I. The Miseducation of College Administrators
Years ago, at the college where I teach, some graffiti on a restroom wall caught my eye. Inked into the tile grout was a swastika the size of a baby aspirin, and just above it, in a different hand, someone had written in large letters: “This says a lot about our community.” An arrow pointed to the offending sign.
I’d seen lots of responses to the odd swastika over the years—obscene remarks about the author’s anatomy, say, or humiliating additions to his family tree. But a claim that this itsy-bitsy spider of a swastika signaled a web of hatred permeating one of the most left-leaning colleges in the nation? That was a new one.
More evidence for this web was adduced a few months later when some racially charged fliers were posted anonymously around campus. Because the fliers offended people who failed to notice that they were meant as anti-racist satire, administrators punished the undergraduate who had put them up, even after it was discovered that he was a minority student with left-wing political leanings. Both the dean and the associate dean of students at the time gave voice to what has since become a mantra on college campuses—that the “impact” mattered more than the “intent.” But what if the “impact” is the result of flat-footed perceptions, or has been amplified by the administrators themselves? The case seemed so ill-conceived that faculty members from across the political spectrum worked for months to clear the student’s record. After all, the distinction between the letter and the spirit is hardly dispensable. Satire, irony, parody—these are things we teach. None exists without respect for intention.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, those were my first encounters with an alternate curriculum that was being promoted on many campuses, a curriculum whose guiding principles seemed to be: 1) anything that could be construed as bigotry and hatred should be construed as bigotry and hatred; and 2) any such instance of bigotry and hatred should be considered part of an epidemic. These principles were being advanced primarily, though not exclusively, by college administrators, whose ranks had grown so remarkably since the early 1990s.
Everyone knows about the kudzu-like growth of the administrative bureaucracy in higher education over the past three decades. What most don’t know is that at many colleges, the majority of administrators directly involved in the lives of students—in dorms, conduct hearings, bias-response teams, freshmen “orientation” programs, and the like—got their graduate degrees from education schools.
Ed schools, such as Teachers College at Columbia, or Penn’s Graduate School of Education, have trained and certified most of the nation’s public-school teachers and administrators for the past half-century. But in the past 20 years especially, ed schools have been offering advanced degrees in things like “educational leadership,” “higher education management,” and just “higher education” to aspiring college administrators. And this influx of ed school trained bureaucrats has played a decisive role in pushing an already left-leaning academy so far in the direction of ideological fundamentalism that even liberal progressives are sounding the alarm.
To anyone acquainted with the history and quality of American ed schools, this should come as no surprise. Education schools have long been notorious for two mutually reinforcing characteristics: ideological orthodoxy and low academic standards. As early as 1969, Theodore Sizer and Walter Powell hoped that “ruthless honesty” would do some good when they complained that at far too many ed schools, the prevailing climate was “hardly conducive to open inquiry.” “Study, reflection, debate, careful reading, even, yes, serious thinking, is often conspicuous by its absence,” they continued. “Un-intellectualism—not anti-intellectualism, as this assumes malice—is all too prevalent.” Sizer and Powell ought to have known: At the time they were dean and associate dean, respectively, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
More than three decades later, a comprehensive, four-year study of ed schools headed by a former president of Teachers College, Arthur Levine, found that the majority of educational-administration programs “range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the country’s leading universities.” Though there were notable exceptions, programs for teaching were described as being, in the main, weak and mediocre. Education researchers seemed unable to achieve even “minimum agreement” about “acceptable research practice,” with the result that there are “no base standards and no quality floor.” Even among ed school faculty members and deans, the study found a broad and despairing recognition that ed school training was frequently “subjective, obscure, faddish, … inbred, and politically correct.”
A study from 2004, “Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers,” examined the course syllabi used in the nation’s top-rated ed schools and found with distressing regularity one-sided curricula in which complex issues were trivialized and narrow ideological viewpoints treated as settled fact. Un-intellectualism seemed to have given way to anti-intellectualism: “The foundations and methods courses we reviewed suggest that faculty at most of these schools are often trying to teach a particular ideology—that traditional knowledge is repressive by its very nature—without directing their students to any substantial readings that question the educational implications of this view,” concluded the study’s authors, David Steiner, now executive director of the Institute for Education Policy at the Johns Hopkins University, and an associate, Susan Rozen.
It’s true, of course, that for many of the brave souls who graduate from ed schools and go on to teach in the nation’s K-12 public-school systems, ed school orthodoxy will often—though not always—give way to the practical demands of classroom teaching. In fact, some of the most perceptive criticism of that orthodoxy has been leveled by the teachers who have been schooled in it. But for those ed school graduates who join the administrative ranks of a college, practical checks may be few. They often find themselves in mini-fiefdoms of like-minded administrators and student assistants whose shared political vision is regarded less as a point of view than as a point of fact.
II. The Wages of Ideology
The weak foundations on which this vision often rests are evident in ed school scholarship. Take the essay generally regarded as the founding text of the recent microaggression movement, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” whose lead author, Derald Wing Sue, is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College. His six co-authors were also associated with Teachers College when the article was published, in American Psychologist in 2007. Among administrators especially, their essay has achieved canonical status.
Reading the article for the first time last year, I was dumbfounded—not just that it had gained such currency, but that it had ever been published in a journal with pretensions to intellectual rigor. I don’t doubt that microaggressions exist or that they can do harm, but the confidence with which Sue and his co-authors reduce complex interactions to Manichaean encounters between villains and victims is astonishing.
The authors accomplish these reductions, at least in part, by stacking the deck rhetorically. Accused microaggressors only “seem” to have cogent explanations for what they said or did. They don’t “explain,” they “explain away.” They don’t defend themselves, they get “defensive,” and so on. In even the most tentative passages, the drive for indictment overwhelms any hint of ambivalence or ambiguity.
Microaggressive acts can usually be explained away by seemingly nonbiased and valid reasons. For the recipient of a microaggression, however, there is always the nagging question of whether it really happened. … It is difficult to identify a microaggression, especially when other explanations seem plausible. Many people of color describe a vague feeling that they have been attacked, that they have been disrespected, or that something is not right. … In some respects, people of color may find an overt and obvious racist act easier to handle than microaggressions that seem vague or disguised. … The above incident [an account of a disagreement between the lead author and a white female flight attendant] reveals how microaggressions operate to create psychological dilemmas for both the White perpetrator and the person of color.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, if there is in fact a “nagging question” about whether a microaggression “really happened,” why isn’t it called a “potential” or “alleged” microaggression? By the same token, can one be a “recipient” of something, the existence of which is, in any given encounter, open to question? And what exactly is the “psychological dilemma” experienced by the person of color, given that the author has already indicted a “White perpetrator”? Presumably a dilemma would arise only if one didn’t know whether one had encountered a “White perpetrator” or just a white person whom one has misjudged.
Those are rudimentary questions that anyone with an ordinary complement of so-called critical thinking skills would ask, not just about this paragraph but about the article as a whole. So why weren’t such questions asked?
Because doing so would derail a deep nostalgia, not of course for the overt brutality and dehumanization inflicted by Jim Crow and the likes of Bull Connor, but for the moral certainty those evils retrospectively allow for. “In some respects, people of color may find an overt and obvious racist act easier to handle,” so the essay obligingly develops a crude alchemy for transmuting the ambiguous into the obvious. This alchemy is little more than a way of behaving that masquerades as a way of knowing: Act as if ambiguities were certainties, and as if vague feelings were reliable registers of fact. Act, in other words, as if complex interracial encounters—which admit of both mistakes and misunderstandings—are conscious or unconscious acts of racism exercised by a “White perpetrator.” That will indeed make things “easier to handle.”
But such ease of handling is the product of presumption and simplification. It would be as if a marriage counselor approached every new couple having decided in advance that the complaints or suspicions of the shorter partner, or the male partner, or the minority partner, were necessarily legitimate, and that the other spouse’s objections, prejudged as “defensive,” were evidence of guilt. Moreover, because these objections would, in Sue’s pseudo-technical jargon, “invalidate” the “experiential reality” of the other partner (i.e. offer a different point of view), they would constitute yet another offense. Would anyone expect marital relations to improve under the counselor’s supervision? Would anyone even hire such a counselor?
By exalting “experiential reality” and “impact,” administrators portray students as pure receptors whose reactions are unmediated by expectation, projection, or choice. Hence the language of triggering, which converts students into objects for the sake of rendering their reactions “objective,” and by extension valid: a student’s triggered response is no more to be questioned than an apple’s falling downward or a spark’s flying upward.
But it’s a specious and self-serving portrayal. This is nowhere more evident than in an aspect of the Halloween-costume controversy at Yale in 2015 that has rarely been mentioned: the fact that when the ed school trained associate vice president for student engagement, Burgwell Howard, sent out an email warning students about insensitive Halloween costumes, he included links to scores of racist drawings, movie stills, and film clips, presumably as a way of refreshing their knowledge of racial stereotypes.
Without a trigger warning in sight, students who clicked on the word “Asian” were taken to a page of derogatory caricatures topped by a masthead consisting of a yellow smiley face with slanted eyes, protruding teeth, and “coolie” hat. The link for “blackface” directed students to the smiling, cartoon countenance of a black man, whose outsized pink lips and white teeth take up half his face. The page itself, with its own images and hyperlinks, invited students into a warren of mocking, racist denigration. All this, mind you, in an email warning students about the dangers of giving unintentional offense.
Though there seems not to have been a report of offensive Halloween attire on Yale’s campus in nearly a decade, maybe the entire student body really did need graphic reminders of the racist history behind all the costumes they hadn’t been wearing. Still, why weren’t students “triggered” by that trove of bigoted images the dean had invited them to view? And why weren’t they “impacted” by such claims as the one found in the “redface” link that “because of the recent proliferation of casinos on Indian lands, Americans are beginning to view Indians as rich, greedy, and corrupt”? If Yale “is our home,” as an undergraduate would shout a few days later, why didn’t this break the rules?
The likely answer is that the outrage those images may have otherwise provoked was offset by the condemnatory fervor they excited and the moral simplification they encouraged: Jim Crow bigots on one side, their demeaned victims on the other. As long as that’s the lens through which Yale is to be viewed, no problem.
To be sure, college administrators are not the only ones on campus encouraging the use of this anachronistic, reductive lens. Far too many faculty members do the same. But undergraduates can avoid or drop a course that’s less about inquiry than inquisition, or at least balance it with courses that put ideas above ideology.
Students can’t drop their dorm supervisors, though, or escape the long arm of the more than 200 “bias response teams” presuming to micromanage their conversations. Nor can they opt out from the authority of conduct-review boards or evade first-year “orientation” programs—sometimes lasting an entire semester—that too often resemble clinics in ideological groupthink. Many of these venues are now heavily influenced, where they are not dominated by, ed school trained administrators who consider themselves qualified to offer training in, among other things, equity and social justice.
There might be nothing wrong with training students in equity and social justice were it not for the inconvenient fact that a college campus is where these ideals and others like them are to be rigorously examined rather than piously assumed. It’s the difference between a curriculum and a catechism. Do ed schools recognize that difference? Perhaps some do. But it’s significant that their largest national accrediting agency, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, for many years included “social justice” in its glossary of so-called “dispositions” that ed schools could consider when evaluating a candidate’s fitness for the K-12 classroom. It dropped the criteria only in 2006, after complaints from both the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Association of Scholars.
But de jure is one thing, de facto another. Administrators talk not just about social justice “training” but also about social justice “literacy.” What does that mean? It was explained in an article from 2009 by two professors of education, “Developing Social Justice Literacy: An Open Letter to Our Faculty Colleagues.” Formatted like a textbook, the article contains highlight boxes and sidebars which detail the terminology of “social-justice studies” with the crisp confidence one would expect from a handbook on Windows 10 or residential wiring. Racism is defined as “white racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination.” Black people can be prejudiced, but they lack the “institutional power” that “transforms it into racism.” Reverse racism does not exist owing to “power relations that are historic and embedded.”
Whatever the merits of those propositions, splicing them into the meaning of words is the lexical equivalent of splicing herbicide resistance into the genes of tobacco plants: It’s an attempt to immunize ideas from criticism, such that the student who mentions “reverse racism” in a discussion of affirmative action might as well have mentioned a unicorn in a discussion of endangered species. If she then drops the qualifier “reverse” and simply calls it “racism,” she’s again confounded, since “racism” is something of which only white people can be guilty. As with Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, the aim is to construct a vocabulary in which “the expression of unorthodox opinions … [is] well nigh impossible.”
Even raising questions is an offense against this version of social justice. Being an “ally” of oppressed groups, we are told, requires “validating and supporting people who are socially or institutionally positioned below yourself, regardless of whether you understand or agree with where they are coming from” [italics in original]. And a sure symptom of having “internalized” one’s own sense of “dominance”? “Feeling authorized to debate or explain away the experiences of target groups.”
It’s hard to know what’s worse: the condescending implication that oppressed groups require unconditional support and validation (in the way that a child requires unconditional love), or the idea that “feeling authorized” to debate signals one’s racist hauteur rather than one’s democratic citizenship. To say nothing of the assumption that the range of opinion and experience among “target groups” is so narrow and homogenous that one could “validate” one person’s experience without running the risk of invalidating another’s.
For all the talk of diversity, it seems beneath the notice of those who wield the terms with such confidence that “social justice” is what anti-abortion advocates of all colors consider their highest aim; that “equity” may be as much the goal of the libertarian who wants to lower taxes for everyone as it is for the progressive who wants higher taxes for the wealthy; that in classifying as microaggressions statements such as “America is the land of opportunity,” or “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough,” one is stigmatizing not only the stereotypical views of whites but also the views of many African-, Asian-, Hispanic-, and Arab-Americans—to say nothing of the views of black youth who, as the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has shown in The Cultural Matrix, overwhelmingly support a wide variety of mainstream American values, both for good and for ill.
But this kind of diversity of opinion and experience—a diversity that is no respecter of skin color, ethnicity, religion, class, or sexual orientation—is anathema to those for whom complexity is a grievous affront to, rather than a welcome elaboration of, knowledge. The map of ideology is so much neater and cleaner than the territory of actual human beings, who often say things you don’t expect and reveal things you don’t know. That’s why the phrase “This is not a debate” was shouted by protesters at Yale in 2015; why “This is not a discussion” was shouted at Evergreen State a year and a half later; and why groups of law students on my own campus declared last spring, at an event featuring the scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, that “there is no debate here.” These are variations on the same anti-intellectual, anti-democratic cri de coeur. They are the predictable fruit of a “curriculum” in which liturgy is passed off as literacy, and “social justice” signals the end of a discussion rather than the start of one.
III. From “Administrators” to “Educators”
How did college administrators become so involved in “training” undergraduates in subjects that are properly the domain of academic departments? It’s a complex story, and a long one. There are chapters in this story, however, and one of the most significant opened around 2004, when two administrators at the University of Delaware—both of whom have doctorates in “educational leadership”—determined that resident advisers should be thought of as residence-hall “educators.” And as educators, they needed a curriculum. Kathleen Kerr and James Tweedy said they felt “invited” to develop such a curriculum by the views of their professional organizations, the American College Personnel Association and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, which have more than 20,000 members between them. Delaware faculty members were not consulted.
The program Kerr and Tweedy developed, the “curricular model” (CM) for learning beyond the classroom, has had enormous influence on college administrators across the nation. Kerr and Tweedy celebrated that influence in an essay published last spring in About Campus, a professional journal for college administrators. They write with pride about the changes they helped initiate: how in the past decade “CM has caused a seismic shift at our campus and others across the country,” a shift in “the entire paradigm of how we approach our roles on campus and … how we view ourselves as educators.” Having implemented the model not only at Delaware but “along with hundreds of other colleagues on other campuses,” they’ve learned how important it is “to apply this approach beyond residence halls to all the learning opportunities that occur beyond the classroom in career centers, student conduct, orientation, health promotions, student engagement, and many other places on campus.” Reading this retrospective, no one could doubt its authors’ sincerity or excitement. For them, the advent of the curricular model opened a brave new world for college administrators.
But one could doubt their grasp of reality, since for many of those on the business end of their outreach, CM left a rather different impression. As was made clear once the program was exposed, back in 2007, the model was a scheme of political indoctrination and intimidation, the particulars of which outstrip parody. Students were questioned by their RAs about their political views on controversial topics; they were asked about their sexual identities and whether they would date people from different ethnic groups. As detailed in a 2009 video produced by FIRE, one program required students to stuff marshmallows in their mouths—rendering them speechless—in proportion to their lack of “privilege.” The more privilege, the fewer marshmallows, and the easier it was to speak. Groups of students were asked to list on posters the stereotypical characteristics associated with blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews, thus exciting animosities while ostensibly ameliorating them. Administrators unselfconsciously referred to lesson plans as “treatments” and “interventions,” and they dictated “learning outcomes”: “Each student will learn about the forms of oppression linked with each identity group. Each student will learn that systemic oppression exists in our society. Each student will learn the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression.”
To almost any outside observer, the crass authoritarianism of such a “curriculum” would have been obvious at first glance. Within the closed circle of administrators, however, this was a fine plan, nobly wrought. Even after the Delaware program was stopped under withering criticism from students, faculty members, parents, and the press, their confidence was unwavering. Months after it was shut down, administrators repackaged virtually the same program under an expanded definition of “sustainability” and recycled it to the faculty three times, without success. Now, more than a decade later, the only problem Kerr and Tweedy register is that of having had a “highly aspirational goal of developing engaged citizens” but without enough “contact points with students” to do it. So many treatments, so little time.
But how could a program that brought such embarrassment to the University of Delaware become so influential nationwide? In 2009, shortly after the debacle, the Delaware professor Jan Blits suggested that the only lesson administrators seem to have learned was “the need for greater stealth” when instituting programs of their own. The years following have proved him right. Residential life “curricula” are now pervasive in higher education, and most are planned and delivered without any faculty oversight. An avid promoter of such programs, Kathleen Kerr has become more influential among administrators, not less, as a result of Delaware’s experiment in thought control. She has since served as a governing-board member, vice president, and president of the American College Personnel Association, and is a trustee on its Board.
It’s tempting to attribute such blinkered persistence to the grip of ideology alone. But it’s more than that, and less. For what’s striking about Kerr and Tweedy’s 10-year retrospective essay, besides the moving sidewalk of bureaucratic jargon, is how little content there actually is, ideological or otherwise, until one gets to the issue of status—the status of administrators themselves as “educators.” That’s when things get concrete, and personal. Above all, the authors argue, their curricular model changed “how we view ourselves as educators,” “how we think about … our own roles as educators,” and “the spaces and places on campus” administrators now “occupy.” The model is “energizing and reinvigorating to professional staff,” they report, quoting new administrators in the thralls of relevance: “I finally get to use my master’s degree.” In the penultimate paragraph they declare: “The first change for everyone involved in this transformation is deciding unequivocally that we are educators.”
Such undisguised anxiety about their status as educators might provoke sympathy were it not for the authors’ lack of anxiety about the things that actually matter—the substance of education itself and the intellectual welfare of students; their right, for example, not to be coerced into facile, unreflective orthodoxy. Judging from the essay, those aren’t even peripheral considerations.
But the reason for this obsession with status has less to do with the individual authors themselves than with the institutional history of which they’re a part. Ed schools have been the buck privates of higher education for nearly a century, and no disinterested study of the institutions as a whole has raised their reputation.
This low status is partly the effect and continuing cause of the schools’ ideological rigidity. Of course, the vast majority of college campuses have leaned to the left for decades. If nothing else, though, the variety of disciplines and the internecine struggles within those disciplines have kept things relatively contentious and fertile. But ed schools have occupied a space apart. The widest street in the world, runs a famous quip, is New York’s West 120th Street, which divides Teachers College from the rest of Columbia University. This insular exile has encouraged a group cohesion and intolerance for dissent that have only magnified the problems identified by Sizer and Powell more than four decades ago.
The invisibility of the ed school influence to even the most severe critics of higher education’s leftward lean was exemplified in an article in Campus Reform, a conservative website, which collected a set of tweets from a conference on critical race studies held in May 2017. “Whiteness and the United States knows itself through the death of the subordinated.” “The term ‘diversity of opinion’ is white supremacist bullshit!” “White Tears are an act of physical and political violence.” Research is “a colonial, white supremacist, elite process.” “Some people need to be slapped into wokeness.” Described simply as “professors” by Campus Reform, the authors of all five tweets are in fact professors of education. The author of the last tweet is also an associate dean. They will be training college administrators for years to come.
Many of those administrators will in turn train their student subordinates, most of whom, as was the case at Delaware, will have financial incentives to comply. In the fall of 2017 at Clemson University, aspiring RAs were required to “demonstrate a commitment to social justice,” and to undergo a nine day training program replete with lessons in, among other things, microaggressions and triggers. Naturally, this residence-life curriculum is overseen by the university’s ed school trained executive director of housing and dining, and the only required course for applicants is taught in Clemson’s College of Education.
And in the spring of 2017, the residential life office at the University of California at Los Angeles began taking applications from students for paid positions in “social-justice advocacy.” The grant program financing these positions is headed by a team of students, most of whom are enrolled in UCLA’s education school. According to the application form, these advocates will help their peers “navigate a world that operates on whiteness, patriarchy, and heteronormativity as the primary ideologies.” In other words, they’ll help their fellow students beg all the questions that universities are supposed to be asking, and thus deprive them of the education they’re supposed to be getting.
IV. Woke Corporatization of Higher Ed
But there’s a paradox here. How is it that administrators who often caricature what happens in a college classroom by inveighing against “the banking theory of knowledge,” “passive education,” and other ed school bugaboos, will enact that caricature themselves when they become “educators” with a “curriculum” of their own? E. D. Hirsch theorized back in the mid-’90s that much of ed school ideology was the product of low-status resentment rather than deep commitment. The ed school community’s antipathy to knowledge, he argued in The Schools We Need, was largely a reactive and displaced hostility to the prestige of college professors, whose strong suit “knowledge” was supposed to be.
Hirsch’s theory is borne out not only in the speed with which “active learning” gets replaced by authoritarian “treatments” once administrators assume the mantle of educators, but also in the way that the language and aims of campus bureaucracies, however radical their ideology may appear, dovetail with the corporate model of topdown governance and the business-friendly lingo of “efficiencies,” “competencies,” and “bottom lines.” Their monographs wave the flags of progressive liberation—”learning,” “learners,” “change agents,” “activism”—but the substance, if one can call it that, is often a Möbius strip of buzzwords in which assumptions twist into conclusions, and active leadership curls into passive obedience. Consider a line from a 2008 monograph, Toward a Sustainable Future—11 of the 13 authors have graduate degrees from ed schools—on the role of student affairs in creating “healthy environments, social justice, and strong economies”: “[B]y teaching change-agent skills, we can help members of the campus community learn to act on their commitment to sustainability and build self-concepts of a lifelong learner engaged in helping to create the triple bottom line of a sustainable future.”
To simply mock this as vacuous, bureaucratic jargon is to miss what it reveals. “To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox,” Orwell wrote. The corollary is true here: Despite all the can-do bluster, the 2008 passage and the document from which it comes are both politically orthodox and intellectually fearful—fearful of saying something definite enough to be questioned or disputed by anyone higher in the food chain. It counsels obedience and is itself obedient to the felt necessity of not simply fitting in, but of seeming indispensable to the university in its role of providing employers with what they need—students who are prepared for what the essay calls “the reality of the world of work.”
Thus the corporate techniques of “discipline, indoctrination, and control” that Noam Chomsky has identified with the increasingly bureaucratized university are registered in the defensive abstraction of the monograph’s style and replicated in its patronizing attitude toward students. “Their highly structured lives have been framed by standardized tests and inexperience questioning the status quo,” the authors write without irony, and then cast themselves as the “scholars and practitioners” whose “expertise in student development” will give these hapless students the direction their lives apparently need. First fabricate the problem, then claim to be the solution.
Even if the problem did exist as described, ed schools would be the last place to look for a solution. Asking genuine questions about the status quo, after all, requires genuine knowledge of both how it came to be and how it continues to function: the variety of the interests it serves and subverts, the dangers it courts and curtails. No institution has done more to cauterize such knowledge at the level of slogan than ed schools. As a result, the “progressive” ideology of many college administrators is a mile wide and an inch deep, and thus easily adaptable to the shortsighted, bottom-line thinking of the corporate university.
The low quality of many ed schools is itself the product of such bottom-line thinking, and their condition offers a glimpse into the dismal future of higher education generally. A recurring point in Arthur Levine’s report is how ed schools have been used as “cash cows” by their home institutions. At many universities, ed school leadership programs in particular have been engaged in a race to the bottom as they compete for students by lowering standards of both admission and graduation. His report compares the situation to The Wizard of Oz, with universities granting “an endless number of scarecrows the equivalent of honorary degrees.”
The situation was bad enough when these degrees were used to leverage higher salaries for K-12 teachers, principals, and superintendents. It was an added expense for governments and municipalities, with little to show for it in the way of administrative expertise or educational results. Now that many of these same ed schools are granting degrees to college administrators, universities are reaping more directly what they’ve sown: Thanks to an administrative sky bridge spanning “the widest street in the world,” the same resistance to inquiry and debate that has long plagued ed schools has a foothold at colleges across the country.
It’s difficult to question orthodoxies under the best of circumstances. When they come armored in the rhetoric of caring and community, it can seem impossible, especially if the purported beneficiaries are students. It’s worth remembering, though, just how much bigoted energy was coiled in the amiable phrase “family values,” and how much suffocating constriction may be required to make a university a home. After all, a home for whom? To many students, “home” is the name for a pretty restrictive place. It’s where they’ve had to hide their politics, their religious doubts, their sexuality, you name it. “My house, my rules.”
Ironically enough, no one knew the dangers of home better than Paulo Freire, whose 1968 book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has for decades been canonical in ed schools. Perhaps he is more revered than read.
The atmosphere of the home is prolonged in the school, where the students soon discover that (as in the home) in order to achieve some satisfaction they must adapt to the precepts which have been set from above. One of these precepts is not to think.
So, in the spirit of Freire, it’s critical that we ask: In whose interest is it to persuade students that a university is a “home” where they’re not to think? In whose interest is it to persuade them that they’re fragile, that they’re threatened, that words are violence, that an imagined slight is as bad as a real one, and that they’re surrounded by people and ideas from whom they need so much protection? In short: Cui bono? Not our students, that’s for sure.
Lyell Asher is an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2018 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.