Sometimes I get a little fancy in the final comment of a student paper. Usually my comments are pretty direct: two or three things I like about the paper, two or three things I think need revision, and two or three remarks about style or correctness. But once in a while, out of boredom or inspiration, I grasp for a simile or a metaphor. Recently I found myself writing, "Successfully rebutting counter-arguments is not unlike slaying a hydra.”
I started with great confidence, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure I knew what a hydra is: a multiheaded creature? Yes. But how many heads? And can I use the word generically or do I have to capitalize it? Would “slaying the Hydra” be the correct expression?
Since I have no Internet connectivity at home, never have, and don’t miss it, I grabbed my Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary from 1965 — the kind of dictionary you can get for free at the dump or from a curbside box of discarded books — and looked up hydra. On my way to hydra, however, I got hung up on horse, startled by a picture of a horse busily covered with numbers. I knew a horse has a face, a forehead, a mouth. A nose, ears, nostrils, a neck. A mane, hooves, a tail.
Pressed for more parts, I might have guessed that a horse had a lower jaw, a forelock (which I would have described as a tuft of hair between the ears), cheeks, ribs, a breast, haunches, buttocks, knees, a belly.
I don’t think I would have guessed flank, loin, thighs, and shoulders, words I associate with other animals, humans, or cuts of meat. I know I wouldn’t have guessed forearm or elbow.
What I’d thought of as an animal with a head, a mane, a tail, hooves, and a body has 36 separate parts, it seems, all enumerated in a simple design on page 401 of my dictionary. Had I not forgotten the precise definition of a hydra, I may never have learned that a horse also has a poll, withers, a croup, a gaskin, a stifle, fetlocks, coronets, pasterns, and cannons. (The withers are the ridge between a horse’s shoulder bones.)
Hoof is defined and illustrated on the page opposite the horse, an alphabetical coincidence. That picture too caught my eye, now that I was in an equine frame of mind. For the moment, I wanted to learn everything I could about the horse. The unshod hoof, it turns out, has a wall with four parts — the toe, the sidewalls, quarters, and buttresses — a white line, bars, a sole, and a frog, behind which lie the bulbs.
Eventually I returned to my original search. A Hydra with a capital H is a nine-headed monster of Greek mythology whose power lies in its regenerative abilities: if one head is cut off, two will grow in its place unless the wound is cauterized. With a lower case h, the word stands for a multifarious evil that cannot be overcome by a single effort. After all this dictionary work, I’m not sure hydra is the word I want.
I've been thinking about dictionaries lately. The writing center at Smith College, where I work, is transitioning from paper schedules to an online appointment system, and yesterday we spent part of the morning moving furniture around trying to create room for a new computer station dedicated to scheduling. One of my younger colleagues suggested getting rid of the dictionary stand, which, he said, "nobody uses." I bristled. It’s a beautiful thing, the dictionary, an oversize third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, just a hair over 2,000 pages. For more than a dozen years it’s resided in a cozy nook on a well-lit lectern below a framed poster publicizing the 1994 Annual Katharine Ashen Engel Lecture by Murray Kiteley, then Sophia Smith Professor of Philosophy. The poster was chosen as much for its elegance as for the lecture’s title: "Parts of Speech, Parts of the World: A Match Made in Heaven? Or Just Athens?"
For years I had an office across from the dictionary and never used it myself, preferring the handiness of my taped-up 1958 American College Dictionary by Random House. The American Heritage is too massive. It takes me too long to find a word and I get easily distracted: by illustrations and unusual words. I continue to find my college dictionary completely adequate for my purposes. I’ve never needed a word that I couldn’t find in it.
Another colleague within earshot spoke up for the American Heritage, claiming he used it once in a while. "Maybe," I thought. More likely, he didn’t want to contemplate the loss of the big dictionary while he still mourned the loss of the blue paper schedules. The dictionary stayed: words, that’s what a writing center is about, and the dictionary is where they live.
I cannot remember the last time I saw one of my students using a paper dictionary, much less one carrying one around, not even an international student. Have today’s students ever instinctively pulled out a paper dictionary and used it to look up a word or check its spelling? Is a paper dictionary as quaint as a typewriter? Have things changed that much? I wonder. Is it partly my fault? It’s been many years, after all, since I’ve listed "a college dictionary" among the required texts for my writing course.
I doubt my students use dictionaries much, of whatever kind. You have to care about words to reach for the dictionary, and I don’t think they care very much about words. At their age, I probably didn’t either, though I think I did care more about right and wrong. I was embarrassed when I used the wrong word or misspelled a word. I still remember the embarrassment of spelling sophisticated with an f in a college paper, something a modern spell checker doesn’t allow. But it does allow "discreet categories" for "discrete categories," another unforgettably embarrassing error — this one in graduate school!
My students appear cheerfully to accept whatever the spell checker suggests, or whatever word sounds like the one they want, especially if they’re in roughly the same semantic domain. They are positively proud to confess that they’re bad spellers — who among them isn’t? — and really don’t seem to care much that they have used the wrong word. Words don’t appear to be things you choose anymore. They’re things that pop up: in autocorrect, in spell checkers, in synonym menus. They are not things you ponder over, they are things you click, or worse, your laptop decides to click for you.
When I meet with a student about her paper, we always work with a paper copy. Even so, more often than not I still have to remind her to take a pencil so she can annotate her draft as we discuss it. Toward the end of our meetings, we talk about word choice and the exchange often goes like this:
"Is this the word you want?"
"I think so."
"I think here you might have meant to say blah."
"Oh, yeah, that’s right" and out comes the pencil — scratch this, scribble that, lest it affect her final grade. No consideration, no embarrassment. I used to pull out the dictionary "to inculcate good habits," but no more. In the presence of today’s students, pulling out a dictionary feels as remote as pulling out a typewriter or playing a record.
Sometimes the situation is not so clear-cut. The student might, for example, write a word like security in a context where it makes a bit of sense, but after some gentle prodding and, yes, a few pointed suggestions, she might decide that what she really means is privacy. Out comes the pencil again. Scratch "security," scribble "privacy." What she really means is safety, though, I think, but I let it go. If I push too hard, she’ll stop thinking I'm being helpful and begin to think I have a problem: "What a nitpicker! The man’s obsessed with words!" I imagine her complaining to her friends. "But it matters! It matters!" goes the imaginary dialogue. "What precisely were the opponents of the ERA arguing, that it would violate security, invade privacy, or threaten safety?"
I have used the online Webster's on occasion, of course, and recognize the advantages of online dictionaries: They can be kept up-to-date more easily, they can give us access to more words than a standard portable dictionary, they can be accessed anywhere at any time, they take up no shelf space, etc. I'm not prejudiced against online reference tools. In fact, unlike many of my colleagues, I'm a great fan of online encyclopedias and a lover of Wikipedia. Online dictionaries leave me cold, though. They should fill me with awe the way Wikipedia sometimes does, but they don't. I marvel at the invention of the dictionary every time I look up a word in my paper copy; at the brilliant evolutionary step of such a book; at the effort of generations of scholars, professionals and lay people that led to such a comprehensive compendium of words; at how much information — and not just word meanings — it puts at my fingertips; at how much I still have to learn; and at how much my education could still be enhanced if I read my college dictionary cover to cover.
I think of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which the author makes a powerful statement about the dictionary as a pedagogical tool. Frustrated with his inarticulateness in writing while in prison and his inability to take charge of a conversation like his fellow inmate Bimbi, Malcolm X came to the conclusion that what he needed was "to get hold of a dictionary — to study, to learn some words." The experience was a revelation: "I’d never realized so many words existed!" He started at the beginning and read on, learning not just words but also history — about people, places, and events. "Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia," he noted. The dictionary was the start of his "homemade education."
Online all I get is quick definition of the word I want, and I’m done. On paper I get the definition plus something akin to a small education along the way. The experience is not unlike that of slaying the Hydra: For every word I word I look up, I see two others whose meaning I don’t know. If I were Hercules I could put an end to the battle once and for all, but I’m not, and glad I’m not. The battle is far too delicious. But how to convince my students?
Julio Alves is the director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning at Smith College.
Following my presentation last year at “The Case for Change in College Admissions” conference at the University of Southern California, a dean from one of America’s most prestigious universities said, "We know the SAT and ACT are not good predictors of college grades, but our faculty resist going test-optional. They are worried about standards."
While the debate over standardized tests and college admissions began 20 years ago, the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room is faculty complacency and ignorance. Nearly all of the 870 colleges that are test-optional today have gone that way due to leadership from administrators or admissions deans. It’s a harsh reality, but as winners at the testing game many faculty are oblivious to the damage done by a test that is statistically redundant and socially discriminatory. It's time to set the record straight.
Faculty members need to know that college admissions remain more art than science, As documented in my new book, SAT Wars: The Case for Test-Optional College Admissions, our best statistical models predicting first-year college grades explain only about 30 percent of what’s going on, leaving 70 percent of what matters unknown. In those models, the academic variable carrying the most weight is always high school grades, while the unique statistical contribution of test scores is marginal: for example, at Johns Hopkins it adds two percentage points; at the University of Georgia one percent; and at DePaul one percent.
In my book, the president emeritus of the University of California Richard Atkinson and Berkeley statistician Saul Geiser stress, "[i]rrespective of the quality or type of school attended, cumulative grade point average (GPA) in academic subjects in high school has proved to be the best overall predictor of student performance in college. This finding has been confirmed in the great majority of ‘predictive-validity’ studies conducted over the years, including studies conducted by the testing agencies themselves."
When not being "truth-optional" in their public relations spin, even the tests’ sponsors concede that the single variable that most highly correlates with college grades is high school grades earned over four years, not test scores derived from four hours of stress on a Saturday morning.
Rather than leveling the playing field, standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT perpetuate social discrimination in the name of academic selectivity. Whereas high school GPA and class rank do not correlate with family income, the SAT and ACT can’t say that. Defenders of the tests say they are fair and the social disparities expressed in scores sadly reflect the unfairness of life, but the reality is that family income, gender, and race predict test scores more powerfully than test scores predict college grades.
As a result, the tests create a costly, anxiety-ridden and time-consuming distraction from real learning. They undermine the high school curriculum, sending the wrong signal to youth that test prep – which typically costs hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – will get you further than hard work in class. Would standardized testing have such a powerful and distorting impact on the whole of the K-12 experience if the SAT or ACT were not required by colleges for admissions?
Faculty need to know that rather than lowering standards, test-optional admissions raise them, and there’s new data to prove it. Wake Forest University went test-optional three years ago, and since then we’ve seen first-year students from the top 10 percent of their high school class jump from 65 percent in 2008 to 83 percent this year. Pell Grant recipients have doubled. Our student body is more racially and socioeconomically diverse than ever before. Library usage is up, and classroom discussions are reportedly livelier than before.
It's just as Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade predicts in SAT Wars: going test-optional increases the social diversity and academic strength of students at private colleges, and being “don’t ask, don’t tell” at public universities does the same. We expect to see universities that drop the requirement, including most recently Clark University and DePaul University, rewarded with stronger and more diverse applicant pools in the near future. Test-optional enriches the campus experience. So what would it take to end this farce?
Charles Murray, a contributor to SAT Wars, believes that action by top colleges such as Harvard or Stanford would push us past the tipping point. "If just those two schools took such a step, many other schools would follow suit immediately, and the rest within a few years." He adds, "Admissions officers at elite schools are already familiar with the statistical story … They know that dropping the SAT would not hinder their selection decisions."
The aforementioned dean asked me to send a copy of SAT Wars for an overdue discussion amongst faculty at that prominent institution. With data from Wake Forest and other schools that have removed the requirement on the table, it’s time for professors at America’s most prestigious colleges to set the myths aside and take their position of academic leadership seriously. It’s time to do your own research, hold a discussion, contribute to the national debate, and vote. Don’t be part of the problem when you hold the solution in your hands.
Biologists were upset this week to learn about forthcoming book by intelligent design supporters from a reputable publisher. Springer, the publishing company, is now holding up the book for additional peer review.
These meetings, conferences, seminars and other events will be held in the coming weeks in and around higher education. They are among the many such that appear in our calendar, to which campus and other officials can submit their own events. Our site also includes a comprehensive catalog of job changes in higher education; please submit your news to both listings.
The prospect of reading a book about the Tea Party by a professor who supports the movement has a certain piquancy to it -- especially now, as campaigning for the Republican nomination enters what feels like its second or third year. Eight more months until the election? Even a political news-junkie's mood might turn a little gray at the thought. The Tea Party: Three Principles (Cambridge University Press) by Elizabeth Price Foley, a professor of law at Florida International University, is certainly a change of pace.
Its argument is clear enough to be forceful while revealing its presuppositions at every step. Foley regards the Tea Party as a movement that emerged as a spontaneous expression of concern to defend the U.S. Constitution from all enemies, foreign or domestic. (Whether Barack Obama counts as foreign or domestic, she does not address.) The Tea Party movement stands proudly apart from the two major parties, holding fast only to three principles: limited government, forthright American sovereignty, and constitutional originalism. It is a lucid and necessary response to threats such as "the globalist agenda" and Obama's suggestion that the founders "bequeathed to us not a static condition but a perpetual aspiration." The movement is not driven by racism, nor is it engaged in the culture wars, nor should it be treated as the religious right with a makeover. Tea Partiers are, she writes, "united in their fearless query, 'What happened to the America I grew up in?' "
That's one way to look at it, I guess, although "fearless" is hardly an apt characterization either of the Tea Party or the usual tone of that question. To ignore the level of racial animus expressed in the movement requires an act of will. In a paper from the American Political Science Association meeting in September, Alan I. Abramovitz said that an analysis of data from the American National Election Study Evaluations of Government and Society Survey showed that, while "ideological conservatism was by far the strongest predictor of Tea Party support," support for the movement also corresponded to both white racial resentment and aversion to Obama himself. "These two variables," Abramovitz noted, "had much stronger effects than party identification. Racial resentment had a somewhat stronger effect than dislike for Obama." The influence on the movement of constitutional-law scholars such as Foley is minute compared to that of the fantasies that Jill Lepore discusses in her recent book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History (Princeton University Press). And anyone believing that the Tea Party is a spontaneous and nonpartisan movement -- driven only by the humble but anxious civic virtue of just-plain-folks -- should take Deep Throat's advice during the Watergate affair: "Follow the money."
Foley's book shares the Tea Party's politics, but not its fevers. It has the soul of a talk-radio call-in show in the body of a law-review article. It left me wanting to argue with the author, or at least interview her -- not that the distinction lasted very long. A transcript of our e-mail discussion follows. If ever there is a Tea Party think-tank, it's clear Foley would be a capable director.
Q. Your dedication page reads, "To the intrepid members of the American Tea Party movement, with admiration and respect." Would you say something about your degree of involvement or interaction with the movement? Is this book simply an expression of political sympathy, or does it grow out an activist commitment?
A: I am not a Tea Party activist personally. I have spoken to Tea Party groups, who have read some prior articles and op-eds and invited me to talk. So I have met many Tea Partiers over the last few years and have learned to admire and respect them tremendously. They are the only group of ordinary Americans I have ever met who carry around pocket Constitutions and want to engage in substantive discussions about the text's meaning. From my perspective, this can only be a good thing for the country. The Constitution has become almost a dirty word in some parts of America's intelligentsia, and it's too often viewed as an anachronistic, backward-thinking document written by a bunch of dead people who were racist, sexist, and not worth admiring. This is a dangerous narrative, and the Tea Party seeks to reverse this trend by re-embracing the Constitution and its original meaning. As someone who has dedicated her life to teaching and studying constitutional law, I find the Tea Partiers' attitude healthy and refreshing.
Q: You write that the Tea Party is opposed to people who think of the Constitution as "an anachronistic, backward-thinking document written by a bunch of dead people who were racist, sexist, and not worth admiring." That seems like equal parts straw man and red herring. The racism or sexism of the authors isn't a topic for debate, since the evidence in the document itself: Article 1, Section 2 was to gave slaveholding states extra influence by letting them have extra representatives proportionate to three-fifths of their slave populations (not that this did the slaves any good); plus it took 133 years and 19 amendments before women got the vote. This doesn't mean the framers were Neanderthals, but it does suggest that "original intent" counts for only so much.
A: I'm afraid you misunderstand the nature of originalism. I can tell by the way you phrase the question that you've never had anyone objective explain it to you -- I'm sorry for that. But it's not as though you are alone in this view, and indeed it was a view I shared myself until I went to law school.
First, let me clarify what originalism means to most self-identified originalists today. I don't know any originalists who focus on "original intent" anymore. Instead, originalism is "original meaning" originalism, which asks the interpreter of constitutional text to ascertain what the meaning of the text would be, in commonsense terms, from the perspective of We the People who ratified it. By contrast, "original intent" originalism (which again, no one seriously espouses) tries to ascertain the subjective, oftentimes unknowable "intent" of those who wrote the constitutional text (i.e., the founders themselves). Notice that when I talk about originalism, I talk about not just those who wrote the text, but those who ratified it -- i.e., We the People. This is important because the founders had extensive conversations with the American people during the ratification process -- in widely-read pamphlets, newspaper articles, speeches, etc. -- and it is this understanding of the Constitution that matters to originalists.
With that clarification, I hope you don't honestly believe this is a red herring or straw man. The Three-Fifths Clause to which you refer, for example, was anti-slavery provision, not a pro-slavery one. Remember that the slaveholding states argued that slaves should be counted as whole persons (to boost those states' representation in the House), whereas the non-slaveholding states argued that slaves should not be counted at all. What the founders ultimately proposed (and the People ratified) was a Three-Fifths compromise. It certainly by no means meant that the founders endorsed or approved of slavery. Some did; many didn't. Indeed, you should look further at the constitutional text to get a more accurate picture. The Constitution never even uses the word "slavery," assiduously avoiding it because some of the founders (e.g., Madison) thought that mentioning it by name would give it further credibility, and they wanted to avoid that at all costs. Moreover, the 1808 Clause in Article I gave Congress the power to abolish all further importation of slaves beginning Jan. 1, 1808 (20 years after ratification). This was designed to choke off all future slave trade, stop its expansion, and hopefully its demise. Indeed, on Jan. 1, 1808 -- the first day this constitutional power kicked in -- Congress enacted exactly such a law and prohibited all further importation.
So the bottom line is that slavery was a very controversial issue, for obvious reasons, among the founders. To dismiss them all as racists is far too simplistic, and disregards the fact that the constitutional text they wrote was at ambiguous on the topic (to be expected given the divergence of opinion among the ratifying states) and in some key respects, quite hostile to it.
More fundamentally, please realize that originalists such as myself do NOT advocate that judges try to reinstitute the original Constitution. This is a very common misunderstanding, so again, you are not alone. But it is simply not accurate, as I discuss in the book. Originalism asks judges to interpret the Constitution's text as it presently exists. So, for example, none of the original Constitution's clauses addressing slavery have any continuing legal validity after the ratification of the Civil War Amendments -- the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. And of course the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, is likewise part of the text of the Constitution that is entitled to full respect and implementation.
The Constitution as a whole -- as its text and that text's historical context stands today -- is what originalists (and the Tea Partiers) seek to honor and preserve.
Q: Whatever the merits of claiming that Obama's health care reform violates the commerce clause, my recollection of the Tea Party in late 2009 and early '10 isn't one of a debate over constitutional law. It's of people carrying guns to demonstrations, growing hysterical about "death panels," and venting in ways that sounded pretty much like what you would have heard at a George Wallace rally in 1968. You refer to people carrying around well-thumbed copies of the Constitution, but what argument is there to make for that reflecting the true concerns of the Tea Party movement, rather than, say, that picture of Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose?
A: As I spend a good number of pages explaining in the book, the Tea Partiers' opposition to the health care reform law is grounded in their belief in limited government. If one knows anything about this concept, one can easily see how the health care reform law threatens this foundational constitutional principle. The individual mandate is an unprecedented, breathtaking exercise of federal power. If upheld, it will have significant, negative implications for individual liberty.
A ubiquitous government presence in healthcare will indeed predictably lead to some form of health care rationing -- it is a matter of supply and demand. The health care reform law added some 32 million Americans to health insurers' rolls, but did nothing to expand the supply of available health care providers. Substantially increased demand, without a concomitant increase in supply, will lead to not only price increases (which we have already witnessed and will continue to do so), but access shortages that will necessitate some form of rationing. Tea Partiers were naturally concerned about this, as older Americans, as high-demand users of health care, are the most vulnerable in a rationing regime.
Q: You write that "the Constitution doesn’t require prior approval by the UN Security Council" for use of the military. But neither does the Constitution require prior approval by Congress. Article 1, section 8 gives Congress the power to declare war. If there ever was any sense of obligation on the part of the executive branch to seek approval for the use of military force abroad, it's been more or less a dead letter since the Korean "police action" -- with the War Powers Act of 1973 not changing the situation much. According to a Library of Congress report, "U.S. Presidents have consistently taken the position that the War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional infringement upon the power of the executive branch," beginning with Richard Nixon.
A: Completely agree with you here. The war power is shared between Congress and the President. As Commander-in-Chief, the President under Article II can commit US troops in defense of US interests. Congress can declare a formal war, constitutionally, but doesn't have to, and the Supreme Court has never said otherwise. Congress's ultimate power lies in the power of the purse — i.e., withholding appropriations.
Q: You go on to say, "Americans – particularly Tea Partiers – would think it odd that either our Supreme Court or our president would think they need to consult with the international community before doing what they think is right for America." But how is that an either/or? "Consulting with the international community" is a matter of building support for what the US is going to do in any case. How seriously can we take the "globalist agenda" as something to worry about, given that US leaders, Democratic and Republican alike, pay exactly as much attention to international law or world public opinion as is expeditious for pursuing what they regard as the national interest?
A: "Consulting" is fine, if by that word you mean literally "consulting" rather than asking for approval. The difficulty with President Obama's statements prior to committing troops to Libya was that he espoused a view — embraced by progressives — that something more than mere consultation was desirable and necessary. He suggested that it would contravene international law to commit U.S. troops without prior UN Security Council approval, and it is that radical position about which tea partiers are concerned, from the perspective of defending US Sovereignty.
Q: You only quote Tea Party people once or twice, if memory serves, not counting a couple of passages from Glenn Beck. The book seems not so much about the Tea Party, or even of the movement, as for it. That is, you offer arguments and perspectives that support Tea Party positions -- but they express your sense of how the TPers ought to be arguing. You downplay any "culture war" or social-conservative aspect of the movement, although there's evidence that the Tea Party overlaps considerably with the religious right. I've given you a hard time here about the element of racism that has been abundantly evident in some Tea Party discourse -- and a recent statistical analysis of poll results from 2010 showed a high degree of correlation between Tea Party support and white racial resentment. But just to be clear, there's nothing of the sort going on in your book. It's as if you are trying to raise the tone a little bit. Is that fair? Is it any part of your intention? Isn't the book more about what the Tea Party can be or should be, from your perspective, rather than what it is?
A: I did not want to write a book about individual Tea Partiers (as many books have already done, some well, some not so well). Instead, I wanted to write a book about the constitutional principles that define the movement as a movement. My goal was to have a substantive discourse about these principles -- to offer, if you will, an intellectual defense of the Tea Party movement.
I downplay the culture war aspect because the Tea Party itself downplays it. It is a conservative movement, true, but conservative in the sense of fiscal and constitutional conservatism, not social conservatism. You don't attend Tea Party events and hear any serious discussion about abortion or gay marriage. Polling data confirms this, revealing that a majority of Tea Partiers support the legal availability of abortion, as well as gay marriage or civil union. So I don't think it would be factually accurate to try to paint the Tea Party movement as a socially conservative movement. There are undoubtedly some social conservatives within the movement, but this is inevitable, given that some social conservatives are also fiscal and constitutional conservatives.