All posts filed under: Education

Racial Slurs and Deferential Condescension

Over the last week, Western University (where I am currently enrolled) has been mired in scandal over an instructor’s decision to utter a racial slur during a discussion of popular culture in his English literature class. More specifically, the instructor (Andrew Wenaus) suggested that Will Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler,” in a 20-something year old episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, may have been a subtle reference (sanitized for consumption on syndicated television) to the phrase “house nigger,” which was, during the pre-emancipation period, used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household. It is, I suppose, debatable whether Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler” was in fact intended by the show’s writers as a reference to the aforementioned slur. It is not, however, debatable whether or not this slur was used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household. That is a straightforward historical fact. For daring to articulate this fact in his classroom, Wenaus has been dragged on social media (and by the local press) as racially …

Elite Colleges Reconsidered

Yale students, if they’re still anything like they were when I graduated a few short years ago, likely aren’t overly concerned with the college admissions scandal that dominated the news this past spring, even as Lifetime releases its TV-movie based on the events and Felicity Huffman walks free after having served her eleven days in jail. Instead, Yale students will be focused on their classes, fulfilling their language requirements, agonizing as early as November about their plans for the following summer, and scrambling to join the various clubs that, like so many activities on campuses, require a surprisingly vigorous application process. For the newly arrived freshmen, who are, by now, probably starting to feel a bit more at home on campus, there is also probably still that lingering sense in the back of their heads that they made it: that they were admitted from the record 36,829 who applied for a spot in the class of 2023 to a school considered among the most prestigious in the world. The college admissions scandal produced a number …

Mediocrity for All!

It strikes me as ironic that in a realm like education, the lesson America’s scholastic visionaries never seem to learn is also the most simple lesson of all—that education should be about educating. Theorists persist in reinventing the wheel, sometimes with good intentions and sometimes in the service of agendas that are rather less defensible and/or wholesome than those publicly stated. Such is the case with the hottest currency to emerge from the pointy-headed precincts of pedagogical theory: social-emotional learning, or SEL. SEL assumes as its mandate “the education of the whole child,” a lodestar concept among today’s educational brain trust. Though the approach has been gaining traction for about a decade, SEL is now poised for what is sure to be its flagship implementation. As New York mayor and erstwhile presidential candidate Bill de Blasio vowed in a recent article for Fortune, SEL is to be rolled out “in every classroom,” serving the 1.1 million school kids of the sprawling New York City system. The mayor goes on to describe a prototype for the …

Experiments in Nurturing Classroom Curiosity

Last semester, I was asked to teach a class about “socially engaged art” for the University of Colorado Denver, where I am an adjunct professor for the studio arts program. I was both surprised—did they know I gave a lecture at the University of New Orleans titled “Against Political Art” in 2017?—and delighted, because it was my first opportunity to teach an upper level discussion course, instead of introductory drawing and painting classes that focus on technical skills. The structure of the course was two-part, with half our time spent in class discussions and the other half as studio hours for students to create their own socially engaged art. Because my goal was to prepare the students intellectually to create such work, their opinions about sociopolitical issues were central to the course. And because university campuses have developed a reputation for intellectual intolerance, I suspected that this class would become either an echo chamber or a powder keg. After the students shared their interests, I placed my bets on the powder keg: their views ranged …

Higher Education’s Medievalist Moral Panic

On September 19, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), a 36-year-old organization of academics specializing in the history, culture, and literature of England before the Norman Conquest, hastily voted to change its name. Indeed, the vote was so hasty that the organization had no idea what its new name ought to be (it is soliciting suggestions from members). Nonetheless, the majority of its 600-odd members were certain of one thing: they no longer wanted to be associated with the words “Anglo-Saxon.” In the view of many of those members, that term had become tainted, appropriated by an assortment of white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis that calls itself the “alt-right.” During the Charlottesville, Virginia melée of August 11–12, 2017, which included a supremacist’s murder of a woman by car attack, the white nationalists who marched had carried banners and standards incorporating iconography that, if not always precisely Anglo-Saxon in inspiration, was certainly medieval: Templar crosses, the double eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, and in one case, a Germanic rune beloved of neo-Nazis that was …

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 …