Category Archives: Education / Youth

A Step Too Far

The modern-day version of the Golden Rule is apparently: “He who has the gold, rules.”

Today, I’d like to consider the application of that axiom to institutions of higher education, and the donors they solicit.

People give money to colleges and universities for a number of reasons, and many of those reasons are laudable. University research is responsible for curing diseases, explicating history and developing philosophies, among many other things. University classrooms introduce students to great literature and art, help them develop critical skills, and deepen their understanding of the world. Making a gift to support those activities is a welcome expression of philanthropic generosity.

Then, of course, there are people like the Koch brothers, whose “gifts” generally come with rather disquieting strings. 

FAIRFAX, Va. — Virginia’s largest public university granted the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations, according to newly released documents.

The release of donor agreements between George Mason University and the foundation follows years of denials by university administrators that Koch foundation donations inhibit academic freedom.

University President Angel Cabrera wrote a note to faculty Friday night saying the agreements “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.” The admission came three days after a judge scrutinized the university’s earlier refusal to release any documents.

The report from the New York Times, from which the above paragraphs were taken, confirms a  widespread suspicion among academics. There have been rumors about George Mason University for years; those rumors have cast a shadow over the school’s reputation and that of its scholars. When people believe a donor’s “generosity” has purchased a desired research result, the research results will–properly– get discounted.

When it appears that a faculty member has been added not because a search committee, operating under standard academic procedures, determined that the person hired was the most accomplished applicant, but because s/he was the preferred choice of a donor–especially a donor like Koch– looking askance at that new hire shouldn’t be surprising.

The newly released agreements spell out million-dollar deals in which the Koch Foundation endows a fund to pay the salary of one or more professors at the university’s Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The agreements require creation of five-member selection committees to choose the professors and grant the donors the right to name two of the committee members.

The Koch Foundation enjoyed similar appointment rights to advisory boards that had the right under the agreements to recommend firing a professor who failed to live up to standards.

To label this state of affairs “unacceptable” is to state the obvious. It’s hard enough, in today’s toxic and polarized environment, to find sources of unbiased information. The reputation of a university is inextricably tied to its demonstrated  intellectual honesty. That doesn’t mean that all of its research results are sound, or all of its teaching Socratic, but it does mean that the inevitable flaws and missteps are honest errors, not purchased propaganda.

The activist group UnKoch My Campus noted that the George Mason documents evidencing the arrangement are strikingly similar to agreements the Koch Foundation made with Florida State University–agreements that recently caused an uproar at that institution. (There’s a lesson here for Ball State University, here in Indiana,  which has  accepted Koch dollars to establish an economic Institute.)

Cabrera’s admission that the agreements fall short of standards for academic independence is a stark departure from his earlier statements on the issue. In a 2014 blog post on the issue, he wrote that donors don’t get to decide who is hired and that “these rules are an essential part of our academic integrity. If these rules are not acceptable, we simply don’t accept the gift. Academic freedom is never for sale. Period.”

In 2016, in an interview with The Associated Press, he denied that the Koch donations restricted academic independence and said Koch’s status as a lightning rod for his support of Republican candidates is the only reason people question the donations.

Right. And if you believe that, I have some underwater land in Florida to sell you. It’s going to take some time and effort to restore the reputation of George Mason University–assuming it can wean itself away from the “gold” that has ruled it.

I Hope This Is Hyperbole…

Generally, when partisans of one sort or another pursue policies that are likely to have negative side-effects, those side effects are unintended. (Hence the term “unintended consequences.”) A recent report generated by The Institute for New Economic Thinking–a source with which I am unfamiliar, and for which I cannot vouch–asserts that the attack on teachers (about which I recently blogged) is part of a deliberate effort to “Groom U.S. Kids for Servitude.”

At least three people forwarded the paper to me. It references research by Gordon Lafer, Associate Professor at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, and Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT.  It describes a movement that is said to have begun in the wake of Citizens United, a “highly coordinated campaign” to destroy unions, cut taxes for the wealthy, and cut public services for everyone else.

Lafer pored over the activities of business lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – funded by giant corporations including Walmart, Amazon.com, and Bank of America—that produces “model legislation” in areas its conservative members use to promote privatization. He studied the Koch network, a constellation of groups affiliated with billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. (Koch Industries is the country’s second-largest private company with business including crude oil supply and refining and chemical production). Again and again, he found that corporate-backed lobbyists were able to subvert the clear preferences of the public and their elected representatives in both parties. Of all the areas these lobbyists were able to influence, the policy campaign that netted the most laws passed, featured the most big players, and boasted the most effective organizations was public education. For these U.S. corporations, undermining the public school system was the Holy Grail.

The obvious question is: why? These organizations and businesses need an educated workforce; why would they intentionally subvert education? I understand–and mostly agree with– the argument that their preferred policies would have that effect, but why would that be the motivation?

While Lafer acknowledges that there are legitimate debates among people with different ideological positions or pedagogical views, he thinks big corporations are actually more worried about something far more pragmatic: how to protect themselves from the masses as they engineer rising economic inequality.

As Lafer sees it, we are headed for a new system in which the children of the wealthy will be “taught a broad, rich curriculum in small classes led by experienced teachers. The kind of thing everybody wants for kids.” The rest of America’s children will be trapped in large classes with a narrow curriculum taught by inexperienced staff —or through digital platforms with no teachers at all.

Most kids will be trained for a life that is more circumscribed, less vibrant, and, quite literally, shorter, than what past generations have known. (Research shows that the lifespan gap between haves and have-nots is large and rapidly growing). They will be groomed for insecure service jobs that dull their minds and depress their spirits…

In other words, dismantling the public schools is all about control.

The linked article develops these themes, and readers who want to explore them more fully are welcome to click through and do so.

I know that even paranoids have enemies, but this argument strains credulity. I don’t quarrel with the assertion that many of these “reforms” are wrongheaded and detrimental to the national interest. (Vouchers, for example, are supported mainly by people who think they can make a profit and religious zealots who want public money to support their parochial schools.) The unwillingness of so many “haves” to pay the taxes that support the social and physical infrastructure that enabled their good fortune is selfish and despicable, but the policies they are pursing can be debated–and their dangers exposed–on their own (dubious) merits.

The problem is, if the gap between the rich and the rest isn’t reduced soon, we are likely to see more overheated accusations along these lines–along with more class-and-race-based animosity.

We’re entering the social danger zone.

 

Attacking The Teachers

There are lots of lessons we can learn from the wave of teachers’ strikes that have erupted around the country. To the extent those strikes have been “wildcat” efforts, we can see the extent to which public sector unions have been neutered by anti-union lawmakers. To the extent that we have become aware of the grievances that prompted these actions, we see the effects of the steady erosion of adequate public funding for public education.

Paul Krugman recently reminded us of the connection between that erosion and Republican tax-cut orthodoxy. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force, and “at the state and local levels, the conservative obsession with tax cuts has forced the G.O.P. into what amounts to a war on education, and in particular a war on schoolteachers.”

The GOP’s fixation on tax cuts, together with its anti-union ideology (and a particular hatred of teachers’ unions) and in some quarters, a desire to divert public funds to religious schools via vouchers, has resulted in an unremitting assault on public education.

Thanks to a recent report in The Guardian, we learn that opponents of public education fully intend to intensify their ideological attack on public education and the teachers who provide it.

A nationwide network of rightwing thinktanks is launching a PR counteroffensive against the teachers’ strikes that are sweeping the country, circulating a “messaging guide” for anti-union activists that portrays the walkouts as harmful to low-income parents and their children.

The new rightwing strategy to discredit the strikes that have erupted in protest against cuts in education funding and poor teacher pay is contained in a three-page document obtained by the Guardian. Titled “How to talk about teacher strikes”, it provides a “dos and don’ts” manual for how to smear the strikers.

Top of the list of talking points is the claim that “teacher strikes hurt kids and low-income families”. It advises anti-union campaigners to argue that “it’s unfortunate that teachers are protesting low wages by punishing other low-wage parents and their children.”

According to the Guardian, the “messaging guide” has been developed by an organization called the State Policy Network (SPN). SPN is an alliance of 66 rightwing “ideas factories,” that evidently includes members from every state in the nation. SPN also has an $80 million-dollar” war chest” – funded (no surprise) by the Koch brothers, the Walton Family Foundation, and the DeVos family. (If there was any doubt that Betsy DeVos is the antithesis of a person rational lawmakers would install as an education secretary…).

SPN’s previous campaigns have included a plan to “defund and defang” public sector unions. Now it is turning its firepower on the striking teachers….The SPN document urges its followers to attack the walkouts stealthily, rather than criticising them directly. A head-on assault on teachers for their long summer vacations would “sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs [and] having to rely on food pantries”, it says.

If moral people find meaning by acting in ways that will benefit future generations–if, as the saying goes,“The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit”-how immoral is this effort?

It isn’t just that these people are refusing to adequately fund the public schools that educate the overwhelming majority of American children. They are also busily polluting the environment and endangering the planet on which those trees must be planted. They are despoiling public lands originally set aside for the enjoyment of our children and grandchildren. They are presiding over the decay of the nation’s infrastructure, and they are intentionally encouraging the tribalism and bigotry that undermine the social cohesion necessary for communities to thrive.

I assume they derive satisfaction from the extra dollars these measures are intended to bring them.

I wish I believed in the existence of hell.

 

Will Children Save The Planet?

Every day, it seems, there is more news about this administration’s attack on climate science, its roll-back of efforts to reduce the carbon emissions that are causing the planet to warm–not to mention regulations intended to ensure that the nation’s water supply is potable and its air breathable.

The Trump Administration’s efforts to protect the bottom lines of fossil-fuel companies are in defiance of mounting evidence about the dangers posed by our changing climate.

Serious disruption to the Gulf Stream ocean currents that are crucial in controlling global climate must be avoided “at all costs”, senior scientists have warned. The alert follows the revelation this week that the system is at its weakest ever recorded.

Past collapses of the giant network have seen some of the most extreme impacts in climate history, with western Europe particularly vulnerable to a descent into freezing winters. A significantly weakened system is also likely to cause more severe storms in Europe, faster sea level rise on the east coast of the US and increasing drought in the Sahel in Africa.

The new research worries scientists because of the huge impact global warming has already had on the currents and the unpredictability of a future “tipping point”.

With Republicans in control of Congress (at least until next January, and beyond if the predicted “blue wave” fails to materialize), political intervention to protect the environment is unlikely.  Just as the NRA’s iron grip on GOP lawmakers has prevented passage of sensible gun legislation, campaign donations by the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests ensure a lack of meaningful Congressional action any time soon.

Enter the children.

A trial date of Oct. 29 has been set for a landmark climate change lawsuit brought by a group of young Americans despite the Trump administration’s efforts to halt the case.

Juliana v. United States was filed in 2015 on behalf of 21 plaintiffs who ranged between 8 to 19 years old at the time. They allege their constitutional and public trust rights are being violated by the government’s creation of a national energy system that causes dangerous climate change.

The trial will be heard before U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, Oregon, according to Our Children’s Trust, the non-profit group supporting the plaintiffs. Aiken joined the court in 1998 after being nominated by President Bill Clinton.

 

The lawsuit was filed when Obama was still President, and a few days before the Trump administration took it over, Obama’s Justice Department lawyers admitted the accuracy of several of the plaintiff’s scientific claims– including the claim that carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations are now greater than 400 parts per million. They also admitted that fossil fuel “extraction, development and consumption” causes those emissions.

The children’s suit asserts that government’s failure to adequately address climate change imperils their future. The Trump Administration has tried–and failed–to get the case dismissed, or the trial postponed.

“It is a relief to see that the Court understands how imperative it is to get this trial underway as soon as possible, despite all of the delay tactics the U.S. government continues to try to use,” Sophie Kivlehan, 19-year-old plaintiff from Allentown, Pennsylvania said. “I am so excited to have an official trial date on the calendar again so that we can finally bring our voices and our evidence into the courtroom!”

These youngsters–like the teenagers who survived Parkland–aren’t waiting for adults to take action to protect them. (They have evidently weighed the prospects of adults acting like adults, and concluded–reasonably enough–that those prospects are dim.)

The emergence of these young activists lends weight to the hotly debated arguments of researchers who posit that about every eight decades “a new positive, accomplished and group-oriented” civic generation appears, sometimes dubbed the “we generation” in contrast to the “me generations” that preceded it. The “we generation” is “non-cynical and civic minded” and its members believe in the value of political engagement.

These amazing kids may save us all.

 

 

 

Constructing Our Own Realities

In the mid-1990s, as part of the publisher’s effort to promote my first book (“What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”), I was booked onto a call-in radio show in South Carolina. Belatedly, I found that the show I was on followed Rush Limbaugh; the calls that came in reflected that audience.

I vividly remember one of those calls. The country had been going through one of those periodic arguments about whether the religion clauses of the First Amendment preclude  posting religious texts–specifically, the Christian version of the Ten Commandments– on the walls of public buildings. (It does.)

The caller argued that the Founders would have had no problem with such practices, because “James Madison said we are giving the Bill of Rights to people who live by the Ten Commandments.” This supposed quotation had been circling through rightwing organizations; as I explained to the caller, not only had it been rebutted by Madison scholars, the statement was dramatically inconsistent with everything we know Madison did say. At which point the caller yelled, “Well, I think he said it!” and hung up.

This exchange occurred before the Internet, before Facebook, Twitter and other social media facilitated our ability to fashion our own realities. I recount it because it illustrates how desperately many of us–probably most of us–look for evidence that supports our biases and beliefs.(As the Simon and Garfunkel song says, “man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”)

What brought this exchange to mind was a column in the Washington Post by Ralph Peters, a commentator who has just left Fox News.

As I wrote in an internal Fox memo, leaked and widely disseminated, I declined to renew my contract as Fox News’s strategic analyst because of the network’s propagandizing for the Trump administration. Today’s Fox prime-time lineup preaches paranoia, attacking processes and institutions vital to our republic and challenging the rule of law.

Four decades ago, as a U.S. Army second lieutenant, I took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution.” In moral and ethical terms, that oath never expires. As Fox’s assault on our constitutional order intensified, spearheaded by its after-dinner demagogues, I had no choice but to leave.

Peters, who is very politically conservative, says the network was once an outlet for responsible conservatism (an assertion with which we might take issue), but has become an intellectually-dishonest propaganda source. There is a good deal of evidence that Fox has always been more interested in delivering Republican talking points than in objective reporting; what Peters is reacting to may simply be the outlet’s increasingly blatant partisanship. The age of Trump isn’t noted for subtlety.

Fox bears a considerable amount of the blame for creating an environment in which voters prefer spin and propaganda to objective fact, science and evidence. Its influence is waning now, as television channels and internet offerings proliferate, and as its older audience dies off, but America will be dealing with the damage it has inflicted for many more years.

That said, the basic challenge we face isn’t new. Voters have always “cherry picked” information. Confirmation bias didn’t suddenly appear in response to Fox or Facebook.

Fox’s business plan was explicitly focused upon providing ideologically compatible “news” to an “underserved” Republican audience. (Less-well-known Sinclair Broadcasting is equally dishonest.) My caller, back in the mid-1990s, may have gotten his misinformation from books by “historian” David Barton, who made his money giving fundamentalist Christians a version of history more to their liking. There will always be ethically-challenged entrepreneurs willing to make a buck pandering to our fears and prejudices.

The question is: what can we do about it? How do we counter propaganda effectively, without doing violence to free speech and the First Amendment? The only answer I can come up with is better civic and news literacy education, but that will take time and a commitment to revitalize the public education that Trump and DeVos are trying to dismantle.

It’s a conundrum.