Senator Ron Johnson: Too Many History Teachers, Not Enough “Destructive Technology”

It’s reassuring to know that there are enlightened people like Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson who are in positions of power and have the ability to set education policy in this country.

Senator Johnson says that the “tenured professors in the higher education cartel” are working to keep college costs high and not doing enough to embrace digital technology like Blue-Ray discs, the internet, and the world wide web in the classroom – a classroom that he believes should have fewer teachers and replaced with what he calls “destructive technology.”

Johnson: We’ve got the internet – you have so much information available. Why do we have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to the knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system.

WISPOLITICS: But online education is missing some facet of a good –

Johnson: Of course, it’s a combination, but prior to me doing this crazy thing [of being in the Senate] . . . I was really involved on a volunteer basis in an education system in Oshkosh. And one of the things we did in the Catholic school system was we had something called “academic excellence initiative.” How do you teach more, better, easier?

One of the examples I always used – if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.

Where do you even start with this nonsense?

  • Digital technology–more specifically education technology–is not a panacea that automatically enhances classroom learning. In 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” That “revolution,” of course, never came about, partly because any sort of technology used in the classroom is merely a tool for achieving the larger goal of learning. Technology is not an end in and of itself, and watching a documentary is no more effective than listening to someone drone on forever in the front of a classroom. It’s how you use those tools that matters, and the best teachers put a range of tools–from pens and pencils to computers and tablets–to work in fostering a positive learning environment.


  • Jonathan Rees has blogged for several years about MOOCs and ed tech and has a book coming out on the subject. Mr. Johnson ought to read it.


  • Ken Burns is a wonderful filmmaker and producer, but his PBS series is not the definitive word on the history of the American Civil War. It’s been twenty-plus years since the documentary came out. It is dated and has a few questionable interpretations. Again, teaching history or any subject doesn’t mean popping in a movie and having students take notes. Pairing the documentary with other works of scholarship–written and on film–and analyzing how historians have interpreted the war and constructed narratives about the history of the war is a better start. Having students learn from a trained professional how to find, analyze, and interpret primary sources…that’s also a good start. And having a teacher facilitate dialogue through guided questions or some other thoughtful activity after the film holds more potential for learning than watching a video from “a solid lecturer” after watching a fourteen-hour documentary.


  • Ron Johnson sounds like he hasn’t stepped foot in a college in forty years. Tenure basically doesn’t exist for most young faculty members anymore. The “higher education cartel,” if any such thing exists, has bought into Senator Johnson’s rhetoric and has actively worked to implement austerity measures while relying more on part-time contingent faculty, especially since the 2008 recession. College doesn’t consist of professors constantly lecturing their students anymore. Higher education is not an Orwellian propaganda machine where students read Das Kapital and dream about Cultural Marxism all day and then party all night. We should be investing more in public education rather than advocating for “destructive technology” or busting up some make-believe “higher education cartel.”

You can’t make up this stuff up.


Notes on the Alleged “Skills Deficiency” Crisis in U.S. Education and Employment

This post rambles a bit. Fair warning.

Politicians have complained about the quality of public education in the United States since at least the 1910s, when all states passed laws making k-12 school attendance mandatory. Since that time our country’s leaders have essentially lathered, rinsed, and repeated the warnings echoed in the Reagan administration’s 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report: “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people . . . Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.”

Today, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have targeted a growing “skills deficiency” crisis in public schools. We are told that students today can’t read, write, do basic math, or think critically, nor are they prepared for college or employment in a competitive workforce. These assumptions, readily accepted as legitimate ideas in American thought about education, are repeated in internationally-reputable publications like the New York Times, who unabashedly argue that the “skills deficiency” in today’s students is a “troublesome fact.” “The American work force is less educated than it needs to be at a time when most jobs in the new economy will require some college education.” At the same time we are also told that the nation’s education system continues to fall behind other nations like Finland, South Korea, and China.

Rich philanthropists like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg want more students of all ages learning “practical” skills like coding. Florida Governor Rick Scott thinks liberal arts and humanities majors like anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and ethnic studies are a drain on the state’s higher education dollars, and he’d rather shift that money to “STEM” degrees (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Ivy Tech Community College President Tom Snyder agrees, saying that a liberal arts degree is “a poor investment” and that students must consider skills-based training in STEM fields of study.

To justify these claims and address their shortcomings, the Obama administration continues to rely on Bush-era policy precedents in high-stakes testing and performance-based financial incentives to address accountability issues and motivate students and teachers to get those scores up. The bottom line results, however, haven’t changed since 2000.

But what if these assumptions about “skills deficiencies,” lack of STEM-based training, and a nation’s education system falling behind the rest of the industrialized world are faulty? A new study by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute suggests that our assumptions need to be reevaluated:

EPI Unemployment Chart

The above chart shows that today’s labor market is not stifled by a lack of skilled employers entering the workforce. Rather, a “broad-based lack of demand for workers” is preventing skilled workers from obtaining gainful employment. That is also (and especially!) the case with STEM-based employment fields, where the U.S. Census Bureau reports that only one in four STEM graduates with a bachelor’s degree have a STEM job and the industry struggles with too much supply and stagnant wages for those in the field. And it turns out that U.S. students have struggled with standardized tests for at least fifty years, according to Diane Ravitch. To wit:

It is worth noting that American students have never received high scores on international tests. On the first such test, a test of mathematics in 1964, senior year students in the US scored last of twelve nations, and eighth-grade students scored next to last. But in the following fifty years, the US outperformed the other eleven nations by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions. This raises the question of whether the scores of fifteen-year-old students on international tests predict anything of importance or whether they reflect that our students lack motivation to do their best when taking a test that doesn’t count toward their grade or graduation.

I’m sure there are plenty of students entering college who struggle with basic comprehension skills. I do not, however, subscribe to the idea that there are too many people in college or that the majority of those coming out of school are unprepared to enter the workforce. Only one-third of today’s 27-year-olds (yours truly included) have at least a bachelor’s degree, contrary to those who assert that a college degree is today’s equivalent of a high school diploma. Some also argue that there’s a “college dropout epidemic” in U.S. higher education. I find President Obama’s proposal to make community college free to all students intriguing, although there are many questions that still need to be addressed, including whether or not students should automatically have their tuition covered or if there should be performance-based strings attached. The working conditions of teachers in k-12 and higher education should also quesitoned, although I’d be shocked if they actually were.

We need to understand, however, that deeper structural problems within today’s labor market prevent many young people from obtaining gainful, full-time employment. For example, long-tenured Baby Boomer generation employees are retiring from the workforce and their jobs are simply going away rather than being filled by a younger person. Full-time jobs are becoming part-time jobs without benefits. Real wages for most workers have stagnated since 2000.

Getting an education is important for the simple reason that the experience of learning is valuable in and of itself, regardless of employment prospects. No one can take your education away from you. Liberal arts/humanities degrees will be relevant as long as we desire to learn more about the human condition and think critically about it. But gone are the days in which “go to school” was enough to guarantee career success. Getting a college degree and obtaining “skills” don’t guarantee much of anything in today’s labor market, regardless of field. Finding employment these days seems to be based on who you know and where you come from rather than where you’re going and how much potential you have.


Thinking Out Loud About the History Ph.D. and the Future of Higher Ed

History PhD Reporting Employment 2012

Regular readers of Exploring the Past know that I occasionally muse on the state of higher education in the United States and what the academy might hold for someone like me in the future. I wish I had the ability to look into a crystal ball and envision this future, but I instead find myself in a paradox when it comes to whether or not I should pursue my history Ph.D. On the one hand, I’ve worked extremely hard to position myself for a full-time, permanent status placement with the National Park Service, an agency whose mission and values I care deeply about. Now that I’ve earned that position (for which I’m extremely grateful), it seems that getting “experience in the field” and not pursuing a Ph.D. at present makes the most sense for my career development, and I’ve been told as much by some of my teachers. On the other hand, I received a lot of support from other teachers during graduate school who encouraged me to strongly consider the Ph.D. path and pursue it as soon as possible. By pursuing the Ph.D. now, I could also position myself for potential employment within higher education in addition to possibly furthering my public history career.

I love teaching history in both formal and informal learning settings, and I hope to do more of both in my career. But it can be mentally overwhelming thinking about the unknown contingencies that will shape where I go and what I do through the course of my career. It’s important not to discount any avenue of opportunity at this point, and I’ve been doing my best to get a feel for what I might expect if I were to pursue my Ph.D. Unfortunately, the research I’ve done so far indicates that my prospects don’t look good if I pursue this path.

Overeducated, Unemployed: There are too many Ph.D. candidates in all fields of study. Hope College English professor William Pannapacker suggests that this glut of Ph.Ds (especially in the humanities) stems from schools’ reliance on cheap teaching labor. “It’s my view that higher education in the humanities exists mainly to provide cheap, inexperienced teachers for undergraduates so that shrinking percentage of tenured faculty members can meet an ever-escalating demand for specialized research.” These schools, according to Pannapacker, don’t really care about the employment status of their students once they graduate.

Because there is a glut of Ph.Ds on the academic job market, schools set the terms of employment to their favor. Amid severe funding cuts for public colleges and universities and rising costs for non-academic ventures (more on that in a moment) since the 2008 Great Recession, a race to the bottom has ensued within academia. More than 50 percent of all faculty in today’s schools are part-time. Some faculty voluntarily choose to be part-time because they either have full-time employment outside academia, are retired from the workplace and choose to teach occasionally, or simply prefer this sort of schedule. But the vast majority of these faculty members do not work outside the academy and are placed in a position where they frantically run around from school to school looking for classes to teach. Adjunct faculty members have no job security, no health benefits, and make an average of $2,700 per course (which means that a person teaching four classes per semester would be making $21,600 annually, before taxes). There are professors on food stamps.

Efforts to find new Ph.Ds employment opportunities outside the academy (“alt-ac”) are still in their infancy, but the transferability of academic skills and training to alternative careers remains an open question. The Boston Globe recently published an essay about a “quiet crisis” in the science community, where recent Ph.Ds have been increasingly forced to work in low-paying postdoctoral apprenticeships thanks to cuts in higher education employment and federal funding. (And, while I’m at it, I should point out that STEM graduates of any level are struggling to find employment, contrary to popular belief that the U.S. lacks a sufficient number of young, competent science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals).

And then there are those who simply can’t find employment. The graph above, taken from a recent study by the American Historical Association, found that less than 50 percent of new history Ph.Ds reported finding “definite employment” following the completion of their degree and about 40 percent saying that they were still “seeking employment.” (Here’s a collection of data studies from the AHA on history programs, employment, and students).

What is the cost of pursuing a Ph.D?: Many–if not most–Ph.D. students live on a monthly or yearly stipend that ostensibly covers the cost of living. Schools pay their students to work as Teaching Assistants, researchers, or a range of other jobs for roughly twenty hours a week. These stipends end up totaling around $10,000-$12,000 per year, which is low enough that some students have been forced to take public assistance to help pay the bills while in school. A select few are lucky enough to get their tuition fully covered in addition to their yearly stipend, but most students are forced to take out loans to cover their rising tuition costs and usage fees while in school. The average debt burden for graduate students today is $60,000. Moreover, this debt doesn’t account for the years of lost income that accompany any full-time investment in the pursuit of a Ph.D., which can take between five and ten years to complete. University of Iowa Sally Mason recently attributed at least half of this student debt to so-called “‘lifestyle debts’ caused by students buying things like iPhones, iPads, and laptops” (see link above), reflective of her clear ignorance of these serious problems.

Where does the money go?: The sad thing about this rising debt is that so much of the increasing tuition rates in U.S. schools are reflective of the rising costs of things completely detached from the academic classroom. Contrary to popular assumptions and beliefs, colleges and universities are not increasing tuition rates because of rising faculty costs. That money is actually going towards the building of fancy campus centers, sports stadiums, dorms, and 9,000 Square Feet President’s Residences. And we can’t forget the huge growth of higher education administrators who take an increasing amount of the budgetary pie in academia. From 1987 to 2012 the number of administrators in colleges and universities more than doubled, with 517,636 administrators and professional employees added to the payrolls during that period.

I’m not one for big freak-outs and alarmist rhetoric, but the above information definitely sobers my perspective whenever I start thinking about furthering my education, and I have a bad feeling that things will either stay the same or get worse in the future.


A Student’s View of the NCPH Guide

I was recently tasked with writing a short essay for the National Council on Public History’s Public History News as a part of my duties with the organization for the 2013-14 academic year. For my first essay I felt it important to reflect on the NCPH Guide to Public History Programs and talk about my process for finding a public history program that fit my needs. This guide was a great help to me when I applied for programs and we’re hoping more public history programs will take advantage of it to provide interested parties with up-to-date information. Current NCPH members can find this essay in Public History News 34, no. 1 (December 2013), 7, which is heading to your mailbox right now.

When I began my search for a graduate school to develop my skills as a public historian two years ago, the National Council on Public History’s Guide to Public History Programs became a vital aid in helping me choose a program that was most appropriate to my needs and interests. This guide—distributed as a print publication for members of NCPH as late as 2006 but now accessible online to anyone—is an important resource for prospective students and public historians seeking a clear picture of the state of the field.

Public history education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels has experienced tremendous growth over the past ten years. As NCPH President Bob Weyeneth has argued, history students who are interested in taking their work outside the classroom have turned to public history to “shape public attitudes about the past,” work in a collaborative setting, and make history meaningful to themselves and their audiences. I graduated in the spring of 2011 with a social studies teaching degree and worked as a teacher for one year, but my own experiences with several public history internships during undergrad inspired me to consider a career teaching people of all ages about the past in an interpretive setting.

I acquired valuable skills during those internships, but I understood that I needed more training in public history theories, methods, and practices. At the time I was unsure where to go or who to turn to for help in finding a public history graduate program that worked for me. Thankfully, a professor led me to the Guide, which helped to start the process of learning about and applying for public history programs

I began my search by combing through each hyperlinked guide entry, which led to a PDF document that outlined a specific program’s history, contact information, financial aid opportunities, places where students had internships, and employers who hired students after graduation. I made an excel spreadsheet with each of these designated fields and a list of 30 schools that looked compelling to me. I then visited each program’s website to learn more about tuition costs, curriculum requirements, and campus life. I also made phone calls to program directors, telling them that I had looked at the Guide and that I wanted to hear a “pitch” for their program (I discovered later that email was oftentimes a faster and more reliable means of communication than a phone call). As I narrowed down my list, I arranged formal phone interviews and campus visits with my top choices.

When applying for public history programs, I thought about the following questions:

  • Do I understand what public history is? Do I know the difference between public history and museum studies?
  • Do I want to study a specific concentration within public history (archives, historic preservation, interpretation, etc.) or do I want more generalized training?
  • Am I willing to relocate for graduate school? If so, where?
  • How much will it cost to attend school? What is my budget? What are some possible avenues for financial aid?
  • What is the status of the economy? Are there jobs in public history?
  • What is the history of the school’s public history program? Does it fit my needs?
  • What were my impressions of the faculty I communicated with during the application process? Did they sound committed to helping me achieve my scholarly and career goals?
  • Am I prepared to fully commit myself to graduate school? Going to school simply to wait for the job market to improve is problematic.

Answers to some of these questions are still coming into focus for me, especially while I have been helping to update the current NCPH Guide in my role as the NCPH graduate assistant this year. The previous complete update for the Guide was in 2010. Rapid changes in the field and the negative effects of the Great Recession, I think, make it more important than ever for public history programs to provide precise information for prospective students and professional public historians.

News and Notes, Classroom Edition

It’s been a crazy semester so far, full of school projects, work, and much thesis writing still left to do. I’ll also be doing a bit of traveling this weekend. I’ve been following a lot of ongoing discussions within the world of education, and it’s been a while since I blogged about these discussions. Let’s take a look at some noteworthy articles that have been circulating the news as late:

  • Diane Ravitch–an Education historian, NYU Professor, former aide to President George W. Bush, and former supporter of charter schools and education privatization–has now come out swinging against charter schools, calling them “scams.” She disagrees with the notion that public schools (and teachers unions) are failing students and that more “competition” in public education leads to better outcomes for students. She argues that schools are relying too much on testing and that socio-economic factors like segregation and poverty are bigger issues than test scores. This article is an important read, and I highly recommend it.
  • Former Congressman Ron Paul has a new book on education coming out called The School Revolution: A New Answer for Our Broken Education System. The book advocates for home schooling (which is not really a new answer) and “free market” schooling options. In an argument completely antithetical to the one made by Ravitch, Paul argues on page 12 that “[Modern Educators] want control over the thinking of children, and they want to reduce the influence of parents. They are thoroughly convinced that there are better ways to educate a child than the traditional way (home schooling), and they are determined to be placed in authority over the education of every nation’s children. It is now a matter of political power, and the professional educators have succeeded in gaining a near-monopolistic control over the structure and content of education during the first dozen years of school.”
  • Karen Young writes a thoughtful piece on Hybrid Pedagogy, the need to foster more interdisciplinary studies in schools, and actively questions the current system of testing, which reflects learning theories that consider students as “subjects” who are empty vessels of knowledge, not active learners who construct their own meanings from education content.
  • What would a school with no grades look like? I’m not sure, but I like the ideas posed here.
  • Far too often we Americans underestimate the value of a good teacher.
  • Jay Saper was kicked out of Teach for America for what apparently looks like…teaching.
  • An adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University died of a heart attack at the age of 83. She had taught at the university for 25 years, yet she died without a severance package, retirement benefits, or health insurance. A sad story that tells us much about the value we put on those who work in our higher education institutions in this country.

Reasons for Not Teaching in Higher Education

Photo Credit: Paul Rehg,
Photo Credit: Paul Rehg,

When I was in undergrad, I was sometimes taught by adjunct faculty. At the time, the personal story of one of my adjunct professors had really intrigued me, and I’ve been thinking about it even more recently. For the sake of privacy, I’ll refer to this person as Professor X.

Professor X is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met, and X is well respected for his/her playing abilities around the nation. X attended prestigious music schools around the country, including UCLA (and Berkley, I think). Failing to find a job after obtaining a PhD, X worked for several years in construction, playing music on the side and waiting for an opportunity to teach at an academic institution. Around 2009, an adjunct position finally opened at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, leading Professor X to St. Louis to teach. Since X was an adjunct, he/she was forced to find employment at many universities around the area to make ends meet, constantly struggling to find classes to teach and students to work with for private lessons. I honestly don’t know how many schools X taught at, but it was at least four or five, including mine.

For the 2010-2011 academic year, Professor X earned a full time spot at my undergrad institute, which made me very happy at the time, as I felt that the position was well earned. Unfortunately, Professor X later came to the realization that teaching full time was not what he/she wanted to do, and Professor X is now gone. I have no idea where X is now, but I wish him/her the best.

At the time, I believed that X’s status as an adjunct was something of an anomaly. Most academic students who desire to teach at the college level, I believed, were able to do so, even though they may have to move to middle-of-nowhere, USA. Some were forced to be adjuncts, but most eventually got that full time position that they so earnestly desired. If you worked hard, showed a lot of passion, and made a difference in the classroom, things would go your way.

Boy, was I wrong.

It turns out the picture is way more complex than I understood it as a young undergrad. It turns out that many who desire to teach at the college level never get the chance to teach full time, regardless of subject. Professor X’s story is probably really mild compared to others who have tried to break into the field. Some tenured academics like William Pannapacker have even suggested that getting a PhD–especially in the humanities–is a mistake. Another article I recently read presents some facts that I find absolutely shocking. To wit:

  • At some Washington DC universities, only 4% of the budget goes towards faculty pay and instruction. At many schools across the country, state support is getting cut, leading to a reliance on private donations and student tuition to meet budgetary requirements. Most of these funds are going towards the salaries of a rising number of administrators, tech support, people involved with athletics, and fundraising staff. Lots of that money also goes towards fancy new stadiums and campus amenities like cafeterias and dorms.
  • Most adjuncts make between $2,000-$3,000 per course they teach, without benefits. Many are on food stamps.
  • 75% of the faculty workforce in higher ed is composed of adjuncts.

Higher Education, despite what you may hear on daytime television commercials or internet ads, is a business. Whether a public or private institution, it’s a business, and I think we are starting to see how badly we need to restructure things. I am glad to see that more adjuncts are using their voices in protest against this immoral system. Some have also decided to leave for good, and it’s hard to blame them. Consider this letter from Professor M. I am going to quote the letter in full here, but make sure to check the link to see the article, its comments, and a collection of other stories about life as an adjunct. Here we go:

Dear College and University Presidents and Boards:

I can’t claim I did not know what I was getting myself into; I had been an adjunct for over fifteen years when I decided to become one full-time. That was five years ago and as I face one class each per two schools where there used to be three or four, and as my husband and I face foreclosure on our home of ten years, I realize that my assumption that I could become full-time faculty (or at least make a decent living wage) was wrong.

My students like me, my full-time faculty adjunct schedulers like me, the dean likes me when he needs a special favor (like a last minute assignment, or an independent study for the boyfriend of the daughter of a college VP) but no one likes me enough to give me the wage, respect and resources I deserve.

Adjuncts, or contingent faculty, are carrying the education system in this country. The colleges and universities have been surviving and profiting on the backs of people like me for too long. I have decided I am through. I don’t know what that means for me or what will happen, but I can’t do it anymore. Unpaid summers are too long and life is too short. I know I am a good teacher; I also know I can’t give all that I should when I have so much resentment against the institutions.

I have been asked to participate in an accreditation self-study, for free naturally, but I feel no obligation to help them out. Do I care if they lose accreditation? No, they do not care that I lost my home. We are not working together to enrich and enhance our student’s experiences and give them the best education we can – admin wants to bleed me dry for as little as possible and I want them to break their metaphorical arms patting themselves on the back for that new building, office wing, stadium, or at their conferences, or “team building” retreats. I share an office with I don’t know how many people, I can’t afford to attend conferences, I buy my own computers, my own printer ink, my own flash drives, my own gas driving from one campus to another, etc.

I’m done; you win – on to your next victim. You got five full-time years and fifteen part-time, all while someone else paid for my health insurance and a salary I could live off of. Good luck with that accreditation or the next one, your house of cards is wobbling and will topple because you have built no foundation for your institution.

What does it matter, you don’t know my name anyway.

Is this the best we can do at our institutions of higher learning?