Posts Tagged ‘Richard Ohmann’

By Richard Ohmann
“Devote one hour each semester in every course to discussing the status and character of campus labor.  These issues are relevant to every discipline and every subject, no matter what the catalog course description says or what conservative polemicists claim.  The AAUP’s 2007 statement Freedom in the Classroom helps define your rights as a teacher.”
–Cary Nelson, “A Faculty Agenda for Hard Times,” Academe Online
This is #17 of Nelson’s 30 suggestions for improving our weakened profession.  (He is President of the AAUP.)  Good idea.  The condition of campus labor has a legitimate place in class discussion, whether the subject of the course is Intermediate Italian or Intro to Macroeconomics.  If I were still teaching, I’d try to pick up on Nelson’s suggestion.  But how would I use that hour, in my imagined literature class at Wesleyan?  Gwendolyn Bradley asks a similar question in a note on the Academe blog, “Talking to Students About Working Conditions”:  “Readers, do you find that your students are aware of the facts of faculty employment and working conditions–including poverty wages and lack of academic freedom protections for many faculty?”
Many of my students were on their way to professional careers.  Almost all of them thought their intelligence and creativity should be allowed to flourish–and of course be well compensated–in jobs granting them freedom to conceptualize tasks, not just execute orders from bosses.  If I had a group of those students today, and if they did not know that 70% of university teachers are now pieceworkers on “poverty wages,” did not know how the labor of those teachers is being broken up into scientifically managed fragments, did not know that adjuncts have little control over their work, did not know that those teachers could be fired any time for stepping out of line or offending a student–such revelations would be shocking and also personally discouraging.
But if I were adjuncting at a community college or a for-profit, would revelations like these stir a similar reaction among my students? Can we expect students who have suffered “the hidden injuries of class,” but never glimpsed professional futures for themselves (as did the subjects of Richard Sennett’s book by that title), to identify with highly educated teachers suffering the degradation of a profession?  The commercializing of higher education may seem an outrage to people in or entering the professional-managerial class, but plenty of other people see this shift as promoting access to college and efficiency in matching curriculum to future work–not to mention as a suitable rebuke to privileged elites like me and many of you.  How would you set up your hour of talk on campus labor, with those students?  I think I’d ready myself for some serious disagreements about work, education, and class.  I like Cary Nelson’s proposal, but wouldn’t expect instant solidarity–much less rage at capital–to come out of that hour.

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By Richard Ohmann

So I’m listening to Marketplace Money (Sept. 8), and hear host Bob Moon lament that “the lousy economy is causing colleges to keep raising their prices or lowering their quality,” or both.  A “vicious, unsustainable cycle–until now.”  But here’s commentator Kim Clark with an “example of something done right.”

The something right is Clarkson University’s adaptation of Milton Friedman’s old idea to let some poor students in without tuition, and collect a surcharge on their later earnings instead.  Clarkson is admitting a few go-getters, free, “in return for a 10-percent share of their start-ups.”  It’s investing in two, this year; next year it will recruit “up to five more teen entrepreneurs”; and still more after that, if these “educational investments” work out.  “Imagine if all colleges’ revenues depended on their students’ success,” Clark continues.  “The invisible hand of the market would quickly crush diploma mills and party schools.  Colleges would realize they couldn’t afford to be soft on do-nothing professors or cheating students.”  What a great idea, as Kim Clark puts it, “to align the financial interests of colleges with those of their students.”

Right, I say.  Imagine how much better Harvard would have done, had it followed this business model.  By giving only two (2!) teen entrepreneurs free rides, in exchange for a 10% share of their startups, Harvard would have cruised through the crash of 2008 with no decline in endowment–a big increase, in fact.  Since neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg actually needed an education in order to make $billions, the University could have fired all of its do-nothing professors but a few whose jobs would have been to catch and get rid of cheating students.  The place would be rolling in dough.

Of course Harvard’s present model for aligning its interests with those of its students isn’t so bad:  select a few students (qualified or not) whose families run the world; charge them hefty tuition fees (much higher than $60,000 a year, I recommend); let them party to beat all; collect their multi-million-dollar gifts and estates over many decades; and keep the class system humming along.

Let’s call this the Cabot-Rockefeller business model, and the other one, the Tea Party business model.  RT readers:  which do you prefer?  Which would be best for community colleges?  For the University of Phoenix?  And what, me worry?

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In keeping with a suggestion of the Radical Teacher board that (1) our blogs be more like provocations than like articles, and 2) we bloggers think of one another as our primary readership, with others hopping in as they choose, here’s a puzzle for you all.

For 30 years, government and think tank reports have built on the premise that schooling and higher education are valuable chiefly for their contribution to US prosperity, and more particularly, US “preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation. . . .”  (A Nation at Risk, 1983).  International competitors were overtaking the US then, and are still doing so, according to just about every report since, and every piece of educational legislation.  The main Bush II entry in these loser sweepstakes, with reference to colleges and universities, was A Test of Leadership; Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education(familiarly, “The Spellings Report,” 2006).  What “we want”  is “a world-class higher-education system that . . . contributes to economic prosperity and global competitiveness.”  What we’re in danger of getting is a system of higher ed “characterized by obsolescence,” like the railroads and steel mills of an earlier time.  Help Wanted, a report of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (2010), says “we will need 22 million new college degrees” by 2018, and that falling short of that goal will “damage the nation’s economic future,” as well as the prosperity of millions of workers unprepared for work in the new knowledge society.  And so on, through many worried studies about our endangered capitalists.

But wait:  how come, two and a half years into the depression, the job market for college graduates is still so terrible?  How come the market for professionals (e.g., Ph.D.s) stinks?  How come half of the older workers who have been unemployed for six months or longer have had at least some college education (TomDispatch, Oct. 5, 2010)?  It seems that the capitalists know what they are doing:  stock prices and profits have recovered briskly since 2008, with no recovery in employment, and no rush to hire college grads.

No surprise in any of this, for people who have followed globalizing capital’s assault on highly educated and well paid workers in the US.  Why, then, do the Obama administration, its Republican opposition, the think tanks and task forces, unions and privatizers, all agree that “we” need a lot more of such workers?  That’s my puzzle.  How come the ideology of education as engine of US competitiveness chugs along, untroubled by what actually-existing capitalism is doing every day to regain control and further its project of development?  And if I’m not missing something here, why does this ideology seem to require dutiful pledges of allegiance from academic administrators and progressive legislators?

Dick Ohmann


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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to spend $3 billion in the next few years on K-12 education.  It had assets of over $30 billion at the end of last year, and presumably a lot more where that came from–Bill Gates’ bank account.  Warren Buffet, his fellow trustee, is the second richest man in the US.  Maybe their visible hands can feed our struggling schools just the diet they need.

Or maybe not.  The July 10 cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek (“Bill Gates’ School Crusade”) notes that the Foundation spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” starting in 2000 “to revitalize schools by making them smaller, only to discover that student body size has little effect on achievement.”  (See Picturing the Uncertain World, 2009, by Howard Wainer, a Wharton School statistician.)  With confidence undiminished by this error, the Gates Foundation now commits $290 million to a well-publicized, model program in Tampa, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles, based on the “emerging consensus” that “quality of teaching affects student performance.”  While the veteran reader is sleepily nodding his or her head at the obvious truth, the Bloomberg sentence goes on, “and that increasing achievement is as simple as removing bad teachers, identifying good ones, and rewarding them with more money.”

It doesn’t sound simple to me.  Let’s leave aside important specific questions that research is just beginning to address, such as whether this year’s leading “good” teachers, by the measure of improvement in students’ test scores, will remain on top of the “good” pile next year (the answer seems to be no, according to a Florida study reported in this article).  Leave aside all the less-than-super teachers, down to and including the “bad” ones, who might actually learn to teach better, with a little help from their colleagues.  Leave aside the matter of whether tests exist that might tell administrators which bad art teachers to fired along with the bad math teachers.  Leave aside the uncertainty that should trouble fans of No Child Left Behind, and most other ed reformers of the last decade:  what evidence is there that test-driven schooling makes for good education?  Leave aside the even more critical question, “what is schooling for?”–to which Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, and almost all of our power brokers reply in unison:  it’s for training workers and improving US competitiveness in the global economy.  That simple?

No matter.  The Gates Foundation can bet a few hundred million here and a few hundred there on educational clichés or new ideas.  Its efforts may fail again, or they may change how US schools teach kids–but either way, without doing research, without talking to teachers, without being elected by citizens to change our society.  Where do they get this right?  From making and keeping large sums of money.  From scarfing up the social surplus and using it to mold the future of the world. This is a bad idea, whether the hand feeding us belongs to the liberal Gates or to one of the more numerous right-wing billionaires.

It’s a bad idea for there to be rich people.  It’s especially bad to let them use their wealth for what they consider the general welfare.  I wish progressive teachers were teaching, whenever possible, about the harm that private wealth does, and about how to bite the rich.
–Richard Ohmann

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Good heavens, school teachers and principals are cheating–maybe 1% to 3% of them, nationally;  4% to 5% in Chicago.  So reports Trip Gabriel, in a front page New York Times story, “Pressed to Show Progress, Educators Tamper with Test Scores” (April 11, 2010).  For example:  a principal in Massachusetts told teachers to look over the shoulders of test-taking kids and point out wrong answers to them.  A principal in Virginia “pressured” teachers of struggling special ed students to put the correct answers to state reading test questions on an overhead projector.  In Georgia, the state board of education launched an investigation of 191 schools whose students’ test sheets showed evidence of tampering:  someone had erased wrong answers and penciled in correct answers.  In Houston, an assistant principal and three teachers resigned after a finding that they had peeked at the state science test, written a study guide based on correct answers to test questions, and distributed the guide to students.

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According to “The Path Forward; The Future of Graduate Education in the United States,” what’s wrong with graduate education is too little of it.  The Educational Testing Service and the Council of Graduate schools published this “landmark report,”on April 29; we know it’s a landmark report because ETS and CGS said so, in their press release.  OK, OK, minimal irony from here on, I promise.

The reason we need more people graduating with Ph.D.’s and M.A.’s–overwhelmingly the main reason–is the “necessity of a graduate-level workforce to maintain US competitiveness and innovation” (April 29 News Release),  The United States “is in peril of losing its competitive edge . . . ,” say the presidents of ETS and CGS.  People with graduate degrees are “crucial to ensure our nation’s continuing ability to compete in the global economy. . . ,” says the report’s conclusion.  There is much talk of losing the “dominant position” of US graduate education, its standing as “world leader,” its “preeminence,” and so on.  Yes, our grad schools are competing with those in other countries, but that competition is governed and warranted solely by its contribution to “our nation’s” economic battle with other nations.  You don’t have to look too deeply between the lines to understand this economic “necessity” as that of the companies that want to employ highly skilled and innovative holders of advanced degrees.  Naturally, the ETS-CGS commission that produced the report included business leaders, one of whom (Stanley S. Litow” of IBM) called for “innovative graduate programs in partnership with business.”  I suggest decoding this call to partnership  as:  “you grad schools produce the high-tech workers and we corporations will make the profits.”


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This is my fourth and final post on the academic job market and the future of college teaching as a profession.  Quick review:  in earlier installments I noted the devastation that came to academic employment via the crash of 2008; proposed that recovery from that crash will not restore the jobs lost, either across the whole economy or specifically in higher education; suggested that our profession is a moribund institution; and laid out some lines of action it (for instance, the Modern Language Association) would need to take in order to have a chance of rebuilding its market haven. (more…)

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