Monday, January 28, 2013

The Merits of Rigorous Coursework

January 28, 2013

Nothing demonstrates the spiritual gutting of the purpose of education as thoroughly as the proliferation of online accreditation “courses.”  If we look at a brief history of education, it becomes apparent that we’re living through a remarkable paradigm-shift in the perceived purpose of education, where the end goal is no longer education at all but merely the paperwork claiming to have received one.

Academic circles are replete with commentators who complain about the passive role students are taking in education today.  Ken Robinson’s TED talk from 2006 describes how our current education model kills creativity.  The social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, well known for his Stanford Prison experiment, has done recent research showing a continuing trend of disengagement in school, particularly in boys.  And it’s hard, of course, to imagine the protests and cultural challenges that framed the academic culture of the 60’s and 70’s taking place in today’s generation. Grades take precedence over learning.

This isn’t, of course, something intrinsically “good” or “bad,” but it does have consequences on how our society works.  More importantly, it has a dramatic effect on how classes are run because students’ incentives have changed.  Instead of striving to learn, they’re striving to attain acknowledgement of learning.  Learning, as it turns out, that didn’t happen in the first place.
Lack of economic incentives might not be a problem we as a society can solve at all, since industries are becoming more specialized by the day.  The lack of education, however, is something we can change.  Cultural shifts have happened in the past, and societal values are often as arbitrary as one small group’s preference.  America’s fascination with football, for example, isn’t any more or less “rational” than the rest of the world’s equally rabid obsession with soccer, and it would be a tall order to deny the impact of these arbitrary cultural phenomena.

Why not make this decision with education?

Taking an active part in the educational process doesn’t only make students better citizens by making them more informed about important issues; it makes them fundamentally better professionals in their respective job field by transferring habits of reasoned skepticism, attention to detail and proactive learning to the world of private industry.

There are two major ways students can make this happen: class selection and active dialogue.  Choosing classes that challenge preconceived notions of how the world works opens up students to new perspectives.  From my own experience, Dr. Chace Stiehl’s class on the economic history of the United States and Michael Korolenko’s class on the techniques and technology of propaganda have been exceptional examples of just this variety of class, and I’ve heard (almost) nothing but good things about BC’s sociology department.  The number of students talking about how their minds were blown certainly exceeds the number of students claiming the same thing out of 100-level English and math courses, as important as those are.The second part—taking an active part in the process by asking difficult questions—makes the knowledge more thorough and memorable.   Why do we think evolution is true?  How sure are we that the holocaust really happened?  How would you beat a Flat Earth Society member in a debate?  These are arguably the questions that generate the most genuine understanding of the material.

While the temptation to take easy, straightforward classes and to passively swallow and regurgitate the course curriculum is strong, especially due to parental expectations and college competition, it seems that people are losing more than they gain in this trade-off intrinsically.  However, with colleges and hiring businesses increasingly looking more at portfolios and activities and less at perfect grades, the loss in intellectual rigor and the actual education students are paying for outweighs the ease and security of vanilla classes occupied by vanilla students by leaps and bounds.  Don’t be afraid to grab your learning by the horns and demand your money’s worth.  After all, it is your money.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Killing Diversity with Diversity

January 22, 2013

“I sat in my chair, stated my opinion and then I shut up,” said Aaron Malec from his office chair in the Veteran Office in Student Programs last December.  “I can pull up the email right now, she kicked me out of the class for basically exactly what I was saying earlier, telling someone that if you come to this country, and you become a citizen…this is your country, because nobody’s from here…Now this is your country.”
Apparently, such conversation is fast becoming off-limits territory in the classroom environment, where diversity of opinion is viewed as antithetical to the diversity universities and colleges nation-wide are promoting so vigorously. The email read: “If you act as disrespectfully again in class as you did today when you questioned a student’s contribution based on her ethnicity, I will ask you to leave.”  Regardless, whether the professor misinterpreted what Malec was saying, or if he had, in fact said, something that intimidated a student, what is clear is that he was forced to drop the class and switch to an independent study based on something that he said.
In a different scenario from two weeks ago, a video was uploaded onto YouTube entitled “Testimony,” which caught a verbal altercation between several people. According to Carlondo Dudley, an eyewitness from the video, the unidentified white male in his 40s walked in front of a black student who was looking down.  After bumping into each other, the man said something along the lines of “I’m an American, I walk on the right side of the road.” This speech, as it turns out, is also off-limits.
“Here’s my situation,” says Dudley to the man in the video. “This is an international environment. You can’t say things like ‘are you an American?’ because not everyone can say that.”  If that had been all, it might have simply been a gruff exchange of perspectives prompting no need for an opinion article, but many students felt that this speech was aggressive enough to justify seeking administrative help in punishing the man for his comments.  Given that a bias incident is “conduct, speech or behavior motivated by prejudice or bias towards another person that does not rise to the level of a crime,” a description which itself is determined by the victim’s perception, punitive action seems to be likely.
It’s difficult to imagine that great American whose life we celebrated yesterday would have been thought of as sensitive and respectful by the standards of his time, or, for that matter, by the standards of our time within campus boundaries. But historical speculation aside, the idea that certain speech is “off-limits” defeats the very purpose of protecting individual rights on campus.  In fact, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave Bellevue College a “red-light” rating, as a campus with policies that are in the words of its president Greg Lukianoff, “laughably unconstitutional.”
It’s worth pointing out that the reason FIRE became involved in BC in the first place was over the suspension of a math teacher in 2006 for putting a question on an exam that asked students to do some calculations based on Condoleezza Rice dropping a watermelon off of a building. While FIRE proudly announced victory for free speech at BC in February of 2007 (finally overturning the suspension more than five months after the event itself occurred), the voices that vilified the math professor haven't become weaker; they've become enshrined in actual school policy.
This is not how a free-society works, and certainly now how students can experience the marketplace of ideas. If BC students and staff value diversity as much as they say they do, they must be willing to value diversity of opinion, especially, in fact, of opinions they disagree with or find offensive. True diversity of ideas is being killed on campus in the name of multiculturalism, and not only does it defeat the very purpose for which it was designed - to make students feel safe to be themselves - but also defeats the principles of education and our country's constitution. You simply do not have a right to not be offended.
This idea is fast losing support on campuses however, where the price of having a thin skin can include your own ideas and convictions. Think "hate-speech" codes will protect your political views from criticism? Ask a college Republican how easy it is to get support for speakers and events, whose views are often inaccurately called "fascist" and "idiotic" by their own teachers and very often don't receive as large budgets as their liberal counterparts. Confident school policy will keep others from insulting your faith, or at least your race? Tufts University has banned the recitation of several verses of the Quran for inciting hatred and the same push for diversity has spawned Palestinian "apartheid wall" demonstrations on campuses across the country, often blatantly anti-semitic.
If we value diversity, we have to stand up for our ability to be who we are on campus, no matter our race, gender, ethnicity, religion, politics or opinions. No idea, no conversation and no words can be "off-limits" in an institution designed to teach its students not only how to interact with other people coming from different worlds, but how to function as informed citizens in a democratic society.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

“Dangers of Reality and Imagination”

January 14, 2013

The casual phrase “it’s that time of year again,” betrays something of a cultural dismissal of the seriousness of the flu virus in the United States; ‘oh, it’s just the flu.’  No big deal.
While gun violence steals our headlines and late-night TV news time, less visceral but equally dangerous problems like the flu remain largely ignored.  Last Tuesday’s USA Today, for example, ran front page stories about both Gabriel Gifford’s new anti gun-lobby lobby group and the Newton School shooting, with just a side-bar story about the flu hitting with “deadly force,” having already killed 18 children this early in the season. The following day, the Seattle Times had not one, not two, but three front-page stories about gun control.  The entire paper didn’t mention this year’s particularly early and lethal flu season at all.
It should be pointed out that according to the Center for Disease Control, gun violence resulted in just over 12,600 deaths in 2007, while the 2009 flu pandemic, also known as the “swine flu” has resulted in the deaths of over 18,000 people.  It’s also worth noting that gun violence, though severe, has proven to be very, very difficult to mitigate without causing even more significant problems.  Preventing deaths from the flu, by contrast, is not only very easy in logistics, but politically and financially easy as well.  We simply need to walk over to the local drug-store and pick up a vaccine, often for just a few bucks.
So why aren’t we doing it?
It doesn’t take a PhD in social psychology to understand that we don’t make our decisions as rationally as we like to think – a problem that has vexed economists as well as health-care providers for as long as we’ve been managing our money and our bodies.  We make a lot of our decisions based on our fears, which are very often poor reflections of the actual dangers that we face. Based on the number of guns, number of swimming pools, and number of children annually killed by both, Economics Professor Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago calculated that “on average, if you own a gun and have a swimming pool in the backyard, the swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is.”  And yet, we very rarely hear of worried citizens fighting for more restrictive laws on swimming pools.
While there is a small fringe group of people who don’t understand medical technology perpetuating some bad science (like the claim that vaccinations cause autism, or hurt your immune system), the main problem with the flu, as with swimming pools, seems to be that it lacks agency – it’s not a person doing something to you, it’s simply a hazard.  The more primitive parts of our brain are programmed to fear predatory animals and, more importantly, other people.  It’s only natural, biologically speaking, that something like a gun-wielding person inspires more fear and political action than something even more dangerous and more preventable like influenza.
However, as educated people (you’re reading the newspaper, after all), we have a responsibility to set the bar higher, to do our best to match our fears with reality, and to match our preventative action to the threats that actually endanger people the most.  It would also pay huge dividends in safety for us to try to deal with the easy problems first.  So if we really want to make society safer, let’s try to ensure as many people as we can get vaccinated this year.  When we finally send the flu the way of smallpox, we will be in a more rational position from which to worry about the more sensational dangers like firearms.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Constitutional Controversies on Campus

January 7, 2013

Coming to school after a long and hopefully relaxing Christmas Break, talking about politics, law and freedom may seem to be kind of an agonizing prospect; perhaps not unlike being asked to do something unpleasant just after waking up without even the decency of a shower and a hot cup of coffee.
Oh, I meant to say “holiday” break.  There is, sadly, no escape from issues of free speech by hiding our heads in the sand during whatever ethnically, religiously and culturally neutral festive holiday you may or may not celebrate.  I actually tried it with snow, and while my ugly little igloo was sound-proof for the duration of the camping trip, it was hardly what you might call a sustainable practice for peace of mind.  And returning to school, we are once more confronted with these stubborn issues – the only difference is that we’re forced to be a bit more aware of them.  Ignorance is only bliss in the unenlightened short-term where such matters are concerned.
If you are lucky enough to be enrolled in a political science class, these problems may even affect you in the more visceral, offensive way it affected Bill Neel in early September, 2002.  President Bush was touring through Pittsburgh on Labor Day, where Neel was planning on greeting him with a sign that read, “The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us.”  The local police created an ad-hoc “free speech zone” on a baseball field more than a quarter of a mile away, and ordered Neel and other wavers of critical signs to move (though supportive signs were, of course, perfectly acceptable outside this free-speech zone).  Neel was arrested for disorderly conduct when he refused to move.
Such was the case for students Marco Valdez, George Miller, Jon-Mycal Panattoni, Ally Mcgill and Kayla Jeppeson last quarter for their class Indecision 2012.  For their political action assignment, they chose to stage a protest of Bellevue College’s own free speech zone; outside of said free speech zone, of course.  Unfortunately, the students chose to start the protest by camping out overnight by the R-building, which violates a more mundane and perhaps more reasonable rule about the schools hours of operation.  When they talked to security about the possibility of future protests with better times however, things didn’t look any better – even during normal school hours, such activities must be confined to the so-called free-speech zone.
Do we lose our constitutional rights outside of the fountain plaza?
School is, and generally always has been, centered around the classroom.  Let’s face it: no one really cares that much about whatever group happens to be tabling or petitioning in front of the fountain around lunch time on any given day.  The threat is not that the administration won’t let you hold a sign saying you dislike Bush’s policies regarding poor people, but that they won’t let you hold that sign where it actually matters, and where you should be allowed to by the First and Fourth Amendments – that means in the classroom.  It’s condescending and evasive lip-service given to free speech, allowing people to say that they support free speech without actually having to.  You know you’re talking to one of these people when they say ‘I support free speech, except when…’
Valdez and his classmates started their protest primarily as a school project, but started to care more about the issue when they realized that they actually were, essentially, being censored, and that other students who wanted to make similar use of their intellectual freedom could be similarly silenced.  The problem isn’t that most students like the idea of these sorts of impositions on their rights: in a recent project for one of my own courses from last quarter called Techniques and Technology of Propaganda, all but a couple of the dozen or so students we interviewed supported absolute freedom of speech on campus, and said they would be extremely upset if they were limited in what they could hear or read, since when you silence one person, you simultaneously cut off everyone else’s ability to hear their ideas.  Two even said they’d rebel (violently!), if such censorship were revealed to be happening.
As Valdez and his group demonstrated, the problem isn’t attitude, but awareness of the state of things, and our present status quo’s adverse affect on not just student freedom, but the very education these rules were designed to protect.  When students can’t express themselves – when we’re so limited by unnecessarily stringent rules of conduct and Orwellian rules of political correctness that we can’t even ask difficult questions, education is adversely affected indeed.
In short, students need to follow the advice of Dr. Bernard Franklin – perhaps not to the extreme of overflowing the college sewer-system in protest, or yelling at the dean of the school from atop their own desk, but at least standing up for ourselves and demanding more for our money.  College, for most people, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for growth, education and intellectual stimulation, and it would be a personal and national tragedy for us to throw it away out of apathy or blissful ignorance.
For more information about the student protests against BC’s Free Speech zone, see “Students Protest Free Speech Zone” by Erin Hoffman on page 1.  To get involved, contact Marco Valdez at