The Ed Biz

Quite a controversy surrounds the appointment recently of businessman Bruce Harreld, who has no academic background, to the presidency at the University of Iowa — one of the Midwest’s premier universities. The article from the DesMoines Register tells us, in part, that despite overwhelming opposition from the faculty and the university community at large,

. . . Harreld was named UI’s 21st president Thursday in a unanimous vote from the Iowa Board of Regents. In so doing, they chose a former business executive with no experience in university administration, whose resume lists as his present employer a company he has since acknowledged no longer exists.

Harreld has also admitted he’ll have a steep learning curve for the job, and that his “unusual background” will mean he’ll need a lot of teaching, coaching and mentoring from those who criticized him. It’s good he acknowledged that, and gracious to extend the olive branch. But considering he’ll earn $590,000, plus $200,000 annually in deferred compensation, on-the-job training shouldn’t be necessary.

The rather large salary is impressive, but it pales in contrast with that of the football coach, Kirk Ferentz who makes in excess of $4 million. His staff makes just under $3 million. And given Iowa’s place in the 14 member coalition called the “Big 10,” football is most important. But also given that education has become a business (at all levels) where success is measured in numbers, it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to appoint a man to the highest office at the university whose background features the selling of computers and chickens.

I have found in my own experience that an academic person doesn’t always make the best college president — since his or her job is to cuddle up to money and politicians and try to balance budgets. Academics aren’t trained to do that sort of thing. And we also happen to be generally introverted and ill-at-ease in large groups, making small talk with small minds. But there is a principle buried somewhere in this story and it has to do with the propriety of asking a man (or a woman) with no academic experience whatever and no degree higher than an MBA to run one of the nation’s largest universities which is supposed to be a “community of scholars.”

So what we have here is the question of honesty — admitting that education is really all about money — as over against the propriety of naming an inexperienced business man, no matter how successful he has been, to the presidency of the University of Iowa. In this case the waters are muddied a bit by the fact that this man’s knowledge of the University of Iowa came from his reading of Wikipedia, his resumé highlights his experience selling computers, Kraft Food,  and Boston Chicken and also “lists as his present employer a company he has since acknowledged no longer exists,” not to mention that his appointment was apparently promoted by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a friend of the new president. No wonder 98% of the faculty opposed his appointment — to no avail.

I’m all for honesty and admit right up front that it might make perfect sense to appoint a businessman to be president of a university. But to appoint one whose knowledge of the university is so scant, requiring, by his own admission, considerable effort on his part to learn what he needs to know — no matter how much money he is paid — seems a bit of a stretch. In any event, the best of luck to the University of Iowa and its new president. We’ll see  what happens when the chickens come home to roost. (Sorry).

Corporate Intruders

Readers of this blog will attest that I have a high regard for the writings of Christopher Lasch. I do tend to refer to him a great deal because I am convinced that he saw deeper than most into the current malaise, the sickness that is at the heart of our culture and our society. But he is not always correct in his musings, despite the fact that I find myself agreeing with so much of what he says. Indeed, I would recommend any and all of his books to anyone who is seriously interested in seeing more clearly what is going on around them. But, as I say, he sometimes goes a bit too far. As an example, take the following passage from The Revolt of the Elites that deals with the corporate “takeover” of American universities:

“It is corporate control that has diverted resources from the humanities into military and technological research. fostered the obsession with quantification that has destroyed the social sciences, replaced English language with bureaucratic jargon, and created a top-heavy administrative apparatus whose educational vision begins and ends with the bottom line.”

I am not aware that corporations ever allowed monies to flow in the direction of the humanities. So it is not clear how they “diverted” it into military and technological research. But it is certainly the case that corporate monies have somehow found their way in that direction. In any event, I think Lasch makes an excellent point here. But he takes a step too far later in the same paragraph:

“One of the effects of corporate and bureaucratic control is to drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities where they can indulge in a taste for ‘theory’ without the rigorous discipline of empirical social observation. . . . Social criticism that addresses the real issues in higher education today — the university’s assimilation into the corporate order and the emergence of a knowledge  class whose ‘subversive’ activities do not seriously threaten any vested interest — would be a welcome addition to contemporary discourse. For obvious reasons, however, this kind of discourse is unlikely to get much encouragement either from the academic left or from its critics on the right.”

There’s a problem here: this sound a bit too much like conspiracy theory. In his book Lasch makes a good case that the left-leaning academics have become lost in the jungle of newspeak they have invented to discuss the finer points in culturally acceptable literature — without bothering to read any of the classics they reject out of hand because they smell of the stench of “dead, white, European males.” In a word, they are caught up in the unreal world of “metalanguages” and “texts” in order to allow them to detach themselves from the real world where good minds should be attending to real problems. I accept this much. I have always felt that academics generally shield themselves from the world in so many ways, indeed, that many of them have retreated into the ivory tower precisely to escape from reality which can at times create undue stress. And I also see the intrusion of the corporation into the academy in so many ways, and have seen first hand the trend away from any sort of course requirements in the academy that would result in real thought on the part of college graduates. But I fail to see how the corporations have somehow managed to “drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities.” How, precisely, is this supposed to have taken place? The implication is that the social sciences no longer have any critical thinkers and those in the humanities are wasting their time (and their students’ money) chasing academic butterflies while the world around them is falling apart. I suspect his claims are on solid ground, but Lasch does not argue for these claims here, which would make him vulnerable to the same sorts of criticism he levels against other academics — bearing in mind that he was one himself.

So while I find myself in agreement with so much of what Lasch says, I do find him giving vent to generalizations at times that almost certainly reflect the man’s own take on the world, which he may have grounds for but which he fails to share with his readers. I would love to know how we get from the truth that the corporations have intruded themselves into the academy to the claim that they have managed to shift “critical thinking” personnel from the social sciences to the humanities (by withholding funding perhaps??). And I resent the implication that none of us in the humanities have the critical acumen to deal with real problems in the real world, though I would be the first to admit that an increasing number of people in literature and philosophy seem to be chasing imaginary butterflies. Indeed, I would go so far as to question whether those in the social sciences, by and large, are now or ever were any more critical of what is going on in the “real” world than those in the humanities. After all, these people are all academics in the end — and that seems to be the reason they feel most at home dealing with academic problems.

But it is assuredly the case that the corporations play an inordinately large role in the academy, as they do in the “real” world. And this is to be deeply regretted and should receive the attention of all those who regard higher education as a matter of some importance to the preservation of what’s left of our culture and indeed to our way of life.

 

Remembering Swift

With apologies to Jon Stewart and Tom Lehrer, the greatest satirist who ever lived was Jonathan Swift. He is best known from the watered-down versions of his classic Gulliver’s Travels that has been turned into a children’s book — or from one of the terrible movies starring buffoons like Jack Black that trample on the greatness that was Swift. But Swift was above all things a cleric and a moralist and his satirical writings — of which Gulliver was merely one small portion — were almost always written to draw attention to a wrong with an eye to remedying the situation. And in Swift’s age, the latter seventeenth century and the early eighteenth, there was much that was wrong.  Swift saw it through the eyes of a brilliant, witty misanthrope. Human foibles drove him wild even though he was an amiable friend and companion with a small group of close friends and the two women who worshipped the ground he walked upon. And the Irish loved him and regarded him as their champion — as indeed he was.

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Swift could be downright acerbic in his observations, as when he wrote the following in voicing his conviction that humans don’t bear a close look because the deeper you probe the worse they seem to be: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” But he could be not only witty but wise and very timely — which is why he is worth reading even today. He noted, for example, that “. . . if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either in the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well deceived. . . .This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state, of being a fool among knaves.” Those of us who are not rich and who like to believe that the rich are not truly happy can take comfort in the conviction that their “happiness” is a “deception.”

Swift generally pilloried the vanities and stupidities of his age, always with an eye toward the need for bringing reason to bear on the frailties and weaknesses of humans. He was, among other things, a deeply religious and a wise man who knew the absurdities of many of the religious as well as most of those of the wealthy and famous. Of religion, for example, he said “We have just religion enough to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another.” When he turned his attention to the politicians and academics around him he could be particularly scathing. In fact, the major portion of his classic about Lemuel Gulliver focuses on the politics and politicians of his day many of whom he knew close up. He also knew and hated the pretense he found in the universities. In the third trip Gulliver made, for example, after being lowered from the flying island he visited an academy in the city of Lagado and was confronted by a variety of dusty and smelly academics who were intent on such esoteric pursuits as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, building houses from the top down “like bees and spiders,” plowing fields with the snouts of hogs, making silk from spider webs, and curing colic with a pair of bellows. These were busy little men and women involved in absurd intellectual games while those around them went without food and shelter and agriculture suffered. We can agree that even in our day there is much being done in the academies of learning that has little to do with what is going on in the real world. One must wonder, for example, how research on the “Use of the Past-Perfect Participle In Late Elizabethan English” will help improve the lot of humankind. And it could be said that the entire attempt to land a man on the moon or a rover on Mars takes millions of dollars away from the genuine human needs here on our planet where many people don’t have food to put on the table — or a table, come to that. Swift was above all else a moralist.

Indeed, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” of eating all the small children in Ireland was an attempt to draw attention in England to the plight of the poor in Ireland where he was Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin until his death. But those in his day who read his works (always written anonymously) were afraid of the Dean and kept him from the posts he dearly wanted back in England. They knew who wrote them, and they read his works with great glee, laughing up their collective sleeves, but never realized that it was they who were being made to look foolish. In the end, Swift concluded, satire is a mirror in which the viewer sees everyone but himself. Indeed.

Easy Peasy

Any pretense that this country values academics more than sports was exposed by the closing of University High School in Florida not long ago. The on-line school charged $399.00 to high school athletes who were in academic difficulty to help them graduate. As it happened at University High School there were no classes or instructors, tests were open-book, and A’s and B’s flowed like water over a dam. But the athletes graduated and many went on to college: the colleges and the NCAA accepted those grades without question until the scam was blown open and became public knowledge.  As the New York Times reported on the Florida debacle:

Twenty-eight high school athletes sent University High School transcripts to the N.C.A.A. eligibility clearinghouse in the past few years, according to a University of Tennessee report. The New York Times identified 14 who had signed with 11 Division I football programs: Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado State, Florida, Florida State, Florida International, Rutgers, South Carolina State, South Florida, Tennessee and Temple.

Photo: Kate Gardiner/Medill

This is only one of numerous instances of skewed priorities. For example, the Chicago public schools recently discovered that one of the schools in their district (which shall go unnamed) was doctoring the grades of high school basketball players in order to help them get into the colleges of their choice — to play basketball. Then there’s the suspension of the “no pass, no play” rule in Fairfield, Alabama recently where we are told that “The Fairfield Board of Education, at the urging of its new acting superintendent, voted [4 to 1] this morning to formally suspend a controversial no-pass, no-play policy for athletes and other students in extracurricular activities.” This suspension allows students to participate in extra-curricular activities whether or not they are passing their courses. The suspension was demanded by parents who thought their kids were being denied a chance to participate in sports.  (I thought this was a joke since it has been the subject of several panels of the comic “Tank McNamara” recently. Sad to say, it’s not.)

But the problem goes deeper than a determination to look the other way in order to let the kids play sports. It begins in the home: I trace the basic problem to parents and teachers at all levels kowtowing to the whims of the kids themselves, most of whom don’t have any idea about what they need to be successful in a complex and changing world. The idea is to grease the skids, to make things as easy and painless as possible for kids who would really rather be playing video games. The undue emphasis we place on sports in the schools is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is generally known that there are troubling problems in the schools — at all levels; it is especially disturbing to realize that there are folks out there in the schools who have decided that academics really aren’t all that important (or they bow to parental pressure). I am not dissing sports. On the contrary, I feel that sports are one of the few places in this culture where young people learn discipline by being asked to do things they don’t want to do, where failure is part of the deal (just like life), and young people are actually encouraged to place something ahead of themselves — at least when sports are properly conducted. But the exceptions to the rules are disquieting as are the deeper problems in the schools where coherence seems to be lacking and rigor and excellence in the classroom have been replaced by a dumbed-down curriculum that allows no child to be left behind — and athletes to slide by.

If we are ever to right the ship and get education back into its proper place in this culture, we must expose such violations of principle whenever they occur and we must make a determined effort to place education at the top of our list or priorities instead of near the bottom where it sits at present. That means paying the teachers what they are worth, ridding the public schools of bogus certification requirements from outside agencies, and turning able teachers loose to teach as they see fit while asking them to demand that their students deliver their best performance — as we do our athletes. In a word, sports can provide a paradigm for excellence but they cannot be allowed to displace the things young people need to know in order to succeed in life.