Empowerment for Sale

“Yes You Can,” (Sprint), “Be All that You Can Be” (U.S. Army), “Because You’re Worth it,” (L’Oréal) in “Your World, Delivered” (AT&T). You’ve seen these new ads: pitches for products or services to let you “be yourself” or “take control” of some aspect of your life. It’s a new strategy called “empowerment marketing,” based on the premise that in media savvy age people are smarter about advertising and need to be approached in a way that flatters their evolved sensibilities. As a recent feature in Your Business put it, “Traditional marketing depends on creating anxiety in the customer in convincing her that she has a need that only the product or service sold can help her fill.”  In contrast, “Empowerment marketing subverts traditional marketing techniques by recasting the consumer as the hero who has the power to effect change and use the product or service being sold to achieve success.”[i]

Nice as this sounds, it is really a case of putting old wine in new bottles. The example Your Business uses is the familiar Nike “Just Do it” campaign, which doesn’t so much promote a certain shoe as much as “the message that anyone can be an athlete if they’re willing to work hard.”[ii] And indeed, this is exactly the message that appears on the first page of Nike’s current website: “Your daily motivation with the latest gear, most effective workouts and the inspiration you need to test your limits––and unleash your potential” with a fashion item lower on the page captioned “Dress like a champion.”[iii] In other words, the new empowerment advertising doesn’t really forgo conventional appeals to consumer anxiety. It simply personalizes the pitch with the lure of enhanced autonomy. The Nike ad itself sums up this contradiction perfectly in stating: “Life isn’t about finding your limits. It’s about realizing you have none.”[iv] Continue reading “Empowerment for Sale”

The New Case Against College

It’s called the “paper ceiling” –– the barriers for skilled job seekers who lack a bachelor’s degree. Amid the brouhaha in recent years over admissions scams and student debt, a new line of attack is emerging against higher education. This one is being described as an ontological threat in that it questions the existence and value of college itself, while accusing the system of perpetuating multiple forms of inequity. Of course, higher education often has found itself a political football in the past. What makes this time different is its critique of qualities universities typically have seen as their strength.

Everyone knows it’s been a tough few years for higher education. Even before the pandemic, colleges and universities were seeing public opinion souring over rising costs, political correctness, and faculty misbehavior –– causing more than a few students and their families to start doubting the value of degree. With enrollments dropping during the “great disruption” at a pace not seen for half a century, concurrent changes in the American workplace have rendered college degrees unnecessary for a growing number of high wage jobs. Yet many employers require four-year credentials anyway, in what some observers see as an antiquated habit and a cover for discrimination.

The numbers are deceptively simple – that 75% of new jobs insist on a bachelor’s degree, while only 40% of potential applicants have one.[1] According the advocacy group Opportunity@Work, employers mistakenly equate college completion with work aptitude, while disregarding self-acquired knowledge or non-academic experience.  The group asserts that the nation’s undervalued workforce “has developed valuable skills through community college, certificate programs, military service, or on-the-job learning, rather than through a bachelors degree. Workers with experience, skills, and diverse perspectives are held back by silent barrier.” As a consequence, over 50% of the American skilled workforce has been under employed and underpaid.[2]  More concerning still is that such discrimination is unevenly distributed. Within a 70-million worker cohort of what are termed STARs  (Skilled Through Alternative Routes) employees, one finds 61% of Black workers, 55% of Hispanic/Latinos, and 61 of veterans.[3]  

Continue reading “The New Case Against College”

You 2.0 – The Will to Improve

You’ve probably never heard of TestingMom.com. It’s part of a new generation of test-prep companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review –– except this one is for toddlers. Competition for slots in kindergarten has gotten so intense that some parents are shelling out thousands to get their four-year olds ready for entrance tests or interviews. It’s just one more example of the pressure that got celebrity parents arrested for falsifying college applications a few years ago. In this case the battle is over getting into elite elementary schools or gifted programs. While such admissions pressure is widely known, what’s new is how early it’s occurring.

Equity issues aside, the demand to improve performance is being drilled into youngsters before they can spell their names. All of this bespeaks the competition for grades, school placement, and eventual careers that has transformed the normal impulse to do better into an obsession for students and their families. Much like the drive for perfection, an insatiable hunger to be quicker, smarter, and more acceptable to admissions officers is taking its toll in many ways.

What explains this obsessive behavior? Brain science has been proving what advertising long has known ­–– that wanting something is far more powerful than getting it. School admissions and other markers of success are part of an overarching mental wanting mechanism. That new iPhone might bring a thrill. But soon comes the yearning for an update, a newer model, another purchase. Neuroimaging shows that processes of “wanting” and “liking” occur in different parts of the brain, with the former more broadly and powerfully operating than the latter. This reverses the common wisdom that primal hungers and “drives” underlie human motivation.  Unlike animals, the motor force driving human beings is imagination –– with anticipation of something more important than the experience itself. This partly explains why merchandizing deals more with feeling than facts. Slogans like “Just Do It” and “Think Different” bear no direct relationship to shoes or computers, but instead tingle feelings of desire. In the fuzzy realm emotion pleasure is a fungible currency. Continue reading “You 2.0 – The Will to Improve”

College Art in Crisis

It might surprise many to know that no systematic studies exist of college and university-level arts programs. This is partly due to the way art in higher education fragments into academic disciplines and professional training programs, as well as the complex array of public and private schools, community colleges and research universities, and the ever expanding variety of for-profit entities and online learn-at-home opportunities. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides rough disciplinary percentages of bachelor’s degrees earned by America’s estimated 18.7-million college students, however. Of these, 5.1 percent graduated in the “Visual and Performing Arts” category, and another 4.6 percent in “Communications and Journalism.” Larger break-downs included “Business” at 19.4 percent, “Health Sciences” at 10.7 percent, and “Social Science” at 9.2 percent.[i] Beyond this, anecdotal evidence abounds of a decade long decline in arts and humanities programs, described by many as a continuing crisis. The recession is partly to blame, with many students and their families simply opting for more surefire career paths, especially as college tuitions have risen.

On the other hand, college art has found new friends among creative economy advocates, with educators jumping on claims from people like Richard Florida that 30 percent of today’s jobs require creative skills.[ii] Making the most of this, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently released a report entitled “The Arts and Economic Growth,” compiled in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.[iii] The document claimed that “arts and culture” contributed $704-billion to the U.S. economy (4.2 percent of GDP) and a whopping 32.5 percent of GDP growth in the past 15 years. This is more than sectors like construction ($619-billion) and utilities ($270-billion), perhaps because the study defined art so broadly –– encompassing advertising, broadcasting, motion pictures, publishing, and arts-related merchandizing, as well as the performing and visual arts themselves. This prompted a piece entitled, “Who Knew? Arts Education Fuels the Economy” in the respected Chronicle of Higher Education, which noted similar findings from business groups. Among these were the Partnership for 21st-Century Learning, a coalition of corporate and educational leaders and policy makers, which said that, “Education in dance, theater, music, and the visual arts helps instill the curiosity, creativity, imagination, and capacity for evaluation that are perceived as vital to a productive U.S. work force.”[iv] The Conference Board, an international business-research organization, polled employers and school superintendents, finding “that creative problem-solving and communications are deemed important by both groups for an innovative work force.”[v] And IBM, in a report based on face-to-face interviews with more than 1,500 CEOs worldwide, concluded that “creativity trumps other leadership characteristics” in an era of rising complexity and continual change.[vi] Continue reading “College Art in Crisis”

Welcome to Cyberschool

While technology always has played a role in education , it went into hyperdrive with the pandemic-driven move to online learning. Up to this point, economic pressures and growing student numbers already were causing a panic in education. Schools were struggling to trim budgets as “accountability” scrutinized everyone. These extant conditions presented an upside to some of the changes that would occur.  Most dramatically, the shift to doing schoolwork at home eliminated shortfalls in classroom space and, at least temporarily, student housing as well. As the pandemic continued the share of higher education offered online jumped from 10 percent in 2019 to 33 percent a few years later.[i]  But as everyone now knows, so-called “distance learning” isn’t for everyone and doesn’t work for all kinds of material.  Research shows that one-size-fits-all character of mechanical course delivery disadvantages students of many kinds.

Online schooling isn’t as new as you might think. The idea of distance learning dates to vocational and self-improvement correspondence courses of the eighteenth century, which arose with improvements  in mail delivery systems. Often cited as an early example was a shorthand course offered by Caleb Phillips, advertised in a 1721 edition of Boston Gazette with claims that “students may by having several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.”[ii] By the 1800s all manner of vocational skills were being taught by mail, as well hobbies like drawing and painting. The University of London became the first college to offer distance learning degrees in 1858. By the end of the century, learning by mail had become big business for institutions like the Pennsylvania-based International Correspondence Schools (ICS). In the decade between 1895 and 1905, ICS grew from 72,000 to 900,000 students signing up to learn technical and management skills.[iii] Much of this growth was due to the innovation of sending entire textbooks rather than single lessons, along with promotion by a large in-person sales team. Continue reading “Welcome to Cyberschool”

The Learning Society

As consumer prices continue to rise, experts now warn of a looming recesssion brought about by pandemic manufacturing slowdowns and supply-chain shortages. Economists explain it as a classic case of demand outpacing availability –– with scarcity making things more costly. Unfortunately, the painful solution now being launched will raise borrowing costs rates so that people spend less. While these measures may or may not improve the overall economomy, the combined effects of inflation and rising interest rates will exact a double blow to people struggling to make ends meet. In such an atmosphere it becomes critical to help people manage their own finances and to prevent the broader economy from overheating.

This is where consumer education and financial literacy can help as part of a larger move toward a “learning society.” For some time now, economists have been promoting financial education in public schools and urging people to become more resourceful. Time Magazine reported polls showing “99 percent of adults in agreement that personal finance should be taught in high school.”[i]  The Federal Reserve argued that “financial literacy and consumer education, coupled with strong consumer protections, make the financial marketplace ‘effective and efficient’ and assists consumers in making better choices.”[ii] Many colleges and universities have started making financial literacy courses graduation requirements. And for some it has worked, as many Americans “put their own budgets under the microscope ––akin to what financial analysts routinely do when the scrutinize companies.”[iii] Continue reading “The Learning Society”

The Creative Inner Child?

Pablo Picasso once quipped that “Every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.”[i]  In this often-quoted slogan, Picasso neatly summarized idealized views of the universally creative child and the uncreative adult. In a similar fashion he would later write that, “It takes a long time to become young.” What is one to make of such laments? Nostalgia over a lost youth? A yearning to escape a pressurized grown-up life?  Regardless of origins, it’s impossible to deny America’s ongoing infatuation with childhood creativity.

This fascination childhood artistry dates to the 1700s, corresponding to evolving views of children as “blank slates” (tabula rasa) better served by nurturance and education than by discipline alone. At the same time, Enlightenment debates over individualism and personal autonomy were bringing considerable anxiety to the era, evidenced in worries that self-interest would overwhelm moral sentiments.

This set the stage for the naturalism espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book Emile: Or, On Education, seeing an inherent “goodness” in children,  which becomes corrupted by adult desire and material want.[ii] With the 1800s, views of “human nature” gave ways to theories of evolution and behavioral adaptation –– owing in large part to the influence of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. While the resulting rationalism eventually would make education more formulaic, an artsy transcendentalism would counterbalance American culture with an advocacy for an “educated imagination.”[iii] The Romantic Era writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman advanced themes of emotion over reason and imagination over reality –– setting in place a tradition progressive of push-back against the instrumentalist ethos of science and industry. Continue reading “The Creative Inner Child?”

Stop Blaming Students: Toward a Post-Pandemic Pedagogy

There’s trouble in the college classroom these days. But you can’t blame students. The pandemic and other disruptions of the past two years have shaken higher education to the core, casting doubt on how universities deliver instruction, pay their bills, and justify their existence. Enrollments are dropping across the nation, as students and their families increasingly see college as  overpriced, inequitable, and non-essential. More disturbing still are shifts taking place within institutions themselves, as dispirited students are losing motivation and enthusiasm for learning.  Clearly something has to change, with many pointing to the classroom as a key place to start.  But will it be enough?

“A Stunning Level of Disconnection” is the way one recent article described the situation. “Fewer students show up to class. Those who do avoid speaking when possible. Many skip the readings or the homework. They have trouble remembering what they learned and struggle on tests,” several professors reported.[1] Instructors are trying to reach and teach students, to figure out the problem, and do anything they can to fix things, with many now concluding in frustration that “It may be necessary to change the structure of college itself.” Call it a stress test for higher education – the seismic disruption of the college classroom during the COVID-19 years, and its ongoing after-shocks. At all levels of instruction, educators continue to voice alarm over the persistent malaise and underperformance of college students. Continue reading “Stop Blaming Students: Toward a Post-Pandemic Pedagogy”

The Problem with Rigor

“It’s Time to Cancel the Word Rigor,” read a recent headline in education press.[1]  The article detailed growing concerns about hidden bias within what many see as conventional teaching practices. Here, “rigor” was taken to task for throwing roadblocks up for some students more than others, even as its exact meaning remains vague. Webster’s Dictionary defines rigor as “severity, strictness or austerity,” which educators often translate into difficult courses and large amounts of work, rationalized in the interest of excellence and high standards.[2]

While there is nothing wrong with challenging coursework, per se, this interpretation of rigor often becomes a recipe for failure for otherwise intelligent and hardworking students.  Such failures can result when rigor is used to incentivize or stratify students, as in gateway or “weed out” courses with prescribed grading targets, or situations where faculty overuse tests as motivation. Rigor discussions I have witnessed rarely consider instructional quality, teaching effectiveness, or principles of learning. Instead faculty complain about poor student attention, comprehension, or commitment. As the Chronicle explains, “all credit or blame falls on individual students, when often it is the academic system that creates the constructs, and it’s the system we should be questioning when it erects barriers for students to surmount or make them feel that they don’t belong.”[3] Continue reading “The Problem with Rigor”

The Algorithm Rejected Me

School is where most kids first become aware of what I call the  “update imperative.”  After all, education is a process continual improvement in a step-by-step process of knowledge acquisition and socialization. In this sense schooling represents much more than the beginning of education. For many kids it’s a time of moving from the familiarity of home into the larger world of other people, comparative judgement, and a system of tasks and rewards. Along the way, a package of attitudes and beliefs is silently conditioned: conformity to norms, obedience to authority, and the cost of failure. All of this is presented with a gradually intensifying pressure to succeed, rationalized as a rehearsal for adult life. Rarely are the ideological parameters of this “hidden curriculum” ever challenged, or even recognized. Much like work, American K-12 schools are driven largely by mandates of individual achievement and material accumulation.

By the time college applications are due, levels of anxiety can run out of control, given the role of degrees in long term earnings.  Many students start the admissions Hunger Games as early as middle school, plotting their chances, polishing their transcripts, and doing anything they can to get good grades. Everyone knows how admissions data now flows in an age in which students apply to an average of 10 schools each. Unsurprisingly perhaps, overall applications have increased by 22% in the past year alone.[i] And while the applicant side of this equation has been much publicized, what happens in the admissions office remains shrouded in mystery. Largely unknown are secret criteria driven by algorithms to determine things like likelihood to enroll or willingness to pay. Even less known are kinds of AI analytics used to monitor and grade students, sometimes making prejudicial judgements along the way. Continue reading “The Algorithm Rejected Me”