Academia’s caste system exposed

Quartz: Getting a job in academia is notoriously difficult. But the odds are especially bad for aspiring professors who didn’t earn their PhDs from a select few universities, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.

Researchers at Harvard and the University of Colorado, Boulder looked at full-time faculty in history and business departments in US colleges, and at computer science faculty in the US and Canada, between 2011 and 2013, co-author Aaron Clauset tells Quartz. They examined where the professors had earned their PhDs, and created a ranking system of the most prestigious schools in each subject, based on how successful their graduates were in finding jobs. They analyzed 16,316 assistant, associate and full professors across 242 schools.

Overall they found a fourth of the institutions accounted for about three fourths of tenure-track faculty. For example, 18 universities produce half of US and Canadian computer science professors, 16 universities produce half of US business professors, and eight universities account for half of US history professors. They chose these three fields to get a range, from humanities to scientific fields, and demonstrate that exclusive institutions dominated across the board, Clauset says. [Continue reading…]


Taylor and Appel: The subprime education scandal

We used to hear more often about those malignant institutions serving, or rather plaguing, the poor: the loan sharks who charged 100% or more per year in interest, the furniture or radios that ended up costing several times their value on the installment plan. Two or three decades ago, however, we didn’t think of an education as being part of the landscape of predation upon the poor. Now, as Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel explain, when it comes to a new crew of “for-profit” colleges, higher education has gone hyena and is tearing at the financial flesh of the poor.

Even mainstream institutions can be sketchy these days, if you look closely enough. Most liberal arts college programs give their students a vague, if exhilarating, sense that the best possible outcome of their vocation is practically an inevitability, and yet there are far from enough tenure-track jobs, top galleries, or niches on bestseller lists for all the people being educated.

Though people make it in all these fields, they are a tiny minority.  So many others pay their dues and get little for it, except whatever is inherently meaningful in their education, which won’t, of course, lighten their loan burden at all.

Once upon a time, it was different. The radicalism of the 1960s, for instance, should be chalked up in part to the great freedom of youth at a time when the fat of the land seemed inexhaustible and the safety net unbreakable. The two radicals I know who became wanted fugitives in the 1970s and then tenured faculty members (now retired with pensions) operated in a more forgiving era — and a more affluent one.

My parents believed that any kind of bachelor’s degree pretty much guaranteed your white-collar future, and that was a truth of their era. Thirty years ago, when I came along, it was already less of a reality; today, so much less than that. Still, the hangover from that conviction lingers. I went to California’s public universities as their golden age of nearly free and superb education was ending and got through college scrambling to the sound of doors shutting behind me. It was all part of the end of an egalitarian dream birthed and nurtured by the New Deal of the 1930s, the creation of social security in the 1940s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. It’s now popular to say that, as president, Richard Nixon was to the left of Barack Obama, but what that means is that our society was then closer to a social democracy (and that since we’re really bad at talking about it, we’d rather focus our attention on figureheads).

Maybe communism was good for us after all, at least — as David Graeber argues — in scaring the powers that be into offering their own limited versions of equality and opportunity. California’s Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, was the beginning of the end of that dream, arising as it did from the now-entrenched belief that what we have separately beats whatever we have together anytime. Taxes were portrayed as the nails that stuck every breadwinning Jesus to his own personal cross, rather than the way to keep roads and bridges and schools in shape, have safe drinking water and, like, a postal system and libraries (and also a giant military eating up more than half of the federal government’s discretionary spending). As the retreat into the private sphere began in earnest, people started forgetting how good, how secure life had been, while Republicans launched the mantra that future tax cuts would be a magical ointment capable of curing anything.

Part of the great work of Occupy Wall Street was to make some of the brutality of the current economy visible. People whose lives were being ravaged by housing, medical, and educational debt came out of the shame and the shadows to testify, while activists and homeowners took action against foreclosures and banks. From the beginning Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, was part of that movement and moment.  Her work there led to her involvement with Strike Debt and the fledgling Debt Collective. Now, she and Hannah Appel focus on the conditions that produced the perfect educational storm in the form of the private for-profit university/corporation. Rebecca Solnit

Education with a debt sentence
For-profit colleges as American dream crushers and factories of debt
By Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel

Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers. Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream — gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts, profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers. And imagine that these corporations receive tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do this dirty work. Now, know that these corporations actually exist and are universities.

Over the last three decades, the price of a year of college has increased by more than 1,200%. In the past, American higher education has always been associated with upward mobility, but with student loan debt quadrupling between 2003 and 2013, it’s time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder. This is a question of obvious relevance for low-income students and students of color.

[Read more…]


The case for banning laptops in the classroom

Dan Rockmore writes: A colleague of mine in the department of computer science at Dartmouth recently sent an e-mail to all of us on the faculty. The subject line read: “Ban computers in the classroom?” The note that followed was one sentence long: “I finally saw the light today and propose we ban the use of laptops in class.”

While the sentiment in my colleague’s e-mail was familiar, the source was surprising: it came from someone teaching a programming class, where computers are absolutely integral to learning and teaching. Surprise turned to something approaching shock when, in successive e-mails, I saw that his opinion was shared by many others in the department.

My friend’s epiphany came after he looked up from his lectern and saw, yet again, an audience of laptop covers, the flip sides of which were engaged in online shopping or social-media obligations rather than in the working out of programming examples. In a “Network”-inspired Peter Finch moment, he quickly changed the screen of his lecture presentation to a Reddit feed and watched some soccer highlights. That got everyone’s attention. [Continue reading…]


Master of many trades

Robert Twigger writes: I travelled with Bedouin in the Western Desert of Egypt. When we got a puncture, they used tape and an old inner tube to suck air from three tyres to inflate a fourth. It was the cook who suggested the idea; maybe he was used to making food designed for a few go further. Far from expressing shame at having no pump, they told me that carrying too many tools is the sign of a weak man; it makes him lazy. The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.

We hear the descriptive words psychopath and sociopath all the time, but here’s a new one: monopath. It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world. You think I jest? In June, I was invited on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to say a few words on the river Nile, because I had a new book about it. The producer called me ‘Dr Twigger’ several times. I was flattered, but I also felt a sense of panic. I have never sought or held a PhD. After the third ‘Dr’, I gently put the producer right. And of course, it was fine — he didn’t especially want me to be a doctor. The culture did. My Nile book was necessarily the work of a generalist. But the radio needs credible guests. It needs an expert — otherwise why would anyone listen?

The monopathic model derives some of its credibility from its success in business. In the late 18th century, Adam Smith (himself an early polymath who wrote not only on economics but also philosophy, astronomy, literature and law) noted that the division of labour was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process. But Smith also observed that ‘mental mutilation’ followed the too-strict division of labour. Or as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: ‘Nothing tends to materialise man, and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind, more than extreme division of labour.’ [Continue reading…]


Video: Neil deGrasse Tyson on how to promote scientific literacy in children


Video: Ken Robinson — How to escape education’s death valley


Education should offer people a greater sense of being human

Alan Smith writes: You OK?” said Casey.

“Yeah fine. I’m all right,” I said, but I wasn’t.

“It was an upsetting morning,” he said. “I feel upset myself.”

“Tell you what, Case, if I never meet another psychopath again as long as I live, it’ll be far too soon.” And I knew that I had lost the stomach for the whole damned business. If I carried on in prison, I would have to do it differently; I would have to admit that it was prison.

In 14 years, I had never excluded anyone, no matter how difficult they were. It had all been a bit of a club where everyone was good and bright and sensitive, especially when they weren’t. But now, my bottle had gone and I wanted to get under the duvet and stay there. Casey gave me a hug: “Retire, man. You don’t need all this shit.”

I suppose it had all been creeping up on me for a while. What I had to face up to was that I was becoming more and more indifferent. It was a difficult thing to do. There were moments, more and more of them, when I didn’t care about the things that happened, who they happened to. This was the selfishness that prison rubs into your skin. I listened to what Arthur had to say, nodded the right things back at him and then shrugged him off. Arthur led a life of growing desperation. He had an indeterminate sentence and lived from one parole board to the next, with no real idea if release would be sooner or later. He talked to me about his wife, his children, his father and, I said to myself, if I could do anything to help him out I would. Anyone could see that he was a decent sort of a bloke. If he managed to get into the education block a bit early, he gave our room a bit of a tidy, got the office vacuum cleaner and did the floor. If he caught me doing it he told me off: “You shouldn’t be doing that.” I liked him; we got on.His robust spirit was slowly winding down and sometimes he snapped at people, took refuge in contempt, laughed a lot less than he used to. But I shrugged him off. I caught myself doing it, caught myself thinking of something clever to say, making up something clever to tell myself so that I could slip away.

I had always tried to avoid this failure that begins with indifference. I had never tried to manage the men I met, deflect them, stand behind a platitude, promise anything and then lose the paperwork. That’s the track I had started to head down, towards that quiet life that I’d do anything to have. I could see it happening.

And so, after almost 14 years, it was time to go. I couldn’t just walk away, just leave the guys flat. I offered them a deal. I would stay as long as they did. There was a certain amount of dark laughter. “You might have a long wait,” said one. Sue, the education manager, agreed to let the class run down, no more new faces.

Teaching in a prison means that from time to time, someone who is really difficult walks through the door. I always felt obliged to persist, not to simply chuck them out. “You can’t treat people like that,” I would say when the guys advised me what they would do to the current nutter. Now, I had started to agree with them and it felt like failure. I was becoming growingly aware that when I heard about someone stabbing a man – “They reckon I stabbed him 47 times,” or about pouring boiling, sugary water over someone or about saving up stale piss to throw, there I was nodding and making notes and thinking, “Oh that’s good, I might be able to use that in a novel”. I knew that something was wrong but, just as it had been when I was a child, the wrongness had no purchase on me.

We got down to four and then, out of the blue, there was a run of golden, other-worldly mornings when we read Chaucer. Chaucer. It started when Ten-Foot thought I was kidding when I said that there was a marxist account of language. They couldn’t get enough of the Canterbury Tales, that lovely run of characters. It cheered me up to know again that anything good, no matter how old, obscure or difficult always commanded a hearing. We took our time over the spelling and where words might have come from or gone to. I told them about David Crystal and the notion of polite rather than correct English. We really got into it. The college didn’t want to pay me for a class of four; I was willing to pay them. The men’s enthusiasm reassured me that I hadn’t wasted my time. What, after all, does education offer to people if not a greater sense of being human? [Continue reading…]


Video — Ken Robinson: Educating the heart and mind


Book examines America’s turn from science, warns of danger for democracy

McClatchy reports: Americans have trouble dealing with science, and one place that’s especially obvious is in presidential campaigns, says Shawn Lawrence Otto, who tried, with limited success, to get the candidates to debate scientific questions in the 2008 presidential election. Otto is the author of a new book, “Fool me twice: Fighting the assault on science in America,” which opens with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” And if the people and their leaders aren’t well informed and don’t use scientific information to solve modern problems, Otto suggests, the United States could soon skid into decline. “Without the mooring provided by the well-informed opinion of the people, governments may become paralyzed or, worse, corrupted by powerful interests seeking to oppress and enslave,” he writes. Today, he adds, Congress seems paralyzed and “ideology and rhetoric increasingly guide policy discussion, often bearing little relationship to factual reality.” In 2008, Otto and a group of other writers tried to organize a presidential debate on science issues. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain was interested. In the end, the two candidates agreed to respond to 14 questions in writing, and Otto’s group posted them on its website. Otto said the group plans to try for another science debate in 2012. Reporters play a role in whether science is discussed in campaigns. A League of Conservation Voters analysis in early 2008 found that prime-time TV journalists asked 2,975 questions in 171 interviews. Only six questions were about climate change, “and the same could be said of any one of several major policy topoics surrounding science,” Otto writes in the book.


Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education


Ken Robinson – changing paradigms of learning