Christopher Hayes probably finished writing most of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown) before assuming his current duties as talk show host on MSNBC. Television is not a medium that fosters the kind of argument that requires parentheses -- much less the application to American social and political problems of ideas originally developed by any dead European thinker not named Alexis de Tocqueville. (Even then, you shouldn’t overdo it.)
Hayes uses the term “elite” as a social scientist might -- as a label for the leading stratum of an organized group -- rather than in its usual capacity, as a snarl word. His criticisms of the American status quo are clear enough, and harsh enough. Given that status quo, however, the book’s measured, non-hyperventilating approach may be a problem. There’s big money in professional ranting, and the audience for cable TV punditry usually wants catharsis, not concepts.
Twilight takes as its starting point the unmistakable collapse of public confidence in most American institutions, political and otherwise, that has been going on for decades now. Even before the financial heart attack of 2008, a Gallup poll showed that trust in 12 out of 16 institutions had reached an all-time low – with the ones that lost the most being “also the most central to the nation’s functioning: banks, major companies, the press, and, perhaps most troublingly, Congress.” Hayes points out that the approval ratings for Congress were lower than those for either Paris Hilton or the prospect of the country going communist.
Other studies show that trust in the presidency surged for a year with Obama’s election, but by 2010 “had plummeted back down toward Bush levels in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
The least trusting cohort, the author notes, “are those who came of age in the aughts.” In 2010, the Harvard Institute of Politics surveyed 3000 people between the ages of 18 and 29 “about whether they thought various institutions did the right thing all of the time, most of the time, some of the time, or never. Of the military, the Supreme Court, the President, the United Nations, the federal government, Congress, traditional media, cable news, and Wall Street executives, only one – the U.S. military – was believed to do the right thing all or most of the time by a majority of respondents.”
As striking as the decline of public confidence in major institutions is the collapse (or at least severe dysfunction) of institutions themselves. We have the examples of Enron, Lehmann Brothers, public schools, and the athletics program at Penn State, as well as… actually, that’s enough for now. To extend the list just seems morbid.
So a lack of confidence in authority figures and leading institutions is not groundless. But it can be generalized (and pandered to) in irrational ways. “From 1970 to 2000” notes Hayes, “the number of annual reported whooping cough cases in the United States hovered at around 5,000 a year. In 2010, it spiked to 27,500 cases.” The change reflected the rise of a movement premised on the idea that vaccinations cause autism, even if those know-it-all scientists say otherwise.
Here, again, examples could be multiplied. Every time it snows, for example, the same old sarcastic remarks about global warming get jotted out. Whether or not ignorance is bliss, it sure does know self-defense.
“When our most central institutions are no longer trusted,” Hayes writes, “we each take refuge in smaller, balkanized epistemic encampments, aided by the unprecedented information technology at our disposal…. And this is happening at just the moment when we face the threat of catastrophic climate change, what is likely to be the largest governing challenge that human beings have ever faced in the history of life on this planet.”
So, it’s bad. The word “twilight” in Hayes’s title is Götterdämmerung-y for good reason, although the book itself is much less gloomy than it certainly could be. From time to time, many of us, I assume, try to extrapolate from current trends to how things might develop over the next 10 or 20 years -- only to have our brains freeze up and shut down, probably to avoid picturing it too vividly.
Instead of futurology, Hayes digs into what he calls “the crisis of authority” with ideas borrowed from Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto – two of the three classic sociological theorists of elitism (the third being Gaetano Mosca). In this context, “elitism” refers, not to a set of attitudes or behaviors usually judged as more or less obnoxious, but to the general principle that any given society has a layer of people with disproportionate power over others. The thought that there will always be such a layer may be exceptionally disagreeable, although Pareto took it as more or less given.
For Michels, it came as an unwelcome realization that “a gulf which divides the leaders from the masses” emerges in even the most democratic of organizations, because they end up with knowledge and the tools giving them advantages over the rank-and-file. He called it “the Iron Law of Oligarchy.” The best-case scenario involves keeping that governing layer as accountable as possible.
The distinguishing feature of the contemporary American social pyramid, in Hayes’s account, is that efforts to check the power of earlier elites (insert cartoon of Ivy League WASPs making deals at the country club here) have boomeranged. The meritocratic principle is that knowledge and skill, rather than inherited advantage, should determine which personnel should be in positions of authority.
It sounds like a reasonable accommodation with the Iron Law of Oligarchy -- as anti-elitist an arrangement as possible, given the complexity of 21st-century problems. But what it’s actually created is a set of “interlocking institutions that purport to select the brightest, most industrious, and most ambitious members of the society and cultivate them into leaders” who have “a disposition to trust [their] fellow meritocrats and to listen to those who occupy the inner circle of winners.”
Since career mobility is one of the perks of meritocratic life, the camaraderie has a dark side, exemplified by a bit of in-house lingo from the hedge-fund world: IBGYBG, which stands for “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” And we’ve seen how that works out. It is the nature of this elite, Hayes writes, "that it can't help but produce failure" because "it is too socially distant to properly manage the institutions with which it has been entrusted."
There's much else in Twilight of the Elites that I've scanted here in the interest of finishing this column, but one final point seems important to make: The book's title is a nod to Christopher Lasch's posthumous collection of essays The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994), while Lasch's title in turn alluded to that of Jos Oretega y Gassett's classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930). One way to look at it is that all three reflect a set of ongoing, unsolved problems about authority and legitimacy -- always crisis, never a resolution. And here a cynical voice chimes in to say, "So why even bother thinking about it? Even if things do get worse, IBGYBG. Lol." I don't know whether the Devil exists or not, but if he did, that's what he'd sound like.
Hundreds of Canadian scientists staged an unusual protest Tuesday, wearing their lab coats to Parliament, where they rallied against government policies that they said were leading to the "death of evidence," The Globe and Mail reported. They criticized a number of policies of Canada's conservative government, including the elimination of funds for a research station that has collected data relevant to climate change, and what the scientists said was the government's policy of favoring job creation over environmental research.
Adjunct instructors are getting some help (rhetorically, at least) from the country’s largest education union. The National Education Association’s Representative Assembly voted overwhelmingly last week to ask the Department of Labor to help adjuncts get unemployment benefits. The union will ask the department to issue an advisory letter saying that adjuncts lack “reasonable assurance” of work, and are eligible to collect unemployment benefits when out of work.
Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, said that adjuncts struggle to get unemployment benefits during the summer months when they are not teaching, and that universities often contest their claims by saying they have a chance of getting rehired. Even if the letter is issued, though, it would be non-binding. “But it is something that individual adjuncts can use as they are making their claim,” Maisto said.
Inside Higher Ed’s survey about faculty views of online education is on point. Since I had participated by filling out the survey, I was curious about its findings. My interest surged after reading the related article by Steve Kolowich -- who noted that for professors “the rise of online education excites them more than it frightens them.” According to the survey’s composite data, I fit the profile of Academic Everyman. So, to flesh out the statistical bones, here are some observations by an archetypal Old Prof who wonders as he wanders through the new terrain of distance learning.
I do wonder why so many colleagues fear or avoid online education. It’s established, expanding, and improving – and is an undeniable part of college teaching and learning. At a flagship state university, online education is less of a threat to job security than is the administrative penchant to hire adjuncts at a relatively low salary to teach traditional courses. Learning how to teach online probably would be one of the best steps a professor could take to assure viability in the 21st century. The most dysfunctional response by a professor today would be to dismiss or ignore both the technology and the social consequences online learning has.
Online education is neither simple nor sinister: I am not so much low tech as slow tech -- and found that being ready to teach an online course takes a long time. But the time lapse falls into two markedly different phases. To convert a graduate course I had taught in “traditional mode” for many years, last September I sought out my campus’s director of distance learning programs offered by the university library and met with her and the DL staff for a long series of work sessions and carefully monitored progress reports. At each juncture the DL staff patiently yet firmly showed me why and how it was important to understand the logic and logistics of course preparation and presentation. One had to have course materials – including syllabus, weekly content, discussion topics, assignments, and links to materials – clearly in place before starting to teach.
What I found was that the more one learned about the format and understood the strengths and limits of the online technology, the more interesting and effective teaching and learning would be. Best of all, the DL professionals showed me how I could use imaginatively and effectively historical photographs, old newsreels, and archival documents as visual sources that animated the teaching and learning. They also drove home the need to gain copyright permissions and make technical arrangements to “stream” historical films, and helped me do both. In sum, they combined their stern warnings with interest and assistance. The happy result was that by November my course materials had met their standards – and I had their blessings to proceed to the second, sluice gate: official approval of my DL course by the university’s faculty
The official approval process was markedly different from the course preparation experience. It combined the slow pace of regular course proposal with added delays in deliberations because it was a Distance Learning course, especially at the higher levels of universitywide review. Approval and encouragement came promptly from my department and our college curriculum committee and from my dean – all of whom had an interest in having our college venture into online courses – and who understood that time was of the essence if an online course were to be available soon to students. However, at the next levels, the Senate committee reviews involved little in the way of acquiring skills or rethinking teaching design or course substance. It was characterized by objections or clarifications about relatively small details and was marked by long periods of waiting for word of approval to go on to the next step.
After subcommittee review, the most surprising finding was that in the Senate Council, and the full Faculty Senate, there were obstructionist colleagues. One professor who was a senator raised objections and routinely voted against DL course proposals on the grounds that he did not approve of distance learning as part of the university’s curriculums. The merits of a course topic, contents, proposed presentation, significance of readings and assignments and other substantive matters evidently were not pertinent to his filibusters and dissenting vote. This meant that professors who took initiative to transform existing traditional courses – or create new ones – in online mode faced unreasonable obstacles. One phase promoted thoughtful innovation; the second phase often was filled with delay and distrust
Online education is neither inherently inexpensive nor efficient: If university officials embrace distance learning as a quick fix to offer courses at low cost to a large number of students, they are mistaken. Preparation and teaching are labor-intensive. Those “guardians of standards” who are skeptical about the quality of a proposed online course struck me as wrongheaded given that there is great variance in quality among traditional courses. There may well be a latent function of fear operating here – namely, some professors are worried that their traditional courses may ultimately be in jeopardy with the proliferation of large enrollment online courses. I doubt this is a widespread or warranted fear among tenured professors. A more rational concern would be that one’s failure to be able or willing to incorporate online learning in blended form with “real” courses would have declining appeal both to prospective students and to deans and provosts.
Budget-minded provosts and deans may dream of online courses as a lucrative source of new revenue streams. However, there is no guarantee that creating an online course or program is inexpensive. Nor is there any certainty that a university will lower the tuition price – even if the online course cost were eventually to cost less than a “traditional course.” All the variables of effectiveness, efficiency, cost and price are subject to the same complexities, adjustments, and vacillations of any higher education program offering.
Established universities would be wise to heed the innovations taking place in all sectors of postsecondary education. I have had the opportunity for conversations with Jorge Klor de Alva, who has held academic leadership positions with the University of Phoenix as its president and, now, as president of its affiliated Nexus Research and Policy Center. He warrants the attention of traditional universities because prior to joining University of Phoenix, he was a tenured professor both at UC Berkeley and at Princeton. In short, he has the experience to talk about both traditional and for-profit higher education in their respective responses to how pedagogy has changed with technological innovations. Most surprising to me was to learn how much attention and seriousness the University of Phoenix pours into the creation and evaluation of its online courses. Its faculty and staff's attention to detail in working with instructors, designing courses, monitoring student participation and learning have been a source of innovation that often was underappreciated by traditional colleges.
Online education makes history by being part of higher education’s history: Online education may be new, especially in such particulars as Internet technology. But what the luddite faculty opponents ought to recognize is that online education is merely the latest in a long succession of teaching innovations that are fueled by a combination of technological and social changes. In other words, online education is very much part of higher education’s heritage:
New teaching media have long attracted outstanding scholars. For example, several years ago my wife came across a packet of letters in a secondhand store in Washington, D.C. She gave them to me because the recipient was a professor. It turns out that the packet contained the exchanges and comments of a correspondence course from 1891. Most spectacular was our finding that the professor reading and grading the correspondence examination essays was Richard Ely – at that time a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, who soon would join the University of Wisconsin, where he would lead one of the most influential economics departments of all time. He was no less than a founder and president of the American Economic Association.
To discover that Ely found time to teach in a new format and took seriously the evaluation of student correspondence courses was a revelation. It showed that more than a century ago, a famous professor took the plunge to participate enthusiastically in an innovative format for college level teaching and learning. It would be comparable today to having the Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Paul Krugman responding individually to an undergraduate’s e-mails as part of Krugman’s online course.
Between the end posts of Richard Ely teaching correspondence courses in 1891 and a distinguished professor offering online courses in 2012, there is a rich heritage of top-flight professors who embrace new media as a way of reaching extended student audiences. Today much of the publicity in higher education involves the role of Stanford, Harvard and MIT venturing into “massively open online courses.”
Often overlooked is that this is a variation on a familiar theme in higher education. In 1956 ABC devoted two hours of Sunday afternoon programming to a series produced by Bell Laboratories Science Series that featured as host professor Frank Baxter of the University of Southern California, cast in the role of “Dr. Research.” The one-hour shows included “Our Mister Sun” about solar energy, fuel, and food; and a show about blood and the circulatory system, “Hemo the Magnificent.” Fifteen years later, PBS attracted a loyal, large national audience in 1969-70 when it broadcast each Sunday evening an episode of rofessor Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation – a series so popular that it compelled viewers to look forward to the television equivalent of western civ, instead of watching sitcoms and professional sports shows offered by the major networks.
Implications for established higher education: The Inside Higher Ed survey reinforces the point that online education persists as one of many strands that coexist in higher education. Last week, for example, a sub-theme about the forced resignation of the president of the University of Virginia evidently was the Board of Visitors’ concern that new innovations such as online courses were being ignored in favor of saving classics.
The problem with such characterizations is that they set up false dichotomies – such as the wrongheaded belief that classics are at odds with online learning. My own experience is that this is not the case. For example, the skilled, patient director of distance learning programs who made my immersion into online education both effective and enjoyable brings to her role an academic background in information science – and, ahem, in classics! I fortuitously discovered this fruitful combination by the motto at the bottom of her e-mails: “Fluctuat nec mergitur” – “She is tossed by the waves, but is not drowned.”
That’s not a bad motto for dealing with innovation and flux in our teaching and learning. It leads me to suggest that for higher education in the 21st century, consideration of online education -- plus lectures, seminars, tutorials, independent studies, internships, field work, all of which coexist and cross-fertilize one another without eliminating any one format -- brings to mind the Latin motto of Claremont Graduate University : “multi lumina, lux una” -- “many lamps, one light...”
John Thelin is a professor at the University of Kentucky. He is author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
President Obama and many educators are encouraging more American students to earn advanced degrees in science, but the jobs may not be there for those who do so, The Washington Post reported. There are fewer jobs in academe, but also in many of the business fields that have in the past hired science Ph.D.s. Many companies have slashed research jobs, the Post noted.