Anti-Higher Education Sentiments Run High These Days

canon

Iconic Photo from the Cover of Ken Burns’ Civil War Series

“Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online,” Johnson said. “If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject? Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’ Civil War tape and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas” (The Denver Channel).

These are the words of U.S. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin (R), who is running for re-election this year, spoken at a Q&A session in Milwaukee last Thursday. He was discussing, not K-12 education as you would think by the comments, but rather ways that we could decrease the costs of a college education.

I hope I don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pointing out what is wrong with this statement, but I would like to highlight a few words as examples of the continuing anti-intellectual, anti-higher education sentiment that is running rampant in our utilitarian-minded culture.

  1. “Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers…”  Once again, money is at the heart of most conservative moves to re-define higher education. “Education is a privilege, not a right–a privilege that few can afford. Keeping cost down is the primary goal.” Keep in mind that Johnson was not being questioned about K-12 or even community colleges. His suggestion is for keeping costs down at four-year colleges and institutions.
  2. “You get one solid lecturer and put it up online,” Johnson said–Oh, what I, with almost 30 years experience teaching composition, could do with just a few minutes alone with this guy. One thing for sure, he wouldn’t leave my office with this major pronoun problem he’s rocking. I might have a thing or two to teach him about rhetoric, too
  3. “If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject? Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’ Civil War tape and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done?”  Oh my, where to begin?
    • “Tens of thousands of history teachers, who, you know, kind of know the subject?” Did you know, Senator, that only about 1.68% of Americans have PhDs at all and only a little over 2% of those people have Phds in history? (Reference.com). To put that in perspective, consider that a person’s chances are better in landing a position as a professional football player (about 1.9% of football players go pro) than in being granted a doctorate at all much less than in being awarded the highest possible academic credential in the discipline of history (NCAA). These scholars, Senator, deserve better than your flippant derision. They deserve your respect and admiration for contributing to the liberal arts educational tradition that has for so long has kept our country great until it began to be gutted by those searching for the quickest and cheapest way to get the largest of number of people into jobs that pay well enough to keep them quiet but don’t offer much room for advancement–the utilitarian mindset of short-term training programs offering limited choices, rather than robust liberal arts programs offering  opportunities for students to advance in their careers through the stimulation of critical and creative thought–the very life blood of innovation that has heretofore kept our country competitive with the rest of the developed world.
    • Ken Burns, while a brilliant documentary film maker, is not a teacher nor a scholar. He turned down decreased tuition at the University of Michigan to attend Hampshire College, an alternative school, where students are assessed through writing personal narratives and working on a “self-directed” course of study instead of majoring in a subject, like, I don’t know, something that would prepare a person for making historical documentaries, like history, let’s say.
    • Ken Burns’ primary source, cited numerous times in the course of the series, is Shelby Foote. Now I love me some Shelby–that accent is great, and he’s so Southern, but Foote, by his own admission was a novelist first and historian second (“Shelby Foote: The Art of Fiction, No. 158”) When some scholars criticized Foote for leaving out footnotes and other forms of documentation in his work, he said: “I have left out footnotes, believing that they would detract from the book’s narrative quality by intermittently shattering the illusion that the observer is not so much reading a book as sharing an experience” (qtd. in Reddit Ask Historians).
    • But, really, Ronnie, are you serious? “Popping in” a 14-hour video “tape”? To educate millennials, digital natives who live in an educational world filled with  instructional techniques such as gamification, Learning Management Systems like Moodle and Blackboard, math manipulatives, open source software, project based learning and personal learning networks, you need to stay current with technology and contemporary instructional methods–oh, wait, that’s part of a professor’s job. Even in online classes, educators are beginning to recommend only short videos because today’s student, indeed students have always needed, interaction with each other and with their professor in order to truly learn. We have always learned by doing and today’s innovative colleges and universities are moving further and further away from static, passive lectures and long videos to more interaction through the methods mentioned above, along with a myriad of other ever-changing techniques that require ongoing professional development.
  4. “and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done.”
    • Yes, already done–25 YEARS AGO! Lovingly restored but not otherwise altered, with some questionable and controversial material debated hotly by scholars, especially concerning interviews with novelist and historian Shelby Foote, who died over ten years ago. Where have you been, Ronnie? Certainly not in any college level classroom.
    • Now concerning teachers proctoring “based on that excellent video production.”  Senator, this word proctor, I do not think it means what you think it means. In North America proctor means to monitor students during an examination. What exactly does one do if one proctors based on a video? I think that maybe, just maybe, you mean teach based on the video. Oh, teach what? I thought the old video, shown in high school history classes all over the United States for decades, is the only thing college students needed to further their education about the Civil War. No expert in the Civil War whose job it is to update students on the latest scholarship is needed to bring in other views or expand on important issues or correct mistakes that appear in the film. Of course not.

I’m not bashing the use of film and video in the classroom, not at all.  I use these mediums frequently myself, but not without discussion and critique, not separate from analysis, because documentaries can be biased just like any other literary work, and to think students can learn everything there is to know from one historical viewpoint of any one film, especially one that was first aired in 1990, no matter how popular that film may be, is a very poor way to educate anyone. (BTW, Ronnie, we don’t use tapes anymore–most of us don’t even use DVDs. Where ya been?) Ken Burns himself implies in an interview coinciding with the recent restoration and updating of his classic documentary, that history, like any discipline, progresses and morphs as time goes on–our vision of it changes: “ The Civil War made us what we became, that is true. But we are in the process of becoming always” Burns said. “The Civil War …is not only still going on, it still can be lost, which is a hugely important thing” (qtd in Rosenberg).

However, the use of video in the classroom, no matter what the form, is not really Ronnie’s point is it? Perhaps he isn’t even too concerned about paying for education, since it is more of a function of the states rather than the federal government and is a relatively small expense compared to Social Security, Medicare and military spending (National Priorities Project). What he is truly expressing is his contempt for higher education–his belief that intellectuals are somehow suspect because they tend to disagree with his political opinions and are known for seeking and demanding their personal, intellectual and academic freedom.

Oh, one last thing, Senator, it’s a bit ironic that you champion Ken Burns’ work–a liberal who has donated thousands of dollars to the democratic party and has broken his n0n-partisan public persona to denounce republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Huh, funny what a few research skills learned in college can do for a person.

Advertisements

The Quality of Mercy

images

Maggie Smith, one of my favorite actors, as Portia 
in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice--
the BBC's 1972 version of the play

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, …

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

I am so much like Shylock. I believe strongly in justice. Just like Shylock, I don’t just seek justice, I demand it. But unlike him, I hope, in dealings with my students anyway, I see the wisdom of Portia, one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s female characters, and I know that it would have served Shylock well to heed Portia’s words and render mercy. And indeed, many times when a student asks for mercy, and I choose to give it, we are indeed both blessed. The student gets a chance to rectify whatever problem there is–attendance, poor performance in class, misbehavior in class, whatever it may be, and I get the satisfaction of helping a student succeed and truly learn something valuable.

Sometimes, however, that mercy is given, the student takes it, and then uses my act of mercy against me. This just doesn’t happen to teachers, of course, but I find that the teaching profession seems particular vulnerable to the ungrateful. I get so disheartened when this happens that I want to make a list of strict rules and never show any mercy whatsoever. Sometimes I think my colleagues and supervisors would be happier if my mercy were a bit less freely given.  Now, I do have rules and high standards, but I temper them with mercy if I see that I can help the student. I just have to, you see, because of the mercy shown to me.

I remember when I was a senior in undergrad school. I was struggling, like a lot of my own students, with who I was and where I was going next. I was pretty smart and had a way with words, but I was so caught up in my life –meeting people and learning a new language and becoming a woman and discovering hidden talents, like acting and persuasive speaking, that I had, frankly, lost interest in my English studies.

I procrastinated with my paper and put it off and off that last semester of my first senior year that when I finally started working on it in earnest, I realized that it would be impossible for me to finish. I had to ask for an extension. I was truly scared when I walked into my professor’s office. He was intimidating because he was so brilliant as well as being the head of the English department. I didn’t think he even really knew my name. I was standing there and couldn’t speak. He finally looked up and said something, I can’t really remember, and I blurted it all out. Not all of “it” was absolutely true either, but he had mercy. He gave me the extension I requested without hesitation. Then he did something I never expected–He pointed to the chair and said, “Now sit down and tell me what’s really bothering you.”

I finished the paper that first semester of my 2nd senior year. I never had worked so hard on anything in my life. 35 pages comparing the works of Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka–two displaced people who didn’t fit in anywhere, so they became writers or maybe they were writers and that’s why they didn’t fit in. I still don’t know. Anyway, I could say I finally found my way while I was writing that paper, and it would be a lie. I could say I stopped procrastinating and learned my lesson; that too would be untrue. No, I worked that hard out of gratitude to the professor who showed me mercy. His mercy, freely given, was twice blessed.

So I lean towards mercy when I think that mercy is going to be best for the student, when the student has a chance of making real change in his or her life. However, the quality of mercy is not strained (or forced). If the mercy is to be at all, then it must come freely given from the person granting that gift. For example, Portia is a wise judge. She knows she cannot legally force Shylock to have mercy because then that mercy would simply be a violation of justice. True mercy requires true justice. So she appeals to Shylock’s sense of justice when she appeals to his mercy. But he doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge.

As we see later in the play, Shylock made a grave mistake not granting mercy–it led to his bankruptcy and loss of his only child–making the play a tragedy more than a comedy in my mind, so great is Shylock’s loss. But Shylock’s fall is inevitable because Shylock is so full of anger, justifiably so perhaps considering the anti-semitic society in which he lives, that he can not show mercy because mercy must be freely given.

Therefore, even if a student takes my merciful action and uses it against me, it is still a gift freely given in an attempt to help that student. If now that student is demanding mercy, I can not give it because it is not freely given and would corrupt justice.
However, if I truly believe that I am standing my ground for the sake of the student as well as the integrity of my profession, then I am blessed no matter how the student misuses my gift. If no one ever acknowledges that I did the right thing and some people rally against me because of my stand, I will still be blessed because I didn’t allow others to pervert my deep sense of justice. 
I will continue to seek justice by upholding established policies and procedures, to fight for what is right, and I will continue to show mercy. Not because it is in my nature–it is not; not because my faith demands it–it does not. I show mercy out of gratitude–gratitude to the one whose unmerited favor has given me such a wonderful, abundant life.

To Become a “Miracle Worker” Too

Miracle worker Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in 1962’s “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson When I was a young girl in the 60’s, I loved to watch old movies on Saturday afternoon. Some of these movies made a deep impact on me for one reason or another. I remember watching one of my first Shakespeare plays on Saturday morning–the 1935 version of Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, Andy Rooney as Puck and James Cagney, yes, James Cagney, as Bottom. I didn’t know any of those actors then, but I was fascinated by their actions. I barely understood a word of what was said but I was mesmerized by the words. So many movies during those halcyon days, when my viewing choices may have been fewer but have rarely been better, helped form my love not only of film but also of story telling and the theater, psychology and human development, justice and mercy–movies like Citizen Kane and Rebecca, Stage Door and All about Eve, To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men. 

However, there is one movie that told a story which stands out above the rest in my mind, a story that helped solidify a desire that was already growing in me before I was a decade old–the desire to teach. That story is told in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a teacher, but watching Annie struggle to teach Helen, to give some meaning to the child’s dark and silent life by giving her the gift of language and in return seeing her own life change from dark to light, caused the stirrings of desire to leap into a consuming passion.

I was reminded yesterday of this great story and its impact on my career choice when I went to see our local community theater’s production of William Gibson’s play. I’ve seen it several times over the years and the movie many times, but something about the intimacy of the small theater and the fine acting by my friend who was playing Annie and another friend’s young daughter who played Helen, brought back the force the story and its impact on my life in a way I hadn’t felt in many years. This time, however, I have been a teacher for thirty years, a bit jaded about my profession, especially these days, especially in North Carolina, but watching Helen’s face at the water pump as the water flows over her hands and she finally understands what words are, seeing Annie’s face when Helen comes to her with her new found knowledge and signs that special word “teacher” renewed my love of teaching.

One passage in particular especially rang true to me last night. In the scene Annie is discouraged because she has brought Helen to the threshold of understanding language, has struggled mightily to bring her there, but words are still just a finger play to Helen and time is running out. Annie looks down at the deaf, blind and mute child with such yearning and says these words:

I wanted to teach you—oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave. And I know, I know, one word and I can—put the world in your hand—and whatever it is to me, I won’t take less!

Is it any wonder that even way back when I was not much older than Helen was that day the world opened up to her, that my world opened up to me? That day I knew what I wanted to do–help people understand the beauty and power of words. When I got a little older, one of the first biographies I read was Helen Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of My Life.” I chose that book because I had seen the movie and been so intrigued by Annie Sullivan and how it must feel to teach a child. Reading the story from Helen’s perspective fueled my passion for teaching. In this passage Helen describes that day at the water pump:

I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.*

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them–words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.

Some people struggle to know what to do with their lives, to find themselves, but I knew long ago as a little girl watching TV on a Saturday afternoon, when I could have been outside playing, that some day I would be a teacher. As much as I have wanted to escape my destiny over the years, it’s clear that I am where I belong, doing what I was born to do. What William Wordsworth said is true, “The child is father of the man.”

Mother of the woman, too.