With the possible exception of psychology, no field of academic study is more faddish than education. Every few years another round of assessments and surveys show us that the vast majority of students – just like the vast majority of Americans – have knowledge and skills that cannot even be described as minimal. "Minimal" implies some understanding of a given subject, and often that is not the case.

Armed with the latest Look How Dumb Everyone Is survey, new educational techniques and tools are developed to join the long line of failed techniques and tools that were supposed to solve this problem in the past. One of the most dramatic paradigm shifts occurred when it was collectively decided that fact retention and rote learning (which remains the foundation of the educational systems in places like China and Japan) were ineffective. Instead, we were to focus on building students' higher order intellectual skills – critical thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and so on.

In my view, this is a shining example of one of the worst tendencies of academics – using jargon-heavy theories to explain away why students are so bad something. What is this shift toward the almighty "critical thinking" talisman but an effort to excuse students' woeful lack of facts, information, and basic skills? If the students demonstrably cannot write well, do math, or remember facts, we have to say they're good at something. What better than an abstract concept that proves remarkably difficult to measure? Sure, we can't prove that students have Critical Thinking skills, but…you can't prove that they don't. Voila.

The dismissive attitude toward facts and information has gone off the deep end in the last decade. Now that everyone has a smartphone, there's no need for students to know anything at all. Any facts they will ever need can be looked up in thirty seconds. What's important, we're told, is that they know how to interpret and Think Critically about things. This has always struck me as dubious. We are to believe that students who know next to nothing about entire fields of knowledge somehow have good analytical skills in those same areas. There's no foundation, but somehow there is a mighty edifice built on top of it.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the futility of many kinds of rote learning that were popular a half-century ago. A student does not really gain anything from being able to name all nine Supreme Court justices or knowing the capital of every nation on Earth.
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However, surveys continually show that students don't know things that are relevant either. Are we to believe that people who can't explain who Napoleon was or don't know which side the Russians were on in World War II can somehow think usefully and critically about history? That someone who has no idea which branch of the government holds which powers can understand and analyze our system?
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That someone who can't define "baroque" and doesn't know when or why Impressionism became popular has a useful grasp of art in the context of culture? Most amazingly, we are asked to believe that the ability to look any of these facts up on an iPhone will enable students to skip the knowledge step entirely and launch right into critical analysis. OK.

The underlying problem – and I'm sure some fad will pick up on this eventually, perhaps in another decade or two – is that the act of learning facts and information forces students to engage the material. Learning which powers belong to Congress requires one to read some stuff about American government, as memorizing who painted various works of art requires one to look at works of art. The hidden cost of the "Who cares, they can google it" mindset has been the "Why bother?" attitude with which, studies show, students now approach all of their academic tasks. It's not like they're spending less time on rote learning in favor of more time on other academic tasks; they're just spending less time learning anything.

No one in chemistry would argue that students can skip the Periodic Table, nor would anyone in math say, "Sure, skip algebra and trig, just go directly into calculus." Yet in the soft sciences and the humanities we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot by requiring students to learn – actually learn – less and less. We wrap up their ignorance in academic babble and explain how it's acceptable, or even good for them, to know so little. We come up with new "curricular enhancements" and pedagogical theories that, lo and behold, do not eventually bear fruit in the form of a generation of students with great thinking and reasoning skills despite being almost completely devoid of knowledge.

Shocking, really.


In higher education we spend ample time discussing the idea of a core curriculum. Every university comes up with a buzzwordish name for it, but the concept is the same: to define the basic, bare minimum knowledge that we feel a student must have, in addition to whatever specialized knowledge they get in their field(s) of interest, to leave college with a useful understanding of the world and the skills required to function in it. Unsurprisingly these core curricula focus on writing/composition, basic math and science, and history. While it is fair to note that some students get college degrees without mastering some or all of these core skills, polling data shows that Americans are woefully ignorant about history and world affairs – to a troubling extent.

If I may briefly mount my pedagogical high horse, I consider two historical events – if you could only pick two – absolutely essential to understanding modern American society and government. The first is the American Civil War. The other is World War II. No, I don't believe students benefit from memorizing the names of battles and generals. I do think that if one is really to understand the fundamental political conflicts in the United States, an understanding of the causes and aftermath of the Civil War is indispensable. Likewise, modern global politics (and a good deal of American exceptionalism in policy both foreign and domestic) is rooted in WWII.

K-12 classes still overwhelmingly choose to teach history chronologically. This, in my experience and what I commonly hear from students, results in a seriously detrimental lack of emphasis on modern history. The academic year begins with ancient Greeks and Romans and ends sometime in May, usually having gotten no further than the Industrial Revolution or perhaps World War I. Accordingly, I get a ton of young people who, through no fault of their own, have been taught more about Plato and Tacitus than about the Cold War, decolonization, the Vietnam War, globalization, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and 9/11 combined. Recently I found a class of 25 honors students – excellent students – totally ignorant of the basic aspects of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent propaganda surge leading to the Iraq War. And why should they know? They were 8 when it happened, and it has never been taught to them.

American students do get the Civil War. They might get it in bizarre or ideologically motivated ways (some southern schools, I discovered, continue to teach that slavery was not the root cause of the War) but they get it. They have a basic understanding of what happened. But World War II? The Holocaust? The Treaty of Versaiilles and the rise of Nazism? The complete devastation of the industrial powers of Europe and Asia that led to 20 years of unparalleled economic growth in the U.S.? Western nations' abandonment of Poland, exploitation of empires, and refusal to take Jewish refugees? They have nothing, really. What they know about WWII is what they get from movies and from Call of Duty video games. They often believe (thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan) that Americans fought the Nazis essentially alone. They rarely know that the Soviet Union was America's ally, and primarily responsible for the military defeat of the Third Reich. They rarely understand why or how the Holocaust happened, and the economic scapegoating of Jews and other "others" during the post-WWI economic collapse in Germany. They fail to recognize how the War accelerated decades of technological development (radar, nuclear power, aircraft, electronics, medicine, etc) into a few short years. They think – if they think anything at all about it – that America beat the Nazis and someone else (either the Chinese or Japanese) because we invented the nuclear bomb.

Everything – from international terrorism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to 20th Century American economic growth to the housing crisis to the Vietnam War to the woes of underdeveloped countries – about the modern world can be understood completely only by tracing the roots of these events at least as far back to WWII. And increasingly I – I can't speak for anyone else here, but I doubt I am alone – find that students have the least knowledge about these more recent events. Try saying "Arab Oil Embargo" or "Mikhail Gorbachev" to a room of college freshmen and see what kind of looks you get. Hell, try it with a group of adults; it probably won't be much better. We know very little of recent history and what we do know is often wrong. Is it any wonder that opinions about current events rarely make sense?

Perhaps the recent past is deemphasized because it is assumed, incorrectly, that students somehow know this information because "it didn't happen that long ago." Or maybe the design of grade- and high school curricula continues to talk about ancient times at the expense or exclusion of the 20th Century. In either case the consequences are the same: parochial attitudes about the world and a skewed understanding of any issue that takes place outside of the bubble around our immediate lives.


Teachers spend a lot of time complaining about students. It's a coping mechanism. We work a lot, often without making much, and part of the "compensation" for this job is the feeling that we are making a difference. When that illusion is dealt a blow – say, because the students don't do what we ask of them or clearly give less than no shits – it makes us confront the fact that our lives are pretty much a waste of time. So sometimes we vent. Sometimes we vent a lot. Besides, there's nothing unusual about this relationship. Do doctors not sit around making fun of patients? Lawyers of clients? Service industry employees of customers? Office workers of everyone they have to deal with on the phone every day? Don't take it personally, kids. It's part of the working world. We actually like you and have devoted our lives to trying to help you.

The predominant complaint about college students today (and probably of yesteryear as well) is that they put so little emphasis on academics. Going to class and doing the work we assign is about 7th on their list of priorities, behind drinking, getting laid, football, the Greek system, spring break, "study" abroad, etc. You name it, it has priority over reading, writing papers, studying, attending class, or anything else for which they are ostensibly here. College has ceased to be about education for most students; it's a four (or five) year party, a middle- and upper-class rite de passage of sex, drugs, and shitty club music. There's a reason that the fancy new gym and rec center and Student Union and climbing wall – put climbing walls everywhere, dammit – are the focus of the campus tour. Who cares about the library. It's beside the point.

The thing is, over time I am getting more sympathetic rather than less. I don't condone this attitude – not even a little – but I certainly understand it. In the past decade the cost of higher education has exploded, the benefits of holding a Bachelor's have plummeted, and life after graduation has become a grim prospect involving the phrase "back with my parents" for the majority of students. The job prospects for recent graduates are appalling and unlikely to improve anytime soon. Under the circumstances, it's not hard to understand why fun, albeit very expensive fun, is such a priority; they're not likely to be having much more of it throughout their twenties. Dick Around Abroad programs sound like a great idea once you realize that you're not going to be able to afford a vacation to Spain (or have paid vacation time) with the entry-level job it will take you three years to get.

That's the reality of the economy today, and it is harsh in ways that even people who graduated from college as recently as five years ago may not completely grasp. Part of the surge in interest in college as one long party must stem from a sort of fatalism – undergraduates look ahead and see living in mom's basement, $50-100k or more in student loan debt, unpaid "internships", and, if they're lucky and after a lengthy search, miserable entry level employment. It's easy for me to understand why so many of them conclude that they might as well have some fun while they can. Now, certainly not all students are so rational about their future prospects, but even the most oblivious now have at least a vague sense of foreboding, a poorly defined understanding that after graduation the fun and games are over.

When we complain about their laziness and tell them to work harder, we assume that working harder will lead to better outcomes. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if that's true. Personally, I think that educating oneself and expanding the mind are good in and of themselves and learning for its own sake is an unqualified good. Assuming that a lot of 18-21 year olds are not sufficiently mature to take that attitude toward college, the results we see these days are often frustrating but never surprising.


The most frustrating part about teaching at the college level, bar none, is that students rarely read what one assigns. If they don't do the reading then you have nothing to talk about, assuming the topic for that day is not one on which students are likely to have any information. Then you have to tell them what was in the readings, i.e. lecture, and then everyone is praying for the sweet release of death after about 30 minutes.

Don't worry, this isn't another "The damn kids these days" post. I sympathize with them, or at least I try. Textbooks are awful things, and they're getting worse. Even in the ~15 years since I was in Intro to Whatever classes with 700-page textbooks, the readability and ability to grab a student's interest have declined precipitously. Don't get me wrong, there are students who aren't reading because they're lazy or have no shits to give. But I legitimately sympathize with the ones who try to read and either quit or get nothing from it. The problem in this case is that textbooks are boring. Really boring. And that's not because the material isn't interesting.

I know a significantly older professor who assigns a textbook he wrote for his Intro to ____ course. This is not unusual. But he distributes it electronically for free. There is no publisher. It's just a short (~200 page) pdf he made. He has received offers to have it published and sold, which he has rejected. At first this stunned me. It was a red flag. No external review of the material? No editor? As I got to know him, however, I saw his logic. When submitting a textbook manuscript to a publisher, the first thing they do is bring in a group of reviewers who end up saying "You didn't say enough about X" and "Add a chapter on Y." Then the editor and publisher go to work ensuring that the textbook appeals to the broadest possible audience. Let me explain why these two things combine to produce such unreadable nonsense.

The problem with the "Add more about ____" process is that it effectively doubles (or worse) the length of a textbook. More is not better. There is a practical limit to what can be covered in 15 weeks. Have you ever seen an intro History textbook? American Government? Literature? Sociology? "Western Civilization"? These things are goddamn New York City phone books. They can exceed 1000 pages. In some cases they are broken into volumes, like encyclopedias. I assign a comparatively svelte American Gov textbook that still has four chapters we don't touch, even though I whip through topics at a chapter per week. Students hate paying for a textbook and not using all of it. That's what happens when 50 people get to add something to a textbook – you end up with a massive, information-packed volume that you can't possibly get all the way through.

Then, the publisher and editors make sure the tone of the book is sufficiently "neutral" to avoid offending or alienating…anyone, I guess. This is the single biggest problem with textbooks today, especially in fields like political science and history. The textbook tries to please everyone by eliminating any semblance of an actual argument by the author. Making an assertion or having a specific perspective on events or ideologies is a pedagogical technique. It's not "bias". It's giving the students something they can read, interpret, and rebut. If they agree with it they can be made to explain why. If they disagree with it, that generates a discussion. But our textbooks say nothing at all that students can agree or disagree with. They're just over-processed pap, the academic equivalent of Wonder Bread: bland, insubstantial, devoid of taste or nutritional value, and mostly hollow.

As state legislatures and massive state university systems increasingly dictate the content of textbooks, academic publishing is following in the footsteps of the media. Terrified of accusations of bias, every single topic in an American Government textbook is presented in the "Some people think this, but other people think that" style. Attempts to convey "debates" result in point-counterpoint style pro-and-con essays, the textual equivalent of the split screen from-the-left, from-the-right format on TV. The end result is that the students aren't exposed to an argument so much as they are given two options and told to pick which one they prefer. Way to get them engaged.

At the end of this process, publishers realize that they have created something incomprehensibly boring. Like a movie that tries to include something for everyone, it is an ungainly patchwork that ends up pleasing no one. So they attempt to make the books more interesting with superficial crap: lots of pictures, magazine-like layouts, fancy whiz-bang websites (er, "interactive portals"), and, in American Gov, dozens of sidebars about Jon Stewart. THE KIDS LIKE JON STEWART, RIGHT? The combined effect of all these tricks is to produce a textbook that is colorful, but still boring. It's a neutered, bloodless product that no one can relate to.

I have read through just about every damn Intro American textbook on the planet, and I receive free copies of new ones almost weekly. They are absolutely obsessed with presenting "controversies" to the reader. Some people say X, while others say Y. This is boring and teaches nothing. Conversely, making an actual argument or at least having an identifiable voice makes the readers figure out for themselves that there is a controversy by offering something that can be scrutinized, argued against, accepted, rejected, or derided. Yes, intro textbooks are saddled with the responsibility of teaching nuts and bolts – This is how Congress works. This is a gerund. The Protestant Reformation happened because XYZ. – but that does not imply that they have to be the academic equivalent of Sunday Morning political shows on which follow-up questions are verboten.

I know that some students don't care and never will care.
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But I wish the rest of them didn't have to spend so much time fighting boredom and wondering why the material is so dull. It's not. The way we write about it is.


I'm as shocked as anyone to realize that I've been teaching at the college level for eight years now. That hardly makes me a seen-it-all veteran, but I no longer qualify as wet behind the ears either. The interesting part is that even eight short years is enough time to notice some trends and changes among the students. I get older, they stay the same age. For example, I think there is a noticeable difference between students who were born before the internet and digital media were a thing and those for whom the internet has always existed.

Usually these changes make sense, or at least we can construct anecdotal explanations that sound plausible. Students' creative thinking skills seem to be getting worse? Eh, it's probably because of increased emphasis on standardized testing. I have no idea if that is true, but it makes sense so most professors readily accept it.

There is a new trend that baffles me, though. Over the past few weeks I've had the same conversation independently with a number of colleagues regarding the increasing inability of each successive class of undergraduates to follow instructions. I don't mean that they misbehave or are out of control; I mean they cannot follow basic written directions. I'm not the only one who notices this and others with whom I've talked are equally perplexed.

Here is an example. On every single page of my exams, in bold black letters I write "Put all answers in your blue book. Answers written directly on the exam will not be graded." If this seems pedantic, I have a damn good reason for doing it; I have to hand back their answers, and if I hand back the entire exam it ends up in the "test file" at all the frathouses. Fuck that. I digress. In addition to the numerous written warnings and reminders I hand out the tests and say something to the effect of, "Stop what you are doing and look at me. Listen. DO NOT write your answers directly on the test. Only answers written in your blue book will be graded. You will get a zero for any question that is not answered in the blue book."

Lately, in every damn class of 40-50 students a handful of them will write the damn answers on the damn test and end up whining about their damn zero. The first few times I taught, this never happened. Now I can count on it like clockwork. My sample size is small, but I've found out that I am not alone in this experience.

What is going on here? Are they not reading instructions? If not, why? If they're reading the instructions, are they getting less capable of understanding/following them? If so, why? Do they understand the instructions but think they can be ignored, i.e. who cares about the rules because the teachers never enforced them before? Do they just fail to give a shit? I've yet to hear any explanations that aren't maddeningly vague – you know, something something Internet, blah blah smartphones, yadda yadda short attention spans. Maybe it's good ol' fashioned laziness. I don't know. Wish I did.

Believe it or not, I think that learning how to follow instructions is important. Not following orders, mind you. Instructions. The insert Tab A into Slot B kind. It's the kind of skill that we're supposed to learn in school – grade school. Yet students seem to be reaching college without it. I don't enjoy the fact that students end up failing an exam for what appear to be petty reasons, but it's not going help them in the long run if another person caves and gives them a free pass. I can't imagine how useless the adults who enter the workforce without being able to read instructions and fill out a form properly must be. The more important question is why a college professor is the person that ends up teaching them this lesson.


I want to continue to direct your attention to Monday's post and discussion because, for obvious reasons, the radical makeover of higher education is of great importance to me. However, the new issue of the New Yorker has what we might consider a companion piece. Of course higher education's problems run deeper than political appointments and administrative dick-measuring contests; as I've written so many times before (hit the "teaching" tag) the attitudes and expectations of the students are a problem as well. Particularly vexing is this new generation of students who are for all intents and purposes helpless, or led to believe that they are. In "Why Are American Kids So Spoiled?", Elizabeth Kolbert takes a shot at uncovering the roots of the problem.

The discussion, while extremely interesting and more than worth your time, focuses largely on early childhood and parenting. Yet one passage speaks directly to the role of universities and the commodification of education in shaping the way children are raised:

Hara Estroff Marano argues that college rankings are ultimately to blame for what ails the American family. Her argument runs more or less as follows: High-powered parents worry that the economic opportunities for their children are shrinking. They see a degree from a top-tier school as one of the few ways to give their kids a jump on the competition. In order to secure this advantage, they will do pretty much anything, which means not just taking care of all the cooking and cleaning but also helping their children with math homework, hiring them S.A.T. tutors, and, if necessary, suing their high school.

When test scores become the panacea for admitting students to college and sorting them out afterward, parents who have every reason to fear for their children's economic future attempt to eliminate all challenges, distractions, and responsibilities except academics from their lives. I'll take care of everything for you; you just be sure to study a lot. Oh, you don't know how to study? Here's a tutor and three Kaplan courses. In this way, the author argues, parents unintentionally send kids to college who are immature, lazy, and unprepared to do any work (or take care of themselves on the most basic level) even if the urge to do so strikes.

It's not a definitive argument, and I'd like to see more from Marano's book before passing judgment. But it passes the smell test, based on my experiences with undergraduates.


Any moderately informed history of the decline of the Soviet and Chinese systems of communism in the 20th Century, especially from the right, justifiably emphasizes the folly of replacing cultural institutions with the state-sanctioned, ideologically Correct theory of political economy. A total re-imagining of the world – its history, its culture, its religions, its conflicts, and its societies – was to take place in the framework of a radically ideological system of education with the goal of producing the New Socialist Man. He would understand politics, art, economics, and every other subject from the Correct (i.e. Socialist) perspective. As is the case with every revolution, the Soviets and Mao's China understood that a new culture can only be instituted by destroying the old, and destroying the old can only be accomplished through dictating a new historical reality through re-education. This endeavor on the part of the two most prominent communist countries has been the springboard for 1001 tales of horror from American conservatives, and Right Thinking liberals, for more than 75 years.

So it is with an extra dose of irony that we see the American educational system being remade at the top – at the university level – in the same radically ideological framework. Universities are to be run as businesses, their component parts judged solely by the god of Value Added; if one cannot do work of value to the private sector (measured in grant dollars), then one's continued existence becomes unjustifiable. Now our universities are being placed under the control, along with the rest of our society, of those with Right Thought; that is, rich people. Rich people know what is best in every field and endeavor because they are ideologically Correct. They recognize in ways that the rest of us cannot that value extraction is the sole purpose of any social institution. Accordingly, our university system is being remade slowly to produce not New Socialist Man but the Randian Capitalist, the Uber-Entrepreneur. As the New Socialist Men failed miserably at reviving the moribund Soviet bloc economy, it will take years for Americans to figure out how little these throngs of virtually illiterate MBAs, with their New and Improved version of history firmly entrenched beneath their worldview, have to contribute except to extract wealth from the nation in exchange for a few scraps of the take.

Over the past two weeks a scandal of sorts at the University of Virginia has become fodder for public consumption. As is the case with most state university systems, UVA is overseen by a politically-appointed (usually by the governor) council called the Board of Visitors, which has ousted University President Teresa Sullivan. What used to be largely ceremonial positions on such boards and councils are now being used by New Capitalist Man to re-engineer higher education to reflect Right Thought. Sullivan's ouster was prompted by her "unwillingness to consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources and for her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive." Specifically, she "lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German."

To recap: She refused to acknowledge that a university is a Business and should be run as such, and she refused to eliminate the Classics department from the school founded by Thomas Jefferson. Other reported philosophical differences included resistance to expanding pedagogically useless but phenomenally profitable "online degree" programs that amount to little more than for-profit scams servicing corporate clients and adult learners who need a rubber stamp in order to advance professionally. For years the Right has decried touchy-feely Multicultural studies displacing the real canon of Western thought – Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, and the like. Now it appears that the Business School and the Continuing Studies Online program are reflections of the true foundation of all Western thought – the Classics be damned.

Extrapolated twenty or thirty years into the future, these trends lead to universities consisting of little more than business, medical, science, and agricultural programs (to produce the next generation of Monsantans to sanction and patent life) offered in convenience formats offering guaranteed protection against having one's preconceived notions challenged. Here's an online course, and here are the readings. Skim them and conclude that whatever you already believe to be true is, in fact, reality. That things like the humanities and social sciences are being placed under the knife is not surprising, as the operation of public (and private) university systems increasingly falls under the sway of political appointees with no background in education and in fact no background in anything relevant at all; no qualifications, in short, except wealth and political connections (read: contributions). Does a millionaire land developer or trucking company executive know how to run a university? Of course they do – they're millionaires. They know everything.

From for-profit online education to Buy Your Own Endowed Faculty programs at public universities, the message is clear: education, like everything else, must be "run like a business." It must be so because the Business, as understood by Right Thinking entrepreneurs, is the final form of human organization much as capitalism is the final secular ideology and neoliberal democracy is the final form of government – the "End of History", so to speak. Who controls the present controls the past, and reshaping our past to produce the desired future is the goal of the current efforts to "reform" education. Inasmuch as re-imagining education through the lens of lemonade stand economics and a Bircher's view of American history and culture counts as reform, it appears to be proceeding apace.


It's finals week, which can only mean one thing: dozens of students at a university with none-too-stringent admissions standards, a "the customer is always right" attitude toward student evaluation, and staggering grade inflation whining, pleading, or negotiating for higher grades. What follows is an actual email from a 19 year old freshman in a mandatory Intro American Government course. The last two sentences in particular are amazing (emphasis mine).

I received a (redacted grade) in your class. My grade is an error because of discriminatory inconsistencies in requirements between the separate breakout sessions. I was in (redacted)'s breakout session and though he was a great teacher, the work he assigned differed greatly from other breakout sessions. There were additional tasks assigned to my class that were inconsistent with the level of effort versus other classes. For example one TAs breakout session was based solely on attendance; I went to every breakout session, therefore i would have received a 100% in that class. If i was graded according to the other break out sessions i would have received a 100%. I expect my breakout session grade to be changed to 100%, due to the fact that i feel my grade my discriminatory. This grade is an error, and i expect this error to be corrected because of the points above, and due to inconsistent requirements.

A couple things.

First, the student did not bother to note that if I agreed to her request and changed the grade to 100, it would not make enough of a difference to raise her course grade. Right off the bat this entire exercise is a moot point, but I suppose Special Princess never learned how to do math.

Second, all grades from discussion sections are adjusted so that there are no discrepancies among different teaching assistants, each of whom has discretion over his or her own sections.

Third, nice attitude you've got there, asshead. In my response, I politely suggested that she reconsider her tone, phrasing, and attitude of entitlement when making such requests in the future. Frankly I'm just proud of myself for not finding her and hitting her over the head with a cast iron frying pan, cartoon-style.

I haven't been teaching long enough to say whether this type of thing is becoming more or less common. One thing is for certain, though; it happens a lot. Regularly, even. I read or hear things like this all the time and my mind goes to Joe Pesci in Raging Bull: Where do you get the balls big enough to ask me that?

By now we're all used to students who think that showing up entitles them to an A and every time they pester me I try to imagine what sort of sequence of events and influences would need to come together to make someone a douchebag of this magnitude. This is a truly awful human being, and she will make your life unpleasant eventually. She'll flip out, yell at the manager, and leave a 5-cent tip because you forgot her ranch dressing. She'll wait until you install her new carpeting and then refuse to pay for it because the color isn't right. She'll call tech support and scream at you because she's too stupid to figure out how to use her cell phone. She'll spend the greater part of what will only loosely be labeled "adulthood" suing or threatening to sue people – neighbors, employers, employees, family members, and random strangers. She will talk on her phone in movie theaters, cut you off in traffic, and fight with the Little League coach if Dakota and McKenzie don't play enough.

The scary part is that the student is taking this approach, most likely, because it has worked before. This is how some of these kids learn to get through life – their options are to attempt to solve the problem with money or flirting or, failing that, to threaten to have Daddy hire a lawyer. The world today makes more sense if you picture the adult version of this student on the other end of the phone the next time you try to resolve a problem.


On Saturday I took a day trip to Tuskegee, Alabama to see some of the historical sites dedicated to one of my favorite figures in American history, George Washington Carver. Today the university physically looks almost indistinguishable from any other small, pricey liberal arts college, although its agricultural and veterinary programs would be out of place at the Swarthmores and Williamses of the Northeast. Colleges of its type struggle to attract students these days, as there are often tangible advantages for excellent students to choose cheaper schools (flagship state universities) or expensive ones that are better (Ivy League, etc).

Back in GWC's day, the school distinguished itself not only by necessity due to segregation but also in its approach to a complete education. The students did and learned a lot of things that would seem strange and foreign to today's college students: planting fields by hand, making their own clothes, machine shop, cooking, and even building most of the structures on campus by hand. And I really had to laugh at the reaction students (and parents – good god, the parents) would have today if my university announced that everyone was going to take courses in leather tanning and then pitch in down at the construction site for the new dorms.

Before I go on, I want to be clear that I am generally critical of the "more vocational training is the answer" argument in American education. The job market for plumbers and electricians blows just as much as for lawyers and professors at the moment. The argument that such jobs are resistant to outsourcing is also dubious since they are so much less resistant to becoming obsolete. For example, pre-wired wall panels are rapidly eliminating the need for electricians in residential and commercial construction. So if you are feeling the urge to rush to the comments to tell us how "More of these kids should be in tech school," no. That is, not unless you can explain the value in training people for jobs that don't or won't exist.

With that caveat and another about the danger in romanticizing history, the experience made me more reflective than usual about our mission in today's colleges and universities. There is no doubt that in terms of skills, we are better off teaching students physics, math, and writing skills than glass blowing, food preparation, or Field Hoeing 101. But people like Carver and Booker T. Washington believed that the manual work in the curriculum had benefits beyond teaching practical skills. They believed it taught character and made the students better people.

It sounds sappy, right? It is. It also sounds to me like a pretty damn good idea sometimes. Making shoes or planting a field might actually knock some of these students down a peg, and many of the ones I've encountered need that a lot more than they need the stuff they learn in classrooms. The kids I see are largely products of the suburbs. If they want something, they buy it. If something breaks, they pay someone else to fix it. Many of them are accused (with varying degrees of justification) of having an inflated sense of their own talent and importance. It wouldn't be the worst thing for a lot of them to have to learn how to sew or fix appliances. The message is useful: Even though you can afford to pay someone to do this for you, you're not too good for this work. It is not beneath you. You are not above it.

I can tell you that would have done me some good as an 18 year old. College students are and always have been a class of people that consider themselves to be above a lot of things. It will never actually happen, obviously, but we might be doing them a service by making them do practical and manual work. When students say, "I'm never going to need to know (literature, math, etc.) so why should I have to learn it?", we have an answer at the ready. I don't see why the same answer does not apply to learning how to farm or make clothes. The fact that you won't need to do it does not imply that there is no value in learning how to do it.

It's not an idea I've developed very extensively, but our goal in higher ed is to turn boys and girls of limited worldview into men and women ready to participate in and contribute to the world around them. Rather than always looking ahead to the next pedagogical fad, maybe there is some value to looking to the past as well.

This post was somewhat misleadingly titled, yes?


The best part about being a professor in this country – I can't speak for any other – is that no one really understands what we do but everyone knows that we're doing it wrong. Don't get me wrong, we should be open to criticism from the public, elected officials, and so on. But in exchange, critics should make at least some effort to understand how academia works and how it's structured. The failure to do so leads media figures and armchair critics to make mistakes like pointing out the salary for full professors at Top 50 universities without realizing that the overwhelming majority of teaching is done by temps – adjuncts, visitings, grad students, etc. – and 99% of the institutions of higher education in this country are nowhere near R1 schools in terms of salary. Sometimes this is done with the intent of misleading a public that doesn't know any better. In other cases it's probably legitimate ignorance that "Full Professor" is a title worn by only a small percentage of instructors at any school.

I have grown accustomed to the fact that academics understand how academia works and most people outside of it do not. That's OK. I don't know much about how your job or field works either. That's why I don't make a habit of telling you that you're not working hard enough, that you make too much money, or that I have some brilliant ideas about how to radically change your industry. I do expect, however, that people within academia will understand it. At the very least. But there are some people who don't.
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They are called administrators. Here's one who has been given an audience in the Washington Post for reasons that have not yet revealed themselves:

With the 1970s advent of collective bargaining in higher education, this began to change. The result has been more equitable circumstances for college faculty, who deserve salaries comparable to those of other educated professionals. Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.

Not changed, however, are the accommodations designed to compensate for low pay in earlier times. Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals.

Unfortunately, the salaries and the workloads applied to the highest echelons of faculty have been grafted onto colleges whose primary mission is teaching, not research. These include many state colleges, virtually all community colleges and hundreds of private institutions. For example, Maryland’s Montgomery College (an excellent two-year community college) reports its average full professor’s salary as $88,000, based on a workload of 15 hours of teaching for 30 weeks. Faculty members are also expected to keep office hours for three hours a week. The faculty handbook states: "Teaching and closely related activities are the primary responsibilities of instructional faculty." While the handbook suggests other responsibilities such as curriculum development, service on committees and community outreach, notably absent from this list are research and scholarship.

Near the end, he shares this knee-slapper:

While time outside of class can vary substantially by discipline and by the academic cycle (for instance, more papers and tests to grade at the end of a semester), the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth. And whatever the weekly hours may be, there is still the 30-week academic year, which leaves almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.

Yep, that's what I do over summer and winter breaks – I go on vacations and I work at my other job. I'm a chimney sweep.

We could pick apart this douchebag's argument all day and it would accomplish little. Anyone who titles a piece "Do Professors Work Hard Enough?" is just dangling bait. And of course anyone who has spent five minutes in academia understands that if salary is the problem, grab the machete and start chopping away at the administration. I mean, god knows we need six assistant Deanlets and Vice Presidents of Instruction for every academic unit. And god knows they earn every penny of that $250,000 they take home every year. Yes, let's ignore that for now.

The biggest problem, and most academics will be loath to admit this, is that it's not hard to find examples that prove this author's point. Every department in every university in this country has that faculty member, the one or two tenured people who do absolutely nothing to justify their salary. You're either fooling yourself or oblivious to your surroundings if you think everybody's busting ass in your department. I have encountered tenured faculty who average about ten hours per week (if that) on campus. It happens. Of course, most of us Ph.D. holders work like mules for salaries that we're embarrassed to tell our friends who have high school diplomas. There's always that one asshole who decides that tenure means quasi-retirement and who knows how to milk the system.

In other words, academia is exactly like every other profession. Most people work hard. Some people are lazy sacks of crap.

We know how much right-wing media figures love to indict large groups of people based on anecdotal evidence.
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Even one case will do. That's just lazy journalism. In fact, based on this column I think we need to start asking whether our editorial writers are working hard enough. I've heard stories about burned out hacks who churn out WaPo columns in 45 minutes using only a cut-and-paste database of conservative talking points.