Money Over Mind

The direction of education reform is leading students and colleges in the wrong direction, write Judith Nichols and William Nichols.

September 23, 2010

The recession that seems likely to shape our midterm elections has also made visible a gradual and unfortunate change in American education. Imagination has been devalued in our schools, colleges, and universities over the last 40 years as their policies have been increasingly shaped by the values and practices of big business. In judging the corporate and entrepreneurial management styles now popular in education, including the Obama administration’s “race to the top,” the unquantifiable, old-fashioned word imagination is useful in revealing the limitations we find in much corporate thinking about educational reform.

Attempts to apply business practices in education lack the wholeness of vision we associate with acts of imagination, a problem we explore in administrative trends and in the classroom. We agree with much that Diane Ravitch says in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books), her indictment of educational reform in our public schools. Ravitch was once an enthusiastic supporter of “No Child Left Behind"; her account of changing her mind about “market reforms” in public education exposes an ideology that is becoming as influential in colleges and universities as in the public schools focused on in her book. She reveals how corporate thinking has made our institutions vulnerable to technological and managerial fads that undermine creative thinking.

We understand acts of imagination to refer to complex thoughts and feelings that allow people to find new ways of thinking. They can transform complicated, even chaotic, experience into narrative, one important way we find and make meaning. They are a way of knowing, not primarily “data-driven,” but grounded in complex knowledge and direct experience. They differ as much from free-floating fantasies as from narrowly specialized thinking. Acts of imagination usually require prolonged attention that temporarily sets aside everything else. Sustained imagining is a balancing act that thrives on both solitude and the stimuli that come with participation in complex communities embodied in actual places, not just metaphorical versions of community found online. Acts of imagination produce results as practical as changing one’s mind, understanding another’s perspective, finding the limits of one’s knowledge, or recognizing the need to seek help.

Sometimes imagination provides glimpses of the wholeness of creation and insight into the injustices that betray that wholeness. Imagination recognizes the necessity of communities that include whole ecosystems. Authentic education fosters acts of imagination and contributes to civil society. Our use of imagination, though grounded in the study of literature, is not metaphorical when used for creative thinking in other fields, where it is often as important as it is in literature and the arts. Because acts of imagination are human acts, they are bound to be flawed, insufficient, imperfect; but humility is built into acts of imagination, a natural consequence of recognizing our human dependence on much in creation over which we have no control.

Money has long played a role in cultivating imagination. It can be used to encourage imagination when it buys freedom to give sustained attention to a problem or question. But a focus on money provides a rationale for fostering another way of thinking by bringing corporate executives and business values into educational institutions. Ravitch shows how money has recently created restrictive “market reforms” in education as a result of the ascendancy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation: “Unlike the older established foundations, such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, which reviewed proposals submitted to them, the new foundations decided what they wanted to accomplish, how they wanted to accomplish it, and which organizations were appropriate recipients of their largesse.” What the Gates, the Waltons, and the Broads have sought, according to Ravitch, are “strategies that mirrored their own experience in acquiring huge fortunes, such as competition, choice, deregulation, incentives, and other market-based approaches.” The result has been a top-down approach to educational reform. The consensus among these powerful, wealthy foundations -- “bastions of unaccountable power,” Ravitch calls them -- has allowed them to influence policies in school districts and states and the U.S. Department of Education. These “reforms” have been echoed in changing management styles at the private colleges we know.

Over the last several years we have observed in private liberal arts colleges the emphasis on data-driven accountability that Ravitch finds in public schools. We have watched administrations grow larger and more powerful. Policy decisions formerly made by faculties are increasingly the task of administrators, and students are viewed as consumers. Personnel decisions have come to rely ever more heavily on data collected from student evaluations and the assessment of scholarship by outside experts. Growing numbers of people granted tenure are left with a sense that they barely qualify. Colleges and universities have come to rely increasingly on contingent faculty with little job security, few benefits, and low salaries.

As colleges adopt management models that emphasize corporate efficiency, opportunities for creative, collaborative thought are increasingly undermined. Shared governance begins to erode. Deference to hierarchy increases. Even at an institution like Vassar College, with a history of progressive work practices, marketplace analysis becomes the central guiding force in restructuring. For example, creative writing and the introductory, “The Art of Reading and Writing,” became focal areas for saving money at Vassar. Non-tenure-track writing professors have been losing suffrage, pay, health and retirement benefits, and jobs. Reducing the number of available non-tenure-track faculty members has reduced the elasticity of the curriculum at Vassar and damaged the programs, some of Vassar’s central areas of productivity and creativity. Although Vassar is an institution with three-quarters of a billion dollars in its endowment, for the last two years almost all discussion of changes in educational offerings or policies has been based on the need to save money.

Founded for women over 150 years ago, Vassar offered liberal arts courses that mirrored the curriculum available to men. Of course, Vassar has not always been sensitive to issues of class or race, but the college worked to become more inclusive across socioeconomic lines among the professors, students and workers who make up the community. The dual strands of elitism and service have been in tension at Vassar throughout its history, as they have been at many private colleges, and the institution has been responsive to various definitions of diversity through more inclusive practices and an evolving, more diverse curriculum.

As a workplace, Vassar has been committed to providing decent wages and job security for its employees. The college has long been considered one of the fairest workplaces in the Hudson Valley. Attempts have also been made not to exploit those most marginalized in the academic workplace, the adjuncts, by attempting to provide sufficient course loads so that the college could provide health insurance. These practices have offered a “hidden curriculum” at Vassar College, embodying as they do a decent workplace and a commitment to diversity and to the most vulnerable.

In the last two years, Vassar has responded to diminished endowment earnings by cutting curriculum, faculty, and support staff, and laying off workers in a time of rising unemployment in the surrounding community. Outsourcing of work and risk has become the preferred management practice, although Vassar administrators refuse to acknowledge this. Beginning early in 2009, the administration has seemed bent on breaking or reducing the power of the unions by requiring pre-dawn shifts. The new work schedule not only begins before dawn but introduces specialization by consolidating tasks and responsibilities.

Many students who participate actively in environmental politics and national political campaigns ignore institutional labor practices that might be expected to generate locally focused dissent. Activist students on most campuses are more likely to protect the rights of workers in the developing world than those of college custodial workers or adjuncts at their own colleges. Trying to understand this apparent disconnect, we’ve begun to wonder if growing emphasis on a virtual, electronic world in the classroom as well as beyond adds to the power of the new “hidden curriculum” we see in the business practices that define changes in personnel policies. As students come to our classrooms accustomed to multitasking with television, iPods, cell phones, and computers and their many variations, we’re encouraged to teach to their intellectual restlessness, or “hyper attention,” instead of helping them to discover the value of focused contemplation, the “deep attention” that makes possible acts of imagination and a sense of connection to the college community.

Growing numbers of our introductory-level students write more vivid, thoughtful prose under time pressure in class than they do with leisure to revise outside of class. They show connections between insights they find in the reading and ideas and examples we’ve discussed in earlier classes. They explore links between their own experience and ideas drawn from their reading. They make illuminating comparisons, using concrete, lively language. This isn’t an altogether new phenomenon. In the past we’ve had very good students who appeared to censor their most interesting ideas and language on out-of-class writing assignments, but it used to be unusual for students to fuse ideas, images, and examples into an inventive whole more effectively in these brief classroom assignments than in longer, presumably more reflective writing out of class.

One key to our students’ recent writing successes in the classroom, we believe, is the silence that settles on the room. The writing process outside of class appears to be a very different story. Most of the time students work on computers that signal when they get e-mail. Perhaps it is tempting to follow “friends” updates on Facebook. Even when there’s no signal, students admit to being tempted to check their incoming mail and inventory their ever-increasing numbers of electronic friends. They receive signals on cell phones, too, for calls and texts. Some students listen to music on iPods while they work. As college libraries strive to be “user-friendly,” we see students managing sandwiches and drinks along with various electronic devices while they work on essays. They are, as they explain it, multitasking, a classic corporate skill.

Colleges and universities were established in part to provide the communal stimuli crucial to fostering acts of imagination. Students at a residential college are more deeply embedded in actual community than they are likely to be at any other time in their lives, but walking with others on campus they are as apt to be talking or texting on a phone as conversing with their actual companions, seemingly as present to someone distant from them as to their physical neighbors. We wonder if relying heavily on an abstract electronic “community” leads to a sense of placelessness. And if virtual places become more important than actual places in colleges and universities, it may be more difficult to imagine the consequences of something like the oil spill in the Gulf. Even with minute-to-minute access to powerful images and quantifiable data, it may be harder to find powerful metaphors and cultural understanding in a placeless world.

One result of encouraging a culture of multitasking and reliance on virtual community is that students are increasingly isolated from the people and places where they study. This technological abstraction may be equally common among faculty members who struggle to keep up with their workloads and professional obligations. People juggling texts and calls and tweets and e-mails might be compared with executives trying to establish order and profitability in companies flying out of control. They are showered with mediated versions of life itself from many directions at once.

There are many ironies in the triumph of corporate practice at educational institutions in this time of financial crisis, when our Supreme Court is bent on increasing the power of corporations. Like companies that fire the most recently hired when they fall on hard times and a country that lets a small proportion of its citizens pay the price for wars it chooses to fight, our most privileged colleges seem prepared to place the burden of their money problems on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. The message implicit in such policies, the hidden curriculum, speaks quietly to students of a college’s determination to protect privilege even when it means placing limits on the development of minds. Perhaps a crucial role of education in our time is to show young people the joys and benefits of giving focused, contemplative attention to the people around them and the places where they live, as well as the varied subjects they study.


Judith Nichols is adjunct associate professor at Vassar College, where she has been teaching writing and literature for 20 years. William Nichols, a retired professor and administrator at Denison University, is visiting professor of writing at Dartmouth College. Liza Donnelly is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker for 30 years. She is an adjunct lecturer at Vassar.


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