Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Obama's Accreditation Reforms for Higher Education

Irene White was kind enough to send me the link to her blog on President Obama’s accreditation reforms for higher education. As you will see if you look at her piece, she discusses how accreditation generally works now and then describes the main points of the President’s plan to increase efficiency. The article is sympathetic to accreditation and to the plan. I include the introduction and link here:
“In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama outlined several proposals to reform and improve higher education, including putting the brakes on the spiraling costs of college tuition. One method for achieving this, an initiative that has resonated with students and parents alike, is to make a school’s participation in certain federal aid programs dependent on it being affordable and effective. This new form of accreditation, linked hand-in-glove with the Department of Education’s College Scorecard has received broad public support.”  Read further

I thank Ms. White for sending this clear exposition. I have some initial thoughts on it. Most basically, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the dramatic federalization of higher education. I recognize, of course, that the federal government has long been involved in this area. The land grant colleges were created by federal initiative in the second half of the nineteenth century (and made possible the education of many people in my own family). The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, or GI Bill, in several iterations extended federal funding for veterans and encouraged the perception of college as a universal possibility. The expansion of federally guaranteed loans and programs such as the Pell Grant have provided a big source of tuition assistance over the past half century or so.  I would suggest that some of these developments may have had negative as well as positive sides. In particular, pumping money into the demand side may well have helped to push up tuition costs. But my greatest concern would be the centralization of educational policy. The funds for land grant colleges did come from Washington, but those colleges were always under the direction of the states. Now, we have not simply federal support for higher education, but an effort at central control and management.  Moreover, this is not coming from the legislature, but from the executive branch, and therefore seems to me like a further elaboration of what historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the imperial presidency.”

I’m not sure that accreditation now works exactly the way Ms. White describes (my own university went through the periodic accreditation ordeal not too long ago), but this is not because she has it wrong, but because accreditation still seems to be a site of debate and struggle over the processes and purposes of colleges and universities. Still, a number of the standards she identifies as requirements for accreditation I either view with skepticism or oppose. Most “mission plans” that I have seen are pure jargon and shibboleth. I’d respond to the putative requirement that “diversity is fostered and the program is inclusive” by observing that one can hardly find better examples of jargon and shibboleth than “diversity” and “inclusiveness.” Do these terms refer to rigorous non-discrimination against individuals or to conscious efforts to promote the incorporation of members of disadvantaged groups? This type of question is deeply political and accrediting agencies that push this sort of requirement run the risk of imposing political opinions on institutions and, by extension, on faculty members. I would say, further, that accreditation does not currently require faculty to “engage in public service for the alumni and the community.” If an accrediting agency tried to require something like this, I’d fight it. University professors should be experts in their academic disciplines. They are only “public servants” in the sense that teaching and research are services. To require that they serve the community in some way that an agency will recognize is to draft them into someone else’s social and political agenda. This would be not just inconsistent with academic freedom, but a violation of their basic right as citizens to make their own decisions about civic commitments. Finally, my experiences with “ongoing assessment” and “continual improvement” have made me extremely cynical about bureaucratic attempts to treat educational institutions as if they were factories using quality control standards to measure the students rolling off of the assembly lines. Given these views on accreditation, I tend to worry that making the process more efficient and centralized will just push us further down the wrong path.

I am actually sympathetic to some of the elements in the President’s plan, even though I don’t think that Educator-in-Chief should be part of this elected official’s job description.  I do think that the College Scorecard could be one of the more problematic suggestions. If the feds will give you more money for high graduation rates, this could well be an incentive for further watering down higher education to make sure that everyone graduates. Rewarding and penalizing institutions based on employment rates and student loan default rates raises a difficulty that we have seen in other federal education programs, most notably No Child Left Behind: it provides sanctions for events that are often beyond the control of institutions.

Early childhood education is one of the suggestions I view favorably, although (again) I am uncomfortable with its federalization. True, the effectiveness of the best-known program of early childhood education (Head Start) is debated, and the evidence on this is mixed.  But I do think that early education is beneficial and if you support increasing federal involvement in schooling, then this is a reasonable proposal.

The creation of STEM master teachers for high school students also sounds like a good idea and this could be one way that we could reinvigorate our undervalued vocational-technical training. I’ll have to repeat that I would favor doing something like this at the local level. I am also somewhat apprehensive about setting this up as a national “corps,” since I keep hearing plans to re-organize our whole society into “corps.” But well-prepared STEM teachers in our high schools may well be a good idea.

Ms. White links education reform to immigration reform. This is reasonable. Currently immigrants consist of two main occupational streams: the highly educated and high-skilled and the low-skilled with relatively little formal education. However, these two streams respond to demand. Immigration is educationally bifurcated because our economy is becoming bifurcated. This raises questions about just how education reform and immigration reform will fit together. Right now, we have a need for high-skilled immigrants because we are not producing enough high-skilled native-born workers. Presumably, if improvement in our educational system increased our stock of native-born skill, we would still need some high human capital immigration because of demographic trends within the U.S. But we would need relatively fewer highly educated immigrants. It is also to keep in mind that it is simply untrue that the U.S. economy needs only high-skilled labor, especially among immigrants. On the other side, demand draws in undocumented immigrants precisely because we have jobs in areas such as meat-packing, carpet manufacture, lawn care, agricultural labor, and construction labor that rely on low-wage, low-skilled workers. While this probably does drive down wages for the native-born at the bottom of the American economy (as economist George Borjas has argued), the cheap labor also means higher standards of living for the rest of us. So, on this side of the equation, the more we regularize the status of undocumented immigrants and encourage their upward mobility through the educational system,  the less we will need them and, as their wages go up, the higher the prices the rest of us will pay. Sympathy for hard-working immigrants does not change these types of hard realities.
I do wholeheartedly support the idea that we should reintegrate veterans and, since taking care of former military is clearly a federal obligation, I have no problems at all with this part of the plan.
Again, I thank Irene White for sending me the link to her thought-provoking article. I hope my off-the-top-of-my-head ruminations are not too rambling and raise some questions worth mulling over. Those who happen to read this should give her description of the Obama plan for education careful scrutiny and, of course, make up their own minds about this important topic.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Language Policy and Free Speech at Pima Community College

Today’s Inside Higher Ed reports on the case of Terri Bennett, a nursing student at Pima Community College who is suing the school for wrongful suspension and violation of her free speech rights. According to the article, Ms. Bennett objected to her fellow students’ speaking Spanish among themselves and in class, on the grounds that this interfered with her own learning.  She maintains that when she met with a college administrator, he called her a “bigot” and a “bitch,” and that she was then suspended.
The organization ProEnglish, a group that advocates English as an official language, is supporting Ms. Bennett.  On the other side, critics of the suit have characterized it as an attack on the education of Latino students.  A columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, quoted in the article, assails that organization, writing that "ProEnglish is speaking a language all right -- but it's not English. It's the language of The Code," she wrote. "The Code where 'our national identity' means white, not brown. Us, but not them. We all know who the 'them' are, wink wink."
Let me acknowledge that all I know about this case comes from this article and it is possible that there is more to it than appears here.  If Ms. Bennett, for example, repeatedly threw tantrums in the classroom whenever she heard Spanish or physically threatened a fellow student, instructor, or administrator, then the suspension would be justified. Nothing of the sort appears in the report, though.  On the basis of this reporting, I’d say they are two distinct issues in this particular case, and I’d draw a broader observation about debates over policy questions from it.
The first issue is that of Ms. Bennett’s objection to the use of Spanish.  An instructor can set language policy for a classroom according to the needs of the students. If the instructor decides that a multilingual or monolingual setting works best for a particular class, then the instructor can set the requirements accordingly. In order to do this, though, the instructor needs to listen carefully to every student’s concerns.  Neither Ms. Bennett nor any other student can insist that a particular language be spoken, but every each student’s preferences should be taken seriously. On the issue of whether fellow students have the right to speak Spanish (or any other language) among themselves, it seems clear to me that they do.  If this is inconvenient or uncomfortable for anyone, then, well, we all have to live with some inconvenience.
The second issue, though, is whether Ms. Bennett has the right to voice her views without insults or retaliation from the institution. On this point, assuming that the article accurately reports the situation, it is obvious to me that her lawsuit has merit.  No college administrator should ever call a student a “bitch,” and taking disciplinary action against someone for giving voice to an opinion is unconscionable.
The broader observation concerns how we respond to differing points of view, attacking motivations instead of considering arguments. The Arizona Daily Star’s characterization of ProEnglish is a more sophisticated version of the administrator’s alleged response to Ms. Bennett: scream “bigot” at anyone with ideas different from your own. I don’t support language regulation by legislators, but if you agree or disagree with me on this, you should base your response on reason, not on whether you think my opinion stems from my vicious or virtuous motivations and character.  Similarly, those who disagree with the public policy views of ProEnglish or other organizations need to base their disagreements on arguments, not accusations.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond’s last two books aimed at accounting for the rise and fall of civilizations. Guns, Germs, and Steel offered a geographic and environmental theory of why complex societies arose in some parts of the world and not others and why Europe eventually dominated the globe. Collapse traced the fall of defunct complex societies and attributed their fate to human activities that led to environmental exhaustion. The characteristic that made these works interesting, the identification of a fairly simple pattern of causes and effects behind complicated developments across varied societies on a global scale, also made Diamond’s propositions highly debatable.
The World Until Yesterday is a different kind of book. It does rely on cross-cultural comparisons and the concern with development and its consequences are still present. But it does not indulge in the grand theorizing of the previous two books and it relies much more on Diamond’s personal experiences in New Guinea. He compares traditional societies, the foraging and simple horticultural bands and tribes that were the nearly universal forms of human organization for much of our existence, with modern, state societies. From the comparison, Diamond seeks to draw lessons about the relative benefits of the two social orders and to make observations about what those in state societies can learn from the others. The comparisons are often enjoyable, although not original.  The lessons seem worth considering, although I was frequently unsure whether or how these lessons can be applied to contemporary urban and suburban settings.
Diamond divides the book into five topical parts: on the division of space into boundaries in territories; on peace and war; on child-rearing and roles of the elderly; on danger and responses to dange;, and on religion, language, and health.  In the first part, Diamond makes it clear that “inclusiveness” is a modern value. Traditional societies, he observes, have behaved like tiny nations, only with much more heavily defended boundaries than any modern society. “They,” he writes, “divided other peoples more sharply into friends, enemies, and strangers than does even North Korea today” (pp. 75-6). Trade among groups and across frontiers has always existed, but in the traditional societies it has often taken the form of exchanges of gifts to establish social relations, rather than utilitarian interchange.
Boundaries are connected to another universal of human groups: conflict and warfare.  Here, again, modern state societies have the advantage. Diamond argues that although warfare among traditional societies has resulted in much lower body counts than has warfare among better organized and more technologically proficient groups, the foragers and horticulturalists also have tinier populations, so that the slaughter among tribes and bands has been proportionally greater than any of our most wide-scale modern assaults on human life. In addition, Diamond maintains that colonial domination brought greater peace to many of the older social forms and he quotes tribal members who were grateful for that imposed peace. This is a point that those obsessed with the evils of European colonialism should consider very carefully. He does believe that traditional societies can teach us something about conflict resolution, though. He uses the example of a case of negotiation and compensation in the accidental death of a child in New Guinea to suggest that sometimes traditional approaches can do a better job of re-establishing social relations than criminal or civil law. Diamond tentatively describes the “restorative justice” movement in the West as a way in which the better elements of traditional conflict resolution can be adapted to state societies. This was an intriguing recommendation, although I am unsure how applicable interpersonal conflict resolution can be in unavoidably impersonal social orders.
Diamond’s traditional societies differ greatly in their child-rearing. Some practice corporal punishment. Others don’t. Some allow their children extensive freedom, even allowing them to engage in dangerous activities. Many of them practice infanticide, particularly if they are nomadic and have to carry children. In general, though, Diamond finds that the traditional peoples give more on-demand nursing, have more physical contact with infants, use allo-parents (adults who act as parents to all children), employ play as a form of education, and have multi-age child play-groups.  We might profitably adopt several of these child-rearing practices, in Diamond’s view.  More physical contact with adults and carrying children facing forward might help the development of children. Allo-parents and multi-age play groups seem like useful practices, although I am not sure exactly how these could fit into the structures of our urban and suburban communities and our schools.
The traditional societies also vary in their treatment of the elderly. Some kill or abandon their elderly, usually because their environments require them to do so to survive. Diamond (age 75) does not recommend such practices. Others, though, cherish and revere their elderly. This is because older people are better at the types of things that require extensive experience, such as making baskets, and because older people can be very helpful in taking care of children. Most importantly, in pre-literate societies the elderly are valuable repositories of accumulated knowledge.  Diamond cites the shocked disapproval of individuals from several traditional societies who have learned of our abandonment of the elderly in nursing homes.  He suggests that we could make greater use of our own seniors in child-care (one wonders how many would jump at the chance) and cultivate the skills that come with age. As I read this part of the book, I found myself thinking about a possible future time when all of the computers go down, followed by a desperate search for ancient clerks who still remember the lost arts of manual record-keeping and filing.
Comparing dangers and responses to dangers, Diamond finds, not surprisingly, that different human societies face different types of threats.  Foragers and horticulturalists worry much more about wild animals, famine, and enemies. Those in developed societies worry about DNA technologies and the environmental effects of spray cans. Diamond believes that traditional people estimate their risks more accurately, perhaps because they learn about them first-hand, while information in developed localities may be filtered through mass means of communication. We tend to systematically underestimate the sources of our risks, generally failing to recognize automobile accidents as the single greatest threat to life that we face. Diamond suggests that we can learn from traditional societies how to be more realistic in assessing dangers and that we can adopt more of their “constructive paranoia,” a consciousness of low-level but continual dangers in everyday life.  
The section on religion, language, and health is the loosest, apparently throwing together topics Diamond wanted to discuss but did not know where to fit. I was least impressed by the chapter on religion, which largely repeats the speculations of evolutionary psychology on the social functions of religion.  In the chapter on language, he observes that small-scale, traditional societies have much greater language diversity and argues for the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism. He makes some interesting suggestions for preserving disappearing languages and promoting multilingualism. Health constitutes one of the big differences between the two types of societies. While people in developed societies enjoy much longer life spans, their general physical condition tends to be much worse than that of the foragers. While the latter are more prone to communicable diseases, the former suffer more from non-communicable illnesses, such as Type II diabetes, which often derive from fatty, salty diets. Diamond believes we can improve our eating habits by observing traditional models. This may be a good idea, although it is far from original.
It remains unclear to me how the author’s advice would be implemented or by whom. Some of the lessons Diamond takes from his comparisons seem to be policy recommendations, such as restorative justice programs, while others seem to be suggestions for individuals, such as carrying small children facing forward.  Often, his advice seems good, but unlikely to have any effect. I doubt that the drivers who tailgate me and make angry gestures when I’m driving only a few miles over the already suicidal speed limit will adopt an attitude of constructive paranoia toward the ubiquitous perils of death by automobile.
Ultimately, the big difference between traditional and state societies of the most recent sort may be that post-industrial people believe, rightly or wrongly, that they can control and re-make their own environments, including their social environments. It would make no sense to most !Kung foragers or to  Diamond’s friends in New Guinea to compare and contrast the ways of their ancestors with post-industrial ways and pick and choose which life patterns they think work best.  To the extent that anyone asks the kinds of questions Diamond does, that person has already left the traditional behind. It may be that the contemporary attitude that everything can be re-designed and that world cultures make up a shopping market of lifestyles that we can mix and match is at least partly an illusion. In any case, the idea that our way of life is not handed down across generations (the etymological sense of “traditional), but can be questioned and examined lies at the heart of the break from tradition.
Jared Diamond

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Trial by Jury in Florida

"The jury decided WHAT?"
The “Rashomon effect” takes its name from Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film of that name. In it, four witnesses to the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife give differing and contradictory accounts of the crime. The effect refers to the observation that truth is difficult to discern in a world of multiple perspectives, motivations, and personal histories.
If the truth can sometimes be elusive even with witnesses to an event, perhaps we should be cautious about claims to accurate understanding of a set of events reconstructed after their occurrence. In the recent Zimmerman homicide case in Florida, though, it seems as if everyone is convinced of the infallibility of his or her opinion and outraged that anyone else might interpret the events differently. Well, there has been a trial and the jury, after hearing evidence provided by both sides, has rendered the official decision.  Clearly, many people believe that this official decision was wrong. But legal verdicts cannot rest on unanimity of public opinion.
There are situations in which jury decisions should be re-evaluated. If, for example, the prosecution withholds exculpatory evidence from the defense in order to get a conviction, the trial process has clearly been corrupted. If bribes or fear of retaliation influence the jurors, this should invalidate their decision. But there have been no evident procedural violations in the notorious Florida trial. Those protesting the verdict are not, as far as I can tell, directing their protests against the manner in which the jurors reached their verdict. If the same jury had come to a different conclusion, the protestors would presumably be satisfied (although another set of people might be upset).  But you cannot have a trial in which the outcome you want is guaranteed. If you accept the trial as a method, as opposed to justice imposed by a mob, then you have to accept both the verdicts you think are right and those that you think are wrong, as long as those verdicts are procedurally correct.
At this point, there is a possibility that the Depart of Justice will intervene to bring a new set of civil rights charges against the acquitted defendant. I am not an attorney, but I believe that the DOJ could do this without technically violating the prohibition against double jeopardy, since these charges would be “new.”  While the DOJ might be able to do this under the letter of the law, it would be contrary to the spirit of the prohibition because the point of not allowing the same charges to be brought more than once is to prevent the authorities from going after someone forever or until they get a conviction. And those civil rights charges, if brought, would essentially be the same allegations dressed up a little differently, intended to retry the case in search of a different outcome.
The Martin family could also bring a civil suit.  Those who believe they have suffered damages due to the actions of another have recourse to the courts. If the family does so, then it will be up to the legal system to decide the civil case.  People marching, shouting slogans, and brandishing placards should have no influence on lawsuits or on criminal cases.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Egypt and the Paradox of Democracy

Casting Ballots

I am not an authority on Egypt. The only part of North Africa I have visited is the Maghreb, many years ago. I never achieved more than an introductory knowledge of Arabic, and today recall only a few phrases, the beauty of the writing, and the painful complexities of forming plurals. Everything I know about Egypt comes from books, journals, and (recently) the internet, mostly in the writing of non-Egyptians.  I do not intend to pose as an instant expert on that country.  Instead, my thoughts on Egypt involve the application of general principles of comparative politics to my admittedly superficial knowledge of the country.
In my previous observations on “the Arab Spring,” I was skeptical of the exuberant optimism with which many Americans greeted popular uprisings against authoritarian governments. Many of the countries in North Africa seemed to me to illustrate the situation known as the paradox of democracy. That is, forces opposed to liberal democracy were likely to come to power in any democratic elections, making democratization a self-defeating proposition. As Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in his analysis of American democracy, successful popular government rests on stable civic institutions.  Unfortunately, the civic institutions of Egypt and the countries in its region may not be conducive to full-fledged participatory electoral politics.
Egypt is polarized between secularists and adherents of political and social Islam. The latter possess the strongest and best-organized voluntary associations, mainly under the general direction of a single organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.  The secularists are numerous, but fragmented. Thus, the candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, became the legitimately elected leader of the country after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Because of his base in the Muslim Brotherhood, though, Morsi proceeded to concentrate power and to move the country toward the vision of the supporters of political Islam. The resulting opposition to him from the secularists and from the bureaucracy inherited from the Mubarak era intensified the polarization, which worsened the country’s economic condition, and a deteriorating economy, in turn, deepened dissatisfaction on the part of Morsi opponents and further exacerbated the polarization.
Although the civic institutions of Egyptian society are divisive, the country does have a strong and stable formal organizational institution: the army. By definition a hierarchy, the army does not easily lend itself to democracy to the extent that it is actively involved in government. The Egyptian military also adds another layer to the polarization because its leaders have historically viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as subversive. Following its coup d’etat against Morsi, the army is now siding with the secularists, but the ultimate interest of the military is order, not liberal democracy.
The most optimistic near future may be a staged democracy, in which the military directs elections and maintains control more or less behind the scenes. Note that in describing this as the most optimistic possibility, I am not expressing an ideology, but simply saying that I think that military-directed pseudo-democracy would be preferable to outright dictatorship by the army, the establishment of an authoritarian Islamic state, or a continual state of war in the streets. However, I don’t think that my preferences for Egypt matter. I am not an Egyptian. This brings me to the question of what stance my government should take toward affairs in Egypt.
Just as I don’t think my personal political preferences about a foreign country’s internal politics matter, I don’t think my government should seek to impose its preferences. While Americans have every right to be pleased if Egypt moves toward liberal democracy or disappointed if it moves toward some version of authoritarianism, the form of government in that nation is none of our business.  We are currently charged, with some validity, of being hypocritical in our rapid shifts of support for regimes supposedly in transition to democracy.  We would do better to avoid global proselytizing and to be clear, first, that the sovereignty of the United States ends at the borders of the United States, and, second, that our overriding foreign policy aim is the pursuit of our own national interests.  This would mean explicitly stating that we will recognize any de facto government in Egypt or any other country, and that our recognition implies neither approval nor disapproval. If we provide aid, it should be clear that this is not contingent on a foreign country’s adopting a political system that we find amenable, but on that country’s support for our national interests.