Posts from ‘Education’


Many years ago, (1971 to be specific) there was a television commercial about a Native American viewing the mess that we had turned the environment into, which ended with a closeup of a single tear silently running down his face. Although this ad has been criticized for portraying a “magical Indian” trope and parodied because the supposed native American was actually an Italian American, I still recall it. As someone who devoted my working career to teaching about critical thinking, Africa, African Americans, and looking beyond the accepted or received wisdom of others, I can think of no better image that captures how I feel. The distrust of authority is not something new, but the aversion to science, facts, and concern for others, didn’t seem as rampant as it does now. The political divisions between parties, politicians and individuals did not seem as irreconcilable. Mainstream media presentations did not seem to miss the point as much, did not seem to be as misleading. It might just be that I am getting old. I have lived in and studied many cultures and in all of them the elders consistently thought that their society was going to hell in a handbasket. Or, it could be that something different is really happening.

The most distressing statistic I’ve seen is that 50% of Americans only read at a sixth grade level. I worry about the “dumbing down” of our society which makes the emergence of power-hungry authoritarians a real threat to democracy not only here in the U.S. but also, abroad. Indeed, the founders of the United States tried to walk a fine line between the “democracy” of a massively uneducated constituency and a “republic” that would keep in check the authoritarian tendencies of the educated elite. For example, that is why we have three separate branches of government that can “check” each other, and a bicameral legislative system with a democratic House of Representative where representation is based on population and a Senate where it is not. With its more frequent elections the House is supposed to “represent” the interests of the people, while the six-year term of the senators is supposed to keep the “rabble” in check. This distrust of the people is why we have an Electoral College instead of direct election of the president by the people. The problem is that the system has been turned upside down by the political ambitions of the elite, the influx of corporate control over politicians through political contributions, and the ability of politicians to sway the masses through technological advances in media from the radio to television to the internet. Now misinformation allows ambitious politicians and con men like Trump to deny reality, lie, steal votes and money, and solidify their control through gerrymandering, control over the education system, and voter suppression.

Although the United States has always had an ideology of universal rights on paper (e.g. all men are created equal) but this universalism has always played second fiddle to the symphony of particularism based on class, ethnicity, localism, gender and of course race. We are currently seeing a dramatic rise in the ability of this particularism to overshadow the universality. Politicians like Florida’s Ron DeSantis are hoping to ride this wave into the presidency much as Trump did. The  dissatisfaction that late capitalism has created among the middle class has been deflected onto “immigrants,” “people of color,” “LBGT folks,” as if attacking these folks could make middle class and rural white lives better. I have to wonder how the the problem has gotten so much worse lately. I am not saying it has caused the problem, but lack of education and poor reading level is exacerbating the problem and preventing a cure.

I am heartened by the fact that polls show the younger generation resistant to the blandishments of the authoritarians and most of Trump’s support, for example, among older people. Yet there is much that is disheartening too. The wide spread of these ideas, the entrenched political structures that are built on them, the increased violence that accompanies it, and the lack of Republican voices against blatant lies, all sadden me.

The point of that old “Crying Indian” commercial is that since people created the problem, people can ameliorate it. That is my only consolation as that metaphorical tear rolls down my face.


The first group of responses to George Yancy’s New York Times op ed piece that I want to talk about are those responses which deny that he could be an intellectual or even someone who reasons. He received comments like: “This belief that niggers even reason is blatant pseudo-intellectualism,” “The concept of there being an intellectual Negro is a joke,” “Another uppity Nigger. Calling a Nigger a professor is like calling White Black and Wet Dry,” “This coon is a philosopher in the same way Martin King was a PHD and the same way that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are ‘Reverends’,” “Just another jive assed nigger with a new way to pimp,” and “Hey Georgie boy. You’re the fucking racist, asshole. You wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for affirmative action.” The mere fact that he is a professor at a prestigious university is a threat both to their stereotypes and to them personally.

I have experienced this myself. In my third year of teaching I went to the wedding of a dear white friend of mine. As I was mingling with the other guests an inebriated white guest came over to me and asked me who I was. I introduced my self and said I was a professor at Bowdoin College. He looked at me in astonishment. “A black intellectual,” he said, “I didn’t believe there could be such a thing.” Before I could respond another guest who could see what was going on, came over and hustled him away to break up the conversation. Naive historian that I am I was about to explain that there had been black intellectuals and college professors for well over a century and a half and mention Alexander Crummell, Carter Woodson, E. Franklin Frazier and W.E.B. DuBois. Upon later reflection I realized that this response would have been woefully inadequate. Not only wouldn’t he have heard of any of these people, their existence wouldn’t have made a dent in his incredulity. He presumed that black people were incapable of intellectual thought and that was a fixed part of his worldview.

I had never given a thought to the fact that there were people like him. I had spent ten years of my life in undergraduate or graduate school learning from black academics among others and the last couple in the rarefied air of a college where my colleagues never challenged (at least to my face) my right to be there. I held power over students so their challenges directly to me were minimal, although I had no way of knowing what they said in private. I remember one morning I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that students reacted differently to African American professors than they did to white professors. At my first class, a class of less than 20 students, I began class by asking if it made a difference to them that I was an African American professor. They hemmed and hawed a bit before one young lady said, “you are so completely yourself that the fact that you are an African American does enter into our thinking about you.” That was one of the nicest things a student ever said to me. It was not the “I don’t see color” bs that you sometimes hear, but an acknowledgement that being an African American was so much a part of who I was that they could not single it out as a defining characteristic.

Nevertheless the incident at the wedding revealed a truth to me. Part of my role as a professor was to show that black folk could in fact be professors and that this might, I say might, influence some to change their stereotypes of black people. When Barack Obama was elected president he is supposed to have explained to his daughters that he would be the first black president. One of them is supposed to have said “Wow, you better be good.” I always felt the same way. I was usually over-prepared for class and I cared about the quality that colleagues would see me, and later the Africana Studies program that I headed, exhibit. Like most folks it took me a while to fully learn my craft, but I had learned even before this that you should always try your best because you never knew who could be watching you. A couple of years ago, seven years after I had taught my final class, my college invited me back to participate in a teach-in they were having. I gave a lecture on jazz, Motown, hip-hop and the environment. At the end one first-year student came over to me and said that was the best presentation she had ever seen. She had only been in college six weeks at that point so I took what she said with a grain of salt. I did take it as a sign that after 30 years I knew what I was doing and had learned how to do it.

I have also learned that it is important that I did so. Yes, our scholarship is important. It usually adds new perspectives to our fields and will be here after we’ve gone. All that work we put into our institutions is also important, as is the teaching of our students. However for some folks who will never read our books or hear us speak or show up in our classes, we still have a contribution to make by simply existing. Whether we realize it or not, whether we want to or not, whether we embrace it or not, we stand as a counterargument to the demeaning stereotypes of African American intelligence.


A little while ago there was a Facebook challenge circulating among my friends: quickly list 10 books that were important to you without thinking about it too much. Not being one to be constrained by the rules I wanted to do it but with some thought rather than quickly and not necessarily with 10 books. My list is considerably different from those of my friends and colleagues but I always was an odd duck. The first book is one few will have read but many will have heard of: Moby Dick. I read it for the first time when I checked out a copy from the adult section of my public library (it may have been the first “adult” book I read.) I was 11-12 at the time. I read it as an adventure story just skimming over the long boring parts to get on with the exciting ones. In other words I read it as a young boy would. It is important to me not for that first reading but because of my second.  Later in high school it was on a summer reading list and I re-read it presumably because it would take less time to read something I had read before. I was amazed at how different it was.  Those parts that had seemed so boring to me before suddenly became the more interesting.  The discourse on whiteness, the subtle racism toward Queequeg, the historical context, and above all the vengeance obsession became parts that strangely interested me.  I then had the sudden insight that it was me who had changed not the book. This was a new idea to me. A reader brought his “baggage”, into the reading of a book.  It was his situation, his spot within the life cycle, his experiences, other books he had read, his knowledge of the world at that moment, into each reading of a book. I resolved to re-read Moby Dick every ten years or so believing new parts of the book would reveal themselves to me each time.  Sadly I have not followed through on this pledge though I have re-read many books since.

The second reading experience I want to talk about is really not a book at all. In  high school we were assigned to research an historical event. I chose the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.  Why? I had heard that it was an important case in a history that involved African Americans like me.  In addition it had happened within my lifetime but I knew little about it because I was only four years old at the time. I don’t remember my elders talking about it in 1954 but that may have just been me. The high school had an excellent library and I was able to research much of the media reaction at the time of the decision. I didn’t end up digging too deeply into the case’s roots nor the long drawn out attempts to circumvent it that followed.  Looking back it was a pretty rudimentary project, but it was my first history project with primary materials.  At the time I enjoyed doing it though I did not realize how central to me history would become. More to the point it was the first time I realized how out of touch with the world I truly was.  It was 1966 and momentous things had been happening around me my entire life and I was only peripherally aware of them.  Of course the civil rights movement had been an exciting television show in my house, but I had neither the historical knowledge nor the life experiences to appreciate it. Little did I know that all hell was about to break loose when I arrived in college in 1967.

I did not read the next two books until long afterwards. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and Country of My Skull by a female Afrikaner named Antje Krug.  I group these two together because they provide the yin and the yang of South Africa. Together they embody the hope that in South Africa’s future they can meet in the middle and be better people for it. Mandela’s book is about how to make integrity pragmatic.  He knew that he was opposed by people who feared the future he represented.  He knew that the way to win them over was to show them through his own magnanimity, show him through his respect for them and demand for their respect of him, show him through his rationality and steadfastness, that their fears were groundless. Krug’s book is about her coverage as a journalist of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings.  She has to learn of the injustices committed in the name of ordinary Afrikaners by the racist regime. She also had to learn what Mandela was teaching: that the only true future lay in respect not fear of blacks. Given recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere those are lessons folks in our country need to learn too.

(To be Continued)


A Facebook friend recently asked me what I thought about Anthony Weiner’s attempted political comeback from sexting scandals as a mayoral candidate in NYC and the San Diego mayor being accused of sexual harassment.  In the last few weeks I have also been sent this article about the University of Southern California being investigated for policies that condoned rape and this one about sexual abuse at a well known prep school. I thought therefore I would make public my thoughts on sexual harassment and abuse particularly in politics and education. I was at different times a member of the board to advise on sexual harassment cases at my former institution, a sexual harassment adviser to students, a dean of students, an associate dean of the faculty and through it all a faculty member. In all of these various roles I have received training in the legal issues and institutional concerns that arise in these situations as well as the human costs, concerns and likely actions of those involved. I also should mention that my wife is a social worker so through discussion, osmosis and inclination I have developed an understanding of the personal issues surrounding harassment and abuse.

At this point we only have allegations about the San Diego mayor and the full story has yet to come out.  I therefore do not feel I can comment on that one.  Weiner is another story.  He has confessed to the allegations and the media has, pardon the expression, exposed the content of his inappropriate sexual texts. He says that they were indiscretions and bad judgments so he should be forgiven.  His wife says she has forgiven him thus implying that the voters should too. If my training and experience have taught me one thing about these complex cases it is that harassment and abuse are more about power than sex. To me Weiner’s sin is not about minor indiscretions but about abuses of power.  He has used his political positions, celebrity and employer status to force his sexual presence upon women who had less power. I will never know the psychological roots of his urges toward exhibitionism but I don’t care. When given political power he abused it and now is asking that he be given it again.  Fool me twice shame on me. I would not vote for him if I were still a voter in NYC.

The same concerns inform my take on sexual harassment and abuse in education. I have known several teachers who met their wives when they were students either taught by them or at least at their institutions.  Some of these have produced committed or long-lasting partnerships that have survived their teacher-student beginnings. Some have cooled to become nostalgic memories of young peoples’ sexual awakening both straight and gay as the partners moved on. Some of the relationships have been consensual while others have been predatory. Most of the abuse and harassment incidents have been student to student rather than faculty to student. Alcohol has been a player in many of the situations as has peer pressure and student culture. While all of these things need to be considered when counselling students and helping students cope with the aftermath of these situations, for me they do not play a role in the ethics of the situation, what is right or wrong. Let me be crystal clear on this. a) Forcing sexual practices or attentions on others beyond their consent or when their ability to consent becomes curtailed, is wrong; b) sexual attentions between people of holding different power positions particularly within the same hierarchy whether that be student/teacher, employer or supervisor/employee, minister/worshiper, older relative/younger relative  or officer/soldier, is wrong because consent is meaningless in these situations.

To take the last situation first in the case of unequal power positions consent cannot be disengaged from the power relations at work here. Is the person of lesser power giving consent because of the attraction to the greater power in the other or because the greater power curtails their ability to object? Either way the power relations have entangled and ensnared any romantic or sexual attraction that may have occurred. In the first situation I believe that no is clearly no and that consent when one’s judgment is impaired e.g. by alcohol or peer pressure is no consent at all. The presence of alcohol should not be used to condone sexual activity but as a warning that any sexual activity in those situations has a high likelihood of being sexual harassment or assault.

All of this gets us back to the two articles that I have linked to above. In the first story University of Southern California is alleged to encourage or at least allow its employees (deans, safety officers and counselors) tell students not to press charges of rape particularly if they had imbibed alcohol at the time of their sexual encounters. I emphasize that these are but allegations at the present and an investigation will I hope determine if they are true. If they are true and even if these are some employees acting on their own, some serious retraining and examination of campus culture are in order. If it takes a judgment that hurts the deep pockets of USC to bring about change then so be it. If I were still a parent of a USC student I would be concerned and think twice about sending my child there. The bad publicity alone should prompt USC to re-examine itself and I hope it leads to an amelioration of the situation rather than a cover-up.

Deerfield is in a similar situation. I think the Catholic Church has provided us with an excellent example of how not to handle sexual abuse in its ranks. Rather than covering it up it must face it head on and institute policies and procedures to prevent its happening again. Most of the time abusers rationalize their abuse as not hurting the people they abuse. This is of course nonsense but it means that the abusers will continue their abuse as long as they can because they see little or nothing wrong with it. The institution has a moral, parental and legal obligation to prevent it happening and to investigate (to fire if necessary) any abusers. This will involve training the students, administrators and faculty to spot the signs of abuse, informing students, staff and faculty of what abuse/harassment is as well as what their rights are, counselling and increased vigilance. All of this need be age appropriate to protect students and faculty alike.



I was reading an article by Harlan Green (here) which raised the question of why the poorer states, particularly those who receive more in federal aid than they pay in taxes,  support candidates who promise a smaller government and fewer entitlement programs. He refers to an article by Paul Krugman which lists three answers to that question:

  • The answer that Thomas Frank gives in his book What’s the Matter With Kansas, that is, Republicans and conservatives have used social issues like abortion, gay marriage etc. to convince people to vote for them even when it was against their economic interests to do so.
  • The opposite tendency of affluent voters in the Northeast to vote against their economic interests (voting Republican) because of their stand on social issues explained by Andrew Gelman.
  • The fact that 40 to 44% of the people receiving government benefits like Social Security or Medicare do not recognize that they are receiving government benefits that the people they vote for want to cut.

To me none of these explanations is broad enough or goes deep enough to explain the behavior even though in some instances they may be true. Long ago when my wife was working as a teller in a bank a little old woman came in and was complaining that she feared the President was going to cut her Social Security.  When my wife asked her who she had voted for she said “President Reagan.”

Green veers off on what seems like a tangent when he is answering a different question – what makes these states poor in the first place.  He says there is a correlation between these states and the states with the lowest amount of passport holders. He notes that passport ownership usually marks wealth, experience in other cultures, education, and what he calls “openness”, all of which create social liberalism. By implication the lowest passport owning states would have lower wealth, lower education, fewer experiences with other cultures and a “closedness.” He then offers an argument that the support for conservatism comes from holding a social Darwinism and free market belief even among the poor who haven’t risen to the top. He doesn’t explain where that belief comes from, only that it is an outdated 19th century belief in the 21st century. The presidents he believes instituted the most deregulation to remove controls on the free market were Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush. Our economy went into its most severe depression or recession as a consequence.

Now I haven’t checked on Green’s economic history nor do I want to go into the lack of logic in his arguments.  What I want to ask is whether the same things that keep the residents of these states poor are the same things that make them vote for conservatives? Right away I want to emphasize that this is a social science hypothesis; it is a probabilistic statement not an absolute. I am not saying that all people in these states vote conservative, nor that all in these states are poor, less educated and “closed”, nor that only such people vote conservative. I am sure that there are many wealthy, well-educated conservatives out there.  I am asking whether there is a statistical correlation between states with large blocs of these characteristics and current voting patterns. If there is, does this correlation mean there is a causal relationship between the two? I am not asserting that there is; I am only thinking out loud. Are people willing to vote arguably against their economic interests because of ideology, philosophy or other such abstract beliefs.  Have their real economic interests been hidden or mystified? Do people in fact vote their economic interests or do they vote as they do for other reasons?




News that Arizona has censured its first public school ethnic studies program has prompted me to write about it.  I first did so in this blog about a year ago.

  1. It is counterproductive, i.e. it stirs up more anger and resentment than it prevents

H.L Mencken has written, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” This reminds me of what we called in my un-politically correct youth a “Chinese handcuff.” That was a woven tube into which you placed the forefinger of each hand and then tried to free them. If you did the obvious thing and simply tried to pull your fingers out of it, the tube merely tightened and held you more firmly.  The trick was to do the counter-intuitive thing and to push your fingers into the tube more.  It loosened and was thus easy to escape. In my thirty years of teaching  “ethnic studies” courses at the college level students were much more likely to become angry at the idea that this information had been hidden from them in public education than angry at “whites” for things they had done in the past. In fact those who had taken such courses gained a greater appreciation for America where things like racism and religious bigotry could be confronted and overcome. We should allow increased opportunities for minorities to develop a group consciousness and for individuals to succeed in society despite America’s shortcomings. Indeed the exceptions in the law for native Americans and the Holocaust provide examples where federal or mainstream politics recognizes the value of this. I was at a conference once where the keynote speaker lamented that “we had asked for revolution and a share of the power and all they gave us was ethnic dinners.”  In other words the real power sharing demands had been mollified by the acknowledgment and steering of ethnic demands into non-threatening areas. America and capitalism’s ability to absorb and steer challenges to it into things like the marketing of “ethnicity” plays a great role in preserving it.An anti-ethnic studies law conceals things you should know about.

2. I am struck by the “ostrich” aspect of this law.

It is based on the ludicrous assumption that if we don’t talk about something, it ceases to exist. Incidentally the corallary to this is also false” something” only comes into being when we talk about it (take the concern about too early sex education.) What the law calls “ethnic studies,” is most often “American studies” just told from a different perspective. “Ethnic studies” did not make up  anti-Native American policies, slavery, Jim Crow laws, the Chinese exclusion Act,  race riots,  the Japanese internment camps or modern “ethnic” movements like the civil right movement, farm-worker movements, the women’s movement etc. These are parts of American history that all should know about.  Whether you spin these into a narrative about an ever improving America or mine it for models to emulate and adapt to conservative causes, it is a history even conservatives should know about. Whether one agrees with “ethnic studies” one has to understand the reality of today’s America to adequately plan tactics and strategies. If there is resentment against or by an ethnic group you need to understand how to use it to support your cause, enlist allies, broaden your message and defend against challenges.

3. “Ethnic studies” teaches and demonstrates values you want inculcated in young people.

The whole anti-ethnic studies movement is based upon incorrect assumptions about what actually happens in such classes. The fear represented in this law is that by teaching people that they have been oppressed they will react as a group and resent their oppressors as a group rather than acting as individuals or seeing other ethnic groups as individuals. This is hogwash.  First of all the word has already slipped out that minority groups have been, are and will continue to be oppressed. Some members of minority groups don’t believe it and some do, but their belief will be shaped by the conditions of their lives not what is said in ethnic studies classes.  It is these conditions like how and where one lives, one’s chances for success, how others you know have fared and the opportunities available to you, which will determine how you feel about other groups.  It is individual circumstances and personal relationships that shape whether you see yourself oppressed as an individual or as a group and whether you see other ethnicities as individuals or as a faceless group. How you are treated now is much more important to you than how your group was treated historically.

Moreover many of the values which those who support this law say they hold are taught by the “ethnic studies” courses. An ethnic group’s spirituality, the importance of family, the meaning of liberty, the value of making up your own mind, one’s own uniqueness and the viewing of pronouncements critically are far more meaningful things that one learns in an ethnic studies course. To deny students these teachings for fear they may resent your group historically seems to me throwing the baby out with the bath water.


My wife and I are volunteering in a program called ABQ Reads which takes us into a local elementary school to help kindergarteners work on their reading skills.  It is based on reading recovery programs developed elsewhere. Albuquerque schools face an enormous challenge in that by third grade only about 60% of students are reading at grade level and none of them meet No Child Left Behind standards. Rather than addressing this problem the politicians are squabbling about “social promotion” in which kids are passed on to the next grade for social development reasons rather than because they have achieved grade levels in reading and writing.  Giving a student more of what is not working anyway (by holding them back) doesn’t seem to me to solve the problem. The ABQ Reads program is based on the idea that by working on the lack of reading preparation at the beginning more students will be at grade level after the first year and will continue on later. Although I don’t buy that they will continue on without further assistance I recognize that the problem is so great we have to start somewhere to work on it.

Why am I who has spent thirty years teaching 18-22 year-olds  devoting some time to teaching 5 year-olds?  Well to start with the kids are cute and it is quite refreshing to teach students who are so thirsty for knowledge, attention or simply someone to listen to them and to do it on a one-to-one basis. They are not representatives or symbols of anything, they’re just kids. It is more than that however. Starting at the beginning rather than the end (the college level) seems to me a good way to try to make the dream of public education a reality.  John Dewey and his bunch always thought that public education should be the mechanism to reduce social inequality although today it is only occasionally fulfilling that function. That social inequality starts for a child long before they enter school and certainly continues in their lives outside school while they progress through the grade levels. Kindergarten is that first point where public educational institutions start to intervene in the social process of inequality. Why not make that intervention one the kids enjoy so much they want to continue?

We are just beginning our service but what have I noticed so far? Well a lot of “experts” have obviously given a lot of thought to the best way to teach reading to five year-olds.  They have studied child development in physical, intellectual and social skills quite extensively in coming up with the best ways to teach the most children. I must defer to them and follow their curriculum as much as possible. The curriculum seems to me to be overly regimented and does not allow for much “wiggle room” for individualizing for particular students nor in allowing for the great creativity of children at this age. Far be it for me to throw a monkey wrench into what they are doing (don’t laugh) but perhaps even in the half hour a week I spend with each of two  students I can add a little bit to what they are teaching. The school system also seems limited in its ambition perhaps because of all the problems they are facing  shrinking resources, and increased scrutiny, interference and criticism from outsiders. Their biggest concern is getting the greatest number of kids up to grade level reading. They seem only secondarily concerned with creating curious people, lifelong learners, good citizens or what educational concerns they should have for the 21st century, if they are concerned about these things at all. Part of this is of course the tunnel vision one must develop in an ongoing battle to have any success. To have to rely on volunteers to achieve even these limited goals is our country’s shame but it also means there is nothing to spare for these other things. It will take years for these other things to trickle down to public school teachers.  Maybe they won’t at all.  In the meantime if they just need volunteer bodies I’m willing to go out to the front lines.  It may be like trying to douse a forest fire with a glass of water but I feel good doing it.


Recently while reading  Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s article “The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age” I read  a sharp criticism about the viability of digital enhancements to teaching.  Davidson and Goldberg’s future book extols the virtues of a digital future which allows students to be educated in a way that spurs their independence, curiosity, and connection with the world.  I will discuss their argument in a future post.  Right now I want to address one of the criticisms of their view on by Kevin Nenstiehl (here).

Though some students love learning enough to be self-motivated, they are not the majority. Many, if not most, regard classes, even within their majors, as a nuisance. I would love it if my students had enough ambition to undertake the kind of team tasks Davidson and Goldberg describe, but anybody who has taught more than one or two semesters knows that if you get three students per class who don’t need to be prodded, you are one lucky cuss.

In other words most college students would not be interested in the new educational opportunities offered by those who evangelize for the use of digital educational enhancements. While my experiences hardly constitute a scientific sample they are instructive. I taught for thirty years at one of the most highly selective liberal arts colleges in the country. In that environment the number of self-motivated students who took advantages of opportunities to pursue independent interests, learn collaboratively, and use different learning methods, was quite high.  Colleagues who came to my school from other colleges remarked about how much better our students were than those at their former institutions. Colleagues at other institutions often complained about students at their schools in much the way Prof. Nenstiehl does. My son has attended two private universities and his complaints about his peers also find them to lack the self motivation, interest in learning for learning’s sake, and preparation to take advantage of any digital enhancements to courses.

Does this mean that the people who will take take advantage of the utopian virtues of digital learning that Davidson, Goldberg and many others have extolled will only be the students at the elite, highly selective institutions?  Are we seeing a class division of those who will get and use digital enhancements in their education or at least a division between the digital haves and have-nots? To answer this we need to understand the causes of student disinterest in what the digital progressives have in mind.  There is unquestionably a crisis in American schools in which we are not producing as many as we of the students who could take advantage of the digital age in education.  This crisis is much more complex than the proponents of No Child Left Behind have acknowledged and their educational reforms don’t address it at all. Standardized testing, calls for teacher accountability for student failure and restricting school funding are fixes that don’t get at the problems and won’t fix education. Wide income disparities, unequal educational funding, teacher unions and the misallocation of our best teachers are just some of the issues not addressed. There are students who rationally choose to look at college education only for how it will affect their material well being. There is also an anti-intellectualism in America (as Richard Hofstadter explained long ago) that mitigates against the students who Davidson and Goldberg believe will take advantage of their proposed changes in education.  The “digital natives and Gen-Y’ers” not withstanding, the issue is not only who is prepared for the digital age in education but who is interested in having it.

In short the digital education reforms that Davidson and Goldberg want to see at the tertiary level will only happen if we find a way to prepare more students for them at the K-12 levels. How can we do that and how likely are we to see it happen? First of all the cost for doing it has to come down and it has to be distributed at more schools.  As with any technical innovation it has to be accompanied by training in not only how to use new equipment but in how that equipment can be used to enhance a teacher in the classroom. Some of that educational exploration is already happening among teachers who are both forward looking, concerned about their students and willing to give of their time to develop techniques or communicate them to others. These teachers have to be enlisted and listened to and part of any change in the schools. The reward structure has to be revamped so that rewards are given for more than student success on standardized tests. Release time has to be financed so that they have the opportunity to develop new methods.

How likely is this to happen?  Given the current debate about education not very likely. The shrill volume, hysteria, political in-fighting and personal stakes involved hamper rational discussion of the real issues and the grabbing at what appear to be solutions when they are not.  But as the Africans say “No condition is forever.”  One day if we continue to say it, if we continue to develop new ideas, if we continue to work at it, someday we may be heard.


Neal Gabler, with whom I seldom agree, has written a recent article in the NYT Magazine bemoaning the lack of “big ideas” in American society. One passage in particular struck me:

It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief.

He goes on to argue that it is the flood of information from the internet and social media that has squeezed out the the analytical modes of rationality, science, evidence, logical argument etc. to open the floodgates to superstition, faith, orthodoxy and opinion. Continue Reading


To the extent that university level education gives in to student demands to learn only how to make money particularly by doing one thing it has failed in its mission.