Now that “genius” has become the job title for the person who fixes your MacBook, we need something considerably stronger to describe the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Awe seems like the only suitable response to the work Ramanujan did and how he did it.
He was born in the southern part of the country in 1887, one year following publication of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure Mathematics by George Shoobridge Carr, a math tutor in London. The volume would have been long since completely forgotten had Ramanujan not come across it as a high school student. Carr assembled more than 6,000 formulas and theorems in order of growing complexity -- but without the full proofs. Those Ramanujan worked out for himself.
By his twenties, Ramanujan was filling notebooks with his own extremely advanced work in pure mathematics, samples of which he sent to G. H. Hardy, an eminent number theorist at Cambridge University, in 1913. Following the example of Carr’s Synopsis, Ramanujan presented his findings without spelling out the proofs. He also used notation that had grown out of date, and it is easy to imagine the Cambridge don throwing the letter with its attachments into a drawer, along with all the other pleas for attention from amateur mathematicians. Instead, Hardy examined Ramanujan's material, found it interesting and in some cases staggeringly original, and helped wrangle the fellowship that brought the young Indian savant to Cambridge in 1914.
Ramanujan spent the most of the remainder of his short life in England, immersed in finding or inventing whole new domains of mathematics, even as tuberculosis undermined his health. Whether mathematicians discover concepts (as astronomers do galaxies) or create them (as composers do symphonies) is a matter of perennial controversy; for his part, Ramanujan said that ideas came to him in dreams sent by the Hindu goddess Namagiri. However one understands that claim, much of the work was so advanced that his colleagues were barely beginning to catch up when he died in India in 1920, at the age of 32.
The effort continues. Ken Ono's My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count (Springer) is the memoir of a mathematician who has devoted much of his career to working out the proofs and methods that his predecessor left unstated. And the story would be interesting enough as such, even if the author's life did not have its own twists and turns. Ono, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Emory University, wrote the book in collaboration with the late Amir D. Aczel, best known as the author of Fermat's Last Theorem. The input of a capable historian and popularizer of mathematics undoubtedly helped Ono create a smooth a compelling narrative out of extremely difficult material.
By anyone else's standard, Ono was, like his siblings, a gifted child, although fate seems to have rendered his talents a burden. His parents emigrated from Japan in the 1950s, and the author recalls his own childhood in the 1970s as defined by a "confusing and frustrating intersection of incompatible cultures." Even harder to reckon with was the unmeetable standard of Olympian intellect embodied by his father, Takashi Ono, a professor of mathematics (now emeritus) at Johns Hopkins University. As for his mother, Ken Ono describes her as "present[ing] herself as a martyr who had sacrificed all self-interest for the family," thus "instilling in us a sense of duty to succeed in the lives that they had planned for us."
And planned with unforgiving precision, it seems: his parents' only friends "were other professors with overachieving children who were being accepted by top private colleges and winning elite music competitions," establishing "models of perfection" that Ono and his brothers were reminded of constantly. He describes his parents as carrying the tiger mom outlook (that "if their children are not at the top of their class, then the parents aren't doing their job") to such an extreme that not even academic achievement merited praise. While anything less than perfection brought shame upon the family, mere excellence hardly merited notice.
One brother is a now a biochemist and university president, the other is a music professor, and Ken himself has an imposingly long list of professional achievements. Judged simply by the results, then, the Ono parenting style was a success. But the cost was enormous: decades of anxiety, self-doubt and self-contempt, taking him to the verge of suicide. The sight of math prodigies so young that their legs didn't touch the floor when they sat down in the classroom made passing advanced undergraduate courses feel like proof of inadequacy. Harsh and unrelenting parental voices echoed in his head ("Ken-chan, you no can hide …. You must be one of the best, and right now you losing out to 10-year-old kid with Pac-Man watch").
But the push to overachieve also met inner resistance. He engaged in competitive bicycling and played gigs as a disc jockey, and it sounds like there were enough fraternity shenanigans to feel liberated from what Ono calls "my old image as Asian-American math nerd." He had brushes with what would count as academic humiliation even by standards far less exacting than his own. But behaving "like a goofball" (in the author's preferred expression) seems, on the whole, to have been therapeutic. Ono eventually received his Ph.D. -- an achievement his parents took as a given and so never commented on.
One remarkable thing about Ono's narrative is that he seldom, if ever, sounds angry. To understand is to forgive, the proverb runs -- and coming to an intellectual comprehension of one's parents' outlook and behavior is a necessary step toward dealing with the consequences. (The second- and third-generation offspring of immigrants often have to come to terms with how the first generation navigated the unfamiliar or hostile circumstances they faced.) But in Ken Ono's case, there is another, equally compelling force: a series of encounters with the example and legacy of Ramanujan -- sometimes accidental and, at other times, sounding very much like destiny. I am reluctant to say much more than that because the part of the book's emotional power comes from the element of surprise at how developments unfold. Suffice it to say that mathematics, which for obvious reasons Ono came to consider an unpleasant and compulsory part of his lot in life, comes alive for him with all the beauty and mind-blowing glory that Ramanujan implied in referring to the goddess.
But that revelation has a much more human aspect in Ono's memoir, which is an account of the life-enhancing (and quite possibly life-saving) influence of a few friends and mentors. When G. H. Hardy responded to Ramanujan's letter in 1913 and fostered the promise of his early work, it saved a genius from the threat of oblivion and made possible an extraordinary flourishing of mathematical creativity. It will not give too much away to say that My Search for Ramanujan tells a comparable story, and does so in a way that pays tribute to collegiality as something more than a form of courtesy.
The wave of tragic and troubling events of recent days in our country -- such as the shooting of black Americans in Baltimore, Baton Rouge and St. Paul, the attacks against police in Dallas and Birmingham, and terrorist rampages in Orlando and San Bernardino -- has brought me back to another tumultuous time: the spring and summer of 1968.
I remember it well because I was a college senior about to graduate. I remember the night of April 5, when I had planned to go into Chicago for an event. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the day before in Memphis, and that night, Chicago seethed and exploded: a 28-block stretch of Madison Street was left largely in ruins; 36 major fires were reported; 11 people were killed; 48 were wounded by police gunfire and 90 policemen were injured. In two days 2,150 people were arrested. Thousands of army troops were sent in to restore order.
The summer before, I had worked with teenagers in the Cabrini-Green Homes on Chicago’s Near North Side. I lived in a largely African-American church community. I felt comfortable joining pickup games on the asphalt basketball courts and visiting families in these high-rise apartments. After the spring of 1968, gunfire became commonplace from the upper floors of Cabrini-Green, and deep racial tensions made my normal kind of coming and going impossible.
On the Wednesday before graduation, June 5, 1968, I awoke to learn that Bobby Kennedy had just been shot in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic primary. I can remember a deep sense that our nation seemed to be splitting apart -- a fear that seemed to be coming true when the Democratic National Convention met later that summer in Chicago and spiraled into chaos. Ten thousand demonstrators gathered outside and were met by 23,000 police and National Guard members. These violent clashes were broadcast live to the nation.
The current moment in America reminds me of 1968: the heightened racial tension, repeated incidents of violence, denunciations and defense of police -- all against the backdrop of an overheated political season. Then, many young people felt alienated from the system and found little hope in either candidate of the major parties.
In such troubled times, what are we to think? How are we to act? I have no grand answers to our deep problems as a nation and as a society. The fact is there are no easy answers. But what can we do as college and university leaders? What can our campus communities do? What can I do? What follows is what I am committing myself to, as best I can.
Acknowledge hard truths. The dilemmas of race continue to plague our society. Many of our students will return to campus feeling the pain of racial disparity and racial conflict, which are serious problems that we must not ignore.
Last fall, students across the country were hurt, angry and frustrated by a series of racially charged events and the unnecessary deaths of several unarmed black citizens. Some arrived at their campuses with lists of demands seeking social justice and equity. After another tenuous summer, we must again acknowledge their pain and outrage in the hopes that a modern university setting can help shape national discourse instead of simply being a backdrop for unrest and confusion. We must rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work before us: shaping a society in which everyone, created as equals, receives treatment as such.
Listen and learn. Increasingly in America today, we live in neighborhoods of the like-minded and gain information from like-minded sources. Even on a university campus, it takes effort to cross cultural and racial boundaries. I am convinced that party lines and pat answers are not sufficient to address such troublesome times. We must listen to voices other than accustomed ones. We must be open to adjusting our thinking and our behavior. We must push ourselves beyond what is comfortable, broadening our network of friends and deepening our capacity for empathy. How long has it been since we have, even imaginatively, seen the world through the eyes of someone very different than ourselves?
Like many institutions, Wake Forest University has its most diverse student body ever and is among the 10 fastest changing universities in the country, according to The New York Times. We refer to ourselves as a community in progress, which reflects our belief that we must actively practice what it means to be in community together and that regular updates must hold us accountable to each other. Our strength as a campus community -- and as a nation -- rests on our ability to listen to the voices of others and learn from experiences different from our own.
Start a conversation. Do the hard work of dialogue with those with whom we disagree. We all need occasions to frame challenging conversations and methods to facilitate those discussions. A college campus must foster honest, face-to-face conversation, however difficult, in the classroom, in residence halls and on structured and unstructured occasions. Doing the hard work of dialogue with those with whom we disagree is a common topic among college presidents today.
A recent article in Inside Higher Ed included a charge given by my friend and colleague Harry Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, in which he urged students and faculty members to “recommit to airing our views in a way that is civil and responsible and recommit to opposing violence in all of its of forms,” including violent language and hate speech. “Come back to campus ready to learn and prepared for conversations to come,” the president wrote. “Most importantly, be ready to extend the hand of friendship to a new face.”
Conversation matters. And it must begin with us.
Retain hope. The United States has a wonderful -- and deeply flawed -- history. As the historian Edmund Morgan has emphasized, we are a nation founded both in liberty and in slavery. This land has provided much opportunity and social mobility for immigrants, and it has made progress since the 1960s in establishing broad gains for African-Americans in education, in business and the professions, and in civic life.
Yet whatever progress has been made in race relations and attitudes, racism is still a troubling reality, and patterns of poverty, particularly in urban communities, seem to extend from generation to generation. Today, we must redouble our efforts in the noble quest for which so many have given their lives: to build a society where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness remain within the grasp of everyone.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. implored those who would listen. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that,” he said. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” As we -- on our campuses and in America in general -- walk through what feels like another dark hour, let us be people who carry the light and let us be people who choose to love.
Nathan O. Hatch is president of Wake Forest University.
After spending 15 years in college and university administration, mainly at two-year colleges, and the past two years as a faculty member in a community college leadership doctoral program, I have become increasingly frustrated by the perpetuation of what I refer to as the myth of the nontraditional student.
All too frequently in my career, a graduating student has come to me to express appreciation for helping them to make it to that achievement, indicating that they did not think that they would be successful because they knew they “were not supposed to be in college.” They are the students our educational systems deem “nontraditional.” They are adults, they are part-time students, they have had jobs, some have had children, some have been caring for elderly parents. Basically, by not being aged 18 to 24 and a full-time student, these “nontraditional” students have entered college thinking they do not belong.
The shocking thing to me has been that these “nontraditional” students have made up the vast majority of those attending their institution. Further, nearly half of the undergraduate students in the American higher education system can be categorized as nontraditional. The National Center for Education Statistics shows large increases in the enrollment of students that have typically been characterized as nontraditional because their demographic makeup identifies them as an atypical college student. Yet the message that these students are the outsiders is persistent and causes much psychological distress and self-doubt.
Those of us who work in higher education should realize that there no longer is a nontraditional student or, at the very least, we need to revise the definition of what constitutes one. Further, the continued and frequent labeling of the majority of our college students as nontraditional is a form of othering that adversely impacts these students’ ability to successfully persist in many of our educational settings.
Referring to our students as nontraditional puts them at a starting line behind other college enrollees -- not only in their sense of self but also in the minds of fellow students, faculty members, administrators and policy makers. Using such language basically says, “We are going out on a limb by letting you attend college because this place is not really designed for you, and you really should not be here.”
What’s more, that statement might be true simply because many of our institutions, programs and traditions are not made for these students -- and this is a problem. Our institutions, programs and traditions are the problem, not the students. We must do better.
The nontraditional narrative is stunningly pervasive in higher education circles. To think about students in any alternate way is to go against the very fabric of the system of education that has been built in our country. However, we know that “traditional” college students are less and less frequently the ones that are entering the doors of many (and I would argue, most) of our institutions.
Some would argue that as educators we should simply re-evaluate our understanding of who makes up the conceptualized traditional college student. However, that is not enough. We must remove any designation of our students that would perpetuate a divide between who belongs in college, for whom college is designed and for whom college success is an option. And we must reframe our educational system for those students and address a variety of other aspects of it as we aim to meet the all too frequently proposed completion agendas. Those areas include: developmental education, student services, course scheduling, definitions of success and more.
In fact, most of the students to whom I am referring attend colleges and universities that might easily be labeled nontraditional themselves or somehow othered in the institutional hierarchy of American higher education. The elite, traditional institutions of our higher education system, the Ivy League, the land grant, the research intensive and the like continue to enroll high numbers of traditional college students, while the nontraditional ones are relegated to our teaching colleges, community colleges and the oft-criticized for-profit institutions. That further denigrates the students that cannot access traditional institutions because their demographic characteristics do not match those of the students for whom such institutions were designed hundreds of years ago. Creating institutions for these individuals that are underfunded (community colleges) or overcharging (for-profit) is not providing equal education for our populace. While I believe in the power of diverse institutional options, I do not believe in relegating students to certain institutions because of their demographic makeup.
We must think differently about whom our system of higher education serves and then drill that down to the institutional level. For example, many policy makers and educational think tanks focus only on four-year research institutions and the students they serve when making broad higher education reforms. That only offers a glimpse into a small percentage of the students actually enrolled in higher education in our country. They need a broader understanding of the actual student body of our nation, as a whole.
At the institutional level, we should check our assumptions about whom we are serving, as well as whom we should or could be serving. We must not assume to know our demographics but rather examine our programs, services and curricula to be sure they are appropriate for all students -- not just the ones that fit into an antiquated idea of traditional. Further, our developmental programs are designed to help traditional students in many ways but, in fact, those are not the students enrolling in the majority of developmental courses. How can we rethink developmental education for the actual student in the classroom and simultaneously stop blaming our failure to successfully remediate students on the lack of preparation in high school?
To be clear, I do not have all of the answers for how we accomplish the reframing and reconsideration of our system of higher education. There are many players and many thoughtful conversations to be had. But we can start with a discussion that comes from recognizing the inadequacy of the “nontraditional” label -- for only through recognizing the problem can be find new paths. And so I present to you a challenge and call for debate on the floor.
Needham Yancey Gulley is an assistant professor in the higher education student affairs program at Western Carolina University.
Last month, while looking over thousands of listings for forthcoming books in dozens of university-press catalogs for this fall, I flagged 300 titles for further consideration as possible topics for future columns. Within that selection, a few clusters of books seemed to reflect trends, or interesting coincidences at least, and I noted a few of them here.
That survey, however unscientific and incomplete, was fairly well received. Here’s part two. As in the first installment, material in quotation marks is from catalog descriptions of the books. I’ve been sparing with links, but more information on each title is available from its publisher’s website, easily located via the Association of American University Presses directory.
Scholarly publishers might count as pioneers of what Jacob H. Rooksby calls The Branding of the American Mind: How Universities Capture, Manage and Monetize Intellectual Property and Why It Matters (Johns Hopkins, University Press, October), although the aggregate profits from every monograph ever published must be small change compared to one good research partnership with Big Pharma. Rooksby explores “higher education’s love affair with intellectual property itself, in all its dimensions” and challenges “the industry’s unquestioned and growing embrace of intellectual property from the perspective of research in law, higher education and the social sciences.” (Sobering thought: In this context, “the industry” refers to higher education.)
Making intellectual property more profitable is Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel’s concern in The Innovation Illusion: How So Little Is Created by So Many Working So Hard (Yale University Press, October), which treats “existing government regulations and corporate practices” as a menace to economic growth and prosperity: “Capitalism, they argue, has lost its mojo.”
If so, Google is undoubtedly developing an algorithm to look for it. At least three books on Big Data try to chart its impact on research, policy and the way we live now. Contributors to Big Data Is Not a Monolith, edited by Cassidy R. Sugimoto, Hamid R. Ekbia and Michael Mattioli (The MIT Press, October), assess the scope and heterogeneity of practices and processes subsumed under that heading. Roberto Simanowski’s Data Love: The Seduction and Betrayal of Digital Technologies (Columbia University Press, September) warns of the codependent relationship between “algorithmic analysis and data mining,” on the one hand, and “those who -- out of stinginess, convenience, ignorance, narcissism or passion -- contribute to the amassing of ever more data about their lives, leading to the statistical evaluation and individual profiling of their selves.” Christine L. Borgman focuses on the implications of data mining for scholarly research in Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Networked World (The MIT Press, September), first published last year and now appearing in paperback. While “having the right data is usually better than having more data” and “little data can be just as valuable as big data,” the future of scholarship demands “massive investment in knowledge infrastructures,” whatever the scale of data involved.
Events in real time occasionally rush ahead of the publishing schedule. Several months ago David Owen advised the British public to “vote leave” in The U.K.’s In-Out Referendum: E.U. Foreign and Defence Policy Reform (Haus Publishing, distributed by the University of Chicago Press) but it reaches the American market only this month. Christopher Baker-Beall analyzes The European Union’s Fight Against Terrorism: Discourse, Policies, Identity (Manchester University Press, September) with an eye to “the wider societal impact of the ‘fight against terrorism’ discourse” in the European Union and “the various ways in which this policy is contributing to the ‘securitization’ of social and political life within Europe.” Recent developments suggest this will be a growing field of study.
The E.U.’s days are numbered, according to Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, because Europe Isn’t Working (Yale University Press, August). Or rather, more precisely, the euro isn’t. The currency “has failed to deliver on its promise of more jobs, more growth and greater equality,” and the E.U.’s “current policy of kicking the can down the road and hoping that something will turn up” can’t continue forever. A less fatalistic account of The Euro and the Battle of Ideas by Markus K. Brunnermeier et al. (Princeton University Press, August) traces the currency’s vicissitudes to “the philosophical differences between the founding countries of the Eurozone, particularly Germany and France.” But “these seemingly incompatible differences can be reconciled to ensure Europe’s survival.”
Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, it’s time to start phasing out paper money, argues Kenneth S. Rogoff in The Curse of Cash (Princeton, August). The bigger denominations ($100 and up) enable “tax evasion, corruption, terrorism, the drug trade, human trafficking and the rest of a massive global underground economy” and have also “paralyzed monetary policy in virtually every advanced economy.” Small bills and coins are not such a problem, but the Franklins (and larger) could be replaced by a state-backed digital currency. For now, Arvind Narayanan et al. reveal “everything you need to know about the new global money for the internet age” in Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies: A Comprehensive Introduction (Princeton, August), complete with “an accompanying website that includes instructional videos for each chapter, homework problems, programming assignments and lecture slides.” Perfectly honest and law-abiding people will find the book of interest, but it seems like a must-read for anyone with a professional commitment to tax evasion, the drug trade and the like.
As it happens, the fall brings a bumper crop of scholarship on crime, punishment and policing, at varying levels of abstraction and grit. Andrew Millie’s Philosophical Criminology (Policy Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, November) is described as “the first book to foreground this emerging field” -- which it certainly is not. Whatever the contribution of the book itself, hype at this level counts as a species of counterfeiting. The anthropologists Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff compare developments in South Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom in The Truth About Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order (University of Chicago, December), while the contributors to Accusation: Creating Criminals, edited by George Pavlich and Matthew P. Unger (University of British Columbia, October) consider “the founding role that accusation plays in creating potential criminals.” Here we find another large claim: “his book launches an important new field of inquiry.” As an armchair criminologist, I am curious to see learn this differs from the venerable and well-worked field of labeling theory.
Closer to the street, Michael D. White and Henry F. Fradella consider Stop and Frisk: The Use and Abuse of a Controversial Policing Tactic (NYU Press, October) -- a practice much in the headlines in recent years, usually in connection with the issue of racial profiling. Their conclusions -- that “stop and frisk did not contribute as greatly to the drop in New York’s crime rates, as many proponents … have argued,” but also that “it can be judiciously used to help deter crime in a way that respects the rights and needs of citizens” -- are sure to provoke arguments from a variety of perspectives.
Forrest Stuart was stopped on the street for questioning 14 times in the first year of field work for Down, Out and Under: Arrest Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row (University of Chicago Press, August), “often for doing little more than standing there.” He finds that the “distrust between police and the residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods” is “a tragedy built on mistakes and misplaced priorities more than on heroes and villains”; parties on both sides “are genuinely trying to do the right thing, yet too often come up short.”
Another ethnographic dispatch from the extremes of poverty, Christopher P. Dum’s Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel (Columbia University Press, September) reports on the “squalid, unsafe and demeaning circumstances” of the housing of last resort “for many vulnerable Americans -- released prisoners, people with disabilities or mental illness, struggling addicts, the recently homeless, and the working poor.” The catalog entry for the book doesn’t mention it, but you feel the police presence all the same.
The overcrowding of American prisons is often explained as the byproduct of draconian mandatory sentencing laws, but Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway by Michael M. O’Hear (Wisconsin, January) argues even in “a state where judges have considerable discretion in sentencing … the prison population has ballooned anyway, increasing nearly tenfold over forty years.” Over the same period, long-term solitary confinement has grown increasingly commonplace, as discussed in a column from six months ago concerning an anthology of writings by scholars, activists and prisoners. Keramet Reiter offers a case study in 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement (Yale University Press, October). The title refers to how many hours a day prisoners spend “in featureless cells, with no visitors or human contact for years on end, and they are held entirely at administrators’ discretion.”
The practice signals that prison authorities have not just abandoned the idea of reformation but moved on to something more severe: a clear willingness to destroy prisoners’ minds. By contrast, Daniel Karpowitz’s College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration (Rutgers University Press, February) describes Bard College’s program offering undergraduate education to New York state prisoners. The book serves as “a study in how institutions can be reimagined and reformed in order to give people from all walks of life a chance to enrich their minds and expand their opportunities” while making “a powerful case for why liberal arts education is still vital to the future of democracy in the United States.”
Daniel LaChance’s Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States (University of Chicago Press, October) asks why, by “the mid-1990s, as public trust in big government was near an all-time low,” a staggering 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty. “Why did people who didn’t trust government to regulate the economy or provide daily services nonetheless believe that it should have the power to put its citizens to death?” The question implies a belief in the consistency and coherence of public opinion that is either naïve or rhetorical; in any case, the author maintains that “the height of 1970s disillusion” led to a belief in “the simplicity and moral power of the death penalty” as “a potent symbol for many Americans of what government could do” -- and, presumably, get right. That confidence has been shaken by a long string of reversals of verdict in recent years, which “could prove [the death penalty’s] eventual undoing in the United States.”
Given the brazen, methodical and massively destructive corruption leading to the near collapse of the world’s financial system eight years ago, Mary Breiner Ramirez and Steven A. Ramirez call for a new variety of capital punishment in The Case for the Corporate Death Penalty: Restoring Law and Order on Wall Street (NYU Press, January). “Despite overwhelming proof of wide-ranging and large-scale fraud on Wall Street before, during and after the crisis,” the government’s response amounted to “fines that essentially punished innocent shareholders instead of senior leaders at the megabanks.” Crony capitalism and white-collar crime will continue until the danger of corporate conviction -- having the company’s charter revoked, i.e., putting it out of business -- is credibly on the table.
In effect, if corporations enjoy the legal protection granted them by the Supreme Court’s dubious but effective interpretation of the 14th Amendment, they also should face the possibility of being put to death -- after due process, of course. And fair enough, although the last word here comes from that bumper sticker saying “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”
The most significant challenge facing higher education today is our growing economic segregation. College completion rates for those at the lowest socioeconomic rungs continue to lag far behind those of their wealthier peers, not only due to diminished financial resources but also because of a lack of social and cultural capital. Redressing this phenomenon will require offering an education that prepares each and every student for success in work and life, while inspiring them to take seriously their social responsibilities in a society plagued by persistent inequities.
In fact, the board of directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where I serve as president, expanded the organization’s mission in 2012 to embrace both inclusive excellence and liberal education as the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice. The addition of inclusive excellence as one of AAC&U’s foundational principles reflects the ideal that access to educational excellence for all students -- not just the privileged -- is essential not only for our nation’s economy but, more important, for our democracy. Democracy cannot flourish in a nation divided into haves and have nots.
The equity imperative as an essential component of educating for democracy has been at the forefront of my mind during the past few weeks of nonstop coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. I have been particularly focused on the potential impact of various higher education policy proposals on AAC&U’s objective of advancing a public-spirited vision of inclusive excellence as inextricably linked to liberal education.
While higher education issues were pretty much absent from the Republican convention speeches, an earlier proposal by Donald Trump, developed by Sam Clovis, his educational policy adviser, to restrict eligibility for student loans in order to make it more difficult for those at “nonelite colleges” to major in the liberal arts previously caught my attention. Indeed, I am convinced that, if enacted, it would risk exacerbating what Thomas Jefferson termed an “unnatural aristocracy,” where only the wealthy gain the benefits of the kind of broad and engaged liberal education that Clovis himself insists is the absolute foundation for success in life.
Trump’s proposal makes at least two serious errors about the value of a college degree in today’s world. It assumes, first, that one’s undergraduate major is all that matters and, second, that only some majors will prepare students for success in the workplace. The evidence from AAC&U’s own surveys of employers, and from many economists, suggests that this is simply not the case. As noted in the title of our 2013 report of employers’ views, “It Takes More Than a Major,” more than 90 percent of employers agree that “a graduate’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Students can develop such cross-cutting skills in a wide variety of chosen disciplines, if the courses are well designed and integrated within robust, problem-based general education programs.
A student’s undergraduate experience, and how well the experience advances critical learning outcomes, is what matters most, with 80 percent of employers agreeing that all students need a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences. A liberal education fosters the capacity to write, speak and think with precision, coherence and clarity; to propose, construct and evaluate arguments; and to anticipate and respond to objections. And it offers what employers value the most: the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings, to engage in ethical decision making and to work in teams on solving unscripted problems with people whose views differ from one’s own. In a globally interdependent yet multicultural world, it is precisely because employers place a particular premium on innovation in response to rapid change that they emphasize students’ experiences with diverse populations, rather than narrow technical training.
The data confirm what we already know: students in all undergraduate majors can and should gain the outcomes of a broad liberal education. Therefore, we need to be vigilant in rebutting accusations of irrelevance and illegitimacy leveled specifically at the liberal arts and sciences and to recognize those charges for what they are: collusion in the growth of an intellectual oligarchy in which only the very richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to the liberal arts traditions. Trump’s ostensible presumption that college is only about workforce training is dangerous to our democratic future.
Of course, it is unclear whether a proposal to use student loans to steer students away from certain majors could be implemented, given the challenges of predicting career trajectories based on majors and types of institutions. (After all, I was a philosophy major who began at a community college under funds from the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, Pell Grants and Perkins Loans.)
Still, in order to restore public trust in higher education and destabilize the cultural attitudes at the basis of Trump’s policy proposal, we need to demonstrate in a more compelling way to those outside of the academy, Democrats and Republicans alike, the extent to which we actually are teaching students 21st-century skills, preparing them to solve our most pressing global, national and local problems within the context of the workforce, not apart from it. To do so, our institutions of higher education must come together to engage in an honest assessment of our effectiveness and undertake a collaborative exchange of best practices. Our shared commitments to equity, democratic and economic vitality, and inclusive excellence demand nothing less.
Lynn Pasquerella is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Lincoln University -- a historically black university located in Jefferson City, Mo. -- suspended its major in history on its 150th anniversary. Explaining why that step was necessary, the president of the university emphasized, “We must make decisions like these as we look toward the future and the needs of the changing workforce.” Embedded within that statement is a declaration about higher education and its purpose: higher education should make good, high-paid workers. We should step back and ask whether this is really what we want from higher education.
Since I took my first academic position in 2010, I have continually heard in the news media, from visiting speakers and many other people that transforming students into employees is the purpose of higher education. Whenever I hear this, I cannot help but recall one particular graduate seminar when we discussed the writings of Marxist Louis Althusser. The discussion turned to higher education, and some people in the class claimed higher education was little more than part of a plot to provide good and obedient workers to the bourgeoisie. At the time, I thought that was overly reductive. I mean, we were talking about the supposed conspiracy of the bourgeoisie in class at an institution of higher education; surely this was not part of the plan.
Once I got my first academic job, however, I learned that this really was the perennial question in higher education. What should our general education curriculum look like? On which majors should we focus our resources? The answer was always put in the form of another question -- what do employers want from our graduates?
Perhaps because of the rising costs of higher education, politicians have increasingly said that the point of higher education is for students to make lots of money in their chosen careers. Is that what we want from higher education? Maybe a better question would be is that the only thing we want from higher education?
In her recent article in The American Historian, Nancy F. Cott indicates it is hard for humanities degrees -- like history -- to compete with degrees related to engineering if the only significant variable is potential earnings. One study found that throughout their careers, engineers consistently earned more than graduates in the humanities. But then, not everyone wants to be an engineer. As Cott phrased it, neither would we really want “to see an educated world populated by engineers only.” The fact is people educated in the humanities go on to important, although often not quite as lucrative, careers in education, government, law and a host of other interesting and relevant occupations.
Since students enter into significant debt to earn their diplomas, it seems reasonable for students to expect some return on their often significant investments. I hope as we review what we value in education, however, we do not simply ask which majors lead to the most lucrative careers.
Du Bois and Shaping Lives in the Present
What is higher education for? Should it exist solely for the purpose of manufacturing workers who make the greatest amount of money? It’s not a new question. It’s one that the renowned African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with in his speech commemorating Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary in 1941. He worried that the temptation would “come and recur to make an institution like this, a means of earning a living or of adding to income rather than an institution of learning.” Du Bois believed the kind of students Lincoln produced would end up changing the world for the better -- that it would be Lincoln students who would “show the majority the way of life.” Not from privileged and “powerful groups which from time to time rule the world have come salvation and culture,” he said, “but from the still small voice of the oppressed and the determined who knew more than to die and plan more than mere survival.” In short, Du Bois hoped that Lincoln would become “a center where the cultural outlook of this country is to be changed and uplifted and helped in the reconstruction of the world.”
Why did Du Bois believe that students at a university like Lincoln would be so influential? Du Bois recognized the power of history to shape lives in the present, and he rightly believed that this nation needed more diverse students if the status quo was ever going to change. In Du Bois’s day, history was being used to justify violence against African-Americans. In 1915, the original version of The Birth of a Nation premiered in the United States. In that movie, President Woodrow Wilson’s book History of the American People was regularly quoted. Audiences around the country saw Wilson declare through this movie that Reconstruction had been a misguided failure during which “the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.”
Wilson and many other people in the academy were part of what eventually became known as the Dunning School of Reconstruction History. For William Dunning, the historian for whom the broader school was named, Reconstruction was a failure because great numbers of the recently emancipated slaves “gave themselves up to testing their freedom. They wandered aimless but happy through the country.”
According to Dunning, it was Southern whites who “devoted themselves with desperate energy to the procurement of what must sustain the life of both themselves and their former slaves.” Lesson learned: black political participation meant misery for all, but exclusive white control meant the best for both black and white Southerners. The Dunning School of Reconstruction History justified the exclusion of black people from politics, and it implicitly justified the violence used to maintain that exclusion.
W. E. B. Du Bois labored to contradict those impressions. In his now widely read TheSouls of Black Folks, Du Bois argued that it was not the irresponsible silliness of black people that doomed Reconstruction but rather the impossible problems facing the recently freed slaves. Reflecting upon the failure of efforts to make Southern African-Americans truly free, Du Bois noted that the Freedmen’s Bureau could not even “begin the establishment of goodwill between ex-masters and freedmen,” and perhaps most important, it could not “carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land.”
Adding to the impossible challenge was the fact that much of the legislation created during Reconstruction was intended to punish the white South rather than empower the recently emancipated. As viewed by Du Bois, black equality was a cudgel used to punish the rebellious South rather than a goal in and of itself. Without any real support for black equality in either the North or the South, how could we expect anything but failure from Reconstruction? Because of those failures, black people suffered under the weight of white supremacy.
White historians largely ignored Du Bois’s conclusions for years; it was not until higher education expanded to include a wide swath of the American population -- due in large part to the GI Bill -- that more historians came to accept what he had long argued. Today, the vast majority of historians of Reconstruction accept his premise that many capable black politicians participated in the Reconstruction. Many worked to expand roads and education to include a plurality of the Southern population. At the time, their opponents saw this as waste and corruption, but the vision of those black politicians more closely aligned with our own expectations. We -- like they -- expect our governments to maintain public roads and public education. History looks different from the bottom up.
Reversing Dominant Narratives
Du Bois did not mention the degree in history specifically in his speech in 1941, but his life’s work demonstrated the importance he placed upon the historical imagination. He correctly predicted that making the academy more diverse would change the world for the better. History has been used to justify white supremacy, and it has been used to undermine it as well. As the population of historians changed, so too has the accepted narrative of the academy. That’s why Du Bois did not ask what majors earned the most money upon graduation but had a loftier vision for Lincoln’s future. America needed impassioned graduates from schools like Lincoln. Someone had to help reverse the dominant narratives prevalent in 1941 about black inferiority.
On Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary, Du Bois provided a powerful argument in favor of empowering Lincoln’s students to go and change the world. I fear that the end of history at Lincoln University means students will have less ability to do so in the future. That saddens me, because our national history is particularly relevant today. In 2016, a reinterpretation of The Birth of a Nation is set to debut and likely make radically different claims than its 1915 namesake. Why did the creators of this new movie -- which will document the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner -- give it that name? In 2016, some people have suggested that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was relatively short and its goals were largely accomplished. How then do we explain the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement? Do these protesters fail to understand just how racially progressive our country has become? In 2016, some politicians have suggested that the United States is a nation founded by white ideas -- or “Western civilization” -- and people of color are guests. Are they right?
Our history as a nation has been used to answer those kinds of questions, and someone is going to be answering these questions in the future. In addition to asking what employers want our graduates to do, we should also ask whom we want to answer such important questions.
Graduates -- whether in the humanities, sciences or engineering -- will continue to get relevant and interesting jobs. Some will get paid more than others. In finding the right major, students will have to make strategic choices about what they want for their lives. Having spoken with many students, I know many are not so single-mindedly focused upon profit. Many have more philanthropic purposes in mind for their education. By so circumscribing the range of possibilities, however, we are creating a future in which Lincoln’s graduates will be able to get jobs but maybe not make history.
J. Mark Leslie is an associate professor of history at Lincoln University.
In this hypothetical case study, Barbara McFadden Allen, Ruth Watkins and Robin Kaler explain how college leaders can -- and must -- surround themselves with a team of wise people with competing viewpoints.
As students prepare to return to school for the coming academic year, there are 65,000 high school seniors who lack a clear path to college because they are undocumented. While undocumented students have access to K-12 public education, their options abruptly become scarce when they turn 18: in addition to the barriers that many low-income students face, these students must navigate a higher education system that excludes them, either explicitly or de facto.
One glaring obstacle is that undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid. Another is that access to public institutions, usually the most affordable option, varies by state. While some states offer resident tuition and state financial aid, others prohibit undocumented students from enrolling altogether. Other states fall in the middle of the spectrum, providing in-state rates to students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at some public universities. (A federal administrative policy implemented in 2012, DACA provides Social Security Numbers and the eligibility to work and drive to individuals who arrived in the United States as children and meet certain age and education requirements. However, it does not provide a path to citizenship. Since its implementation, roughly 700,000 undocumented youth and young adults have received DACA status.)
Given this landscape, private colleges and universities have an opportunity to be key players in promoting higher education access for undocumented students nationwide. Most, though not all, selective private institutions already accept undocumented or “DACAmented” students, but as of now, information and resources for undocumented applicants are difficult to find. So difficult, in fact, that students have taken the issue into their own hands: a group of undergraduates at Harvard University started a nonprofit, Higher Dreams, to serve as a “comprehensive resource” for undocumented applicants interested in applying to private colleges and universities. Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, a student from California, created the DREAMer’s Roadmap app to help undocumented students find scholarships for college.
Meanwhile, institutions themselves should do their part and take a far more deliberate approach: there is a great difference between accepting students and making college truly accessible. If they are serious about their stated commitments to access, opportunity, and diversity, they should recognize their potential to make a difference. They should anticipate and welcome applications from undocumented students, actively make an effort to understand their circumstances and specific needs, and adopt policies that follow through on meeting those needs.
Colleges can take several steps. First, they can educate admissions staff so that potential applicants who are undocumented will receive accurate information. Better yet, they can hire or designate a staff person to specialize in working with undocumented students. Unfortunately, that is not the norm; many admissions personnel, though well meaning, are not equipped to answer questions from undocumented applicants. Staff education is a basic and important place to start.
Another key to increasing access is changing admissions and financial-aid policies to reflect the reality of undocumented students’ lives. Many independent colleges count them as international applicants -- a highly competitive pool. Accepted students are often charged international tuition rates, which are prohibitively high even for middle-income families, and they are only eligible for competitive merit scholarships. Implicit in this policy is the idea that undocumented students are more aptly compared to international students than to American citizens, which is patently inaccurate. Having attended American high schools and spent a significant, formative part of their lives in the United States, they should be considered within that context, not judged alongside international applicants whose experiences are virtually incomparable.
Experiential similarities and moral arguments aside, students with DACA work and have Social Security numbers -- like their American peers, and unlike international students. With or without DACA, they pay taxes. The only practical difference between them and their citizen peers, then, from an admissions perspective, is their lack of access to federal aid or loans. Admissions and financial-aid policies should reflect that reality and consider undocumented students as domestic applicants, eligible for aid based on demonstrated need.
Finally, institutions should publicize their commitment to working with undocumented students, who too often go unacknowledged. If a college or university already accepts undocumented students, it should shift from a don’t ask, don’t tell mentality to one of active inclusion. Some institutions have dedicated admissions pages specifically for undocumented students that include FAQs, resources and contacts. Publicizing such information is a small but meaningful act: it provides targeted support, which undocumented students so rarely get, and makes a statement that they are truly welcome.
In essence, it is simply not enough for colleges and universities to accept undocumented students tacitly and passively. It is not enough to accept undocumented students but then charge exorbitant tuition. If an institution welcomes undocumented students in principle by allowing them to apply, then those students deserve the same level of targeted support that American citizens receive when it comes to the application process and financial aid -- not to mention student services once in college.
Some institutions are already leading the way. Oberlin College, for example, encourages undocumented students to apply, counts them as domestic applicants and provides need-based aid. Emory University recently adopted the same policy for students with DACA. (The state of Georgia, meanwhile, legally blocks undocumented students from enrolling in its top five state schools, so Emory has made a statement by providing an alternative option.) Tufts University “proactively and openly” recruits and provides aid for undocumented students, with or without DACA, and Swarthmore College rolled out a similar policy this spring, arguing that as a campus that values “different viewpoints, identities and histories among our students,” it invites all students, regardless of citizenship status, to apply.
The intentional nature of these policies and the tangible changes to the institutions’ recruitment and financial-aid strategies are what make their statements more than just lip service. Many more institutions should follow suit.
Lily McKeage is a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and program director at YES Scholars in New York City.
Over the weekend I went through the fall 2016 catalog of every publisher belonging to the Association of American University Presses. Or at least I tried -- a number of fall catalogs have not been released yet, or else the publishers have hidden the PDFs on their websites with inexplicable cunning. (It seems as if savvy publicists would insist that catalogs be featured so prominently on the homepage that it’s almost impossible to overlook them. Perhaps half my time went to playing “Where’s Waldo?” so evidently not.) A few sites hadn’t been updated in at least a year. At one of them, the most recent catalog is from 2012, although the press itself seems still to be in existence. Let’s just hope everyone there is OK.
After assembling roughly 70 catalogs, I began to cull a list of books to consider for this column in the months ahead, which now runs to 400 titles, give or take a few, with more to be added as the search for Waldo continues. When you take an overview of a whole season’s worth of university-press output in one marathon survey, you can detect certain patterns or themes. A monograph on the white-power music underground? Duly noted. A second one, publishing a month later? That is a bit more striking. (The journalistic rule of thumb is that three makes a trend; for now, we’re left with a menacing coincidence.)
Some of the convergences seemed to merit notice, even in advance of the books themselves being available. Here are a few topical clusters that readers may find of interest. The text below in quotation marks after each book comes from the publisher’s description of it, unless otherwise specified. I have been sparing about the use of links, but more information on the books and authors can be readily found online.
“Whither democracy?” seems like an apt characterization of quite a few titles appearing this autumn and early winter. Last year, Jennifer L. Hochschild and Katherine Levine Einstein asked, Do Facts Matter? Information and Misinformation in American Politics, published by the University of Oklahoma Press and out in paperback this month, concluding that “citizens’ inability or unwillingness to use the facts they know in their political decision making may be frustrating,” but the real danger comes from “their acquisition and use of incorrect ‘knowledge’” put out by unscrupulous “political elites.” By contrast, James E. Campbell’s Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America (Princeton University Press, July) maintains that if the two major parties are “now ideologically distant from each other and about equally distant from the political center” it’s because “American politics became highly polarized from the bottom up, not the top down, and this began much earlier than often thought,” meaning the 1960s.
Frances E. Lee sets the date later, and the locus of polarization higher in the body politic, in Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign (University of Chicago Press, September). She sees developments in the 1980s unleashing “competition for control of the government [that] drives members of both parties to participate in actions that promote their own party’s image and undercut that of the opposition, including the perpetual hunt for issues that can score political points by putting the opposing party on the wrong side of public opinion.”
Democracy: A Case Study by David A. Moss (Harvard University Press, January 2017) takes fierce partisanship as a given in American political life -- not a bug but a feature -- and recounts and analyzes 19 episodes of conflict, from the Constitutional Convention onward. Wasting no time in registering his dissent, the libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan comes out Against Democracy (Princeton, August) on the grounds that competent governance requires rational and informed decision making, while “political participation and democratic deliberation actually tend to make people worse -- more irrational, biased and mean.” The alternative he proposes is “epistocracy”: rule by the knowledgeable. Good luck with that! Reaching that utopia from here will be quite an adventure, especially given that some voters regard “irrational, biased and mean” as qualifications for office.
Fall, when the current election cycle ends, is also be the season of books on the Anthropocene -- the idea that human impact on the environment has been so pronounced that we must define a whole phase of planetary history around it. There is an entry for the term in Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (Fordham University Press, January), and it appears in the title of at least three books: one from Monthly Review Press (distributed by NYU Press) in September and one each from Princeton and Transcript Verlag (distributed by Columbia University Press) in November. Stacy Alaimo’s Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (University of Minnesota Press, October) opens with the statement “The Anthropocene is no time to set things straight.” (The author calls for “a material feminist posthumanism,” and it sounds like she draws on queer theory as well, so chances are “straight” is an overdetermined word choice.)
The neologism is tweaked in Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, September) by Donna J. Haraway, who “eschews referring to our current epoch as the Anthropocene, preferring to conceptualize it as what she calls the Chthulucene, as it more aptly and fully describes our epoch as one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices.” Someone in a position to know tells me that Haraway derives her term from “chthonic” (referring to the subterranean) rather than Cthulhu, the unspeakable ancient demigod of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction. Maybe so, but the reference to tentacles suggests otherwise.
A couple of titles from Columbia University Press try to find a silver lining in the clouds of Anthropocene smog -- or at least to start dispersing them before it’s too late. Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles pool their skills as atmospheric scientist and Pulitzer-winning cartoonist (respectively) in The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics and Driving Us Crazy (September), which satirizes “the intellectual pretzels into which denialists must twist logic to explain away the clear evidence that man-made activity has changed our climate.” Despite its seemingly monitory title, Geoffrey Heal’s Endangered Economies: How the Neglect of Nature Threatens Our Prosperity (December) is actually an argument for “conserving nature and boosting economic growth” as mutually compatible goals.
If so, it will be necessary to counter the effects of chickenization -- which, it turns out, is U.S. Department of Agriculture slang for “the transformation of all farm animal production” along factory lines, as described in Ellen K. Silbergeld’s Chickenizing Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals and Consumers (Johns Hopkins University Press, September). Tiago Saraiva shows that the Germans began moving in the same direction, under more sinister auspices, in Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism (The MIT Press, September): “specially bred wheat and pigs became important elements in the institutionalization and expansion of fascist regimes …. Pigs that didn’t efficiently convert German-grown potatoes into pork and lard were eliminated.” A different sociopolitical matrix governs the contemporary American “pasture-raised pork market,” of which Brad Weiss offers an ethnographic account in Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork (Duke University Press, August).
And finally -- for this week, anyway -- there is the ecological and biomedical impact of the free-ranging creatures described in Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella’s Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer (Princeton, September). Besides the fact that cats kill “birds and other animals by the billions” in the United States, the authors warn of “the little-known but potentially devastating public health consequences of rabies and parasitic Toxoplasma passing from cats to humans at rising rates.” The authors also maintain that “a small but vocal minority of cat advocates has campaigned successfully for no action in much the same way that special interest groups have stymied attempts to curtail smoking and climate change.” I write this while wearing a T-shirt that reads “Crazy Cat Guy” but will be the first to agree that the problem here is primarily human. There’s a reason it’s called the Anthropocene and not the Felinocene.
A number of other themes and topics from university-press fall books offering might bear mentioning in another column, later this summer. With luck, the pool of candidates will grow in the meantime; we’ll see if any new trends crystallize out in the process.