Communities

In an ideal world, that is a world as I like to imagine it, colleges and universities would be communities of learning, places where folks with different points of view, ages, and preferences meet to discuss with open minds the issues that have confounded humanity for generations. The emphasis here is on “communities,” since the idea is that there is a common purpose, a common goal: all are together to learn from one another and from other minds outside the community that are invited in to share what they know and join in the conversation.

In the real world, the world we all know and love, it is not quite like this. Increasingly, colleges and universities have become warring camps where faculty and students align themselves with one another on political or ideological grounds and dare others to intrude. Increasingly commonplace are such things as the denial of invitations to certain people to come to campus to join in the conversation; such invitations are met with howls of protest as they are regarded as the anathema of what education is now all about. Faculty members select reading material that conforms to their own particular “take” on the issues of the day, insisting that others have done so for generations and it is now their turn. Whether or not this is true, and I seriously question it, there is no place for this sort of selective indoctrination, the hammering into young and impressionable heads the last word on controversial topics that allow for a variety of opinions, indeed, demand a variety of opinions in order to help the young people to learn to think. Cultural diversity, with the stress on the superiority of other cultures (any other cultures) to our own, has taken the place of intellectual diversity, the open expression of a variety of points of view on complex issues. Shouting has replaced civil discourse, and open minds have been closed.

Years ago, when I taught at the University of Rhode Island there was increasing interest among faculty members in the new unions that were forming around the country. At URI we had the American Association of University Professors, the mildest form of union, but one dedicated to guaranteeing freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, and, of course, decent wages for the hard work that many are unaware goes into teaching the young. At the time I worried that this new wave of unionization might well lead to a confrontational relationship between faculty and administration, that it would destroy the collegiality that I though central to the purpose of a community of learning. How naive! But, in a sense, I was right. Unions, for all the good they do, tend to grow like an experiment gone wrong and to become all-powerful and all-important. Instead of working to protect the ideals of communities of learning they lend themselves to the growing conviction that education is all about business and learning must take a back seat.

All of this, I suppose, is the complaint of an old, fossilized college teacher who complains that things were never as they should have been but are even worse today then they were once upon a time. There is some truth in this, of course, as old folks tend to look back with rose-colored glasses. But, at the same time, it is undeniably true that the gap has grown wider and wider between the ideal of education as a place where the young come to gain true freedom, the possession of their own minds, and the reality of college as a business. I have seen it happening and while I have done what I could to close that gap I do realize that it is too little too late. Things were never ideal, and there have always been reasons to complain — legitimately so. But of late, the larger culture has come together with the academy to create a world within a world in which business is the order of the day and intolerance has replaced tolerance while the young struggle to understand why they are there in the first place — and how on earth they are going to pay for the privilege after graduation.

There are success stories, of course, excellent students who want to learn and grow led by dedicated teachers who realize that the student’s intellectual growth is of paramount importance, and it is not fostered by indoctrination posing as education . And these exceptions are the foundation on which to build our hopes as they are in the world at large where good people struggle to do good while all around them folks worry only about how to do well, how to “succeed” in  world in which success is measured in dollars and cents.

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Cheating As A Rule

The possibility of a cheating scandal at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities has raised concern in many circles. So a recent story begins:

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — An unusually high number of students at Stanford University are suspected of cheating during the most recent term, putting faculty members and administrators of the prestigious institution on alert.

University Provost John Etchemendy sent a letter to faculty members highlighting what he called “troubling allegations” that stem from “a smattering of concerns from a number of winter courses,” the San Jose Mercury News reported Friday. Etchemendy said the students are cheating themselves and risk severe consequences.

When I taught at the University of Rhode Island years ago word came down to our department that a copy of someone’s logic final had gotten out. We all had to come in a 5:00 AM and write a common final exam that would be given to all students, even though there were five of us and we all taught the course differently. It was a nightmare and most students badly failed, I’m sorry to say. The innocent were punished along with the guilty. Later, it was learned that a plastic overlay from the mimeograph machine (remember them??) had been pilfered from the trash and was being used to sell copies of one of the finals at one of the fraternities. In any event, students lined up to buy the exam though someone eventually blew the whistle. We had no idea whose exam it was, and that’s why we all had to come up with a common exam. The administration knew which fraternity was involved, but that fraternity was never disciplined because the university “didn’t want a scandal.”

Cheating is not new, of course. Just recall Tom Lehrer’s wonderful song long ago about plagiarism and those who cheat, graduate, and are “forgotten with the rest.”  We have learned what universities will do to “avoid a scandal” — The Paterno scandal comes to mind. It seems that not only in athletics, but in the university climate as a whole the possibility of a scandal leads administrators to do strange things to “cover up.” That, in itself, is a scandal since the universities are supposed to lead by example and this is a very poor example indeed. But it appears to be the norm. The common defense is: hey, I’m just  doing what the others do — which seems to the cornerstone of this culture’s ethics  — so we should not be surprised.

Anyone who has taught at a college or university is familiar with the drill involved to check on the sources of student papers and watch carefully during exams to see that no one is looking where they shouldn’t be. It’s commonplace, though it most assuredly should not be.

So we have a perfect right to ask why and wish that it were otherwise. Stanford University has strict rules about cheating and that’s a good thing. Let’s hope those who are caught with their fingers in the cookie jar are appropriately punished. The notion that an action is perfectly right if others are doing it is the most shallow, even cynical, sort of ethics. Cheating is wrong. It may be widespread, but it is wrong — not only in universities, but anywhere.

Unions

Back in the day when I was a young, fresh PhD out of Northwestern University employed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Rhode Island, there was talk of the faculty unionizing. As I say, I was young (and naive) and I thought that such a thing would destroy “collegiality” and set the faculty and administration at odds — establish an adversarial relationship that would run counter to what we were trying to do at that University, which I naively thought at the time was to educate young people. In any event, despite my opposition unionization happened at that University though in the meantime I went elsewhere; a few years later I ended up in a state college in Minnesota that did not have any unions. But, again, there was talk of forming a state-wide union. Acrimonious talk. While this talk was going on the administration where I taught decided to hack up the faculty and fired seven faculty members from the liberal arts faculty, two of whom had tenure, in order to shift emphasis at the college to the “useful arts,” i.e., education and business (where they thought the dollars were hiding, and legislators would be made happy). I still fought the notion of unions, even though I realized that they might give the faculty some punch which they clearly lacked when dealing with unscrupulous administrators and legislators worried only about saving some of the taxpayer’s money (presumably so they could get more of it themselves).

We eventually became unionized and I have benefitted financially from it. As a retired fart I am comfortable and I need not worry over much about putting food on the table or paying for the medical bills that have begun to come rolling in. I hesitate to bite the hand that feeds me, but I am still anti-union — in principle. I still think it destroys collegiality and puts the administration at odds with the faculty. I have seen it first-hand. I have also seen the union save the job of an incompetent  member of my faculty who threatened to throw a student through the window! In that case, the administrator involved failed to follow proper protocol, as the union was quick to point out. Indeed, I am aware that there is a significant number of people in harness at my old university (as it is now called) whose job is protected by the unions and who otherwise would be on the streets begging for a handout. I dare say there are a great many incompetent teaching faculty around the country whose jobs are protected by the unions.

As I say this, however, I realize that there are also a great many decent, bright and able people whose jobs would be lost if it were not for the clout that the unions have and which small clusters of faculty members simply do not have. There are two sides to this issue when it comes to unions and I go back and forth, because I do not think they belong in a university setting, but I realize that without them the universities would be run by incompetent administrators (whose numbers have grown by leaps and bounds in the last twenty years and who are paid vastly more than they are worth.)

Now we hear, on another front entirely, that the football team at my alma mater wants to unionize. But, again, in principle, I think they are wrong to wish for such a thing: the grounds on which they stand on this issue are very thin indeed. They are not workers who require a strong voice. They are students (presumably) who have voluntarily chosen to play football for Northwestern University and who are given a huge amount of money (approximately $60,000.00 a year, I am told, plus free health-care for four years, which they apparently regard as inadequate) to attend classes and work for a degree that will stand them in good stead in the world of business when they graduate. The NCAA opposes the players (which is almost alone sufficient reason to support them). But the talk persists: there are huge amounts of money involved in collegiate football and the players want their share. They also fear concussions and other physical impairment that are almost certain to follow from four years of smashing heads with others of their ilk in the “Big Ten” [which now has about fourteen teams. Please explain, if you can]. They are right. But they are also wrong.

Unions protect those who desperately need protection. But they also protect the incompetent. And they tend to become over-large and frequently riddled with corruption. There’s the rub. In this case, they would protect those who are being clearly exploited by the universities whose main interest is with profits from TV revenue. But unions also imply that the players are not students at all, they are employees of the universities. In this regard, the attempt on the part of the football players to unionize is more honest because most college athletes at this level are not students (simply look at the courses they take and the disproportionate numbers that fail to graduate). And there are huge amounts of money involved and there are also, in fact, debilitating injuries and health problems that show up later. As I say, it would be more honest to allow the football teams to unionize. But if these players want to do so they should drop all pretense of being students and acknowledge that they are semi-professional athletes and play for pay. If they then want an education, they could pay part of their salaries to the colleges and universities and attend classes, working toward a degree like the other students. Then, as semi-professional athletes they can attempt to deal with the problems that seem invariably to accompany unionization.