In an Instagram video, former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren proclaimed that she is “scandalized” by the cost of education and how college students are saddled with “gigantic student loans.”
Viewers may well have been nodding in agreement at that point in the video. And if they heard last month’s NPR program on how more colleges are opening food pantries, it makes sense to many to say that higher education is too expensive for students, their parents and families -- both while students are enrolled in college and afterward, and whether a degree is earned or not.
But academic libraries are part of the solution in higher education rather than part of the problem, and Van Susteren quickly ran off the rails when she targeted academic libraries as the culprit.
Van Susteren complained about “vanity projects,” specifically mentioning the construction of library buildings and adding that students are footing the bill for them.
She posted similar comments on Twitter, exclaiming, “Colleges should stop building vanity projects like huge libraries and billing students -- full libraries are on our smartphones!”
Those comments, made by someone who claims to support libraries, are destructively misleading to the general public as well as higher education administrators and legislative decision makers about the significant contributions academic libraries make to teaching and learning.
To say that an academic library can be reduced to an app on a smartphone dangerously trivializes what libraries and library professionals have to offer and their real value to the higher education infrastructure -- value that far outweighs the costs associated with them.
An Artery to the Heart
Academic librarians play a vital part in the education ecosystem, putting information into context for students by distinguishing information from knowledge and offering direct assistance to constituents in a personal way that cannot be replicated by an electronic device.
In addition, students who receive information-literacy instruction as part of their courses achieve higher grades and demonstrate increased research fluency than students who do not receive such instruction. Further, a library’s research and study areas offer a destination for those who can’t afford quiet space as well as fostering social and academic community among students.
Far from being tangential to the learning process on our college campuses, libraries -- the physical buildings themselves -- are as essential to the classroom as an artery is to the heart. For example, Michigan State University recently released a heat map of the campus’s climate that found that the library was one of the most supportive spaces on campus because it affirmed students’ diverse identities through offering a variety of spaces to work differently with information, such as digital humanities labs, green screens, maker spaces and media labs -- all of which supported them in their innovative and creative academic work.
Indeed, architects who design academic libraries usually no longer see them as just iconic buildings in the design of campuses but also identify them as “sticking” spaces where students return -- due to the availability of technology, the welcoming environment for individuals and study groups, the flexibility for their own design of workspaces, as well as student-support destinations with late-night assistance.
Student and researcher demands have driven the creation of many of the newer amenities available in renovated libraries. For example, while cafés may attract attention, the majority of space and planning has been given to creation of engaging learning spaces where knowledge creation is the focus. That has compelled the vision of the learning laboratories, user-focused collaborative hubs and maker spaces that so many academic and research libraries have embraced.
While collaborative spaces can be virtual, too, we’ve found that such dynamic, interactive, face-to-face spaces in renovated libraries have resonated with our campus populations. For example after a million-dollar renovation primarily funded by donors, the College of Wooster’s library’s gate count increased to 15,000 a week for a campus of 2,000 students. College officials attribute this to the addition of CoRE, or the Collaborative Research Environment, an interactive learning space where students can develop collaborative projects using digital and traditional media, and consult with an expert research librarian, work with writing center consultants and get help digitizing their projects at a media bar.
While there may be other laboratories across a campus, they do not provide the access to information, librarian expertise and interdisciplinary integration that academic and research libraries sustain. In addition:
Academic libraries provide (for the haves and the have-nots) spaces or commons -- primarily “high-tech ready” in nature -- that offer general and subject-specific equipment, software and web-delivered content for individual access and study. They also offer collaborative spaces for students to work together with each other in small groups and with classroom faculty to study and create content.
Academic libraries provide spaces for STEM and STEAM discovery or maker space environments for students anywhere in the program or the curriculum -- especially those who don’t have access to departmental labs, where spaces are often reserved for students majoring in those specific areas.
Academic libraries provide open labs and flexible, individual computer spaces with equipment and software unique to special research or subject area populations, such as geographic information systems or statistical software packages to process data used in the study of social and natural sciences. They also serve special needs students, faculty members and staff.
Academic libraries provide not only access to content within their buildings but also equipment and technology that students can check out and use in their educational pursuits. (This takes space for not only storage but also delivery of resources.)
Meanwhile, academic library professionals, often faculty members themselves, are experts in areas of research, and they work in partnership with classroom instructors in the design and delivery of curricula. They also:
partner with classroom faculty members in the design and delivery of courses requiring critical thinking and information literacy as well as subject-targeted assignments;
are champions for and leaders in open educational resources that provide vetted, free content for students who can’t afford textbooks, a large part of the price tag of college;
build digital as well as print collections to reflect classroom faculty research, recommended research by other experts and subject content required by external regional and national accreditation bodies -- such as digital and print content for the health sciences and business-management curricula; and,
acquire, curate, design and deliver online content and competency lessons (online tutorials, streamed office hours with library experts) for students to access on their smartphones.
We invite Van Susteren to visit one or more of our nation’s fine academic libraries, such as that of her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, or any of ACRL’s Excellence in Academic Libraries award winners. She will see firsthand the role those libraries play in the life of knowledge and information and how an investment in them is an investment in the success and future of our college students -- and, in turn, the success and future of our nation.
Julie Todaro is the president of the American Library Association and the dean of library services at Austin Community College. Irene M. H. Herold is the president of the Association of College and Research Libraries and University Librarian at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.
The past 18 months leading to the election of Donald Trump last night have been incredibly challenging for us as a nation and certainly for all of us who work in higher education.
The angry and hostile dialogue has left many in our communities feeling unsafe, devalued and marginalized. For many of our students and staff members, the results of the election will magnify those feelings of outrage, despair, hopelessness and genuine fear for their future. It is important to note that after the rhetoric expressed during the election, our Muslim, Jewish, African-American, Latinx, undocumented and LGBTQ students and staff, as well as students and staff members who are sexual assault survivors, will likely have strong emotional reactions to this election outcome.
How do we move forward? First, we need to acknowledge what just happened. About 47 to 48 percent of voters, more than 59 million Americans, sent a clear message that they wanted something different and wanted someone who spoke to their concerns. We live in a fractured and divided country with two very different visions about our future path.
This division and the politics of hate that have surrounded this election make the work we do in student affairs even more important today than it was before the election.
This will not be easy, and it never is. Those of us who work in student affairs will need to take some time to absorb the results of this election, tend to the self-care necessary, support those who are hurting or angry and afraid, and then quickly get back to the work we do: providing support to our students who themselves will be struggling with a range of emotions following the election.
This election does not stop the work we must do to address racial injustice on our campuses and in our communities. It makes it more important.
This election does not stop the crucial work we are doing to increase degree progress and completion for first-generation students, low-income students and students of color. It makes it more important.
This election does not stop the need to support the hundreds of thousands of undocumented students who are on our campuses. It makes it more important.
This election does not stop the work we are doing to engage students in difficult conversations around race, gender identity, religion and sexual orientation. It makes it more important.
This election, and its results, creates an urgency for a new generation of leaders -- leaders who are on our campuses. The work we do to encourage active discourse, protest and activism is core to our democracy and to our need to engage a new generation committed to ideals of inclusion and social justice. This is more important than ever.
The next few months will be critical for our country and our colleges and universities. It is unknown how President-elect Trump will view the higher education sector. NASPA will continue to monitor, teach and provide opportunities for dialogue about these issues within the next few months.
I remain optimistic about the work we are doing in higher education and the role each student affairs professional plays in the lives of our students. Our work has never been more important.
Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
Two months ago I started keeping a notebook about the presidential election -- in part to jot down my musings and fulminations in a real-time chronicle of the most terrifying length of track on this year’s roller-coaster ride, and in part to wean myself from the habit of snarling profanities at the cable television news. (It was scaring the cats.)
A nickname for the project suggested itself -- The Trump Dump. For it really has been just the one candidate -- his moods and his impulses, far more than his policies, insofar as they could ever be determined -- who set the terms and the pace of the entire contest. Making sense of 2016 meant making sense of Donald Trump, or, rather, of how he ever emerged as a serious political force. “He is impervious to every bullet he shoots into his own feet,” reads one of my notes from before the first debate. “It’s hard to keep thinking about this, but impossible to stop.”
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is all ineluctability and no enigma. She became the de facto presumptive Democratic candidate for 2016 no later than 2009. Even the scandals linked to her name seem perennial. As a tough-minded and successful professional woman in her 60s, Clinton embodies a misogynist’s worst nightmare, but that just means that the psychodrama of recent months has all been on the part of the candidate with the Tic Tacs.
The Clinton campaign’s greatest advantage was never her aura of inevitability, of course, but rather the widespread suspicion that a Trump presidency would prove to be, like a game of Russian roulette, altogether too exciting for everyone involved. HRC would have guaranteed us the comforts of familiar crises: annual displays of government-shutdown brinksmanship for one, along with a shrinking Supreme Court as the justices die off, with confirmation hearings postponed until after the latest presidential impeachment attempt.
In reading a selection of the master’s theses and doctoral dissertations on Hillary Clinton that academics completed between 1994 and May of this year, I’ve had much the same feeling: most of the scholarly attention to her has come from two or three disciplines and focused on a small range of topics.
I made two collections of abstracts from an online repository of theses and dissertations -- 30 in all, although one item appeared in both sets, bringing the total down to 29. The degrees sought were about evenly divided between the M.A. and the Ph.D., along with one Ed.D. and two M.S. degrees. A plurality of the work -- 10 out of all the theses or dissertations -- was identified as conducted in communications departments, with three more in rhetoric. Departments of political science, sociology, education and leadership studies hosted one study each, while two were listed as done in liberal studies programs. Of the five theses or dissertations for which no disciplinary affiliation was given, at least two or three showed an affinity to the study of rhetoric and communications -- historically, closely associated fields.
In short, more than half of the work on Clinton was performed by students working in rhetoric/communications. In a rough analysis of the topics, I found that 14 were clearly marked as focusing on gender (an implicit emphasis in a number of others). Ten each were identified as studies of rhetoric and media; three specified a focus on communication in general and three on online communication specifically. Seven concentrated on Clinton as first lady and nine on her 2008 campaign. All that said, I should make clear that a single thesis or doctoral dissertation might fall under up to three of these topical headings.
Over all, the emphasis of the studies was overwhelmingly on Clinton either as a user of some form of communication media or as an object of media representation. To give two master’s theses as examples, respectively: Christina Young Guest’s M.A. thesis, “Political Feminine Style and the Feminist Implications of the Respective Convention Speeches: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin” (University of Central Missouri, 2010), and Heidi Johnson’s “Clinton as Matron, Palin as MILF in 2008 Political Cartoons: Transformation in the Caricature of Female Authority?” (Hawaii Pacific University, 2009). As these titles suggest, questions regarding communications and gender issues were interrelated: every dissertation or thesis specifically focused on gender also addressed some aspect of rhetoric, media or communication.
Much less common were studies focusing on Clinton and policy. By my count, only five did. To risk an overgeneralization, researchers have tended to be more interested in how Clinton challenged or was constrained by traditional female roles or implicit assumptions about the proper relationship between public and private identity than in her activity as a senator or secretary of state.
The most recent of the studies -- accepted for the master of arts in liberal studies at Wake Forest University in May of this year -- concerned a matter that proved especially persistent throughout this year’s campaign: Whitney Jessica Threatt’s “A Transparent Hillary Clinton Through the Lens of Apologia Discourse,” wherein Clinton’s email server and its vexed status is addressed with respect to the Obama presidency’s policy on transparency and open government.
Drawing on a specialist literature about apologia (discursive mitigation when accused of injury and/or failure to live up to a certain standard), Threatt considers how various routine responses (denial, corrective action, shifting of blame, etc.) can serve to improve or worsen the accused’s situation vis-à-vis an audience. Complicating apologia for a very public figure such as Clinton is the double problem of media repetition (asking the same question over and over “suggests that the charges brought are true”) and widespread “alienation from politicians as well as the political process.”
Between Whitewater, the Lewinsky affair and so forth, Clinton has spent much of the past quarter century negotiating the terms of “image repair.” (Let’s nod at the existence of an additional set of specialist typologies here and just continue.) Meanwhile, opposing political operatives have built entire careers around raising the earlier circumstances for discussion again at every opportunity. In the case of the private email server, the researcher finds Clinton using certain forms of apologia employed in earlier controversies but with one mode in particular. Examining speeches and interviews with Clinton, Threatt notes that she “consistently attempts to demonstrate that she, herself, has been transparent about not only the investigation but throughout her time as secretary of state.” She assures listeners “that she is doing everything in her power to display transparency by providing the public with the actual emails …. The fact that she is doing more than what has been asked of her insinuates that she is being a leader.”
The upshot here is that Clinton has had an arsenal of rhetorical strategies at her disposal and considerable practice in using them -- with repetition and consistency as primary guiding principles, in part because the same questions and accusations return time and time again. On Tuesday, those strategies failed her.
Today’s presidential election will not fix the broken relationship between Democrats and voters who did not finish college. In the aftermath, will there be anything that universities can do to help with this?
The New York Times recently published a piece about electoral divisions, “Go Midwest, Young Hipster,” that starts with the fact that Republicans get far more representation for their votes than do Democrats. In Ohio, for example, Republicans translated a 51 percent statehouse voting majority into a 75 percent majority of legislators, which gives the party’s slight majority a near fiat power over legislation.
But Alec MacGillis, the article’s author, argues that this problem cannot be handled by reforming the creation of electoral districts. Republicans are great gerrymanderers, it's true, but the underlying problem is that Democrats clump together in blue states and in giant blue cities where most of their votes are superfluous.
The title suggests his solution: Democrats have to move back to the depopulating red states and counties from which they sprang. Unfortunately for this idea, all the people he interviews who could do that -- the native Ohioans who have professional careers in Washington or Los Angeles -- say no way in hell. Wild horses couldn’t drag them out of the land of surplus blue voters and their urban overload of interesting jobs and “creative class” culture.
MacGillis’s piece moves a step beyond the vision of Barack Obama, who reportedly will devote some of his postpresidential career to reducing Republican gerrymandering. There’s only so much that better redistricting can do after The Big Sort has segregated the population in large part by whether or not one graduated from college.
And yet the same is true about the voluntary return that MacGillis advocates. His red-state escapees tell him they won’t do it, so the whole project is doomed from the start.
What locks in the doom is the entire patronizing framework in which MacGillis sees Ohio as place in need of creative class enlightenment -- and in which the social role of public universities is to help people escape their region rather than develop it.
College folks often write about noncollege people as though they were backwoods barbarians who need the civilizing influence of collegiate urbanites. Terms like “red states” and “Midwest” stand for the country’s primitive places. Many analysts apply the same cultural deficiency theory to working-class whites that others have applied to black and brown people. In the case of Charles Murray, it’s the same analyst doing it. Instead of the white man’s burden, MacGillis creates a college man’s burden to return to the red-state jungle to help the natives who didn’t have the brains to escape. You can imagine how the natives feel about that kind of help.
This tradition was codified in Thomas Frank’s influential book, What’s the Matter With Kansas (Henry Holt and Company, 2004), which, for all its strengths, was wrong to say that pro-Republican whites couldn’t see their self-interest and vote for it. Even Michael Moore’s attempt to embrace working-class Trump voters teetered into treating them as abuse victims who can’t think straight (around the halfway point in his interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News). Presenting red-state dwellers as the nation’s regressives is an ethical, strategic and factual blunder of major proportions.
Neglecting the University’s Core Mission
There’s also a blunder on the politics of knowledge. For several decades, the Democrats have helped underdevelop the industrial belt by heralding the coming of a knowledge economy in which all American “routine production workers,” in Robert Reich’s Clinton-era formulation, were doomed to permanent decline. Wealth creation would henceforth flow from the brainwork of “symbolic analysts.”
The Clintons were fountainheads of this vision of nonuniversity people as the new vanishing Americans. They threw people bones like job retraining programs but didn’t tell them they had anything still to contribute. The Clinton Democrats philosophically abandoned the New Deal and Great Society programs of public works for everyday people, helped to criminalize much of the deindustrialized black working class through such policies as harsher sentencing minimums and disparities in drug sentencing, and refused the large-scale economic redevelopment (coupled with penalties for offshoring jobs) that only the federal government could perform.
Barack Obama has been a chip off the old block. Thus working-class people are still mad at the establishment Democrats and have been willing to listen to Bernie Sanders as well as to Donald Trump. Our college-graduate condescension may yet keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House or, assuming she gets in, keep her from getting anything done.
Here we arrive at the other huge problem: Which side is the public university on? MacGillis offers a standard casting of college as a circus cannon for human capital that fires its cannonball-graduates over their local region into the big cities that can make use of them. That neglects the core mission of public colleges and universities in enabling regional development. Since the Morrill Act in 1862, public colleges have had the public-good obligation of taking nonelite local people and helping them be what they and their community have wanted them to be: better farmers, or machinists, or doctors, or surveyors, or teachers, or politicians, or whatever their needs and desires actually are.
The political principle has been that colleges and universities offer the democratic capabilities on which regional progress depends. At the top of my own list are deep cross-racial experience and comfort with indirect causality. (Donald Trump’s noir power rests on the ability of many people to believe in one-step solutions to complex problems, like “I’ll be reducing taxes tremendously … That’s going to be a job creator like we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan.”) These are just two examples of the many public-good capabilities that develop a region rather than use it as a launching pad to upper-class life elsewhere.
Democrats have been faced with a choice between stressing the public-good or the private-good benefits of public colleges and universities. They have mostly picked door No. 2 and have been as eager as Republicans to stress the wage benefits of graduation and the pecuniary payoff of the whole college operation. In this way, Democrats have played an important role in cutting public funding and raising public college tuition. They have also cooperated in increasing nonresident enrollment at state-supported institutions.
That has played into Republican hands. If college is mainly a private good, then families who don’t attend have no reason to pay taxes for it. If university research is about making money, then private investors rather than government should pay for it. In reality, private market benefits are about one-third of the total benefits of higher education. Democrats in politics and academe have abetted the great ignoring of public-good benefits, and enabled gross public underinvestment.
Remobilizing the People’s Support
Public universities are going to recover only if they rebuild their popular base. That will involve direct contributions to regional development that go beyond the usual touting of tech start-ups (which go to the same handful of cities and employ almost no one). They will need to do two things at once.
First, the less-selective public institutions that most American students attend -- places like the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire or the University of North Carolina at Greensboro -- will need budgetary reinvestment so they can match the level of learning that occurs at wealthier campuses. Lower-income or first-generation students need conceptual intensity and complexity at least as much as affluent students at a flagship majoring in history on their way to an Ivy League law school.
Second, public universities will need to make the college a meaningful presence in the lives of noncollege people. They are doing this one by one -- Clark University’s involvement in local education is an example. In the decades in which community relations has become a low-status activity, Republican propaganda has convinced most nongraduates that universities are hotbeds of people who look down on them and are probably trying to get rid of their jobs (logging, coal, trucking, smokestack manufacturing). This reputation can be fixed with more systematic effort.
Regional colleges will need to demand state refunding for the project of bringing all the local folks to college who want to be there, at whatever age, coupled with contributing more visibly to local social and cultural (and not just economic) development. Elite public universities will need to shift their focus from wealthy donors to regular people, who have very different priorities. The fixation on fund-raising has raised money for many important programs, but it has also narrowed the university’s own vision of its public contributions and cut it off from its popular base.
A few of weeks ago, I outlined emerging international trends that American universities should use to remobilize their popular base. The same forces are at work here, and they could serve as the university’s special power.
The public university needs a broader popular base for its own survival. But this would also help the country. Rather than tacitly casting the red states, counties and precincts as cultural backwaters, universities would mobilize local red-state insights and Midwestern cultural strengths to reduce the mutual alienation between them and the self-designated creative zones. My bet is that colleges that define their missions as general development, rooted in respect for people of all educational levels, will no longer be targeted by voters as ivory towers serving blue-state elites.
Christopher Newfield teaches literature and American Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Colleges and universities are grappling -- urgently, constantly and necessarily -- with the problem of campus sexual assault. While higher education administrators are focusing, rightly, on what happens on campuses, in our classrooms and dorms and disciplinary meetings, this year’s presidential campaign has made clear (if it was not already) that the problem of sexual harassment, sexual assault and their enabling antecedents are widespread throughout American society.
That reality must inflect the way we approach Title IX concerns at our institutions. Given that sexual violence, harassment and misogyny are such pervasive problems, addressing them at a college level must take a similarly broad-based approach -- including the ways we educate students about everything, not just gender.
In the wake of the leak of the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump describing his behavior toward women -- which Trump tried to dismiss as “locker room talk” -- women of all ages, stages and walks of life have been testifying to their experience of sexual harassment and assault. In response to the leaked tape, hundreds of thousands flooded Twitter with their stories of sexual assault. The effect has been breathtaking, both for the sheer number of people speaking out -- the disgusting and terrifying accounts, the horrifyingly quotidian nature of so much of the harassment -- and for the fact that they took place at all stages of people’s lives, when they were children, teenagers, middle-aged, senior citizens and college students.
To recognize that fact is certainly not to absolve institutions of higher education of the responsibility of making sure that the way we approach the problem is as just and effective as possible. That should be our utmost concern. But we would be naïve to think that we can extricate what happens on our campuses from the larger cultures and webs of experience that determine how our students think about, and react to, instances of harassment, misogyny and gendered violence.
As hard as we try, four years of sexual assault prevention programs during college will not, on their own, change that landscape. On the contrary, the kinds of education that we need to order to undo centuries of acculturation must start as early as preschool, when children are starting to pick up information about gender expectations and roles, and continue in robust and age-appropriate sex ed programs as early as elementary school.
It also means that we in higher education have to consider our role in ways that exceed traditional sexual assault prevention programs. We must think beyond a model that puts the onus entirely on student life programs, even excellent ones, toward a more holistic one that foregrounds the structural inequalities that shape our world. Our driving question must be: How do we give our students the tools they need to identify, analyze, engage and eventually dismantle those structures that may foster gender inequality (and the intersecting issues of race, sexuality, class, immigrant experience) -- both on their campuses, where they will spend four very important years of their lives, and in the world, where they will spend many more?
We simply can’t rely solely on student life counselors and Title IX officers to do this work -- although they have crucial roles to play. Rather, this work must happen both in and beyond the classroom, across disciplines -- in math and science as much as in gender studies -- and through myriad experiences so that we can be fully mindful of the ways in which gender informs all of our work and all of our thinking. If we are to fully grapple with the ways in which gender and racial inequalities are structural, we must examine every single structure -- not only within our colleges but also outside them. We must think about how knowledge is formed, how institutions are created and reproduced, and how resources are allocated -- so that when our students confront moments of injustice while they’re on campuses and after they leave them, they will have tools to grapple with such injustice and perhaps even undo it.
A key step is to design an educational model that shifts power from the institution to the students, so that they learn that knowledge is not only something the institution bestows on them, but something they, too, have the capacity to create. Students who imagine education as a matter of checking off requirements or passing tests -- as opposed to identifying urgent questions and amassing the information and resources they need to answer those questions -- are not being trained to change institutions but to fit into them.
For colleges to make a lasting and significant contribution to the problem of sexual assault and gender inequality, we must educate students that institutions are made by people and can be transformed by people. That means changing the way we educate from the bottom up.
Mariko Silver is the president of Bennington College. Previously, she was a senior adviser to the president of Arizona State University and held leadership roles at Columbia University, in the Obama administration and in the administration of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.
Submitted by Mike Rose on November 7, 2016 - 3:00am
A while back, I was reading letters of support for an award, and one of the letters contained a demeaning characterization of the home academic department of the candidate. While praising the candidate to the skies, the letter writer portrayed the department -- one of great prestige outside the candidate’s university -- as being of marginal status in the eyes of people in other academic disciplines within the institution. The letter writer wanted to assure anonymous evaluators like me that the candidate was of much higher intellectual quality than the candidate’s discipline would suggest.
Boy, am I sick of this academic snobbery.
What I read is not without its irony, however -- worthy of the most trenchant portrayals of academic life. (Think David Lodge’s Small World or Richard Russo’s Straight Man.) The discipline of the snooty letter writer is one that I heard routinely ridiculed when I was studying and then teaching in an English department.
And so it goes in the academic status games.
Applied disciplines (such as journalism, nursing, management) have less status than “pure” ones: philosophy, biology, mathematics. And within disciplines, there is typically a status hierarchy, with theoretical pursuits having more dazzle than applied work. Art history and musicology trump the making of art or music. The theoretical mathematician has the status edge on the applied statistician. The literary theorist sits on a higher rung -- much higher -- than those in academe who teach writing.
Of course, such status dynamics are not absolute -- they are ignored, even subverted, by some faculty members, and an institution’s history and current reality come into play, as well. And in our era of the “entrepreneurial university” and economic accountability, traditional academic status markers might increasingly lessen in importance; what will count will be enrollment numbers and the employability prospects of a given major.
Still, as someone who has spent decades at a research university running a tutorial center and a freshman composition program, and then residing in a school of education -- all quite low in that disciplinary hierarchy -- I can tell you that judgments of intellectual virtue based on disciplinary affiliation are alive and well. They factor into all sorts of behaviors and decisions, from departmental funding to faculty promotion to the letters written for honors and awards -- like the one I read.
We have not even considered the more pronounced status differentials among various units at the college or university: for example, student services versus academic departments. And then there are the loaded status distinctions that people make among the different kinds of institutions of higher education in the United States: the community college versus the state college or university versus the research university -- with research universities scrambling to climb to the top of their own heap.
All professions generate status distinctions, so why should the field of higher education be any different? Fair enough; I take the point. But the thing that gets to me in all this is that distinctions are made through narrow and self-interested attributions of intelligence that hardly reflect the variety of ways people use their minds to acquire and apply knowledge, to reason, plan and solve problems. Furthermore, intelligence doesn’t reside inert in a discipline or a kind of work or in one segment of a system rather than another; intelligence emerges in activity and in context.
The attributions of intelligence I’m concerned with have much more to do with the preservation of power and prestige and turf rather than helping us all -- faculty members, administrators and students -- improve on what we do. Faculty members don’t get better at teaching by luxuriating in their bona fides or looking down on the department across the quad.
This last point about getting better at educating is at the center of a recent book by one of my colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alexander Astin, an expert on higher education in the United States. In Are You Smart Enough? Astin argues that colleges -- especially “elite” colleges -- are more concerned with acquiring status markers of intelligence (high GPAs and test scores among entering students, faculty publication numbers, and so on) rather than creating the conditions for students to become more intelligent during their time in college. Instead of the competing to attract students already identified as smart, Astin wonders, what if colleges put increased effort into helping more students become smarter through greater attention to teaching, mentoring and enrichment activities? It’s a provocative and important question.
Back now to that letter. Over the years, I’ve spent time in many sectors of higher education, from a medical school to a community college tutoring center, and one of the things that has most struck me is the distribution of intelligence across the domains of the enterprise. To be sure, I’ve observed the routine pursuit of trivial research, uninspired teaching, unimaginative management and tireless self-promotion. A whole host of sins spread across areas of study and levels of the system. But I’ve also witnessed insight and inspiration, deeply humane problem solving, and moments of brilliance in both a writing and a mathematics classroom, a counseling session, a meeting of tutorial center coordinators, a laboratory, and a library. No little domain has a lock on being smart.
Mike Rose is a research professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker (The New Press, 2012).
It was a debate moment that historians will surely return to -- like Richard Nixon’s sweaty brow and George H. W. Bush’s impatient glance at his watch. When Donald Trump lost composure and interjected “such a nasty woman” (twice), the game was over. Respect for women? Please.
From mocking disabled people to stigmatizing immigrants to encouraging violence against one’s enemies, the Trump campaign has indulged in a startling variety of transgressions of normal political discourse. The Clinton campaign’s counterpoint “when they go low, we go high,” suggested by the extraordinarily popular first lady, seems to be more about political advantage than moral elevation.
Few people seem to be turning to college campuses lately for moral elevation. Videos go viral of undergraduates screaming their demand for a peaceful home, while deans make a virtue of their commitment to academic freedom by undermining their faculty’s ability to prepare students for disturbing content. Absolutist rhetoric circulates easily at our universities when they should be cultivating subtle analysis and nuanced interpretation.
Some have pointed out that coarse political discourse goes way back in American history and that Trump is following in the footsteps of other titans of transgression. Politicians have said the darnedest things for a long time, we are told, and the Trump campaign’s invective is not actually as unusual as today’s oversensitive onlookers like to claim. The same might be said of our campuses, which have long been hotbeds of contention.
Back in the 1970s there was a Saturday Night Live routine, “Point/Counterpoint,” in which Dan Aykroyd would turn to fellow commentator Jane Curtin and exclaim, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” The funny part of this bit was that it was hard to imagine anyone on a real news show ever saying something like that as a prelude to articulating a disagreement.
Over the last decade, however, we have grown accustomed to the rabid fulminations of talk radio and to cable news pundits cultivating personae of perverse aggressivity. And now we have been treated to the spectacle of political candidates commenting on penis size, assaultive groping and vicious denigrations of the physical appearance of women. Today the Dan Aykroyd line would not be so funny because it would not be so preposterous.
The expectation of excoriation has become a fact of public and academic life -- with consequences in the civic realm. Disagreements -- be they on social media or at the neighborhood watering hole -- can get nasty very quickly. And it’s sticks and stones as well as words. Americans are killing one another at alarming rates in disputes over everything from what to play next on the jukebox to the best car brands. A verbal shot can have an awful counterpoint when somebody has a pistol tucked into his belt -- whether he’s in a bar or a classroom.
Although this growing barbarism is much remarked on in the political realm, when it comes to colleges we hear about a very different kind of concern: political correctness on campus. Somehow, the enforced niceness of PC culture is dangerous because it protects “coddled” millennials from having to challenge their own assumptions. While the rest of the country is engulfed in a dangerous war of words, campuses are accused of caring too much about triggering painful memories and providing safe spaces. This fantasy about PC culture has been weaponized in the current electoral campaign, so that all kinds of assaultive speech (and worse) are celebrated as evidence that candidates aren’t caving in to political correctness.
When you spend time on college campuses, however, you find plenty of debate that is actually substantive -- about the role of systemic racism in our institutions, about the possibilities for meaningful work after graduation, about the struggle for transparency in our public institutions. Transparency in particular is a key value for many students across the country, and this often leads to controversy because privacy is also a value they cherish.
That said, undergraduates today are often repulsed by official politics, and they are too likely to be cynical about the possibilities for building responsive institutions that can support the most vulnerable or empower the most innovative. It’s been observed that they are no longer inspired by abstract calls for “free speech” or by warm and fuzzy talk about “diversity and inclusion.” No wonder nihilism seems to be making a comeback among those who want to show how sophisticated their suspiciousness has become. If you’re really smart, the thinking seems to be, you won’t believe in anything that promotes possibilities for change. “We won’t get fooled again!” is the defensive cry of those afraid of being disappointed if they seek to engage with anything beyond themselves and their immediate peer group. Disillusionment is harder to mock than idealism and is in great supply on our college campuses.
It’s less risky to undercut an opponent’s stand than to take a stand of one’s own, and mocking the commitments of others from a distance is the safest route of all. Proposing practical programmatic change in areas like refugee resettlement, mass incarceration, the minimum wage or gender equality may indeed lead to social media storms of abuse from the alt-right or from a holier-than-thou left. That doesn’t make the proposals bad or good, but it does make it easier to propose nothing at all.
What’s most worrisome about the normalized nastiness is that it will surely discourage even more people from participating in public life, regardless of political persuasion. Nobody likes being called a racist, a loser, a fascist or even a neoliberal. And nobody enjoys being the object of mockery that is eminently retweetable.
The solution isn’t censorship or pious calls for more civility. Nor is the solution “rising above it all” to a “know-it-all position” that is smugly pessimistic because it is “all so smart.” The solution is to keep engaging on issues and proposing ideas that address real problems with full knowledge that one will be attacked for doing so. Fear of attack is no excuse for the failure to take a stand.
We must not abandon the public sphere to those who have successfully polluted it. It has always taken courage to take a public stand, and courage is still the best counter to nastiness.
One detail from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia stuck with me after reading it long ago, and it’s come to mind with some regularity over the past few months: on More’s imaginary island, anyone who aspired to high office was judged to be, for that very unreason, unfit to hold it.
This fall happens to be the book’s quincentennial. More sent the manuscript to his friend Erasmus in September 1516, and it was in print by the end of the year. That the anniversary coincides with an exceptionally nasty and spirit-blighting American presidential election seems providential, as if to confirm that the Utopians were definitely on to something.
Apart from the systemic ban on political ambition, my only other recollection of Utopia was that it was a bit dull. The sole thing that kept me going was the adolescent conviction (long since abandoned) that starting to read a classic implied a commitment to finishing it, come what may. So when I returned to the book recently, it was without fond associations -- and no expectation at all of laughing, since its satirical quality had gone right over my head.
The title is a pun in Greek: More’s ideal society is a good place (eu-topia) that’s also no place (u-topia). The play on words, while minimally hilarious, hints that the author is working in the same ironic vein as Erasmus had just a few years earlier in The Praise of Folly. There, everything people treat as important, dignified or admirable is shown to be evidence of human foolishness at work. More’s detailed picture of a happy, harmonious, prosperous country serves to highlight the corruption and irrationality of the social and political system 500 years ago -- with every reason to think things would only get worse.
Utopia opens with a reference to Henry VIII, then reigning as “the unconquered King of England, a prince adorned with all the virtues that become a great monarch,” which certainly seems prudent. (Henry did eventually have the author executed, but not for his literary efforts.) The narrator and a friend are joined by one Raphael Hythloday, a learned and widely traveled gentleman, who has some experience with royal failings. Those occupying the throne tend to be “more set on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess,” for example. Influence on the court comes from “only those for whom the prince has much personal favour, whom by their fawning and flatteries they endeavour to fix to their own interests.” His complaints are broad enough to limit how much offense they might give to any particular sovereign.
The narrator and his friend try to persuade Hythloday that his wisdom and experience should be put to use in changing the system from within -- that is, by becoming a courtier. He refuses on the grounds that any reforms he might propose would meet with “proud, morose and absurd judgments” by those with a vested interest in the status quo.
Things are better organized in Utopia, a land somewhere beyond the equator where Hythloday lived for five years. His listeners prevail upon him to describe the place -- and so he does, at some length. The prolonged explanatory monologue became a standard element of utopian fiction; in this, the genre’s foundational work, it fills the remaining two-thirds of the book.
It’s a communist manifesto, minus any process of historical change in getting there. On Utopia there is no private property, no poverty and very few laws. The inhabitants exchange houses every 10 years and dress in simple, standardized clothes. They are industrious and work at the jobs for which they are suited by talent and temperament. Money is not used except in one emergency situation we’ll consider. The Utopians are pagans but well behaved. “One of their most ancient laws,” we’re told, is “that no man ought to be punished for his religion.” Before being married, a couple sees each other naked at a public ceremony; this may be shocking to Christendom but it prevents unwelcome surprises.
Whether More was advocating the policies and arrangements that his traveler described -- or even considered them realizable or desirable -- has been a matter for much subtle argument. (Given More’s subsequent persecution of Protestants, the religious pluralism in Utopia was never more than a thought experiment.) But what struck me while rereading the book was More’s consistent sense that social inequality and moral viciousness are as linked as chicken and egg.
“Pride, that plague of human nature,” says Hythloday, “… does not measure happiness so much by its own conveniences, as by the miseries of others; and would not be satisfied with being thought a goddess, if none were left that were miserable, over whom she might insult. [Pride] thinks its own happiness shines the brighter, by comparing it with the misfortunes of other persons; that by displaying its own wealth, they may feel their poverty the more sensibly.”
So keeping in mind that More himself was a lawyer, and a successful one, there’s a moral and satirical reason why Utopia has no attorneys: the inhabitants “consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters and to wrest the laws, and, therefore, they think it is much better that every man should plead his own cause …. After the parties have laid open the merits of the cause, without those artifices which lawyers are apt to suggest, the judge examines the whole matter, and supports the simplicity of such well-meaning persons, whom otherwise crafty men would be sure to run down …”
The Utopian policy regarding money allows More to score an especially sharp jab at pride and privilege. The Utopians accept that it’s necessary to keep a certain amount of gold and silver on hand, says Hythloday, in case they need it when dealing with other countries. But since they themselves judge the value of metals by their use, they have a much higher regard for iron. Rather than just pile up the gold in storage, however, they use it to make chamber pots and chains for criminals undergoing punishment. Likewise, they make practical use of jewels by giving them to small children as playthings.
A group of visiting dignitaries once wanted to overawe the Utopians with their power and wealth. And so they made their grand entrance, dressed to impress: “The ambassadors themselves, who were of the nobility of their country, were in cloth-of-gold, and adorned with massy chains, earrings and rings of gold; their caps were covered with bracelets set full of pearls and other gems -- in a word, they were set out with all those things that among the Utopians were either the badges of slavery, the marks of infamy or the playthings of children.”
More also ran diplomatic missions for England. He was on one to the Netherlands in 1515 when he started writing what became Utopia.The image of an ambassador decked out in fancy handcuffs and wearing, say, a solid-gold toilet seat around his neck is surprisingly broad for a writer of More’s learning and station; he clearly had mixed feelings about his own political role. But after 500 years, it’s still reasonably funny, and it puts the trappings of political ambition in a suitably critical perspective.