Tag: Higher Education

On fighting straw men

Earlier today, Lis Smith — campaign strategist extraordinaire behind Pete Buttigieg’s presidential run — made this comment on Twitter: It’s why the “CRT isn’t taught in schools” line that’s parroted on cable tv doesn’t translate to voters. It’s a communications challenge Dems need to confront.

You’ve no doubt read volumes about Governor-elect Glen Youngkin’s pledge to Virginia voters that he was going to stop Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools. Parents raise concerns about children being taught to be “woke” and to feel badly about those pieces of American History that would make them feel bad or somehow — in spite of all evidence — to become convinced that white people are all bad and non-whites have been victimized.

Often these concerns are based upon anecdotal reports of an isolated classroom somewhere or an overly aggressive diversity, equity, inclusion workshop for teachers. A state legislator in Texas has come out with a list of 850 books available in school libraries that he believes are indoctrinating.

Some have argued that schools became a battle ground over questions of Zoom school or due to mask mandates (or both). There is also a historic patterns of anti-teachers union sentiments that provide a ready reservoir of concerned and vocal parents (even if they are the minority of parents in the district). Terry McAuliffe fed these concerns in Virginia with his bone-headed comment that “parents have no say in education” and then doubled-down when challenged. (Note: McAauliffe was a pretty weak candidate in 2013 against a much more extreme candidate than Youngkin.)

So how do we respond to these concerns, as Lis Smith suggests we should? I suggest that this is very hard to do because 1) the critics are often arguing in bad faith and 2) the goalposts keep moving. Respond to one particular concern (masks keep schools functioning by protecting vulnerable staff and also protect those at home who may have health risks) and quickly the conversation is about pseudoscience and Hitler and oppression. It’s not that the critics actual believe these metaphors are apt — they just work.

Perhaps there’s an avenue in returning to conversations about the purpose of education. For decades, public education has been about learning but also about citizenship. Those are the lessons begun in Kindergarten — sharing, listening, realizing that it’s not all about you. We have gotten test crazy to make sure “our children are learning” (No Child Left Behind) which has confused much. Those same parents who thought we were too reliant on testing now are suddenly concerned about learning loss.

Here’s another example. My Twitter feed has been full of reactions to Senator Josh Hawley’s Axios interview where he said that liberals are attacking masculinity, defining men as part of the problem in modern society. He says that men need to stop playing video games and watching porn.

In response to a prompt from my friend Napp Nazworth, I tweeted the following:

Hard to respond when Hawley makes claims like this. The choice is not between Withdrawn Men and Toxic Patriarchy. There are literally millions of men, Republican and Democrat, Christian and Secular, who look nothing like the straw man he’s offering up.

Again, I have no idea what data Hawley is using to support his claims. My best guess is that he’s posturing, looking for a signature issue that will make him a potential Presidential candidate in 2024 (in case that other guy doesn’t run). Senator Hawley is 41 years old. Like many of his generation, he would have grown up with readily available video games (I’ll forego addressing the porn question). Probably many of his staffers play video games in their free time. But he wasn’t really talking about men but about his continued attempts to paint tech giants as enemies of society.

Concerns about men have been showing up recently, especially around college attendance. Pew shared data today that 20% of men and 12% of women aged 25-34 had college degrees. In 2021, the comparable figures are 36% for males and 46% for women. The subtext in this any many articles is that somehow this is a problem.

It’s quite likely that the 1970 figures reflect some structural barriers to women attending college and a lower percentage of women headed to the workforce. The percentage of men 25-34 with college degrees nearly doubled as a function of the job market. Sure, the percentages for women increased nearly fourfold over the same period. While it’s tempting to argue that this is a turn away from men, but it’s more likely a reflection of the job market for all players. But this isn’t nearly as much fun as the inflammatory claim of a war against men.

Here’s another example. Today, conservative NYT columnist Bari Weiss announced that she and others were starting the University of Austin, a non-accredited non-profit institution that will be a safe place for conservatives to study. This is claimed as a direct response to the belief “that higher education is broken”, notoriously liberal, and unsafe for anyone who won’t follow the party line laid down by indoctrinating professors. This is on top of Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance claiming over the weekend that “professors are the enemy”. {It should be noted that there were bomb threats at three Ivy League schools and one Ohio institution this weekend.)

How does one respond to these outrageous claims about college professors? Sure, sociologists (like me) are largely left of center politically. We assign books that those parents discussed above might take issue with. But nearly all professors I know, in Christian colleges, state schools, and research universities want their students to engage the assigned material thoughtfully but would never demand that their students adopt pre-determined positions.

A final example, also from today. In promoting the newly passed infrastructure legislation, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg referenced a historic decision by New York official Robert Moses who intentionally designed an underpass too short to allow buses to go through, keeping people from black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods from getting to the beaches.

Naturally, Senator Ted Cruz responded on Twitter that “The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads.

One could easily point to work of prominent historians and journalists who explain how these things happen. Mayor Richard J. Daley had the Dan Ryan Expressway moved to cut off the “Black Belt” from his Irish neighborhood. There’s a reason that the Ninth Ward of New Orleans was devastated by the levee failures of hurricane Katrina. I won’t even bring up the housing policies of the New Deal that screened Black families out of the housing boom accompanying suburbanization (this, by the way, is what CRT is really about).

This, then, is the problem. There are rational responses to all of the straw men claims that aim to divide the voting population. And Democrats must, as Lis Smith, argues, find meaningful ways of addressing those concerns. The challenge is that even if successfully addressed, the bad faith actors have moved on to three other outrageous and mostly meritless claims.

Gregory Alan Thornbury calls this “kayfabe“. Performative posturing designed to signal the joke to insiders while making outsiders crazy. It’s what is often called “owning the libs” or “celebrating liberal tears”. They aren’t good faith arguments but positions that are advantageous in the moment.

Responding to kayfabe requires discipline and repetition. At the end of the day, it will require us to address the motivations of those posturers, and maybe pull back the curtain to show man making the great Wizard do his thing.

One more point. This weekend I shared a screenshot on Twitter from James Fallows’ 1996 Breaking the News. I was thrilled when Fallows retweeted my item and added to it. My phone was buzzing all weekend as a result. James wrote about it here. Part of our response to all the straw men is to identify the ways in which they are using the news media and social media to promote their bad faith arguments. There are a number of people tackling the issue but many more are needed.

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.