Five Rules for Educational Pundits

Last night I had a visceral reaction to David Brooks’ column in yesterday’s New York Times. I felt compelled to rant about it on Facebook. My reaction must have been even more extreme than I thought as it prompted my wife to make a FB post to make sure I was okay.

I’m attending the North Central Sociological Association meeting in Indianapolis with three of my students. The sessions have been generally good and the keynote speech by Sheldon Stryker of Indiana was very interesting.

When I got back to my room and checked on the day’s happenings, I saw Brook’s article, “The Practical University“. He begins by assuming that the point of education is preparing workers for the workforce. Beginning with this technical focus, he then begins to suggest that technical competence (being all that is necessary) can better be shared via technological media. Even the heart of the pedagogical process can be construed as a technical challenge — class discussion is about the skills required in group interaction (these will be valuable in future jobs).

Here’s my rant from Facebook: This is wrong on more levels that a FB post will allow me to unpack. First, the premise that education is about “technical knowledge” like biological recipes that nurses can use to deal with medical issues. The truth is that I don’t want nurses who know technical knowledge — I want them to think critically, deal with whole people, and know when innovation is lifesaving. Second, the notion of “boot camp for adulthood” is ridiculous on its face: made even more so by references to binge drinking, appropriate fornication, and “handing things in on time.” Third, seminars are not about seminar participation skills (which is why you’d videotape them and then discuss performance). They are the actual substance where learning occurs; learning for the students, learning for the professor, and learning by the entire community. When that happens and students practice engaging broader world in meaningful and life-changing ways, the university is as PRACTICAL as it can possibly be. Can we have non-educators please STOP pontificating on things of which they know very little?

Brooks’ article makes me reflect on how much of this tripe I’ve had to read over the last couple of years. In doing a very informal meta-analysis on these educational pundit articles (my definition is that they appear in popular print by people who aren’t professional educators), I think I found some patterns. If you want to become one of these pundits,  there are some general rules that can get you started:

1. Select a shaky metaphor and build your whole argument around it. Manufacturing metaphors are popular (importance of product). So are retail metaphors (students as customers). Whatever you do, don’t spend any time thinking about what most colleges or universities actually do. Don’t think about how you or your children feel about the college experience.

2. Pick an isolated fact and use it as an argument for how it changes everything. For example, have you noticed how today’s students like this thing called the internet? These kids are tweeting and texting and doing FB updates all the time. Surely they don’t want to sit in a classroom for 60 minutes and listen to a lecture when they’d rather watch YouTube videos! It is true that students are technologically savvy but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this is their preferred mode of learning. Don’t consider the fact that we’re expecting people to use technology appropriately on the job without moving everyone to telecommuting.

3. Make sure to use an anachronistic understanding of higher education as your point of contrast. Ideally, you can pick on the worst teacher from your own college experience. Clearly, you argue, that folks like that guy can’t be the mode for future educational behavior. Don’t mention that he was abnormal even in the day. Whatever you do, don’t pay attention to people like Parker Palmer or read The Courage to Teach.

4. Pick one particular egregious example as an indictment of what’s wrong with the status quo. This is a strategy that has worked very well for people like David Horowitz. Write a book about Ward Churchill’s egregious behavior. Blog about the “stomp on Jesus” professor (which was a case study of this rule from the day the story broke). Identify that professor at the major research university who makes $170,000 but never teaches undergraduates. If these instances are generalized across academia, we clearly have major problems (of course, they are outliers and not at all representative of faculty in general).

5. Make sure you get the phrase “creative disruption” into your article. This allows you to argue that “this is a new world” and we have to leave our prior assumptions behind. Pay attention to MOOCs, online programs, the University of Phoenix, industrial training, and competency based learning. Don’t ask questions about how these innovations fit the incredible diversity of American higher education.

If you follow these five simple rules, you can join David Brooks and George Will to point out to all who will listen how higher education could improve if it weren’t for intractable faculty members. Since you are not connected to an institution or involved in teaching undergraduates over time, you will never have to put your ideas to the test.

Stryker’s keynote address was a reflection on what’s wrong with theory in modern sociology. He argued that there is a relationship between “frameworks” (broad theoretical perspectives) and “theories” which are empirical tests of predictable variable relationships. He said that we don’t focus on the connection between the two ideas because sociology has been overspecialized (he had a fascinating contrast between an early ASA meeting with 200 attendees who shared dinner and last summer’s ASA meeting with 4500 attendees who were divided across multiple hotel venues).

His critique of hyper-specialization makes me think of the pundit rules above. If my focus as a sociologist is within my own little research world, I’m not thinking cogently about the nature of modern higher education. More than that, I’m not explaining my work to the various publics with whom I engage.

My silence on these issues winds up empowering folks like Brooks and Will. Trustees, legislators, and parents are more likely to read a David Brooks column that they are to read this blog. That means I must write more and find more public venues to present the alternative view.

Maybe if I can do that more regularly, my reaction to silly pundit arguments can be less visceral. I think that would make my wife happy.

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3 thoughts on “Five Rules for Educational Pundits

  1. John, I would like to relate a story that I think is relevant to this discussion. Two weeks ago, we attended a choir concert at Illinois State University. There was a significant snow storm that day in central Illinois, and the director of Men’s Glee at ISU, Tim Fredstrom, made a point of thanking the attendees for braving the elements. He finished his comments by saying that the choirs could have still given their performance, but it wouldn’t have been the same – “We need an audience.” I think that this is analogous to the current debates regarding online versus in-person classes, and I would like to think that Parker Palmer would nod his head in agreement.

    1. Thanks, Paul for this image. When the pundits get enamored with podcasting, you have to ask if the parents would be happy sitting at home and watching their son sing in the Glee Club concert. Why do they need to be physically present? The obvious answer is that there is something unique that happens in the collective that cannot always be translated via technology.

  2. Great insights, as always. From an adjunct perspective, it’s ESPECIALLY frustrating. It would be interesting to see how he functions doing the job we do.

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