All posts filed under: Education

Public Education’s Dirty Secret

Bad teaching is a common explanation given for the disastrously inadequate public education received by America’s most vulnerable populations. This is a myth. Aside from a few lemons who were notable for their rarity, the majority of teachers I worked with for nine years in New York City’s public school system were dedicated, talented professionals. Before joining the system I was mystified by the schools’ abysmal results. I too assumed there must be something wrong with the teaching. This could not have been farther from the truth. Teaching French and Italian in NYC high schools I finally figured out why this was, although it took some time, because the real reason was so antithetical to the prevailing mindset. I worked at three very different high schools over the years, spanning a fairly representative sample. That was a while ago now, but the system has not improved since, as the fundamental problem has not been acknowledged, let alone addressed. It would not be hard, or expensive, to fix. Washington Irving High School, 2001–2004 My NYC teaching career began …

The Meaning of the Self-Destructive Strike at WSU

On January 22, a portion of the unionized faculty at Wright State University (WSU) in Dayton, Ohio went on strike. WSU is a regional state university with a medical school, several units that award PhDs, and many that grant master’s degrees. It has many nontraditional students and pockets of true excellence; it is a national leader in educating veterans and the disabled, for example. It is also where I have taught economics for almost a quarter-century. I applied for and received sabbatical for this year some time ago and so, as the strike has dragged on, I have watched this drama unfold at both a physical and emotional distance. The strike has been the culmination of years of bitterness between the faculty union (not, note, the faculty) and the administration. It is widely believed that the root cause of the strike was stark differences between the union and the administration over how to overcome a severe financial crisis earlier in the decade that was unquestionably the fault of previous administrators, yet has impacted the entire …

Liberal Orthodoxy and the New Heresy

I teach college in a small city in Arkansas, deep in the American Bible Belt. I am a historian of Africa and in my department that means that I also teach a world history survey. I always start with the expansion of modern humans out of Africa and their encounter with other types of humans: Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Denesovians and what seems like an ever-growing list of newly discovered human-like creatures. It’s less the case now, but when I started twenty years ago this part of the course was initially met with polite but firm resistance, which gradually gave way to a sort of furtive curiosity. I eventually realized that even my cleverest students knew very little about human evolution except that it was false and that they were supposed to reject it. They came to the university having been taught that evolution was part of a larger attack on their faith and values, but they had never really been exposed to anything but a sort of parody version of it. A small number of …

Adventures in Adjunctopia

Near the end of one recent semester, word began filtering back to the pooh-bahs at a certain eastern liberal arts college, where I then served as an adjunct instructor of writing, that despite my lack of a terminal degree (surely the most ominous-sounding of academic laurels), perhaps I wasn’t such an unqualified disaster in the classroom after all. A horrific glitch in the registrar’s computer had placed some of the English department’s most promising wordsmiths under my supervision, and their feedback on my evaluations suggested that perhaps I wasn’t doing too badly for a guy with a “lowly BA.” (That’s how I actually used to list my degree on my CV, until one of my deans told me to “stop being an asshole about it, please.”) Students made a particular point of my emphasis on “preparing us for success in the real world.” Normally, this is the point at which I would have been fired on the spot. I’d already gotten flak for making a classroom case history out of a lengthy investigative piece I’d done for Playboy, …

Are the Classics Complicit in White Supremacy?

Editor’s note: This is the final instalment in a four-part series on the Classics. As I’ve said before, for me, the debate about whether “Western Civ” should still be taught always comes back round to the situation facing my own field, classics. And in recent years, the progressive classics website Eidolon has published a number of pieces suggesting that the idea of studying the Western classics in anything like a traditional way isn’t just ill-advised, but positively dangerous. Donna Zuckerberg, the editor of Eidolon, has warned that “Western Civ” is a slippery slope to white supremacy, for example, and Rebecca Kennedy has gone one further, arguing that classics as a field is in fact already complicit in white supremacy. I have no reason to believe that these scholars are motivated by anything other than a sincere belief that they are working for the good of their field and of society as a whole. But it’s my own sincere belief that their way of looking at this issue is fundamentally flawed, and that the kind of …

Baizuo Lessons

It has become increasingly common in recent years for universities to contract out their international recruitment efforts to private companies. These companies also often provide a pre-college set of courses designed to get them ready for undergraduate or graduate studies. These “pathway” or “accelerator” programs have come under scrutiny from Inside Higher Ed, the Associated Press, and others over tuition-sharing arrangements. The University of Kansas’s partnership with Shorelight was one of that company’s first two ever. It began its “accelerator” program in the fall of 2014, and curriculum was decided upon jointly between the company and the university. I taught two of these courses as a masters student. These teaching roles come with considerably more responsibility than a graduate assistant generally has: we teach every class, we assign grades, and so on. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and at first I found it very exciting. I think college students at all levels would benefit from being given more responsibility. Most people thrive when given responsibility, and even the failures are usually instructive. Here …

Is Western Civilization Uniquely Bad?

This is part three of a four-part series on the Classics.  Even if the concept of Western civilization isn’t inherently incoherent, some would argue that we should still be extremely cautious of it, or maybe even avoid it altogether, because of the way Western nations have engaged in various sorts of racism, war-mongering, and imperialistic exploitation. On this view, the legacy of the West is irredeemably tainted, and we should either steer clear of it altogether, or, if we have to teach it, we should teach it in an openly and self-consciously critical way. Now, it’s impossible to deny that Western nations have done some terrible things. From the Spanish looting of the Inca Empire, to the British massacre of Indian civilians at Amritsar, the list of Western depredations is long. Violence within the West, and among Western nations, has been just as horrific, from the eight million or so deaths caused by the Thirty Years’ War to the 60 or 70 million fatalities of World War II. The problem is, though, that if we …

Is Western Civilization a Thing?

This is part two of a four-part series on the classics. Part three will be published tomorrow.  Is Western Civilization even a thing? That may seem like an odd question, but it’s one that anyone who talks about Western Civilization these days will eventually have to face because a lot of intellectuals claim that it isn’t. “The West,” to them, is nothing more than a mirage, or (to put it in classical terms) a chimera. As anarchist activist and anthropologist David Graeber puts it, “There never was a West.” Cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah is equally forthright, declaring in a Guardian essay that “There is no such thing as Western Civilization.” One problem for such thinkers is that the West has no clear boundaries. Is Russia part of the West, and, if so, how much of it? Is Turkey? What about modern Japan—or, for that matter, ancient Persia? Even historians who find the idea of the West useful seem to have trouble pinning it down. Ian Morris, for example, in his bestseller Why the West …

The Future of Our Ancient Past

This is part one of a four part series on the Classics. Part two will be published tomorrow. Australian National University’s decision to reject a large donation from the Ramsay Centre has brought the topic of Western civilization to the forefront once again. For me, the most pressing question is about the future of classics, the discipline that has long claimed to deal with the foundations of Western civilizations. I’ve previously helped teach a course called “Origins of Political Thought,” and I’m preparing to teach another with the title “Foundations of Western Political Thought” next year. But should anyone still be teaching courses on “Western Civ”? My answer, in a word, is yes. There’s nothing wrong with teaching Western Civilization or the Western classics alongside other cultural traditions. At the same time, the way Classics used to be taught is gone for good. In many ways, that’s a good thing: the traditional classical education was astonishingly narrow, and often gave the impression that the tradition it dealt with was the only game in town. Luckily, …

Thoughtcrime and Punishment: A Year Of Shunning and Law Suits at a Canadian University

In late 2017, I found myself at the centre of a controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I was an M.A. student and teaching assistant (TA) in the Communication Studies department. In the class for which I was serving as TA, I played part of a panel discussion that had aired on Ontario public television. As many readers will know, this material featured University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson making the argument against alternative gender pronoun usage, as well as Sexual Diversity educator Nicholas Matte’s arguments encouraging their use. Because I chose not to disavow Peterson’s views before airing the clip, I was brought into a subsequent disciplinary meeting. The supervisor for the course in question, Nathan Rambukkana, as well as the coordinator for my M.A. program, Herbert Pimlott (also known, at times, as “Hillary X Plimsoll”), and Gendered Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention manager Adria Joel accused me of breaking the law by airing a clip of Peterson in a classroom, as well as threatening and targeting trans people, thereby creating a toxic environment. …