“Opinions Are Cheap”

In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education

The Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors just arrived in my mailbox, and in it I find an AAUP manifesto (dated January 2020) called “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education.”

The AAUP is noteworthy as an academic professional organization that has consistently attempted to keep structural first principles at the top of its agenda. I’m proud to be an AAUP member.

“In Defense of Knowledge,” though, is a complicated document because it attempts to expose and reframe a set of complex misconceptions. I don’t think it’s perfect, by any means. Partly because it’s such a bold and explicit statement, there’s something in it for almost anybody to disagree with.

For me, for example, the statement’s implicit complacency about the U.S. military-industrial-educational state is questionable. “How can we develop a credible foreign policy, ensure effective diplomacy, and prepare our military,” the statement demands, “when area studies and foreign language programs are curtailed, eliminated, or made subject to political intrusion?” I don’t think you need to be a pacifist to wonder, “Prepare our military for what?” And the statement is explicitly nationalistic in other ways that many academics will dissent from far more strongly than I will.

But I applaud the AAUP’s attempt to define what, exactly, colleges and universities are good for, and to show why they deserve broad-based public support. In fact, I think it’s crucial for everyone working in higher education today to make an explicit defense of their work—all their work—as a service to a free and democratic community.

Here are some of the passages that I found especially provocative and potentially useful for future reference:

It is not only research that is affected [by political attacks on academic independence]; teaching is as well. Teaching is, after all, the transmission of knowledge and a means of its production. A narrowing focus on vocational training, combined with attacks on the liberal arts and general education, closes off access to the varieties of knowledge and innovative thinking needed to participate meaningfully in our democracy. …

There are, of course, endless philosophical debates about the meaning of ‘knowledge.’ For our purposes, however, we need define it only as those understandings of the world upon which we rely because they are produced by the best methods at our disposal. The expert knowledge to which we refer is not produced merely by immediate sense impressions. …

These [academic] disciplines cumulatively produce understandings that are continuously tested and revised by communities of trained scholars. Expert knowledge is a process of constant exploration, revision, and adjudication. …

Academic freedom rests on a paradox. There must be freedom of inquiry, but that freedom must always be subject to peer judgment and evaluation. …

Colleges and universities deserve public support to the extent that American society requires expert knowledge. Expert knowledge has fueled American progress. It has checked ideological fantasies and partisan distortions. It has provided a common ground on which those with competing political visions can come together constructively to address common problems. Without expert knowledge, we lose our ability to know the past, to shape the future, and to acknowledge the differences and similarities we share as human beings.

—American Association of University Professors, “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education,” January 2020

As they say, I recommend reading the whole thing.

Is Trump Turning Students Against Conservatives?

In 2016, American undergraduates who had started college in the fall of 2015 (more than 7,000 of them at 122 institutions) said that their opinions of both conservatives and liberals had dramatically improved during their first year of college. Half of all students had already become more appreciative of conservatives; nearly half had become more appreciative of liberals.

But when surveyed again in their final year of college, those same students had changed their minds. Across almost all religious groups, the appreciation that these undergraduates had gained for conservatives had been “nearly or totally erased” since early 2016. In fact, by the time the class of 2019 graduated, its students from every major religious group—including Mormons and evangelicals!—were more likely to report a high opinion of liberals than of conservatives.

These are the (not yet published) findings of researchers running a project called IDEALS (the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey), who discuss their work today in an essay at Religion & Politics.

Matthew Mayhew, Kevin Singer, Alyssa Rockenbach, and Laura Dahl write that “students of all faiths in the class of 2019 were warming up to political conservatives at the end of their first year in college, which was during the final year of Obama’s presidency. Now, three years into Trump’s presidency, conservatives can only wonder what could have been.”

The researchers blame students’ plummeting approval for conservatives on “the Trump effect.”

Allow me to make some observations of my own.

I do think the “Trump effect” explanation for these findings is basically plausible. It is also consistent with my experiences working in higher education.

There has been a dramatic shift in student political temperament since early 2016 on the campuses where I have worked, and it does seem to be connected (in various ways) with the Trump phenomenon. Undergraduates in 2020 tend to identify conservatism with Donald Trump, in my experience, and they tend to hold conservatism in much lower regard than the undergraduates I taught a decade ago. But for the purpose of evaluating the IDEALS study as a piece of research, I do approach the idea with some caution.

Continue reading “Is Trump Turning Students Against Conservatives?”

Fall 2020: Two Propositions

I get the sense that a couple of things aren’t clear to everyone responsible for making decisions in U.S. higher education right now.

  1. Regardless of your opinion of online teaching—and most of us, broadly speaking, are at least mild skeptics—most U.S. colleges and universities will have to move to all-online teaching by the end of the fall semester. (In many states, governors will make that decision for them if they don’t make it themselves. Many may have to switch to all-online teaching before the semester even starts.)
  2. You have to give college instructors months of advance time to plan if you want that to go well.

Granted, if your college or university is like most, it routinely hires adjuncts at the last minute—sometimes a matter of mere days before courses begin—to teach your gateway undergraduate courses. In normal times, it can get away with that, to some extent, because those are usually standard courses; either we have taught them before, or we have seen them taught many times, or we have taught courses fundamentally similar to them before.

But almost nobody has taught all of their scheduled fall courses—general-education, upper-division undergraduate, and graduate—in an all-online format before. And a vanishingly small number have ever taught them in whatever HyFlex panic mode your administration has tried to devise in order to keep campus open.

In general, instructors teaching college courses this fall will have to redesign them—often all of them at once, and often from the ground up—in order to have any hope of teaching in a reasonably effective way throughout the semester.

We needed to have clear, reliable guidance about formats and methods all this spring and summer to make this happen. Had received it, we would still be hard pressed to make things work.

As it is, it’s now July 15. Most U.S. colleges and universities will be in regular session within about a month and a half, and many have opted for early start dates. Right now, most U.S. colleges still claim that they will be open in a traditional face-to-face format this fall.

It was one thing to make an emergency pivot to online teaching in an unforeseeable crisis this spring. What’s about to happen this fall is something quite different.

I really hope I’m wrong about this.

The Liberal Arts, the People, and the Pandemic

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When the COVID-19 emergency began, a strange thing happened in U.S. public opinion. For weeks, bizarrely, acknowledging the emergency’s existence meant taking sides on a partisan issue.[1] But something else has divided public opinion, too.

Cutting across partisan differences is the ability to conceptualize the emergency. That means not only grasping some very basic medical science, but also understanding how it relates to our economic and legal systems, our demographics, our psychology, and our moral responsibilities.

The novel coronavirus has exploited and aggravated the fault lines in American society. Other than professional experts, the Americans who understand the crisis best—regardless of political ideology—are those who have a well-rounded imagination. They have not been limited to taking orders from political leaders, but have been able to act responsibly and creatively in the moment—making enormous sacrifices to do it.

The crisis, in other words, provides vivid lessons in the need for a comprehensive liberal arts education for ordinary citizens. By “liberal arts,” I mean not just training in certain disciplines, but rather a whole package of reasoning and imaginative skills. An integrated liberal arts education is important for citizens to live responsibly together during a crisis while maintaining their own personal freedom and respecting each other’s humanity.

Continue reading “The Liberal Arts, the People, and the Pandemic”

‘Demics, Two Weeks Later

Since I last wrote, a lot has changed, and a lot has become more clear.

First, virtually all of my friends working in schools and colleges are teaching remotely for the rest of the spring. It seems clear now that American higher education, as a whole, acted with admirable foresight in closing our campuses before public authorities recommended it, and indeed, in acting far more aggressively to protect our communities than officials advised at the time.

In fact, here in the United States, the federal response to this crisis has been disgraceful. Key politicians, including the president of the United States, have persisted in spreading blatant disinformation and delaying critical action for the sake of their own political benefit, endangering millions of extra lives and tens of millions of livelihoods. Theoretically apolitical federal agencies, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also failed dramatically. The CDC was caught unprepared for the pandemic despite weeks or even months of specific advance warnings. Its recommendations for educational institutions, until recently, appear to have been entirely wrongheaded, being based on a presumption of widespread testing of affected individuals and communities—testing that we all already knew wasn’t happening anywhere in the United States.

A largely preventable disaster is unfolding. It appears that many American leaders are determined to let the very worst happen. On the other hand, many state and local officials are rising to the occasion, and so are countless millions of ordinary people.

My students and I are scheduled to reconvene next week after an extra-long spring break and spend the rest of the semester working online. So far, my students appear to be rising to the occasion. I am moved by the sacrifices they have already made, and I’m determined not to waste their time or money as we complete our tasks.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do assume that some people I know will die in the next year. I also strongly suspect that the pandemic, which is likely to cause a global economic depression, will end my teaching career in higher education, which was always tenuous. But those are problems to address when they arise.

 

‘Demics

Desks in an empty classroom

This week, the nature of higher education in America changed, at least for the rest of the spring. Nobody knows what the long-term effects will be, or whether the choices our institutions have made will turn out to be worthwhile. Indeed, given the complexity of the situation, we may never get to be sure.

As recently as Monday morning, I could muse aloud that I had seen very little public discussion of the effects of spring break—when countless thousands of young Americans (and often their families) travel long distances at about the same time—on the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. Within hours, I could no longer say anything of the kind.

Continue reading “‘Demics”

The Snowflake Myth

 

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Today, Vox published my first-person essay about safe spaces and trigger warnings. There’s a lot more to say—including some things that were actually in the longer draft. But I think what I wrote is a pretty good encapsulation of the reasons that I (and a lot of other American college instructors) find the current public discussion of these topics to be misdirected.

Here’s what I see as the heart of the matter:

None of them asked for a trigger warning. None asked for a safe space. If they had, they would not have been avoiding ideas. All my students have ever requested is a way to keep engaging with the content — all the content — of my courses, in spite of setbacks. In other words, they want to finish the work they started.  …

Whether the debate over trigger warnings involves criticism within the academy or attacks from outside, it has contributed to popular clichés and ideological grudges that have little to do with what most students learn. Its stereotypes about students are mostly slander. Worse still, it promotes cynicism and closes minds.

Membership Has Its Privileges

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Today the Chronicle of Higher Education released new data on 2016 presidential compensation at nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States.

When Kenneth Starr left Baylor University in disgrace, his golden handshake made him the highest-paid university president of 2016—with total compensation of $4.95 million for the year. (We should all have such a discrediting.)

As Bloomberg points out, however, Starr has plenty of company in the millionaires’ club. The average college president, of the hundreds who are included in the Chronicle data, made $560,000 in total compensation for the year.

In the age of adjuncts, online classes, and lethal levels of student debt, university presidents’ compensation packages are only growing—and rapidly. Together with the toadyism of the many people who defend such avarice in “nonprofit” institutions, it’s one of the most ludicrous and transparently self-serving elements in the general crisis of American higher education.

Religious Beliefs in History: Viewpoints versus Conclusions

cornwallvillechurch-farmersmuseum

In the wake of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s recent annual conference, L.D. Burnett presents historians in the society with a question that relates to teaching as well as research. It’s a question about treating religious ideas with respect:

[S]hould we treat religious thought differently, as a special case, from other kinds of thought? Should we refrain from critiquing arguments as racist, or sexist, or anti-gay, or anti-woman, or anti-intellectual, because they proceed from a position of deep religious conviction?

That was the suggestion offered to me in conversation at USIH. …

These are the kinds of questions I have to think about as the editor of this blog. For, at the conference, someone suggested to me that religiously conservative intellectual historians feel unwelcome in this space.

I wasn’t a party to the original conversation and can’t address its particular context or nuances. But the question is important, and I think it comes up a lot in different forms.

For example, this question is part of the subtext of current academic debates over “viewpoint diversity.” (I hate that term, but it’s fairly widely used now.) In my understanding of the term, a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as a scholarly conclusion, so viewpoint diversity is different from what academics usually mean by “academic freedom.” It describes a much greater degree of intellectual openness and tolerance.

Continue reading “Religious Beliefs in History: Viewpoints versus Conclusions”

Adjunctification Beneath the Numbers: The Rs and the Rest

The AAUP released a brief analysis yesterday—“Data Snapshot: Contingent Faculty in US Higher Ed”—with the warning that it demonstrates academic freedom is under threat in American colleges. In truth, I think, the analysis points toward a larger structural problem.

A supermajority of U.S. college instructors already have been denied the academic-freedom protections of tenure for many years now. It’s long been a myth that college instructors can speak their minds without any anxiety; that’s a privilege of the few (lately, about one fifth of us at any given time).

The larger problem the AAUP’s analysis may highlight is the vast and probably growing difference between what work means at the largest research universities (the so-called R1 and R2 schools) and every other kind of institution—i.e., the colleges where most American faculty members currently work. This difference distorts the public’s view of higher education, and thus our public debates about its future, at a time of political upheaval, and when 73% of America’s ruling party think academia is “heading in the wrong direction.” It thus places the entire higher-education system at risk.

Continue reading “Adjunctification Beneath the Numbers: The Rs and the Rest”