Category Archives: education

Is Our Children Learning (Again)?

The New York Times has an interesting piece on today’s front page about the use of costly technology in classrooms, and how it doesn’t appear to be improving test scores at all. Some suggest standardized tests no longer adequately reflect the kind of skills students are learning in tech-heavy classrooms. Others say there’s no replacing the fundamentals — reading, writing, arithmetic — and that must come before teaching kids how to use PowerPoint.

It’s an important discussion because, as the piece points out, school districts are facing intense budgetary pressure right now, laying off teachers and increasing class sizes, while at the same time investing millions of dollars in classroom computers. Is it worth it?

These discussions interest me, but they also anger me. When I look back on my own elementary education, which was way back in the 1960s, I remember feeling like a lab rat. Back then it seems the country was focused on looking at what and how we were teaching our children, with an eye toward innovation and change. I don’t know why — was it broken? Was there something wrong with the way my mother and father were educated? Was it just the idea that it’s the 1960s and we can do things better just … because?

It seems to me there wasn’t a cockamamie idea that someone didn’t want to try on us kids. For example: I was taught to read using the ITA method — Initial Teaching Alphabet. Any other ITA kids out there? Represent! ITA used a phonetic alphabet which was supposed to be easier for young children to grasp. We were taught to read and write with the phonetic alphabet and later transitioned to the traditional alphabet. (I still have some old “Peter Rabbit” books written in ITA. I wonder if they’re worth something now?)

I’m not sure I was a good ITA test case, since I was always a voracious reader, even as a child. Plus, I come from a family of readers and writers. I highly doubt I would have had problems learning to read and write the old-fashioned way. I can’t speak for any other kids, though, and back in the ’60s ITA was what we were taught. Maybe it was good, I have no idea. I do know that I learned to read and write, and I also developed some really atrocious spelling, which stuck with me until around the 5th grade. In fact, my spelling was so bad that when we moved across country, my parents got letters of concern from my new, non-ITA-drilled teachers.

That’s just one example; there are others. Maybe it’s because of where I grew up, but I remember a parade of graduate students and teaching assistants streaming through our classrooms and pulling selected students out of class for their turn on the hamster wheel. These things were never explained to us, and when in second grade I was asked to paint pictures with one of these graduate students instead of learning the math lesson, I was pissed off. I was quite sure whatever the rest of the class was learning was way more important than what the young woman wanted to learn from me. Guess I was a rebel even then.

So when I read we’re spending millions of dollars investing in computers only to find that test scores haven’t budged, it pushes some buttons. On the one hand, test scores mean … what exactly? Does it really reflect anything significant? On the other hand, I worry that with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs shoving computers at school districts, we’re creating a generation of consumers for Microsoft and Apple, but not necessarily a generation of educated, engaged citizens.

Please, tell me what is the point of this:

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.

In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

Does this make sense to any 7th grade English teacher out there? For one thing, we didn’t study Shakespeare in 7th grade — that came in high school. Regardless, shouldn’t Shakespeare be an entry point to learning about English history, poetry, the English language, the dramatic arts, and literature? Not … how to write a blog or a Facebook page?

Am I being too “offa my lawn” here? I mean, no wonder kids’ test scores aren’t changing if this is how the technology is being used.

Along these lines, the current issue of Harper’s has an essay on education by Garret Keizer, newly returned to the public high school classroom after a 14-year absence. One of the changes he discusses is his students’ new aversion to reading:

It’s nothing new that some kids find reading a chore. What strikes me is the frequent lack of correlation between the ability to read and any inclination to do it. That, and the number of times I hear someone say, “I hate to read.” A girl tells me so in private and sobs so preposterously that I worry I might laugh. After she calms down, I gently suggest that she read a passage aloud. Her fluency is impeccable; she could work for the BBC.

Modern technology requires a minimal level of literacy, and as our communication moves more toward electronic devices, blogs, etc. the ability to read and write in English is crucial. But just because you can write a text message or update your Facebook wall, that doesn’t mean you can write a novel or a play. And I think writing a novel or play are important skills to have, even if our technology now only requires a literacy level of 140 characters or less. Because you don’t enlighten the world with a Tweet. You don’t create an educated citizenry capable of challenging the status quo in 140 characters, or in a text message. Revolutions may be Tweeted but their genesis is elsewhere. Does it surprise anyone to learn that Thomas Jefferson was a fan of Shakespeare? I daresay he was never asked to create a mixtape for his favorite Shakespearean character.

What I fear we have here is another example of our current emphasis on math, science and technology over the humanities. I’ve written about this before (notably in 2009 in my post, “The Business Of Dehumanization”), but it bears repeating: we’re creating a generation of worker bees and consumers, but not necessarily a generation of citizens with the critical thinking skills necessary to challenge the establishment when necessary.

Ask yourself who this serves? Microsoft, sure: but does it serve America?

I suspect our standardized tests haven’t evolved apace with this change. So pardon me for being concerned when I read this in the New York Times:

Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.

Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.

For now. Yes, of course. But wait for the day when a new barometer of achievement comes to our schools. One that reflects this shift in priorities. One that better reflects the needs and wants of Microsoft and Apple and Google and Coca-Cola. What then?

I don’t have any answers. I’m not saying don’t use computers in schools, don’t teach technology. But I do think we need to go into this with our eyes open. As we embrace the new, let’s not ditch the old. Think about what we could lose in the process.

[UPDATE]:

To those who don’t make it all the way through the Times article, I leave you with this chilling excerpt:

“Let’s hope the fiscal crisis doesn’t get better too soon. It’ll slow down reform,” said Tom Watkins, the former superintendent for the Michigan schools, and now a consultant to businesses in the education sector.

Clearly, the push for technology is to the benefit of one group: technology companies.

The Sellers

It is 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. Mr. Share, the director of technology at Kyrene and often an early riser, awakens to the hard sell. Awaiting him at his home computer are six pitches from technology companies.

It’s just another day for the man with the checkbook.

“I get one pitch an hour,” he said. He finds most of them useless and sometimes galling: “They’re mostly car salesmen. I think they believe in the product they’re selling, but they don’t have a leg to stand on as to why the product is good or bad.”

[…]

This is big business. Sales of computer software to schools for classroom use were $1.89 billion in 2010. Spending on hardware is more difficult to measure, researchers say, but some put the figure at five times that amount.

The vendors relish their relationship with Kyrene.

“I joke I should have an office here, I’m here so often,” said Will Dunham, a salesman for CCS Presentation Systems, a leading reseller of Smart Boards in Arizona.

Last summer, the district paid $500,000 to CCS to replace ceiling-hung projectors in 400 classrooms. The alternative was to spend $100,000 to replace their aging bulbs, which Mr. Share said were growing dimmer, causing teachers to sometimes have to turn down the lights to see a crisp image.

Mr. Dunham said the purchase made sense because new was better. “I could take a used car down to the mechanic and get it all fixed up and still have a used car.”

But Ms. Kirchoff, the president of the teachers’ association, is furious. “My projector works just fine,” she said. “Give me Kleenex, Kleenex, Kleenex!”

“New is better.” There’s an axiom for the 21st Century classroom.

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>The Magical Employee Handbook

>It’s no surprise that Tennessee joined other Republican-controlled states in attacking teachers’ unions, sparking thousands of teachers to rally at the state capitol in early March. It’s no surprise that those protests fell on deaf ears.

What is a surprise is that the legislature responded with an even more radical plan, which would end the right of teachers to form unions at all:

House Speaker Beth Harwell and key lawmakers have agreed to completely repeal the 1978 law that gave teachers the ability to unionize, casting aside an earlier compromise that would have let them continue to negotiate with school boards over a few issues.

But fear not: replacing the teachers unions will be, I shit you not, “employee handbooks.” Oh goody!

The agreement would replace negotiated teachers’ contracts with an employee handbook updated every three years that spells out the district’s policies on salary, benefits, leave, student discipline and working conditions — matters that currently are set through union negotiations.

Additional language would give districts broader authority to set policies for merit pay and classroom assignments.

School boards would be barred from negotiating contracts with the teachers union. Instead, teachers would be allowed to submit written comments and speak at an open hearing on the handbook.

Oh, right, an open hearing, gosh we’ve all seen how effective those are! I mean gosh, if thousands of people descending on the state capitol in angry protest won’t sway the Tennessee State Legislature, what makes anyone think submitting written comments and speaking at an open hearing will sway a school board?

I’m trying to think how speaking at an open hearing on an employee handbook is truly “the best of both worlds,” in the words of Rep. Debra Maggart, House Republican Caucus chair. Exactly how is an employee handbook written by your employer a substitute for bargaining rights? I guess you have to live in that Republican alternate universe where free market ponies shit fairy dust for any of this to make sense.

Well, why don’t we replace all contracts with a “handbook,” then? I mean really, if it’s such a brilliant idea for our kids, why not? Let’s have a handbook instead of state contracts, and then when someone doesn’t finish repaving that highway on time, we can say, “oooh you’re in violation of our handbook and we’re gonna … um … hmm … never mind!” I mean really, that’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Is an employee handbook even legally binding?

Here’s the thing. Teachers’ working conditions are our kids’ learning conditions. Shouldn’t the people who are in that classroom every day be the best judge of what those learning conditions need to be?

And here’s another thing: why in the world would anyone want to be a teacher in Tennessee under conditions like this? Wouldn’t you want to teach somewhere else, where you’re not treated like school board chattle?

Perhaps the best solution to all of our problems is to get more progressives to run for local office, including school board. It’s something the Teanutties are already doing; progressives need to get on board or we’ll have more rights taken away and replaced by boneheaded ideas like “employee handbooks.”

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Jay Steele & Nashville Chamber: Keep Your Hands Off Our Kids

Metro Nashville Schools have been swept up in yet another contentious battle, this one over the firing of a beloved teacher (technically she is being fired from a program she started and ran for nearly 30 years, not fired from Metro. She’s to be moved to another school). For my non-Nashville readers, go to the link and brush up on the controversy.

The removal of Mary Catherine Bradshaw is a political not performance-based move. She appears to have stood in the way of our corporate overlords a shiny-sparkly new education philosophy:

Her firing from the program comes at a time when new Metro schools associate superintendent Jay Steele is restructuring the district’s high schools into a collection of “career academies,” a hand-in-glove enterprise with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to funnel students into high-demand career tracks like information technology.

If the name Jay Steele sounds familiar it’s because I wrote about another of his “pet projects” last April:

Naming rights to academic programs in Metro Nashville’s high schools are for sale, and one school has a buyer.

The Tennessee Credit Union now owns the signage to Antioch High School’s academy of business and finance for a price of $150,000. The school board approved the two-year contract Tuesday night.

Administrators hope this is the first of many naming deals. It’s the brainchild of Metro’s new high school czar, Jay Steele, who had success with the idea as an administrator in Florida.

“It’s not marketing to kids,” Steele told The Tennessean in December. “It’s tight guidelines that would align a targeted industry with a theme.”

Tight guidelines that align a targeted industry with a theme! Just what Nashville’s schools need!

WTF does that even mean? It sounds like business school clap-trap to me. It seems Jay Steele is hell bent on turning our city’s youth into fodder for the jaws of commerce, and I guess we’re supposed to cheer along and marvel at what a great start in life our youth are getting, what great business skills they’re learning and how they will be wonderful worker bees for the corporatocracy. Is that it? Forgive me if I’m wrong here, but was there a problem of some kind I’m unaware of? Were businesses not choosing to locate in Nashville because our kids are dumb?

Look, I get that we need to educate our kids so they can go to college and get jobs; I get that we need to start them off in life on the right foot. I even applaud the idea of offering classes that educate kids for high-demand fields. But for crying out loud this Chamber of Commerce crap has got to stop. Y’all can just wait in line before you get your greedy paws on ‘em, okay? Let them be kids for a little while.

This is dehumanization, plain and simple. It’s telling our kids their value is only in their earning power. They aren’t human beings, they’re human doings. The message is: You’re not valuable to our community because you’re alive, because you’re a child of God and a member of the human family, because when we see you and your friends we’re reminded that there’s another generation coming behind us. You’re valuable because you have potential earning power, someday you too can fight and claw your way up to being an independent contractor with no benefits and a crappy credit score. And someday you can look forward to an exciting retirement, maybe when you’re 75, whereafter you can spend your days on your feet as a WalMart greeter.

This is a really hard concept to articulate and so many others have done it so much better. I just think commerce is a corrupting influence that does not belong in our schools. Anywhere. So to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce: wait your fucking turn. You can have our kids when we’re ready to give them to you. Right now, they belong to us.

And to Jay Steele, look: I know this is a radical idea for some of you young whippersnappers raised in a post-Reagan age, but I don’t happen to think that capitalism is the cure for every problem.

There’s an intellectual debate going on right now, and I’m going to refer folks back to my October 2009 post on the business of dehumanization. It’s the one where I linked to Mark Slouka’s article in the September issue of Harper’s (“Dehumanized: When Math & Science Rule The School,” and a subscription is required).

Slouka wrote:

Like a single species taking over an ecosystem, like an elephant on a see-saw, the problem today is disequilibrium. Why is every Crisis in American Education cast as an economic threat and never a civic one? In part, because we don’t have the language for it. Our focus is on the usual economic indicators. There are no corresponding “civic indicators,” no generally agreed-upon warning signs of political vulnerability, even though the inability of more than two thirds of our college graduates to read a text and draw rational inferences could be seen as the political equivalent of runaway inflation or soaring unemployment.

Of course, as I wrote at the time we do have those civic indicators: low voter turnout being a major one.

Slouka’s point was that an emphasis on math and science education at the expense of the humanities is a great way to create worker bees to feed the machinery of capitalism, and also a great way to starve the nation of critical thinking skills and knowledge which breeds dissent. It also devalues art, music, literature and the entire cultural spectrum of things which make life worth living.

It’s hard not to see capitalism’s creep into our schools, and watch as teachers are being devalued at every step, and then read about efforts to roll back child labor laws around the country and not wonder if there’s a connection.

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>Awesome Defense Of Teachers

>My mother was a teacher. My mother-in-law was a teacher. My sister-in-law is a teacher. I have friends who are teachers. I tried to teach once and was smart enough to know that I am supremely bad at it. It’s hard work, it takes dedication, heart and patience, and you have to really care about the profession because you will never get the respect you deserve or the compensation you’ve earned. It sickens me that we have these Republican assholes who now seem to think that picking on teachers is a winning message. It’s despicable.

When the hell did that happen? Seems like just a few years ago the national debate centered on how teachers didn’t make enough. Now suddenly they’re fat cats? How come whenever I read the Headline Homes feature it’s not teachers buying those million-dollar-plus estates, but healthcare executives, doctors and people “wealthy by way of motorized wheelchairs”?

Here’s an awesome defense of teachers making the rounds:

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>Young Vs. Old

>[UPDATE]:

More from E.J. Dionne

The federal government could also help the states by picking up more of their Medicaid costs. In the long run, health care spending should be a responsibility of the national government — as it is in almost every other wealthy democracy. A national commitment would end the specter of states forcing already financially beleaguered citizens off the health insurance rolls.

Such ideas are off the table because the current rage is not for figuring out how to make government work better — a cause that once united governors of both parties — but for cutting back even its most basic and popular functions.

This country is going down the tubes fast, from the national to the state to the local level. Our problems are too many in number and our institutions have failed us. Where this ride ends I don’t know, but it isn’t looking good.

————————

Things are about to get really busy for me (indeed they already have) and I’m going to have to step away from the blog for a short while as I take care of some other stuff. So in the meantime I’m posting Bill Gates’ TED Talk on state budgets. It’s short: around 10 minutes. Give it a look.

It’s certainly not the best TED Talk I’ve ever watched, but it was intended to be a conversation starter. And it’s interesting to me that this was taped before the whole uproar in Wisconsin started. But his framing of the state budget “crises” as a “young-vs-old” thing resonated. States are deinvesting from the young by cutting education to pay for the old and meet pension obligations and deal with rising healthcare costs. Well, it’s old people who vote so, big shocker there.

Of course in practice, what we’re starting to see in places like Wisconsin is cutting from the young and the old so rich assholes like the Koch Brothers can increase their profits — which somehow never manage to trickle down on the rest of us. That’s not just immoral, it’s insane. I’d love to hear what Bill Gates has to say about Scott Walker.

The other points he makes are that really we are paying for our inability to deal with our massive healthcare issue. He doesn’t phrase it that way but that is it in a nutshell. Plenty of smarter folks have said this before but let’s just put it bluntly: it’s the healthcare costs, stupid. Failure to address rising healthcare costs have put us in a budget pickle, and industry-friendly Republicans and Democrats showed themselves to be fiscal frauds when they put up roadblocks to every single idea and initiative that would control costs. Way to go, idiots. And our glorious mainstream media, which profits handsomely off the megamillions spent advertising prescription drugs nobody needs, did absolutely nothing to educate the public about this issue. (And by the way, media watchdogs: can the U.S. get one of these? Sure would have come in handy during the healthcare debate.)

So yes, our state and federal budget issues are really healthcare issues, which Gates mentions. And finally, people do need to become more educated about what’s happening with their state budgets. Sadly, we can no longer rely upon the news media to adequately inform us. The mainstream media has, as was pointed out recently, “become journalistically irrelevant when it comes to national issues and coverage.” Unfortunately, as my local newspaper’s eagerness to publish corporate propaganda demonstrates, local media isn’t much better. So we need to find a better way of communicating the facts without letting the special interest groups do their spin job.

So without further ado, Bill Gates: How state budgets are breaking US schools.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

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>Corporate Hegemony Alert

>Yes, I have a problem with this:

Nashville schools offer naming rights to academic programs

Credit union pays $150,000 to put name on Antioch program

Naming rights to academic programs in Metro Nashville’s high schools are for sale, and one school has a buyer.

The Tennessee Credit Union now owns the signage to Antioch High School’s academy of business and finance for a price of $150,000. The school board approved the two-year contract Tuesday night.

Administrators hope this is the first of many naming deals. It’s the brainchild of Metro’s new high school czar, Jay Steele, who had success with the idea as an administrator in Florida.

“It’s not marketing to kids,” Steele told The Tennessean in December. “It’s tight guidelines that would align a targeted industry with a theme.”

Oh bullshit. Don’t kid yourselves. Marketing to kids is exactly what this is.

Look, kids are marketed to from the day they leave the womb. They are assaulted on every side by consumer messaging everywhere they go, from the shopping mall to television programming to family destinations like Disney World and that horrid museum of corporate logos disguised as an aquarium in Atlanta. New media has made advertising all-pervasive: sales pitches are embedded in “product placement” ads in books targeted to our youth. At school corporate logos dominate the lunchroom, sports and other after school activities.

And now Metro Schools has opened up academics to corporate sponsorship, with only a promise that it would be “tasteful.”

There is nothing tasteful about advertising to kids, no matter how you do it. One has to ask the obvious question: What are we teaching our kids? To be good citizens? Or to be good consumers?

Look, I don’t think it is ultimately in the nation’s best interests to raise a generation of consumer drones, indeed, I think it’s terribly short-sighted (for more on this, read my The Business Of Dehumanization post from last October).

Advocacy group the Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood has looked at marketing in our schools and has raised some alarm bells:

• 67.2% of students are exposed to corporate advertising for foods of minimal nutritional value or foods high in fat and sugar in their schools.

[…]

• A review of seventy-seven corporate-sponsored classroom kits found nearly 80% to be biased or incomplete, “promoting a viewpoint that favors consumption of the sponsor’s product or service or a position that favors the company or its economic agenda.”

[…]

• Nearly 3/4 of schools that participated in income-generating activities with corporations that sell foods of minimal nutritional value and foods high in fat and sugar did not receive any income in 2003-2004.11

For more I urge people to read this report from EPIC (Education & the Public Interest Center). EPIC has tracked commercialism in our nation’s schools for around 15 years and as the latest report shows, the advent of new media and viral marketing makes advertising to youth more pervasive and insidious than ever.

Corporate-sponsored academics was a horrible idea from day one. Jay Steele may think it’s not “advertising” to sell naming rights to an academic program but he’s delusional (and as the Tennessean story makes clear, this program goes waaay beyond naming rights, anyway.)

It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when our school budgets are so thin that we’re happy to sell businesses access to our kids in exchange for a few bucks. It shows a deterioration of our values for one thing: suddenly we’re okay pimping out our kids to corporations? Have we lost our minds?

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>Law School Boogaloo

>I sounded the alarm about corporate influence over higher education last month with this post, “When Corporations Go To College.”

Now I’ve been alerted to an even more nefarious mechanism by which major corporations are wielding their influence and stifling those who challenge them. By trying to block legal challenges made by law school clinics:

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Law school students nationwide are facing growing attacks in the courts and legislatures as legal clinics at the schools increasingly take on powerful interests that few other nonprofit groups have the resources to challenge.

On Friday, lawmakers here debated a measure to cut money for the University of Maryland’s law clinic if it does not provide details to the legislature about its clients, finances and cases.

The measure, which is likely to be sent to the governor this week, comes in response to a suit filed in March by students accusing one of the state’s largest employers, Perdue, of environmental violations — the first effort in the state to hold a poultry company accountable for the environmental impact of its chicken suppliers.

Wow. That’s some serious hardball. Sounds to me like Perdue used its cronies in the state legislature to threaten the university’s law school with a cut in funds because it didn’t like a case the law clinic took. (Perdue denies such intimidation, of course.)

Sound fantastical? No stranger than Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey allegedly pressuring a state senator to drop his mountaintop removal ban bill at the behest of a big contributor . Or the time the coal industry tried to weaken state clean water laws regulating selenium with generous campaign donations. Or the time King Pharmaceuticals tried to buy the Tennessee Republican Party. I mean come on, people. Shit like this happens in Tennessee all the time.

I wonder what would happen if the University of Tennessee College of Law’s clinic took on, say, King Pharmaceuticals? Would Vanderbilt’s Legal Clinic have taken on Massey Energy when Gordon Gee was VU chancellor? One has to wonder: he served on their board of directors.

Back to our story:

Law clinics at other universities — from New Jersey to Michigan to Louisiana — are facing similar challenges. And legal experts say the attacks jeopardize the work of the clinics, which not only train students with hands-on courtroom experience at more than 200 law schools but also have taken on more cases against companies and government agencies in recent years.

“We’re seeing a very strong pushback from deep-pocket interests, and that pushback is creating a chilling effect on many clinics,” said Robert R. Kuehn, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, citing a recent survey he conducted that found that more than a third of faculty members at legal clinics expressed fears about university or state reaction to their casework and that a sixth said they had turned down unpopular clients because of these concerns.

Of course, corporate interests and politicians have all sorts of defenses for what is basically a baltant intimidation tactic. The truth is, small non-profit groups like environmental and citizens organizations don’t have the massive legal resources of a big corporation like Perdue or a government agency. Law clinics are often their only legal resource.

States American Bar Association President Carolyn Lamm of the Maryland case:

As president of the American Bar Association, I urge those who would undermine clinical law school programs to step back and remember that the rule of law cannot survive if pressure prevents lawyers from fulfilling their responsibilities to their clients. I call on lawyers in every state to remember their professional obligation to uphold the independence of their profession, and speak out against intimidation whenever they see it. Just as lawyers who represent unpopular clients are fulfilling the responsibilities of all lawyers, so too are law students who assist clients in clinical legal programs.

Corporations continue to grow in might and power, using their considerable weight to stack regulatory agencies and control the government in the interest of their profits over the public good. This is just one more example. Keep your eyes open, people.

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>When Corporations Go To College

>Have we sufficiently welcomed our corporate overlords yet?

Yale University Office of Public Affairs announced that PepsiCo is going to fund a graduate fellowship to aid “nutritional science research” in the Yale School of Medicine’s M.D.-Ph.D. program.

PepsiCo funding a graduate fellowship in nutritional science? What could possibly go wrong! In addition to chemical and sugar laden soft drinks, PepsiCo owns Quaker Oats and Frito-Lay. Just who we need funding research on nutrition.

I’ve warned for years of conservative groups taking over the halls of higher education; indeed, there are several right-wing groups (Students For Academic Freedom is one) funded by the usual conservative moneybags (Koch and Scaife Foundations) all devoted to wringing every last drop of liberalism out of higher education.

But the truth of the matter is, the battle was lost long ago. Because corporate money, more than political ideology, has been polluting higher education for decades.

For a great example of how it works look no further than your neighborhood veterinarian:

Borrowing a page from the pharmaceuticals companies, which routinely woo doctors to prescribe their drugs, Hill’s has spent a generation cultivating its professional following. It spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year funding university research and nutrition courses at every one of the 27 U.S. veterinary colleges. Once in practice, vets who sell Science Diet and other premium foods directly from their offices pocket profits of as much as 40%.

“Vets trust them,” says Janil Norris, a fresh graduate of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis. While she was in school, a Hill’s program allowed the struggling student to pay just $3 a bag for a special prescription brand for her cat, Buffalo Sean. A bag normally runs about $25. She also received a small stipend, courtesy of the Hill’s program, to study orthopedic surgery with a Los Angeles vet. “Hill’s was just always around,” she adds.

That story was from 1997, I might add.

It’s not just pharmaceutical companies, designer pet food companies, or PepsiCo. Thanks to cuts in public funds to land grant schools, ag schools around the country have been forced to go to the corporate sector for their research funds–bad corporate citizens like Monsanto, for example.

Conflict of interest, much?

Of course, no one pays attention to stuff like this. Hey, ya know, corporations are people after all. I guess they just want to go to college like everyone else.

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>Utah Republican Drowns School In The Bathtub

>Who says Republicans don’t have any ideas:

(NEWSER) – Utah is considering battling its $700 million budget gap, and wiping out senioritis in the bargain, by eliminating the entire last year of high school. GOP state Sen. Chris Buttars’ proposal to eliminate 12th grade altogether could save the state up to $60 million. The plan is supported by those who argue students goof off their last year, and that it’s not needed for college. But the proposal is facing stiff opposition from parents, teachers and students.

This is your country on Republicanism, people. Read it and weep.

Er, scratch that. Just weep. Because when you shrink government down to where you can drown it in the bathtub, you get rid of stuff like schools, levees, bridge repairs. Figures this boneheaded idea would come from a Republican in the reddest of the red states, Utah.

Naturally Chris Buttars’ idea has been highly controversial. Thoroughly pilloried by people who think the richest country in the world should be able to educate its kids for the full 12 years, the Republican legislator has dialed back his proposal, making it one of those classic Republican ideas that simply restate what has always been on the books:

Buttars has since toned down the idea, suggesting instead that senior year become optional for students who complete their required credits early. He estimated the move could save up to $60 million, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

[…]

But some education officials say they don’t think the plan represents a change.

“We’ve always had an option in place for early graduation,” said Debra Roberts, chairwoman of the Utah Board of Education, adding that it was OK to give students the choice to graduate early, but that they shouldn’t be pushed to leave.

About 200 students a year take advantage of early graduation, said Brenda Hales, state associate superintendent.

Buttars, who did not respond to calls for comment, has said he would offer incentives to encourage students to graduate early.

Well that’s one way to boost your graduation rate.

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Filed under budget, education

The Business of Dehumanization

Judging by the head-popping over at Kleinheider’s and in comments here, it seems I struck a nerve with my radical idea that capitalism is not, in fact, the answer to every problem.

How very un-American of me.

Mostly I was trying to point out that free insurance markets will create a whole new headache without actually reforming anything. Our problem isn’t lack of insurance. Our problem is a system that isn’t people-oriented but instead business-oriented.

Congress is asking how we can reform the business of healthcare to better serve people. That’s the wrong question. I’d rather ask how we can keep people healthy and get affordable healthcare to everyone at those inevitable times when we are not. Business may play a role in that but it shouldn’t be the overriding focus.

The business of healthcare should serve people. That it doesn’t is a failing of the modern capitalist religion, in which people are viewed as “consumers” first, human beings second (if at all). We’ve had this drilled into our psyche so thoroughly that we blithely accept such terms as “American consumers,” not recognizing the pejorative it so clearly is. Because when humans are reduced to mere “consumers,” their value is in their purchasing power. They are nothing more than wallets, checkbooks, bank accounts. Even, ominously, “credit scores.”

This leaves a whole bunch of people out of the equation (namely, the poor), and creates a social inequity in which the wealthy are deemed of greater value to society than the rest. Just look at the rhetoric from conservatives, who routinely disparage the poor as drains on society (Nashville’s own Phil Valentine recently referred to the poor as ”greedy grumblers” who are “sucking up the tax dollars of hard-working Americans by the trillions.”)

It’s dehumanizing, yes, but also entirely inevitable under a system that sees only wallets, not people.

It’s not just healthcare. I point readers to Mark Slouka’s riveting article in the September issue of Harper’s about education: “Dehumanized: When Math & Science Rule The School” (subscription required). Slouka highlights something I’ve long suspected but have been unable to articulate: our education system is one engineered to serve business interests at the expense of civic interests. The result, while good for capitalism, is bad for democracy.

Writes Slouka:

Like a single species taking over an ecosystem, like an elephant on a see-saw, the problem today is disequilibrium. Why is every Crisis in American Education cast as an economic threat and never a civic one? In part, because we don’t have the language for it. Our focus is on the usual economic indicators. There are no corresponding “civic indicators,” no generally agreed-upon warning signs of political vulnerability, even though the inability of more than two thirds of our college graduates to read a text and draw rational inferences could be seen as the political equivalent of runaway inflation or soaring unemployment.

I would argue we saw those “warning signs of political vulnerability” at this summer’s Tea Party gatherings, where a population unsure of anything except their anger and powerlessness followed the orders of their corporate overlords and gathered at public squares to protest … public squares?

There are plenty of other “civic indicators,” I might add: pathetically low voter turnout compared to other industrialized democracies; the focus on politics over substantive information on our national news; even the fact that we have a national business news anchor clueless about a program like Social Security. None of this bodes well for the Republic’s civic health.

Why are the arguments for investing in education always capitalistic ones? To “make us competitive on the world stage,” of course. As Slouka notes, that’s a great way to create worker bees, not such a good way to create citizens. And it’s implemented by emphasizing math and science education over those disciplines where it’s more difficult to assign a dollar sign:

The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.

They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance.

Little wonder totalitarian regimes tend to keep tight control over things like art, music, literature, and history.

And finally:

Rein in the humanities effectively enough—whether through active repression, fiscal starvation, or linguistic marginalization—and you create a space, an opportunity. Dogma adores a vacuum.

Someone remind me, when did we stop teaching civics in public schools?

We’re out of balance as a society. We’ve accepted the idea that our value as human beings is in our purchasing power. That might serve IBM and Microsoft and Monsanto and Koch Industries well, but how well does it serve America?

Look around you. People, both right and left, are angry and disillusioned. Dehumanized. We look for solutions in electoral politics, and they are not there. We look for solutions in the marketplace–in boycotts–and they are not there.

Where is the solution?

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Filed under consumerism, education, healthcare