Losing Confidence in Higher Education

In recent times, America has been witnessing a seismic shift in the perception and value of higher education. Historically, a college degree had been regarded as a quintessential stepping stone to financial stability and a prosperous future. The early 2010s saw a high rate of affirmation from college graduates, with 86 percent considering their investment in college education to be worthwhile.[i]Additionally, 70 percent of high school graduates chose to pursue higher education directly after their graduation in 2009, showcasing the predominant belief in the benefits of a college education. The economic data around this time period significantly favored those with a bachelor’s degree, who were found to earn about two-thirds more than individuals with just a high school diploma. This earnings gap suggested that higher education could be a reliable pathway to greater financial security and prosperity.

Unfortunately, a stark contrast can be observed in recent years, as public sentiment regarding higher education has experienced a monumental shift. As of 2021, undergraduate enrollment figures plummeted to below 15.5 million, compared to over 18 million a decade earlier.[ii]Surveys conducted during this time reveal a staggering decline in the value attached to a college degree, with only 41 percent of young adults considering it very important, a dramatic decrease from the 74 percent recorded previously.[iii]  This waning confidence is mirrored in the diminishing trust towards higher education institutions, with only a third of the American populace expressing a high degree of faith in them.[iv] Continue reading “Losing Confidence in Higher Education”

The Backlash Against Inclusive Teaching

Yet another backlash against student diversity was discussed this past week in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In this case the assault came against pandemic-era inclusive teaching measures designed to mitigate the risk of student disconnection and failure –– methods such as group work, deadline flexibility, enhanced faculty interaction, and Universal Design for Learning. However, critics argue that these measures have led to a lax academic environment and decreased student motivation. What is needed, the critics assert, are stricter and more difficult courses to force students back in line.

In an article, “Why ‘Calls for a ‘Return to Rigor’ Are Wrong,” Chronicle columnist Kevin Gannon counters this perspective, contending that a simple increase in workload, tougher grading, and heightened standards do not equate to academic rigor.

He argues that these conventional methods often serve as a veneer for practices that raise barriers to student success, rather than tearing them down.  Critics of the pandemic-era teaching efforts often focus on metrics such as the volume of reading per week, the number of writing assignments, or the duration to complete an academic program. According to them, these have fallen far too low. In essence, they attribute “rigor” to logistical challenges in course delivery. However, Gannon emphasizes that higher education needn’t be prohibitive, and introducing practices that stifle student motivation and engagement is counterproductive. Continue reading “The Backlash Against Inclusive Teaching”

The New You

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 “The New You”

Anxious Creativity is now Open Access

Anxious Creativity: When Imagination Fails (Routledge) now is available without cost as an Open Access ebook thanks to funding from UC Irvine. You can get it as a Kindle ebook from Amazon or in PDF  format from Routledge using this link.

Creativity is getting new attention in today’s America –– along the way revealing fault lines in U.S. culture. Surveys show people overwhelming seeing creativity as both a desirable trait and a work enhancement, yet most say they just aren’t creative. Like beauty and wealth, creativity seems universally desired but insufficiently possessed. Businesses likewise see innovation as essential to productivity and growth, but can’t bring themselves to risk new ideas. Even as one’s “inner artist” is hyped by a booming self-help industry, creative education dwindles in U.S. schools.

Anxious Creativity: When Imagination Fails examines this conceptual mess, while focusing on how America’s current edginess dampens creativity in everyone. Written in an engaging and accessible style, Anxious Creativity draws on current ideas in the social sciences, economics, and the arts. Discussion centers on the knotty problem of reconciling the expressive potential in all people with the nation’s tendency to reward only a few. Fortunately, there is some good news, as scientists, economists, and creative professionals have begun advocating new ways of sharing and collaboration. Building on these prospects, the book argues that America’s innovation crisis demands a rethinking of individualism, competition, and the ways creativity is rewarded.

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”

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”

Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner

No one could have predicted the radical changes in education of the early 2020s. Besides making the once-obscure Zoom into a household name, the pandemic accelerated an already fast-moving takeover of everyday life by the internet. The economic consequences were profound, with revenues exploding for companies like Netflix and Amazon while brick-and-mortal retail outlets and restaurants disappeared by the thousands. Of course nothing about the upheaval was especially surprising in historical terms. Cataclysmic events like disasters and wars often leave places quite different than they were before, as systemic restraints give way to radical reorganization. Emergency measures accepted in the moment have a habit of leaving remnants in place, much as occurred with online learning. Not that this is always is a bad thing. Urgent situations can trigger remarkable innovation and creativity, seen in the hundreds of ways that educators found ways to keep instruction going. But just as often people get hurt in the rush, as short-term solutions make for long-term problems.

Seen in retrospect, the rapid transition to online learning certainly falls into this latter category, evidenced in the huge numbers of students who failed or dropped out of classes, with those affected overwhelmingly the historically underserved. Changes occurred and learning was disrupted. But the convenience and efficiencies of virtual classroom were too good to let go. “Online Learning is Here to Stay” read a feature in New York Times, citing a study from the Rand Corporation saying that 20 percent of schools were choosing to continue portions of their online offerings. “Families have come to prefer stand-alone virtual schools and districts are rushing to accommodate, but questions still linger.”[i] Questions indeed. Before the pandemic less than one percent of K-12 schooling took place online. Educational reasons notwithstanding, this also had to do with the function of school as childcare for working families. The idea of a twenty-fold increase in home learning raises the question of what parent demographics are driving this shift. Or more to the point, who has gained from the online shift and who lost out? Continue reading “Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner”

Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects

It’s no secret that online learning has its problems, witnessed in the historic failure and drop-out rates resulting from thrown-together course overhauls in the early COVID months. Less widely reported has been another kind of failure owing to a loss faith in educational institutions and a widening trust gap between teachers and students.

Inherent school power inequities  have aggravated  antagonisms – now made even worse by a range of surveillance and security technologies. The distance in “distance learning” can create an atmosphere of alienation and distrust. When the in-person classroom is reduced to a screen image, teachers and students can seem more like abstractions than actual people.

This opens the door for all sorts of communication failures and misunderstandings, not to mention stereotyping and harm. The objectifying tendencies of media representations long have been associated distortions in the way individuals and groups view each other, whether in the marketing of products, sensationalizing news items, or spreading ideologies on social networks. When “Zoom school” does this, underlying beliefs and assumptions can overtake the reality of encounters, generating attitudes that destabilize the learning environment.

These problems have become especially evident in the panic about student dishonesty in online learning, as the absence of classroom proximity quickly escalated in into assumptions of cheating. Early in the 2020s a torrent of news reports warned of an “epidemic” of dishonesty in online learning, with some surveys showing over 90 percent educators believing cheating occurred more in distance education than in-person instruction.[i] New technologies often have stoked such fears, in this instance building on the distrust many faculty hold toward students, some of it racially inflected. [ii] Closer examination of the issue has revealed that much of the worry came from faculty with little direct knowledge of the digital classroom, online student behavior, and preventative techniques now commonly used.  Indeed more recent research has shown no significant differences between in-person and online academic integrity.[iii] Continue reading “Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects”