrelevant to you. I can’t be both. There is something like a half-dozen posts on LGM which specifically consider me and my arguments. Erik Loomis has written dozens of comments about me in that space. Every time my name is mentioned on LGM, the comments explode into a frenzied Two-Minutes Hate about me and my many, many failings. All of this is cool. The wages are low. My grandfather, a specific victim of the anti-Communist Broyles Bills in Illinois, had his career ruined by anti-left animus, so this is nothing. I can certainly take the negative opinions of people who are too cowardly to reveal their actual names to the world. And the ability of professors to lord over grad students without any accountability or shame is, I’m afraid, a fact of life. That doesn’t bother me. But the contradiction is strange: Loomis writes in the comments of that post, “I can’t imagine two figures debating that I would be more inclined to ignore.” And yet that’s not ignoring me; in fact, it’s the opposite of ignoring me. This repeated tendency of people like these, to simultaneously obsess over me and then to express my irrelevancy, is hard for me to understand. Irrelevant people should not send dozens of commenters and a handful of comfortable, protected professors into a fit on cue. It’s just strange, that’s all I’m saying. 

I’ll keep doing this as long as I think it makes sense, and I’ll appreciate each and every person who reads me, and when it’s time to stop, I’ll stop. In the meantime: I am so, so easy to ignore. If I am irrelevant– and a broke humanities grad student who lives in the middle of America and writes on the same WordPress platform every other amateur does is probably irrelevant– then ignoring me has to be easy. If I’m a symptom of the decline of the West because you don’t like that I have different opinions than you do about politics, then that’s okay, too. But decide which is which. I’ll just be here, doing my thing, OK? Like, if you think the best thing to do is to ignore me… ignore me. I find that a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Me, I don’t find anybody irrelevant. I take all comers. But then, I’m also not the kind of person to spend so many hours of the day complaining  anonymously about writers whose ideas I don’t even pretend to engage with.

Incidentally, I wrote a comment in regards to the substance of the LGM post, but the last time I checked they haven’t deigned to unleash it, even though the piece is about my argument and the comments are about me personally. And I might note that, unlike with Douthat, I probably agree with the average LGM blogger on 90% of issues, which for a crew of supposed political pragmatists should probably matter. But that’s the kind of shop they run over there, and I doubt that will ever change.

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in loco parentis

The Dish has been considering the topic of college assessments and government rankings of universities. It happens that I am right now writing my dissertation on the Collegiate Learning Assessment and its successor, the Collegiate Learning Assessment+, one of the major competitors in the effort to establish a common test of college student learning. It also happens that I owe 25 pages of that dissertation to my advisor tomorrow morning, so I can’t write at length about this topic right now. Let me say in general that I have a complex relationship to the subject of my study. As far as these tests goes, I think the CLA is a good one, and the Council for Aid to Education that runs it is mostly on the side of the angels. I also think that this type of assessment is necessary, especially given the threat the online-only education represents to the traditional university. I don’t think that online-only education actually works, and we have to prove it, and tests like the CLA can help. But I also think that everyone involved has to have a skeptical, nuanced understanding of the limitations of these tests, and I’m afraid I have no faith that administrators, politicians, or parents will have that kind of skepticism or nuance. It’s a long conversation.

The Dish highlights this email from an engineering professor:

I’m an engineering professor. I have indeed seen colleges do unwise things with funds. I am a little bit concerned, though, about university ranking systems because they can drive unintended consequences. The proliferation of fancy sports facilities, for example, was in some measure a response to the US News rankings. Universities compete for students. Those that are highly ranked get more and better students, and they can justify higher tuition. If state support is going to disappear (as it pretty much has already in some states), we have to expect universities to market themselves and rankings to drive the marketing. I cannot predict how exactly, but I know this will not end well.

I wrote a piece awhile back about the insane opulence, and equally insane expense, of Purdue’s new gym. It’s in keeping with the terribly costly physical expansion that has happened at colleges the country over. It’s the Gyms, Dorms, and Dining Halls school of recruiting top students to your college. It’s a truly misguided waste of resources from an educational standpoint, and a massive mistake, but it’s also perfectly rational from the standpoint of administrators trying to attract the most competitive students: these things work. Having the best faculty doesn’t work. Having a great graduation rate doesn’t work. Placing lots of students in jobs doesn’t work. What works is the “Club Med plus classes” approach. I have a lot of friends in the academy, in many different schools and positions, and what my admissions officer friends tell me is that internal surveys and research find again and again that students on visits comment on those facilities — gyms, dorms, and dining halls — more than any other aspect.

And that’s just a terrible, destructive thing for our universities. Look, I don’t blame these kids that much. When you’re 17, 18, 19 years old, it’s really hard to balance the appeal of instant gratification and fancy architecture against the subtler, long-term importance of graduating, graduating quickly, graduating without a lot of debt, and graduating with a sought-after skill set. But the parents… I don’t know why the parents aren’t doing more to push their kids away from the fancy gyms and towards the stripped-down, lean, and efficient schools. Ultimately, though, only the colleges can say no to the Gyms, Dorms, and Dining Halls competition. They have to say to themselves: we will not run that race. They have to say no.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for colleges to say no, because the US News and World Reports rankings are heavily influenced by how many students accept a college’s offer of admission, and by exit surveys that ask students to rate their overall experience, including facilities and “quality of life” measures [redacted-- see below]. The flat reality is that those rankings produce outcomes more oriented towards vague and self-fulfilling notions of prestige, and to the gee-whiz factor of fancy dorms and sushi chefs in the dining halls, than they are towards actual education. And despite the mountains of compelling arguments against those rankings, the kids actually pay attention to them. Way, way too much attention. Which is why the US News and World Reports rankings are one of the most the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things to ever happen to American college.

(Seriously: die in a fire, US News and World Reports  rankings.)

This brings up a topic that I have been loathe to discuss, because it seems so much like victim blaming. But I think that, if our discussion of student loan debt and the cost of college is to be useful, we have to start to interrogate how undergraduates themselves contribute to these problems. (I guess you can say that this isn’t victim blaming but future victim blaming.) Clearly, these students are part of a larger system that has failed many of them and many of the people like them, and ultimately accountability resides with the whole system. But it’s remarkable how much pushback I get from the very students who risk being saddled with huge student loan debt in their near future. When I wrote that piece about Purdue’s gym, I got praise and encouragement from professors, from administrators, and even from Purdue president Mitch Daniels himself. The people who didn’t like it were Purdue undergrads. I got quite a few nasty emails when that piece came out, from undergrads. The general sentiment was to ask, so you think we don’t deserve a good gym? I simply responded that it seemed sensible to me to build, say, a $15 million gym and save the $75 million to keep tuition down, maybe build a new English building to replace our current crumbling monstrosity. There was a total disconnect from the fact that a $90 million gym represents a huge opportunity cost, one that ultimately, they pay for, even if the gym was funded largely by outside funding. Similarly, I once wrote a letter to the editor of the Purdue Exponent, responding to a piece where students were quoted talking about how the came to Purdue for an experience and not just for an education. I counseled Purdue students that  viewing college as an experience would contribute directly to a longer time to graduate, and thus more debt, and undermine their educational strengths that they will need in a brutal job market. I got some praise from profs and fellow grad students, but undergrads sent me hate mail in response, and an undergrad wrote a letter to the Exponent mocking me for being a grad student.

These kids will, I’m sorry to say, end up paying for these attitudes, with student loan debt and the crushing job market for recent graduates. I don’t want that for them, and again I don’t place most of the blame on them. But I think changing the landscape will have to entail recognizing that, as much as they fail their duty in doing so, colleges are looking at students as customers, in the typical neoliberal style, and they are responding to what the customers want. We have to have the guts to say no, and the media has to help us say no so that parents and students can understand why we say no.

You should really check out my piece on that gym. Read it, and then let this squash your mind grapes: a friend of mine, when teaching class, gave his students a writing assignment. He asked them to tell him what they would do if they were given a $1 million grant to improve Purdue. How would that money best be spent? With that $90 million gleaming fitness palace having just opened, over a quarter of his  students said they would put it towards building another new gym. Seems they think it gets a little too crowded in the afternoons.

Update: A reader helpfully writes in and points out that the US News and World Reports criteria have changed. You can find them here.

Posted in Education | 1 Comment

one very bad argument against reparations

There’s a lot not to like about this David Frum piece concern trolling Ta-Nehisi Coates’s reparations essay. For instance, Frum asks as a hypothetical “If African Americans are due payment for slavery and subjugation, what about… Japanese Americans, interned during World War II?,” apparently unaware that we already did that. But here’s one that I find really baffling. Comparing reparations to affirmative action, Frum writes,

the strategy detoured talented people away from the higher risks and rewards of the private sector, and especially from entrepreneurship. Black Americans are less than half as likely as white to own their own businesses.

A reparations plan is likely to prove even more distorting.

If paid to individuals as an income stream, reparations would dis-incentivize work.

If paid to individuals as a lump sum, reparations would expose one of America’s least financially sophisticated populations to predatory practices that would make subprime lending seem socially responsible by contrast.

So let’s sort this out. Like most conservatives, Frum thinks that a key aspect of solving black-white economic inequality is entrepreneurship, and he further thinks that affirmative action has dissuaded black Americans from going down that path. OK, fine. He particularly advocates for the “higher risks and rewards of the private sector,” which is in keeping with the conservative fetish for exposure to economic risk as some sort of virtue. Well, let’s think about this structurally instead of psychologically. What’s one of the biggest impediments to starting your own business? A lack of initial capital. To start your own business, you either need a) your own money, b) a loan, c) outside investment. In access to all three of those, black people face systemic disadvantage in our country– and Coates’s essay spends a great deal of time establishing that disadvantage. The black-white wealth gap is enormous, and loans and investment are precisely the sort of area where implicit and structural racism hurts the most. On a theoretical level, I find a lack of access to initial capital a far more plausible reason for a lack of black American entrepreneurship than some sort of enculturated fear of risk and reward. And for exactly this reason, we could reasonably expect that reparations could result in a great flourishing of black-owned businesses, like we’ve never seen.

Of course, many or most of those businesses would fail; that’s the reality of small businesses, after all. There’s the risk part of that equation. And yet Frum seems to see this risk as a reason not to give out reparations, when he writes “If paid to individuals as a lump sum, reparations would expose one of America’s least financially sophisticated populations to predatory practices that would make subprime lending seem socially responsible by contrast.” All entrepreneurs need to be wary of predatory practices. That’s the risk that you yourself endorsed in this essay! You can’t have it both ways; either entrepreneurship is a potential financial salve for black Americans, including the risks, or the risks are too great and the problem lies in the entrepreneurship and not the reparations.

Me, lefty that I am, I’m not so gung-ho on entrepreneurs. But if you want to spread small business ownership within the black community, you have to figure out a way to provide startup funds to an impoverished group that lacks the social capital necessary to get credit and investment. Reparations sounds like a great way to start– and that’s from a purely consequentialist standpoint, before we even get to the moral justification Coates invested so much time and effort in building.

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