You Are a Free Agent In This World: Go Forth and Earn the Best Life You Can

As we head into graduation season, I’ve been thinking a good bit lately about what I might say to the graduating class of 2014. Fortunately, for all you upcoming graduates, I’m the only one who has been wondering so none of you need to worry I’ll be at the podium anytime soon.

That’s not to say I’ve never been asked, of course. Way back in the Summer of 2004, I stood on stage at Angelo State’s Commencement and reminded students that Gold is Good.

Truthfully, though, I don’t really need an invitation to pontificate or profess. I’m more than willing to do so unsolicited and last year at this time, I blogged an updated speech, telling Graduates Anywhere to Keep it Simple. I had the speech, but no audience, something that probably worked out well for everyone involved.

Graduation speeches, though, strike me as really interesting events. Clearly, educational institutions hope to take one last chance to address their captive audience and impart some small nugget of wisdom.

Unfortunately, too often they invite people who don’t really have anything worth saying to talk to a group that just wants to get back to their cooler of cold beer or grandma’s tamales and pinto beans.

But first, the almost-graduates have to suffer through one last lecture.

If for some weird reason you skip your graduation this year and miss out on the speech or if you’re someone who just likes reading random graduation speeches on the internet (something you should probably never admit to anyone), here’s the speech I might give to the class of 2014.

Dear Graduating class of 2014,

Congratulations and welcome to the last time most of your lives will be measured in semesters or 50-minute blocks of time. Later today at your graduation party, someone, probably multiple someones, will offer you advice as you begin the next chapter of your life. Listen politely, but remember that those people are probably wrong. If they had anything worth hearing, they would be on stage (or posting to their blog) not standing next to the beer cooler spouting shade tree philosophy.

Any speech, I’m convinced, should be 10 minutes or less, partly because very few of us have anything worth saying that can’t be said in that amount of time, but mostly because after about 8 minutes we’re all ready for the next commercial break. I’m not implying we are a nation with attention deficit issues, but I’m fairly certain about half you are already wondering how long it’s been since I started speaking, wishing you could check your Facebook account, or watching that shiny thing flashing in the upper deck.

And that’s just the faculty.

Before we release you to the wild, though, I thought I would offer you a few things to think about as you make the leap into the unknown.

1. You don’t have to find your dream job to be happy. Don’t get me wrong: I hope you find a job that you enjoy and, if you’re really lucky, a job that speaks to some passion deep within your soul. At the end of the day, though, you get paid to do a job but no one has to pay you to be passionate. Your job should allow you to fulfill your passion, but your passion shouldn’t depend on your job. We’ve done you a great disservice these last few years of school by conflating the way you earn money with the manner in which you define your existence. Happiness, simply put, doesn’t come from a job: it comes from a job well-done, regardless of the job. Work hard, show up early, stay late, but never forget that you are a person first and an employee second. Recognize the difference between the two.

2. You’ve got to stand for something, John Mellencamp sings, or you’re going to fall for anything. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. While it might seem questionable to find philosophical truths in rock and roll lyrics,  Mellencamp and Rush remind us that our life is defined by our words and actions. Feel passionate about something, get excited about ideas, find your values and then live them. Be a person of conviction, but don’t be a person who finds it necessary to convict those who don’t share your values. You just spent four years of your life being told to think critically. Do it. The educated don’t get the luxury of apathy or intellectual laziness. Recognize, though, that you can stand for something without pushing everyone else down. The greatest enemy of democracy is the tyranny of ideologies that demonize, attack, and treat disagreement as treasonous. The well of public discourse has been poisoned by a system that rewards volatility and extremism. Help purify that conversation.

3. If the rules of your life, those values and things for which you stand, leave you unhappy or unfulfilled, what good are the rules? Life is about change. I hope you aren’t the same person you were four years ago. Certainly, you might hold the same values and ideas, but if we’ve done anything close to our job (and, most importantly, if you’ve met us at least halfway) your understanding of those values should be more nuanced and different. Those ideas should continue to evolve and change. Be prepared. Call into question the rules daily. Reaffirm them. Revise them. Reject them. Just don’t ignore them. Make the ideas and values earn your loyalty with positive results, but recognize that thinking critically and engaging with ideas doesn’t always provide neat answers. The world, despite what too many of our political leaders seem to imply, is not a dualistic and simple place. We exist in complexity. Embrace it. Value it. Live it. Never expect it to always be easy, though.

Your life, class of 2014, is now. In a few minutes you will walk across the stage, smile pretty, and feel that sense of relief knowing that this part of your academic journey will fade into a pleasant memory.

After this pomp and circumstance, I hope, as you leave these hallowed halls, that you never forget you are a free agent in this world. Please, for all our sakes, go forth and earn the best life you can.

Peace and joy to you and yours.

Time for a Come to Jesus Meeting

About three weeks ago, the Baptists came calling, ringing the doorbell and inviting me and mine to join them at Sunday service. I politely declined. As I started closing the door, one of the men reached out with a pamphlet, asking if I would like some information about Jesus Christ, “your Lord and Savior.” Tempted though I was to point out he was making a pretty bold assumption about the status of my soul, I declined again, telling him that I would just throw the pamphlet away unread.

I’ve made no secret in this blog (or anywhere else) that I’m not a particularly churchly man but I also hope I’ve been pretty clear that, as far as I’m concerned, we are all free-agents in this world. The two Baptists have just as much right to ring my doorbell as the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Islamist, and any other group of folks who feel strongly enough about something they want to traipse around town and meet jerks like me.

Fortunately, I also have every right in the world to turn down both their invitation and their pamphlet without fear of repercussions. They can, of course, curse my soul as they head down the sidewalk, but last time I read my bible those are pretty hollow words coming from mortal men.

The reality is that I’m happy those men have found something that helps sooth their soul on this veil of tears we traverse every day. I tell my students all the time that one of our goals in this world, in fact, should be latching on to something that helps provide solace in times of trouble and humility in times of plenty. Mostly, I tell them, we need to find something that helps us respect our fellow humans. If loving God (and hoping God loves you back) does it for you, more power to you. If hugging a tree lights your fire, far out and rock on.

Like art, I tell them, religion and beliefs need to provide a momentary stay from the confusion of daily life. If they don’t offer us such things, what good, we might ask, are the beliefs? I’ll readily admit that I’m always really bothered by angry religious fanatics. The gods of religions aren’t angry and vengeful: we probably shouldn’t be either.

One of the glories of America, I also remind them, is that we are Constitutionally guaranteed the right to seek out and follow those beliefs. The State cannot “prohibit” that free exercise. Feel free, I tell them (looking at a couple in particular) to pray before any exam you want. Kneel down after the game, praise your god after victory, and ask for solace upon defeat.

But, I remind them, don’t fall into the narcissistic trap and assume my god and your’s are the same.

That same State that lets you practice your religion is also barred from establishing one that we all have to follow. Those dudes were pretty smart that way.

While it is true that Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, it’s also true that Article VI makes a religious test illegal with regard to public office. In other words, the Constitution forbids a religious litmus test for holding public office, rejects the State’s ability to establish a religion, and makes it illegal for the State to prohibit the expression of religion all the while requiring that public officials support the Constitution, the “separation” Jefferson was so passionate about seems pretty clear.

We should tread carefully, then, when our theology turns into politics. (Go ask the Iraqis how that kind of system works out for ya.)

Certainly, our religious history in America is dominated by a Judeo-Christian past, and we should never deny or reject that part of our history. It is equally, true, though that the very nature of democracy dictates that the basis of that religious history has assumed a clear desire to provide checks and balances that respect the separation of earthly and transcendent powers. “Render unto Cesar” and all that jazz, right?

The power of that separation was, for Jefferson and many of our founding fathers, a desire to reject revealed truths in favor of rational thought. At the risk of offending a wide-swath of people (if I have’t already), the Virgin Birth is anything but rational. So is forcing me to believe what you believe.

Most important, though, that separation was designed to stop the religious majority from merging the power of the pulpit with the strength of the government to limit the free expression of ideas. They recognized that we can’t combine the power to condemn a man to hell with the threat of public incarceration and create a government of the people and for the people.

The only true democratic system is one that stops the public, democratically elected government from restricting the free expression of ideas and prohibits that very same government from endorsing particular religious systems.

We are, simply put, so great because Ted Cruz, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Rick Perry can’t tell us what we can and can’t think nor can they create a system where we have to run through a gauntlet of Christian prayer just to enter the town square.

Except maybe they can.

Yesterday the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, ruled that Greece, NY can, in fact, offer a de facto endorsement of one religion by offering Christian only prayers before their town meetings. The Supreme Court ruled that prior to a public meeting where citizens appear and petition their local government for progress, redress, or revisions, every person in the room must listen to and be subjected to a state sponsored religious message that focuses on one single belief system.

There goes Jefferson’s wall. And one more civil liberty.

Understand that the issue isn’t offering a prayer in a public forum that is state sponsored. The Court is certainly correct that we have a historical precedence for prayer in public spaces. (A fact, I remind my Christian friends, that shouldn’t make them feel very good. In essence, the Court seems to recognize that prayer has simply become something people are accustomed to and it rises above–or falls below I guess–it’s original meaning. In other words, prayer is okay, they say, because no one is paying attention anyway.)

The real issue is restricting and limiting the prayer to a single, solitary type of prayer and, by implication, endorsing Jesus as our only hope for filling that pot hole over on Magnolia Street. Welcome to our come to Jesus meeting. First they tax my body and now they want to help my soul. All I want to do is complain about my trash pick up times.

Talk about big government.

We are a short step, it seems, from claiming that “the First Amendment only applies to Christians” because “Buddha didn’t create us,” Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court Justice said 3 days ago. “Mohammed didn’t create us, it was the God of the Holy Scriptures.” 

That, my friends, should scare every one of us regardless of what we believe.

Biting the Hand that Feeds You

Every time I hear rich guys say racist and ignorant things, my first thought is never sympathy for the victims of hateful speech, the social impact, or even the implications regarding free speech.

Mostly, I sit and wonder how someone who is such a dunce can get so stinking rich while I struggle every month to pay my mortgage.

Our latest entrant into the Hall of Shame is Donald Sterling, a man whose comments sound eerily similar to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, another man who used his media fame to wax philosophical about “the Negro.” (Those are Mr. Bundy’s words, not mine.) Bundy, a man who wonders if “they were better off as slaves,” evidently felt confident his anti-government views would keep his supporters firmly behind him.

As often happens when people make idiots of themselves on the public stage, we are confronted with the implications of free speech. In these situations, however, we should be reminded that the beauty of America is, and this is really important, that we all have a Constitutional right to say anything stupid and ignorant we want. Prejudice is not illegal in this country, and, as we all learned in Sociology 101, prejudice and discrimination are two very different things. One is illegal and one is not.

Likewise, though, each of us also has the Constitutional right to suffer the consequences of a culture growing increasingly tired of old prejudices that preach hatred and degradation couched in mis-readings of religion and politics.

Bundy is sliding back into obscurity and losing support because a desire for small government transcends race and ethnicity. (It doesn’t help that we quickly found out he has been breaking the law for many, many years. Nothing like a man feeding his cows for free on government land who complains about people living for cheap in government houses. Some days it’s hard to tell the makers from the takers, isn’t it?)

Which brings us to Mr. Sterling, a man who built his wealth as a divorce and personal injury lawyer. Sterling, described once as one of the worst owners in the NBA, was today fined $2.5 million and banned from the NBA for life. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has vowed to take steps to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

Everyone seems to be on board. There is, almost, a collective sigh of relief from the NBA world as we can turn our attention back to the playoffs.

Case closed. Another ugly moment swept under the rug and locked in the closet.

I state emphatically that I find Sterling’s comments reprehensible and disgusting (as well as incredibly stupid since he has gone out of his way to offend the very group of people who line his pockets with ridiculous amounts of wealth).

I ask again–why is he rich and I’m not?

I recognize that the LA Clippers are a part of the National Basketball Association and that Association has a Board of Governors and a set of rules by which they play. Silver and the Board are well within their rights, I’m sure, to ban Sterling from taking part in NBA activities in much the same way that any organization with by-laws has the right to hold members to certain agreed upon standards. I would imagine that the NBA, an organization whose players are 70% African-American, has something in its by-laws that states or implies being a racist is both stupid and costly. At the very least, I would guess they can fine him for behavior detrimental to the league, and I totally support such a thing.

But I’m not sure this case is that simple.

If I voluntarily join a group and I don’t follow the rules, I face the consequences of those acts. Heck, if I don’t like the rules I can go start a blog and share my thoughts independently of the by-laws I don’t like. My free speech is intact and the group gets to maintain its autonomous identity.

Sterling owns the LA Clippers, a business that is part of the NBA but not owned by the NBA. The NBA as an association can distance itself from Sterling, they can fine Sterling, and, in theory, they can kick the Clippers out of the NBA for not following its by-laws.

At the end of the day, though, Sterling’s business ownership is independent of his membership. Understand that I recognize the distinction I’m making here is philosophical and semantic. If the NBA boots the Clippers out of the league, they are effectively ending Sterling’s ownership because his business will likely have no venue with which to earn money. What are they going to do–play pick up games for tips at White Power Rallies?

The distinction, though, between fining, banning, and forcing someone to sell is important. The NBA can’t be in the business of revoking ownership when its members say and do distasteful things. Punishments and fines are one thing. Banning an owner from participating in the governance structure of an organization he has voluntarily joined is fine. He did, after all, know the rules and by-laws.

What the NBA is attempting to do, though, would be akin to the Better Business Bureau banning a local business and then forcing the owner to sell because he doesn’t want to join and play by their rules. Isn’t that a little bit like offering to protect a business and then burning them down if they don’t pay?

Forcing him to sell his privately owned company because we don’t like what he says moves beyond enforcing by-laws and begins to attack the very foundations of the capitalistic enterprise upon which we have, in theory, built our great nation. There is no evidence that Sterling broke the law regarding discriminatory hiring practices and there is no real evidence he has done anything illegal that would disqualify him from owning the business called the LA Clippers.

In much the same way that Sterling has the right to speak out regarding his views on race, and in much the same way that the NBA has a right to punish a member of its Association, Sterling has a right to run his company as he sees fit within the laws of our country.

He can, simply put, choose to run that company outside the NBA. Sponsors can then choose to support or not support him. Workers can choose to play on his team or not work on his team. Fans can choose to attend games or not. His business might fail, but that is his choice and his right. Any other option reeks of monopolistic control not just of a product (basketball) but also stinks of creating a litmus test for business ownership.

Sterling has very right to own his team and disengage from the NBA. He could go form his own association of Extraordinary Idiots Who Believe Stupid Things. Maybe Cliven Bundy can get a team together and join the league.

Of course, no one would be stupid enough to follow that business model. That would be like telling your girlfriend to stop bringing black people to basketball games.

Writing Without Facts is Like Building a House without Nails

When my older son was in elementary school, our district was in the midst of creating a Gifted and Talented program. At the time, we had a person who had spent years working to create a program that was based on research, data, and best practices. Unfortunately, we also had a person working to create a program that was based on anecdotal evidence, feelings, and politics.

Despite our best intentions, my wife and I wound up involved in the discussion. As a new parent and a person who loved research, I gathered data, read articles, and wrote a mini research paper in preparation for a public “forum” to discuss the kind of program we should create.  After sitting politely and listening to the ramblings of various plans that rewarded kids for being rich or plans that focused on social skills, plans that relied on emotion, platitudes, and cliches, we presented facts. Data. Research that included longitudinal studies of children. Neuroscience. We interpreted the data and made an argument based on those facts. Throughout the research and the writing, there was no doubt someone might reach a different conclusion or create a different kind of plan. That’s critical thinking. That’s debate. That’s also okay.

“Well,” I was told, “we just have a different philosophy about education.”

“Thinking something is true and hoping you are right isn’t a philosophy. It’s a guess. This,” I announced holding up my information, “is a philosophy grounded in concrete particulars and factual evidence. I’ve shown you my proof, now you show me yours.”

Things got worse from there. I’m told tears were shed. 

What’s notable about that event from so long ago isn’t that our school district created a terrible GT program, but how readily a room full of power brokers willingly ignored factual evidence in favor of emotional appeals. There are, just so we’re clear, a variety of ways to create a GT program and there are even some really good arguments one could make against ever creating a GT program at all. None of them were made that day.

That shouldn’t be surprising, though, because we’ve been witnessing over the last few years a slow war on facts and knowledge.

We have, instead, fallen in love with analysis and commentary that exists independently of actual knowledge. We would rather listen to Bill O’Reilly or Sara Palin tell us what to think about evolution than listen to a scientist who has verifiable and reproducible data.

Admittedly, I’m no real fan of hierarchies or charts that simplify understanding and learning, but I think we can all agree that knowledge and recall is the easiest and “lowest” realm of any learning taxonomy. Things like analysis, synthesis, and creativity are on the opposite end of the spectrum. 

We also know, both cognitively and practically, that practice makes the master. In sports, repetition creates muscle memory and efficiency. In education, memorization creates muscle memory and efficiency. Want to get better at multiplication. Multiply. A lot. And then multiple some more. Does it mean you understand the complex relationship between numbers and multiples? No. Is it very much fun? No. But, bored or not, you can still multiply. 

The base knowledge matters because it allows us to have information at our finger tips both for our own arguments and to help us judge the arguments of others. 

We can’t, and this seems awfully important to me, offer analysis without the facts. Unfortunately, we are raising a generation of students who have bought into the idea that rote memorization and classes that employ the drill and kill teaching method are not engaging or interesting. Many of my colleagues argue we don’t need to lecture or teach facts because students can look information up. We should, they argue, focus on comprehension and context. Teachers should be facilitators, classroom managers who help students find information. 

Picture me gagging and rolling my eyes.

When my students ask why they have to know the authors of various works, memorize definitions of terms, or even know how to spell correctly, I tell them they are establishing a mental discipline that will help them later in life. Words, grammar, facts, I tell them, are like nails and screws. You can’t build a house without them. Your essays depend on concrete information that has some basis in fact. Without those things, you are just leaning sentences against each other hoping they stand up.

As educators, even at the college level, we have a duty to provide knowledge to our students. Doing so isn’t demeaning or childish. Providing terms, demanding that students learn particular historical dates, and requiring they read and recite information from stories, emphasizes the value we place on knowledge and we help students understand those are things that we find important. We give value to that information.

They also give students the base upon which to build critical thinking. Without the fact, we aren’t thinking critically, we are just mouthing off. 

The narrator of Teju Cole’s fine 2011 novel Open City tells us he has a “suspicion that there was a mood in the society that pushed people more toward snap judgments and unexamined opinions, an unscientific mood; to the old problem of mass innumeracy, it seemed to me, was being added a more general inability to assess evidence. This made brisk business for those whose specialty was in the promising of immediate solutions: politicians, or priests of the various religions.”

Our goal as educators, it seems to me, is to help our students move beyond snap judgments by demanding evidence so we can avoid those people lurking on the edges of truth, making promises that are too often disconnected from reality.

Now He’s a Philosophizer, or the Autobiography of the Human Soul

Nicholas Kristoff used his Feb. 15 Sunday Review op-ed piece to offer a clarion call to college professors to stop cloistering themselves like medieval monks, because we need you! Kristoff’s argument, simply put, is that too many academics have abandoned the public arena in favor of specialized fields and “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” 

Kristoff admits that American anti-intellectualism plays a role in marginalizing some of our sharpest minds. Everyone from Rick Santorum to White Goodman willingly, and at times aggressively, looks down on those who go around “philosophizing.” Heck, drive down almost any highway in the state of Texas and you will see at least one bumper sticker telling you “My son beat up your honor student.” One of my own blog posts about writing was once dismissed as “academic,” and, presumably, a waste of that reader’s precious time. I’m guessing he didn’t become a faithful follower. 

But, Kristoff tells us, the real problem is within the academy itself. Sociology is “dominated by the left” and “dismissed by the right.” Too many fields, he tells us, have abandoned “area studies” in favor of specialists “who know little that is practical about the world.” For example, he lets us know, scholars were the most oblivious to the rising waters of the Arab Spring. Presumably, Kristoff is claiming they are a bunch of eggheads who spent all their time relying on quantitative numbers and theoretical constructs and forgot the Arab world is full of actual human beings. Of course, their research was probably funded by grants from organizations or politicians looking for data and best practices.

I’ll willingly admit that I have some sympathy for Kristoff’s argument. Too many college professors, the best minds of many generations, do lock themselves in the ivory tower and avoid the public spotlight. Many of them, dare I say most of them, restrict their intellectual conversations to the classroom while studiously avoiding “casting pearls through Facebook and Twitter.”

Even though we all know Facebook is the ideal place to engage in philosophical discussions: just ask my friend who went crazy bonkers protecting the Duck Commanders’ right to hate on the gays and blacks. Twitter provides an even better venue for complex conversations about power structures and human behavior. If we focus on the political disc (oops. That’s 140 characters. Did I shape any behavior?)

In what might be considered irony by some of those cloistered monks, the Sunday Editorial article, “The New College Campus,” points out that administrative employees on American college campuses are growing at the same rate as adjunct professors.

Essentially, according to the Sunday New York Times, the only things not growing on college campuses are full-time professors and the public influence of the few who are left.

What Kristoff also fails to mention, of course, is that our last bastion of publicly funded intellectuals is dying a slow, painful death.

Or, at least, being attacked on a daily basis.

Education and teaching has increasingly become about efficiency, learning outcomes, assessment, and other quantifiable numbers and theoretical constructs. Even our egghead in chief, President Obama (a law professor, no less as Kristoff notes) is seeking an educational accountability funding bill that will do everything it can to reduce colleges to factories that output products. For schools that can’t produce them fast enough, whether the consumer wants to graduate or not, we’ll cut them from the small public teat still exists.

In the meantime, Governors across America are creating $10,000 degrees, moving classes into the online environment, and pushing programs to measure competence (because, really, we should all be striving for competence as our highest level of achievement, right?). Kristoff himself points to the avenues open to us to spread our message more efficiently.

All the while, we cut full-time faculty and hire administrators to count and measure the beans, build climbing walls, and increase class sizes. Boards of Regents (or Boards of Governors depending on where you live) are made of business people with no higher ed experience and Chancellors are increasingly ex-politicians who are as qualified to run a university as Max Baucus is to be ambassador to China.

Too many of these people, not surprisingly, miss the point of educational and intellectual discourse completely.

Last year, retiring Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance told the Texas Tribune that he thinks “all kinds of research is good. But if you’re doing research on Shakespeare’s 13th play, and there’s been 140 research papers written on it, I don’t know if that’s a priority with taxpayers’ taxes.”

We research Shakespeare’s 13th play, Dr. Hance, because we are seeking to understand the autobiography of the human soul. 

Richard D. Altick writes in The Art of Literary Research that “Literature, then, is an eloquent artistic document . . . whatever the practical uses of history may be, one of the marks of civilized man is his absorbed interest in the emotional and intellectual adventures of earlier generations.” We can’t mark that absorbed interest with quantifiable data, pie charts, and practical assessments.

We publish in our own journals because even Dr. Hance, a man tasked with running one of the most underrated college systems in America, doesn’t value that research. Many of us avoid public discourse because our voices are obscured and lost in the cacophony of voices within the maelstrom of ideology dominating social media. It is, quite frankly, hard to get a word in edgewise and not get a sore throat trying.

More important, though, Mr. Kristoff, is that ideas take time, develop slowly, and with a complexity that can’t really exist in a MOOC, a 15 minute video, or a format that encourages clicking on the “Like” button.

They also can’t be pushed out like an advertisement for Lands End or a Nigerian scam artist selling shares of his dead uncle’s estate. 

Ideas and intellectual discourse require give and take, conversation, reflection, and revision. Our philosophizers, those folks purveying the wisdom Mr. Kristoff says he values, are hard at work on college campuses already. Instead of asking them to speak louder, maybe his next call should be for people to start listening more closely.

Just Because It’s Efficient Doesn’t Mean It’s Effective

An adulterer, I told my students the other day, is simply a person who commits adultery. The word provides a description of a person who performs a particular act but it does not imply, state, or define a value.

We were discussing Kate Chopin’s “The Storm,” a short story in which Calixta has a brief sexual encounter with Alcee. The storm of the title works as a metaphor for their hot, torrid moment of passion, an event that offers Calixta her “birthrite.” She and Alcee are happily married both before the affair and after. In fact, her husband Bobinot and her son are riding out the storm at the local store where he has bought her a can of shrimps. She loves her husband, her son, and the gift Alcee has given her in equal measure it seems.

She is, we all agreed, an adulterer. As with most great writers, though, Chopin asks us to read carefully and consider the circumstances before we pass moral or ethical judgement. In other words, like most great literature, we have to recognize that morality and ethics are social constructs that we impose on language, actions, and people. Adultery, then, is only good or bad after we make a judgement and we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of treating things as absolutes simply because they exist. We might still feel compelled to condemn her act as immoral, I told my students, but we also must recognize that her adultery provides her with something that her marriage can’t. Her husband brings her a can of shrimp; Alcee gives her her birth rite. I love shrimp as much as the next person, but I think there’s a pretty clear difference in the two gifts. Language and meaning, Chopin reminds us, is a little more complex than simply parroting age old morality.

Thou shalt not kill, for instance. Unless it’s in the name of country. Unless someone is attacking your family. Unless you need food. Like adultery, the morality and ethics of killing is determined in the historical and contextual moment. The rightness or wrongness of a term, in essence, exists independently of the term itself. You might, I tell my students, still decide that Calixta is an unrepentant whore who will burn in hell, but you aren’t going to do so by being intellectually lazy and disregarding all the information leading up to the act itself.

I fear, much like my students who assume Calixta is evil simply because she commits adultery, that educationally we are consistently making the reverse mistake when it comes to technology. We create wired classes, fill back packs with laptops and IPads, push students into online environments, and imagine a day when massive open online classes provide access to all.

We do this because we have somehow decided that technology is good because it makes us more efficient. Access to information has become equated with understanding.

Yet, we don’t really know if any of these formats, bells and whistles, or pedagogical approaches actually help students learn or even if they make us more efficient. Matt Richtel, in his 2011 New York Times article, noted that “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.” M.O. Thirunarayanan goes even further, arguing that using “untested technological tools in classrooms is unethical” (firewalled unfortunately). Larry Cuban agrees that the use of untested technology is unwise, although he rejects the idea that these approaches are unethical, noting that most new teaching tools throughout history were untested before they went into the classroom. Buying and “deploying new technologies . . . .without capturing the complexity of the many factors determining academic achievement may be myopic,” he concedes.

Even so, we press on because, ostensibly, we have begun automatically tying values to terms without, as Cuban writes, “capturing the complexity” of the problem.

Understand that I’m no luddite. I enjoy and appreciate carrying around my smart phone. I have almost 3,000 songs on an sd card smaller than my pinkie fingernail, and I can access the Oxford English Dictionary 24 hours a day virtually anywhere in the world. I enjoy writing on a computer, watching tv on my 36 inch tv, and binge viewing shows streamed via Netflix. I also like indoor toilets, central air and heat, and escalators.

But I’m also pretty sure none of those things have actually made me better at much of anything. Sure, having an indoor toilet keeps my backside warm on a cold night when nature calls, but I’m not any better at expelling waste than I would be without one. Likewise, having a computer has allowed me to produce and share more writing, but there is no real evidence that the computer has actually made me a better writer. I can just produce more bad writing quicker.

I can say that my students are not better writers today than they were 17 years ago before they had computer access 24/7. My best writers are still really good, and my worst writers are still incomprehensible. I refuse to speculate on the impact of indoor toilets on their defecation.

In much the same way, we might note that technology can change the way we approach information, but there is not really any evidence that technology is actually helping us improve the way we learn or teach. I’m currently in a smart room. I’ve got projectors, computers, blue tooth, and all the stereo system I ever need. Hell, if they had red teeth and yellow teeth technology, we’d probably have those in the classroom also. None of those things helped us discuss Calixta’s adultery.

If a professor has a power point slide projected wirelessly from his IPad but no one learns is he actually teaching?

Certainly, we have created an efficient way to send information out into the world but we probably need to stop imagining that efficiency and effectiveness are the same thing. Technology is really just a tool. Let’s try and avoid giving it meaning before we’ve established it’s value.

Instead of Reforming Higher Ed, Let’s Just Reform Our Expectations

About once a week or so, I ask my students to write for five minutes, telling me what terms and ideas they’ve mastered and what they still don’t understand about the course material. It’s a nice little exercise because the first half makes me feel good about myself and the second half tells me what issues we need to revisit. After we review the trouble spots the next class, I follow up by asking the students to tell me what they can do to improve their performance in the class. I like this question even more than the first two because it reminds the students they bear a significant responsibility for their own learning, something they need to hear more often in college.

What is notable about the responses are the number of students who tell me they haven’t been reading the material, haven’t studied, or need to improve their attendance. Each semester, I hear inventive excuses (“I’m still transitioning to the 8 am class time” is my current favorite) and students who think that owning up to their own incompetence or laziness is somehow noble and excuses them from taking care of their business. (“I’ve just been really, really busy lately with my other classes so I know it’s my fault I’m not doing well in here.” Trust me, I tell them, I wasn’t blaming myself for your F.)

While the excuses change each semester, the simple reality is that in any class I teach, about 25% of the students are poorly prepared on any given day of class. By the end of the semester, I will lose around 10% of the students to either apathy, withdrawal, or failure. These numbers have been the same for 17 years and I suspect they will remain about the same for the next 17 years.

Understand that I’m not interested in blaming students or attacking them, but I think we need to accept some inevitable realities when we talk about educational reform at the university level.

First and foremost, we must recognize that some students don’t like school, will never like school, and we should stop expecting them to like school.

Exhibit A might be the student who wrote “You tell me” to my question about what he might do to improve his performance in the class. He added that “I’m not trying to be rude, but” he’d been in school for 6 years, hadn’t had a good experience in college, and just wanted to graduate. I looked him up. He had a 2.019 GPA.

Exhibit B might be the student who told me during a student conference that he really likes to work with his hands and has a difficult time sitting still, reading book chapters, and focusing during exams. He was failing every class at the time we met.

And, by the way, that’s okay. (Not liking school. The whole failing thing was problematic.)

I don’t like working on cars. Or framing houses. Or running electrical wire. Or biology. If I went home tomorrow and told my wife I was quitting my job so I could go work at Tom’s Tire World, she’d probably wonder if I’d been playing with the kid’s glue sticks. Again.

Generally, these kinds of students aren’t being rude or disrespectful. They have other things they want to do with their life but they are in college because everyone keeps telling them they have to be here if they want to get a good job and make money, further evidence we really need a national conversation on the difference between correlation and causation.

Quite honestly, I’ve had those same kinds of kids for 17 years, and I suspect I will have them for the next 17 years.

The ugly reality is that no amount of educational reform will change the fact that some kids like college, some kids are willing to endure college, and some kids don’t belong in college.

I fully realize that the current political push to “reform” higher education is being driven by the out-sized debt saddling too many college graduates (and non-graduates). That debt is, as many “reformers” point out, caused by rising tuition prices and graduates with no demonstrable gains in skills and critical thinking abilities.

In other words, at the heart of calls for reform is a sense that students aren’t getting their money’s worth.

Of course, tuition isn’t technically rising: schools have simply been forced to pass more and more of the actual costs of higher education on to what our legislators and administrators call our “consumers.” As Jordan Weissmann pointed out last March, deeper budget cuts . . . generally correlate with bigger tuition increases. In essence, states have made a conscious decision to pass more of the cost of higher education on to students and parents. In the great state of Texas, our legislature decided to deregulate tuition, allowing in essence, state schools to work on a free market principle and then, as often happens when unqualified people make poor decisions, they were shocked when universities started charging enough money to keep the lights on and compete in the open market for “consumers.”

Trust me when I say that I fully agree that the explosion of apartment-style dorms, climbing walls, more and more student life personnel, turf on inter-mural fields, and student leisure pools is ridiculous. I’m ethically offended by faculty members who inflate grades, even though I fully understand the impulse to disregard strict grading standards in an environment where students are consumers, empowered by evaluations, and willing to litigate since “they pay our salaries.” At some schools, retention is just another word for everyone gets an A.

But, in our defense, more and more students choose a school based on those kinds of amenities and if states require that we generate our own income by attracting consumers, we must attract consumers. Eighteen year olds aren’t choosing colleges because of the number of PhDs teaching freshman composition classes.  The problem, as others have argued so much more eloquently than me, is that education is not a commodity or a consumer product.

If I go to The Palm every day and order $200 worth of food I never eat, charge the meal to my credit card, and then find myself saddled with $10,000 in debt even though I’m still hungry, no one blames The Palm. Nor should we.

I trust you are all smart enough to see the analogy I’m creating here and wondering why we keep blaming universities if students are sitting at the table and not eating.

The problem with higher education isn’t necessarily higher education. Certainly, we should always be looking for better ways to teach, research, and serve. Universities should explore opportunities to be more effective and offer the best education possible.

But America didn’t create the greatest system of higher education in the world by expecting that every student who enrolled in a university would pass and graduate.

We developed a great system because we realized that the ability to dedicate yourself to four years of higher education showed the kind of discipline necessary for certain types of employment. At one point, we also had enough common sense as a country to realize that not all jobs required four years of higher education because different people had different talents and skills. Most importantly, some jobs require experiential knowledge and some require the kind of “book learning” we offer when you sit in the classroom. Both of those things are valuable and necessary parts of the American economy.

Please understand that I’m not proposing we limit access to higher education. Throw open the doors. Hell, tear the doors off the jambs as far as I’m concerned. I would love if my university were an open access school that provided as many opportunities as possible to interested and engaged students. Heck, let the unengaged and unsure ones in also. I’m fine if they want to take us for a test spin.

But stop blaming the professor if the student is stays disengaged and uninterested.

But most important, let’s stop telling every student in America that college is the only path to a successful and profitable career.

Instead, next time we talk about higher education reform, let’s consider reforming our expectations instead of universities.

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.) 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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