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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Kevin Carey's Dangerous Playbook

When someone wants you to believe your work is an illusion, you should be worried.

July 28, 2015

Perhaps if you believe universities are fundamentally dysfunctional and deserve to go the way the dodo, you will write an op-ed for the New York Times as deliberately misleading as Kevin Carey’s latest effort, “The Fundamental Way That Universities Are an Illusion.”

Carey, director of the Educational Policy Program at the New America Foundation and self-described education “wonk,[1]” uses the lens of the notorious academic scandal in the African and Afro-American studies department at the University of North Carolina, that had thousands of students taking courses for credit despite doing no recognizable academic work, to cast doubt on the entire academic enterprises of all universities, everywhere.

Carey’s sleight-of-hand starts with the opening paragraph: “To understand the failures of the modern American college system — from admissions marketing to graduation rates — you can begin with a notorious university football scandal.”

So, from a single outlier case of egregious academic fraud, we’re going to come to understand the “failures” of an entire system.”

I believe we call that a hasty generalization.

Carey sets up former UNC football coach Butch Davis as a kind of truth-teller, letting us know that Davis had high hopes for the academic integrity and athletic excellence practiced at UNC, but was disappointed by the ongoing fraud, and described (to the investigators preparing the report on the fraud) the academics for student athletes at UNC as, “an ‘Easter egg,’ beautiful and impressive to the outside world, but without much life inside.”

In either a deliberate or careless error, Carey implies that Davis was let go as a consequence of the paper classes being discovered, a casualty of forces outside his control, but the reality is that Davis was forced into resignation for unrelated reasons, his players taking payment from agents.

But nevermind, things are so bad even the football coach is complaining about academics.

The essay’s “turn” is a kind of masterpiece of establishing guilt by association while claiming plausible deniability against such charges. Carey writes, “Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills.”


I’m going to go on a limb and say that the number of other colleges of UNC’s stature engaging in this kind of fraud is at or near zero. This is why what happened at UNC was so shocking[2].

Carey extends his indictment, claiming that, “These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.”

Credit mills, incoherent, and now, non-existent.

Carey is also disturbed by the meta-study of student learning collected in Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini’s How College Affects Students which indicates that students learn pretty much the same stuff regardless of where they go to college

To educators like me, that sounds like a good thing. It tells us something many of us have experienced, that regardless of where students matriculate, educational opportunity is available. These findings indicate that there is something intrinsically worthwhile about engaging in higher education no matter where it happens.

But to Carey, who is steeped in the framework of the market and competition, this is a problem. Someone must be doing it better than someone else, and that we can’t tell who is a problem.

Accreditors are no help, according to Carey, because they certify colleges, not departments or courses. And besides, look at the for-profit scams like Corinthian; just like UNC, they were accredited. Of course, the problems of Corinthian and their ilk have nothing to do with professorial autonomy because their instructors had no such freedoms. Carey knows this, but he wants to draw the connection between legacy institutions and fraudulent for-profit enterprises, logic or integrity of argument be damned.

To Carey, this casts the entire higher education enterprise in doubt. We can’t trust professors because they operate with too much autonomy and .0000000001% of the time engage in fraudulent activities. And accreditation is apparently impossible because the accreditation agencies can’t even find the schools since they’re invisible and all.

You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who works inside of education who finds our current system, or even the practices of their home institution faultless, but the notion that the work that happens inside colleges and universities is indeed an “illusion” because “wonks” who have never spent a moment teaching in an undergraduate classroom can’t figure out how to measure it, doesn’t make it so.

Back in 2011-2012, the education disruption crowd was confident that MOOCs would swamp traditional education in a “tsunami” of high tech awesomeness, but as this has not yet, and likely never will come to pass because those early cheerleaders are now discovering that education is more complicated than beaming videos over the internet, we’ve seen a shift in tactics.

Kevin Carey’s playbook, one apparently endorsed by the allegedly center-left New America Foundation, is identical to the one that has driven K-12 education reform since the Reagan Administration’s “A Nation at Risk.”

First, manufacture a crisis, i.e., failing and unaccountable schools. Second, make sure to paint those closest to the issue and most knowledgeable as the chief impediment to “reform,” in this case, faculty and accreditors. Third, sell outside “competition” challenging the legacy providers as the only viable solution.

If you want to see how this ends, look at K-12 education, at the failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, at an accountability regime that has demoralized students and teachers alike while doing little to address the fundamental issues like poverty and inequality that plague poorly performing schools.

When you view education as a commodity, this is the result. If technology is not going to stamp traditional education out of existence, apparently we need to wish it away as an illusion.

Kevin Carey is selling this bunk in the paper of record. Important, wealthy, and politically connected people are lapping it up[3].

We should be worried.




[1] “Wonk” is think tank humblebrag for “expert.”

[2] Carey attempts to make a lot of hay about the fact that non-athletes took the courses, but they clearly originated as a way to help keep athletes eligible and metastasized from there.

[3] And Kevin Carey has a habit of blocking anyone who challenges his arguments in social media.


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