MUSINGS BEYOND THE BUNKER
These are musings on college admissions, ethnic studies, and free speech on campuses.
WILL COVID-19 MAKE US RECONSIDER COLLEGE CHOICES?
As families gather together due to canceled in-person college classes or a fly cross-country in a desire to hunker down together in one place, one can’t help questioning why many families live so far apart these days. There was a time when one went to school near home, found a job near home and seemed happy enough. While this generation is far more worldly than ours—often attending schools far away and with semesters abroad, there are costs, physical, financial, and emotional, to uprooting one’s life. I just am not sure the current model will be sustainable, particularly in light of burgeoning costs, questionable benefits, and the current circumstances. As people question being so far from family in times like these, with the uncertainty of when and under what circumstances classes will be given, people may start rethinking college choice.
With the coming of COVID-19, I think we’ve seen how physical proximity brings comfort, security and support. Coupled with the likely increased difficulties and costs of travel that will emerge when this crisis abates, perhaps the pendulum that often sent kids across country for college may revert to more regional schooling of the next generation.
ARE COLLEGES EVEN ABLE TO DELIVER THE PRODUCT?
In addition to the actual academic education one receives, the immersive interaction with a community of professors and fellow students with whom to learn—and the maturing that takes place in this environment—are important byproducts of a college education. With the cancelation of this last semester and the likelihood that many colleges will begin this Fall with an on-line program (and after that, a program with social distancing requirements that will diminish the experience), serious questions arise. Knowing the serious debt burdens that will greet many graduates, one must ask whether a product that lacks the in-person experiential learning from being at and immersed in college justifies the high price tag. If on-line education and physical distancing become the norm, will students opt to learn what is fundamentally the same subject matter on-line from a less expensive institution?
When colleges no longer can brag about four years of an idyllic undergraduate experience, will fewer students value the elite college experience and elect to go elsewhere? Will they opt to stay in more familiar surroundings nearer to home? Will more students defer admission, hoping to avoid on-line learning? The financial effects in the short term—no revenue from empty dormitories, decreased food service, declining tuition—will be devastating to those colleges less financially stable.
CHANGING THE “RAT RACE”
The college application process has become burdensome, costly, stress-inducing and, in the end, perhaps not worth all the effort. Those who have gone through the brutal, no-holds-barred battle for a slot at an “elite” institution can appreciate what I’m talking about. It’s a blood sport that is unhealthy, often leading students to make choices based more on ranking than on fit. As a result of this jolt to the system and the effects of measures to promote physical distancing, the “system” may be forced to adjust in myriad other ways. And that would be a good thing.
One interesting thing is that standardized tests may not be able to occur this year. This forced experiment might bring a rethinking of that process. And while AP exams apparently will go on, perhaps a serious debate can be had to decrease reliance on a system that encourages kids to take advanced classes in subjects of little interest or aptitude, solely to create a GPA and narrative that will resonate with far-off colleges. The desire of colleges to have some greater objective standards upon which to judge merit has allowed them to manipulate the pedagogy of secondary education, to the detriment of the students. It would be great for high schools no longer to “teach to the test” and allow students to take classes most appropriate—and interesting—to them.
Colleges have been playing into the ratings game for years, a system that perpetuates a false measure of “success” and “failure.” Colleges push for kids to apply who have no realistic chance of admittance, solely to reduce their acceptance percentage (and, therefore, artificially boost their “selectivity”). Add to that the “early decision” process—a perverse idea that allows colleges to shift much of the risk of enrollment numbers from the institutions onto seventeen year-old children. Forcing a child to make an irrevocable decision in October may make planning easier for colleges, but it does so at the expense of unnecessarily stressing out students and their families, while also ignoring the significant growth that takes place between the Fall and Spring of one’s senior year of high school. It seems patently wrong that institutions dedicated to teaching young adults have fostered this insidious numbers game.
Then there's the college admissions scandal, an inevitable outgrowth of the arms race for slots in ever more selective institutions. While there is no justification for the bad behaviors of these parents and educators within this scandal, one can see how these behaviors are an extreme outgrowth of an unfair system that rewards elaborate artifice and gamesmanship. Here’s an article from last June on the admissions scandal that focuses on the process by which naïve seventeen year-olds are pawns in this process of “resume building” and parental insecurity and social climbing: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/06/26/college-admissions-rant/
There are some people out there on the front line of bringing ethics, inclusion, diversity, fairness, and rational behavior to this broken system. At the top of that list is my friend Jerry Lucido, quoted in the above article. He is the Executive Director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice, studying enrollment issues that lead to unfair decisions and encourage bad behaviors. Perhaps the system will be more receptive to Jerry and his colleagues, who have been working on these problems for over a decade: http://www.thecollegesolution.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/USC-report.pdf.
For a thoughtful discussion of the competitive arena in college admissions, offering a far more thoughtful discussion than I can, I encourage reading Jerry’s attached piece that suggests following the NFL model of “cooperative competition.” As Jerry points out, colleges are here to serve the public interest. It is time they be forced to consider that factor above all others in refashioning a system that would be kinder and fairer.
Is it possible that this crisis will usher in a “buyer’s market” for higher education? Certainly, with high school graduation numbers projected to continue declining in the next decade, COVID-19 only exacerbates the downward pressure on college revenues and may shift the balance of power from the institutions to the students. Maybe some good can come from this.
THE DANGER TO FREE SPEECH ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES
I’m troubled by the attacks on free speech on college campuses. Clearly certain speech is beyond the pale, to wit, urging violence against others. And I certainly think racist and even insensitive statements have no place at a college (or for that matter, a business or in the public square). But I am concerned about silencing people or exposing them to a star chamber that stands ready to punish them for “racist research and publication,” whatever that means (it’s to be resolved later apparently).
Rather than expound on my own, I commend a couple of articles for reading. First, this article from the Atlantic regarding the Princeton faculty letter: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/what-princeton-professors-really-think-about-defining-racism/614911/ and another from Forbes regarding some of the more concerning of the Princeton faculty letter’s demands: https://www.forbes.com/sites/evangerstmann/2020/07/12/princeton-professors-want-the-power-to-punish-research-they-deem-racist/#f4facedc716a
From the Atlantic article: "I am concerned that some faculty members are unwilling to publicly criticize a demand that they scoff at privately. Can they really be counted on to protect academic freedom in a faculty vote?"
California’s second attempt at a mandated high school ethnic studies curriculum is coming out soon. As you may recall, the curriculum that was earlier proposed was soundly attacked both for what it didn’t include, as much as what it did include. Asian Americans felt there was not enough focus on their plight, Jewish Americans felt our society’s anti-Semitism did not receive the same attention as the pervasive racism against people of color that was the curriculum’s focus. Many felt that the curriculum provided a jaundiced view of American history as little more than a history of oppression of indigenous people and people of color, without so much as a nod to the positive aspects of life in America and the American ideals upon which this country was founded. Some believe that the focus primarily on the negative is as wrong as what has been perceived as a far too rosy picture of society without fault that previously commanded our textbooks.
I am neither an educator nor a professional historian, but it seems to me that the value of an ethnic studies curriculum should lie not simply in the repeated documented discrimination, and sometimes violence, against various groups of Americans; although these wrongs should be studied and understood. But I think we do a disservice to the study of the various ethnicities that comprise our State if the focus is on the victimization of these groups, rather than a celebration of the contributions of these groups. America arguably is the most racially and ethnically diverse country in the world. California arguably is the most diverse of the states in this nation. It is time that we focused more on a celebration of this diversity. Los Angeles alone has the greatest number of Korean citizens outside of Korea, the largest Armenian population in the world outside of Armenia, and the largest Persian population outside of Iran. These people and others have contributed to our State and those contributions are worthy of our study and our admiration.
SOME OF THE CURRICULUM WE SHOULD CONSIDER
A focus of our ethnic studies curriculum should celebrate the accomplishments of Tom Bradley, our Black mayor, and George Deukmejian, our Armenian-American governor. We should celebrate the story of the founding of USC, built on land donated by a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew. We should celebrate the contributions of Latino and Black culture to the richness that is our State and our national culture. I am not suggesting that we ignore the history of injustices meted out to minorities in our community. To the contrary, we should we must learn this lesson and celebrate the totality of the experiences of the various ethnic groups. We should learn of the contributions of Chinese workers in building the transcontinental railroad, together with the indignities to which they were subjected. We should celebrate the contributions of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the rise of Hollywood and the music of the era, while also noting the hotbed of anti-Semitism that was Los Angeles in the 30s. In this era of Black Lives Matter, we should celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans in myriad fields, who have made their imprint on who we are as a people—in politics, science and the arts.
MELTING POT OR INGREDIENTS THAT SIMPLY CAN’T BLEND?
Many of us were raised to believe that America is this great melting pot. In many respects, I would like to think that’s the case—that each of us together contributes our history and traditions toward a greater American story. Then there are those who malign the idea of an “American” culture. I prefer to think that we can both retain our respective heritages, while tapping the contributions of each into a shared multi-cultural culture. Perhaps we should think of our State not as a melting pot, but as a collection of tapas. A tapas of meals has diversity of the flavors, all playing off of each other to provide a far richer experience.
ANOTHER VIEW OF THE ETHNIC STUDIES DEBATE
A wonderful article by a scholar and community leader, Saba Soomech: https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/opinion/320528/its-time-we-talk-about-iranian-jews-and-californias-ethnic-studies-curriculum/
OUR CHILDREN ALL SHOULD HAVE TEACHERS LIKE THIS…
In my travels in middle school debate world, I’ve met some pretty smart and talented people. At the top of that list has to be Adam Torson, an educator at Marlborough School. He offers the following in response to my thoughts on the tax code, together with his commentary. Perhaps we should force our leaders to follow Adam’s advice and read this book and play this game, so they are at least as prepared as Marlborough graduates:
The Fiscal Ship: This is the most fun thing ever, I actually use it in my Presidential Elections class to help students understand the fiscal tradeoffs of policy preferences.
We Are Better Than This: Probably the best book I've read on this subject, also from a USC economist. Based on your thoughts here, I think you would appreciate it.
Of note, the late Ed Kleinbard, the author of We Are Better Than This, was a professor at the USC Gould School of Law!
UNDERSTANDING EACH OTHER FIRST
There are now diversity seminars and racial sensitivity classes being administered at colleges and racial sensitivity courses required in many businesses. While these courses are important, it is equally important to consider what is contained in the curriculum and what the intended outcomes from the class should be. If we are simply telling people about how they shouldn’t be racists (or, worse, about how they already are irretrievably racist), can real change come? There is no doubt that the history of racism and oppression throughout human history is a necessary part of one’s education but I don’t think real understanding will come primarily from “hating hate.” There needs to be a focus on loving “the other” for who they are and what they add to the human tapestry.
The way the battle on the California curriculum is shaping up is a contest for “air time”—who will get the most said about their victimization to prejudice. No doubt there is plenty of discrimination to go around and certainly the emphasis must be on the effects of slavery and treatment of indigenous people. But what of Manzanar and the history of anti-Latino hatred? And what of antisemitism?
Here’s my thought experiment. Assume there are several lessons one can impart. What order would you put them in if you were designing an ethnic studies curriculum?:
How to organize politically
How to identify racism and not act in manners that perpetuate racism
The horrors of racism, police violence and the institutional inequities in society that exist today
The history of racism in America’s past (slavery, treatment of indigenous peoples, anti-immigration, antisemitism, etc.)
The contributions of other races, ethnicities and religions to humanity, and an understanding of their traditions and cultures
I would argue that the current emphasis is more or less in this order, while a more meaningful curriculum is in exactly the opposite order (from bottom to top). Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting all of this shouldn’t be part of a balanced curriculum. But if we’re going to try to provide an appreciation of the ethnic diversity of our culture, change behaviors and create a more mixed society, understanding each other must be “job one.”
We should first be teaching about the contributions of diverse ethnic groups to our shared culture—to better humanize and understand each other. Ethnic studies and racial understanding should be based first in love—not in guilt and not because it’s a requirement to graduate. Only in that way can we truly appreciate the horrors of hate. We should come to understand each other first as people and not as victims. The result would be that when we learn of how people have been victimized, we identify not only with the victimization but with them as fellow human beings and friends.
CALIFORNIA ETHNIC STUDIES CURRICULUM, REDUX
A couple of weekends ago, one of Jerry Coben’s goals was to catch up on two months of the Musings. For those who know Jerry, it will not surprise you that he provided periodic (thoughtful, pithy) critiques as he went through them. And yes, he finished. Regarding the proposed mandated high school ethnic studies curriculum in California, he provides this troubling quotation from a course outline, taken from the Wall Street Journal:
“Students will write a paper detailing certain events in American history that have led to Jewish and Irish Americans gaining racial privilege.”
Is that really a lesson, how people gained racial privilege, rather than the struggles to overcome racism?
The model curriculum that requires a full semester of ethnic studies (given to students in public schools that rank below national and international averages in science, math and English) that:
“…build new possibilities for post-imperial life that promotes collective narratives of transformative resistance.”
I think this curriculum may need further thought…
Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. By that calendar, the year 5781. Ordinarily, Jews around the world would enjoy their new year’s meal with family and friends and head to their synagogue for celebration, song, and community. This year, as with most things in 2020 will be different; we will be gathering around computer screens to enjoy services in the comfort of our own homes, together only with those with whom we live or have been COVID-tested.
PLURIBUS AND UNUM
“E pluribus unum” is our nation’s motto. Loosely translated, it means “out of many, one.” In the history that prevailed through my childhood, this was interpreted as a focus that one put together all these various people of different ethnicities, religions and experiences and, through the “melting pot” of America, forged a singular “one.” Expressed as an algebraic word problem, “if you add together a + b + c + d, you get z.”
Perhaps it’s not an algebraic problem. Perhaps it’s a chemistry experiment, “the only way you can get to z is if you have all the essential elements that will interact with each other in a way that yields the product one seeks.”
Before the pandemic, economic calamity and global climate change, people argued that we were engaged in “cultural warfare.” I don’t quite see it like that. More like “cultural redefinition.” There are those who believe we must see each other as discrete subgroups that must be studied for the wrongs committed against their forebears over the years. All pluribus.
There are others who see the American story as having little place to discuss the various peoples that make up the nation. White supremacists would be the more extreme example, but many in the Trump-voter camp have little patience for understanding the various subsets of American society. All unum.
California has been engaged in a debate about its proposed high school ethnic studies curriculum. As I’ve stated in the past, I believe we are swinging from an absence of focus to a focus on victimhood and all the catastrophes that have been visited on minority groups throughout the years (my own included). There is no question that we must study these stains on our history and how many of these injustices persist. My concern is that, in an effort to show how poorly some groups have been treated, we miss the essential value of studying the rich contributions these cultures have contributed to our country. We need to celebrate all that these groups have brought to create our rich and diverse culture.
To borrow once more the symbolism of mathematics, “E pluribus unum” does not have a “greater than” or “lesser than” sign in the middle. It is an “equals” sign. Our ethnic identity is not greater than the American idea, nor it less than these ideals. They are equal, and out of one comes the other. And the equation works both forward and backward, to wit, our diversity taken together makes us stronger and one. And our one-ness and strengths should allow us to acknowledge and value the diversities that make us who we are.
WHAT IF THEY HAD A BDS VOTE AND NO ONE CAME?
There is a debate going on at students across the nation, seeking to get colleges to divest themselves of investments in Israel (the BDS movement of “boycott, divest, sanctions”).
Each time there is a resolution on divestment from Israel that pops up at a college somewhere around the country, activists mobilize. Supporters of the Palestinian liberation movement are butting heads with Jewish organizations and speakers, in a series of “proxy wars.”. With this comes a lot of press play. But to what end? It is in the board rooms of trustees—not student organizations—where these debates are important. It seems to me that, in the end, all the dollars flowing to the “whack a mole” defense of Israel against these student government motions are dollars poorly spent.
I propose that the defenders of Israel consider doing nothing (*other than as noted below). Seriously. Here’s why:
It’s student government. Good lord! We all went to college and we know that the student government generally isn’t paid much attention by the student body.
You’re giving away free publicity. Those who push BDS are given a free media platform in which a rehashing of current Israeli government policy is attacked (some of it, I would argue, not unjustifiably). Publicity is given in local papers, in campus media, and sometimes on the national news, all because of a vote with no real consequence.
You’re not going to change anyone’s minds. Besides the fact that this isn’t the most important issue facing college students, many don’t have an abiding interest in the issues. Plus, how will the debate go? Wanting to debate the issues with a group already dead-set on its positions is an exercise in futility.
There is no practical effect, regardless of the vote. Who really cares? How a student government votes has no binding legal authority. It’s not as if the administration or the board of trustees are waiting with bated breath for direction on their actions.
Whatever interest there is in the vote will be short-lived. Once passed, any BDS resolution becomes yesterday’s news.
There are opportunity costs. Is it worth even devoting the money, time and effort? Shouldn’t there be other, better, ways to deploy resources?
We should avoid diverting attention and we should remove our children from a war-like stance with their contemporaries. I propose that a basic response be generated, to be utilized by Hillels and other student organizations that may be under-funded or under-manned, saying
“We are aware of the proposed action, we oppose the proposed action, we will take no further action to prevent the action from taking place. We will not appear at any hearing or meeting to defend our faith, the rights of our brethren to a nation of their own, or the actions of the Israeli government. We seek only to go on record in opposed to the action. The adoption of any resolution or the taking of any action will occur without any formal opposition in the forum you have chosen. We are, however, prepared to meet to discuss the valid concerns of Israelis and Palestinians in a conversation that can be constructive and educational. That can only happen if both parties acknowledge the two separate, yet valid, narratives regarding the history of the conflict.”
Let’s just deny them the platform to pontificate, deny them opposition to a kangaroo court debate, and save our breath and save our money for important fights.