Category: Education

Inequality as a Political Phenomenon

When the great and good talk about inequality, they often presume that at its root is a skills differential between rich and poor. The former are supposedly much more educated than the latter, and this explains income gaps.

There are certain situations where returns to education are clear. However, a growing body of work makes it clear that political decisions are a key part of the equation as well. Consider Larry Bartels’s recent work (here reviewed by Dan Balz):

[T]here is a partisan pattern to the size of the gap between the rich and the poor. Over the past half-century, he concludes, Republican presidents have allowed income inequality to expand, while Democratic presidents generally have not.

Lest anyone think this book is a partisan hit job by a left-wing academic, Bartels goes to great pains in his introduction to preempt the counterattack he expects from critics on the right. “I began the project as an unusually apolitical political scientist,” he writes, noting that the last time he voted was in 1984, “and that was for Ronald Reagan.” He adds that in doing this work, “I was quite surprised to discover how often and how profoundly partisan differences in ideologies and values have shaped key policy decisions and economic outcomes. I have done my best to follow my evidence where it led me.”

No wonder “more than three-fourths (77.2 per cent) of US workers say they feel unrepresented by the political system on workplace issues.” They are likely becoming ever more skeptical of the “education remedy” for addressing inequality. Until the Neal Stephensonian nano-revolution is complete, we can’t all make our daily bread as manipulators of symbols. Adequate wages and health care for participants in the real economy–whatever their level of education–are a must.


The Citizenship Exam and Popular Culture

Every year as part of my constitutional law final exam, I give my students a mini “citizenship exam.” I ask six questions that derive from the U.S. Citizenship Exam, which are about the U.S. Constitution. I tell my students they can go to the U.S. government website and review the questions there, or they can just read the Constitution. Doing either should prepare them well for that portion of the exam. The questions I ask are straight forward and, I would suppose, easy: How does one amend the Constitution per Article V? What are the first ten amendments called? Who, according to the Constitution, has the power to declare war? Most students score 100% on this portion of the final exam — as I would hope. But sometimes I am surprised, unhappily so, by a pattern I see in the wrong answers. I asked the last question — the power to declare war — this year, and I was worried and angry by the number of students who answered that question: the President. (Angry: Weren’t they paying attention? Worried: What kind of teacher am I?) And then I thought about the question and how, as with some of the questions in the past, the right answer conflicts with our present experience of our political order and popular culture.

Of course the Constitution does say that Congress declares war, not the President, but since World War II, the United States Congress hasn’t declared war on any nation despite having authorized troops to serve in many, many war zones. No wonder students are confused. All the more reason they should have heard and remembered the classes on the war powers, I think. And all the more reason I should have been that much clearer in class. So although popular cuture can wreak havoc on learning, it can, of course, also be a teacher’s best friend. I tend to embrace it in my classroom (playing Billy Bragg’s Everywhere when I teach Korematsu, showing clips from West Wing when teaching Roe v. Wade). But in this case, I forgot the lesson. For our unit on war powers, I should have played this clip of President Bush declaring “mission accomplished” on May 1, 2003. Nothing like the problem staring you in the face to jump start a classroom discussion on the separation of powers. (And the problem can be defined in any number of ways for a good discussion about the constitutional order — the scope of the implied Art II powers, Congress’s reluctance to declare war but its willingness to fund it, etc.). Playing this clip by would have just derailed the pedagogical lesson (so I will try and refrain next year) but perhaps it would good in some class. Suggestions welcome.

Quality and Equality in Education

A regular reader of the blog alerted me to this story on the Finnish education system, which has been studied around the world for its extraordinary accomplishments:

[B]y one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules.

Certainly cultural factors play an important role here. But Finland’s experience should also challenge any easy assumptions that pursuing equality in educational opportunity leads to a decline in the quality of education for top students:

Each school year, the U.S. spends an average of $8,700 per student, while the Finns spend $7,500. Finland’s high-tax government provides roughly equal per-pupil funding, unlike the disparities between Beverly Hills public schools, for example, and schools in poorer districts. The gap between Finland’s best- and worst-performing schools was the smallest of any country in the PISA testing. The U.S. ranks about average.

Finnish students have little angstata — or teen angst — about getting into the best university, and no worries about paying for it. College is free. There is competition for college based on academic specialties — medical school, for instance. But even the best universities don’t have the elite status of a Harvard.

Note that the same “lessening of the stakes” pervades much of the rest of the economy in Finland. America may need to reconsider whether its own inequalities in educational opportunity are not simply a burden on the disadvantaged, but also militate against our economic position as a whole.


And Now a Word From Our Sponsors…: The Ethics of Sponsored Courses and Maybe Chairs?

dollars2.jpgInside Higher Ed details that Hunter College offered a course that was sponsored by an industry group called International Anticounterfeiting Coalition (known as the IACC). The group represents major fashion industry companies. The class well that is where the fun begins. Apparently the

students would create a campaign against counterfeiting in which they would create a fake Web site to tell the story of a fictional student experiencing trauma because of fake consumer goods. One goal of the effort was to mislead students not in the course into thinking that they were reading about someone real.

The article raises some good questions: Why have students perform free labor for the fashion industry (and really pay for the privilege?)? What about the underlying lies? These issues remind me of the LonleyGirl issues (there a fake videoblog lured people into what appeared to be a true personal site but was a front for a group launching a film company. Eric Goldman has a set of quick links that highlight the problems of user-generated content, ads, and quality. In general the school’s willingness to offer a class that propagates a shall we say less than authentic Web site is an example of the marketer’s will. Not that this point should exonerate the school. (Note that apparently Iowa turned down money when it was unsure about naming a school after the donor).

Still according to the article “other colleges do work with IACC” including Ohio State University but at least Ohio State does not operate in the same way as Hunter allegedly did. Ohio State seems to set up the projects as out of class activities. Hunter’s class according to some was directed by the IACC such “that the professor was required to teach only one side of the issue, had to accept industry officials watching him teach, and had little clout to fight back since he didn’t (and still doesn’t) have tenure.”

So it goes. Schools need cash and corporations have it. Would a school bow to its donors? Are schools market immune? Of course they aspire to be but the reality is different. Further as public schools lose the endowment race, they will be more and more beholden to outside funding. I am not, repeat not, saying that schools should operate so that they bow to corporate requests. I am saying that the issue is alive and well and not so easy to combat. If the allegations are true, Hunter seems to be the easy case, don’t do it. The harder ones will be the subtle questions of hiring, curriculum, and building funds which can easily look like a decision based on lack of funds when perhaps other interests scuttled the project.

Hat Tip: Slashdot

Image: Manuel Dohmen WikiCommons

License: GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2


Short courses?

Greetings from (mostly sunny) Champaign-Urbana, where I’m spending the week, teaching a short course on Federalism and the Making of American Corporate Law at the University of Illinois. Under the law school’s short-course program, the brainchild of Ralph Brubaker, my former colleague at Emory and now Associate Dean here at Illinois, anywhere from five to ten professors, judges, and attorneys come to campus each term, to teach a week-long, one-credit course.

I’m told the students generally love the short courses. My own data – consisting of the (fairly high, I think) enrollment of 27 students in the class, and good participation in the first class (yesterday) – would seem to confirm as much. For the visitors, meanwhile, it can be an occasion to try something new, or at least different, and to spend time with academic colleagues they might otherwise only see in passing, in the hallways at AALS. For Illinois, finally, it’s an opportunity to spread good impressions and good will among legal academics, on the bench, and with the bar. (As Charles Tabb – who’s serving as Interim Dean – put it, it’s a great way “to make new friends.”)

At Emory, we have “accelerated courses,” but of a different sort. Visitors, most commonly hailing from overseas, come for four to seven weeks to teach a class or two. Again, students like it, etc. Obviously, though, the longer format engages a completely different set of potential visitors.

Do other schools do anything similar to Illinois? If not, it’s something I suspect might be well-worth considering.

Should Harvard Last Forever?

Set in the year 3172, Samuel Delany’s novel Nova envisions a future where virtually everything has changed…except for the persistent Harvard University, home to the “eccentric, the brilliant, and the very wealthy.” As Harvard’s endowment balloons to $35 billion, Delany’s work looks less like fantasy and more like prophecy. In our day huge sums of money are the “monumentum perennium” Horace once deemed poetry.

But a former aide to Lynne Cheney has been crusading for wealthy universities to spend more of their endowments, and may be winning the battle of public opinion:

Lynne Munson dismisses Harvard University’s new plan to spend $22-million more annually on student aid as “miserly.” She says Yale University could have shown more leadership by pledging to spend at least 5 percent of its endowment each year, rather than the 4.5-percent minimum it announced last week. And she contends that dozens of other wealthy colleges . . . are guilty of “hoarding” because they do not spend enough to help keep tuitions down.

There are lots of tricky issues here, complicated by an increasingly winner-take-all society and the pernicious USNWR rankings rat race. As the compensation of I-bankers and CEOs rises to stratospheric levels, the top universities may feel that they have to keep raising their own salaries to keep pace. Moreover, competitive pressures are going to lead more universities to try to increase their average incoming SAT scores by offering merit scholarships and providing other amenities.

Robert Frank has proposed curbing that kind of “positional competition” with progressive taxes. Will a spending requirement for endowments have similar effects? Republican senator Charles E. Grassley appears to believe that it will at least lead to tuition relief; he has said

requiring wealthy universities to spend a higher percentage of their endowments could help “more working families see the benefits” of lower tuition bills. . . . The Senate proposal, which has yet to be introduced as legislation, could require rich universities to spend at least 5 percent of their endowment, as private foundations are now required to do, or lose the tax exemption they enjoy on their endowment earnings.

Seems like a fair proposal to me–and it also gives wealthy schools ample opportunity to keep open (in some form) to the end of time.


Slow Boat to China Cancelled: Post Office Ends Bulk Rate M-Bags

Mail_service_seaplane2.JPGNPR reports that the U.S. Post Office has ended its M-bag service, at least the old $1 per pound service which took a long time but as one person interviewed noted that does not matter with books. Now one must pay $3 to $4 per pound and use an air mail service. The problem here is that many charities sending books to Africa, Israel, Indonesia, and elsewhere can no longer afford to send books at the new rates. NPR pointed out that the claim regarding the increase is that the old rate is not viable and impacts the mandate that the Post Office break even in all classes of mail it offers, but apparently the Post Office is not really aware of what the service cost. It does appear that countries are less willing to receive mail at ports other than airports. Some claim that the low-cost surface mail has a political, good-will impact as local schools receive books and know that someone in the U.S. helped them.

The problem reminds me of Maggie Chon’s work regarding intellectual property and development. Her two recent articles, Intellectual Property from Below: Copyright and Capability for Education (Cardozo Law Review) and Intellectual Property and the Development Divide (U.C. Davis Law Review) examine the link between intellectual property and the how it can have a “substantive equality principle, measuring its welfare-generating outcomes not only by economic growth but also by distributional effects.” The piece about education seems all the more pertinent. Insofar as means to distribute hardcopy texts are diminishing, Prof. Chon’s presentation of “A human development framework [which] allows intellectual property norm-setters to prioritize the development of healthy and literate populations” draws attention to the goals of intellectual property and what the system is trying to do not mention offering a potent argument regarding what the goals are. In addition lest one think the postal system is not about distributing information, at least one author, David Henken, details the origins of the U.S. postal service in his book The Postal Age and points out “From its creation, the U.S. Post Office was committed principally to facilitating the wide circulation of political news, allowing an informed citizenry to live far from the metropolitan centers of government while remaining active in its affairs.”

Image: Mail Service Sea Plane, Wikicommons


Taking a Bit of My Own Advice About Failing Well

I happened to see two quotes yesterday that seemed apropos to the subject of success and failure, which has caught my attention over the last couple days. The first comes from Winston Churchill: “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.” The second is attributed to Henry James: “No man like to have his intelligence or good faith questioned, especially if he has doubts about it himself.”

It’s appointments season, so considerations of success and failure smack you in the face whether you like it or not. If my reaction is at all typical, you have to wonder, in the abundance of talent seeking jobs in the legal academy, how you yourself ever got hired. (Well, I am sure there are a few people out there who don’t have to wonder.) In the midst of a hiring season induced bout of impostor syndrome, I received a rejection e-mail from a peer-reviewed journal on a piece I had submitted six months ago. It’s pretty clear it was rejected at the editor level, not after being sent out for review (my experience from having had rejected a book manuscript that richly deserved to be rejected is that if the latter, you see the reviews). So I am here thinking out loud about taking my own advice, liberally offered to others, about failing well.

1. It’s not bad to fail ambitiously. I was attempting a difficult placement, and it was something of a flier when I started it. With six months reflection, I see my own weaknesses better (too many thoughts crammed into too little space; not enough accommodation to the concrete versus the abstract, hesitation about my own voice, etc., etc.).

2. Like Winston Churchill, I don’t mind learning, but I don’t always like being taught. What I think is more accurate in my case is that I don’t mind learning, I don’t even mind being taught (by a kind teacher), but I really don’t relish the prospect of being taught or criticized, which is always far worse in the anticipation than in the doing. And that, I think, is because of a slight variation on Henry James’ offering, which is that we Type-A, hyper-competitive, perfectionist, impostor-syndrome-affected sorts don’t like to anticipate our intelligence being questioned (which it rarely is!), especially when we have doubts about it ourselves.

3. It’s probably a bit of jargon, but in my prior life I always liked the idea of a learning organization as corporate model. It’s really, really tough to do, because it’s idealistic and aspirational, and the realities always come back to undermine it. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful enough concept that GE installed Steve Kerr as its Chief Learning Officer a number of years ago (he since moved on to Goldman Sachs doing the same thing). Learning in this context is more than being educated. This is from Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, which attracted quite a following. The idea is “personal mastery,” the kind of self-view we’d expect both from leaders and those led in a learning organization:

People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’. Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’ creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward’.

The great irony here, of course, is that schools are not necessarily learning organizations, particularly for faculty, but that’s a subject for another time and another place. Suffice it to say that in a learning organization we would talk about the relationship between failing ambitiously and succeeding cautiously.

Larson on Legacy Preferences as Titles of Nobility

ballcrown320.jpgCarlton Larson’s article on the “Unconstitutionality of Legacy Preferences in Public School Admissions” is provocative, persuasive, and beautifully written. I read its seamless synthesis of legal history and constitutional advocacy at one sitting, and I think anyone interested in egalitarian thought would do well to consult it. As its precis states,

[The Article] sets forth a framework for building a modern jurisprudence under the Nobility Clauses and concludes that legacy preferences are blatantly inconsistent with the Constitution’s prohibition on hereditary privilege. Indeed, the closest analogues to such preferences in American law are the notorious “grandfather clauses” of the Jim Crow South, under which access to the ballot was predicated upon the status of one’s ancestors. The Article considers a variety of counterarguments supporting the practice of legacy preferences and concludes that none of them are sufficient to surmount the Nobility Clauses’ prohibition of hereditary privilege.

Larson’s piece is also impeccably timed, as controversy over admissions to elite universities heats up. Justice Talking featured a series of speakers on college admissions on last week’s podcast. As book after book reveals inequities in the system, apologists for privilege are mounting a counterattack. Larson’s article reminds us of what is at stake–no less than the egalitarian values at the core of the American Revolution’s rejection of British aristocracy.

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