When School is a Factory

For 20 years, I have been teaching large arts and humanities general education courses at the University of California, Irvine. These 400-student classes are part of the undergraduate “breadth requirements” common in most colleges and universities, and hence draw enrollments from across the academic disciplines. At UC Irvine, this means that most of the class comprises science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. Aside from an orientation to more practical fields, I’ve noticed a clear shift in student attitudes in recent years –– a heightened preoccupation with grades and rankings, combined with growing anxieties about future earnings. Many of my colleagues see this as well, often disparaging students more concerned with GPA metrics than learning itself, while increasingly behaving more like consumers of educational commodities. I take a more sanguine view.

Bear in mind that many of today’s college students grew up during the Great Recession, when families of all incomes had money worries. With scant knowledge of a world before 9/11, it’s little wonder that polls show millennials expecting lower earnings than their parents, seeing the United States on a downward spiral, and believing the two-party system as fatally flawed.[i] Rising income inequality doesn’t help matters, especially at UC Irvine where 6 in 10 students get financial aid and half are the first in their families earning a college degree.[ii] Because of this, Irvine has been cited by the New York Times as the country’s leading “upward mobility engine” –– making the campus a national model of what public higher education can do.[iii] But it’s still not a cake-walk for degree seekers. As at most public universities in America, the majority of Irvine’s full-time students also work at jobs to make ends meet.[iv]

Higher education translates into higher wages.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, people with four-year degrees earn roughly twice that of high school graduates.[v]  Given these financial pressures, it’s no surprise that college education is seen as a commodity. Almost all of the students I encounter are serious, hardworking, and focused. They want rational outcomes, high grades, and clear metrics.  Most of all, they are driven to succeed –– in a nation where struggle is expected and competition has been called the “state religion.” In the minds of many there is a Darwinian inevitability to contest in life, so much so that it is often seen as a natural instinct. This is manifest in a culture valorizing personal achievement, aggression, and America First –– values reinforced in the ideologies of business, entertainment, celebrity, sports, and militarism. 

But educators have long observed that competition can be dangerous when pushed too far –– for the simple reason that a system producing “winners” always yields a larger pool of “losers.” Alfie Kohn wrote in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Why We Lose our Race to Win) that Americans are caught in a vicious circle in which individual anxieties and structural conditions reinforce each other. Children are conditioned for a world of presumed scarcity, based on the following contradictory ontology: “If I must defeat you in order to get what I want, then what I want must be scarce,” Kohn stated, explaining that when “competition sets itself as the goal, which is to win, scarcity is therefore created out of nothing.”[vi]  

Kohn argues that the real lesson instilled by competition is personal inadequacy. Wins tend to be short-lived moments of self-satisfaction derived from external evaluation, implying that one’s character rises in proportion to number of those beaten. The transitory character of such winning means that any gain is fragile and contingent on the outcome of the next contest, setting off a repeating cycle, until one ultimately fails. The external character of the evaluation also can make young people feel they are not in control of happens to them, as researcher Carole Ames has noted. Ironically, the very sense of autonomy that competition purports to instill is diminished by the anxieties that go along with it.  Feelings of agency can become weakened even among successful students, but it takes a greater toll on those who fail. This tends to produce lower achievement in both groups, along with a plethora of esteem-related problems.[vii]

Internalized competition is but one side of the equation. For the better part of a decade, professors and students alike have bemoaned the growing “corporatization” of universities, as bottom line administrative thinking has encroached on high-minded idealism. Complaints have come from across the U.S. about skyrocketing tuitions, huge lecture courses, and growing numbers of low-wage occasional lecturers. Exacerbated by recessionary belt-tightening, a new philosophy taken over higher education––with numbers and budgets increasingly driving curriculum and research priorities. Humanities departments shrink as business programs grow, partly in response to student career worries. All of this has paralleled a continuing movement toward “accountability” in public education––with K-12 teachers finding themselves obliged to “teach-to-the-test” or risk losing their jobs. Competition for grades in science and math has superseded such “frills” as art education for most of the nation’s kids. 

“When Universities Try to Behave like Business, Education Suffers,” read a recent headline in the Los Angeles Times.[viii] “For most of U.S. history, it was understood that universities, whether public or private, operated under a model distinct from business,” the paper reported. But a shift took place in the 1980s and 1990s, as American culture became enthralled with marketplace values. “Until then, the private sector wasn’t the model for the public sector,” the Times reported, adding, “Now the prestige of the private sectors requires imitation by the private sectors.”  Students seem to be losing out in this new environment. “They’re not only saddled with an increasing share of the direct costs of their education,” the Times stated, “but are offered a narrower curriculum as universities cut back on supposedly unprofitable humanities and social science courses in favor of science, engineering and technology programs expected to attract profitable grants and the prospects of great riches from patentable inventions.”

The effect of corporatization on academic labor has been devastating. In 1975, over 70 percent of instruction was done by full-time professors –– experts in their fields and committed to careers as professors. Today that ratio has reversed –– with 70 percent of teaching delivered by adjunct faculty (non-tenure track) –– with minimal experience, no job security, and often less commitment to the institution itself. Most adjunct instructors work multiple jobs to subsist –– with over 50 percent earning less than $35,000 per year and 80 percent getting no health insurance.[ix] Universities increasingly see adjunct teaching as a less valued enterprise than the highly compensated “research” mission of full-time faculty.  This isn’t just bad news for job-hungry young PhDs and MFAs. A recent study from the University of Southern California has shown that “students who take more classes from contingent faculty have lower graduation rates and are less likely to transfer” from two-year to four-year institutions.[x] Forbes Magazine similarly reported that, “such faculty are less student-centered in their teaching, have less contact with students outside of class, and spend less time preparing for classes.”[xi]

Instructional declines and labor abuses are but a few symptoms of university corporatization. And this problematic trend is hardly a secret. Recently, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) –– the nation’s largest organization of college educators –– published an analysis of the shift from higher education as a “public investment” to the rising “private enterprise” model. “These changes reflect the neoliberal faith that free markets would restore productivity,” the document stated.[xii]  But the AAUP asserts that privatization has had the opposite effect. With rising costs and narrowing academic options, colleges and universities have seen a steady decline in student applications –– even though the overall population of high school graduates has grown. Pressures to avoid debt and to begin earning are some of the reasons, with low-income students attending traditional colleges at 10 percent lower rates than a decade ago.[xiii]

Concerns about corporatized higher education go back a century, evidenced in Thorstein Veblen’s 1917 The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. Even then, professors across country worried about eroding educational values and a tightening of bureaucratic management.  Veblen saw universities losing their status as a protected preserves for “the cultivation and care of the community’s highest aspirations and ideals,” operating in the “apprehension of what is right and good,” and “controlled by no consideration of expediency beyond its own work.” With an eerie prescience, Veblen warned of the incursion of a rising business rationality in which “the men of affairs have taken over the direction of the pursuit of knowledge” while effecting a “surveillance of the academic work exercised through control of the budget.” [xiv]  

Corporatization intensified with the creative destruction of the 1970s and 1980s. No less a publication than Time Magazine expressed concern over this in a feature entitled “How Universities Turned into Corporations.” Time described this as a period when “policymakers began to view higher education more as a private good (benefiting individual students) then as a public good (helping the nation prosper by creating better educated citizens).” [xv] Others would join in noting the social consequences of this shift. In his well-known 1977 Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, Paul Willis documented how education came to reproduce class stratification rather than equalization. Examining vocational “tracking” in Britain, Learning to Labour drew comparisons between school and the workplace, likening teachers to job supervisors who paid students with grades rather than money. “There is no obvious physical coercion” in such a disciplinary model, but rather what appears to be a “degree of self-direction,” Willis wrote.[xvi] Not that the students were oblivious to any of this, with many opting to push back. One of Learning to Labour’s key insights was its documentation of what later would be termed student “resistance,” often manifest in oppositional attitudes, disengagement, and even intentional failure at school.

For his book School is a Factory, Alan Sekula went into California community colleges, interviewing and photographing students in vocational training programs. Accompanying one set of images, Sekula wrote:

Three welding students pose for a portrait. They hope to graduate into jobs with metal fabrication shops in the area. Their instructors act like bosses, supervising the action from a glassed-in office. This apprenticeship program, like public education on generally, is supported by taxes that fall heavily on working people and only lightly on corporations. Spared the cost of on-the-job training, local industry profits from the arrangement. Social planners also like the idea that vocational courses keep unemployed young people off the streets and dampen discontent.[xvii]

As a former Creative Arts dean at one of California’s leading community colleges, I don’t mind admitting that what Sekula wrote certainly is partly true. But such public two-year schools also serve other purposes. For many low-income students, community colleges offer a viable entry-point into higher education, especially if they intend later transfer to a four-year school –– which four in ten of students indeed do. The problem is with the remaining 60 percent –– often underprepared by prior schooling and not able to afford further study even at state-funded universities –– who see vocational programs or immediate work as their only options. [xviii]  

The educational stakes are only rising in today’s “knowledge economy” –– an expression referencing both the decline in traditional manufacturing jobs and the rising role of expertise in a competitive job market. As with any highly-desired consumer product, laws of supply-and-demand are putting new pressures on knowledge and pushing prices up. A recent report from the Council of State Governments entitled “America’s Knowledge Economy,” urgently warned public officials that “short-term” tendencies to reduce education funding only cripple “long-term” economic growth and prosperity.[xix] The business press is beginning to voice similar concerns. “Education costs have soared over the past few decades leaving many potential students out in the cold,” stated Forbes Magazine. [xx]Citing statics from the College Board, Forbes reported that costs of higher education have risen an average of 5.2 percent every year since 1994 –– or more than double the rate of inflation.  Annual tuition and fees for in-state students at a public university now stands at $39,508, with out-of-state students paying $97,690, By comparison, private universities cost an average of $135,010. Add the costs of housing, books, and supplies and the price tag is even higher.

Student debt has become the new normal –– in keeping with changing attitudes toward credit itself. Generations ago, the idea of being in debt or “falling behind with bills” was seen as a moral or social ill. But things have changed with the rise of consumer credit and the aggressive marketing of companies like Visa and MasterCard. Breaking national records every year for the past two decades, total indebtedness for higher education now stands at $1.31 trillion. Outstanding loans have more than doubled since 2009 according to Bloomberg News, observing that, “No form of household debt has increased by as much since then.”[xxi] And the toll of the loans is terrifying––with one quarter of those owing now in default or at least 90 days late on their required payments. Making matters worse, student loans have been excluded from bankruptcy protection since 1998 –– thus condemning the current generation to a lifelong obligation unknown to their parents. Obama administration financial experts worried about the long term consequences of this, predicting that the loans could soon slow the U.S. economy. Even President Trump has likened the debt to an “anchor” holding down young Americans –– although his administration continues cutting federal programs to help student borrowers. Low-income students suffer the most –– as they enter the workforce with less freedom to choose employment and more pressure to look for the biggest paycheck. 

As schools have gotten costlier, pressures have grown to get the best value. Last year, UCLA broke national records for undergraduate applications, with over 124,000 students seeking admission for a freshman class of 9,200 –– translating to a 7.2 % rate. Similar (but less extreme) patterns are occurring across the country, pushing selectivity at prestigious public universities closer to Ivy league schools like Cornell (12.5% acceptance rate), Dartmouth (10.4%), and Yale (6.9%).[xxii] Students begin shopping for colleges as early as junior high, while struggling to optimize their chances through advanced classes and extracurricular activities. Nearly 50 percent of students see a high school counselor due to stress over this, according the American Psychological Association.[xxiii] “Burn-out before college” is a rising phenomenon. 

Meanwhile, business has boomed for SAT and ACT prep courses –– much to the consternation of testing services.   College Board President David Coleman thinks companies that offer SAT prep services are “predators who prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit.”[xxiv] Education experts have long argued that test prep providers exist not only because such high-stakes testing has failed students and colleges. They say the SAT and ACT provide poor measures of real academic achievement ––and actually indicate nothing more clearly than family income. The two largest prep course providers, Kaplan and Princeton Review, charge $699 for a basic course, although some families pay as much as $1,000 per hour for private tutors or free-lance college admission consultants. All of this has further stratified the college admissions process, while piling on costs before students even leave home.

In a relatively recent shift, students unsuccessful in the application process increasingly now choose for-profit colleges or vocational training programs, which, at least in theory, extend democratic access to education with enrollment limited only by one’s willingness to pay. Nationwide chains like Heald College, Devry University, and University of Phoenix promote themselves as guaranteed career pathways, often appealing to students hungry for jobs as office assistants or technical workers. According to U.S. News & World Report, such schools account for 42 percent of postsecondary enrollment growth in the past decade, despite two huge drawbacks: “For-profits are expensive,” costing and average $15,130 per year as opposed to $3,264 at community colleges and $8,893 at four-year public state colleges. “For-profit graduates struggle to find employment,” finding work at 22 percent less than conventional colleges, and they default on loans at higher rates due the combination of greater borrowing and lower employment. [xxv] Also, these commercialized colleges market themselves heavily to vulnerable populations, particularly the economically disadvantaged. Veterans with government education stipends also are targeted frequently. At the height of their popularity in 2010, for-profits gobbled up one quarter of federal financial aid –– for a total of $32-billion.[xxvi]

The predatory practices of for-profits now seem to be backfiring. In recent years, investigations by the federal officials and States Attorneys Generals have revealed unscrupulous business practices by for-profit colleges (particularly those that are run by large, publicly-traded companies), for what the National Association for College Admissions and Counselling calls “deceptive, aggressive and manipulative tactics to enroll as many students as possible, without regard for their potential for success or ability to afford tuition, in an effort to maximize profits.”[xxvii] In 2015, three of the nation’s largest for-profit chains –– Career Education Corporation, Education Management Corporation, and Corinthian Colleges –– announced the shut downs of dozens of campuses, as the University of Phoenix reported a 50 percent drop in enrollments.[xxviii] The following year, for-profit giant ITT Technical closed all of its 137 schools in 39 states following federal charges of fraud related to student recruitment, enrollment, dropout rates, grade inflation, loans, and reported job placement.[xxix]

Put all of this together and it’s easy to see why my UC Irvine students are a little on edge. College degrees are now more expensive, competitive, and keyed to earnings than at any point in American history –– so much so that many young people are buckling under the pressure. Universities seem unable to do very much to help because they themselves are a big part of the problem. Hence, amid an ever-tightening web of “financialized subjectivity,” the current generation finds itself bound by the logic of capital within the very institutions of higher education that might be instilling values of humanistic wisdom and unbounded inquiry. Neoliberal culture promises them freedom and upward mobility, while supplanting other ways of looking at knowledge, work, or life itself. None of this bodes well for the current generation of college age young people, much less the climate of experiment, risk-taking, and “creativity” so vital to innovation and new ideas.

[i] Samantha Smith, “Millennials less confident about nations’ future, but so were their parents, grandparents when young,” Pew Research Center(Feb. 16, 2016) http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/16/millennials-less-confident-about-nations-future-but-so-were-their-parents-grandparents-when-young/ (accessed Apr. 5, 2017).

[ii] “UC Irvine Praised for Student support,” Orange County Register (Mar. 29, 2016) http://www.ocregister.com/articles/students-709861-uci-schools.html (accessed Apr. 5, 2017).

[iii] David Leonard, “California’s Upward Mobility machine,” New York Times (Sep. 16, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/17/upshot/californias-university-system-an-upward-mobility-machine.html  (accessed Apr. 5, 2017).

[iv] Stacy Rapcon, “More college students are working while studying,” CNBC.com (Oct. 29, 2015) http://www.cnbc.com/2015/10/29/more-college-students-are-working-while-studying.html (accessed Apr. 5, 2017)

[v] “How Much More of College Graduates Earn than Non-College Graduates?” Study.com (2017) http://study.com/articles/How_Much_More_Do_College_Graduates_Earn_Than_Non-College_Graduates.html (Accessed Apr. 5, 2017).

[vi] Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Why We Lose our Race to Win) (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1986) p. 4.

[vii] Carole Ames, “Children’s Achievement Attributions and Self-Reinforcement: Effects of Self-Concept and Competitive Reward Structure,”Journal of Educational Psychology 70 (1978).

[viii] Michael Hiltzik, “When universities try to behave like business, education suffers,” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 3, 2016) http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-university-business-20160602-snap-story.html (accessed Apr. 14, 2017).

[ix] Dan Edmunds, “Nearly three-quarters of American professors are contingent faculty. That’s a problem for students,” Forbes Magazine (May 28, 2015) https://www.forbes.com/sites/noodleeducation/2015/05/28/more-than-half-of-college-faculty-are-adjuncts-should-you-care/#6efb36f41600 (accessed Apr. 13, 2017).

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] David Schultz, “The Rise and Coming Demise of the Corporate University,” AAUP (Sep. 15, 2016) https://www.aaup.org/article/rise-and-coming-demise-corporate-university#.V89ErWVltlo (accessed Sep. 6, 2016).

[xiii] Alai Wong, “Where are All the High-School Grads Going” The Atlantic (Jan. 11, 2016) http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/where-are-all-the-high-school-grads-going/423285/  (accessed Sep. 5, 2016).

[xiv] Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (1917) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2015) pp. 75, 88.

[xv] Andrew Rossi, “How American Universities Turned into Corporations,” Time (May 21, 2014) http://time.com/108311/how-american-universities-are-ripping-off-your-education/ (accessed Apr. 18, 2017).

[xvi] Paul Willis, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (New York; Columbia, 1977) p. 1.

[xvii] Alan Sekula, School is a Factory (Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, 1983) p. 2013.

[xviii] Grace Chen, “Will Community College Tuition Increases Outpace Inflation Rates?” Community College Review (Aug. 26, 2016) https://www.communitycollegereview.com/blog/will-community-college-tuition-increases-outpace-inflation-rates (accessed Apr. 6, 2017). 

[xix] “America’s Knowledge Economy: A State-by-State Review,” Council of State Governments  (2017) http://www.csg.org/programs/knowledgeeconomy/Elsevier_Report_2015.pdf (accessed Apr. 14, 2017).

[xx] Mike Patton, “The Cost of College: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” Forbes Magazine (Nov. 19, 2015) https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikepatton/2015/11/19/the-cost-of-college-yesterday-today-and-tomorrow/#51708786060c (accessed Apr. 9, 2017).

[xxi] Shaien Nasirpour, “President Trump has called student debt an ‘anchor’ weighting down young Americans.” Bloomberg News (Feb. 17, 2017) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-02-17/student-debt-in-america-has-hit-a-new-record (accessed Apr. 9. 2017).

[xxii] Abby Jackson, “Ivy League admission letters just went out––here are the acceptance rates for the class of 2021,” Business Insider (Apr. 1, 2018) http://www.businessinsider.com/ivy-league-harvard-yale-princeton-acceptance-rates-class-of-2021-2017-3  (accessed Apr. 22, 2018).

[xxiii] Samantha Olsen, “High School Students Are Stressed Out about College: the Reality of Burning Out Before College,
 Medical Daily (Aug. 12, 2015) http://www.medicaldaily.com/high-school-students-are-stressed-out-about-college-admissions-reality-burning-out-347476 (accessed Apr. 22, 2017).

[xxiv] James S. Murphy, “The SAT-Prep Industry Isn’t Going Anywhere,” The Atlantic (Mar. 4, 2014) https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/03/the-sat-prep-industry-isnt-going-anywhere/284430/ (accessed Apr. 9, 2017).

[xxv] Susannah Snider, “3 Must-Know Facts About For-Profit Colleges, Student Debt,” U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 1, 2014) http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/2014/10/01/3-facts-for-students-to-know-about-for-profit-colleges-and-student-debt (accessed Sep. 6, 2016).

[xxvi] Patricia Cohen, “ITT Educational Services Closes Campuses,” New York Times (Sep. 6, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/07/business/itt-educational-services-closes-its-campuses.html?_r=0 (accessed Sept. 8, 2016).

[xxvii] “For-Profit Colleges, National Association for College Admissions and Counseling (2015) http://www.nacacnet.org/issues-action/LegislativeNews/Pages/For-Profit-Colleges.aspx (accessed Sep. 5, 2016)

[xxviii] Paul Fain, “Vanishing Profit, and Campuses,” Inside Higher Education (May 7, 2015) https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/05/07/profit-chains-announce-new-wave-closures-and-sell-offs (accessed Sept. 7, 2016).

[xxix] “ITT Educational Services Closes Campuses.”

Anxious Creativity: When Imagination Fails

Just released: Creativity is getting new attention in today’s America –– along the way revealing fault lines in U.S. culture. Surveys show people overwhelming seeing creativity as both a desirable trait and a work enhancement, yet most say they just aren’t creative.

Like beauty and wealth, creativity seems universally desired but insufficiently possessed. Businesses likewise see innovation as essential to productivity and growth, but can’t bring themselves to risk new ideas. Even as one’s “inner artist” is hyped by a booming self-help industry, creative education dwindles in U.S. schools.

 Anxious Creativity: When Imagination Fails examines this conceptual mess, while focusing on how America’s current edginess dampens creativity in everyone. Written in an engaging and accessible style, Anxious Creativity draws on current ideas in the social sciences, economics, and the arts. Discussion centers on the knotty problem of reconciling the expressive potential in all people with the nation’s tendency to reward only a few. Fortunately, there is some good news, as scientists, economists, and creative professionals have begun advocating new ways of sharing and collaboration. Building on these prospects, the book argues that America’s innovation crisis demands a rethinking of individualism, competition, and the ways creativity is rewarded.

Available from all major booksellers. More info at: https://www.routledge.com/Anxious-Creativity-When-Imagination-Fails-1st-Edition/Trend/p/book/9780367275068

Natural Born Killers?

“Confessions of a Drone Warrior,” is one of hundreds of articles on the military’s use of Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAV), which began in the early 2000s. In many ways this new form of combat embodies the psychological distancing that typifies killing in the twenty-first century. The story about Airman First Class Brandon Bryant recounts his first day in a Nevada bunker, when the 22-year fired on two presumed Afghani insurgents on the other side of the world. An early recruit in this new kind of warfare, Bryant “hunted top terrorists, but always from afar” –– killing enemies in countless numbers, but not always sure what he was hitting. “Meet the 21stcentury American killing machine,” the story concluded.[i]

Of course, notions of aversion to fighting don’t sit well with either military doctrine or public belief. Behind America’s infatuation with high-tech weapons lie long-cultivated attitudes toward violence itself. In a class I teach on this, students often will express common sense views that fighting is “natural,” deriving from humanity’s animalistic origins, and often the only way of resolving conflicts. One sees this kind of thinking evident in permissive attitudes toward everything from boyish rough-housing to violent sports. The gendered aspects of violence receive less attention than they should, and will be addressed at length in Chapter 9. Suffice to say that aggression often is expected of men and boys, while also reflected in popular culture. Along with political partisanship, these attitudes help explain the deep divisions within the U.S. electorate over gun control and so-called “stand your ground” laws. Since even scholars often disagree over the issue of human violence, it helps to break the question into subcategories –– and to also point out how knowledge has changed over time in the fields of biology, psychology, and cultural analyses of violent behavior.

Continue reading “Natural Born Killers?”

Teaching Robots to Imagine

Can robots be taught to imagine? Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence group is doing just that –– developing computer versions of what many consider humanity’s quintessential trait. The software world long has pursued sentient consciousness as its holy grail. But until now, it’s only been found in science fiction movies like A.I., Ex Machina, and Transcendence. DeepMind engineers say they have cracked the code by combining two kinds of machine-learning. The first is linear, which is nothing new, with the computer applying a predefined algorithm over-and-over till it finds answers and then remembering them. In the second more radical approach, the computer tries many algorithms to find which work best, and then changes the very way it approaches problems. Combining the purely linear with a more systemic approach, DeepMind’s “Imagination-Augmented Agent” mimics intuitive learning in a way prior software hasn’t. It’s not exactlythe same as human imagination, but it comes closer than ever before to what neuroscientists say the brain does.

While robotic imagination may be improving, human thought isn’t faring as well. Most people feel uncreative and without inspiration, as discussed in earlier chapters. Corporations say innovation is withering as well. Novelist Ursula Le Guin recently observed that, “In America today imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work.”[i]Beyond the abandonment of a creative genre or two, American society also is undergoing a wholesale commodification of imagination itself. Disney is most famous for this, its “Imagineering” (imagination + engineering) brand one of the most viciously protected anywhere. But hundreds of companies evoke imagination to conjure an aura of specialness ––seen in promotions like Bombay Safire’s “Infused with Imagination,” GE’s “Imagination at Work,” Electrolux’s “Power to Capture Imagination,” Lego’s “Imagine,” Microsoft’s “Imagine Academy,” Nestle’s “Feed your Imagination,” Samsung’s “Imagine,” and Sony’s “Made of Imagination.” Continue reading “Teaching Robots to Imagine”

Creative Magic

By David Trend

“The central question upon which all creative living hinges is: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures hidden within you?” With this entreaty, author Elizabeth Gilbert introduced her recent bestseller Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which offered an artistic cure for an anxious American culture.[i] Speaking directly to widespread feelings of disaffection and powerlessness, Big Magic romanticized artistry in Gilbert’s signature blend of sentiment and cliché––packaging familiar views (human creativity, divine creativity, etc.) with a self-help twist about creating one’s “self” in new and better ways.  While one easily can write off Big Magic as yet another feel-good advice book (which it surely is), I think it’s time to take Gilbert’s approach to creativity seriously and ponder why such ideas now get so much traction.

Publicity doesn’t hurt. Reviewers effused over Big Magic as a “book-length meditation on inspiration” (Newsday) to “unlock your inner artist” (Woman’s Day) and “dream a life without limits” (Publishers’ Weekly).[ii] This message resonated well with the rising chorus promoting creativity as an innovation engine and economic tonic.  While no one would dispute the positive benefits of a little artistic dabbling, at what point does such wishful thinking begin to border on delusion? Or put another way, when does fantasy paper over reality? Might it be that America’s fondness for make-believe is party behind the nation’s political confusion and disaffection? Do fairy-tale versions of life infantilize a citizenry that should know that answers don’t always come easily?  Certainly the fantasy-version of reality offered by certain politicians would fail any thoughtful analysis. But instead, many leaders continue treating their constituents like children, with entire governments encouraging populations to set worries aside and simply “Be Creative.”

In Magical Thinking and the Decline of America, historian Richard L. Rapson took a long look at the nation’s romantic idealism. “Probably in no other society of the world can one write the script for one’s life as completely as United States. This fact has made the nation the ‘promised land’ for much of the world over the past two centuries,” Rapson wrote. “The flight into endless self-improvement and innocent optimism has a long lineage in our past.”[iii] Perhaps anticipating Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, Rapson pointed to the disconnection between America’s self-image as an “exceptional” driver of human history, and the growing evidence of the nation’s falling fortunes. This has led to what Rapson described as a growing “flight from knowledge and reality into faith and fantasy,” resulting in large part from “an American public increasingly in thrall to the fairytales told by the mass media.”[iv]  It also promotes a “cultural fixation on the individual, the personal, the biographical, the confessional, and, all too often, the narcissistic,” and hence the rise of new “magic words” like “self-awareness,” “personal growth” and other aphorisms promoting everyone to “be all that you can be.”[v]

Individualism lies at the heart of American idealism, dating to the country’s Enlightenment Era origins, when the autonomous subject was invented as a counterpoint to deific and royal authority. Necessary as individualism was (and remains), no one could have predicted how its value could be magnified and distorted in neoliberal times.  The initial affirmation of personal identity, which encouraged people to vote and participate in society, soon morphed into “striving to get ahead” and “winning at any cost.” Eventually the “self” would become an American obsession of theological proportions. “The purpose of nearly all the current gospels is to put believers ‘in touch’ with themselves,” Rapson further explained.[vi] This new brand of secular “faith” also comports well with the religiosity many Americans still profess, especially evangelical strains that promise economic gain to dutiful worshippers. Continue reading “Creative Magic”

Stigma and Mental Illness

By David Trend

“The more I became immersed in the study of stigmatized mental illness, the more it astonishing to me that any such phenomenon should exist at all,” writes Robert Lundin, a member of the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research. “I believe that serious and persistent mental illnesses, like the one I live with, are clearly an inexorably no-fault phenomena that fully warrant being treated with the same gentleness and respect as multiple-sclerosis, testicular cancer or sickle-cell anemia.”[i] Here Lundin names a central of problem in the social construction of mental illness: the misunderstanding of conditions affecting the mind as somehow different from other biological illness. The misrecognition renders mental illness prone to the judgmental attributions discussed by Susan Sontag in her 1973 book Illness as Metaphor.  To Sontag, contemporary society reverses ancient views of sickness as a reflection of the inner self.  In this new view, the inner self is seen as actively causing sickness––through smoking, overeating, addictive behavior, and bad habits: “The romantic idea that disease expresses the character is invariably extended to exert that the character causes the disease–because it is not expressed itself. Passion moves inward, striking within the deepest cellular recesses.”[ii] But as before, the sick person is to blame for the illness.

Such sentiments are especially vindictive when a mentally ill person commits a crime. Understandably perhaps, clinical terms like “mental illness” quickly acquire malevolent meanings in the public mind––even though the mentally ill statistically are no more prone to criminality than anyone else. Sometimes this semiotic slippage causes public panic over commonplace disorders. Consider the case of Adam Lanza, the young man who in 2013 shot 26 children and adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts. While mental health analysts speculate that an acute psychotic episode prompted his violence, Lanza never had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. As reporters scrambled for a story, much was made of Lanza’s childhood symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. The repeated mention of this disorder in news coverage triggered wrong-headed fears nationally of the murderous potential in other autistic kids. According the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 1 in 50 people (1.5-million) fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum, 80 percent of whom are boys.[iii] This has prompted improved diagnostic measures, which in turn have resulted in an apparent rise in autism cases in recent years––up 78 percent from a decade ago––and made autism a source of acute anxiety for many new parents. Continue reading “Stigma and Mental Illness”

Belonging Where?

By David Trend:

Throughout its existence the United States has shown a strange tendency to turn against itself, dividing citizens against each other with a vehemence rivaling the most brutal regimes on earth. Some have rationalized the resulting crisis of “belonging” in America as an understandable consequence of cultural diversity, economic stress, and global threat. After all, haven’t there always been “insiders” and “outsiders” in every culture? Aren’t competition and aggression wired into human nature?  Or is there something peculiar about the personality of the U.S.?  Could it be that prejudice is the real legacy of the “American Exceptionalism,” in traditions dating to the genocide of indigenous populations, the subjugation of women, the rise of slavery, the scapegoating of immigrants, and more recent assaults on the poor or anyone falling outside the realm of normalcy?

I discussed selected aspects of America’s divisive pathology in my book A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity, which was written in the closing years of the George W. Bush presidency.  Like many at the time, I had completely given up on the idea of “common ground” amid the residue of post-9/11 reactionary fervor and emerging economic recession. Media commentators were buzzing constantly about red/blue state polarization.  Opinions varied about the cause of the divide, attributing it to factors including regionalism, media sensationalism, partisan antipathy, or all of these combined. Also joining the fray were those asserting the divide was fabricated, with evenly divided elections showing most people in the middle of the curve on most issues.  My somewhat contrarian view was that the “problem” shouldn’t be regarded problem at all. After all, America always had been divided––through war and peace, boom and bust. Division was the country’s national brand.  But as a book about politics, A Culture Divided didn’t get to the roots or the lived experience America’s compulsive divisiveness.

Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Barack Obama described America as an incomplete project––a nation caught between ideals of a perfect union and the lingering realities of their failure. While citing advances in civil liberties since the bloody apex of the Voting Rights Movement, Obama also spoke of a federal report issued just days earlier documenting structural racism and misbehavior toward African Americans by police in Ferguson, MO, where months before law enforcement officers had killed an unarmed black teenager. “We know the march is not yet over.  We know the race is not yet won,” the President stated, adding, “We know that reaching that blessed destination requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.” Continue reading “Belonging Where?”

The Big Data vs Artists and Everyone Else

By David Trend:

Heard about Generation Z?  The demographic growing up in the 2000s? It’s a bigger group than Boomers or Millennials–––and it has one further distinction. “Members of Generation Z are ‘digital natives’ who cannot remember what it was like not to have access to the Internet –– no matter when, no matter what, no matter where,” according to Forbes Magazine. This is a group raised on networked “connecting” with others, sharing, and buying things. It’s second nature to Gen-Zers to upload their favorite music on YouTube, post images on Facebook, and sell things on Etsy or eBay. Much is being made in creative economy talk of how networks now blur traditional producer/ consumer roles, manifest in the new figure of the “prosumer.” In Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything authors Don Prescott and Anthony D. Williams effused over the democratization inherent in the new “Openness, Peering, Sharing and Acting Globally.”  Of course, there is nothing really new about home-made items, crafts, and people’s willingness to share. What’s different today is the ability to copy digitized materials and circulate them via electronic networks. Digitization also has made Generation Z the first demographic to be completely tracked by “big data” analytics.

Some creativity industry experts argue that this is nothing short of a revolution, driven by ongoing change more than any clear future. Evolutionary economist Jason Potts and collaborators have proposed what they term “Social Network Markets” unlike the top-down models of industrial capitalism.  Characterized by fluidity and exchange through complex fields of actors, the new social network markets are less governed by competition and profit than by communication and preference. Participants are “Not ‘buying’ the property, but buying into the social space.”  Moreover, the dynamics of these new markets are highly interactive. As the Potts group put it, “a social network is defined as a connected group of individual agents who make production and consumptions decisions based on the actions (signals) of other agents on the social network: a definition that gives primacy to communicative actions rather than connectivity alone.”  Almost by definition, this process rules out conventional manufacturing or professional services. Instead, the networks generate value through production and consumption of network-valorized choices.”

The beauty is that much of what is online now is free––seeming to arrive just in time in a tight economy. While a lot of the “free” stuff available online is user-generated (selfies, birthday announcements, anecdotal postings, etc.), a huge volume of material comes from other sources (news outlets, filmmakers, commercial music producers, artists). On the surface it looks like old Marxist doctrines are being reversed as items seem to be “decommodified” in the sharing economy. This idea has become an anthem of resistance in some circles. The Burning Man Festival, to take one example, has stated: “When we commodify we seek to make others, and ourselves, more like things, and less like human beings.  ‘Decommodification,’ then, is to reverse this process.  To make the world and the people in it more unique, more priceless, more human.”  This may be all well-and-good in the real-life sharing of food and weed at Burning Man. But when things get virtual, it’s usually a large corporation that owns the websites, servers, and networks that make sharing possible. Continue reading “The Big Data vs Artists and Everyone Else”

The Performance Art of the Deal

By David Trend:

As I write these words, many Americans remain up in arms about President Donald Trump’s peculiar relationship with the truth.  On a seemingly daily basis, the nation is greeted with a new round of accusations or indignant retorts from the President–– most of which bear little resemblance to objective reality. Let’s just say The Commander-in-Chief has a very “creative” approach to factuality––about everything from crime and immigration to science and the judiciary. Perhaps he’s joking or trying to shock people. Or maybe he’s a pathological liar. Time Magazine devoted a cover to the President’s “Truth and Falsehoods”;  the Los Angeles Times ran multiple “Why Trump Lies” editorials; and The New Yorker is now 14 installments in its ongoing “Trump and the Truth” series. Unsurprisingly, the President doubled-down on his claims, and––in keeping with his fondness for conspiracy theories––has labelled the entire field of journalism “the enemy of the American people.” Endless pundits and commenters have tried to discern a logic in the President’s bizarre behavior––in which mischief and chaos seem the only constants.

Say what you will about Trump, his ability to get public attention is astonishing. And while some critics question the President’s grasp of “reality,” others see a calculated shrewdness in his behavior––an underlying strategy not unlike what Naomi Klein discussed in The Shock Doctrine.  “We already know the Trump administration plans to deregulate markets, wage all-out war on ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ trash climate science and unleash a fossil-fuel frenzy,” Klein recently stated, adding, “It’s a vision that can be counted on to generate a tsunami of crises and shocks.” She predicted economic shocks (as market bubbles burst), security shocks (as blowback from foreign belligerence comes home), weather shocks (as the climate is further destabilized), and industrial shocks (as oil pipelines spill and rigs collapse, especially when enjoying light-touch regulation).

“All this is dangerous enough,” Klein added, “What’s even worse is the way the Trump administration can be counted on to exploit these shocks politically and economically. Trump himself forecasted as much often in promising a “radical break” from the past––described by Fox News as a “shock and awe campaign against the Washington establishment.” This new agenda bears little resemblance to earlier “culture wars” between conventional liberal and conservative camps. Moral idealism has no place in Trump’s program of disruption and dishonesty. But his ability to confuse and deceive is not to be taken lightly. The Trump phenomenon raises important concerns about the role of knowledge in contemporary society––and the ways different worldviews are conceived, put into circulation, and frequently politicized. Continue reading “The Performance Art of the Deal”

Elsewhere in America

Elsewhere in America: The Crisis of Belonging in Contemporary Culture by David Trend (Routledge: 2016)

The book uses the term “elsewhere” in describing conditions that exile so many citizens to “some other place” through prejudice, competition, or discordant belief. Even as “diversity” has become the official norm in American society, the country continues to fragment along new lines that pit citizens against their government, each other, and even themselves.  Yet in another way, “elsewhere” evokes an undefined “not yet” ripe with potential. 


The book argues that even in the face of daunting challenges, elsewhere can point to optimism, hope, and common purpose. Through 12 detailed chapters, Elsewhere in America applies critical theory in the humanities and social sciences in examining recurring crises of social inclusion (“belonging”) in the U.S.  After two centuries of struggle and incremental “progress” in securing human dignity, today the U.S. finds itself riven apart by new conflicts over reproductive rights, immigration, health care, religious extremism, sexual orientation, mental illness, and fears of terrorists. Why are U.S. ideals of civility and unity so easily hijacked and confused? Is there a way of explaining this recurring tendency of Americans to turn against each other? Elsewhere in America engages these questions in charting the ever-changing faces of difference (manifest in contested landscapes of sex and race to such areas as disability and mental health), their spectral and intersectional character (as seen in the new discourses on performativity, normativity, and queer theory), and the grounds on which categories are manifest in ideation and movement politics (seen in theories of metapolitics, cosmopolitanism, dismodernism).

For more information: https://www.routledge.com/Elsewhere-in-America-The-Crisis-of-Belonging-in-Contemporary-Culture/Trend/p/book/9781138654440

Striking adjuncts

If adjuncts want more workplace rights, they have to take them. As Inside HigherEd reports, “That message was echoed throughout a discussion on non-tenure-track faculty rights here Monday at the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, or COCAL, conference. It’s being held this week at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.

“The biennial gathering draws participants from the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and adjunct activist panelists from all three countries advocated striking as a real and valid means of achieving short- and long-term goals.


“Unless and until faculty, including part-time faculty, hit the streets and occupy the classrooms,” said Stanley Aronowitz, a tenured professor of sociology and urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center, “there won’t be any change of substance.”  Aronowitz, who has worked as an adjunct professor several times throughout his career, said this idea applied even in those states where collective bargaining or strikes among public employees is prohibited by law. Faculty members at Nassau Community College who went on strike last year over protracted contract negotiations paid hefty fines for violating New York State’s Taylor Law, for example. (Under the law, the union was permitted to engage in collective bargaining, but not to strike.) But Aronowitz and other activists said that striking is a fundamental right that should be ensured by the First Amendment; without the right to strike, he said, collective bargaining too often becomes “collective begging.”Participants here responded to Aronowitz’s remarks on strikes with strong applause.

“Maria Teresa Lechuga, a Ph.D. candidate in pedagogy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, added: “We need to stop asking for permission to organize ourselves.” Panelists said that striking is always a “last resort,” to be exercised only when adjunct faculty members and administrators can’t otherwise reach common ground. But in order to ensure public support when and if the time to strike comes, advocates said, adjuncts need to nurture relationships with other kinds of workers, along with parents and students.Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, said adjuncts shouldn’t be afraid to bring up their working conditions with their students. She said such conversations are part of students’ “civic education” — an essential part of their studies. Continue reading “Striking adjuncts”

Fighting tenure for school teachers

David Boies, the star trial lawyer who helped lead the legal charge that overturned California’s same-sex marriage ban, is becoming chairman of the Partnership for Educational Justice, a group that former CNN anchor Campbell Brown founded in part to pursue lawsuits challenging teacher tenure. As the New York Times reports:

“Mr. Boies, the son of two public schoolteachers, is a lifelong liberal who represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore and prosecuted Microsoft in the Clinton Administration’s antitrust suit. In aligning himself with a cause that is bitterly opposed by teachers’ unions, he is emblematic of an increasingly fractured relationship between the Democrats and the teachers’ unions.

“Aimages-2s chairman of the new group, Mr. Boies, 73, will join Ms. Brown as the public face of a legal strategy in which the group organizes parents and students to bring lawsuits against states with strong tenure and seniority protections. In a suit filed in New York last month, plaintiffs supported by Ms. Brown’s group argued that tenure laws make it too difficult to fire ineffective teachers and force principals to make personnel decisions based on seniority rather than performance. The suit argues that such laws disproportionately harm low-income and minority students.A California judge recently ruled in a similar case that teacher tenure laws violate students’ civil rights under the state’s constitution. The group that brought that case, known as Vergara v. California, said it would be pursuing similar litigation elsewhere as well. In a sign of the legal firepower attracted to the cause, Theodore B. Olson, Mr. Boies’ partner in the California same-sex marriage case, has been advising the Vergara plaintiffs.In an interview in his firm’s offices in Manhattan, Mr. Boies said he viewed the cause of tenure overhaul as “pro-teacher.”

“I think teaching is one of the most important professions that we have in this country,” he said. But, he added, “there can be a tension” between union efforts to protect workers and “what society needs to do, which is to make sure that the social function — in this case teaching — is being fulfilled.” Mr. Boies, who said he viewed education as a civil rights issue, is offering his services pro bono. Continue reading “Fighting tenure for school teachers”

On academic publishing today

A few years ago I was desperately seeking a book contract, Writes Rachel Toor in the Chronicle of Higher Education“Things weren’t going well on the project I’d spent years working on, and I wanted a quick fix. In a frenzy I put together a crappy proposal for an advice book for graduate students and professors on writing and publishing and sent it to an editor I didn’t know at Harvard University Press.

“Five days later, Elizabeth Knoll responded by telling me she was already publishing a how-to-write-better book for academics, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword (it’s excellent). Then she conveyed in the kindest way something I already knew: What I had proposed wasn’t a book. I had merely submitted a bunch of prose framing a table of contents for a collection of my Chronicle columns. She suggested we brainstorm an idea for a real book.

images“We had a warm and frequently funny correspondence about scholarly publishing, academic writing, issues and problems in higher education, growing up as children of academics, college admissions, mutual friends, and many other things. I went back to my original book project but still hoped that someday I would be able to publish a book with Elizabeth. Recently I found I had lost my chance. She’d left the press to become assistant provost for faculty appointments at Harvard. So I jumped on the opportunity to ask Elizabeth to reflect about her time in publishing, and to offer some advice on book publishing to Chronicle readers.

“Elizabeth went into the family business. Her father was a professor of English at the University of Nebraska; her mother had been one of her father’s most talented students. “I got my Ph.D. in the history of science,” she said. “Basically I was—and am—always curious about what counts as knowledge in different times and places.” After working at the Journal of the American Medical Association, Elizabeth got a job as an editor at the University of California Press in 1988, then at W.H. Freeman in 1994. She moved to Harvard Press in 1997. Continue reading “On academic publishing today”

When gender policing turns violent

Brooklyn fashion blogger Rachel Tutera knows that you might not see her the way she sees herself. As discussed on PBS.com,

“There’s a weird tendency in people to panic when they can’t tell if you’re a man or a woman, or how you may identify,” Tutera, 29, said. “There are people who find me provocative in a way that I don’t exactly understand.”

“As a gender non-conforming person, someone who behaves and appears in ways that are considered atypical for one’s sex assigned at birth, Tutera said she feels constant stress and anxiety from the outside world.


“Whether I’m read as what I am, which is a masculine-presenting woman, or if I’m read as a feminine-presenting man, there’s a lot of danger there — physical danger,” Tutera said. “I’ve gotten shoved by guys, certain slurs.”  Tutera has been the victim of gender policing, the act of imposing or enforcing gender roles based on an individual’s perceived sex. This type of behavior can range from banal actions, like a confused look on the subway, to more insidious behavior like getting thrown out of a gendered public restroom or fitting room, she said.

“Gender non-conforming people get harassed on the basis of not being the right kind of woman, a failed woman, or not being the right kind of man, a failed man,” said Professor Anne Pellegrini, the director of New York University’s Gender and Sexuality Center. Pellegrini said gender policing amounts to a form of cultural oppression.

“According to Pellegrini, in most states, transgender and gender non-conforming people are not protected from workplace or housing discrimination. Just a few decades ago, state laws allowed police to arrest individuals for impersonating another sex if the police deemed they weren’t wearing gender-appropriate clothing. Continue reading “When gender policing turns violent”

Crowds at Europe’s museums

From the New York Times: “It is the height of summer, and millions of visitors are flocking to the Louvre — the busiest art museum in the world, with 9.3 million visitors last year — and to other great museums across Europe. Every year the numbers grow as new middle classes emerge, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe. Last summer the British Museum had record attendance, and for 2013 as a whole it had 6.7 million visitors, making it the world’s second-most-visited art museum, according to The Art Newspaper. Attendance at the Uffizi in Florence for the first half of the year is up almost 5 percent over last year

“Seeing masterpieces may be a soul-nourishing cultural rite of passage, but soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation.

“In recent years, museums have started doing more to manage the crowds. Most offer timed tickets. Others are extending their hours. To protect the art, some are putting in new air-conditioning systems. Still, some critics say that they’re not doing enough.

imgres“Last year, the Vatican Museums had a record 5.5 million visitors. This year, thanks to the popularity of Pope Francis, officials expect that to rise to 6 million. The Vatican is installing a new climate-control system in the Sistine Chapel to help spare Michelangelo’s frescoes the humidity generated by the 2,000 people who fill the space at any given time, recently as many as 22,000 a day. The Vatican hopes to have it finished by October.

“In a telephone interview, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, said his institution was in a bind: To safeguard the frescoes, attendance should not be allowed to increase, he said, but “the Sistine Chapel has a symbolic, religious value for Catholics and we can’t set a cap.”Museums generally don’t like keeping a lid on attendance. At the Hermitage, which had 3.1 million visitors last year, the only cap on the number of visitors is “the physical limitations of the space itself, or the number of hangers in the coat room during the winter,” said Nina V. Silanteva, the head of the museum’s visitor services department.Ms. Silanteva said the goal was to make the museum accessible to as many people as possible, but she conceded that the crowds pose problems. “Such a colossal number of simultaneous viewers isn’t good for the art, and it can be uncomfortable and overwhelming for those who come to see the art,” she said. “Thankfully nothing bad has happened, and God has saved us from any mishaps.”

Continue reading “Crowds at Europe’s museums”

Government can overestimate college costs

Federal listing of college costs often fail to calculate the rising supplements provided by student aid, grants, and loans.

As the New York Times reports, “The government’s official statistic for college-tuition inflation has become somewhat infamous. It appears frequently in the news media, and policy makers lament what it shows.No wonder: College tuition and fees have risen an astounding 107 percent since 1992, even after adjusting for economywide inflation, according to the measure. No other major household budget item has increased in price nearly as much.But it turns out the government’s measure is deeply misleading.

images“For years, that measure was based on the list prices that colleges published in their brochures, rather than the actual amount students and their families paid. The government ignored financial-aid grants. Effectively, the measure tracked the price of college for rich families, many of whom were not eligible for scholarships, but exaggerated the price – and price increases – for everyone from the upper middle class to the poor.The good news is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has gradually begun to change its methods since 2003, to capture the effects of financial aid. It will take more time to know how well those efforts are working. But the bureau won’t alter the historical data, which means the long-term comparisons will never capture the actual cost of college for American families.

“Those oft-cited comparisons, notes Sandy Baum, a George Washington University professor and an expert on college costs, says, are “certainly misleading.”

“The discrepancy matters because the country is in the midst of a roiling debate about whether college is worth it. Various pundits on both the left and right have taken to claiming that higher education is overrated and often not worth it. The shocking increase in college costs, according to the official Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, is part of their argument. Continue reading “Government can overestimate college costs”

Religion = politics in America

Even as overall party identification trends in the U.S. have shifted over the past six and half years, the relationship between religion and party identification has remained consistent. Very religious Americans are more likely to identify with or lean toward the Republican Party and less frequently identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, compared with those who are moderately or nonreligious.


Gallup classifies Americans as “very religious” if they say religion is an important part of their daily lives and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week. That group constituted 41% of all U.S. adults in the first half of 2014. “Nonreligious” Americans (30% of Americans in 2014) are those who say religion is not an important part of their daily lives and that they seldom or never attend religious services. The remaining group, 29%, are classified as “moderately religious.” These people say religion is important in their lives but that they do not attend services regularly, or that religion is not important but that they still attend services.

From 2008 to June 2014, nonreligious Americans have been the most Democratic of the three religious groups, with a net Democratic value ranging between +38 and +19 over that period. Those who are moderately religious have also tilted Democratic, with net values ranging from +23 to +1. Those who are very religious are least Democratic, with net values in the negative range, meaning that on average, this group identifies with or leans toward the Republican Party more than the Democratic Party. Continue reading “Religion = politics in America”

Christian schools allowed to discriminate

When word spread this month that George Fox University had received an exemption to Title IX, allowing it to discriminate against a transgender student by denying him the housing he requested, many advocates for transgender students were stunned. Federal regulations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 do in fact require the Education Department to exempt colleges from rules that violate their religious beliefs. During the debate, George Fox officials noted that they were objecting to a housing request only, and that they haven’t kicked the student out of the university.

But now the Education Department has confirmed that it has since awarded two more exemptions to Title IX to Christian colleges that want to discriminate against transgender students. These colleges assert (and the Education Department agreed) that they should be exempt from more of Title IX than just housing equity. These colleges have policies to punish transgender students for being transgender students, apparently up to expulsion — and they can now do so legally. The two institutions are Spring Arbor University, in Michigan, and Simpson University, in California.

Spring Arbor is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church and its traditions. It requested exemption from Title IX with regard to issues of admissions, behavioral rules, housing, access to restrooms, athletic participation and more.

The university’s student handbook says: “Spring Arbor University reserves the right to terminate or deny enrollment of those whose influence upon our community should prove to be in our judgment intractably contrary to the best interests of our students, and commitments to our university and to our Lord. Therefore, Spring Arbor University will not support persistent or conspicuous examples of cross-dressing or other expressions or actions that are deliberately discordant with birth gender, and will deal with such matters within the appropriate pastoral and conduct processes of the university.”

Continue reading “Christian schools allowed to discriminate”

“Life coaching” for the poor?

What if the poor need more than disposable income to escape poverty? What if they need a life coach?

According to Slate.com, “That’s the position of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, who in his new anti-poverty plan wants poor families to work with government agencies or charitable nonprofits to craft “life plans” as a condition of receiving federal assistance under his proposed “opportunity grants.” “In the envisioned scenario providers would work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty,” Ryan writes. At a minimum, these life plans would include “a contract outlining specific and measurable benchmarks for success,” a “timeline” for meeting them, “sanctions” for breaking them, “incentives for exceeding the terms of the contract,” and “time limits”—presumably independent of actual program limits—for “remaining on cash assistance.”

Continue reading ““Life coaching” for the poor?”

After 90 years, it’s time for the ERA

Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Jackie Speier (D-CA)gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court Thursday morning to demand that the Equal Rights Amendment  finally pass.

As Ms Magazine writes, “The congresswomen, along with Feminist Majority president (and publisher of Ms.) Ellie Smeal, NOW president Terry O’Neill and other feminist leaders and activists, called on legislators to codify women’s equality in the constitution. As a reminder of the anti-woman rhetoric that has lately informed public policy, Rep. Speier quoted Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, “Certainly the constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex, the only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”

“She continued,

A justice of the Supreme Court has said publicly that the constitution does not prohibit discrimination based on sex, and that is precisely why we need the ERA. Those words should haunt every woman in this country.

“The good news, she said, is that “equality is only 24 words away,” referencing the text of the ERA:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

“The congresswomen have each introduced ERA-related legislation. In March, Rep. Speier called on legislators to remove the deadline by which states must ratify the amendment (the last deadline was June 1982, and by that date the ERA was just three states shy of passing). If passed, her bill would give those last three states a chance to ratify the amendment. Continue reading “After 90 years, it’s time for the ERA”