Time to Trade up for a New Model

Our bodies, I tell my wife all the time, are really just machines. If we put the right fuel in the tank and follow a regular maintenance schedule, we should get a couple hundred thousand miles down the road before we have to start replacing the engine parts.

It goes without saying that, unfortunately, some folks get sold a lemon, and sometimes the mechanical breakdown defies logic. Broken gaskets, frozen pistons, electrical short circuits, cancer, genetic diseases, and various other mechanical and biological anomalies can happen, but if we’re lucky and science is on our side (and the Chiltons is up-to-date), we get back on the road again.

The journey won’t always be smooth, of course. We’ve got to replace the tires periodically, keep the hoses clear, and, over the course of time, the body’s going to get a few dents and dings we can’t help. Some folks take the time to get body work done and every once in a while we all wonder if it might be worth the money to try and restore the chassis to mint condition, but, for the most part, we just start driving a little slower and learn to baby the curves instead.

Even so, realizing that you can’t run that 6 minute mile anymore or wondering who lowered the chairs is bad enough, but we can usually adjust to the small physical changes. We learn to work smarter, not harder. All of a sudden that fulcrum lesson from high school physics makes sense when you’re unloading things from the truck. Sure, we might take more breaks along the way, but age also helps us realize youthful urgency is generally unnecessary.

But, let’s face it, some of these little knocks and pings are harder to handle than others. Some folks lose control of their plumbing, others go gray. We thank you for calling those creases around our eyes laugh lines because craggly and weathered sounds so much worse. I can assure you I’m aware that the bottoms of my arms are waving back at me and that my stomach now moves independently of the rest of my body.

Each of us is bothered by different things,though. Some of us can live with a broken cd player and others don’t care if the dashboard is cracked as long as the car gets us from point A to point B. A little arthritis here and some heart burn there isn’t all that traumatic most days.

I’ve got to believe, though, that when the eye doctor asks “Are you ready for bifocals?” we all start wondering if we can trade up for a newer model.

Or, maybe it’s just me.

The eyes, many cultures and popular cliches tell us, are the windows to the soul. Opening and closing them, both literally and figuratively, to the world around us offers us opportunities to filter experience through the complexity that is the human electrical system. We use those two little orbs to follow the paths of our lives. Sure, our eyes can lead us astray, but at least they can lead us. We see our children take their first step, the space shuttle launch into space, the home run to win the game, and our first, second, and last loves. Our eyes show our happiness and our tears to the world.

Like the headlights on our 11 year old truck, they also begin to fade with time so we shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t working up to par.

Still. Bifocals are for old people.

The reality is that I’ve worn glasses for 25 years and there is no conceivable reason wearing bifocals should bother me. I can assure you, as can anyone who sees me dress each morning, that vanity isn’t a driving force when I look in the closet. When I get my haircut, the barber asks if it looks okay. I usually answer by asking “does it really matter at this point?”

My problem with bifocals isn’t cosmetic (or logical) but I don’t think it’s necessarily unusual. When our arms get too short to read things clearly or we realize we can’t eat dessert after both lunch and dinner and still stay thin (hell, we can’t even eat both lunch and dinner anymore) or we can’t eat all those jalepeno poppers like we used to, there’s something natural about the breakdown of those body parts. After all, we might do the scheduled maintenance, but I’m not sure we do all the recommended work so some problems are our own fault.

Sure, I change the oil every 5,000 miles, but I’m not always so faithful about the air filter or draining the coolant. Likewise, I’m pretty good about eating my greens, but I’ll drop some greasy Burger King fuel in the tank also.

But the eyes. It’s not like we have much control over how quickly those break down. If I gain a pound or my arteries clog, I know that’s the price of french fries dipped in my Frosty, but when I need two different lenses just to see the world around me, I also know that the inevitable breakdown, the dents and dings, are happening without regard to anything I do.

I think what bothers me isn’t so much that my eyesight, like just about everyone else my age, is getting worse. Instead, I’m baffled by how a single body part can deteriorate inconsistently. That’s a little like your mechanic suggesting four different size tires to help balance out the car or needing Propecia for half your head and Rogaine for the other.

At least when my other muscles get weaker, they do so in equal measure. Not so the eyes. I need one lens for distance, one for objects in the middle, and two different prescriptions for things up close. I mean I knew things were a little out of focus lately, but geez, that’s a lot of glass between me and the world.

That also seems more like a Quadra-focal than a Bi-focal but what do I know.

Once I get the new glasses, though, maybe I’ll be able to get down the road a piece before any more body parts give out. Of course, if anything else goes wrong, at least I’ll be able to see it.

Efficiently Inefficient

Back in the old days when higher education was inefficient and less expensive, we scheduled classes in late October, students registered in November, and faculty turned in book orders, hopefully, some time before the first day of class. Eager young scholars showed up to class on the first day nervous about the workload and completely unaware what books they might, or might not, need for any given class. Sure, a few eager beavers and over-achievers had already been to the bookstore but they knew not to take the shrink wrap off those shiny new books in case the absent-minded professor changed his mind over the break.

Working in the Registrar’s Office and at the campus bookstore was its own version of hell the first two weeks of class as hordes of students descended on the poor, understaffed workers, and took whatever frustrations they couldn’t express in class out on the poor soul flipping through a course guide or that student assistant working the cash register.

The class can’t be full! I need it to graduate, they demanded.

I’ll have the money tomorrow. Can’t you hold my spot until then, they begged.

What do you mean, they yelled, you don’t have any more books with all the important lines highlighted!

Fortunately, now that universities are efficient but more expensive, we schedule classes in early October, register students about two weeks later, and faculty turn in book orders sometime in between.

Because, of course, now that all these things are automated and more efficient we have to do them sooner because they go faster.

Ostensibly, of course, these efficiencies are supposed to help students make “informed” choices and give them opportunities to  graduate quicker. Universities can better anticipate how many credit hours students will enroll in the next semester, helping them plan for faculty teaching loads and budgets.

Additionally, bookstores can better determine the value of buying back used books and pre-order texts, theoretically lowering prices for students. Such a system would also allow students to order books from Amazon or other off-site stores so they can have the books on day 1 and be ready to learn. They can shop for the best prices.

I feel comfortable reporting that books aren’t less expensive and students aren’t showing up with chapter 1 read on the first day of class.

You might have also noticed that being able to anticipate enrollment hasn’t exactly solved the rising tuition problem or improved graduation rates.

We’re definitely more efficient, though.

In fact, after today (only two or three weeks after the deadline), the students registering for my spring senior level Studies in the American Novel class can pre-order the novels and read them during the last half of this semester.

Yeah, right. Me, too.

While I realize that popular culture imagines college professors who are lazily coasting through the day, here in the real world my colleagues are working 55-70 hours a week teaching the current students they meet 2 or 3 times a week, reading chapters, grading papers, advising students, attending meetings, and finding time for scholarship and research. We are, simply put, focused on the students we have now and not really worried about the ones we might have next semester.

Earlier today, in fact, I needed to spend my morning preparing for next week, reading ahead of my students and wondering how I will keep the D students motivated and the A students interested.

Instead, I was picking novels for a class that doesn’t start until mid-January because for some reason the bookstore needs over 2 months to order books, even though I’ve given them the title, author, publisher, and ISBN number. I’m pretty sure my son could order those books before I finish typing this sentence.

What happens, though, as we become efficiently inefficient is that we are left with less and less time to explore different approaches to teaching our courses. Because I’m ordering books less than halfway through a semester, I can’t know if the books I’m using are worth trying again.

As importantly, I can’t know if the students find the books useful because our course evaluation happens at the end of the semester when I submit my grades.

For the novels course, a class I haven’t taught in a while, I need time to go back through the memory rolodex and ask how 2007 went. What other novels, I might ask, should we read? How, I might wonder, did Craig Thompson’s Blankets work as an example of changing novelistic forms? Would Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (yes, I think it’s more novel than short story collection) work better to close the semester or should I take a chance on Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (a novel I plan on reading over the holiday break)? Do I really want to read The Blithedale Romance again? Will requiring Moby Dick open me up to accusations of cruel and unusual punishment?

Good questions all, but ones that are difficult to answer in the midst of grading 52 first year essays, completing the state mandated Sexual Harassment Training we have to complete every two years, and preparing my next lecture on audience analysis and passive voice.

Gosh, it’s a real shame we don’t  have an automated system that would help us be more efficient and give me time to finish this semester before I plan the next one.

None of the Above

I had every intention of sitting down this week and writing about our upcoming mid-term elections. If the predictions hold true, we will see record levels of apathy as folks stay home and avoid the polling booths this year. Republicans will, it seems, regain control of the House and Senate as they run campaign after campaign in districts gerrymandered to insure victory. Rest assured, plenty of Democrats are resting easy this week as they glide to re-election in their own voter controlled districts.

I kept avoiding the topic, though, because I tend to get all worked up about the idiocy that has become American politics and soapbox rants are rarely as satisfying as we might hope.

The main thrust of my blog would have focused on the dangers of our increasingly partisan elections. While I realize Americans have long had a distrust of politicians, I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t increasingly faced with worse (and less qualified) candidates across the board. In Texas, for instance, Ken Paxton is under investigation for violating the Texas Securities Act, and he’s already admitted guilt to a variety of felonies. He faces the distinct possibility of being disbarred at some point after the election and even if he wins, he will likely be ineligible to hold the position.

Ironically, he’s the Republican candidate for Attorney General and he’s favored to win because he’s a Republican not because he’s more qualified than his Democratic opponent. He will be the person responsible for upholding the very laws he is accused of (and has admitted to) breaking.

It’s a little like asking Walter White from Breaking Bad to be in charge of your anti-drug campaign.

My guess is folks from across the country can do one of those <insert candidate here> things for politicians from both parties guilty of a crime yet still on the ballot. I would also anticipate that the very worst candidates are those running in states or districts that are a lock for one of our major parties.

Understand that I had no intention of discussing candidates with whom we might disagree or even those candidates who espouse political philosophies we dislike. I’m not even talking about the phantom illegalities favored by conspiracy theorists. Nut jobs have always been part of the political process.

My goal, instead, was going to be to discuss how candidates like Ken Paxton show just how cynical and abusive political parties have become in America. In Texas, Republicans win not necessarily because Texas is a “red” state or because we don’t trust Democrats. In 2012,. 4.5 million Texans punched Mr. Romney’s ticket and 3.4 cast a vote for President Obama but Texas has ~13.5 million registered voters.

We have no idea what the other 5.7 million people think. In essence, “None of the Above” won the 2012 presidential election in Texas. All those folks who stayed home probably felt like my friend who refused to vote for either candidate.

Like other states where political parties have rigged the election in favor of rich donors and drafted voting districts that often look like Rorschach tests, we simply must recognize that America’s apathy at the polls is a direct result of how disconnected most of us feel from the political process.

Candidates and donors in this current mid-term election will spend around $4 billion.

The goal of politics over the last 25 years is to appeal to the narrowest, most frightened voting block possible. Americans say the economy is the most important issue facing us today, but the group most likely to head to the polls cast votes based on social issues.

No offense to anyone but a candidate’s stance on abortion or gay marriage isn’t really relevant to his or her understanding of the federal budget and the economy.

What we are seeing, though, are elections decided based on issues that are relevant to increasingly small slices of the population but issues that take on disproportionate importance every two years. Worse yet, because districts (and even states) are so dominated by single political parties, voters get caught in a veritable vacuum of discourse where increasingly small groups of people dominate the conversation and the decision making.

 

The centrist voter, that person who recognizes that government is sometimes the problem but not always, is forced to vote for the better of two bad candidates, the least horrific of two unqualified people, or not vote.

Our elections, I had planned to write, have become a complete perversion of the democratic ideals of America where personal attacks have replaced policy debates because too many candidates have become slaves to the party line. The net effect, then, are parties (and their donors) who pick candidates who will serve as placeholders and secured votes, not competent, sentient beings with an ability to think and make decisions based on the available information instead of based on the beliefs of the biggest checkbook.

Fortunately, I decided to avoid writing about politics this week so I wouldn’t get so upset.

WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE (probably not from Ebola, though)

Opening--Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

Spreading Disease, Hollywood Style

Around 2 million people die every year in the US. About 38,000 will overdose on drugs, 33,000 will die in a car accident, 31,000 will get shot (on accident or by choice), and a little over 26,000 will fall down and not get up.

In any given year, 3,000 to 49,000 other people will die from the flu or complications from respiratory disease linked to the flu.

The rest of us will hang around for about 78.9 years until various body parts fail or our cells betray us. I don’t often wish I was 18 again, but sometimes I miss that sense of immortality endemic to youth.

Shortly after I started teaching literature, I had a student ask if all “great” literature (his air quotes, not mine) were about death.

Of course not, I told him, but death and taxes are the elemental constants of human existence. Taxes you can avoid if own a multi-national corporation with off shore offices or you have a Congressional patron allowing you to shirk your duty to America and mooch off your fellow Americans.

Death not so much.

You, I continued, are sitting in this 8:00 am class, listening to me prattle on so you can earn 3-hours of credit, so you can get a college degree, so you can get a good job, so you can buy a house, so you can subscribe to a good cable package, so you can stock a little mini-fridge full of beer and yet, before it’s all said and one, you’re going to die.

Death isn’t a question of if. Just when and how. Don’t get excited, though, if you don’t snort some coke, throw back some shots, and then drive 100 mph waving a gun around the car, you’ll probably be around for the midterm. Please study.

By the way, thanks for spending what might be your final moments with me. I hope you get your money’s worth.

Of course, I should have also said if an airline pilot, beaten by a rogue, genius gorilla trained in James Franco’s attic takes an international flight after a nose bleed, then WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE.

From the simian flue. Or the SARS. Or the HIV. Or the bird flu. Or the Ebola. Or whatever turned everyone into zombies in the Walking Dead. 

Feel free to skip the final is that happens. 

Sell your stocks. Stockpile tomato sauce, pickles, and fruit cocktail. Bury your gold. Use your book as a fire starter. Literature matters, but when the apes take over, knowing how to find Shakespearean allusions in Sons of Anarchy won’t help you survive.

He never asked another question in class.

I’ve written before about the 24-hour news cycle and the impact social media has on public perception of information. If aliens landed in America (and any of them weren’t shot or put in deportation centers near the border), they would assume America was in the midst of an Ebola pandemic.

Ban travel, Republicans say. Appoint an Ebola Czar, the President says. It’s a conspiracy, my crazy cousin says. “Obama is from Africa. Ebola is from Africa. I’m just sayin’.” Blame the Center for Disease Control, blame Budget Cuts, just be sure to blame some one before we all die!

It’s enough to make me wish Justin Bieber would punch someone so the headlines would change. Maybe President Obama will do us all a favor and hold a latte while he salutes the Marines to give the folks at Fox News something else to talk about.

Honestly, I don’t want to downplay the danger of Ebola (or any other infectious disease) and I understand that by definition something infectious can spread without warning. Around 4,500 people have died in Africa, and we have a moral obligation to help countries not as fortunate as us contain the disease. We also have a vested interest in working to solve world-wide medical crises. This disease can be isolated and contained.

But our political leaders also have an ethical responsibility to calm down just a tad. I realize that American politicians seem to have the emotional stability of a teenager on prom night, but can we at least pretend to care about the facts?

ONE person has died in America from Ebola.

One.

I’m no math major, but that seems like a relatively small number.

So far in America, there have been two infections. Two is really just another way of saying a couple, which is still not many. I haven’t even had to use all the fingers on one hand, yet.

We also know that Senegal and Nigeria have been declared Ebola free, and the Spanish nurse who contracted the disease has tested negative.

I’m not really one for big, sweeping declarations, but even though we’ve cut the CDC budget by almost 50% since 2006, and, as Judy Stone points out in her Scientific American article, we’ve politicized science funding to the detriment of our preparedness, we still have the best medical facilities and infrastructure in the world.

America is uniquely capable and prepared to stymie infectious disease outbreaks.

If we can keep our wits about us and let science work.

No offense Senator Cruz, but until I see the MD after your name let the experts do their jobs.

Like many of you, I’m growing increasingly weary when politicians turn things like Ebola outbreaks in Africa into an opportunity to score political points at home. When Rick Perry had to stand as the voice of reason in your political party, you know things are going off the rails.

Travel bans weren’t a good idea under President Bush (because they don’t work), and they won’t work any better under President Obama. ISIS is not gathering at the US/Mexico Border with vials of Ebola ready to infect Americans with rapid fire sneezing. We don’t need an Ebola Czar to coordinate our Ebola response because a private hospital in Dallas didn’t follow protocols. How much is this guy going to get paid to tell hospitals to follow protocol and why can’t I apply for that job?

What we really need is someone to reassure us tell us that yes, we are all going to die (but probably not from Ebola) and probably not today.

Celebrate the Small Victories

I’ve often thought we should treat academics a little more like athletics and last night watching the National League Playoffs reinforced that idea. I’ve been conferencing with my first year composition students on their second essays. Three days of repeating concepts I’ve been discussing for 2 months makes me question my teaching ability (and my sanity), but I like to meet with the students to individualize the comments. Here, I might say, is a spot you need to work on. We can talk through a process that might work for each student.

Meeting one on one, though, also lets me point to small successes (and sometimes they are very small, mind you), but these little victories are easy for students to overlook when they get focused on the final result. We’ve trained them, it seems, to focus on the end result at the expense of the small tasks that get us to the finish line.

As the Giants stormed the field after Travis Ishikawa’s walk off home run last night, we could see the unbridled enthusiasm of a job well done, but we saw that same excitement throughout the game. Every time a player performed the crowd celebrated in the moment. The tension was palpable even in my living room 2000 miles away and every single play mattered. Imagine, I thought to myself, if my first year composition students could generate such enthusiasm every time they wrote an insightful thesis sentence or a well-developed paragraph instead of being obsessed with the final grade.

We see this celebration week after week in sports. Football players chest bump after a hard hit, soccer players high five after a great pass, baseball players tip their caps after a diving catch–Imagine how different sports might be if we waited until the end of the season to celebrate these moments. Last night’s crowd would only cheer after the game when we found out if that diving catch in the second inning helped the Giants win. Instead, we celebrate in the moment not months later after we have a chance to average out the plays to see if they players made progress, find out if they were consistent, or see if they can perform some routine plays in a high stakes tryout. Sure, we might say to Adam Wainwright, you threw strikes all year, but we need to test you one more time to make sure the previous 25 starts weren’t a fluke.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about this idea before, and Bill James, in his Slate article “Verlander and Shakespeare” makes a similar argument, wondering why we are so good at producing athletes yet so bad at producing writers. He argues we should begin identifying writing talent earlier and creating opportunities for those kids to earn money and receive recognition quicker. Doing so would create competitive advantages for kids and, he implies, help us see writing as something worth developing. In essence, we should, James argues, begin treating elite writers the way we treat elite athletes.

There’s a lot to like about James’ argument and I’m always amazed how shy we are in our schools about celebrating superior writing and other academic achievements. Understand that I’m not talking about overall, long term academic achievement. We have dean’s lists and honor societies. Schools have banquets at the end of the year celebrating top 10 percent students and other academic achievements. These are often formal, sophisticated affairs where we treat academic achievement with a kind of gravitas we think lends it importance. Polite clapping isn’t exactly infectious enthusiasm.

Grades and academics are, we seem to say, above emotion, as if somehow and for some reason intellectual achievement is devoid of passion. More importantly, as James points out, we celebrate academic achievement after the fact with end of the year awards or recognition at graduation. Delayed gratification that leads to apathetic dissatisfaction.

I recognize the larger cultural context and the stereotypes. I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when people assume a smart kid is athletically inferior or an elite athlete lacks intelligence. Athletes and their supporters who mock non-athletes with superior (and often threatening) comments annoy me to no end, but I’m just as frustrated by intellectuals who refuse to recognize the value of athletics within the larger cultural pantheon of human identity. Sports matter and I have little patience for those who dismiss athletics (and athletes) as irrelevant simply because we celebrate their success more than we deify great writers or brilliant mathematicians. Intelligence and athletic ability aren’t mutually exclusive.

Don’t get me wrong. Rewarding long-term achievement and consistent academic excellence is great. Straight A students have proven they value the life of the mind and they have the discipline to work for excellence. They are the little mini-Derek Jeters of the academic world and we owe them our respect and sometimes understated, sophisticated humility befits the serious life of the mind.

But, we also need to let our bacchanal tendencies out of their cage a little more often in the classroom. It’s time for us to stop shying away from their daily intellectual successes and begin celebrating more like athletes.

Yes, in case you were wondering, I’m talking about pen flips after we turn a phrase, fist pumps when students ace that test, and even end zone dances when you know you’ve nailed that lecture on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

“Booyah! The l=2w + 3, biotch! Come back when you have some real algebra questions.” Spike the pencil to the ground and strut out of the room.

“I got your rhetorical devices right here! Let me know when you have topic where I have to be critical and think, cuz right now you’re just embarrassing yourself.” Flip the pen and high five the class as you go out the door.

I’m not talking about a Tiger Woods fist pump for turning in papers or putting names on the paper. We don’t chest bump just because the off road bike rider follows the trail to the end or when the volleyball player stays in the proper rotation. We celebrate beating the time trial for that section or earning the point that serve.

Passionately recognizing success isn’t about rewarding people for doing the ordinary. Do average work, and you don’t get the victory hug.

But maybe, just maybe, we need to start spiking the chalk after an insightful comment and pumping our fists when the numbers all fall into place during class. After all, if it’s okay for the baseball player, it should be okay for the scientist too.

Cousin Eddy and the Union Blues

Clark's_Rant

Clark Griswald’s Rant–Christmas Vacation (Click to view)

Around the beginning of December each year, my family and I nestle on the couch and celebrate the coming holiday season by watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Chevy Chase’s slapstick-driven look at family holiday gatherings always seems to strike just the right chord between cynical and sweet. Chase plays Clark Griswald, a man whose expectations and desires to celebrate the holidays with kith and kin collide with the realities of family squabbles, ageing relatives, annoying in-laws, yuppie neighbors, and squirrels running amok in the house. Easy to dismiss as an anti-Christmas movie, Christmas Vacation lampoons cultural representations of families with a smile on their face and a song in their heart during the holidays. The movie offers, instead, a comedic look at the tensions holidays create while still valuing the core need to gather with our families around the hearth at certain times of the year.

But the movie is about more than cousin Eddy holding out for a management position or Clark enduring Uncle Lewis’ smelly cigar.

Chase’s movie is also a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) attack on the soulless corporate world that puts the bottom line before the worker. Mr. Shirley, Griswald’s boss, is a man who values efficient production and investor profits over employees. Enrollment in the Jelly of the Month Club (see the video) might be the gift that keeps on giving, but such a gift is a scant reward for company loyalty and dedication.

At least Christmas Vacation ends happy. The American middle class, folks like Clark Griswald, might not be so lucky as they witness their power–both politically and economically–shrink each year.

Or, to put it more accurately perhaps, the wealthiest American’s are increasing their wealth, the poorest American’s are falling farther and farther behind, and the unlucky saps in the middle are hanging on for dear life. Most of us know this intuitively when we pay bills each month, but if you want evidence check out Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s slide show, look at the charts from the World Income database, consider that those of you earning $68,000 make more than 75% of the population, and realize those of you making $160,000 are richer than 95% of your friends and neighbors. Anyone earning $300,000 feel super-rich? You should because you are in the top 1% of all wager earners.

In the meantime, Clark Griswald’s boss, the man who changed cash bonuses into a Jelly of the Month Club membership, earns 350 times more than the average worker and his salary increases while Clark’s remains flat.

Criticism and distrust of American corporations is nothing new, of course. Herman Melville’s 1853 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” ends with the narrator lamenting his own inhumanity when the bottom line conflicts with his ability to serve as his brother’s keeper. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street takes a scathing look at greed and American culture, and Mike Judge’s 1999 Office Space satirizes the de-humanizing impact of cubicles and management drones.

This tension and interplay between worker and owner (or the bourgeois and proletariat) created labor unions, workers who banded together for fair labor practices, safe working conditions, and a living wage. Profits were shared among the workers and management. If pay and work conditions became untenable, unions joined together to strike, demonstrating the power of the working class.Unions and their corporate counterparts worked throughout the years to create a vibrant and powerful American economy. In our golden age, wages were more important than stock value for anonymous shareholders.

Until now.

At the risk of confusing correlation and causation again (see my post from last week), I can’t help but notice that American workers have lost wages and power in equal proportion to the collapse of labor unions.  Edward McClelland, over at Salon.com, offers some basic facts. In 1965, McClelland tells us, $2.35 (starting salary for shoveling taconite) was enough to pay rent and buy a car. That $2.35 would equal $17.17 in today’s wages, almost $10 higher than minimum wage.

I don’t think anyone would argue someone could pay rent and buy a car on $7.25 an hour.

Labor unions, at their heart, offer workers collective bargaining, recognizing that the value of any company is determined not by the person in the corner office sitting in a leather chair, but by the worker shoveling coal, writing reports, and interacting with customers. When profits are shared fairly, America’s economic boat rises in equal proportion.

Somehow, though, American voters and politicians turned union into a dirty word. President Reagan, friend to almost no one who didn’t live in a gated community, convinced too many workers to turn their backs on their own best interests. In a show of solidarity with the corporate owners, he broke the air traffic controllers union, proving that government really was part of the problem not the solution. Ironically, we named an airport after him but that’s a different blog.

As importantly, President Reagan obfuscated the conversation by emphasizing social issues over sound economic policy. We became obsessed with the welfare queen who might be getting an extra $40 more food stamps while the corporate executive was finagling another 30% more in tax cuts.

Meanwhile, union membership dropped dramatically and Republican politicians, buoyed by redistricting and corporate donations in the 1990s, trumpeted the free market, off shoring, and corporate welfare.

Wages froze. The middle class shrunk. And Walmart took over the world.

Even now, as the economy recovers and unemployment drops, wages are stagnant. Fast food workers are demanding a living wage and prices for gas, utilities, and other essential goods and services are rising faster than our paychecks.

Yet, we are all single voices raised in competition with each other, fighting over limited resources regulated by owners who control both the mode of production and the product.

In Clark Griswald’s world, cousin Eddy, a big, bulging man in a blue polyester suit, has to kidnap Mr. Shirley to remind him that “Sometimes things look good on paper, but lose their luster when you see how it affects real folks. I guess a healthy bottom line doesn’t mean much if to get it, you have to hurt the ones you depend on. It’s people that make the difference. Little people like you.”

The rest of us don’t really have to rely on kidnapping (or blue leisure suits). We just have to remember that divided we fall. United we stand.

Correlation Isn’t Causation But Sometimes It’s Close

The recent report from the SAT folks comes as no surprise to those of us teaching first year courses at American public universities. The quality of student writing has plummeted over the last 15 years. Gone are the days when my class grades resemble anything close to a bell curve. Of 51 essays this semester, 26 earned Ds or Fs. Understand that I’m not some unreasonable jerk when I grade papers. I have a clear set of guidelines and reasonable expectations for first year college student writing based on skill sets students will need to succeed both at the university level and after college. Despite what my current students think, there was a time when I recorded double digit As and Bs in English 1301.

The problem with the essays isn’t necessarily critical thinking skills. Eighteen year old thinking hasn’t changed all that dramatically over the course of time. Much like I was back in the day, 18 year olds are vague, focused on being the hero of their own narrative, and they have a difficult time thinking about the world outside of the limited sphere of their experiences. There might be more to the world than is contained in their philosophies, but damned if most of them are much interested in exploring that planet. Such things are reserved for older, more mature people like professors and parents.

Instead, what has changed dramatically are the number of students who struggle to write complete sentences, follow any logical grammatical structure, or recognize the way words work. Language, as I’ve written before, helps us organize the world. Grammar serves as a shared system allowing us to communicate and, hopefully, understand content and intent. “Rules” can change over the course of time, but that change comes slowly and represents cultural shifts in the way we think and communicate. In essence, things like commas serve a purpose beyond indicating the moment you ran out of breath while reading the sentence. If not, smokers, asthmatics, and distance runners would never understand each other’s writing, and lord knows how the slow-breathing yoga instructor might write.

I realize I sound like a grumpy old fart who is arguing that back in my day, kids where smarter (and stay off my lawn you whippersnapper). We are seeing, though, evidence that this trend isn’t just my imagination.

Terrence Stutz, writing for the Dallas Morning News, tells us “Students across the U.S. saw their scores in math drop slightly. But the long-standing achievement gap between Texas and the nation grew significantly this year.”  In fact, as you dig deeper into the numbers (provided in a chart at the bottom of Stutz’s article) you can see Texas SAT scores consistently below the U.S. average with increasingly precipitous drops in recent years.

The falling SAT scores mirror declining scores on the ACT reported last year. 

I admit that test scores only tell part of the story, but we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore that part of the story. Test scores like the SAT and ACT do provide us with long-term comparisons since the exams remain largely the same over the course of time. Hence, generational shifts in performance indicate trends worth noting.

In many ways, though, what’s notable about the declining test scores isn’t the slow but steady drop in performance over the last 9 years.

Instead, we are afforded an opportunity to review the failure of political philosophy writ large on our educational landscape. Texas, as you see from Stutz’s article, is under performing in relatively dramatic ways. We are, it seems, racing our way to the bottom. Texas consistently ranks nearly last or in the bottom half of almost all educational rankings, including spending per pupil.

We are, it seems, getting what we pay for each and every year.

While our state leaders attribute the declining scores in Texas to an increase in students (in particular low performing students) taking the exams, Stutz shows us that California (yes, Governor Perry, California) is outperforming Texas, even though our test takers have a similar demographic make-up. In other words, when you control for increased test takers and ethnicity, California is out performing our students. I wish our Governor was as eager to compete educationally as he is when he tries to lure new businesses to Texas.

If we can’t take the easy way out and blame minority students, perhaps we can at least recognize the correlation between Republican educational policy and academic achievement.

The current class of students taking the SAT and ACT tests were born in the mid-1990s. Despite a slight rise in math scores a few years ago, test scores have been steadily and consistently trending downward.

George Bush became Governor in 1988. Republicans seized control control of Texas politics with their gerrymandered districts after the 1990 census. In the last 24 years, every major political office in the state has been controlled by a Republican. School funding has been cut per pupil every legislative session. Our small government Republicans have demanded increased “accountability” and emphasized a desire to create “efficiencies.” We’ve been requiring minimum skills testing (TAKS, STARR, etc) at astronomical rates because, in many ways, our state leaders have almost no faith in school teachers to do their jobs, and we have a Texas Board of Education that has grown increasingly politicized and exerted greater and greater control over text book and curricular decisions, spending hours upon hours demanding science classes teach creation theory (a religious belief that by definition depends on faith) instead of teaching actual science.

Can we finally recognize those are failed policies and ideas? We have test scores from a generation of students who were educated under our Republican state leadership (and No Child Left Behind–President Bush’s signature education reform based on his policies as Governor of Texas). The results aren’t pretty.

Education is a messy and difficult process. Teaching requires patience, time, and an ability to recognize standardization reaches the middle. More importantly, when we rush the process, we skip the essential and fundamental skills students need to organize and articulate ideas. Overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid teachers, loss of autonomy, and the politicization of education under our Republican leaders has left my students unprepared and with false expectations. Just as importantly, fewer and fewer of our best and brightest see returning to the classroom as a viable career choice. In essence, we have less well prepared students taught by increasingly incapable teachers.

I fully understand that correlation isn’t causation; however, correlation does matter.

Our Republican leaders in Texas are more than happy to take credit for unbridled growth in incomes among our wealthiest citizens and for our better than perfect business climate. It’s only fair, I say, they shoulder the blame for the consistent drop in the quality of our students as they move into the university.

Educational achievement is complicated and we can rarely attribute success or failure to one single moment in time, and I don’t pretend that I have the solution to what ails us.

But, I do feel pretty confident I can tell what doesn’t work when I start grading papers each semester.

College Guide

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert.com Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Dish

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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