We Don’t Need “Western Civilization”

Long-time friends of this blog will know that I’m not a fan of David Brooks. I generally try not to engage with his columns – or any column at the New York Times, given their recent climate-denial hire and the problems with even the more liberal columnists (some of them should just be replaced with a generator — oh wait) – but Brooks’ recent thoughts on education and Western values caught my eye.

In his April 21st column, David Brooks expresses worry about “The Crisis of Western Civ.” Much of the article is as expected from a man whose career has been so invested in the idea of quintessentially “Western” values that are at the heart of our way of life. Brooks is adamant that “This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like.”

But it is absurd to assume that only a curriculum based around Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Industrial Revolution can inculcate the value of reasoned discourse or a public commons. And property rights, as they emerged from Western history, were deeply tide to slavery (Africans as property, and thus having no rights unto themselves) and the genocide of indigenous Americans (because they weren’t using the land “correctly,” it became the property of colonists and they were displaced if not murdered). And if Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine are supposed to teach us good statesmanship, then we’re already beyond all hope, really. But Brooks is convinced that the teleological grand arc of “Western Civ” – which elides the influence of the Islamic world and the Mediterranean world, and isolates a bounded “West” while relegating the rest of the world to the background – is the only way to teach important values to people.

Brooks points to the fact that “decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.” Amazingly, aust a few lines down, he points to the effect of this decline: the rise of not only Trump, but Putin, Erdogan, and other authoritarians, illiberal politicians on the right and the left, and – of course – the tyranny of students protesting hateful speakers on campus. Hopefully I don’t need to tell you that this is quite the leap.

Between my MA and PhD, I spent a year teaching Western Civ to freshmen at a public school in a wealthy, mostly white town. Having pretty much refused a Western Civ framework in my own scholarship and politics, every lesson was a balance of meeting curriculum needs, checking in with existing lesson plans, and finding ways to bring in the rest of the world. The result was not exactly anti-Western Civ, though I sincerely hoped that it would be. But I tried very hard to follow through on teaching Brooks’ fear: that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

Why? Because unlike Brooks, I don’t think there’s much to gain from teaching privileged white Americans that theirs is a lineage traced back to the City on a Hill, and before that the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, and Greek democracy. I actually think this does very little compared to a history that centers the value of intercultural exchange – the influence of the Arab world in European mathematics, navigation, and cuisine, for instance, or slavery and slave labor’s central role in creating a European middle class that could imagine having rights and liberty – while highlighting that much of this exchange happened under horrific pretenses (the Crusades, mostly, and then enslavement and colonialism). Teaching students that European empires were vast and covered much of the world implies that capitalism is a net good and is not all that useful if you don’t demonstrate that the wealth of empires came from looting New World gold and enslaving Africans to produce commodities like cotton and sugar for free.

Western Civ is not, for me, a curriculum of democracy and reason and greatness; it is a history of inequality and oppression – and that’s something we can learn from. If you teach people that their history is great, then when they hear criticisms they’ll turn to anyone willing to Make America Great Again. But if you teach them that greatness is subjective, and depends on oppressing others, then maybe they can learn to strive for a more liberated future in which we can share greatness among all – perhaps they can “make” the world something else, more thoughtfully, more equally, more inclusively.

Brooks ties the decline of Western Civ education to a decline in faith in democracy, pointing to a study that shows that “the share of young Americans who say it is absolutely important to live in a democratic country has dropped from 91 percent in the 1930s to 57 percent today.” But maybe people are less confident in democracy because the form of democracy that we have today is deeply flawed. The “democracy” of the U.S. two-party system, for example, is a facade corrupted by money, fear, and hate that is pretty much on track to destroy the climate, enrich the wealthy, and bomb and shoot brown people, no matter whom you elect. Of course youth have lost faith in democracy when it’s got such an awful track record. Young Americans today came of age when the world’s largest anti-war demonstrations couldn’t stop the ill-advised and ill-executed war in Iraq, began voting  when Obama called for hope and change and then turned around and bailed out criminal bankers, abandoning those who had been foreclosed on. And now Trump is our president, and it seems like a few times a week he is trying to prosecute, deport, ban, arrest, defund, or bomb the country and the world into submission. Why would we have faith in the system we’ve seen doesn’t work?

David Brooks is convinced that Western Civilizations as a teleological curriculum is the only way to teach our youth the values that they will need to be good citizens. He’s so convinced that this is the only way, and he’s so convinced that doing away with the Western Civ approach has led us over a cliff into authoritarianism, that he ends his column criticizing the critics of the curriculum. “If you think [Western Civ] was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it,” he opines.

But the diverse nature of a liberal arts education – one which does not need to center on the idea of a Greece-to-Rome-to-Renaissance-to-now progression – can teach values of reason, scientific inquiry, equality, inclusion, rights, etc., and it can do so while teaching the problems and pitfalls of these very ideas. In teaching undergrads the last two years, I’ve often discussed the failures of ideas such as “equality” and the incommensurability of “rights” as well as the ethnocentrism of ideas like “science” and “reason.” This hasn’t made my students any less reasonable or critical or inquisitive. Such education, beyond Western Civ, can train students to think critically, acknowledge the past, be open to new futures, and do so all with the well-being of others in mind. That’s really all we need for what comes after the idea of Western Civilization.

Debating Free Higher Education

The latest issue of Dissent is centered on the theme “Arguments on the Left.” The issue brings together disparate voices from across the Left to address some of the biggest issues we are confronting today. You should read the whole thing, which includes discussions on party politics, solidarity movements, justice, civil liberties, labor, reproductive rights, anarchism, Marxism, Zionism, and religion. Here, I’m going to link to a blog-favorite: the issue of free higher education. I’ve been on team-free-higher-ed for a long time, and three smart minds debate the topic in Dissent. Here are some excerpts:

Staking out a controversial claim, Max Bruenig argues that free college is actually a regressive demand, stating that “making college more or entirely free would most likely boost the wealth of college attendees without securing any important egalitarian gains.” He continues:

Given… class-based differences in attendance levels, institutional selection, and current student benefit levels, making college free for everyone would almost certainly mean giving far more money to students from richer families than from poorer ones. Of course, providing more generous student benefits might alter these class-based skews a bit by encouraging more poor and middle-class people to go to college or to attend more expensive institutions. But even reasonably accounting for those kinds of responses, the primary result of such increased student benefit generosity would be to fill the pockets of richer students and their families.

Conceding that college is mostly a place for the privileged, Tressie McMillan Cottom explains that people often don’t attend college due to cost, but also because “going to college is complicated. It takes cultural and social, not just economic, capital. It means navigating advanced courses, standardized tests, forms. It means figuring out implicit rules—rules that can change.” She lays out the inequalities and obstacles that keep people out of college beyond cost, arguing for an expansion of the conversation beyond its usual limits. She closes with a powerful rejoinder on education as a public good:

I do not care if free college won’t solve inequality. As an isolated policy, I know that it won’t. I don’t care that it will likely only benefit the high achievers among the statistically unprivileged—those with above-average test scores, know-how, or financial means compared to their cohort. Despite these problems, today’s debate about free college tuition does something extremely valuable. It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse—a concept that fifty years of individuation, efficiency fetishes, and a rightward drift in politics have nearly pummeled out of higher education altogether. We no longer have a way to talk about public education as a collective good because even we defenders have adopted the language of competition… Those of us who believe in viable, affordable higher ed need a different kind of language. You cannot organize for what you cannot name.

Already, the debate about if college should be free has forced us all to consider what higher education is for. We’re dusting off old words like class and race and labor. We are even casting about for new words like “precariat” and “generation debt.” The Debt Collective is a prime example of this. The group of hundreds of students and graduates of (mostly) for-profit colleges are doing the hard work of forming a class-based identity around debt as opposed to work or income. The broader cultural conversation about student debt, to which free college plans are a response, sets the stage for that kind of work. The good of those conversations outweighs for me the limited democratization potential of free college.

Mike Konczal argues for debt-free college education because of the vast inequality that is increasing thanks to student loan debt. He also sketches out how the erosion of higher education as a public service is hurting the country as a whole, and how it is tied to other aspects of our economy – “public disinvestment in the states has been paired with generous tax cuts for rich individuals and corporations” and “for-profit schools that have been filling in the gaps have saddled many poor people with lifelong debts.” He also makes a strong argument for higher education’s ability to help close the gap between classes in America and bring people together in unique ways:

Education is a right that the government must grant. Higher education, then, shouldn’t be left to a handful of private schools, where administrators pursue their own objectives independent of public need, or to the market, which is only interested in how much it can profit at any given time. The point of public higher education is to collapse precisely this distance between elite and mass education, by ensuring better access and higher quality that would never otherwise be available on a large scale.

Higher education also provides one of the last spaces for young people not shaped solely by market values. The American liberal arts model is unique in that it allows for experimentation, learning, and community-building. Attacks on higher education haven’t simply been about raising tuition but about dismantling this model itself. A notable example is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent attempt to remove phrases such as “improve the human condition,” “the search for truth,” and “public service” from the state university’s mission, reorienting it simply toward the needs of business.

All three of these pieces are worth reading and thinking about. I’m obviously partial to the latter two – education is a fundamental right to those who want it, a path for class mobility, a means through which to improve society as a whole, and a signifier of what we value in the communities we live in. The college population may be unequal, but – in my opinion – the idea of college itself continues to be a vital institution which we must defend.

This is just one of many conversations happening on the left – check out the rest.

Update, October 18: Sara Goldrick-Rab has also written a salvo also on the topic of free higher education. Though published by Brookings, it speaks clearly to the Left (don’t read the other stuff in the series there, which seems more like the typical). Goldrick-Rab makes clear the stakes that we’re facing. Higher education was possible and attainable for those who wanted it two generations ago, but it has been harder and harder to get precisely as a college degree becomes more ubiquitous and more necessary for our futures:

In the 1970s, targeting financial aid on the poorest individuals made sense—after all, most people didn’t want to attend college, it wasn’t required, and college costs were low enough that the Pell Grant largely covered the bills.

Today, that model is failing: the vast majority of the populace wants access to affordable, high-quality public higher education, it is required by the modern labor market, and college costs are so high that grants and scholarships provide but a meager discount restricted to only a fraction of students with financial need. Means-tested financial aid, administered via a massive bureaucracy, leaves out both the very poorest—who cannot navigate the system—and squeezes the middle-class, who are offered only loans.

The New American MOOC

Just a little while ago I wrote a short post on Arizona State University, mostly quoting Chris Newfield’s review of University President Michael Crow’s book on his vision of the university, and already there’s another thing to note. Inside Higher Ed reports that ASU is partnering with EdX to provide the first-ever MOOC for actual college credit.

The scheme, which allows anyone around the world to take MOOCs designed by ASU professors, offers a small up-front fee and a larger fee at the end of the semester to obtain university credit. The goal is that an entire freshman year of courses will be put together so that anyone around the world can complete a year of massive, open, online college before transferring elsewhere or moving to ASU proper.

Firstly, I’m struck by the decision by ASU to essentially become the middleman for EdX – essentially laundering a MOOC. Even if the class is created by a professor, if the platform and the mode of instruction are managed by a company, are there obstacles to accreditation? ASU will be offering very different types of education – and these differences will have consequences – but the difference will also be difficult to discern. And this could apply even to non-ASU-designed MOOCs, according to John Warner:

ASU has the potential to expand their laundry service to the entire edX universe. In other words, they may do what the founding partner institutions of edX – MIT and Harvard – would likely never consider, give full institutional credit for a course taken as a MOOC outside their own institution.

This would allow ASU to not only prey upon other universities by transferring MOOC credits, but also to appropriate MOOCs designed by other universities and accepting them, effectively accrediting whatever EdX churns out.

Crucially, Matt Reed points out the fact that all of this is marketed as a breakthrough solution – but to what exactly? According to Reed, the student who could take an ASU/EdX MOOC:

could take an actual course, online or onsite, from a community college. It would cost less, and would have an actual instructor provide actual guidance and feedback  throughout the course. The credits would transfer anywhere, not just to ASU. Tuition at Maricopa — the community college local to Phoenix — is $84 per credit, as opposed to $200 for the MOOC. Even in the higher-tuition Northeast, we come in well below $200 per credit. And community colleges run full slates of general education courses.

Even better, taking the course with a community college offers access to online tutoring, library resources, and other student supports that have been “unbundled” from the MOOC.

ASU is pointing out that a student doesn’t need to pass through the ASU admissions process to take a MOOC. That’s true, as far as it goes, but community colleges are also open-admission, and have been for decades.

If the cost isn’t actually a factor, then what is the appeal? In a second post, John Warner also argues that the drawbacks from the MOOC-for-freshmen approach could be drastic too:

The true cost, however, is in accepting this kind of redefinition of what it means to pursue education, particularly in a student’s first year, which we know has an outsized importance when it comes to students ultimately succeeding.

We know more now than ever before about what kinds of experiences are most meaningful to students, the “Big 6” as defined by last year’s Gallup survey of  the degree and quality of post-graduate engagement:

  • a professor who made them excited about learning
  • professors who cared about them as a person
  • a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams
  • worked on a long-term project
  • had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning
  • were extremely involved in extra-curricular activities

These are, of course, things that are more difficult (or impossible) to get out of a MOOC, especially if you are the kind of student that MOOCs are supposedly expanding higher ed access to – those least prepared for traditional college.

Lastly, and not that I care too much about it, where does this leave ASU Online? ASU Online is this quasi-university program through which many people take courses and earn degrees, but it’s separate from ASU. Just like Harvard’s Extension School and dozens of other distance learning programs, the curriculum and experience are entirely divorced from students in the universities’ actual schools and departments – even if you take online classes. I took a number of online classes at ASU through my departments, but never took an ASU Online course. With the introduction of the MOOC option – effectively offering three types of online experience – how will the different courses fair? It’s unclear where this MOOC or ASU’s other recent endeavors will take the university, but I don’t like the possibilities.

The traditional higher education may not have to be traditional, in any sense of the word. But massive open courses with little support for only 7.5 weeks do not an engaging experience make. According to an ASU dean, the goal isn’t necessarily enriching lives or expanding minds, though, it’s graduating people and churning them out into the world. As  Dean for Education Initiatives Philip Regier argues, “the end goal is graduating educated university students, which this country is increasingly dismal at doing.”

Maybe if universities didn’t keep undermining and eviscerating their own education, like ASU does (not just through MOOCs but through corporate initiatives, tuition hikes, heavy teaching loads, etc. etc.) the country wouldn’t be so dismal at graduating educated students. Maybe if our universities and our governments doubled down on improving education rather than “disrupting” and “innovating” our way into a deeper hole, things might start improving.

The New American University

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Christopher Newfield has a review of Michael Crow and William Dabars’ new book, Designing the New American Universityin which he gives a cogent analysis of Arizona State University, its vision for the future, and the national higher education ground on which it stands.

Newfield summarizes Crow and Dabars’ overview of ASU’s achievements – including expanding access, increasing diversity, and providing a better education, all in a state with politics such as Arizona’s. He also gives a fair assessment of Crow’s vision for the “New American University,” a moniker he has trotted out for the last decade as president of ASU. This vision is blatantly for access and equality – Newfield calls it “anti-elitist” and I don’t think he’s wrong. ASU’s claim to excellence has long been its willingness to welcome all and provide them with a quality education. This is an important part of the New American University’s vision. But, not for nothing, Newfield looks at how ASU has operated in the current climate of austerity and belt-tightening and finds a lack of vision:

Arizona’s state legislature cut higher education appropriations 32 percent from 2006 through 2011. Then the legislature delivered another 25 percent cut in 2011–’12. While I was writing this review, they voted another 14 percent cut for 2015–’16. As a share of Arizona’s general fund, higher education spending has been cut in half since 1982 (from 20 percent to 9 percent). While ASU was working on its eight NAU goals and making some impressive progress, its public funding base was being cut exactly as though it were the Old American University that has become a political whipping boy.

ASU’s response to these public cuts has been similarly traditional. Arizona was one of four states that saw its public universities double their tuition fees between 2006 and 2011. (California and Hawaii being two others.) ASU student loan debt now averages something over $21,000, up about 20 percent since 2008. ASU has used ever-increasing student body growth to generate ever-increasing enrollment revenues. Many of the new students were assigned to branch campuses or to online programs where costs are lower. Meanwhile, Crow was trying to increase other revenue streams (corporate partnerships, philanthropy) by raising ASU’s research prestige, which means offering special working conditions and internal subsidies for research teams on whose productivity ASU’s rankings climb would depend. Crow played the conventional game by growing enrollments and then using these revenues to support research outputs and reputation. To the extent that ASU uses low-cost enrollment growth to cross-subsidize showcase research, the NAU is welding its superstructure to a traditional budget base.

When he turns to the way forwards, Newfield identifies positive steps in the “New” part of the New American University. He finds a desire for nonhierarchical innovation among the main principles of Crow and Dabars’ vision, and goes on to outline why more universities don’t adapt such models (a section well worth reading). It’s worth noting that, while faculty aren’t up in arms about the New American University and ASU has actually found ways to operate without the levels of adjunctification that many other universities have endured, many of these changes are still extremely hierarchical.

While I was at ASU there was a rash of school and department closing. Within four years as a Education major I was a part of the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, the College of Teaching and Educational Leadership, and I finally graduated with a degree from the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College. These closings and mergers (there were three different education schools with different focuses and on different campuses as recently as 2008) were met with anxiety from some members of the graduate education population. Other departments were similarly reshuffled with little input from those working within the systems themselves. Combining schools or departments doesn’t always ensure that everyone gets the resources that they need and deserve. I am all for interdisciplinary studies (most of my education has been such), but as I’ve argued before, knocking down departmental barriers needs to be done by scholars and on scholar’s terms. There is a difference between “collaboration across traditional disciplines” and imposed interdisciplinarity.

Indeed, Newfield makes sure not to conflate Crow and Dabars’ dislike for elite, selective colleges with any hopes that they take a stand against the corporatization of universities:

At crucial points, the authors trundle in villains from central casting: “Faculty committees tend to deliberate while shifts in policy, culture, and technology flash by at warp speed,” etc., etc. Collaborative design cannot possibly move forward when the executive party feels entitled to judge (and lecture) the rank-and-file designers on the basis of off-the-shelf imperatives about disruptive innovation. Crow and Dabars miss an opportunity to advocate for fully inclusive collaborative design techniques. I wish they were as anti-managerial as they are anti-elitist.

From there, Newfield moves to a second criticism of the book (and Crow’s broader narrative) – a lack of demand for public funding of public universities. In the book, Crow and Dabars call mass funding of public higher education an “unattainable societal goal.” This is a perfect sum of Crow’s moderate fight against defunding in the Grand Canyon State, one which has caused nearly annual tuition increases in all three state universities. (Insert my all-too-frequent reminder that the state constitution calls for free higher education). Newfield closes with this wonderful conclusion on the New American University and the current higher education context in which it sits:

Crow and Dabars are right to want new public universities to replace the Harvard standard. Their book is worth reading just for that discussion. They also support “massive change” and celebrate moon shots. So then, how about these two moon shots? First, use ASU to model nonhierarchical collaborative design, design that replaces finance-driven restructuring supervised by academic executives. Second, call for the doubling of public funding of public universities (which shouldn’t be difficult as we have recently halved it), in tandem with a halving of tuition (which shouldn’t be difficult as we recently doubled it). Make “free college for all” a medium-term national goal. We did free K–12 a century ago. We did a moon shot for the actual moon. We can obviously do the same thing for correctly funded 21st-century public colleges and universities. But we need people in Crow’s position to tell the truth about the power shifts and the public money that the next-generation, democratized public university will require.

A Reminder to Arizona Lawmakers

Saturday morning, after a marathon night of whatever it is lawmakers do, the Arizona Legislature passed a new budget. The budget does many things, like “balance the budget.” It also does things like completely eviscerate higher education.

The cuts include $99 million taken from state universities and 100% elimination of state funding for Pima and Marciopa County community colleges (the two biggest counties in the state). Education funds that are opened up for K-12 schools include an open door for charter school expansion as well. And for the poor, cash assistance limits were cut in half and medicaid faces sizable cuts too. (Here’s a more in-depth article on the cuts). This will only exacerbate the ongoing trend of the increasing costs of getting a college education in the state of Arizona.

Why are state lawmakers doing this? Because they think they can. As the Arizona Republic editorial makes clear, “this deeper-than-expected raid on higher education is not a consequence of scarce financial resources. It is the result of ideological absolutism — and misplaced ideology, at that.” They link the budget decisions to the overwhelming number of lawmakers who have signed no-tax-increase pledges. Last week, ASU’s State Press lambasted Gov. Ducey’s logic, stating:

After campaigning on a promise to run the state like a business, Ducey has failed to enact one of the basic concepts of economics: making wise investments to ensure a stable and profitable future. Ducey and Arizona Republicans have made an all but official declaration that the education of future generations is less important than the feelings of millionaires on tax day.

I’d like to remind all of the state lawmakers that carved a giant chunk of funding from universities and carried out a scorched earth policy on community colleges of one important fact. While many of them find a pledge to not raise taxes to be a Very Important Document, there is another document that says:

The university and all other state educational institutions… shall be as nearly free as possible.

Yes, that would be Article 11, Section 6 of the Arizona Constitution.

ASU May Merge with a Private Business School

Left and right, things that have been funded by, built by, and supported by the government in the name of the public good have been ushered behind the closed doors of private corporations through the privatization of roads, parks, schools, and of course – universities, which does hell on the public good. The opposite of that (nationalization? eminent domain? socialism?) doesn’t happen much in these United States, but it might be happening in Arizona higher education. ASU and the Thunderbird School of Global Management have announced an impending merger.

Now, before we move forwards, I should say that I’m probably jumping the gun in saying this is the opposite of privatization – so let me issue a disclaimer that I am actually highly skeptical, as usual, of the latest move by ASU. Now:

Arizona State University and the Thunderbird School of Global Management have announced that they’re merging, with Thunderbird coming under the control of ASU (and the Arizona Board of Regents). The Glendale business management school has been facing financial woes and even considered a joint venture with a for-profit university, but the deal fell through.

As a result, ASU and Thunderbird will merge and the financial problems will (hopefully) be resolved, Thunderbird will gain more resources from joining a large university, ASU’s business programs will expand to include Thunderbird’s many international executive programs, and Thunderbird’s staff will join ASU. The information that’s lacking so far is how exactly this merger will be carried out, so keep an eye out.

ASU was in the news last year for the opposite of this – that is, privatization – happening at another professional school. As early as 2010, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU has been playing with the idea of privatization, arguing that state funds have reduced but also arguing “why not?” Here’s an article quoting Paul Berman, Dean of the Law School:

Berman, however, believes higher tuition can be justified.

As his yardstick, he uses what in-state students pay at the Top 40 law schools as rated by “U.S. News and World Report.” ASU is No. 28.

“If you look at all 40 of them, our in-state tuition is lower than all but four,” he said. And even the tuition for those who are not state residents is below the half-way mark.

Berman said the school already has requested that the Board of Regents allow tuition for Arizona residents to go up by $1,500 for next year. “We’re not talking about large increases,” he said. Berman said that, even with that, attending ASU will remain lower than what is being charged at those other Top 40 schools.

And here’s Vice President of Public Affairs Virgil Renzulli:

“It has been shown at other universities that there are certain very popular graduate and professional programs that can do well, even thrive, charging higher rates… The idea is to move to a tuition level that would be more market-driven than state-subsidized.”

The decision to privatize, expand class size, and raise tuition for the hell of it hasn’t moved forwards a ton – but it hasn’t stopped either. ASU will soon be breaking ground on a new downtown campus for the law school, a move which doesn’t necessarily further privatization, but the larger building is within the vision outlined above of increasing admissions. So, with ASU simultaneously privatizing one professional school while using another to take over a private institution, I will continue to say that ASU is a university to watch. You know, in case you weren’t already reading about Starbucks partnerships or police abuse of a WOC professor.


Arizona State University of Starbucks

On Monday, Starbucks announced that it was launching a new program through which it will help many of its employees pay for undergraduate education at Arizona State University’s ASU Online program. Here are some of the details of how it would work:

Tuition for an online degree at ASU is about $10,000 a year, roughly the same for its traditional educational programs. For the freshmen and sophomore years, Starbucks and Arizona State say they will put around $6,500 on average toward the estimated $20,000 in total tuition.

To cover the remaining $13,500, workers would apply for financial aid. Since Starbucks workers don’t earn a lot of money, many would likely qualify for a Pell grant, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of EdVisors.com, a website about paying for college. If a worker qualified for a full Pell grant of $5,730 a year — or $11,460 over the two years — he or she would theoretically be left with about $2,040 to pay out of pocket.

The program would work similarly for the junior and senior years, except that Starbucks would reimburse any money workers end up having to pay out of pocket. Starbucks said most of its workers have already started school, so could potentially finish off their degrees at no cost if they applied for the program.

At first, it piqued my interest to hear that ASU was involved in such a project. ASU has long been involved in efforts that purport to expand access to quality university education, but has also engaged in moves that collapse schools and programs (which eliminates jobs and takes power away from faculty), demote staff to the status of at-will employees, and continually raise tuition.

But agreeing to pay for employees’ education is a good move, even if it does nothing to salvage the crisis of public education. And yet there are hidden aspects of this deal that are important to shed light on. Firstly, the program hopes to offer a diverse education to Starbucks employees, but having the selection of majors offered at one university’s online wing is actually quite narrow. As this piece finds, even the students featured in an NYT article about the program may not actually be able to study what they want.

In addition, online-only education is not a tried-and-true provider of education, especially for working students who have not been exposed to higher education before. Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, linked to this 2011 study [pdf] on online education and its effectiveness for low-income and underprepared students by Shanna Smith Jaggers. In short, online classes saw more low-income and underprepared students withdraw, and many of these students were less likely to return to continue their education. Learning online is as much of a learned skill as learning in the classroom, only online degrees and courses often come with less support for students. I took at least four online classes while at ASU, and only one was as rigorous as in-person courses and provided similar levels of support.

But the more important point here is that Starbucks employees are not being offered free education at Arizona State University, my alma mater and an arguably decent school from which to earn a Bachelor’s. The Starbucks program funnels workers through ASU Online, a joint-venture between ASU and Pearson, the for-profit publishing and ed tech company. The venture overcharges online students, students who may be receiving less support and less freedom in their studies and cost the university less money, but who pay roughly the same tuition as on-campus students. As one article mentions:

Arizona State University Online, a revenue-sharing relationship between Pearson, a for-profit company best known as a publisher, and Arizona State University (ASU), yielded $6 million in profit in 2011 for ASU. Projections are that it will yield $200 million in profit by 2020. Many other non-profit colleges with large online programs tout the substantial profits generated by online programs that are re-invested in on-ground facilities. Thus, online students are being substantially overcharged to generate profits that subsidize face-to-face learners, faculty and administrators.

This type of revenue-sharing happens a lot at universities between departments (the humanities often subsidize the sciences), but the inclusion of a for-profit company makes this deal smell of something far worse. Pearson has long-been a part of the ed reform movement, standardizing and assessing real education into oblivion. That it operates as a “partner” in ASU Online is a shame and a sign of how the top echelons at ASU view education.

This agreement between ASU and Starbucks is supposed to be about providing free education to lower class workers. But according to Starbucks CEO, about 70% of Starbucks workers are current in college or aspire to go. These students, working at Starbucks across the country, will now have to transfer to ASU Online if they want to take advantage of their employers’ benefits – and Starbucks is eliminating its tuition reimbursement program for the City University of Seattle and Stayer University next year in order to commit to the ASU Online endeavor.

As Melissa Byrne points out, this is mostly as PR stunt for Starbucks, whose executives have come straight out and said that they hope this will attract a better class of workers. And ASU hopes to continue to expand its growing online presence and push President Michael Crow’s “New American University” vision one step further. For many of Starbucks’ workers, this program will expand access, but access to what? And what will happen when they fail to finish because they were pushed into a program that was ill-suited for them?

Update: Be sure to check out Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece on this, in which she links ASU-Starbucks endeavor to what for-profit universities have been doing for decades.

Content Notes on Course Syllabi

A lot of people have been writing about (not) including content notes/trigger warnings on their class syllabi. An inordinately large number of writers have come out against the idea, and the issue has reached headlines as student groups have pushed for their use and administrations grapple with whether or not to implement such guidelines. This hubbub, and the pushback, was surprising to me – especially given how small the request is. I’m amenable to their use, and I see no reason to not use them – they don’t have to impinge on academic freedom, change course material, or feature prominently – but they could help students deal with sensitive material.

That’s why I was very happy to see Angus Johnston’s piece in Inside Higher Ed address how he plans to use content notes in his courses from now on. I appreciated not only his direct demonstration of how he planned to use them, but his effort to move beyond merely avoiding triggering post-traumatic episodes and towards creating a safer space for learning – something all educators should want to do. He writes:

These warnings prepare the reader for what’s coming, so their attention isn’t hijacked when it arrives. Even a pleasant surprise can be distracting, and if the surprise is unpleasant the distraction will be that much more severe.

Shortly after reading this, I wrote on social media about my own miniature experience with this type of warning. When I was student teaching a few years ago, I showed my students Atomic Cafe, a documentary about the nuclear age. It includes a scene showing footage of victims of the atomic bombings in Japan, and I had forgotten how graphic it was. Some students in my first class were caught off-guard by the footage, and I don’t think they got much out of the rest of the film. I gave my subsequent classes notice, both at the beginning of the video and right before the scene, and I think that helped prepare them.

This is a small example, but is exactly the kind of thing that can help make students aware of the course material without constraining the curriculum at all. Be sure to read all of Johnston’s piece, as I think it’s a good contribution to the ongoing debate, as well this follow-up post from his friend on disability and access in education.

Yale Tries to Sneak Kissinger on Campus

Yale’s Jackson Institute of International Affairs is hosting Henry Kissinger on campus Friday for a ‘private,’ ‘invite-only’ address. Students in select departments received invitations via email that explicitly stated that the event would not be publicized and asked that the invitees keep the event confidential. (I was not invited, c’est la vie).

Kissinger is, of course, everyone’s favorite combination Nobel Peace Prize laureate and war criminal. His presence in campus is itself all sorts of disappointing. No institution that seeks to improve the world should be giving such a person a platform from which to speak. But it is even more disappointing that the event is to be exclusive and therefore limit any sort of protest or honest dialog about Kissinger’s record.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a sudden misstep of Yale’s. The monstrosity that is the Jackson Institute is the current employer of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the man behind JSOC during much of the GWOT. So, really, this is just more Yale being Yale.

Are Grad Students “Doing What They Love”?

A few weeks ago I was in a room in which people were debating the pros and cons of forming a graduate student union. News of NYU’s victory vote was still fairly fresh, and many Yale students were eager to step up the push for union recognition. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale has been spending recent months on laying the groundwork: recruiting more graduate student members, promoting the idea of a union as a worthy goal, etc. but hasn’t gone much into what it will do with such status.

I’m for a graduate student union. Scores of public universities have them, and private universities should have them too. Obviously, Yale is one of the more better off universities when it comes to graduate student wages and working conditions, but there’s always room for improvement. On a more fundamental level, it would be great if graduate student labor was acknowledged as labor – especially since graduate students teach the discussion sections, writing-intensive sections, and some full courses as well as conduct research and undertake all sorts of other projects as a part of their time at the university.

But the conversation I heard wasn’t even about the nitty-gritty stuff. Some had mentioned questions about tax issues that arise from calling grad student work “work.” Others had talked about the importance of a union for bargaining, while others were skeptical of what a union could do that student government or department-level organizing could not. All fine points, I suppose. But one person asked how similar a graduate student contract would be to the unions already operating on campus (technical and clerical workers, for example), and whether that was a good thing or not. Another fair point, but then the speaker ended it with this:

Presumably I’m a graduate student and I love what I do, and would be doing it regardless of the money if financially possible, while a janitor is not really interested in his job.

I was struck by such a framing. I was struck even more by the response, which was circuitous and ended with:

I would say that that maybe that custodian does love his work.


Labor is labor. There’s not really any way around it, but work in the classroom is work in the factory is work in the call center. There are different types of labor, but they are still labor. The idea that loving your work means that that work is suddenly priceless in some way just doesn’t make sense. If you love your work, you fight for your work. You protect it for all it’s worth – demanding that its worth be acknowledged. At the same time, judging what you love based on what the market says it’s worth gets at a whole other issue. Either way, I couldn’t believe my ears when both the critic and the proponent of unionization decided to couch labor in terms of loving what you do.

It just so happened that Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the ‘Do What You Love’ mantra had just been published a couple of weeks prior to this discussion. In it, Tokumitsu explains that such a motto creates a divide between “that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished).” She turns her pen to academia, writing that:

There are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL [‘Do What You Love’] doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

There might be a debate to be had over unionization. But that debate shouldn’t be about how much we love our discipline versus how much others love their jobs. It should be about how, if we love our work, we’ll fight for it. The adjunctification of higher education, the shrinking budgets of colleges, and the eagerness of universities to push out graduate students demand more of emerging scholars. Those scholars should demand more in return.