All posts filed under: Education

Against Research Ethics Committees

Author Note: This article is based on a presentation at the Economic Society of Australia Annual Conference, and draws on an earlier discussion of an incident with an Australian university ethics committee “Why Ethics Committees Are Unethical” Agenda 10/2 2002.  The views expressed here are personal, and should not be attributed to the organisations with which I am affiliated.  Ethics committees have been part of the life of medical researchers for some decades, based on guidelines which flow from the World Medical Association’s 1964 “Declaration of Helsinki.”  This declaration was aimed at physicians and draws heavily on the Nuremberg Code developed during the trials of Nazi doctors after WWII. It has been joined by more recent guidelines such as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects” and many others. In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) issued its first Statement on Human Experimentation in 1966, and the current set of NHMRC guidelines, now issued jointly with the Australian Research Council (ARC) is the National Statement …

The Meritocracy Trap—A Review

A review of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feed Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by David Markovitz, Penguin Press (September 2019) 422 pages. Meritocracy is in trouble. Recent years have seen a flood of articles deploring inequality and blaming meritocracy for it. In the vanguard is Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits who attacked meritocracy in its home, in an address to Yale University graduates in 2015. His new book, The Meritocracy Trap,1 has just been published. Professor Markovits is a meritocratic champ himself: “In the summer of 1987…I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and [then] attend[ed] Yale College. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at…the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees [in philosophy, econometrics, mathematics and law] along the way.” Despite his own success in the meritocratic sweepstakes, Markovits is highly critical of what he sees as an inevitable bad outcome. The book has nine chapters, beginning with ‘The Meritocratic …

University Harassment Policy and Its Problems

Chatting with a student at the end of a long day, our conversation shifts from academic matters to the personal when I mention that I have to get home to my kids. He says I look too young to be a mother. I tell him I’m so tired all the time that I feel ancient. He asks if I have any time off coming up, and what I’d like to do to relax. It dawns on me that he’s flirting. And it occurs to me that I might be flirting back, awkwardly. I certainly didn’t mean to flirt with a student. I was just, you know, being myself. He’s 23 and I—ahem—am not. He’s cute. And clever. It’s not the worst conversation I’ve had with guy. But it’s not the best, either. After a few minutes, I tell him I have to go, and that it’s been a great semester. We were just two people talking, enjoying a moment of unguarded informality in the empty halls of the academy. This kind of conversation has happened …

In the U.S. Campus Speech Wars, Palestinian Advocacy Is a Blind Spot

In 2015, a group of undergraduates applied to establish Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as a club at Fordham University in New York City. In accordance with the school’s policies, the students submitted paperwork stating that their goal was to “build support in the Fordham community among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds for the promotion of justice, human rights, liberation and self-determination for the indigenous Palestinian people.” The applicants also stated that the club would participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. In 2016, Fordham’s Dean of Education denied the club’s application on the grounds that it would likely be polarizing, singling out its support for BDS. The students took Fordham to court. In August, a New York judge struck down the Dean’s decision as “arbitrary and capricious.” The court’s verdict was a win for the Fordham students. But the fact that setting up their club required four years and a lawsuit is telling. As the judge noted, Fordham has clear rules about creating clubs, and they don’t …

Confessions of a Social Constructionist

If I had known, 20 years ago, that my side in the ideological wars over gender and sex was going to win so decisively, I would have been ecstatic. Back then, I spent many evenings at the pub or at dinner parties debating gender and identity with other graduate students; or, really, anyone who would listen—my mother-in-law, my relatives, or just a random person unlucky enough to be in my presence. I insisted that there was no such thing as sex. And I knew it. I just knew it. Because I was a gender historian. This was, in the 1990s, the thing to be in history departments across North America. Gender history—and then gender studies, more generally, across the academy—was part of a broader group of identity-based sub-disciplines that were taking over the liberal arts. History departments across the continent were transformed. When the American Historical Association surveyed the trends among major fields of specialization in 2007, and then again in 2015, the single largest field was women’s and gender history. This was right up …

How David Graeber Cancelled a Colleague

At the height of the #MeToo scandal in 2018, when dozens of actresses were coming forward with sordid testimonies about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation, a much more obscure scandal was unfolding around an academic journal involving the anthropologist David Graeber. The journal—HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory—was imploding after Graeber, a former editor-at-large, alleged that members of staff had been treated in “shocking ways” and made a public apology, distancing himself from the enterprise. No specifics were given, but accusations spread like wildfire on social media. Many treated the scandal as a pretext to demand that the discipline of anthropology itself undertake a period of introspection and soul-searching. Some said that this was anthropology’s #MeToo moment. HAU was set up as a digital publication by the Cambridge PhD student Giovanni da Col in 2011, while he was working in the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit under the supervision of Caroline Humphrey. While many students have had concerns that anthropology is a field in decline, da Col actually wanted to do something about it, by establishing …

A Flawed Defense of Safe Spaces in the New York Times

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth offers a defense of “safe enough” spaces on our college and university campuses. Roth seeks to establish a middle ground between proponents who aspire “to make sure all students are made to feel welcome in or outside the classroom” and critics who see safe spaces as “sanctimonious ‘safetyism’—counterproductive coddling of students who feel fragile.” So, he asks, “what’s a university to do?” “We should begin,” writes Roth in answer to his own question, “by destigmatizing the notion of safe spaces and stop talking about them as if they were part of a zero-sum ideological war.” He provides historic examples of space spaces for employees and managers in post-World War II manufacturing, group therapy in psychiatry, and later feminist and gay liberation community building. None of this was controversial, he suggests. But Roth’s examples are not really on point if the risk of safe spaces perceived by their critics, as Roth puts it, is of  “groups…enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from …

John Adams and the Search for a Natural (and Needed) American Aristocracy

In 1787, two years before he was elected vice president of the United States—a role in which he served until 1796, when he was elected president—John Adams completed a massive multivolume treatise titled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. He supplemented it with a further series of essays later published in 1805 as Discourses on Davila. When the Discourses were written, America was seized with the question of how to view the French Revolution. On one side were those who enthusiastically endorsed its egalitarian principles and wished to see them extended to the United States. Thomas Jefferson was their champion. On the other were those opposed to the leveling demands of the French Revolution. In their view, these represented a dangerous species of lawlessness. Against it they defended the values of tradition and hierarchy. In Europe, their most forceful spokesman was Edmund Burke. On this side of the Atlantic it was John Adams, who is sometimes called America’s Burke. The Discourses on Davila cover a great deal of ground in …

The Drayton Icon and Intellectual Vice

Some attacks are best absorbed, not fended off. Some accusations are best let past, not answered. Life is far too short to slap down every slight, and those of a determined ill will won’t be moved anyway. Besides, too thin a skin betrays a touchy insecurity that suggests the critic’s barbs have found their target. For those reasons, I have hesitated to respond to Richard Drayton’s essay, “Biggar vs Little Britain: God, War, Union, Brexit and Empire in Twenty-First Century Conservative Ideology,” which was published last month in a collection entitled, Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain.1 His assault is at once morally vicious and rationally weak. Moreover, it displays such an incontinent hostility that it’s doubtful anything I say would make an impression on him or his allies. Nevertheless, Drayton’s diatribe does reveal something important—not much about me, something about him, but mostly about the vices that fester in certain reaches of our universities, which serve to undermine rational dialogue and public norms of liberal civility. For that reason, I take up the cudgels …

For Students Who Grew Up Poor, An Elite Campus Can Seem Like a Sea of Wealth and Snobbery

“Where are the other poor black kids?” This is the first question I remember asking myself, a chubby freshman with my hair in cornrows, while walking across the Amherst College campus. I was in the center of the main quad, standing outside Johnson Chapel. The lawn was freshly mowed. It looked pristine, a shimmering deep green. The Massachusetts evening, slightly chilly for a Miami transplant such as myself, was filled with excitement as the incoming freshmen meandered around, nervously greeting one another. Conversations bubbled all around me. Wasting little time, my new peers enlisted me in a rite of passage that, fifteen years later, I now call “convocation conversations”—those quick, casual introductory chats that happen en route to meals and classes, where students conveniently work in verbal versions of their resumes and narrate their summer itineraries for any and all to hear. These strangers—my new classmates—swapped stories of summer fun. Multiweek trips abroad. Fancy parties at summer homes. Courtside seats at professional basketball games. Invitations to private premieres of movies that, as far as I knew, …