Saving American Education in the 21st Century:

Part I:  K-12


Modern classroom education is very different from traditional teaching.  A teacher lectures, often in highly abstract terms, and often with no demonstration (though perhaps with “visuals”—not necessary very relevant or revealing ones).  Students copy facts and memorize them.  Testing does not involve making the students do what they’ve learned; it involves making them guess which one of four statements is most like what a testmaker would think was the correct answer.  As Marc Bousquet (a professor at Santa Clara University) puts it:  “We herd them into a system that manufactures desperation and then hand them hamster wheels with sickly, hypocritical grins on our faces” (Bousquet 2010:B2).

The lecture-and-examination system arose in the ancient world and was perfected in medieval times.  It evolved to teach philosophy and other highly abstract fields to high-level students.  It has persisted today largely because it is cheap.  One can hire someone, not always the most qualified person, to teach a very large number of people.  This works if all one wants to do is teach a bare minimum of information.

However, when actual usable knowledge is the goal, we revert to the age-old demonstration-and-imitation model.  We do this for lab science, computer skills, typing, cooking, driving, sports coaching, and above all apprenticeship on the job.  The technique requires much input of teaching effort by skilled personnel, but it is the only way that works, as everyone has known since Ug the cave man taught his kids to flake stone tools.

Thus, though we Americans are so cynical that we pretend not to know how to teach, in areas that matter to us are taught perfectly well.  Young people are guided, in actual practice, by coaches and mentors.  Tell a sports coach, construction foreman, driving teacher, or chef that he should teach his students by making them sit motionless and memorize random bits for a standardized test.  Preposterous! 

It is only in “book learning” that we pretend such methods work; this shows our opinion of the learning in question.  Lecture-and-examination education is, in short, not a good way of teaching.  It is too abstract, remote, hands-off, and impersonal.  It leads to rote memorization.  It discourages creative application of knowledge.  Recent letters to Science and the Chronicle of Higher Education have responded to this truism by stoutly maintaining that a professor who is a great speaker and actor can teach effectively through lecturing.  Sure, but this line gives away the store; if you have to have a movie star to do the job right, what hope is there for even good lecturers, let alone mediocre ones?

Rote learning is far worse.  It is the method of choice for those who want to regiment citizens rather than enlighten them.  As such, it has become the darling of politicians, who want followers, not thinkers.  It has given us a generation many of whom who can’t write, can’t understand what they read (having been trained to read only to memorize random facts), can’t do scientific experiments, and don’t know the local environment. 

Even worse, many students come to believe that actual thinking and creativity are strictly for the outside-of-class world!  Students who are perfectly thoughtful and creative in their daily lives diligently turn off their brains and stop questioning when they get into class.  There is now an active culture among teenagers of writing short stories on the Internet for their friends.  They write stories and poems for their friends and posting these on their MySpace and Facebook sites—with no idea that students were once supposed to write such things.  Students have ceased to see education as anything but standardized testing.  They never get to write stories in class.  They appear genuinely unaware that writing short stories was once a part of education!  They are constantly online, learning and writing and sharing, but they separate these activities from formal education.

Unfortunately, many modern alternative methods do not work well either.  Creativity for its own sake, or “discussion” for its own sake, can become undirected and trivial.  Relying on children’s natural desire to learn is a fine and necessary start, but inadequate to get through the slogging of memorizing times tables and chemical elements. 

Education for the future has to empower children and strengthen them, and make them lifelong learners.  Recently, the trend has been all the other way:  toward dragooning, forced memorization, standardized testing, and every other thing that breaks a child’s will and ruins his or her mind for life. 

            Americans will have to figure out what they actually want from education.  Rote memorization of trivia?  Citizenship?  Understanding the world?  Job skills? 


            We have long known how to teach and learn.  Yet, a great deal of what we know has been forgotten.  John Medina has conveniently reviewed much of this in Brain Rules (2008).  His rules—as conveniently summarized on the back cover—are:

“Exercise:  Exercise boosts brain power.

Survival:  The human brain evolved, too.

Wiring:  Every brain is wired differently.  [Individual differences are far too great to ignore—yet we generally ignore them, wrecking the teaching process.]

Attention:  We don’t pay attention to boring things.

Short-term Memory:  Repeat to remember.

Long-term Memory:  Remember to repeat.

Sleep:  Sleep well, think well.  [Of all rules, this is the most forgotten.  We now know that learning is consolidated during sleep.  Rats learning mazes replay these in their dreams; Medina 2008:164.]

Stress:  Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.  [In fact, they barely learn—except for the blazing, brilliant memory for the major stressor in a given case.  One focuses.  Depression, being generally a form of long-term stress, is thus devastating to learning.]

Sensory integration:  Stimulate more of the senses.  [He highlights smell, often forgotten.  He also points out that humans cannot multitask; the brain simply cannot pay real attention to two things at once.  So one must be careful to keep the multimodality targeted.]

Vision:  Vision trumps all other senses. 

Gender:  Male and female brains are different.  [Trivially, however.]
Exploration:  We are powerful and natural explorers.”

            We may add that hard tests are crucial; people have to know what they don’t know.  Educators even advocate giving students tests on material they are about to learn, so that they will at least know what the hard questions are (Roediger and Finn 2010).  Of course the students fail the tests, but they don’t blame themselves, and then will work harder and with more focus.

            Of these, we may note that some were known to the ancient Greeks.  My high-school psychology course more than 50 years ago taught me that “frequency, recency, and vividness” were the keys to remembering, and the line was classic long before that.

            Play has also greatly declined.  Recess and physical education have been dropped from schools, to provide yet more time for mindless drills.  At home, fear of street violence, availability of TV and video games, and other factors have virtually eliminated actual play in the old sense.  This is clearly disastrous from a psychological and educational view (Winerman 2009).   Yet, everybody knows, at some level, that successful education has to involve physical activity, including a good deal of “fun.”  Without field trips, experiments, and personal experiences, it doesn’t work. 

            If one uses all these rules, or whatever variants of them one prefers, one finds a classroom with a great deal of multimodal teaching, a fair amount of moving around, a great deal of repetition in different ways and forms,  and not too overwhelmingly much presented at a time. 

            Yet, during my lifetime, most American education has been moving away from these goals.  The No Child Left Behind initiative in particular—coupled with the huge tax cuts that accompanied it—led to enormous classes, drilled endlessly in mindless and overpacked curricula, with no accommodation to individual differences, need for rest, need for exercise, need for multimodal presentation, or anything else human. 


The schools are one area in which government must do the job.  It is a necessary political and social service, not a matter of material production.

Inevitably, then, politics has invaded education.  One reason for the failure of American education in science is that it has become politicized in an unsavory manner.  

Taxpayers and governments are so indifferent to their responsibility to educate the young that America’s schools are typically in serious need of repair, paint, landscaping, and new equipment; many are falling apart and downright unsafe.  Computer facilities and libraries are in dreadful shape. 

Every American child can compare his or her school with the local shopping mall, and see very clearly which one gets the attention and the money.  That lesson in values outweighs everything learned in class.  Meanwhile, right-wing politicians and talk show hosts continually attack teachers, claiming they are overpaid, coddled, and so on.  Clearly, if the community makes its scorn for schools and teachers obvious, the students will not take education seriously.  Very different are traditional societies, from hunter-gatherer societies to ancient Greece and China.  Then, even if both children and teachers were penniless, elders and their teachings were respected.  Still more different was America 50 years ago, when I was learning.  In those days, learning, school, and teachers were respected, and we kids listened up.

The problem of school maintenance and budget is obviously worst in poor neighborhoods, but paradoxically they may have less problem with students making the negative comparisons, because the difference between the school and other local buildings is less.  This does not change the brute fact of extreme economic injustice.  Spending on schools in a poor community that cares a lot may be only a fraction of that spent in a rich one that cares relatively less for education.

Government and private schools currently suffer from the belief that education is valuable only in so far as it is training for specific jobs.  No.  Education is essential to human development.  Humans are an end, not a means. 

Probably an even worse attitude, harder to spot today but much more open when I was young, is the idea that teaching is about making children learn discipline—“learning to mind,” it was called in my day.  My father (a Texas farm boy, educated in a tiny rural schoolhouse) quoted a (mythical) Texas farmer: “I don’t care what you learn ‘em so long as they don’t like it.”  This Puritanical attitude has made Americans focus on what children “should” learn and “should” do, and on making sure they don’t like it, rather than on what the children actually need.  We tend to teach whatever is the most grimly unpleasant and mind-deadening side of education, and abolish the pleasant or directly useful subjects as “frills.”  Really valuable subjects like natural history, nutrition, health, and exercise have thus gone to the wall.

All the above implies that saving American education at the grade-school level will take work.  It must involve, first, spending a great deal more money on actual classrooms and classroom teaching.  Rebuilding deteriorated schools is not only a matter of safety and common care for children, but a matter of community pride in education.  Teacher/student ratios much above 20-25 students per teacher in grade school and around 100 in big college classes make education simply impossible, unless rote memorization for standardized tests is dishonestly called “education.”  Teachers have to mentor, guide, and correct.  This cannot be done in mass batches.

George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy has been a total disaster.  Even the idolized standardized test scores have fallen since it was introduced—let alone the measures of real education, such as the ability of college freshmen to write and do research, or the ability of fledgling employees to do useful work.  “NCLB” penalized teachers and principals for things over which they had no control, notably the number of non-English-speaking students in their districts.  It did nothing to reduce class size or provide better equipment.  It laid unfunded mandates on cash-strapped states and communities.  It favored private schools over public ones.  

By far its worst damage, however, has been its single-minded focus on standardized tests as the sole measure of quality.  The Educational Testing Service, which has a virtual monopoly on the tests, was a huge donor to Bush’s campaigns. 

The result has been an enormous relative increase in testing and in teaching to the test.  Schools compete to see who can achieve the highest test scores; those that fall behind are savagely penalized.  Teachers and principals are evaluated solely by how well their students do on the all-important tests. 

Standardized tests are bad enough of themselves, but it is possible to construct multiple-choice tests that require creativity, originality and real thought.  I have seen it done.  Cleverly designed standardized tests are a blessing in many situations.  Moreover, it is possible to use even the more mindless sort of standardized test to advantage when all one needs to test for is straight declarative knowledge—memorizing scientific names or chemical elements. 

However, the mass tests used in schools do not even approximate this goal.  One must seriously wonder whether anyone ever intended that they should. Given the administration that designed the plan, one suspects that it was deliberately designed to reduce original and critical thinking as much as possible.

We in America thus return to the level of traditional schools in Asia and Africa, where children learn to chant sacred books without understanding the words.

One of the predictable results of No Child Left Behind has been skyrocketing rates of cheating.  64% of high school students now cheat on tests, and 36% have plagiarized papers (David Crary, Associated Press, online article, Dec. 1, 2008).  In my childhood, cheating in high school was virtually unknown.  Teachers and staff are too overworked to police this, and many schools look the other way in any case, since their funding and many jobs are on the line.


It is unfair to single out Bush.  All segments of the body politic are guilty.  Liberals have rushed to embrace anti-teacher reforms (under Obama) and, more generally, the anti-science rhetoric of the “postmodernists.”  Moderates have supported “professional” schools in universities at the expense of the liberal arts and sciences. 

Politicians of all stripes routinely campaign against teachers and school taxes, and label them “special interests.”  Education was in desperate financial straits in most of the country even before the 2008 recession, but the reverberations of that crash are seriously threatening to end public education in much of the country.  California, Texas, and many smaller states are cutting education to the bone.  As of 2011, Texas, already one of the least-educated American states and one spending the least on education, is faced with a huge budget shortfall, and is proposing to deal with it by cutting public education 1/3 or more (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 7, 2011, p. A1).  This will, in the medium term, reduce Texas to levels of literacy and numeracy well below those of the less corrupt Third World nations.

Schools are blamed for all the faults of the young.  To hear politicians talk, parents have nothing to do with the kids’ problems, and have no responsibilities for their children.  This is because parents vote, and are numerous.  No politician wants to blame a substantial voting bloc for anything.  Moreover, many politicians go on to say that public money spent on education is “wasted.”  They cut school funding, in spite of occasional lip service to education in general.  Open or slightly-covert support for private schools over public schools is official in the Republican party and not infrequent among other parties.    

“No Child Left Behind” certainly was designed to hurt public schools, thus giving private schools a leg up; one may even suspect a deliberate attack on education and learning in general, since the Republican Party has, statistically, become the party of the less educated (a striking reversal since the 1950s).  However, the real target was more limited:  NCLB was explicitly and openly intended most specifically as an attack on teachers’ unions and associations.  This attack was largely due to the unions’ being strongly Democratic and active in politics.  Of course they were Democratic because of decades of Republican opposition to funding for public education, so the whole matter became a positive feedback loop.  The more the Republicans attacked teachers’ unions, the more solidly Democratic the latter became. 

However, there is more to this.  Besides a desire not to alienate parents by assigning them some blame, the real underlying hatred of unions is due to money issues.  The Republican imperative to cut taxes means both cutting teachers’ salaries and cutting expenses on schools overall.  The resulting inevitable decline in educational levels is then blamed on the unions for protecting “bad teachers” from public wrath—and from firing.  Meanwhile, class sizes rapidly increase, school nurses and counselors have joined the dodo and the great auk, physical education and other relatively expensive programs have gone too, and teachers spend an average of $400 a year on basic classroom materials—chalk, paper and such—that schools no longer provide. 

Teachers were formerly fairly conservative, and many teachers were Republicans.  The tensions of the last 20 years have changed this, and the resulting polarization is not healthy.  Even moderates now often blame the unions for failed schooling, especially because they protect “mediocre” teachers.  Conservatives such as David Brooks argue that what the schools need is the abolition of tenure, cutting teachers’ pay, and firing “inadequate” teachers—inadequacy to be determined on the basis of their students’ standardized test scores.  Obviously, many conservatives would dearly love to fire teachers for political reasons, and often try to do so.  But even if they fired teachers “fairly,” the result would be a massacre. 

Already, burnout and job dissatisfaction are costing the United States thousands of teachers every year.  Special-needs children are mainstreamed, class sizes are steadily expanding, and teachers’ aides are being eliminated by budget cuts.  Attracting the finest to teach school under these conditions is already an enormous challenge.

What would happen to teaching if the conservatives had their way?   No one seriously thinks we can attract better teachers by promising less pay, eliminating job security, and threatening them with summary firing if they disagree with the principal or have a run of poor students.

The right wing has proposed a “voucher system,” in which children would be given money for private schooling to escape the public school system.  This would provide a sterling excuse to defund the public schools and ultimately to end public education.  Experience teaches that the private schools would continue to raise their fees.  The voucher sums could and would easily be cut whenever fiscal problems struck a state, because there would be the obvious alternatives. 

One can only conclude that the real agenda of the conservatives is to end public education.  This became open in the 2010 elections, with some Republican candidates openly advocating abolition of public education.  It is, after all, a huge consumer of taxes, and it is by far the most important leveling mechanism in the United States.  It is, in fact, the only surviving bastion against total takeover by the elites, and the only real source of opportunity for nonwhites and less than affluent families.  Would abolishing it accomplish anything except cutting off these opportunities?

The No Child Left Behind plan is openly racist.  Bush and his advisors knew perfectly well that impoverished minority schools could never compete, if only because of the terrible health problems in the ghettos and barrios they serve.  One cannot possibly avoid the conclusion that penalizing these schools was meant to hurt minority children, not to help them.  The penalties, such as replacing principals and thus destroying any continuity (rather than—say—actually evaluating the principals on the basis of their administrative skills), make sense only if they were designed to hurt the slower schools, not to improve them.

Yet, in America, quality private schools are hopelessly inadequate in number and highly concentrated in a few cities.  Outside of the richer parts of the northeastern US and the Washington, DC, area, there are relatively few private schools that actually focus on academics.  The vast majority of private schools in the United States are religious, and many of those teach little beyond religious bigotry and six-day creationism.  The religious right, with the support of cynical politicians who know better but need the votes, has set itself unalterably against the teaching of evolution and environment in the schools.  They often claim that they want only “equal time for creation.”  This might not be bad (I think it would be good) if actual evolutionary theory and also Native American and other creation stories were allowed as well as “literal” Judeo-Christian ones.  However, where creationists have taken power, or been able to frighten school boards, they have simply ruled evolution off the turf and out of the textbooks.  The basis of biology—Darwinian theory—is now not taught widely in the United States.  In fact, only 28% of science teachers teach it; 60% equivocate; 13% deny it outright and teach accordingly (Berkman and Plutzer 2011).  In some states, it is gone from grade school education.  In others it is still in the books, but so watered down that it is not even a shadow of its true self. 

The same people have attacked sex education in schools.  Evidently, many Americans are more interested in certain kinds of indoctrination than in actual study and assessment of evidence, or, for that matter, in morality.  American education has moved away from a focus on life skills and health; time spent on hygeine and health education, physical education, and relevant aspects of biology have all declined. 

Of course, multiculturalism is also under attack, though common experience confirmed by serious research shows that (at least for Latinos, and doubtless for all bicultural individuals) both involvement in one’s culture of origin and involvement in US mainstream culture are valuable (Smokowski et al. 2009).  Strong confidence in one’s own traditions is important for learning others’ traditions well.

Because of political controversies, time spent on civics and history has also declined.  Far-left and far-right parents feud with the schools over how these controversial subjects will be taught.   Ultimately, many schools shy away from teaching more than a bare minimum.  Fortunate are those states like California that have public university systems that make no-nonsense demands on the public schools:  no decent history courses, no entry to the universities.  But California’s funding crisis has now gutted even this.

Foreign languages, too, are generally required for college entrance, but anyone who travels in Europe or Asia is aware of the incredible deficiency of North Americans in this regard, and any American who is not ashamed is not paying attention.  Swiss children are expected to know five languages fluently, and most Europeans know at least three.  I have known totally unschooled individuals in Asia who knew five languages—they had simply picked them up—and have met more school-trained Asians who knew over 20!  The human animal is biologically programmed to learn languages fast and easily (Hauser and Bever 2008; Pinker 1995).  Humans benefit by knowing more than one.  It makes learning further languages and other linear communication forms that much easier. Learning only one language is probably unnatural for humans, and certainly limits learning ability.  It probably leads to failure to develop key neural channels; inadequate learning of a single language most certainly does, as we know from a few tragic cases of isolated children (Pinker 1995).  Fluency in two or, better, three languages should be required.  As in every other case, the obsession with mindless standardized tests has ruined language teaching in America. 

Many Americans defend their ignorance by claiming that learning a second language interferes with knowing the first one!  Immigrants and Native Americans have been constantly attacked for speaking their heritage languages, and attempts go on and on to force them to speak English only.  Science proves the opposite:  since the human mind is designed to learn languages, the more one learns, the better one knows one’s own.  Opposition to second languages is second only to standardized test mania as a proof that American education is far too influenced by irresponsible and ignorant people.


Right-wingers and the more extreme end of the business world consider teaching about ecology and the environment to be a threat to their interests.  Even the most innocuous references to air and water pollution have been forced out of textbooks.  Many dubious ideas surface in literature made available by coal, oil, and nuclear interests (Selcraig 1998; Stauber and Rampton 1995).  

Some of the right-wing writings on the subject are so extreme as to be chilling.  Facts Not Fear: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching Children about the Environment (Sanera and Shaw 1996, with foreword by Marilyn Quayle) manages not only to misrepresent both science and environmental politics, but goes on to imply strongly that all ecologists and environmentalists are actually Communists trying to destroy the capitalist system.  This is part of an even wider disinformation campaign by polluters and deforesters (Stauber and Rampton 1995; for more examples, see Rush Limbaugh’s See I Told You So [1993] and other books by Limbaugh and by Glenn Beck).

Some environmental education has indeed been politicized in an overly anti-capitalist way.   Conservation biologists were stung into releasing a report in 1997 that found many problems with books for the public and school market: “some texts seem more interested in advocacy than science,” promoting errors and misrepresentations of their own (“Overhauling Environmental Education,” Science 276:361, 1997).   One observes that many such texts also blame “capitalism” or “the capitalist system” for the environment’s ills.  It is hard to understand what they mean by this, since they leave their terms undefined.  Certainly it does not square with what we know of environmental management in ancient Rome—1500 years before capitalism—or in the USSR or modern China.    


Teachers need much more freedom to teach as they will, and much more training in the actual subjects they teach, than they get in most public and private schools.  They need to study biology, as well as whatever may be useful in “education” curricula.

The current problems of the schools are greatly exacerbated by the layers of administration to which they are subject.   Many school systems, from grade school to universities, spend over 40% of their very limited budgets on administration.  “Local control” of education should mean not control by local politicians, but control by the teachers, subject to consultation with the parents.  The teachers need to be insulated from both politics and parental interference. 

Parents—but not politicians—need some recourse. We need to go back to a world in which teachers, students, and parents can interact, without having to deal with arbitrary, Byzantine, and frequently corrupt layers of administrative management.  This requires drastically cutting back on the power and funding of administrations. 

It also requires reforming the complex codes that make them unfortunately necessary in many polities.  The administrators and politicians have created a vast network of laws, rules, policies, conventions, and paperwork requirements that serve to keep administration necessary.  Whether they do it consciously or not, administrators (from NSF to the neighborhood school board) create policies whose ultimate result is to force teachers to do more and more paperwork and trivial nit-picking. This runs up the expense of education, again, since it means the university must hire a phalanx of lawyers and specialists.  It also keeps the teachers too busy to organize.  It also keeps them convinced that administrations are necessary.  Teachers have time either to teach and do research or to play politics; they can’t do both.  The honorable ones thus are more or less forced to leave politics to the rest.  Simplifying the rules and paperwork, again from NSF down to the town school district, is clearly a high priority for improving education.

            The worst problem with modern education is the one revealed by the universal, and increasing, reliance on standardized multiple-choice tests (SMCT’s) to evaluate anything and everything.

            It is possible, with creativity and ingenuity, to devise SMCT’s that successfully evaluate critical thinking and analytic ability.  Several professional bodies, especially in the health professions, have been doing this successfully for years.  The problem is not SMCT’s per se, but their misuse as a crutch to allow schools to save money by teaching canned, mindless knowledge to huge classes.  This, plus the savage competition between schools that No Child Left Behind has forced on us, has led to making education more and more a process of cramming students with random facts, as a Strassbourg goose is crammed with corn.  The facts are those tested on recent SMCT’s, rather than those students might actually need.  A whole industry of creating cheap, inane, badly-done SMCT’s has arisen to cater to this.  Some recent reforms in the early 2000s have ameliorated the worst abuses, considerably improving many SMCT’s.  However, this trend is offset by the steady expansion of SMCT’s throughout grade-school and university teaching.

            On this altar, music, arts, serious science, physical education, and other “frills” have all been sacrificed.  More to the point, we have sacrificed critical thinking, originality, creative writing, and everything else a serious education is supposed to produce.

Most of the skills we teach at the university, from laboratory science to engineering to archaeology, are like driving, or duck hunting, or farming.  They require both a huge amount of factual knowledge and a tremendous amount of hands-on physical experience, and they require, above all, critical thinking and good judgment.  None of this can be taught by rote memorization.  The factual knowledge can be appropriately tested with SMCT’s, but not the quick thinking for reasoned judgment under real-world conditions.  Physical skills have to be “embodied”—our muscles and sinews actually have to grow, shape themselves, and accustom themselves to particular patterns of movement.

Sports require more physical training, less knowledge, but even they require analytic thinking and quick judgment.  Of course no one would evaluate a swimmer or tennis player by giving her an SMCT.

            Research, leadership, cooperation, organizing, original and critical thinking, writing, and other basic academic skills depend on experience and practice.  They have little to do with memorizing facts, and cannot be tested by SMCT’s.  They do not depend on specific physical skills, but they do depend on the body being in reasonably good physical shape, a fact well known to the ancient Greeks but forgotten in modern classrooms.  We have sacrificed physical training and created a generation of children almost 40% of whom are obese. 

            Evaluating real skills by serious evaluative methods is a problem that will take some thinking.  We are not thinking about it.  In the meantime, SMCT’s should be restricted to a very small role—testing the minimal knowledge needed by people for specific activities.

            This is routinely done in driving:  we take brief SMCT’s on traffic law, but the serious tests are the driving test and the eye test.  Those are taken more seriously than the law test.  The same is true in sports; there is a little teaching of factual knowledge, but of course almost all evaluation is practical.

Part II:  College


Another hotly debated field is university education (see Marc Bousquet’s excellent book, How the University Works, 2008; also Arum and Roksa 2011; Clawson 2009).  Here too, mindless rote memorization is getting rapidly commoner.  Almost as pernicious—and related—is the steady growth of the size of lecture classes.  Classes of several hundred or even more than a thousand students are common.  In these, the real teaching is done by graduate students or lecturers, who are usually very dedicated and hard-working, and establish fine rapport, but cannot always handle the job of transmitting expert knowledge to hundreds of students.  Worst, such classes are especially common at the freshman level, where they disserve students already overburdened trying to adjust to a system they do not yet understand.  Community colleges are at last waking up to the need for first-rate science (Boggs 2010).

It is no surprise to find that college students learn little—and often nothing—in their first two years (for this and what follows, see Arum and Roksa 2011; they make many of the points developed below, and add that college has become more “social” than educational).  Parents and students want quick certification more than real education; professors are on a running wheel of research-and-publish; administrators are farther and farther removed from teaching, more and more bureaucratic.  The public is losing faith in the system, but can think of little to do; the right wing takes advantage of this to attempt to eliminate tenure, cut pay and retirement plans, and bring thought control to the university.  College education is rapidly declining in quality and value.

The public, including college administrators, undervalues biology.  College biology departments sometimes are treated by administrators as nothing but premed training camps.  The courses are made as dull and difficult as possible, to weed out less gifted premeds (Greenwood and North 1999).  I have heard biology professors boast outright of doing this.  Prospective environmental scientists often become disillusioned and discouraged.  Moreover, among those who do go on, promotion goes to narrow specialists who publish highly technical papers, not to those who reach out to the public.  The public—including lawmakers and budget planners—concludes that field and organismal biology is unimportant and irrelevant. 

The university tenure system of a generation ago worked well to protect professors from administrative abuses, but has been undercut by administrative takeover and by rather astounding legal opinions to the effect that academic freedom does not protect whistle-blowing on administrative crime! 

Academia today bears the same relationship to scholarship that organized religion bears to religion.  Religions generally teach love, tolerance, fairness, and justice.  Organized religion, to the degree it is hierarchic, almost always ends up promoting hate, bigotry, oppression, and mindless obedience.  The similarities between a modern “multiversity” and the medieval church are not accidental or trivial.  Quite apart from the historic roots of the former in the latter, the current social dynamics are the same:  a top-down hierarchy, promoted by nontransparent internal means, and subject to every sort of vicious backroom politicking.

Organismal biology, if taught at all, is taught via lectures and textbooks.  My university is typical in having cut back steadily on field biology courses and training, in order to divert resources to molecular and cellular biology.  These latter are necessary and desirable, but the world simply cannot afford to lose the field courses.  The situation in the lower grades is similar or worse.  Biology is poorly taught, and is increasingly focused on non-organismal biology—partly because it is safer from challenges by anti-evolutionists.

            All the above led to a recent letter to Science, signed by 20 leading scientists (Bazzaz et al. 1998; the signers included leading ecologist Paul Ehrlich, and Jane Lubchenco, later a leader in the Obama administration’s team) from the United States and Mexico.  It called for training students “who will be ready and willing to devote part of their professional lives to stemming the tide of environmental degradation and the associated losses of biodiversity and its ecological services, and to teaching the public about the importance of those losses.”  It continued:  “We believe that such efforts should be rewarded as part of the process by which ecologists are considered for academic posts, granted tenure in universities, elected to membership in learned societies, and so on” (Bazzaz et al. 1998).  David Orr (1992, 1994) has written eloquently and movingly on the lack of real concern with life that is shown in much biology teaching.  He has advocated that we of the scientific community be more open about love for the world and for our fields. 

Modern electronics provide an escape.  With clickers, email, visual and multimedia displays, instant messaging, Blackboard and other classroom-related software, and other wonders of the 21st century, highly interactive teaching is possible at a distance, and some of the excitement of hands-on education can come into a lecture hall.  This would bring back real teaching and learning to classes with a hundred, or a very few hundreds, of students. 

The bad news is that many indications suggest that these methods will be used as yet more ways to cut costs by reducing staff levels.  The online-education advocates seem to think that, with enough gadgetry, we could have a single professor teaching 10,000 students.

The good news is that sanity is not entirely lost.  Sarah Miller and others, writing in Science (2008), report finding that what works for elementary school students works for college students:  an hour spent in varied activities with full feedback beats lecturing out of the field.  They managed to get bits of lecture, brainstorming, data interpretation, a case study, a “think-pair-share” period, and some feedback via clicker or instant “paper” of a line or so into an hour.  (This seems incredible to an old college professor, but my daughter Laura, a high school science teacher, does it all the time.)  Miller et al. found stunning increases in effectiveness when college science was taught this way.  Obviously, it takes an incredible amount of hands-on work by the professor, and is possible at all only because of clickers, text messaging, and so on.  No 10,000 here.  But it works.

Surveys show that most college students are concerned, first, with getting skills they need to find decently-paying jobs; second, with learning enough about society to make them informed citizens.  The older generation of professors decries the focus on careers and money, but fail to realize this is not the 1960s, when education was free, jobs abundant, and a house cost $25,000.  Today’s students face high and fast-rising tuition costs.  They graduate with five- or six-figure debts.  They face a world where good jobs are few and houses start at $400,000.  Blithely ignoring career issues and filthy lucre is not an option. 

Universities are badly strapped themselves.  Harvard’s endowment is in the billions, but most universities are not so lucky.  As of 2005, average endowment per student in the top quartile of schools was $376,000, in the bottom quartile a mere $32,668; as a result, the former spent $13,069 per student on actual instruction, the latter $3,290.  The former figure had risen dramatically since 1995, the latter hardly at all (Selingo and Brainard, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2006, p. 13; figures now average somewhat higher, but, thanks to the 2008 recession, not much higher, and in some cases lower).  Social justice is not a part of American education.

Educating an undergraduate at a typical public university costs about $8,000 a year minimum (cf. Schwartz 2007, but I have updated the figures as of 2011).  In a good public university the figure is closer to $17,000; private universities can run three or four times that.  Currently, tuition has risen to that level at most American colleges.  Some charge even more, making the students support research that has only indirect benefits to them and that is more important and relevant to state business interests.

This increase in costs is not just boodling (though there is plenty of that).  The biggest actual reason is the new information technology.  A university now has to spend thousands of dollars per student per year on new hardware and software.  Education, especially in the sciences, can no longer take place without the latest computers, programs, security software, licenses, and so forth.  The costs of books and journals have also skyrocketed in the last 20 years, largely because giant firms have acquired a virtual monopoly on key publications, especially in the biomedical field, and charge accordingly.  A major medical journal now costs over $10,000 a year, virtually all of which represents profit for the publisher.  (On top of that, many of these private journals reach truly outrageous heights by forcing the contributors to pay the publication costs, thus making a clean 100% profit!  Grants often cover the costs; a researcher not on a grant is virtually ruled off the turf.)

Professors’ salaries have not moved much, in constant dollars.  My father’s salary at the University of California in the 1950s was higher in buying power than mine in the same position at the same university in the 2000s.  Professors’ salaries have increased 5% in real dollars since 1970, but that is due mostly to the aging and thus increasing seniority of the faculty.  Salaries actually decreased for assistant and associate professors (Clawson 2009).  This is bad enough, but worse is the spectacular inflation of book, journal, and lab equipment prices since 1970.  The tools of our trade have been priced out of our reach.  A bit of amusing but thought-provoking symbolism: the old symbols of the professoriate, sherry and tweed jackets, are now out of a typical younger faculty member’s reach.  

The universities have further saved money by replacing professors with “temps”—graduate students or temporary postdoctoral staff—to teach beginning courses.  These are notoriously exploited, the temporary staff being paid less than a living wage because they are doing it in hopes of getting experience toward a “real” job later (Bousquet 2008 has a thorough discussion of this problem; I am proud to say that the temps unionized at UC, with help from the professors and students).  Most professors are now nontenured and temporary, a new development (Hacker and Dreifus 2010 give the dismal statistics).  This is a disaster.  Tenure is necessary not only for academic freedom, but also for continuity, commitment, accountability, and loyalty (see a superb short essay by Cary Nelson, 2010).  One might think tenure removes accountability, but who is more accountable:  a professor who is always around, committed to the system, and not at all protected from firing for genuine fault, or a temp who will be gone without trace in a month?

One problem for the universities has been the natural tendency of professors “climbing the ivy” to fall into highly specialized and professionally-popular topics.  It is always depressing to see a scholar who began as a genuinely curious, broadly interested person slowly narrow down into a hyperspecialist, desperate to stay au courant with an insignificant field, caught up in academic politics.


Far more serious is the convergence of universities on the giant corporations (Washburn 2005).  Overadministration is now common (see Birnbaum 2000 and Bousquet 2008 for merciless looks).  Most of the administrators are well-meaning, though often shortsighted, but many are cynical, corrupt careerists.  I could name names and pin down millions of dollars stolen.  The Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual “almanac issue” for 2006 (Aug. 25, pp. 3-4) included an appalling list of presidents and high administrators caught red-handed in financial scandals, usually involving “liberating” university resources for their own indulgence.  They were acting like their role models, the executives of corporations such as Enron.  The list goes on for two pages of fine print, and names names all over the country.  Whole university administrations, including my own (the University of California’s), were caught.

Many of these individuals are career administrators trained in business management, rather than academics.  Others are academics corrupted by the Enron model in academic circles. Both groups go by the book—regulations when possible, administrative manuals and books otherwise.  My wife once served under a dean who made everyone read a management text based on case studies of several “successful” firms; unfortunately for the model, half the firms were in court within a year or two!  Alas, my wife’s school copied them all too well.    

However, these “rotten apples” are not the real problem. They can be handled.  As Max Weber taught us in his classic studies of bureaucracy (see Weber 1946), administrators do not have to be evil to do harm.  Weber classified leaders as traditional, charismatic, or legal-bureaucratic.  Tradition and charisma survive in the modern university, but no one would question the point that modern universities are overwhelmingly led by the last of Weber’s types.  This is inevitable in a world where assigning classrooms, allocating budgets, and setting up anti-cheating policies are the common tasks and where charismatic speechmaking is confined to commencement exercises.

Academia during my lifetime has made an insidious shift from a broadly democratic organization to a bureaucratic one.  In the age of faculty governance, individuals did research and teaching, and competed with one another to do the best job (or at least an adequate job).  They ran the universities, and managed them to maximize the amount of knowledge generated and transmitted.  This created a “wisdom of crowds” situation (Surowiecki 2005):  the more independent minds worked on a problem, the more it was effectively addressed.

Over time, the job of governing the modern college became too much.  Today’s mass-education facilities and huge research universities simply cannot be run by professors in their spare time.  Alas, this meant a shift to the worst type of organization:  one managed by an oligarchy of faceless bureaucrats who are paid only to manage.  They are not accountable.  In particular, they have no stake in the actual output of the university.  They do not teach, and they do not do research. 

They love simple outcome measures that are wildly inappropriate:  number of students enrolled and graduated (as opposed to amount taught to said students), or number of pages published (as opposed to quality of work).  Silliest of all is evaluation by the number of citations an article receives.  Quite apart from the perverse incentive to create mutual-citing clubs (now routine), this measure ignores the number of papers and books that are so bad that everyone attacks them.  In anthropology, several books over the years have accumulated fantastically high citation indices because they were everyone’s examples of how not to do it.  Some straw men are real, and they get cited accordingly.  As well measure a person’s driving by the number of traffic citations!

Bureaucrats are driven by the nature of administrative systems to pass the buck, dodge accountability, fear change, drag their feet, stick with mindlessly administered policies, and resort to meaningless managerial doublespeak when challenged.  Everyone in large hierarchical organizations knows this from countless experiences.  The more overworked and underpaid the bureaucrats are, the more they act this way, and thus the progressive budget cuts suffered by universities in recent years have extremely counterproductive effects. 

The nature of bureaucracy selects for a certain type of person.  One has to be personally ambitious to tolerate such conditions.  This can be good.  Teachers are generally dedicated people who live to help others, and thus their ambition may be of the noblest sort.  Unfortunately, teachers who want to teach are not usually fond of administration, since it takes them from teaching and dooms them to a round of managerial tasks which they often find maddening and trivial.  They see this (often all too correctly) as a move from telling devoted students how to save the world to dealing with cheaters, backbiters, and squabblers over tiny pockets of money.  Many still get into administration, and do well, but administration becomes “over-enriched” with people who are either failures as scholars or personally driven to individual success rather than teaching per se. 

In the business-imitating climate of today, the slick, suave, manipulative individual with no scholarly pretensions but much personal charm tends to succeed.  Such individuals can actually be good administrators, but often are simply there to rip off the system for selfish benefits.  Others mean well, but are simply inept.  Professors denied tenure for incompetence, but too nice to fire, are often taken into administration—at my university, anyway.  Others—the worst—are passive-aggressive souls who “climb the ivy” because they are driven by a sense of personal inadequacy.  These are the ones most likely to turn into bullies, oppressors, and harassers. Again, these are fortunately rather rare, and the usual conflict is between the idealists and the more ordinary careerists.

The modern administrator dodges responsibility at all times.  The result of a failed policy is not admission of a need for change, but—usually—a move to another school and another attempt at the same policy.

Once again, I am not saying that administrators are an evil lot, or that administration is bad.  The administrator who redirected the library money to redecorating his office and the one who followed a shady model did much damage, but they were really rather exceptional.  Far commoner are the well-meaning souls who are mindless regulation-followers, or slick self-promoters, or simply overwhelmed bureaucrats trying to do what they can.  I am saying, following Weber, that a bureaucratic system selects for certain types of people and certain types of behavior, and that we have made it far worse in America by consciously adopting the business-management model for academic administration.  Nothing could be further from the true entrepreneur, who, whether ruthless businessman or dedicated world-saving scientist, is at least fearless and decisive!  (One can see this on a larger scale in the conflict of Republicans and Democrats in Obama’s time:  the former ferociously and mercilessly hard-working and committee, though to antisocial ends; the latter well-meaning but utterly bureaucratized and thus futile.)

We have to get rid of the bad apples, but far more important is changing the system.

Tenure, and thus academic freedom, is seriously threatened, and indeed the whole idea of professors as independent scholars is being replaced with the business concept of professors as low-level workers who produce a product defined by higher-level administrators.  Inevitably, such a product must be whatever produces immediate benefit for the administrators—whether high enrollments, big donations, or large research grants.  Actual education and research are sidelined.

Obviously, the immediate and necessary cure is the same as it is in all bureaucratic situations:  accountability and recourse.

However, it would not be enough.  We also need to teach leadership.  Teaching “management” only makes things worse; business management and its “educational administration” imitator are notorious, for reasons too well known to need elaboration here. 

Leadership was once taught in many contexts in American society.  Some of these contexts, notably sports and the military, were not necessarily those that liberals love, but they did their job.  More ordinary civic and educational venues (possibly more acceptable to the liberal mind) worked well also.  The result was an age of administrators like David Starr Jordan of Stanford, Robert Hutchins of Chicago, and somewhat later Franklin Murphy of UCLA.  Where are their like today? 

If anyone wants to revive leadership training, the basis of it is listening to everybody and getting all possible input, then acting decisively according to one’s own best sense of what to do, and finally take full responsibility for the result.  Then duly thank everyone for their input (whether it was used or not).  The courage to take advice, then come to a rational decision, and then carry it through to conclusion and bear the brickbats or roses, is what academic administrators lack today.  In my experience, and in accounts in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, high administrators listen to faculty only when forced, and rarely take the advice forthcoming. 

Leaders also make decisions for all their followers, not only their own core group.  Academic administrators naturally develop a sense of unity, often against the professors and other employees of their universities.  They then make decisions to benefit administrators at the expense of the rest.  Leadership training in the old days paid special attention to this natural tendency and did everything to teach leaders to avoid it.

Leadership does not just happen.  It comes from training and practice.  All graduate students should get both.  Being a teaching assistant does not do the job.  In my field of anthropology, archaeology students who supervise field “digs,” lab-science students who get and manage their own grants, and field workers who do not just do ethnobgraphy but have to develop and manage field teams involving local people do get the necessary experience.  Their only problems are that they are not always well taught, and their professors are not always good role models. 

In short, fairly simple lessons, learned in real apprenceships with real practice, are what we need.  Turning students loose to sink or swim, or giving them brief “educational administration” courses, do more damage than help.

A solo player can be a genius, limited only by individual ability.  A string quartet, even a quintet, takes coordination, but can manage itself.  Beyond that, the human conscious mind cannot handle more than seven things at once, and usually tops out at five.  Any group bigger than a quintet needs a conductor.  Then we can hope someone like Arturo Toscanini, who could weld a huge orchestra into one single organism and get that organism to play beyond anything one would think possible even from a soloist.  Not everyone can become Toscanini, but the more we can approach that sort of leadership, the better we do.


Possibly the biggest single area where leadership, not bureaucratic management, is needed is core curriculum:  required courses, and overall course and department offerings.

Sclerotic bureaucracy and lack of leadership guarantees an outcome in which the biggeset departments have the most political power, and use it to stay big.  Staying big usually means that they make sure their beginning courses are the required ones for the university.  This makes change almost impossible.

The business-school alternative is to fire the faculty, hire “temps” instead, and go with “consumer demand,” i.e. student choice (as is advocated by Hacker and Dreifus 2010).  This guarantees that fads will prevail, and that above all the parents’ delusions about what is the “most saleable degree” will be all-important.  Anyone who has spent a year in a college or university knows all too well that the younger students are all going to be doctors, computer programmers, or whatever else the TV set tells the parents is the safest and surest way for their helpless young to make money in the near future.

In so far as this ideal might be achieved, it would be even worse than the frozen state.  The big departments at least reflect some kind of accumulated wisdom.  They generally include English, history, and similar classic fields.  The pre-professional philosophy, by contrast, guarantees a wild swing from one fad to another.  Students concentrate in the “hot” area, oversupply it with qualified people, and thereby crash it as a sure source of employment.  Engineering is particularly notorious for this.  Engineers were seriously short in the American economy in the 1960s, leading to overproduction in the 70s, which led to students avoiding that major and causing another shortage in the 90s, which led to another glut and round of firings in the 2000s.  Doctors have prevented such cycles by making an MD extremely difficult to get; hoops to jump through range from the shortage of good medical schools to the savage and unnecessary hazing of the interns.  The AMA has very consciously worked to keep doctors scarce.

Long-term planning for the future of both students and the American economy would require leadership, because it would require major change. 

As for the students:  it should be obvious to anyone, but is not, that—whatever they do in their lives—all students need a few skills.  The most obvious are good writing skills, critical thinking, some knowledge of economics (including the math), and, yes, leadership ability.  I would add some serious knowledge of American and other cultures, past and present.  I would certainly hope for some serious knowledge of ethical philosophies—not debate over the idiotic ethical dilemmas that infest “Phil 1” textbooks, but serious readings of Kant, Mill, Rawls, and their peers.

As for the future, environmental education is clearly the most desperate need now.  A country where global warming and Darwinian evolution are still seriously doubted by many educated people is obviously headed for self-destruction, and richly deserves it.  The basic concepts of ecology, including the importance of biodiversity and wild lands, are totally absent from the standard curriculum, and totally lacking in the minds of most Americans. 

Some other obvious problems include the failure of health education.  This gives us the current rapid increase in obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, and similar lifestyle problems.  It also gives us the incredible shortage of nurses—indeed, of all non-MD medical personnel—that is crippling American health care and driving up its costs.  The United States is a million nurses short, if our goal is to provide medical care with proven adequate staffing rates for all citizens. This gap is growing exponentially, as population increases and baby-boomers age.  Rather ironically, one of the main reasons is the success of women’s liberation, which targeted nursing as an old-fashioned “women’s profession.”  The media duly portrayed it—till recently—as a lowly, servile occupation.  A very feisty book, Saving Lives (Summers and Summers 2009), pointed this out in no-nonsense terms, and turned the media at least partially around, but the problem remains.

One could go on:  the failure of political education, the decline of knowledge of history….  Suffice it to say that neither the frozen-tradition model nor the business-management model work.  In fact, their continuance will be devastating to America and the world in the near future.


Most professors cling to an ideal of “liberal education,” the content of which is under constant and hot debate.  Not much meeting of the minds comes out of all this.  The problem in this case is not lack of discussion, but lack of any good way to resolve it.

We are having enough trouble maintaining any vision of liberal education in the old sense.  “Liberal” education referred, originally, not to a “liberal” political position but to the liberating power of curricula based on the sciences and arts.  Nobody seems even to remember that now, let alone advocate it.

            In the Good Old Days, there was a “canon” of texts that had “made” the culture in question.  The students would read these texts and would thus know their culture, or at least the elite literary representation of it.  Unfortunately, if those Good Old Days every really existed, they vanished long ago.  Something like them appears to have existed in ancient Greece, Rome, and China.  However, we of the Euro-American educational world really got our idea of the “canon” from religious education.  The “canonical” readings were the Bible (the Hebrew Bible for Jews, that and the New Testament for Christians) and the orthodox commentaries on it.  The Islamic world had the Quran, Hadith, and commentaries.  China had a similar, but less overtly religious, canon: the Confucian classics.

            This had the advantage of giving everyone the same background.  All “educated persons” knew certain things.  The Chinese, especially, saw this as a basic necessity of civilization; they were sometimes less concerned with the actual content of the canon than with the fact that every educated person should share a common heritage.  The downside of this was the fearful snobbism often involved.  Canonical texts, especially literary works, tended to be by elite older males, in China and in the West.  And the “educated” who knew those texts looked down on the poor fools who did not.  Such prestigious knowledge has recently gained the name of “cultural capital.”

            Since the Renaissance in the west and the later coming of Western culture to China, this sort of canonical education has been a nostalgic memory in both west and east.  Higher education has seen almost continual fights over content.  The Renaissance scholars fought to re-introduce the Greek and Latin classics, to the horror of the older generation, who saw them as filled with paganism and sin.  By the time the old churchmen had finally caved in, a new horror had arisen:  vernacular education in the various European languages.  As recently as the mid-19th century, many English educators held that Shakespeare and Milton were far too uncouth and gross to be part of proper education, which could only be the Greek and Latin classics, and, of course, the Bible.  Shakespeare and Milton were “canonical” by 1900, but then came the whole fight over modern literature and, worse, modern art.  This fight was still hot and vicious when I was a student, with a strong rearguard of educators seriously maintaining that James Joyce was too obscene for the young, and modern art was communist and sinful and should be banned.  However, in the end, Joyce and Picasso became canonical.

In the late 20th century, another fight arose as women and minority authors and artists found places in literature and art curricula.  Conservatives objected, usually—alas—on purely sexist and racist grounds, but sometimes out of sheer love for the earlier canons.  Of course, women and minorities won a place in the canon.  The fights at the time I am now writing are over the inclusion of films, TV plays, and other media forms. 

            The previous brief history shows that the old guard always crumbles, and has since 1200.  The real problem now is that the “canon,” by any definition, has exploded beyond anything any student could possibly read or see.  Even by 1900, few indeed were the students who got through all the English literature they were supposed to know (Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, and on and on), let alone the Greek, Latin, French, German, Russian—in the original languages, of course….  Today, it is a well-educated student who even knows the names of all the kinds of media that have their own canons! 

            Obviously, the goal of giving students the True Basics of their culture has become an impossible dream.  This is especially true in the United States.  In spite of the nonsense about America being a product solely of English or of West European civilization, the United States has been profoundly influenced by all Europe, and Europe in turn received much from the Middle East.  The United States also learned much from its Native American heritage, its Chinese contacts, its (tragically involuntary) African immigrant streams, and much else.  Imagine trying to understand American music without admitting the African presence.  American culture has now diverged far from west European.  Students in England do not know Twain or Scott Fitzgerald, let alone Amy Tan or Toni Morrison.  Yet a well-educated American is expected to know all these authors’ works and also the English canon.

            Moreover, American freedom, which in the case of higher education verges on a hilarious and fermenting anarchy, guarantees that nobody can impose an arbitrary, or even a reasonable, canon on anyone else.  A very small college can sometimes manage to agree on a set of books every student should read.  Getting even one state’s public education system to agree on this would be, in the endlessly repeated phrase academics use, “like herding cats.”  Typically, each department of literature or arts has its specialists.  Knowledge becomes more specialized over time.  One English department may specialize in Shakespeare (and a professor may specialize in only one play), while the English department at the next university down the road specializes in nineteenth-century fiction, and the next one farther on specializes in Black American authors.  Students read accordingly, and learn very different things in different colleges. 

Liberal education now does not usually seem to give students much idea of what “good” literature or art means—why Sophocles and Shakespeare really are better, in important ways, than the general run of Hollywood offerings.  This is, however, not because the canon has been opened up.  I recently read an essay claiming that reading trash literature is now common because we 1960s radicals threw out the canon.  Alas, I fear I must inform the author that people were reading trash when I was a kid, and that grave authors complained about the same problem in ancient Greece and Rome—and in every culture since.  The problem is that most professors since the 1950s seem to have missed, in their own education, any discussion of what makes the difference between great literature and garbage.  We need more thinking, not more dragooning.

When students from different schools meet, their cultural common ground is popular film and TV—not the material they learn in classes.  Because of this and many other changes in western culture, movies and TV have taken over from literature the role of giving people a common cultural ground.  Movies and TV provide the reference points for discussion of morals, social codes, and worldviews.  The Chinese were right:  people need a shared set of cultural knowledge, and it helps if what is shared is the very best.  We of today fail notably in the latter regard. 

No obvious solutions come to mind.  One possibility would be a core curriculum of books that really shaped American political thinking and through that the American political system.  This might be manageable.  Certainly, it would include Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s ethical and political works, Hobbes’ Leviathan, John Locke’s writings on government, and the major writings of the Founding Fathers of the United States.  I would guess that most authorities would further agree on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and perhaps his other writings, and on a few other books.  After that, though, we would see a terrific political fight that would probably never resolve.  Moreover, some of the above works require a great deal more training in history and politics than most students today receive.  Hobbes and Locke, in particular, assumed when they wrote that the reader knew the Greek and Latin classics.  They also assumed (reasonably enough) that the reader knew everything important about English and Continental politics of the time.  Moreover, writing in the 17th century, they used the English of their time.  The language has changed since—more than some readers realize.  This is one reason they are both horribly misinterpreted today. 

            All this led to the end of the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s.  Even the most conservative gave up hope that anyone could come up with a selection that would be clean, concise, and universally accepted.  We are left with sets of “breadth requirements.” These are often chosen with less attention to student needs than to guaranteeing big-enrollment classes to key departments.  At my university, in fact, the latter seemed to me to be the only factor considered.  Seeing no rhyme or reason to the requirement structures, some students cynically conclude that the “breadth requirements” are required to keep the students in college, and thus paying tuition, for an extra year or two.

So, what should we do with higher education?  Let it become strictly specialized job training?  Make it cover these political writings, to explain where the United States is coming from?  Provide necessary information for survival in the 21st century, including health and +environmental knowledge?  Provide enough “great art” to give students some idea of what the standards are?         

Accumulated anthropological wisdom suggests that not only should we change the methods to more hands-on ones, and the locations to more prestigious and well-maintained settings, but that we should change the content to reflect what we as a society really want to share.  This would certainly include minimal civics—for example, in the United States, some understanding of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and their immediate origin.  It would certainly include basic reading and writing skills, including analytic and creative skills.  I would add that we really do need, desperately, to show students and others that there is indeed a difference between Shakespeare and TV soaps.  We also need to expand even the minimalist canon to include the great writers of the world, not just those of the English language.  If we raise a generation without self-conscious understanding of the deeper currents of human emotion and thought, we are doomed as a civilization.


One nonproblem is the alleged domination of education (at least in America) by “liberals,” whatever they are.  American campuses display an incredible range of opinions, and a very large percentage of professors are anything but liberal.  The complaints seem concentrated strictly within a segment of society that wants to impose their own brand of “conservatism” on the ivy, outlawing not only liberals but traditional conservatives.  This segment represents an extreme right-wing fringe, and what they want to impose includes six-day creationism, denial of global warming, Holocaust denial, and other views that simply are not true.  For them, even traditional conservatives are dangerous leftists.  This is why the far right feels that the universities are taken over by “liberals”; in their twisted world, Milton Friedman and even George W. Bush are liberals.

Actually, academia serves as the last home of lost causes, and in fact all these long-disproved notions are taught somewhere.  No need to demand more.  What is much more amazing is that neither the self-styled conservatives nor their self-styled liberal antagonists spend any effort looking at the real problems of academia:  bureaucratization, topheavy administration, standardized testing, huge class sizes, mind-numbing boredom in many classes, and lack of intellectual challenge.  Far better if the critics were to unite against those. 


This leads to something more radical, and dearer to an anthropologist’s heart:  serious concern with indigenous, local, and small-scale societies and their traditions.  The small, local societies of the world almost all manage resources better than we moderns do.  They all have music, art, and literature, often world-class and certainly worth recording for posterity.  They all have their own unique and wonderful variations on the basic theme of humanity and the human experience.  Their works are creations of the human spirit, and deserve consideration as such.

Early anthropologists realized this, and recorded traditional cultures and their creations with meticulous care.  We have now dropped this emphasis.  To some extent, it falls between the chairs.  Anthropologists have increasingly abandoned the field to scholars from the relevant societies—indigenous scholars and scholars from minority groups. 

Yet, such scholars are almost inevitably concerned with their groups’ more immediate and pressing problems.  They are worried about health care, legal rights, economic justice.  They have little free space to document cultural riches.  Those that do often have sadly limited opportunities to make them available to a wider audience.  Countless wonderful dissertations, reports, and collections gather dust in university archives, unpublished and often not even catalogued. 

Also, there are still far too few scholars from the groups in question.  Racism is legally dead in the United States, but obviously nowhere close to dead in actual practice.  One need only contemplate the college completion rates of Native American or Black students compared with whites.  In many other countries, bias is not even legally defunct.

The result is that of 6800-7000 languages in the world, the vast majority faces imminent extinction.  About 20% of North America’s Native American languages are extinct.  Over 20% of the rest are spoken by one or a few elderly people.  All are declining, and only a tiny handful (including Navaho, Hopi, and Cherokee) seems secure for the foreseeable future.  Even the isolated communities of Alaska are losing their languages.  The situation is similar in Australia, Latin America, and elsewhere.  European minority dialects, and even languages like Breton and Savoyard, are fading away.  Even though Africa is no longer dominated by European powers, it is losing local languages.  When a language dies, a whole culture is reduced. 

Obviously, we cannot expand the canon to include all 7000 languages and their works, but we need to be more sensitive to the problem.  We desperately need to preserve the languages of the world and the arts and useful knowledge systems that go with these.


“Education is all right; I’ll tell you before you start:

Before you educate the head, try to educate the heart.”

Washington Phillips, bluesman, recorded in Dallas, 1930

Learning is itself a good—one of the highest goods.  Having an open mind and wanting to learn more about anything and everything is about the most valuable trait one can have, and is a basic personality disposition (the “openness” of personality theory). 

Individual experience in dealing with the world also provides strength to those lucky enough to have some strength at the start.  They can deal with progressively tougher problems and thus become progressively stronger.  Rural people in the United States in my youth had these characteristics; they were tough, independent, and resourceful.  They were emotionally strong, creating the great folk music of those days. 

This classic “building of character” is rare today for three reasons.  First, there are many hurts that are simply impossible to overcome and that are now common.  Most obvious of these, perhaps, is massive brain damage due to fetal alcohol syndrome, maternal drug abuse, or early physical abuse.  Over 10% of children in America today suffer from one or more of these.  Second, our society, in which “the media” provide information and entertainment to passive individuals, encourages and implicitly idealizes passivity and discourages self-help.  Most important is the third reason: few are there to provide the backup support and encouragement that is necessary for a child trying his or her wings. Unsupported children become weak, and the weak, ill-prepared, and vacillating have major problems with learning.   

The dynamic of oppression can play out in a family, a small community, a nation, or the world.  A rich man from a powerful family can be reduced to utter wretchedness if that family is harsh enough.  An impoverished woman from a despised minority can rise to the top, if a strong family with a strong and supportive religious tradition is behind her (Werner 1989; Werner and Smith 1982).  I have known such cases; probably most people have.  They are, however, uncommon; they should not be used (as they often are) to excuse the wider community from all responsibility for the poor.  Poverty, and especially decline relative to others, dispirits and disempowers most people.  And schools notoriously train people for the lives they are expected to face.  Even with good intentions, teachers often convey messages that tell students exactly how low the expectations are for them.  The effects are widely studied and known to be devastating (Rosenthal and Jacobson 1992; Willis 1984; this is well portrayed in the film “Stand and Deliver,” about the career of Jaime Escalante in successfully breaking the pattern). 

            There was a time when education was about teaching people deeper and wider emotional experiences—or at least exposing them to art and literature that would give them the chance to learn.  Such depth and breadth of sensibility should (should, but often do not) inform coping responses, and teach people to cope rationally rather than with reactive defensiveness. 

Unfortunately, that sort of education seems lost today.  Besides the problems of overspecialization and technical narrowness, we have too often succumbed to negative views of humanity.  People are seen as entirely the playthings of circumstance: as automatons or as mere victims (or mere oppressors).  This latter view, basically the “postmodern” one, is intensely dehumanizing and insulting. 

There was a time when social science strove improve the world, and to bring good things to a wider audience.  Anthropologists shared the good ideas of small-scale, traditional societies with the world.  Transmission, translation, and explanation were basic to this enterprise.  Valuing people and valuing diversity were goals; understanding the full range of human phenomenological experience was perhaps the highest goal.  All this was based on respect for people in general and for individuals in particular.  I hope we can recapture that.


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Appendix:  Reviewing a Pernicious Book (Review posted on, Sept. 18, 2010)

       Hacker and Dreifus appear to have high ideals:  trying to restore old-fashioned, caring, hands-on liberal education for undergraduates.  They correctly identify many of the problems:  overspecialized faculty, faddish and jargon-heavy teaching, top-heavy administration, excessive use of temporary teaching staff, too much vocational training, and the ever-present, ever-infuriating problem of athletics that takes far too much money and attention.  They describe some successful ideas and schools.  The best thing in the book, to me (a retired professor who taught for forty years at the University of California, Riverside), is the chapter on colleges they recommend.  They name ten schools that have been doing exciting, innovative, successful things with undergraduate education.  Where I know the colleges in question, I agree with their pick, and am delighted to see those schools get recognition.

     However, Hacker and Dreifus seem not to understand “the story behind the story.”  They allege, for instance, that professors typically work only a couple of hours a week.  This echoes the popular idea that professors do nothing except lecture.  Hacker and Dreifus claim that professors do not update their courses.  Yet, how could faculty get away without updating courses in computer science, or biology, or medicine, or law, or any other field except perhaps “bonehead English”?  In fact the typical professor spends hours a week on prep.  They cite a case of a professor who had a paper-reader to do the grading for a class of 20.  This seems beyond the pale; we at UC used to get a reader if we had 80, but now I believe the cutoff is 100.  Also, there are sharp limits on readers’ and assistants’ hours, so I wound up reading 600 papers per quarter in my big classes.  Finally, they treat a two-course-per-term load as if it were standard. In fact most professors are at teaching-oriented schools where the load is around four courses per term, and most of these are big classes, up to a thousand students.

     Hacker and Dreifus also object to academic research, and sabbatical leaves that permit it.  They feel there is too much research; professors should stick to teaching.  This would gut American science, since so much basic research is done by professors on sabbaticals.  However, research and teaching do sometimes interfere with each other.  The reason is one that Hacker and Dreifus appear not to understand:  most American universities now depend largely on grant money, from governments and private firms.  This is what leads to excessive focus on research.  Professors are constantly harrassed by administrators to apply for more and more grants.  I was associated for three years with the University of Washington, which gets more grant money per professor than any other full-offering university.  The cost is that the undergrads are taught, more and more, by graduate students and lecturers, and given very minimal attention.  But the taxpayers of the state had turned against the place, and the choice was to do this or close down.  My university is less grant-dependent and more teaching-oriented, but still it’s the huge science grants that really keep the place going.  This is by far the main reason why many professors don’t teach as well as they might.  Most professors are dedicated and competent teachers (in my experience), but the rewards and visibility go to the grant-getters, who are not apt to be spending much energy on teaching.

     Linked to this is the other real problem:  out-of-control administration. Hacker and Dreifus briefly mention the fact that there are twice as many administrators per 1000 students as there were a generation or two ago.  More important is the far higher pay; the University of Washington’s president gets almost a million a year.  Also, the huge bureaucracies have essentially no accountability or transparency.  In all the time I taught, we faculty never saw the budget.  We could never call any administrator to account for anything.  Universities spend much on splashy projects and athletics; these look impressive, and advances administrators’ careers.  Professors have essentially no say in the matter.

     University administrations often operate outside state laws, such as conflict-of-interest legislation.  The UC Board of Regents (=Directors) included, at one point, the head of the firm that did all our campus construction work; at another time, the Riverside regent was a lawyer who handled a lot of our law business.  Both were perfectly good regents and didn’t abuse their power (so far as I know), but this would not be allowed in any state government office.

    Hacker and Dreifus feel professors are overpaid, and that tenure is an evil.  They dismiss the problem of academic freedom, which shows they out of touch; every year I read of a case of state legislatures trying to crack down on academia, and I have run into many cases personally.  Eliminate tenure and public colleges and universities would be instant chaos—every time the Democrats replaced the Republicans, or vice versa, faculty would be fired and replaced with loyalists, as in state government offices.   Conversely, Hacker and Dreifus considerably exaggerate the problem of “retiring on tenure.”  I knew only one professor who “retired on tenure”; he was held at a lowly salary and eased into early retirement as soon as possible.  Otherwise, my school made sure nobody got tenure unless they were such compulsive workers that they were more likely to work themselves to death than to retire on tenure.  I knew several professors who collapsed and died of sheer exhaustion from overwork.

          The new wisdom in education, from Obama to Hacker and Dreifus, is that the way to attract or create better teachers is to cut their pay and eliminate their job security.  Economic wisdom suggests otherwise.  The truth is that until we solve the linked problems of out-of-control administration and dependence on grants for funding, undergraduate education will suffer. 

Hacker, Andrew, and Claudia Dreifus.  2010.  Higher Education?  How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do about It.  New York:  Times Books.

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