Teaching Slavery and Other Democratic Shortcomings in the History Classroom

My last essay on the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri elicited positive feedback and, unsurprisingly, pushback and criticism. When I shared the essay on Twitter, a fellow North St. Louis county native by the name of Alan R. Knight (whom I’ve never met in person or previously interacted with online) tweeted me more than thirty times expressing his belief that I “should be more responsible” when discussing this topic. He provided a laundry list of grievances that never addressed the content of my essay, but instead conveyed a peculiar theory for explaining the economic and social issues currently plaguing North St. Louis county. According to Mr. Knight, much of these problems revolved around the teaching of slavery in history classrooms. In teaching slavery, north county educators are preaching “hatred,” “propaganda,” “victimization,” and “slander” to the area’s African American population in an attempt to teach them to hate the United States, rely on the state and federal government for welfare handouts, and give votes and power to the Democratic party (“democrat slavers,” according to Mr. Knight). He says we live in a fully equal society and that blacks are completely at fault for any “racist hatred” against them.

Most rational readers, I hope, can easily see the ridiculousness and silliness of these claims.

There are plenty of history teachers around the United States who teach this country’s history of slavery and choose not to associate with the Democratic party. Over nine-tenths of all entitlement benefits in the U.S. go to elderly, disabled, or working households – not working-age people who simply refuse to work. Mr. Knight’s blaming of “racist hatred” on the victims of racism rather than actual racists is nothing new within the so-called “race conversation” in America. As I’ve argued repeatedly, teachers are often seen as the sole influence in a child’s upbringing when in reality schools are merely one part of a larger community effort to raise a child. And the idea of a fully equal society becoming reality in social practice is most likely impossible because the precise definition of what constitutes “equality” constantly changes over time as new questions force society to reconsider the boundaries of individual freedom, fair play, and equal protection under the law. This is not to suggest that equality doesn’t exist in some capacity or that the United States has not experienced great advances in economic, social, and political equality during its history. Far from it. It’s safe to say I am probably more content living under the boundaries of equality in 2014 than if I were to live under the boundaries of equality from 1860. It just means there will never be a time when we’ll all shake hands, say “everything’s equal!,” and dispose of our laws, justice systems, and lawyers.

Mr. Knight, however, challenged me on a philosophical level to consider the role of slavery in the history curriculum. What is the importance of teaching slavery in a U.S. history class, regardless of grade level?

As countless historians, scholars, and citizens have argued, the worst aspects of U.S. history–slavery, Indian extermination and western expansion, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, imperialism, and mass incarceration–are not merely blips along the road to American democracy as we understand it today. They were fundamental building blocks in its growth, and you cannot honestly describe this nation’s history without addressing them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued earlier this year, “to celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.” Our nation’s capitol was literally built with slave labor, for crying out loud.

Teaching slavery is not a form of propaganda or victimization, nor should its existence in the U.S. history curriculum be a partisan talking point in which parties debate whether or not it should be in the curriculum in the first place. Slavery is a part of our history whether we like it or not. Teaching our students of its wrongs illuminates the vast gulf between democratic principles and democratic practices. It also exposes the difficulty of finding a balance between liberty and order in a republican democracy.

It’s also true that we should acknowledge the history of antislavery and the eventual emancipation of all slaves with the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865. Many heroes in U.S. history have put their lives on the line to right serious wrongs and promote peace, justice, and freedom. These people deserve our recognition, historical memories, and other acts of public commemoration. But how do students come to understand the challenges these people faced if you don’t first expose them to the wrongs and inequalities of the society in which they lived? How do students develop a genuine appreciation for abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Weld, or the Grimke sisters without exposing them to the history of slavery or the fact that the abolitionist movement was very small and almost universally hated throughout the country during the antebellum era? To focus only on what we today consider “a good fight against inequality” without discussing those inequalities in depth is to put the cart before the horse in historical thinking and teaching. Talking only about “good history” is boring and uninspiring to students. It seems to me that if we want our students to feel like empowered citizens who can help make positive changes in our communities, we should expose them to this nation’s historical failures and the ongoing fight to make society more just, humane, and equitable. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

I didn’t respond to all of Mr. Knight’s grievances, but for those interested you will find part of our twitter conversation below.

Using Computer Technology to Teach Perplexity

I stumbled across the video below a couple days ago. It captures a talk given by Dan Meyer, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, who gave the keynote speech at the 2014 Computer-Using Educators Conference in Palm Springs, Florida, earlier this month. There’s a lot that I like about this talk. For one, Meyer gives what I think is a realistic perspective of the ed-tech industry. There are many, many computer technologies (hardware, software, smart phones, iPads, etc. etc.) teachers can utilize in their classrooms. Not all computer technology is built equally, and the teacher’s focus, argues Meyer, should be on finding technology that helps to capture, share, and resolve perplexity in the classroom. By encouraging perplexity in the classroom, Meyer encourages teachers to use technology in a way that prompts students to ask questions that tap into their curiosities rather than using technology to simply deliver content deemed important by the Common Core. Finally, Meyer’s talk is pretty funny. Most conference keynote speeches aren’t this funny, so I definitely appreciate that aspect of this talk.


Indiana’s Teacher Evaluation Problem

The state of Indiana has a teacher evaluation problem. Or does it?

On Monday, April 7, the Indiana Department of Education released data pertaining to the evaluation of public school teachers during the 2012-2013 academic year. A 2011 law passed by the Indiana General Assembly stipulates that each public school district in the state is required to conduct an annual in-house review of teachers and administrators. Teachers are graded on a four-tier scale as either “Highly Effective,” “Effective,” “Improvement Necessary,” or “Ineffective.” Districts are given wide latitude to interpret the definitions of these terms and the nature of their evaluations as they see fit, raising questions about potential biases and the effectiveness of these evaluations.

As I flipped through the evaluations of various schools throughout the state, my eye caught some particularly weird data for the Indianapolis Public School District. In addition to teacher evaluations, Indiana School districts are also graded on an A-F scale. The IPS District, according to the Department of Education, is one of four school districts in the state with an F grade. You would imagine, therefore, that these teacher evaluations would not be very good for teachers in IPS, right?

You would be wrong.

According to the DOE’s data, here is how 2,672 IPS teachers stacked up in their evaluations (keep in mind that 142 teachers were not evaluated because they are retiring):

Highly Effective: 347 (12.9%)
Effective: 2,028 (75.8%)
Improvement Necessary: 150 (5.6%)
Ineffective: 5 (0.1%)

So, even though IPS is a failing school district, only 5.7 percent of its teachers are in need of improvement or have been deemed ineffective by the DOE. What gives?

The failure of IPS cannot fall solely on its teachers: As discussed before, I have a fundamental disagreement with Davis Guggenheim–the creator of the popular film Waiting for Superman–who argues that public education fails many of its students because of inadequate teaching and the teachers unions that protect those bad teachers. While acknowledging that there does in fact exist a small minority of bad teachers in public education (perhaps around 5.7% of all teachers?), the failure of these schools cannot be divorced from larger socioeconomic issues such as segregation, poverty, and broken homes. Waiting for a “Superman” teacher to pop out of nowhere and single-handedly lift all students in failing schools out of poverty and into college is meaningless if you’re not doing anything to better the communities in which these students are being raised. Middle School and High School teachers spend maybe 3-5 hours a week with each of their students; shouldn’t parents be spending at least that much time with their children every day (or every other day)? IPS is failing for many reasons, and not all of them are connected to the teachers. And it should be pointed out that IPS is performing better than local charter schools in the area.

Who in your local district would you fire? Everyone has an opinion on public education, and it seems like many of those opinions, if not most, are negative. I can’t find any studies to back up my opinions, but I’ve had several conversations where people have complained about public schools to me, and when asked by me which teachers in their local school district they would fire if given the chance, these people can’t give me an answer. I don’t know why this is, but it seems like we’re too often ready to criticize public education in the abstract without thinking about the ramifications and consequences of our proposed “solutions.” Who in IPS will need to get fired before the school district starts improving? I’m not sure if firing teachers is the right idea.

Who should be evaluating the schools?: Having districts conduct their own evaluations seems problematic in the same way that having eighth graders assess the final grades of their fifth grade classmates is problematic. But I’m also concerned about giving the Department of Education and/or the Indiana General Assembly any more power in evaluating teachers. I’m especially concerned with the latter because their hostile view of public education has led to the creation of the largest voucher program in the country, taking away crucial tax dollars from public schools and siphoning that money to private schools in some instances. I’m not sure who would be the best third-party evaluator for public schools, but I wonder if there are ways for local township and county leaders to get involved in the evaluation of their local schools and their teachers.

I find it odd that the Indiana DOE has deemed the IPS district a failure while at the same time giving an overwhelmingly positive assessment of its teachers. I think the state’s teacher evaluation system needs to be reworked, but in a way that keeps the state legislators themselves away from the evaluation sheets. In the end, perhaps this strange situation is somehow an acknowledgement that teachers cannot succeed on their own in an individualized vacuum, free from the concerns of the world outside the classroom. There are effective teachers out there, but they need the support of their communities in order to do their jobs effectively.

What do you think?



News and Notes: February 17, 2014

I’ve come across of lot of thought-provoking reads lately. Here’s a roundup:

In the Classroom

  • David Cutler says it time to say goodbye to history textbooks. Yours truly was almost brought to tears reading this wonderful essay.
  • Catherine Gobron asks, “is compulsory schooling necessary?” Gobron says no, arguing that “making people do things they don’t like encourages people to dislike the thing you are making them do, even when that thing is fun or valuable. If a person finds a road worth crossing, they’ll cross it.”
  • Laura Miller writes a thought-provoking essay on the tendency of readers to unjustly blame their own comprehension struggles on the authors and scholars whose works they are reading. Miller suggests that readers blame others for their difficulties because they don’t want to feel ignorant or have a sense of intellectual insecurity.
  • Chris Conrad writes a heart-felt and inspirational essay on the shortcomings of history education in the United States. He points out that non-European history (Asian, African, South American history, etc.) are only taught when they have a connection to white European history, and that history is more than facts. “We have a fetish toward facts, numbers, and statistics and demonstrate a fear of questioning and theorizing,” argues Conrad, and we must work to not view history as a monolithic narrative of progress, but a complex story with many perspectives and a wide range of ups and downs.
  • In an essay that parallels Conrad’s, Abigail Zuger argues that the “single best answer syndrome” has infiltrated the world of medical education.
  • Fellow scholar and Twitter/Facebook buddy Andrew Joseph Pegoda writes about teaching writing intensive courses for undergrads.
  • The Washington Post details the story of an 11-year-old dying boy who was forced to take a standardized test in Florida. Sadly, the boy (Ethan Rediske) passed away on February 7.

History, Science, Technology, and Philosophy

  • Simon Critchley writes a beautiful essay on “the Dangers of Certainty,” arguing that “all knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call ‘a play of tolerance,’ whether in science, literature, politics or religion.”
  • How to train your mind to think critically and form your own opinions.
  • Noam Cohen analyzes the efforts of Wikipedia to create programming that makes it easier for mobile users to make edits to the world’s largest reference website.
  • According to a recent study by the National Science Foundation, one in four Americans thinks the Sun goes around the Earth. Oy vey 😦
  • My friend Joshua Hedlund argues that the recent Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate over Evolutionism and Creationism demonstrated that scientists are not as open-minded or “progressive” as Bill Nye would have them to be, nor is their evidence as strong as it may seem. An interesting and thought-provoking read.
  • Eric Foner reflects on teaching history and the need to question American Exceptionalism. A quote is necessary to give readers a taste of the brilliance of this interview:

I would say the most pernicious idea about history that is widely shared here is the idea of American exceptionalism: That our history is so different from that of every other country that we don’t have to know anything about anybody else. With that comes, “We are better than everybody else. We have a unique mission in the world.” In a way it alerts us to issues of liberty and human rights around the world—but in a globalized, interconnected world, that notion of exceptionalism has little real validity. It leads to parochialism, self-satisfaction, and a lack of interest in the rest of the world. If I had one idea I’d like everyone to abandon, it’s American exceptionalism, that we are exempt from the processes of history that affect everybody else. That we have a superior position in the world that gives us the right to tell other countries what they ought to do without listening to an international dialogue.


Some Additional Thoughts on Jane Sutcliffe’s Biography of Barack Obama

A few weeks ago I wrote an essay on a children’s biography of Barack Obama written by Jane Sutcliffe. I read about this book through an article expressing outrage over the book because of several allegedly racist and outrageous claims made within the first few pages of the book. I went to Amazon and read a few pages of the book while also comparing it to another biography Sutcliffe wrote on Ronald Reagan. I came away disappointed in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt by Sutcliffe to eliminate Obama’s family from the narrative of his childhood and posed several questions for readers to consider when choosing historical biographies for elementary classrooms.

I took a “digital break” over Thanksgiving and stayed away from Exploring the Past for about a week, but I read a very fine piece from fellow scholar and emerging historian Andrew Joseph Pegoda on his take of Sutcliffe’s book. Much to my initial surprise, Andrew came away impressed with the book and did not take any offense to it. He took the time to purchase and read the book all the way through and concluded that within the larger context of the book, Sutcliffe actually portrays Obama as a young boy without a father for most of his life, leading to many uncertainties about his personal identity but ultimately a drive to succeed in life. Most importantly, Andrew reminds us (myself included) that context matters. To wit:

Context matters. Actually reading the book before having any opinion matters. And the drama around this book is a good reminder for all of us, including myself, that two passages do not represent an entire work. The book simply tells the story of Obama’s life. It opens with details about his childhood, family, and early school days. It talks about his “coming of age” events and starting college. It talks about how he worked long and hard from being somebody no one knew to somebody many people knew. It talks about his rise to becoming president. That’s it.

It’s safe to say that I probably overreacted to a sensationalist news article without digging deeper for the larger context of Sutcliffe’s argument. I went through the same pages again and definitely see Andrew’s point of view. Nevertheless, I still think the one passage I found offensive on page 11 is sloppy writing. Sutcliffe refers to “the black characters [“Barry”] saw on tv” as influencing him to act tough, curse, and perhaps even trying drugs in the future. While that all may true (I don’t know), I still think the wording on that could lead to misunderstandings within young students. Not all African Americans behave that way on the television today and that wasn’t the case when Obama was a boy. Andrew’s persuasive piece forces me to retract my claim of the book being “blatantly racist,” but I still think the page 11 passage holds the potential to perpetuate old stereotypes and misunderstandings about African Americas. Likewise, I still find it interesting how Sutcliffe’s portrayal of Reagan doesn’t seem to make any attempt to show any personal crises or identity issues within him, even though I’m sure such issues may have emerged at some point in his life. Ultimately I’d like to see if there are other children’s biographies of Obama that are used in elementary schools and compare those with Sutcliffe’s to see how they interpret Obama’s childhood.

I consider this exercise a lesson learned on my part. I think sometimes it’s easy for me to get riled up about controversial topics in the classroom. I often read articles through twitter, engage in lots of online conversation, and sometimes write blog posts on the spur of the moment. I believe the questions I posed in my last post should be taken under consideration, but I now realize with much regret that I was mistaken in some of my interpretations of Jane Sutcliffe’s biography. Sometimes it helps to wait an extra minute and do some extra digging before writing out my thoughts online.


Is “A People’s History” Useful for Classroom Instruction?

Last week, the Washington Post blared this provocative headline about a recent story on its website:

Socialist history curriculum strides toward Philadelphia schools

The comments section of this article was littered with comments that had nothing to do with socialist history, Philadelphia, or public education. Commentors shared a range of beliefs, including the idea that academics live in fantasy worlds that don’t mirror the realities of society, that President Obama is a communist, and that the real victims of racism today are white people. What was it that caused all of this commotion? Why are people so angry? Why does a story about public education provoke so many questions about the larger society in which educational institutions are operated?

The catalyst for all of this was an announcement from city council members in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, declaring that socialist historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present would be allowed for use in Philadelphia public school history classrooms. The book-which purports to tell the history of America from the perspective of “America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers”-was deemed by city council members as necessary in order to “recognize the need for students to be taught an unvarnished, honest version of U.S. history that empowers students to differentiate between moments that have truly made our country great versus those that established systemic inequality, privilege, and prejudice which continue to reinforce modern society’s most difficult issues.” The book still needs to be approved by the District Superintendent and school board, but the fact that Zinn’s book has gotten this far is notable.

What has happened in Philadelphia is important on its own merits, but it takes on a new significance when placed within the context of what has recently happened here in Indiana, where it was recently reported that former Governor Mitch Daniels wrote emails to former Education Superintendent Tony Bennett and other state education leaders calling for the outright banning of A People’s History from all Indiana classrooms. Daniels remarked in one email shortly after Zinn’s 2008 death that “this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

Notwithstanding Daniels’ charges against Zinn’s book, the emails raised serious questions about academic freedom and government censorship in the classroom (even more disturbing has been the discovery that this is not the first time such an effort at censorship has taken place. See here and here). The American Historical Association condemned Daniels’ actions, stating that “attempts to single out particular texts for suppression from a school or university curriculum have no place in a democratic society.” “Read-In” presentations have taken place at Indiana schools throughout the state, including a “Zinn Read-In” at IUPUI this past Monday.

Some historians dismiss A People’s History and have lamented its lack of footnotes and reliance on secondary sources (see, for example, Sam Wineburg’s critique here). I’ve never read Zinn’s history book before, so I cannot comment on the merits of the book as a useful classroom resource with regards to scholarly content. However, even if we acknowledge the possibility that Zinn’s book makes problematic interpretations (and again, this is merely hypothetical), aren’t there possibilities for important learning outcomes through the use of A People’s History? I think there are two effective ways to use the book in a classroom:

1. If there’s one memory many adults have of their experiences in history classrooms growing up, it’s the worn-out story of the teacher who dutifully lectured fact-based content from a single history textbook. Good teaching inspires students to understand history not as a singular and static narrative, but a series of multiple and ever-changing narrative(s) with a range of perspectives. Howard Zinn undoubtedly brings a perspective of history that many American students are not acquainted with. Pairing Zinn’s book with another history textbook could challenge students to view history as a landscape of contested narratives.

2. If a teacher in Philadelphia thinks Zinn’s book is terrible, they could still use the book as an example of poor historical thinking. When I refer to “historical thinking,” I refer to the idea of students acknowledging that people in past societies thought, viewed, heard, and understood the world differently that us today (“the past is a foreign country”). Perhaps Zinn’s book reflects “presentism,” the act of inserting present-day political concerns into the actions of past historical actors. If it does, then students should learn how to avoid “presentism” so they can develop a sharper cognition for historical thinking. As I’ve stated before, far too many middle and high school history classes focus on content at the sacrifice of process. Why not use Zinn to teach students about historical method and process? Students need to learn about good and bad history, right?

In 2003, Joseph Moreau wrote a fine history of American history textbooks used in public schools, arguing that debates over history textbooks reflect larger disagreements about contemporary politics: “What sort of national identity should schools foster . . . Do competing versions our past . . . threaten our national unity?” If I buy Howard Zinn’s book for my library, I do so for my own personal reasons, whether for pleasure, learning, or both. If a school administrator or politician picks a book for reading in the history classroom, however, that person conveys a powerful message to students about their understanding of the world and what they consider important for the student to learn. “National soul-searching,” argues Moreau, “has always played out through textbooks, especially those purporting to explain the country’s past” (16). Whether written by Howard Zinn, Eric Foner, or Bill Bennett, public school history textbooks will make arguments and present perspectives about the past that may be unsettling to some. Rather than trying to censor these works, we should promote academic freedom and encourage our students to think critically about the weak and strong points made in these arguments. More perspectives-not less-will help our students decipher good historical thinking from bad. A democratic society functions much better when more questions (not less) are asked of those who purport to represent themselves as the chroniclers of our past, regardless of their views. Looking to the future, I can only hope that efforts to censor history in public education are avoided at all costs.


There is No Such Thing as a “Digital Native”

Photo Credit: Ashleigh Graham http://ashleighgraham.edublogs.org/2011/01/06/mind-map/
Photo Credit: Ashleigh Graham http://ashleighgraham.edublogs.org/2011/01/06/mind-map/

I have been doing research on teaching students how to assess historical primary sources (both print and digital) and utilize historical thinking in and out of the classroom. One of the best sources I’ve relied upon for this project is the 2011 publication “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking Grades 7-12, written by history teacher Bruce Lesh. The book is wonderful and I really like his lesson plans. Many of Lesh’s activities challenge students to imagine themselves working as curators, archivists, or some other public historian who is interpreting the past for a larger audience. I hope to write more about Lesh’s book in a future post, but for this essay I am going to focus on a brief comment Lesh makes on page 33:

I am always amazed at how visual images, be they photographs, hand drawn, painted, sculpted, stimulate conversation among my students. It is a testament to the much discussed visual generation, of which they are a part. Inundated with images on television and online, combined with the decline of newspapers and print reading, this generation is more inclined to gather information from visual elements or sparse narratives. The predisposition for the visual over the written, particularly complicated text, is also indicative of the fact that students have been trained to see the study of history as one that involves textual sources…to the exclusion of other types of historical sources.

What Lesh essentially argues here is that his students are “digital natives.” They think and understand the world differently than older generations thanks to their participation in what Lesh describes as the “visual generation,” a new era of students who allegedly don’t like reading and who better process information through the use of visual images and short texts. Because our students are more comfortable with visual images, we should cater our lesson plans to that “learning style.”

The concept of a “digital native” was first penned by Marc Prensky in 2001. Digital natives, according to Prensky, are people who were born into what many refer to as “the digital age.” They are inherently different from “digital immigrants” who were born before the “digital age” but who have “immigrated” to this new age. The use of technology, social media, texting, etc. comes naturally to digital natives, whereas this technology is akin to learning a new language for digital immigrants.

While I agree with Lesh that history instruction has unnecessarily relied upon textual sources to the determent of visual sources such as maps, paintings, and photographs, I cannot agree with the idea of an existing “visual generation” that has a natural predisposition for visual items over textual sources. Additionally, I believe there are no such things as “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Here are a few reasons why:

  • Much of the digital technology we use on a daily basis was developed by “digital immigrants” who were not a part of the “visual generation.”
  • Since this technology was developed by “digital immigrants,” any notion of a cognitive difference between Millenials, Generation X, Baby Boomers, etc. lies on shaky ground. Rather than creating a dichotomy that differentiates how people process and apply information, perhaps we should consider the idea that all generations have a disposition to prefer visual images and sparse narratives over dense text. If we acknowledge that the teaching of history from the early 20th century to the present has had many shortcomings and that many students hate the way history is taught and not the discipline itself, then it signals a failure of learning theory, content delivery, and the creation of lesson plans with little purpose among educators rather than any cognitive difference in students today. One of the most exciting aspects of the digital humanities is that historians have so many opportunities to utilize sources that go beyond textual descriptions of the past. I would argue that everyone can have their perceptions of the past sharpened through visual imagery, not just the “visual generation.”
  • Jonathan Berg, a Washington, D.C. Library Director and author of the awesomely titled blog BeerBrarian, cites a recent study in which 315 college students and recent graduates were surveyed about their use of digital technology. The study concluded that younger people were slightly more comfortable using digital technology than people older than them, but it also concluded that younger people were no more comfortable creating technology than older people. In sum, young people are comfortable being consumers of digital technology, but there is no evidence to suggest that younger people are comfortable in their cognitive ability to creattechnology. Additionally, the study also shows that not all young people have access to the same technology. Many people use computers that were created ten years ago and/or don’t have access to smartphone technology.
  • Just because you have a smartphone or participate on Twitter does not mean that you are a “digital native” or that you understand the technology, source code, or power interests behind the creation of that technology. Again, consumption and creation are two very different concepts.

In sum, the notion of a “visual generation” composed of “digital natives” is a myth.


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, http://www.cscc.edu/update/Academ.Nuts.past/AN.8.08.htm
Photo Credit: Paul Rehg, http://www.cscc.edu/update/Academ.Nuts.past/AN.8.08.htm

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?