Category Archives: Education / Youth

Bigotry And The Campus

My university–albeit not my campus–recently made the Washington Post, among other national publications, thanks to a longtime business-school professor’s racist, sexist and homophobic posts to social media.

According to colleagues on the Bloomington campus, Eric Rasmusen has voiced these opinions–which he characterizes as “conservative” and “Christian”–for several years.   What apparently triggered the current attention to them was his recent retweet of an article suggesting that women are destroying academia. The ensuing publicity has led to a lively argument over the University’s response, which has been to condemn his opinions in the strongest possible terms while respecting his First Amendment right to express them on his own site.

The current kerfuffle illustrates–among other things– the dishonesty of most conservative criticisms of higher education, especially the charge that conservative faculty members aren’t treated fairly.

More telling, however, is Professor Rasmusen’s clumsy effort to distance himself from the clear implications of his own social media history.

Rasmusen, who has taught at the school since 1992, told the Indiana Daily Student on Wednesday that he only shared a quote he “thought was interesting and worth keeping note of.” He told the student publication that the backlash was surprising, adding, “It seems strange to me because I didn’t say anything myself — I just quoted something.”

In a Thursday interview with Kelly Reinke, Rasmusen said he should be able to quote from an article without agreeing with it in its entirety; he deflected questions that asked him point-blank whether he agreed with the piece.

Since then, Rasmusen has continued to update a personal page “for links concerning the 2019 kerfuffle in which the Woke crowd discovered my Twitter tweets, retweets, and suchlike and got very excited, and my Dean and Provost immediately overreacted.”

If the Professor’s history of racist, sexist and homophobic posts reflects his considered philosophy, why does he seem so reluctant to own that philosophy? (I’ve noticed that a number of individuals who spout truly offensive racist rhetoric nevertheless object to being labeled racist. But that’s an observation for another day…)

The university’s response, in my view, was exactly right. It’s an approach that respects both the First Amendment and the right of students to have their classroom performance fairly and equally evaluated.

Indiana University Provost Lauren Robel did not mince words in a statement to the Kelley School community Wednesday, asserting that Rasmusen had used his social media accounts to push bigoted views for several years. Robel said Rasmusen had previously used slurs to describe women, who he has said do not belong in the workplace and academia. He has similar feelings about gay men, Robel said, because “he believes they are promiscuous and unable to avoid abusing students.”

Robel also said Rasmusen thinks black students are unqualified for attendance at elite institutions and are academically inferior to their white counterparts….

“Ordinarily, I would not dignify these bigoted statements with repetition, but we need to confront what we are actually dealing with in Professor Rasmusen’s posts,” Robel wrote. “His expressed views are stunningly ignorant, more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.”

She indicated that school officials have been flooded with demands for Rasmusen to be fired in recent days, a request she said the university could not — and would not — adhere to because “the First Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids us to do so.” But, she said, Rasmusen would be in violation of the law and school policy if he acted upon his discriminatory views while grading or making tenure decisions. The school would investigate and address those allegations if they were raised, she added.

The university will ensure that students worried about being treated fairly in Rasmusin’s classes–an understandable concern, given the persistence with which he has voiced his views over the years– have alternative courses available to them, and administrators are requiring him to use a double-blind system for grading so he won’t know whose papers he is evaluating.

Are faculty members who espouse Rasmusin’s particular brand of conservatism rare on elite American campuses? Of course. His views are blatantly inconsistent with academic competence. They are inconsistent as well with the legitimate conservatism that does have a place in academic discourse.

Defending bigotry by calling it “conservatism” is an insult to genuine conservatives. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going around…

 

The Anti-Fact Party

Here in Indiana, we joke about the time the Indiana House of Representatives passed a measure purportedly changing the value of  pi. That was in 1897, and Republicans controlled the chamber.

Things haven’t changed all that much. This year, similar GOP idiocy has apparently manifested itself in Ohio. 

High school test question: How old is the Utica shale formation that Ohio is drilling for oil and natural gas?

Answer: 6,000 years, just like the Bible says.

According to critics, HB 164, the Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019—which every single Republican in the Ohio House of Representatives and two of its Democrats voted for—would bar teachers from dinging that answer, which is 444 million years off the mark, if the student claims “sincerely held religious beliefs” for making it. And this would apply to all science tests. For example, under this belief, astronomers couldn’t possibly be right about the Andromeda Galaxy being 2.5 million light-years distant from the Milky Way.

One of the critics is Gary Daniels, the chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio. He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the bill would protect students’ religious rights, a good thing. But it also would keep teachers from taking off points for answers that conflict with science, stating that they “shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work,” he said. And that’s far from what education should be about.

The author of the bill disagrees with the ACLU’s analysis, contending that the measure simply protects “religious self-expression”–although he is apparently unable to point to any examples in which Ohio schools have suppressed or otherwise denigrated “religious self-expression.”

Given the facial absurdity of a bill that would protect a student in the above example–and the amount of misinformation circulating on the web– I consulted Snopes, which  merely lists the issue as “unproven.”

The Washington Post quoted Ohio’s legislative services analysis, and followed up with the ACLU’s interpretation of the bill’s language.

Per the legislative services, the bill would

Allow students to engage in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork or other assignments;

Prohibit public schools from rewarding or penalizing a student based on the religious content of a student’s homework, artwork or other assignments. (emphasis mine)

Per the ACLU

Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the measure does in fact allow students to answer homework questions and other assignments incorrectly, based on religious doctrine rather than science — and not be marked wrong. Cleveland.com quoted him as saying: “… this legislation clearly states the instructor ‘shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.’ ”

Amber Epling, spokeswoman for Ohio House Democrats, based her analysis on the language of the measure. She also contends that it would allow students to be scientifically incorrect if they incorporated religious belief into a test response.

The bill’s language–which is at the very least open to interpretation–gives rise to an obvious question: If the bill is not an effort to legislatively “overrule” science, and if there are no examples of religious expression having been penalized, what, exactly, was it intended to accomplish?

According to the sponsor, “protecting students’ rights to express their faith encourages hope in the face of violence in schools and rising rates of drug abuse and suicide.”

Shades of “thoughts and prayers.”

And more students would excel in math if legislators would just change pi to make it easier to remember….

 

How Ignorant Are We?

Some years ago, Newsweek’s cover story was “How Ignorant Are We?” The article reported on results of citizenship surveys–the sorts of data I share regularly (probably too regularly) on this blog. The surveys focused on knowledge of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the structures of our government, basic elements of the legal environment we share.

A recent episode in Lafayette, Indiana–home of Purdue University–illustrated yet another area of civic ignorance. As reported in the local paper, a Purdue University engineering student was denied the purchase of an over-the-counter cold medicine because employees of the local CVS pharmacy “looked at his Puerto Rican driver’s license and told him he needed a valid U.S. ID, before pressing him about his immigration status.”

They didn’t know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States, and didn’t believe him when he told them he was a citizen. And it wasn’t simply one clerk. After the initial encounter (during which he showed her his passport!), the young man left; he came back later to see whether a shift supervisor or manager could help, but he received the same line about corporate policy and his “immigration status.”

The student’s mother posted about the incident, attributing the question and the disbelief to racism.

What caused this employee to ask him for his visa?” Payano Burgos wrote in a Facebook post that was still gathering steam this weekend in West Lafayette and Purdue circles. “Was it his accent? Was it his skin color? Was it the Puerto Rican flag on the license? Whatever triggered her to discriminate against my son embodies exactly what is wrong in the United States of America today.”

I’m unwilling to entirely discount racism, but I think the more likely explanation is–again–civic ignorance. There have been reported incidents in which people have assumed that New Mexico is a foreign country, or a part of Mexico. (And as we know, the President was building his wall on the border between Colorado and New Mexico…)

In a recent speech to Indiana’s Library Federation, I shared the following statistics:

In 2014 only 36% of the American public could name the three branches of government. In 2017, only 24% could. Surveys have found that fewer than half of 12th graders are able to describe the meaning of federalism and that only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. In a survey by the Carnegie Foundation, just over a third of Americans thought that, while the Founding Fathers gave each branch of government significant power, they gave the president “the final say,” and just under half (47%) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling. Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed, and one in four believed that when the Supreme Court divides 5-4, the decision is referred to Congress for resolution. (Sixteen percent thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.)

We can add to that enumeration the widespread (if not statistically determined) lack of knowledge about American geography.

I guess the answer to Newsweek’s question is: very.

 

Why I Harp On Civic Literacy

In yesterday’s post, I listed elements of necessary political reform, beginning with reinvigorated civics instruction in the public schools.

I would understand if regular readers of this blog shrugged and attributed that particular item in the list to my abiding preoccupation with the importance of what I call “civic literacy.” Civic literacy isn’t civic engagement–important as that is. It is knowledge of America’s history, philosophy and basic legal structure.

When civic ignorance is rampant, Donald Trump can dismiss the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause as “phony” without losing the support of his base. He can repeatedly act in ways that are inconsistent with the Constitution and rule of law, and be defended by Congressmen who are confident that their constituents don’t know any better.

But civic ignorance has consequences that go well beyond Trump. I harp on the importance of basic civic knowledge because I believe it is connected to everything else that ails us–especially the growth of “identity politics,” or tribalism. I addressed that relationship in my recent book; the following paragraphs are what I wrote there, and may explain why I continue to be preoccupied with the issue.

——————

One of the most overlooked connections, and one that makes sensible reforms so difficult, is between low levels of civic literacy and tribalism.  American citizens do not share a political history, a common religion, or a single race or ethnicity. In some precincts, citizens don’t even speak the same language. In the absence of cultural and linguistic ties, societies require what Robert Bellah called a “civil religion” through which to forge a common civic identity. In the United States, that civil religion has centered upon our constituent documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—and the governing philosophy they embody, what I have elsewhere called “The American Idea.”

The tribalism fed by inequality and social media grows more pronounced in the absence of civic literacy. When Americans are ignorant of the history, philosophy and evolution of their constitutional form of government, they may share a common national geography, but they don’t share a civic identity. The absence of a common “civic religion” translates into widespread neglect of an important civic obligation, the duty to be sufficiently informed to evaluate government’s conduct of the people’s business.

Public accountability requires that those in power be forthright and detailed about laws they have enacted and other actions they have taken; it requires journalists who can adequately and accurately convey that information to the general public; and it requires citizens able to compare those laws and activities to the standards prescribed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The ability to discharge all of these tasks depends upon a basic familiarity with the nation’s history, philosophy and legal framework.

The widespread deficit of civic knowledge is not simply an impediment to personal efficacy and participation in the democratic process; it is evidence of a fundamental failure of public education. Civic ignorance impedes communication between Americans, and between Americans and their policymakers. It facilitates susceptibility to spin and propaganda. The loss of civic literacy is not confined to the voting public; American politicians on all points along the political spectrum constantly genuflect to the Constitution, and just as constantly disclose a lack of genuine (or often, even superficial) familiarity with it, let alone the two hundred plus years of jurisprudence applying its principles to ever-changing “facts on the ground.” The result is a lack of a common frame of reference that makes productive political action impossible.

 

Chasing Tuition Dollars, Foregoing The Mission

When reasonably knowledgable people listen to today’s political arguments–not just in Facebook posts, or at dinner parties or other venues, but also on cable networks’ panel discussions–it becomes painfully clear that a whole lot of Americans have no idea how their government is supposed to work. I bitch about that constantly.

But ignorance of our legal and constitutional system is far from the only information deficit on display these days. The most dogmatic and smug assertions–on both sides of the political divide– routinely come from presumably educated folks who display absolutely no understanding of the rules of elementary logic, and who appear to lack even the slightest acquaintance with political theory, let alone American or world history.

“Presumably educated” is the key. At risk of over-simplifying a complex phenomenon,  I want to suggest that these low levels of argumentation are an outgrowth of the decline of  liberal arts requirements in our colleges and universities, where genuine education continues to lose ground to job training.

It isn’t only in the U.S. A reader of this blog sent me a link to a report from England:

The University of Staffordshire last year launched its bachelor’s and master’s esports programs, in which students mainly learn marketing and management skills tailored to the industry. This autumn, it’s expanding the program to London while other schools are also debuting esports degree courses, including Britain’s Chichester University, Virginia’s Shenandoah University, Becker College in Massachusetts and The Ohio State University. In Asia, where esports has seen strong growth, schools in Singapore and China offer courses.

The global esports market is expected to surge to $1.1 billion this year, up $230 million from 2018 on growth in sponsorships, merchandise and ticket sales, according to Newzoo . The research firm expects the global esports audience to grow in 2019 to about 454 million as fans tune in on live streaming platforms such as Twitch and Microsoft’s Mixer.

I am prepared to believe that “esports” is a growing field. So are motorsports (which my own campus offers and hypes), web design, hospitality studies–not to mention more traditional business school courses in marketing, accounting and the like. And I have absolutely no objection to programs that teach these skills.

I do, however, have a huge objection to programs that allow students to substitute what is essentially job training for courses that provide them with a liberal education–that introduce them, albeit superficially, to great literature, to the arts, to economic and social theory, to history–in short, to the intellectual products of civilization.

At best, an undergraduate education can only provide young people with a “tasting menu,” a sampling of the intellectual riches that generations of scholars and thinkers have amassed. But ideally, that sampling will do three things:  foster a thirst for lifetime learning; give them a foundation for understanding the complexities of the world in which they must function; and inculcate an appropriate intellectual modesty–a recognition that there is infinitely more to know.

I understand why many universities have gone down this road. We depend significantly on tuition dollars to function, so we compete for students. Telling 18-year-olds that you will help them understand their world is far less enticing than telling them–and their parents–that they’ll make good money.

Universities also depend heavily upon public funding. State legislatures hold those purse-strings, and too many policymakers view higher education entirely through the lens of eventual employment. Along with self-anointed “rankers” of institutional worthiness in the media, they judge the effectiveness of universities by looking only at the rates of employment and salary levels of their graduates.

Esports, “game studies” and the like may pay the rent. However, unless  students in those programs are also required to take significant courses in the liberal arts,  they are unlikely to produce informed citizens, or to provide their graduates with the inner resources they will need if the promised jobs fail to materialize.

We are cheating students when we fail to at least introduce them to the intellectual and cultural products of those who have gone before. Making a living isn’t remotely the same thing as making a life.