Education in America: Of Hungry Wolves and Docile Sheep

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W.J. Astore

I was educated in public schools by dedicated teachers in the pre-digital age.  My teachers read books to me and had me read books.  I learned math, partly by rote, but also through friendly student competitions.  Science I learned by doing, like chemistry with Bunsen burners and test tubes.  I had classes in art and music, and even though I had little talent in drawing or playing an instrument, I still learned to appreciate both subjects.  My high school was big and diverse, so I took electives in courses I really enjoyed, like science fiction, photography, even a course in aquariology, in which I built my own aquarium.  And I must say I’m glad there wasn’t the distraction of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and similar social media sites to torment me; video games, meanwhile, were in my day still crude, so I spent more time outside, playing tennis, riding my bike, hanging with friends, being in the world and nature (fishing was a favorite pursuit).

When I was a teen, we learned a lot about history and civics and the humanities.  We spent time in the library, researching and writing.  I took a debate course and learned how to construct an argument and speak before an audience.  When I graduated from high school, I felt like I had a solid grounding: that I knew enough to make educated choices; that I could participate as a citizen by voting intelligently when I was eighteen.

Something has happened to education in America.  You can see it in the big trends that are being hyped, including STEM, vocational training, computers and online courses, and privatization (charter schools).  What suffers from these trends is the humanities, the arts, unionized teachers, critical and creative thinking skills, and, most especially, civics and ethics.

STEM is all about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  My BS is in mechanical engineering and I love science and math, so I’m sympathetic to STEM classes.  The problem is how STEM is justified – it’s usually couched in terms of keeping America competitive vis-à-vis other nations.  STEM is seen as a driver for economic success and growth, a servant of industry, innovation, and profit.  It’s not usually sold as developing critical thinking skills, even though STEM classes do help to develop such skills.

From STEM we turn to vocational training.  Many students seek a career, of course, and not all students wish to go to a four-year college, or to college period.  But once again vocational training is mainly justified as a feeder to business and industry.  It’s often reduced to education as training for labor, where the primary goal is to learn to earn.  It may produce decent plumbers and welders and electricians and the like, but also ones who are indoctrinated to accept the system as it is.

In The Baffler, Tarence Ray has an article, “Hollowed Out: Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia.”  Ray critiques ARC (the Appalachian Regional Commission) in the following passage that resonated with my own experiences teaching at a vocational college:

“The ARC [in the late 1960s and early ‘70s] also placed a lot of emphasis on career and vocational education.  This appealed to President Nixon, who was desperate to counteract the student activism of antiwar and environmental groups.  ‘Vocational education is more politically neutral,’ one White House aide put it.  But it was also advantageous for the multinational corporations who controlled Appalachia’s coal resources and most of its institutions of power–the goal was to create a workforce that was skilled but also obedient.  An education in the humanities emphasizes critical thinking, which might lead to political consciousness, a risk that the ARC could not afford to take.” [emphasis added]

My dad liked the historical saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  A vocational education sounds good, especially to those in power.  Doubtless young people need marketable skills.  The shame of it all is that the final “product” of vocational colleges–skilled graduates who are “workforce-ready”–is by design a limited one—an obedient one.  America needs active and informed citizens as well, and they need to have the skills and mindset to question their bosses, their so-called betters, because if they lack such a mindset, nothing will change for the better in our society.

Along with STEM and vocational training is an emphasis on computers and online courses.  Nowadays most school administrators would rather fund computers and networked classrooms than raise pay for teachers.  In fact, online courses are advertised as a way to replace teachers, or at least to reduce the number of full-time teachers needed on staff.  But I question whether one can learn sociology or art or philosophy or ethics by taking an online course.  And I remain skeptical of big “investments” in computers, SMART boards, and the like.  They may have their place, but they’re no substitute for education that’s truly student-centered, and one that’s focused on civics and ethics, right and wrong.

The final trend we’re seeing is privatization, as with charter schools.  The (false) narrative here is that teachers in unions are overpaid, unaccountable, and otherwise inflexible or incompetent.  Somehow the magical free market will solve this.  If only one could get rid of unions while privatizing everything, all will be well in America’s schools.  Private corporations, driven by profit and “efficiency,” will somehow produce a better product, a word I choose deliberately, for they see education as a product.  And while some charter schools have been innovative and effective, many others have failed, mainly because education isn’t education when it’s reduced to a “deliverable” – a commodity driven by and reduced to money.

At a time when the United States desperately needs critical and creative thinkers educated in the arts and humanities as well as STEM and vocational subjects, our schools and especially our legislators are rejecting their duty to serve democratic ideals, choosing instead to embrace business, industry, economic competitiveness, and obedience, all in service of the bottom line measured in dollars and cents.  Now more than ever, America needs young people who are engaged civically and ethically, who value more than money and materialism.  Yet many of our schools are pursuing a much different agenda.

Is it because hungry wolves prefer docile sheep?

Why Academic Tenure Is Vitally Important

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The way it should be: Enthusiastic teachers, engaged students

Richard Sahn

Perhaps the profession that requires job security more than any other is teaching, especially college teaching.  Tenure traditionally meant that a teacher/professor could be terminated only for moral turpitude (e.g. sexual abuse of students), blatant racism, unfair or unjust grading,  gross incompetence, failure to obey basic institutional rules such as not showing up to class on time, or not teaching the subject matter he or she was hired to teach.  Nowadays, however, “Just Cause” is often grounds for termination of a tenured faculty member.  But “Just Cause” in any work contract is far too flexible an instrument for employers and far too vague for employees who rightly worry about job security.

Job insecurity prior to acquiring tenure and tenure granted with a “Just Cause” basis for termination of employment work to stifle academicians’ free expression of creative ideas, theories, and perspectives in and outside of the classroom. Any psychiatric or psychological clinician knows, or should know, that the threat of losing one’s livelihood produces stress and anxiety.  Going to work each day, knowing your job is “contingent,” can become a dreaded and stressful experience.

Not only does academic tenure reduce or eliminate anxiety and stress: It ensures the free expression in the classroom of controversial and unorthodox ideas and pedagogical methods.  Colleges, all schools for that matter, should remain faithful to the ultimate purpose of education, to bring students out of darkness—e-ducare in Latin.  It therefore should be difficult to dismiss a teacher/professor once that person has acquired tenure.

Alas, much has changed in the groves of academe. “Make America Great Again” has come to mean—long before Trump—make life easier for administrators of educational institutions, especially those who primarily view education as preparation for the world of work. Colleges and universities are top-heavy with administrators. In fact, it’s easier to find employment as an administrator than it is as a full-time faculty member.

Colleges are also becoming increasingly technocratic in their organizational structure.  Form is becoming more important than content. The typical teacher/professor is expected to be virtually robotic in his/her performance. (God help a member of a college faculty nowadays who does not know the finer points of PowerPoint or refuses to use technology at all in the classroom.)  Scores on multiple-choice faculty evaluations are more valued than what students are learning.  The goal (often unstated) of pedagogy is to prepare students for becoming employees who will fit neatly and quietly into niches in the business and corporate world.   Professors are subtly urged, sometimes threatened, to become unindicted co-conspirators in what appears to be the ultimate purpose of education in contemporary American society: to produce graduates who will unreflectively accept the status quo.

Today’s system of compromised tenure limits the ability of teachers/professors to encourage students to question and challenge the status quo.  At its best, traditional tenure promoted an atmosphere in the classroom where teachers felt free to discuss contemporary political, social, and science/technology issues.  Job security encouraged teachers to provide the cognitive tools for what Neil Postman called “crap detecting” (critical thinking) in his book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity.”  Education for Postman included the ability to distinguish reality from propaganda—and it often worked.  For example, college-educated students were more likely to resist the draft, protest the Vietnam War, and oppose Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.  In short, they questioned authority because they had the tools, mindset, and commitment to do so.

In his 1923 book, “The Goose Step: A Study of American Education,” Upton Sinclair had this to say regarding colleges and universities: “Suppose I was to tell to tell you that this education machine has been stolen?  That a bandit crew have got hold of it and have set it to work, not for your benefit, nor for the benefit of your sons and daughters, but for an end very far from these?  That our six hundred thousand young people (supposedly in higher education) are being taught, deliberately and of set purpose, not wisdom but folly, not justice but greed, not freedom but slavery, not love but hate.”   Worshiping or conforming to a socio-economic system based on the values and goals of capitalism is the leading obstacle to an education that promotes democratic and humanitarian values, according to Sinclair.

Sinclair further argued that college professors should not “merely have job security” but also should have “collective control of that job.” He insisted that the faculty “must take from the trustees, and from the man they hired, the president, the greater part of their present functions.”  Sinclair’s message is telling: It’s undesirable for democracy for administrators to treat professors as employees who are readily dismissible.

“Readily dismissible” is an apt description of adjunct/contingent faculty today.  The number of adjuncts teaching college courses now outnumbers full-time tenured faculty.  On the adjunct level there is no job security from semester to semester. The academic goosestep is always outside the door.

Teachers on all levels of formal education have vital roles to play in getting all of us to question authority.  How can they do that, however, when their jobs can be eliminated by administrators whose first loyalty is often to an establishment that sustains that authority?  To challenge hegemonic social systems and structures, teachers and professors need job security.  They need tenure.  Is that why they’re not getting it?

Richard Sahn, a retired professor of sociology, taught at the collegiate level for four decades.