To Improve U.S. Education, Look at the States

In the 1932 U.S. Supreme Court case New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, Justice Luis Brandeis made the point that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”. Thanks to the federal structure of the United States, all fifty subdivisions of the country have considerable leeway in how they manage all sorts of economic, political, and social policies and institutions (though the extent of this power is a matter of perennial debate and jurisprudence.)

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has validated this idea, arguing that the best way to improve America’s educational outcomes is to look not abroad, as is so often done, but within, at the many individual states, counties, and cities that have managed to attain high results.

It is a long read and dense read, I unfortunately have not the time to reproduce its most salient points with my commentary. Suffice it to say, it is well worth giving a look, especially as it raises many questions whether the international rankings that are relied upon by performers are truly as accurate, and thus informative, as many believe. Continue reading

African Century

According to the U.N., Africa’s population is projected to quadruple to over 4.4. billion people by 2100. By then, the total number of people in the world is estimated to be around 11 billion, meaning that Africa alone will account for over a third of the global population and almost all of the new population growth over the next century.

As The Economist points out, this staggeringly high growth rate — contrasted with stagnating, if not declining, populations almost everywhere else  — will have tremendous implications for both the continent and the world at large. Continue reading

The Crucial Lessons of Traveling

I couldn’t agree more with the following observation by The Atlantic‘s Amanda Machado, whose article “Traveling Teaches Students in a Way Schools Can’t” explores the often-neglected experiential side of education.

During my time traveling in these areas, I often traveled without access to hot water, Internet, air conditioning, or even basic electricity. I slept in rooms with spiders, mosquitoes and bedbugs. I rode on public transportation that rarely left on time and often broke down suddenly in remote areas. Stripped of my daily habits and expectations, I was forced to surrender the idea that I have a right to anything—including the luxury of convenience, or days when everything I’ve planned actually happens. And my minor travel hassles seemed even more petty when I realized that they represented larger systemic problems that locals must deal with every day.

But these trips didn’t only teach me to appreciate what I had; they also moved me to consider why I had it in the first place. I realized that much of what I thought was necessity was, in fact, luxury and began to realize how easily I could survive off of much less. I didn’t necessarily need hot water or a timely bus or a comfortable bed to be happy for the day. I didn’t necessarily need a jaw-dropping landscape or a famous archeological ruin or a stunning beach to make my travels worth it. Instead, most of the time, that fulfillment came from the people I interacted with—not the things I had or did. It came from eating soup with locals at a rest stop on a 12-hour bus ride, sharing a meal with Peruvian soccer fans while watching a match, or chatting with the owner of my hostel during his lunch break. Discovering that my best travel moments came from these subtle, personal moments instead of the grandiose, materialistic ones made me understand that living contently required little. What I originally thought I “took for granted”, I now rethought taking at all.

Before traveling, I also assumed people from developing countries would all want the advantages I had as an American. And yet, I discovered that the people in these countries didn’t necessarily feel like their lives were lacking. During my last visit to South Africa, I worked with John Gilmour, the executive director of LEAP schools, a charter network for low-income students. Gilmour told me about an encounter he had visiting a Cape Town township community before he decided to open his first school near there. A local showed him a street corner and told him, “This is my favorite place in the whole entire world”. Gilmour was skeptical and argued, “How could you say that? Look at the graffiti, look at the trash covering the floor, look at the unpaved road”. The other man responded, “No, look at the people”.

Stories like these are what continue to whet my appetite for more travel. Even if it is just exploring a neighboring town I had never visited before, I always find myself learning something new — especially when I take the time to engage with fellow humans.  Continue reading

A Professor Weighs in on the Trigger Warning Debate

I haven’t the time nor inclination to get into this increasingly fraught topic (it has been too rough a day to give the apparently big issue its due focus and assessment); let’s just say I was a bit on the fence about the issue.

But the following excerpt of a New Republic article by  offers what I think to be a pretty sensible and balanced take on the matter.  Continue reading

Teaching Philosophy to Children

I have shared arguments for why philosophy should be made a greater part of public life, including primary school curricula. But what would teaching kids philosophy look like? Would it really be feasible for such young and still-developing minds? Freelance filmmaker and philosophy teacher Giacomo Esposito thinks it is both desirable and perfectly manageable to teach philosophy to primary school children.

A member of The Philosophy Foundation, which advocates for and facilitates philosophy courses in school, he makes his case in The Guardian, first by outlining how he goes about it.

…While the number of jobs with the word “philosophy” in their title may be limited, the skills and techniques I learned at university have continued to benefit me since I left – hence why the idea of teaching them to children appealed.

The sessions I run usually begin with a story or short “stimulus” which draws on a traditional philosophical problem, but reframes it to make it more engaging for a younger audience. The story then ends with a question, and a discussion ensues. Throughout the class, I try to take a backseat; I’m there to help draw out the children’s thoughts, but it’s really for them to decide where the discussion goes and, crucially, what they think. In fact, rather than teaching philosophy, a more accurate description of my job is “doing” philosophy with children.

And contrary to popular belief, children are far better suited to embracing and understanding philosophy than their ages would suggest. Indeed, the subject is a natural fit. Continue reading

What If Students Stopped Paying Back Their Loans?

That is the provocative question posed by Vice to Professor Andrew Ross, who teaches Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. As one of the founders of debt resistance groups like Occupy Student Debt and Strike Debt; a member of the Debt Collective; an advocate for the rights of debtors; and an author of Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusalhe is clearly something of an expert on the subject. His answer?

A strike of any kind is a tactic. It’s not a solution. It’s a tactic towards a goal, and the goal here ultimately is for the US to join the long list of industrialized countries around the world that make it their business to offer a free public higher education system. None of these other countries are as affluent as the US; there’s no question that this country could afford to do so. In fact, we produced an estimate not that long ago about how cheap it would be for the federal government to cover tuition at all two and four-year colleges. There are several estimates in circulation, and a few years ago that kind of proposal was dismissed out of hand. But now we’re beginning to see it pop up on Capitol Hill in various forms. It’s a proposal that’s part of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president. It’s a proposal that pushed President Obama in the direction of making community colleges free, at least for two years. It’s becoming a little more respectable to talk about [solutions for student debt], on Capitol Hill and in the public sphere in general. None of that would have happened without a student debt resistance.

Read the rest of this illuminating interview here. Given the mounting economic and social consequences of this issue, one can expect the public debate about student debt and the cost of higher education to only intensify.

Why Sex Education Should Start in Kindergarten

Sex ed in the United States is fraught with controversy and discomfort. Left to the discretion of each U.S. state — of which fewer than half require teaching of the subject — the subject is subsequently still overwhelmingly focused on minimizing the risk of pregnancy and STDs from conventional heterosexual intercourse, leaving out the many other dynamics of sexual relations (how to handle feeling of intimacy, the importance of granting as well as accepting consent, etc.). Little wonder why almost 40 percent of young Americans report that their sex education was not helpful, and why so many people remain uncomfortable about so much as discussing the topic, let alone the act itself.

The U.S., among other countries, should take lessons from the Netherlands on implementing a comprehensive and results-driven approach to sex ed. Granted, it would be a tough sell, given that students start learning about it as young as age four. But as a PBS report notes, the nature of the class is not what one would think. Continue reading

Noam Chomsky: The Death of the American University

“The university imposes costs on students and on faculty who are not only untenured but are maintained on a path that guarantees that they will have no security. All of this is perfectly natural within corporate business models. It’s harmful to education, but education is not their goal.”

Vox Populi

On hiring faculty off the tenure track

That’s part of the business model. It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Walmart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line.

The effective owners are the trustees (or the legislature, in the case of state universities), and they want to keep costs down and make sure that labor is docile and obedient. The way to do that is, essentially, temps. Just as the hiring of temps has gone way up in the neoliberal period, you’re getting the same phenomenon in the universities.

The idea is…

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Harvard researchers have mapped the five child-rearing techniques you need to raise kind kids

These recommendations may seem commonsensical, but given how kindness and compassion towards others is often treated as a secondary concern at best, it is important to reaffirm the importance of cultivating an ethical, empathic mindset among future generations. Given what is in store in our future, it is more important than ever.

The Starving Educator

With universities following the lead of private businesses in “cutting costs” at the expense of workers, college professors — once among the most respectable and well-paying careers — are quickly becoming among the poorest workers in the country. A growing cohort of instructors — already around half — are adjuncts or “contingent faculty”, lacking job security and decent pay yet otherwise doing all the work of a typical full-time professor. Shockingly, at least a quarter of all higher-ed instructors are on some sort of public aid, such as food stamps. The Atlantic has more on this disquieting development:

Adjunct professors earn a median of $2,700 for a semester-long class, according to a survey of thousands of part-time faculty members. In 2013, NPR reported that the average annual pay for adjuncts is between $20,000 and $25,000, while a March 2015 survey conducted by Pacific Standard among nearly 500 adjuncts found that a majority earn less than $20,000 per year from teaching. Some live on less than that and supplement their income with public assistance: A recent report from UC Berkeley found that nearly a quarter of all adjunct professors receive public assistance, such as Medicaid or food stamps. Indeed, many adjuncts earn less than the federal minimum wage. Unless they work 30 hours or more at one college, they’re not eligible for health insurance from that employer, and like other part-time employees, they do not qualify for other benefits.

A year ago, The Atlantic reported on the poor working conditions faced by adjuncts—who, depending on the needs of the school, are often hired a month before the semester begins—beyond their low salaries. To make ends meet, they may teach courses at multiple colleges; they could teach Milton in the morning on one campus and Shakespeare in the afternoon on another. Moreover, according to the analysis, adjuncts are typically excluded from administrative and departmental meetings, meaning they might not be familiar with school policies or other faculty members. On top of instruction, the article explained, they often have to maintain a research agenda and hunt for jobs at faraway conferences without financial support for the trip from a university.

Over the years, the number of tenured professors has dropped while that of adjunct professors has risen, as colleges attempt to rein in costs. Public colleges in particular rely on adjuncts.

Aside from the obvious injustice that comes with exploiting these workers, such a trend is also having consequences for secondary education, which is already fraught with issues of cost.

[S]ome suggest that many adjuncts are unable to provide students with the same quality instruction as do tenured faculty. Judy Olson, a longtime part-time professor who currently works as an adjunct at California State University, Los Angeles, acknowledged that her financial concerns sometimes detract time from lesson planning. She cited other adjuncts who she said are unable to maintain independent research that could otherwise enrich classroom discussions. When administrators hire adjuncts only days before the class begins, she added, they can’t properly prepare syllabi and order books.

Adjuncts readily admit they cannot support students outside the classroom, such as when students need extra help understanding an assignment, general college advisement, or a letter of recommendation for a graduate program. And even if they had the time to provide these services, many colleges don’t provide their adjuncts with office space, so they meet with their pupils in coffee shops or at library desks. Olson for her part said that in the past she’s had to meet with students by the trunk of her car, where she kept all her books and papers as she commuted between different college campuses. Without formal meeting spaces, students may find it difficult to locate their professors when they need assistance on their classwork.

Meeting space aside, adjuncts often report that they simply cannot answer common questions from the students about the requirements for the major, course sequencing, or related classes at the college; to get this information, students instead have to track down tenured faculty on campus. Same with letters of recommendation for admission to graduate programs or post-college jobs: Some adjunct professors may not be willing to write them because they aren’t paid for the time, or students may find it difficult to locate former teachers who are no longer employed at that college. Even if they are willing, colleges might not provide adjuncts with institutional letterhead for the recommendations.

As the article goes on to note, many students and parents, not to mention the wider public, are unaware of this pressing issue. Indeed, universities make a point not to distinguish between these two very different professorial tiers. Many students are being taught by someone as impoverished as the typical fast-food or retail associate (whose plights are comparatively better known). It is shameful how little universities and governments are doing to correct this problem, instead shifting all the costs to non-faculty staff (e.g. overpaid managers and administrators of dubious necessity).