A couple of posts earlier this week generated some thoughtful responses.
The one about vocations brought a wonderful story from a reader whose daughter nearly married a boyfriend of whom the mother disapproved because the boy was in a vocational program. She wanted her daughter to marry someone who went to college. Before the wedding, the couple broke up and the daughter found a Mom-approved boyfriend with a college degree. A few years later, the first boyfriend was doing quite well for himself as a mechanic while the approved boyfriend struggled for a while after college. He found his way eventually, but the idea that the first one was an economic dead end proved untrue.
Stories like those elicit all sorts of reactions—it sounds like a Taylor Swift song to me—but the obvious point often goes unmentioned: there are many paths to a good life. Choosing or preferring one shouldn’t involve denigrating the others.
The post about teaching American government—and particularly the part about students not knowing some basic facts about how the government is organized—generated responses that fell into three camps.
Camp one took it as a sign that America has fallen from grace, or from a golden age, or from (fill in the blank). While I agree that greater civic knowledge across society would be a good thing, I’m aware enough of history to be suspicious of “golden age” narratives. They tend to involve selective memory.
Camp two recognized the issue but just commiserated. Fair enough.
Camp three offered ways forward. My favorite, which I’ve used from time to time, involved anticipating likely student errors or popular myths and debunking them up front. It’s a way to acknowledge the ubiquity of disinformation without being trapped by it.
It’s a tricky strategy to execute, but done well, it can be effective. My high school physics teacher loved to do this with physics; her favorite form of teaching was to start with something counterintuitive and work her way backward. (This video from the vlogger Physics Girl does the same thing extremely well.) It’s somewhat easier in fields that aren’t quite as charged as politics, but good technique is good technique.
Thanks to everyone who wrote. Without readers, this would just be the world’s least salacious diary.
Tuesday’s IHE piece about the hills on which college leaders are willing to die is worth the read, but I thought it stopped a step short. It’s about the dilemmas facing college presidents when their institutions come under external attack on grounds they consider illegitimate. Part of the leader role involves defending core positions even when they’re unpopular.
I thought it left out a relevant scenario, though. Say you’re the president of Hypothetical State College (“Home of the Fightin’ Theories!”) in Unnamed State. Unnamed State elects a governor with a virulent anti–higher ed agenda who quickly makes it clear that he considers public colleges to be, as Obi-Wan Kenobi put it, wretched hives of scum and villainy, and he wants to purge them of people who aren’t loyal to his agenda. He also makes it clear that he isn’t above punishing people and institutions who disagree with him, using whatever weapons are at hand. Funding leaps to mind.
As a president, you have choices. You can stand up for principles, but that will surely result in you getting fired, the college getting a new leader who is in lockstep with the governor and/or a massive funding cut. In other words, you wouldn’t be the only one bearing the costs of your decision. It’s one thing to go down in a blaze of glory; it’s another to bring your college with you.
Or you can try to hang on to prevent even worse damage. The dangers here are several. Vulnerable people at the college will infer from your silence that you’re either complicit or ineffectual. The governor may take your silence as permission to move forward with his purges. You will probably lose credibility in the industry if you hang on long enough. And history suggests that trying to outlast a demagogue is a high-risk strategy.
Or you can bail, thereby leaving the institution unprotected. The fallout of that would be similar to the “you get fired” scenario.
The best case, I think, would involve getting all of your counterparts around the state together and pushing back in unison. If nothing else, it would make purges more difficult. But be prepared to have the bluff called. And also be prepared for your colleagues to politely decline the invitation.
It’s not a pretty picture. The problem with choosing a hill to die on is that someone will accept your offer.
For years, The Girl has teased me about my podcast habit. So you can imagine my surprise when she reported this week, sheepishly, that she had listened to a podcast while driving. As she put it, “I inherited that gene.”
Reader, I smiled at that.