Archive for the 'Education' Category


letter to Only Daughter’s teacher


I would like to start by introducing myself. I’m “Only Daughter’s” mom, and regret that I am unable to come to conferences for the 27 1/2 minutes each semester they are offered, as those minutes fall during the hours of my job. Please don’t cause that to make you think I don’t care about my child or about her education. Exactly the opposite, in fact.

I would like also to thank you for your hard work with Only Daughter in learning her parts of speech. Despite the fact that these are, apparently, the same grammar lessons she had last year, she reports that you are “not as bad of a teacher” as the one she had last year, so I suppose that the review is worthwhile.

I can’t help but wonder whether your lessons on grammar and effective writing might not be better taught using samples of beautiful writing from actual literature, but I’m “just” a layperson who has only read something like 500 books, so I probably don’t actually know what I’m talking about, so will defer to your expertise.

I was wondering, though, whether you were under some kind of misapprehension that led you to believe that I, too, was enrolled in your freshman English class, as I keep getting emails updating me about the class content, homework assignments, online reviews, and upcoming quizzes.

See, the thing is, I’m actually done with high school. In fact, I graduated in 1982. (I’m going to guess, given your teaching style, this was many years before you were even born.) And from college in 1986, masters in 1988, and a doctorate in 2005. Now granted, none of those degrees required that I knew the difference between a linking verb and a helping verb, but nonetheless, I am no longer a student.

My daughter, on the other hand, is. And while I recognize the importance of a parent encouraging and supporting their child, including making sure that their day is well structured, they have adequate sleep and healthful meals, I don’t believe that it is the parent’s responsibility to be checking that every single bit of homework is done. See, I believe that is the child’s responsibility. And the sooner we let the CHILD know that, the better off everyone would be. That includes them, you, me, their future boss(es), their future spouse(s), their child(ren), etc. etc.

They have a job to do, and that is to be a student. You have a job to do, which is to teach them, and to stimulate and engage them enough that they want to do the work and do it as well as possible. And I have a job to do, which IS NOT TO DO THE WORK FOR THEM.

See, this is how it goes. Only Daughter gets home from school. I ask her how her day was, listen, give her a hug, watch her get her snack, ask her if she has homework, if she says yes, ask her when she plans to do it, ask her if she needs me to take her phone for a while to help her keep from getting distracted, and then I sit at my desk and do MY WORK while she goes and does HERS. And if she doesn’t do her work, she doesn’t get a good grade, and then she realizes that it might affect her dream of getting into medical school some day, and the next time it comes around she tries harder. AND I DIDN’T REALLY HAVE TO DO ANYTHING. It’s a beautiful system. And from what I read from the latest in child development research, probably the best one out there.

I’m actually surprised you haven’t read it.

Let me help.

Click here

And here.

And here.

I could go on. But I won’t.

The thing is, you’re the “expert” in this field — shouldn’t you have read them already?

Maybe you were too busy sending parents emails about the next review: Indefinite Pronouns!



oh, THAT’s what I’m doing

better pay

Getting them jobs.

I thought I was teaching them stuff.



education and equality

An interesting article about a school system (Finland’s) that seems to be much more effective than the American one.

Knock three times if this description sounds familiar:

“Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.”

And we decided this wasn’t working because. . .  ??? (Seemed to work pretty well for me. And I’m not THAT old.)

Probably can’t make that fly here, though, because, despite everyone’s recognition that money gives other people’s children advantages we can’t necessarily give our own, we must preserve that right, just in case someday we’re one of the people with money.

(Apologies for the circular argument.)




the email I can’t send, to the student who really needs to read it

Dear ________,

Hello. It’s been a semester since I’ve seen you. I hope you’re well.

I’m writing because I’ve heard through the grapevine that you thought I was a “tough, hard, (maybe even) mean” teacher, and I’m realizing that I did you a disservice by not making my intentions and frustrations clearer last semester. I thought that I should try to make amends for this, so here I am.

Yes, I’m “tough” — I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, and don’t actually believe that a person can “make it” as a professional musician if they’re not talented, disciplined, and willing to work. I guess you could also say that I’m a “tough” teacher because I believe that a great deal of my responsibility is to motivate my students to be disciplined and hard working.

But maybe that’s my first mistake, because, really, if a student isn’t willing to motivate themselves, they should probably be doing something else.

And yes, you’re right, maybe, by the end of the semester, I was a little “mean” to you. And I probably should have explained to you why, although I kind of thought that you would have been able to figure this out for yourself.

You’ll probably recall that at the beginning of the semester I was warm, encouraging, supportive. I was even fairly understanding when you came for your first few lessons and told me about how tough your week was, and how hard it is for you to really figure out what exactly you should be doing in your practice time, and how difficult it is for you to keep your focus. But as this became a regular occurrence — you, not having done really any work at all, but always having your long list of excuses, probably noticed that I became less encouraging and supportive, and more frustrated and perhaps, alas, a bit impatient.

I do regret that you were not prepared for your final, although hopefully you also realize that this was only because you continually neglected to meet with the head of the area and determine what exactly your final requirements were going to be as I had requested.

I also apologize for the fact that I may have actually snorted when you confessed that you wanted to switch into the piano classes because then you wouldn’t “need” to practice. That was very unprofessional of me.

I also noticed that in my student evaluation reports last semester I had positive responses from all students but one. Of course I have no way of knowing if the negative feedback came from you, but everyone else who studied with me last semester is still studying with me, and all seem quite content with my instruction and expectations. It would disappoint me greatly, and remove this circumstance from being a learning opportunity for you altogether, if you saw your failure to progress as only my responsibility.

‘Cuz here’s the thing:

I think it’s really really important for adults to be able to recognize, and take responsibility, for their own failures, rather than to pass them on as someone else’s “fault.” I don’t actually take any offense at all for being known as a “tough” or even a “hard” teacher. I actually kind of sort of always do that on purpose. Because life is hard. Being a musician is hard. Trying to make a living as a musician is really hard. You’re a college student, not a fourth grader. It is time, if not past time, for you to find it within yourself to get motivated, get disciplined, get focused, and if someone who is actually doing this for a living tells you that what they’re asking you to do is important, you should probably believe them.

And you should probably spend at least as much time trying to do something as you do making your list of excuses for why you failed. You might find that increasing the one removes the need for the other.

It might be worth a try.


(Realize as I click on some links at the bottom of this post that I wrote about this before, even more rantingly here. Three years ago even. Some things never change.)


Is that ironic?



now isn’t that special

As if it’s not bad enough that adjuncts are bearing half of the teaching load at most community colleges, at ~ 1/4 of the pay.

Good thing they have unions so that their voices can be heard and they can at least exert SOME kind of power over the. . .

Oh, yeah.


(All of the adjuncts in this country should quit. Or we should at least declare a day of protest, or a week. Let’s see how many colleges and universities are unable to meet their obligations to their tuition-paying students. Let’s see whether THAT collective voice can be heard.)


there but for the grace of music lessons go

Only Daughter had her first “orchestra concert” tonight. She actually asked me not to go. She took some violin lessons as younger youngster, and feels that the exertions of the 6th grade ensemble are, in a way, beneath her.

I went anyway.

(As a pointed aside, they’re not. Beneath her, that is. She had 5 teachers in 4 years because they kept moving away or graduating from college or taking so many out-of-town gigs she would have one lesson a month so she learned 1/4 what she should have, and absolutely nothing about how to read music much less how to understand what she was hearing.)

The orchestra did a fine job, all things considered. It was noted that there were approximately 75 musicians “on stage” and approximately 65 versions of any given note at any given time, but what’s a person to do?

One of the directors stood up at the end to thank all of the parents for going that extra mile (really? it’s “extra” now? shouldn’t it just be part of what everyone should be expected to do if they want to be a living, breathing, feeling member of the universe?) to support their children’s efforts to learn to play a musical instrument.

Okay, fine. Thanks are good. I’m fine. Really, I am.

Then he talks about the benefits — to the brain, to the person, to society, to the importance of students learning to communicate that which cannot be said in words; I start to think, okay, so he’s not a total doofus. But no, I “forgave” him too soon.

Wait for it. . .

“Maybe if more children learn to be thinking, feeling members of society, fewer of them would be flying airplanes into buildings.”

Oh. I had no idea. If only the terrorists had had music lessons.






But it’s not just that one thing

“I wish my moderate Republican friends would simply be honest. They all say they’re voting for Romney because of his economic policies (tenuous and ill-formed as they are), and that they disagree with him on gay rights. Fine. Then look me in the eye, speak with a level clear voice, and say, ‘My taxes and take-home pay mean more than your fundamental civil rights, the sanctity of your marriage, your right to visit an ailing spouse in the hospital, your dignity as a citizen of this country, your healthcare, your right to inherit, the mental welfare and emotional well-being of your youth, and your very personhood.’”

It’s like voting for George Wallace during the Civil Rights movements, and apologizing for his racism. You’re still complicit. You’re still perpetuating anti-gay legislation and cultural homophobia. You don’t get to walk away clean, because you say you “disagree” with your candidate on these issues.”

from Dough Wright, found on “Raising My Rainbow


Babysitting 101

Yesterday I received an email from my department chair informing me (among others) that I had not completed the participation confirmation for my students. (Is that ironic?) These are college students, mind you, college students, and this would be not the first time, but the second time this semester I had to log in to our faculty center and click into each course number that I teach and then click on little boxes next to the student’s name confirming that they were coming to class and participating fully.

Today Only Daughter brought me her social studies test and told me I needed to sign it, even though she had a perfect score.

Any chance these two things are related?

Now I understand, first of all, that she’s in 6th grade, and secondly, that teachers want to know that parents are paying attention, and thirdly, that parents of students who might not be performing as well on tests might be needing to pay more attention to whether homework is getting done, whether the child is studying for tests, etc.

But would it be too much to ask that teachers encourage students who are doing well by showing their trust, and allowing the students the opportunity to be independent and self-disciplined without the constant checks? Last year I had to initial her planner EVERY SINGLE DAY, whether there was something written on that day or not. Is this how we teach independence and self-discipline?

As a teacher myself, with students of all ages from kindergarten to college, the biggest problem I see is that students aren’t invested enough in their own learning. Some of them do the work so as to be able to say they “did the work,” by which they mean “put in the time,” without any attention to whether anything has been learned or accomplished.

Is this really what we want to encourage?

With a couple of students this week I used an example from earlier years, when I would have First or Second Son sweep the floor. They would sweep, the floor would still be dirty, I would tell them “I thought I asked you to sweep the floor” and they would reply, “I did.” I would then have to point out that the purpose of the exercise was not the act (of waving the broom around over the floor) but the result (the floor is now clean).

Second Son is a natural musician. He played percussion in the marching band in middle school, and could ace every test. His best grade, though, was never higher than a low B, because he didn’t practice. I understand that teachers want students to practice, but presumably this is so that they can master their part. I also think that students who practice and who are less naturally skilled should get some boost to their grade if they perform less than perfectly on their playing tests. But if the student can already perform the assigned skills perfectly, why are we requiring that they practice more? Should the teacher maybe at least make the extra effort to give them something that presented a challenge so that the “practicing” wasn’t just a matter of “putting in the time”? What kind of lesson are we really teaching here?

As a piano teacher I never tell a student how long they must practice every day. I do, however, give them clear guidelines in what and how they should be practicing, and an estimate of approximately how long that should take. I then compare what they have accomplished that week with how much time they claim they practiced, and make adjustments. If they are learning everything in less time, I give them more to work on, or make things more difficult. If they are practicing a LOT and not accomplishing much, we either talk about what their practicing looks like to make sure it’s productive time, or I give them less or things that are less difficult.

The point, always, is what we want to accomplish.

I can’t help but wonder if more college-age students would be more self directed and successful if they grew up with people who cared about and were invested in their success, but only watched over their shoulders when there was a real need. I can’t think of anything that encourages independence more than telling a child that you believe they can do it, and then stepping back and letting them.

Maybe it’s just me.



Those darn trickers. . .

So much for the either/or aspect.



a new way to determine if you’re smart enough for college

In yesterday’s New York Times, Kelsey Griffith, a recent graduate from Ohio Northern University, is one of those featured regarding the cost of a college education and the lasting effects of student loans.

Ms. Griffith, 23, wouldn’t seem a perfect financial fit for a college that costs nearly $50,000 a year. . .But when she visited Ohio Northern, she was won over by faculty and admissions staff members who urge students to pursue their dreams rather than obsess on the sticker price.

Yeah, I bet they do.

“As an 18-year old, it sounded like a good fit to me, and the school really sold it. . .I knew a private school would cost a lot of money. But when I graduate, I’m going to owe like $900 a month. No one told me that.”

Yes, college is too expensive. Yes, some financial aid statements paint a rosy picture on the bottom line, but it doesn’t take a genius to notice that they’re doing so by requiring parents to take out loans, nor to recognize the difference between “grant” and “loan.”  And ultimately, it comes down to this: If you’re not smart enough to be able to figure out that borrowing $120,000 for college is going to result in a high student loan payment, maybe you shouldn’t be going to college in the first place.

Maybe, instead of having high school juniors taking ACTs and SATs we should just ask this question: You’re going to borrow $100,000 for your college education. The terms of the loan require that the balance is paid off in 10 years. Your monthly payments will most closely equal:

a) the price of a Happy Meal

b) the price of a new pair of jeans at Target

c) your parent’s mortgage payment


sounds about right


allllllllllll gone

Just withdrew the last penny from First Son’s college savings account, and spent a bit of my afternoon at the bank depositing most of the last of his savings bonds, all in preparation for his final tuition payment.

What’s the sound of an empty penny jar?

I’m feeling a little wistful (all those years of saving!), and, happy for him because it means he’s almost done, almost a college graduate, but Gulp! as we hope he gets a job in this market. Especially considering he will graduate with maybe a few hundred dollars to his name, many thousands in student loans, no vehicle, no apartment, etc. etc. College seems like such a big step from high school, but this really seems like the first step into the Great Unknown.

When Only Daughter was 3 years old, VERY 3 (which has always seemed to be a harder age than 2 to me), First Son was 14 and suffering from puberty-induced testosterone poisoning. I remember watching them each struggle with an overwhelming need for independence paired with an astute awareness that they just weren’t ready for it yet, and puzzling over how much the same they were.

Now Only Daughter is trying to conquer her fear of the Back Handspring while I make sympathetic and encouraging noises: you’ve done them before, you can do them again; you’ll stop being afraid when you’re not afraid anymore; you’ll do it when you’re ready; if you decide to do it at the beginning of the tumbling run try not to change your mind in the middle. At the same time, I know for a fact that there is absolutely no flipping way (ha!) I could ever do one.

Friends of my parents had a pool when I was a child. I was a really good diver. The friend decided he was going to teach me how to dive backwards off of the diving board, and I would be all game for it until I went up and stood there, facing THE WRONG WAY. I never could do it. Too much about jumping into the unknown.


There have been a few times in my life where I closed my eyes and lept. In each of those cases I ended up in a much better place. No reason to believe, I guess, that it won’t work out that way for them, and wonder why, even knowing this, that it’s still so hard for me to take the next one, whatever it may be.


on losing things, and realizing what you’ve lost when you find them

Realized this evening that the diamond stud that usually resides in my right earlobe was missing.

Had a vague recollection of something pulling on my ear earlier today, but knew I hadn’t put in any earrings this morning (because the diamond studs are in the 2nd hole, and never come out), so I didn’t pay any attention.

Was instantly quite upset, and quite surprised that I was quite upset.

I’m not really a “thing” person — it’s just jewelry, it’s just an earring. And not that big of a diamond or anything, so it’s not like we’re talking “family jewels” or anything. But I was upset. So while I turned on what I call the “drunk lights” (it’s a long story) in every room, and lay down on the floor and peered this way and that trying to see if I could see anything, and swept in corners and scritched through the contents of the dustpan, I kept wondering why I was upset.

I found it, after 10 or 15 minutes, which really isn’t all that long, considering that it COULD HAVE BEEN ANYWHERE. Have no idea why or how it came to be where I found it, or when it fell out of my ear. And even after I found it, I was still upset.

I think I know why.

First Husband, who wasn’t really all that good at buying me jewelry (an emerald ring from Kmart ofallplaces, for example), had bought them for me when I completed my doctorate. I had the second holes pierced for them so I could leave them in all the time.

I began my pursuit of my DMA when First and Second Son were 9 and 6. I spent 5 grueling years studying and practicing and teaching (visiting instructor position my last two years), thinking that at the end of it I would have the credentials to get a “real job” as a full-time, tenure-track member of a university faculty. Since everything else in my life that I had wanted and tried for and was qualified for I had pretty much achieved, this seemed like a gimme.

This has failed to happen.

Other good things have happened since then, but I am realizing these days that my current professional life looks an awful lot like my professional life did before I pursued this degree.

So what was it all for, one might ask?

Good question.

I am a firm believer that self-improvement and education in any form are only good things.

But still.

Nobody does this just for the sake of their own edification. At least nobody I know. Or nobody sane.

I had been reading The Street Sweeper over the past few weeks, but found its apparent lack of editing and generally dark and gloomy tone a bit much for my current state of mind (false imprisonment, Nazi Germany, etc. etc.), so I picked up Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions a few days ago and have been tormenting Husband the past few days reading funny bits to him while he’s trying to get his work done. There’s a line that particularly applies, which I am kind of chanting to myself like a mantra right now:

. . .backwards is just as rich as forward if you can appreciate the circle instead of the direction.

It’s so true, and one of the hardest things to believe.


untangling the tangles

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I was going to start a new project — one Goldberg Variation a week until the whole piece is learned.

Yesterday I started the first Variation.

But let me digress for a moment.

I’ve noticed over the past several months that when I’m feeling emotionally turmoiled (isthataword?) I turn to Bach. At the end of a particularly long day or in the middle of a stressful week or after a difficult or disappointing conversation or encounter, I find myself sitting at the piano, working my way through a Prelude or Fugue; musical Valium, if you will.

The past couple of days were particularly trying.

To spare you all of the gruesome details, let’s just say that a student of a colleague of mine at “my” college misinterpreted and/or misrepresented a very brief and casual exchange and the colleague, someone I like very much, and thought liked, trusted, and admired me, assumed the worst. And, rather than asking me what had happened, wrote me an email telling me how unprofessional and insensitive I was, and then blithely went about the rest of his evening, not getting my phone message, not reading my email. I, being the I-must-be-the-crappiest-person-in-the-world type, was awake until 3 a.m., and awake again at 6:30, and had a generally overwhelmed and in-the-overtired-induced-ozone all day Friday.

We exchanged a few emails after he FINALLY returned my call at 9:30 the next morning (15 hours after his message), and he apologized for jumping to the wrong conclusion, and for not asking me about it first, but I still generally felt like crap about the whole thing, but for gradually evolving reasons.

After I got over the self-loathing stage, I was angry, and had a few questions.

Why did this person so easily assume the worst? This isn’t the first time this has happened to me; it seems to be my superpower; I’d rather have another. I’ve always worked really hard, I’m fairly good at what I do, I’m organized and responsible and conscientious. This seems to have hurt me rather than helped me. I’ve actually been told that, as an adjunct, I “didn’t know my place.”

Anyway. . .

Even if things had happened as the student seems to have portrayed them, why is this automatically a bad thing? We coddle students too much, we treat them like customers rather than students; our job seems to be more about patting them on the head and making sure they feel good about themselves than about actually pushing them to achieve their best or challenging them when they don’t. This can’t be good for them, nor for society in general.

And, finally, why do I ALWAYS go so easily to self-critical, self-loathing, even when righteous indignation or outright anger is what’s called for? I think it’s a woman thing. I’m not sure, however, that it’s a good thing. Husband points out that he goes right to anger; he is much more efficient that way. I think it’s a guy thing, and I’m not sure that’s such a good thing either.

I always end up feeling like this: (from

when I should probably be feeling like this

So, back to Bach. . .(remember Bach?)

His music often seems like a tangle. It can take days to work out fingerings that allow you to navigate the passagework; and often there seems to only be one fingering that actually works. The melodic lines can be easily identified and unraveled when listening to a good recording, or even just by looking at the score, but making them audible can feel like trying to untangle a large skein of yarn after the cat has spent a night “playing” with it. A forest of whirls and knots and undergrowth. And then, often seemingly suddenly, the order is revealed, and everything clicks into place.

Maybe that’s why. Order from chaos, eventually, but always ultimately, revealed.

In a not-completely unrelated story, we were without power for around 18 hours because of “bad weather.” (We’re not really sure what it was, although it was a little windy and we live in the forest, and apparently 74,000 Consumers Energy customers were without power in Michigan today, so I guess we’re lucky that it’s back on “already.”) Anyway, nothing restores a sense of order like coming home from good Thai food and Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in the same movie, to lights and heat and finally being able to clean up the kitchen.

Husband says that the clean kitchen is a sign of hope.

That makes sense to me, although I think the order-from-chaos thing helps.

I would post a recording of me playing the first Variation, but Husband thinks that recording it at 11:52 p.m. after a glass of scotch might not be a good idea.

He’s probably right.

Another time, then.


what he said

Some things that made me laugh, or nod my head, or laugh and nod my head, from Stephen Marche’s “Wouldn’t it be Cool if Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare?” riff from the NYTimes.

The article is written in response to the movie “Anonymous,” which claims that Shakespeare’s works were actually written by one Edward de Vere. Of course this is bunk, and I won’t get into that now. But he (Marche) put a couple of things particularly succinctly, and amusingly, which I wanted to share.


You don’t have to be a truther or a birther to enjoy a conspiracy theory. We all, at one point or another, indulge fantasies that make the world seem more dangerous, more glamorous and, simultaneously, much more simple than it actually is. But then most of us grow up. Or put down the bong.

and this:

The original Oxfordian, the aptly named J. Thomas Looney, who proposed the theory in 1920, believed that Shakespeare’s true identity remained a secret because, he said, “it has been left mainly in the hands of literary men.” In his rejection of expertise, at least, Looney was far ahead of his time. This same antielitism is haunting every large intellectual question today. We hear politicians opine on their theories about climate change and evolution as a way of displaying how little they know. When Rick Perry compared climate-change skepticslike himself to Galileo in a Republican debate, I dearly wished that the next question had been “Can you explain Galileo’s theory of falling bodies?” Of all the candidates with their various rejections of the scientific establishment, how many could name the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that students learn in high school? Healthy skepticism about elites has devolved into an absence of basic literacy.

and this:

The Shakespeare controversy, which emerged in the 19th century (at that time, theorists proposed that Francis Bacon was Shakespeare), was one of the origins of the willful ignorance and insidious false balance that is now rotting away our capacity to have meaningful discussions. The wider public, which has no reason to be familiar with questions of either Renaissance chronology or climate science, assumes that if there are arguments, there must be reasons for those arguments. Along with a right-wing antielitism, an unthinking left-wing open-mindedness and relativism have also given lunatic ideas soil to grow in. Our politeness has actually led us to believe that everybody deserves a say.

The problem is that not everybody does deserve a say. Just because an opinion exists does not mean that the opinion is worthy of respect. Some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded. There are many questions in this world over which rational people can have sensible confrontations: whether lower taxes stimulate or stagnate growth; whether abortion is immoral; whether the ’60s were an achievement or a disaster; whether the universe is motivated by a force for benevolence; whether the Fonz jumping on water skis over a shark was cool or lame. Whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is not one of these questions.



please sir, can I have another?

Just submitted the payment for the first installment of Second Son’s first semester at University.

Included in the bill was $1,684 for a semester in a dorm room, and $2,393 for a semester on the “silver” meal plan. (Don’t get excited: the “silver” meal plan is the cheapest one available. Those in charge of naming the meal plans are apparently not up to speed on the relative value of the nation’s precious minerals — I’m thinking zinc.) All students living in the dorm must purchase a meal plan, and all freshman must live in the dorm. It’s a beautiful system, really, if you think about it.

In other words, we are being extorted, and we have only ourselves to blame. And this is a state school, you know, one of the land grant universities whose mission is to provide educational opportunities for all and sundry.

First objection: we are paying $7.12 per meal for a child who lives on cereal. Even HE can’t eat this much cereal, and God knows he’s tried.

Secondly, we are paying $421/month for “room.” This equals $1263/month for a 12′ x 14′ room to be lived in by three 18-year-old boys (the thought of the “aroma” alone makes one shudder), which is more than I am paying for house payment, taxes, and insurance for 1300 sq. ft. + finished basement on 2 acres of wooded land in a perfectly lovely city with excellent schools.

And yet, universities are in trouble.

Husband speculates that the areas of the sciences cause the most trouble, as schools want their programs to be taught by the best and the brightest, and the best and the brightest in medicine, engineering, physics, etc., can expect to make six figures many times over in the private sector and for universities to compete they must pay accordingly.

Would it be “fair” to suggest that medicine and engineering tuitions be higher to cover those differences? I think the argument could be made. The people graduating with degrees in those areas can expect to make more money throughout their careers: wouldn’t a cost/benefit analysis and the “laws” of fairness dictate that their education also cost more? And some consideration of the Canadian system, where a certain number of schools are “allowed” to teach certain programs and others are not, might not be out of order. This system allows individual colleges to prioritize and focus, and the situation of every school competing for every student is avoided, and more efficiency gained. I imagine that the average American would protest, as part of the American mindset is the right to have whatever you want wherever you want it, and if you don’t “qualify” through your grades and industry you should at least have the right to pay whatever premium necessary to get it anyway.

In any case, at this point in every child’s development, perhaps the most compelling motivation to the average American parent is the tradeoff between becoming a voluntary extortionee, and having the 18-year old move out of the house.


If you’re reading this, Second Son, I love you dearly. Now off you go.

*This is NOT a picture of Second Son’s room. This one was downloaded from the internet, the source which can be viewed if you click on the picture, chosen for its dramatic impact. I regret any misapprehensions. p.s.  He has more guitars, two amps, and less crap on the floor. However, the dust bunnies under the bed were beginning to form their own government, until they were vacuumed up in preparation for visitors, that is.


grammar wars: it’s hopeless?

Browsing around online, looking for an agent to talk to regarding a children’s book series I’ve worked on on and off for a few years.

Found one that looked promising, (well, it wasn’t a FedEx Kinko’s copy center or their equivalent,) so clicked on the link to their website.

Here is a direct quote of the testimonial that headlines their website:

I recently contacted D_________ Publishing Company to publish my material entitled “The Memoirs of an Old Country Bishop” and I found them to be very professional and courteous.   The options that they gave me was fair and affordable. Their access to the public through technology is overwhelming.  I highly recommend them to new authors looking to publish their material.

Apparently their services don’t include editing.



My response to Circular Running’s Response to “functional illiteracy”

This blogger recently commented on this post and linked me to this post of his from last August.

Here’s my reply:

I actually remember reading the Atlantic article when it came out, and as an adjunct instructor at a community college (I omitted the for-profit because it seems redundant these days – aren’t all colleges actually FOR profit?) I feel the author’s pain. The difference is my adjunct job is my FIRST job, or tied with the private teaching I do at home at least, and definitely not the apex of the career path I had laid out for myself while in my 20s or even 30s. I also know that this has deterred some of my better students – they see what I’ve accomplished professionally as a performer, and with a Doctorate in my field, and how hard I have to work to make a living, and decide to do something else. I guess that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve always said that if you don’t HAVE to be a musician, you should do something else, but this is certainly not the result I would have said I hoped for if anybody would have asked.

And I agree that what seems to be holding students back is to some degree innate (talent), and possibly to a much greater degree, apathy (the desire for ease). We could address the first point by NOT requiring college educations for certain types of work – packaging for example, or “soil science.”  Here are some examples of academic programs at a typical large American university that seem to me would possibly be better delivered via trade school:

Apparel and Textile Design
Apparel and Textiles
Athletic Training

Construction Management
Crop and Soil Sciences
Food Industry Management
Food Science
General Management
Interior Design

Landscape Architecture
Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism
Professional Writing
Supply Chain Management

While there might be relevance for some of these topics as graduate programs  — somebody has to be doing research into the science of soil, for example, or someone has to have the breadth and depth of knowledge to TRAIN budding dietitians or maybe even aerobics instructors or a golf-course maintenance crew, but is it a good use of time and resources to require the dietitians or aerobics instructors or golf-course maintainers to spend time and money taking two semesters of social science, two semesters of English composition and/or literature, etc. etc.?

But let’s get to the real problem(s).

1.  Students can’t write complete, coherent sentences. Many of them can’t even speak complete, coherent sentences, even if you remove all of the “like”s. Most are unfamiliar with the rudiments of spelling and punctuation, and can’t see why they should have to change that, as they are planning on going into, oh, I don’t know, the police academy, or nursing, and can’t see what writing has to do with anything. (Ummm, duh?) But even if this is something which should be required of all citizens (except for the mentally disadvantaged, of course), is college really the time to be doing it? Shouldn’t this problem be being addressed in their elementary through high school years? Why isn’t it? Maybe we should stop focusing on “creative” writing and spelling things whatever-which-way and actually teach children how to write a sentence first. Or at least sooner. Or at least at all.

2.  Students have spent their elementary, middle, and high school years being patted on the head for showing up, for bringing a pencil, for turning in their work no matter how poorly done. Parents hover, bail them out of difficulty (you forgot your lunch? Your library book? Your homework? I’ll be right there sugar pie), try to get coaches fired for teaching them to behave decently, complain if little Johnny or Susie got the prize or the award or the trophy and their little Jimmy or Sally did not.  The ironic thing is, these acts of support don’t actually help little Jimmy or Sally be any happier when they’re adults, possibly even the opposite. The teacher can’t “criticize” the student because that would make the student feel badly about him/her self, but must couch “critical” terms in “would you like to try it this way?” or “very good, you really tried hard, let’s go ahead and do the next one.” If the teacher really does challenge the student, the student can pay them back by ripping them to shreds on the student evaluation forms, an evaluative tool which has taken on way too much significance in the evaluative process of the teacher by administration.

One of the most powerful and effective experiences I had as a piano student was when I played something for my teacher, and she looked at me with a look of bewilderment, and said, as if she knew I was already in agreement with her, “well, that wasn’t very good, was it?” The compliment of her treating me as capable of identifying that paired with the challenge of making it better was all I needed.

I have very few students I could be that frank with, even if I thought it was exactly what they needed to hear.

3.  College = business. Grant proposal obligations, a slash-and-burn approach to tenure-track positions with replacement by overworked, underpaid, un-benefited adjuncts, coerced residence of undergraduates in dormitories and required overpriced meal plans, raises based on student-as-customer evaluation forms. And while the student is the “customer” who is being catered to, sometimes blatantly so, their needs are not being met. The prominence of the student-as-customer evaluation forms is most disturbing, as it seems to be based on the premise that students know what they need, when most of them really, really don’t.  And the self-esteem-boosting, let’s-pave-the-way-for-you-and-make-it-as-painless-as-possible approach seems to be institutionalized, and not just at community colleges. I actually had a student tell me once, in the midst of a very disrespectful and plaintive email exchange where I was being berated for being too “tough,” that her adviser had recommended she take the class (Music Appreciation), because it would be “easy,” and that she felt ripped off and betrayed when it wasn’t. First of all, it’s not easy, and if it’s being offered as a college class it should NEVER be easy; second of all, what a ridiculous thing for an adviser to be telling a student.

The blurring of the line between student and teacher doesn’t help. There is no ingrained sense of respect, of deferrence. The plaintive email exchange I mentioned in the previous paragraph is an example of that. I would never have even thought much less dared to speak to my professors in any circumstance the way some of my students speak to me, both in person – calling me by my first name, for example – or via email, where I’m addressed as “hey” if addressed at all, written to in txtspk, told that he/she doesn’t like my attitude. If I thought a class was too hard, I might have complained to a colleague, or my roommate, I would never have complained to the teacher. (It was inappropriate then, and it’s inappropriate now, and teachers who cave to complaints about work load or difficulty of material only make it worse. If you as the teacher have thought carefully about what the students need to know and the best way for them to learn it, then the only thing left for you to do is stick to it. If you haven’t, and you don’t, well, then, maybe you shouldn’t be teaching.)

I have a few policies in place now which really seem to have helped draw this line for them.

1. If a student emails me in txtspk, or lacking the rudiments of formal written communication, the student gets this message in reply:

Dear Student:

It is my policy not to reply to emails unless they are written in a formal style. If you would like a response, please reformat your message to include a greeting, complete sentences including appropriate capitalization and punctuation, and a signature.

Thank you.

2. I do not reply to emails sent between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. I state this in my syllabus, and encourage the students to network with their colleagues in case they have emergency questions. I have a life, too. I think it’s good for them to know this.

3. The use, no, the appearance of ANY electronic device — laptop, cell phone, etc. — is expressly forbidden while class is in session, and earns the student a “0” for the day.

4. I graciously refuse friend requests on facebook from any student who is currently attending the college where I teach. I write back: Thank you for your friend request. Unfortunately, I am unable to accept, as it is my policy not to be “Friends” with people who are currently students. Please feel free to follow me on my professional page: ____________________.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with Circular Running’s statement: In fact, in most cases, you have to pay for the abuse being heaped on you, and sometimes you have to pay a lot. Put simply, the educational process is all about discomfort, both personal and financial, and that’s a good thing because it makes you grow.

I would add, if you don’t want to grow in such a way, save yourself the money and both of us the anguish, and find something else to do.


What DO women really need?

Virginia Woolf thought it was a room of their own, and she wasn’t that far off. She was, in fact, referring to an actual room, a place a woman could go and be completely alone so as to embrace her own inner life and creativity free from distractions and demands. (I agree, but find her awareness of this need quite interesting, as she probably had more than adequate time “alone,” considering her supportive husband, and lack of children. Those of you with children know that even a few minutes alone in the bathroom can represent quite an achievement.)

Jill Lepore writes in this Sundays NY Times about Benjamin Franklin’s younger sister Jane. Allowed to learn to read, but not to write, she married a saddler at the age of 15, and bore 12 children, 11 of whom she buried. Her husband struggled with both physical and mental illness, and debt. She struggled, with no education of any sort, to keep them out of debtor’s prisons by making bonnets and taking in boarders.

Lepore writes: “. . .the story of Jane Mecom is a reminder that, especially for women, escaping poverty has always depended on the opportunity for an education and the ability to control the size of their families.”

On the next page of the paper, a review by Nicholas Kristof of Rachel Lloyd’s book “Girls Like Us” questions why our hearts melt when we hear about sex trafficking in India or Cambodia, but teenage girls living and working on America’s streets are arrested, prosecuted, and sent to juvenile detention centers so they can learn “moral principles,” while their pimps and johns are virtually ignored. Kristof reports that the typical victim of sexual trafficking in America is “. . .a 13-year old girl of color from a troubled home who is on bad terms with her mother. Then her mom’s boyfriend hits on her, and she runs away to the bus station, where the only person on the lookout for girls like her is a pimp. He buys her dinner, gives her a place to stay and next thing she knows she’s earning him $1,500 a day.”

Is it strange that I see a connection between these two stories?

Moralists would say that the girl in the second situation should try harder to find another option, but for some of these girls there ARE no other options — no home to take in boarders, no market for bonnets.

So yes, we need a “room” of our own — one which includes access to education whose quality is not dependent on one’s zip code; where luxuries such as access to birth control aren’t cut off by political wrangling; where parents have options of their own, and are more concerned about the well being of their children than of their predatory boyfriends; where more people like Rachel Lloyd win human rights awards for making sure that it’s the oppressors and not the victims held to account; where a woman’s voice and opinion and business “style” are considered as valid as a man’s.

Oh, and I guess a few minutes alone in the bathroom wouldn’t hurt.


do you want him or not?

Second Son is going to Michigan State University next year. That is, if we manage to complete the post-admission process successfully. This no longer seems to be the simple task I once thought it would be. I mean, I’ve managed to raise him for 17 years (ADHD, sensory integration disorder, booming voice, sophomoric sense of humor) without strangling him in his sleep; he gets good grades, scored respectably on his ACT test, has been accepted at the three colleges of his choice, and, as far as I can tell, has abstained from illegal drug use and has yet to impregnate anyone. One would think that now would be the time that I could pat myself on the back and complete a few easy online forms to send him on his way (off you go!). Unfortunately, this has proven to be one of the more formidable tasks to date.

What I want to do is call and ask the admissions department: “Do you want him, or not?”

The letter came months ago. We rejoiced, (some more than others). We finally manage to find an opportunity for the two of us to sit down together to complete the admission process. (We also finally find time to decline the other two schools, who call almost daily. Interestingly, we have not heard a word from MSU. Guess they have more students than they need, and supreme confidence in their desirability. Good thing their interest in him is not one of his/our most important considerations.)

The first thing that needs to be done is he must enter his Personal Identification Number (PIN) and Password Authorization Number (PAN) and the system will create an email address for him. We must then register the email address to continue to the next steps — pay the registration deposit, register for the academic orientation program, request a housing request form (seriously). He (certainly not me) takes the online mathematics placement exam; I fill out the immunization form.

The problems begin early in the process. MSU has already created the PIN and the PAN, but we have to wait 24 hours after creating an email address before we can proceed. Fine. It’s not that difficult to corral a 17-year old with a job and involvement in the school’s theater program while I’m working ~ 60 hours a week.

Today, finally, we sign back in and register him for orientation and request a housing request form (seriously). I begin to feel pretty confident that we are now on the official “home stretch,” then click on the link to have a look at the immunization form, so I can find out what information I need to get from the pediatrician’s office.

I get an error message, bright red block print: I must wait 24 hours after paying the deposit before I can continue further.


This is a problem?

Imagine this: couple, sitting around, discussing whether they want to read the Sunday paper, “go to bed early,” or watch one of their latest Netflix deliveries, and one suggests: “I know! We’re bored, with nothing better to do, let’s log in to random university websites and FILL OUT IMMUNIZATION FORMS!!!!!!!!!”

Are you wordIcan’tsay kidding me?

Isn’t modern technology supposed to be making these kinds of processes easier?

Good thing we’re so darn motivated (some more than others).


is it worth it?

From “Meet Dr. Freud,” New Yorker, January 10, 2011:

In recent months, there have been signs that the pressure [in China] is greater than anyone imagined. Last January, a nineteen-year-old named Ma Xiangqian jumped from the roof of his factory dorm at Foxconn Technology, where he had worked seven nights a week, eleven hours at a stretch, making electronic parts, before being demoted to cleaning toilets. In the months after Ma’s death, ten other workers committed suicide at Foxconn factories, which make iPhones and other products.”

Seven nights a week?

Eleven hours in a row?

Apparently this isn’t that unusual in Chinese manufacturing.

A paragraph later:

Foxconn wasn’t ‘any different from any of the other big companies who are doing the same thing’. . .Beyond the drudgery of the assembly line, workers in their teens, or barely out of them, were struggling to live far from home, save money, meet spouses, and educate themselves in their time off, all under the eye of a state with no organized outlet for complaint.”

Meanwhile, our (American) children underperform in high schools and colleges, delay getting married and having families, and take on student loans they not only have no idea how they are going to pay off, but don’t really care.

This, my friends, is why they’re “eating our lunch.”

p.s. I still want an iPhone, but now would feel guilty about buying one. As if I need another reason to feel guilty. But look how pretty it is.


excellence in coaching






I have tremendous respect for Mike Babcock, the coach of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team.

He combines pragmatism with an intense work ethic and brutal honesty. He is fantastic at what he does, and does it with modesty and a complete lack of self-consciousness.

In an interview after the Wings third consecutive loss, a stretch during which they have been outscored 12-4, Babcock had this to say:

“We’ll have to get to work (Thursday) in practice,” Babcock said. “If we’re not going to work in games, you can bet we’ll work in practice. We’re gonna get some work ethic back, because there’s no way we’re going to have 22,000 people watching us play like that. That’s absolutely unacceptable. … Mental and physical, we’re awful.”

I imagine that the players all groaned audibly when they heard this — no player wants to hear those words from their coach, and I imagine Babcock on the ice with a whistle would be quite formidable (in italics to encourage you to pronounce it the French way so as to be even more intimidating).

I believe my teaching style may mirror his more closely than maybe it should. He’s working with adult men who can skate 45 mph and have legs like tree trunks. I’m teaching 7 year olds.

Something to think about.


whimper of the pushover mother

I try to avoid reviewing things which I haven’t seen or read, and I have not read this book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua, so maybe I should just keep my opinions to myself. But based on what I’ve heard during her many recent interviews and read in the reviews, I’m pretty convinced that reading this book would not be a good idea for me. Not that I have dangerously high blood pressure or anything, but this could be just the thing to set me off.

This woman reports, with great aplomb, the following parenting pearls of discipline and motivation:

1. Her daughters are not allowed to waste their time participating in plays or sports (apparently too much a waste of time),

2. Her daughters are not allowed to complain about not being allowed to participate in plays or sports (perhaps out of concern that they feel, or **gasp!** express any emotion of their own),

3. If her daughter does not perform perfectly the next time she practices her piece at the piano her mother will burn all of her stuffed animals (because motivation by fear has proven to be so effective),

4. Her daughters must be #1 in every subject except gym and drama (apparently striving to be an Olympic athlete or Lynn Redgrave is not an appropriate goal),

5. Her daughters are not allowed to have a play date (Fun?!? Who has time for fun?!?).

When I first heard about this book, before I had heard any of the specifics listed above, I was interested — I am constantly trying to find ways to stimulate interest, passion, motivation, discipline, consideration, and respect in my children. I thought she might have some useful suggestions.

But the idea of teaching my children these concepts through berating, humiliation, and threats just doesn’t jibe with my own personal philosophy.

Does it do my child any good if I push him or her constantly so that they can achieve achieve achieve throughout their elementary and secondary educations? Am I then going to go to college with them to make sure they aren’t wasting my tuition dollars? I could share their dorm room with them, vet their friends, cut up their food. Maybe this makes me a typical “American” parent (said with a sneer by one of the commenters on the Barnes and Noble website); lazy, coddling, unworthy, but I’d rather my children learn these hard lessons the “hard” way, when there’s less at stake, then have them flunk out of Harvard because I forced them to go to law school when what they really wanted was to be a novelist.

It hasn’t escaped my notice that most of the students winning the scholar awards at Second Son’s high school awards ceremonies are Asian. Nor that my Asian piano students are also top students academically, studying in Chinese school on Saturdays, participating in at least one sport, at which they excel, and that they speak to their parents with respect and a complete absence of sarcasm. But I have also had adult Asian friends who bemoan their parents’ disappointment when they fail to achieve a difficult professional benchmark or reach the advanced age of 30 and are yet to be married.

Is it “American” (sneer) of me to want “only” for my children to find their bliss, achieve what they WANT to achieve, strive for independence, find happiness/fulfillment in the area, or degree of success, of their choosing?

There is a really funny line from Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, when the father is sending his sons to school for the first time, and sends a note with them telling the teacher that they are stupid and worthless, and to feel free to beat them as much as the teacher deems necessary. I was actually so amused upon reading this, with First Son when he was in 6th grade, that I copied it out and sent it with him to give to his teacher the next day. We were kindred spirits, and both had a good laugh. But only because it was so ridiculous.

Hmmmm. . .I wonder if she thought I meant it.





“Our” Rosa Parks moment?

Single parent Kelly Williams-Bolar has just been released from jail after serving 9 days for her felony conviction for falsifying public records. The falsification consisted of her lying about her address, stating that she lived 2 miles from her actual home, to get her children into a better school district. Her conviction initially yielded a 5-year prison term, which the judge thankfully immediately reduced to 10 days, including time served. You can read more of the story here, but I want to highlight two statements from the article.

Dan Domenech, of the American Association of School Administrators: “The correlation between student achievement and zip code is 100 percent,” he says. “The quality of education you receive is entirely predictable based on where you live.”

Bob Dyer, who lives in Copley – the town Ms. Bolar claimed to reside in: “I pay a lot of money in property taxes, 53 percent of which go to the schools, and I want that money to go to people who live in the district.”

I understand, and sympathize, with both of these views.

I paid what I paid for my tiny little house so my children could be in one of the best school districts in the city in which I live.

But should this be so?

Is it right that the quality of education in schools governed by the state’s curriculum guidelines and granted the same amount of money per child (theoretically, at least) from the state treasury varies so widely from one district to another?

Is it right to state that I want the taxes I pay to benefit only the people who live in my district? Bob Dyer isn’t even claiming that he wants the money he pays in taxes to benefit his children directly, but the children in his district. I don’t know if he even has children. But does he live in an enclosed, isolated community; one in which he never encounters any hapless soul who was unlucky enough to be educated elsewhere? And if we are going to make this argument, can’t we make the argument that only people who have children should be paying the portion of their taxes which support schools? We ALL pay taxes to support schools because we recognize that having an educated populace is good for everyone — a socialist idea if there ever was one. Can we actually say that everyone should be educated, but only the children in our district deserve to be educated well?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m sure there isn’t an easy one. I know we are all “in it” for ourselves, that our ambitions and efforts and the discipline which we impose on ourselves to succeed comes from blatant self-interest and the desired preservation of the health and well-being of our friends and families. What I wish is that more people could recognize that what’s good for everyone IS what’s best for each of us.



fund raising? or extortion?

Got this message from my daughter’s elementary-school “Webzine” today:

Friday, January 21 is $1 Crazy Hair Day at T____________!

Our Media Center needs some good old fashioned TLC and kids love “Fun Friday’s” at T_________.  Break out the gel, hair spray, wigs, wires and any other creative ideas to make some wacky hair-do’s.  We ask that each student donate $1 to participate and all collected funds will go into the Media Center Make-over bank to help purchase new decorations for the most-used room at T__________ – the Media Center!

Are they actually saying that I can’t send my daughter to school tomorrow with “Crazy Hair” unless she pays a dollar?


How poor ARE our schools, anyway? And do we even NEED new decorations for the Media Center? Can’t we just have books?

This is the 2nd year this has happened. Last year I actually wrote to the publicity person and asked the same question. Then I sent my daughter looking like this:

and didn’t pay the dollar.

I’d give them $5 happily if I weren’t being extorted for it.



My response to your response to “Functional Illiteracy”


I never saw it coming.

As some of you may have noticed, this is a fairly “young” blog, competing with hundreds of thousands of blogs, which averaged 20-60 hits on its best days.

I’ve had over 6,000 hits since I posted “Functional Illiteracy” yesterday morning. When I was writing it, I was just seeing it as yet another rant in a series of rants about the state of education in the 21st century, but it has obviously really struck a nerve.

I’ve really enjoyed the ensuing conversation — exactly what I wanted when I started the blog in the first place — so many people feeling the same frustration; so many articulate and well-thought-out responses, it did make me wonder if maybe the situation isn’t as dire as I thought. 🙂

I have had many thoughts in the past 24 hours as I watched the post and comments “go viral,” and hope you don’t mind my sharing them with you.

There have been many mentions of the influences of technology on the 21st-century student as well as the importance of parents and their role. I would like to expand on both of those a bit.

Yes, there are a lot of cultural influences on our children which are either completely foreign to our experience, or which we adopt without allowing them to “pervert” our use of language or monopolize our time, because we’ve already learned to use language and manage our time. I agree that children shouldn’t have cell phones or access to facebook until they are old enough to see the impact these potential addictions could have on their lives. I worry about cell phone usage in young children with thinner skulls and the potential for tumors, and I also have grave concerns about cyber-bullying; with a 9-year old daughter and all of the requisite “friend” drama, there’s no facebook until middle or high school and then only if I’m a “friend.”


Our children will need to live in the world in which they live. I text using textspeak because it’s faster to type on that tiny little keyboard, but I don’t use textspeak in any other situation. Children can, and should, learn the difference. Facebook is fun; I enjoy posting jokes or links to The Onion or a youtube video of a 3-year-old conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but I can ignore it when I want to, hide people who insist on posting incessantly about what they are eating or who like to berate those who don’t agree with them, and don’t need to check it 100 times a day to feel like I’m “keeping up.” I had a good friend who very strictly regulated the amount of time her sons were allowed to play computer games; her eldest son then went off to a very expensive private college and flunked out because he sat in his dorm room all day and played World of Warcraft. Wouldn’t it be better for them to learn to manage their time and responsibilities and interests when the stakes are a little smaller?

I also think the parent’s role is quite important, but probably not in the way many of you think. I always checked if my children had homework, made sure they had a plan for when they were going to do it, and was happy to look it over at the end to see how they had done. I didn’t feel it was in their best interests for me to correct it for them and have them redo it — if the teacher doesn’t know that my kid is struggling with the material, how will the teacher know he/she needs to spend more time on the topic? I was also pretty sure I wasn’t going to go to college with them, and thought it was important that they learn to structure their time and responsibilities themselves. I did make sure to write a note on the homework if it wasn’t done because my child just didn’t understand it; I also made sure to encourage the teacher to build in some natural consequences if it wasn’t done, i.e. the child sits at his/her desk at recess completing the homework.

And I don’t think we can change our children’s fundamental tastes and personalities. I am an avid reader, as is my oldest son. I read with both of my sons until they were well into middle school. My second son reads the books he needs to for school, and enjoys them, can talk articulately about them, and will not read another one until he has to. I can’t change that, and if I tried to Make him into a reader, he would read, and enjoy it, even less.

While parent’s roles and influences are very important, so, too, are teachers’. My eldest son, now a physics major at Case who scored 33 on his ACT, barely gave a rip about school from first grade until after he had graduated high school. When he was in kindergarten he LOVED it — he had a nurturing, imaginative teacher who enjoyed and indulged his curiosity and complied with his desire for daily “homework.” His first grade teacher was pinched and unimaginative and should have retired 10 years earlier. She would complain to me that First Son worked too slowly, too meticulously, asked too many questions, wanted to “handle” things rather then sitting in his desk with his hands folded learning via The Worksheet. When I requested that she merely send the work home with him, as he loved “homework,” she refused. By the end of the year his work was careless and sloppy. He went from coloring his butterfly with every color in the box in an elaborate mosaic to scribbling over it with a black crayon in 5 seconds. This attitude changed somewhat in 6th grade, with another wonderful teacher who recognized his intelligence and abilities and always challenged him to do better, but the child who would score a 33 on his ACT, with a  perfect score in science and only 1 point off in math didn’t have a high enough GPA to get into Northwestern or the University of Michigan — his top two choices. Case took a chance based on his standardized test scores, and gave him a scholarship based on his GPA which he can’t afford to lose. He is finally waking up to a sense of discipline and responsibility. No matter what I did, what I said, how I fought, he was not convinced that it mattered. I couldn’t do it for him.

Parents and teachers need to support, encourage, provide healthy learning opportunities and environments, and help students realize that THEY are responsible for what they learn, not the other way around.  What good would it have done for me to force him to comply to a standard I set, only for him to get into a college at which he’s not willing or able to succeed?

The passive learning attitude we see so often is a direct result of exactly that — parents, teachers, “teaching” the child that they are not responsible. This has to change.

Teachers also need to be qualified, and some simply are not. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten syllabi from high-school teachers filled with grammatical and punctuation errors. If we aren’t providing a good example for our students, how can we realistically expect good work from them?

I often think also that the bar is set too low. The Vice Principal of First Son’s middle school was overheard saying once that his job was just to get them through the day. This premise is ridiculous. If students are challenged, interested, stimulated, they will get themselves “through the day.”

And testing, especially today’s standardized testing, is making it worse; Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” does leave them behind, because it fills the teacher’s day with the broadest base of factoids known to man and requires them to cram it down their students’ throats. This leaves no time to be sure students actually understand, or can apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate this information — in other words use this information to further their own understanding. Because teachers have to teach only to Bloom’s lowest level of learning, there’s no depth to the knowledge — it consists merely of factoids, information, to be memorized and regurgitated. This is a mistake and has to change.

Students are also not taught to respect those in positions of authority. One comment touched on exactly that — parents need to be parents first, friends later (as in when their children are in their 20s). And if parents are demanding respect but the teachers are not, children will constantly challenge that authority.

When I was a Masters student, back in the 80s, and needed to contact my piano teacher, it was suggested to me that I call him. Call him? Really? I could do that? I still call my piano teacher from my undergraduate days Mrs. V_______; she has asked me numerous times to call her by her first name. I just can’t. I’ve had students call me to my face, and in email, by my first name, despite the fact that I name myself Dr. (Lastname) in the syllabus and in every email. I’ve had students email me to challenge the fact that I have information on the review sheet that I said wouldn’t be on the test; I’ve been told that she (the student) didn’t “like my attitude.” Technology allows for this; I would hope at least that most students wouldn’t dare say such a thing to my face. But the fact that they can say it at all astounds and disturbs me.

Students don’t move their feet when I walk between them in the hallways. Students have failed to write down what was going to be on a test, or failed to show up to an exam, and then gone to my department head and lied, telling him that I “changed my mind” or wasn’t where I said I would be. Sometimes the chair supports me, sometimes I get a long email explaining how I need to be more student-centered. This lack of support by administration, and giving students the benefit of the doubt over teachers, needs to change.

I could write for at least this long over the loss to our students as arts and music programs are cut while the football team gets new uniforms and trips to away games that cost thousands of dollars. If there is anything that teaches comprehensive, evaluative, synthetic thinking, it is literature, arts and music. Not to mention “building” adults who are automatons, unable or unwilling to recognize or understand beauty, music, or poetry.

To get back to the point of the original post, the problems I see in writing aren’t merely of this type: lacking of capitalizations and textspeak and using “what” instead of “was.” Students don’t know the difference between there their and they’re, write “could of” instead of “could have,” don’t bother (or don’t know how) to have their verb tense match the rest of their sentence, or the subject is plural and the verb is singular or vice versa. While this isn’t “functional illiteracy,” as I can interpret what they mean, it is a definite problem that should be being addressed in 4th grade, not a college humanities class.

Thank all of you so much for your interest and contribution to this important discussion and topic. This is obviously a source of great concern for many. Knowing this, NOW what do we do?


functional illiteracy

A recent email exchange with a (college) student:

im emailing u because i need a grade from you on my progress report tomorrow or else i cant play sat if you could do that i would gladly appreciate it….also while i was looking at my grades on blackboard i saw a E for the folk and religious music quiz…i was wondering did i miss that day or did i just not get any points on the quiz

Your current grade is a D+.
Your grade for the quiz was 13 out of 24 (this information was included on the grade center site he was consulting).

what the quiz points added in with the total?

I don’t know what you’re asking me.

im asking was those 13 points included in with the total points because it had an E for the grade i was just wondering


This is a native-born American student who has apparently graduated from an American high school.  He/she is functionally illiterate, and seems to be either unable to interpret the information on a simple spreadsheet or unaware that 13 points out of 24 is not sufficient to pass.

How can MFA not realize that we are ALL going to pay the price when our children grow up to be adults who can’t read, speak, or write?

Statistics compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics have found that the U.S. seems to be spending about the same amount of money per student as other developed countries, and that students are staying in school for as long on average.

But we’re not measuring up.

According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 4th graders in the United States tested behind Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Kazakstan, the Russian Federation, England, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Lithuania in mathematics achievement, and behind Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, Russian Federation, Latvia, and England in science achievement. Perhaps even more disturbing is that the achievement of students in science has declined in the US over the past 12 years, while it has improved, sometimes dramatically, in every other country ahead of us except Japan. Adults who can’t read or write at a proficient level cost the country hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost productivity and unemployment benefits.

Those of  you who have been following my blog know I’ve ranted about this before, just click here to read the archives. I believe these discussions already include mention of the disturbing trend among 21st-century students where learning is seen as a passive endeavour — they show up, sit there, what else do they need to do? Not to mention their inability to function in face-to-face situations, their lack of respect for authority, and their dependence on technology to the point of obsession (facebook, texting — to the point where whole papers are written in textspeak — no commas, no apostrophes, no capitalizations).


I’m including this in the “Who Cares?” category, because I would like to know if anybody does. I doubt it’s just me. But what can we do?


Educational Pratfalls

Read and initialed my son-the-high-school-senior’s physics syllabus today. Included is an apparent lack of understanding of the importance of the hyphen, and this sentence: “Do not hesitate to ask for help from myself or your fellow peers.” I considered, briefly, noting in the margin “You should be fired for this sentence,” but decided she might take that out on my son. Maybe it’s just me, but shouldn’t those in charge of educating our children at least be literate; probably too much to hope that they would be role models of good writing?


Politics, Religion and the Truth

Apparently the willful ignorance of MFA continues to spread. We could spend a lot of time talking about the failures of our educational systems — the results being a citizenry who for the most part lack both a sense of responsibility about being informed and an ability to differentiate between a reputable news source (New York Times, Washington Post) and a disreputable one (Fox News, [irony alert] random blogs on the internet, Rush Limbaugh). We are also surrounded by people who harbor a general philosophy which prioritizes emotion and faith belief over fact. Another discussion could ensue as to whether the demise of so many reputable news sources is a cause of this or an effect; I would venture to propose the latter.

Unfortunately for all of us, politicians have decided that they are better served exploiting these shortcomings than dealing with all of us honestly and informatively. The short attention spans encouraged by network news programs, papers like USA Today, and the proliferation of sound bytes over substance only make things worse.

Meanwhile, 46% of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim and that he is responsible for both the failings of the financial system and the TARP program designed to bail it out.

To the first belief, I ask, who cares? and to the second, how hard are “you” working to remain in the dark about the actual happenings of the country in which you live?

The fact that he must repeatedly emphasize that he is a Christian is disturbing in a country that was founded on the belief that religion and governance should have nothing to do with each other.

In a related story, many continue to protest the proposed building of a mosque in the phantom shadow of the World Trade Center. Again, was this country not founded on the very principle of free practice of any, or no, religion? The same people that make the argument that “guns don’t kill people, people do” can’t seem to translate that into the possibility that all of Islam might not be the villain here. We should blame all of Islam for 9/11 like we blame Christians for the Crusades or all Germans for the Holocaust?

Those freedoms that are villified among practicers of radical Islam are those which we as a country should value and treasure and protect most vehemently: to live where and how we choose within the confines of universal principles of right and wrong; to worship (or not) the God of our choosing; to elect our own leaders; for women to work and drive and vote and marry who they desire and live without fearing death by stoning or clitoral circumcision or being sold into slavery or forced into marriage at the age of 11; in addition to that we need to recognize a moral obligation to treat all citizens of the world with the dignity and fairness and respect which we accord each other.

We fail at this, miserably, over and over again. We should all be ashamed.


To Cheat or Not to Cheat, or is it Even Cheating? Ethics in the 21st century

I’ve been mentally toying with this topic for a couple of weeks now, where to begin, what “tone” to take; it now seems to be rising to the fore with this latest op-ed/Room for Debate piece in the New York Times.

I wrote a couple of months ago about the “children” of today (meaning teens and college students) and their propensity for stealing “downloading” their media from the internet, including their college textbooks, movies, and music. This saddens, frustrates, disappoints, and worries me. Jason Robert Brown, a popular and illustrious composer, posted this debate he had with a teenager regarding the impropriety of her offering his music for “trade” on the internet. It is a frustrating conversation, which he handles with grace, dignity and respect. I’m not hopeful that this particular argument was won, but I do hope that the attention this discussion has gotten will at least get these kids thinking, and maybe help prompt interested techies out there to work vigorously to create a solution. The alternative is that we end up in a cultural dark age because no one can afford to produce anything stealable “downloadable.” The problem is that it is now culturally acceptable to cheat, to steal, to justify it and believe wholeheartedly that there’s nothing wrong with it — nothing physical has changed hands, no one was “hurt,” “I” only wanted to “borrow” it or “use” it or “trade” it, and it is, ultimately, all about “me.” (Isn’t it?)

My husband and I both teach at the college level. It has recently been brought to his attention that there is a website called “Course Hero” which is touted as the “Number 1 Study Resource for College and High School Students.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? And haven’t we all been grateful for the ease with which information can be found via this wonderful tool known as the internet. Just the other day I was able to track down the exact procedure used in 2005 to remedy a pesky problem with the emissions system of my now very old and much driven minivan.  The problem is that this website is not a “study resource,” it’s a ginormous electronic arm with the answers written on it. Apparently one of the requirements for “tutors” to upload their homework answers and test answers and completed papers is that they provide a copy of the assignment without the answers filled in, so that cheaters students can test their own knowledge by completely ignoring reviewing the questions before stealing checking their answers against the completed work. Right. I can’t even comprehend why someone who has done this work themselves would want to give it away. Do they value their own efforts that little? Is that part of the problem? Is peer pressure so great that friend A can’t say to friend B, when asked for the answers to yesterday’s homework assignment, “Ummm, no, dude, but duh, do it yourself”?

One of the arguments put forward by the contributors to the NY Times piece is that students cheat when they feel that the teacher has set up a system (i.e. curving the grade) where they are being unfairly compared with their colleagues, or when the teacher isn’t adequately doing their job. This sounds, to me, an awful lot like it was written by someone who did some cheating of their own and wants to justify it by blaming someone else. Wow, that sounds familiar. Perhaps the real cause of this problem stems from the fact that the “children” of today, hell, even some of the adults, think everything that happens is someone else’s fault.  I don’t care WHAT the situation is, CHEATING IS WRONG. Your work should be exactly that, YOURs. Why is that concept so hard to understand, much less sympathize with? Besides, if that were the case, why are they not ALL doing it?

Another contributor points out that technology has also made it easier to catch cheaters. (It’s also made it a lot easier for them to text in class, play internet poker, or look up the answer to a question I pose in class on Wikipedia rather than trying to make sense of their own inadequate notes.) While I have routinely caught students plagiarizing their papers for the music appreciation course I teach — easy enough to type in particularly and unusually articulate sentences and then be lead immediately to the performing group’s website — how does one catch a student cheating on a test or exam? Right answers are right, often singularly so, and presumably we have talked about this material in class with the expectation, optimistic as it may be, that the students will study and learn it. And while we can all point out that “cheaters never prosper,” the problem is, sometimes, they do. Unless they are so foolish as to routinely perform abysmally and then suddenly ace an exam, it might not even occur to the teacher to call the student in to have an impromptu discussion about the topic to see if they actually know what they are talking about. There are also incidences where the student has been called in for exactly that, senses impending danger, and refuses to answer any questions at all.

I see two more key contributors to this epidemic: 1. The focus of acquiring an “education” has become more and more about getting The Grade (has anyone heard of Grade Inflation?) and then The Job than it is about advancing The Mind (Seen on a billboard for an area university: X State College in 2 words: You’re Hired), and 2. students have gained too much power.


A barely-earned C changed to a B+ after pressure from a student’s parent; despite FERPA laws which prevent US from talking to a parent, apparently parents can talk to provosts.

A student sends an email at 11:30 p.m. in a panic that I’ve included material on the review sheet that I said wouldn’t be on tomorrow’s exam. Not only am I expected to reply, sympathetically, but am subject to the student’s observation, ~ 7 emails into the discussion, that she “doesn’t like my attitude” when I point out that some things are just worth knowing, and ask her why her discovering something at the last minute on a review sheet that has been available for 3 weeks is suddenly my problem. If I don’t reply, helpfully and promptly, the student can indicate on her faculty-evaluation form that her professor is ˚unsympathetic to a student’s difficulties and/or ˚unavailable for help outside of class. These evaluations are given tremendous weight by those in administration, who see students as customers, tuition dollars as profit, and instructors, especially those of the adjunct persuasion, as dispensable if not downright disposable. There are also plenty of stories about perfectly qualified, articulate, and dedicated tenured professors forced out of positions because of the nature of their student-generated faculty evaluation forms.

What’s wrong with this picture?

So many things. . .

The first, and most obvious problem, is that we seem to be forgetting what the word STUDENT means — one who, through force of diligence and discipline, applies him or herself to a topic in order to learn something. Students who cheat cheat themselves out of this very thing. I would ask, if they’re only paying money to get the grade, and not really concerned about whether they actually learn something, why do they even bother? And something every administrator and teacher and parent and student should know and/or remember is this: part of what this student needs to learn is how to get along in the world as an ethical, diligent, responsible person, one who acts, in all events and circumstances, with integrity. I’ll even go out on a limb and propose that this might even be the most important thing.

The second most pressing problem comes from the idea that the STUDENT is qualified to evaluate the TEACHER. This premise is ludicrous, but routinely sanctioned through the actions of the administration. There are a great number of things I hope to impart to my students beyond the immediate topic at hand. I don’t even necessarily want to tell them what that is. Sometimes I pose a problem without giving any hints about the solution because the best way for them to learn what I’m trying to teach involves their wrestling with that very thing. (˚Professor does not provide guidance in problem solving. or ˚Professor does not explain topics sufficient for understanding. or ˚Expectations for the course exceeded that which was reasonable.) If I provide the powerpoint outline and the notes and the listening guide and the answers to the questions not only have they not invested anything of their own — time, attention, thought; the act of organizing their notes, constructing outlines, researching and pondering and solving problems themselves, the means by which they will develop complex understanding, has been taken from them.

Instead, I have been compelled to add to my syllabus, under the heading “Student Outcomes” goals such as that they will develop independence, self-sufficiency, and responsibility through RECORDING THEIR ASSIGNMENTS AND QUIZ TOPICS themselves. Apparently this is unusual, unexpected, and interpreted by students as evidence of my lack of concern for their success. I announce it in class, I write it on the board, but I don’t hand out little slips of paper (as they do in elementary school) nor do I post it on Blackboard (makes it too easy not to come to class; my philosophy: if you want to know what’s going on today, and what’s going to go on tomorrow, show up).

There are cultures where “cheating” is not a word or concept that’s discussed, not because it doesn’t happen, but because it is the norm — where plagiarizing is seen as paying the original author tribute, where The Grade is The Most Important Thing No Matter How It’s Attained. Unfortunately, I think that the path we are headed down is even more insidious, because it seems to involve all areas of our children’s lives: from how they get into college to what they do once they’re there, from how they access culture to how they’ll behave on the job. Junior wants to win the Pinewood Derby or the essay contest so dad makes the little car or writes the paper; what has Junior actually learned from this endeavour? All you have to do is look at the financial services industries, shortcuts taken by oil executives, the desire of every overpaid businessman to avoid taxes and incorporate their business on a “favorable” island — something for nothing, with the highest possible benefit to “me.”

The New American Way? At what cost? We should all shudder to think.


Let’s Hear it for the Teachers. . .Well, Some of Them

I just helped for 2 1/2 hours at my daughter’s school this afternoon for “Fun and Fitness” day. My job was to supervise a sack race and a beach ball game where pairs of students needed to get a beach ball from one end of the pitch to the other and back without using their arms or hands.

I’m exhausted.

As for teachers, those people who do this all day every day for 2/3 of the year and then go home to take care of their own children: We don’t pay these people enough.

But. . .

Some of these classes come up and the teacher says “get in your teams” and the children line up and await further instruction.

Some of the classes arrive and mill around in confusion and take all of the beach balls and throw them at each other and don’t listen to the instructions while the teacher stands in the shade chatting with parents.

Is there a way that the first teachers in the first group could get paid more than the teachers in the 2nd one?

My oldest son (20 now, and a physics major at a prestigious midwestern college) demonstrated a lot of intelligence at a very young age. He had taught himself to read before starting kindergarten, and used to become confused when playing preschool games because he was trying to turn simple counting problems into computational ones. He loved homework so much that he would beg me to buy those little workbooks at the drugstore and he would do them at night (this is during his preschool and kindergarten years) for “fun.”

Then he went to first grade. Mrs. W. was a prim, pinched, unhappy woman who wanted students to sit in their chairs with their hands folded and to get their work done as efficiently as possible. If they were given a picture of a butterfly to color, Son #1 would decide to make a mosaic pattern out of all 48 crayons in his crayon box. If they were learning about bugs, Son #1 would spend the entire evening catching every bug he could find and collecting them in little plastic bowls to bring in to show the class the next day. If he didn’t just want to know what something was, but why, he would ask.

Mrs. W. was not happy.  Son #1 was perfectly willing to bring the picture home to complete; this was not acceptable. Son #1 asked too many questions; it disrupted her “teaching.” By the end of the year his handwriting had deteriorated to unreadable (and stays there still), and his primary concern was to get the work done as quickly as possible. “Good enough” was good enough.

I’m not sure he’s recovered from this mistreatment yet, and I deeply regret that I was too young and unsure of myself to do something about it.

Beyond the literal teaching that these people do, they have immense power to motivate, to inspire; or to deflate, to deter. These are the kinds of things that need to be recognized when evaluating teacher’s success; and probably more so than looking at the latest standardized test scores.

Now I’m going to go lie down and put a cool cloth on my forehead.


College Students and the New Paradigm

I’ve talked to people at various institutions, and this problem, or at least some form of it, seems to be universal.

Students behave irresponsibly, and then cast around to find someone else to blame for it.

Some stories from the trenches:

They don’t write down what the assignment is: the teacher did not communicate it effectively. They don’t prepare sufficiently for a quiz: the material was covered too quickly or not thoroughly enough. (I actually had a student tell me once that it was my job that he learn the material.) They don’t note the date, time, and place of the final exam, or show up 45 minutes too late, and report to your director that you were not present as arranged. They cheat on a test, deny it, and are allowed to continue their studies. They fail to show up 50% of the time, are given a poor grade, and have their tuition-paying parents call the provost, who instructs the instructor to give the student a B.

Too many students take too little accountability for their lives, education, actions. Too many parents, teachers, administrators are too willing to enable these irresponsible behaviors. Too many students are too eager to cast the nearest scapegoat under the wheels of the bus in order to attempt to save their own skin.

Too many colleges/universities employ too many adjuncts, who have too little power to fight this trend with confidence of protection by the administration. Too many tenure-track faculty fear the result to their application for tenure if they try to uphold academic and integrity standards.

Meanwhile the students who behave responsibly and with integrity receive degrees from institutions who risk losing credibility if these practices were widely known.

It’s too scary, any way you look at it.


Drastic Cuts

“The ____________ Public Schools Superintendent has proposed cost cutting measures that will force many students to travel by bus to another school to take band, choir and art classes.”

We continue to shift the focus of education from the bettering of minds and souls through the development of the ability to think and feel (through an immersion in history and literature and philosophy and logic and the arts) to trying to teach marketable skills.

Life without the arts — music, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, literature, architecture — is life without beauty. Life without beauty is drudgery.

Is this the best we have to offer our children? Has anyone proposed cutting the football program? Or getting rid of the weight room? How about the boutique high schools with 3 assistant principals and better health insurance than anyone else in the state?

To quote the New Horizons website: Always among the highest expression of every culture, the arts teach us much about every historical period through its literature, visual arts, music, dance, and drama. Today it is recognized that to be truly well educated one must not only learn to appreciate the arts, but must have rich opportunities to actively participate in creative work. The arts are languages that most people speak, cutting through individual differences in culture, educational background, and ability. They can bring every subject to life and turn abstractions into concrete reality. Learning through the arts often results in greater academic achievement and higher test scores.

And an article from the New York Times from 1918, which is referring to literature directly, but which I believe addresses all of the arts as well as the times we find ourselves in:

“At a time when the habit of change threatens to unsettle all convictions and re-estimate all values, when war has concentrated the intelligence of the world on mastering the secrets of power latent in the physical forces of nature, when the readjustments of reconstruction direct attention to the practical needs of the importunate present, the American Academy [of Arts and Letters] wishes to record its abiding faith in those intellectual traditions and spiritual aspirations of humanity which in their sum constitute ‘the things that are more excellent.'”

Can’t say it better than that.


College Scam

The theme of the day seems to be that I’m being ripped off, in various and sundry ways, and I don’t like it.

Just paid my son’s college tuition for this semester.

Included in the charges was $5,790 for a semester of room and board. This means we paid $11,580 for 8 months for him to live in a 6′ x 9′ room and eat dorm food. Now granted, this is the dorm food of the 21st century, which is, from what I hear, decidedly better than the dorm food we ate in the 1980s, but still; at $10.50 a meal, I think we might have overpaid.

Is this the new model, how colleges can afford to stay in business? I was wondering (briefly) how they could charge this with a straight face, but then I realized that in today’s electronic age, it’s probably not all that difficult. (You all know how easy it is to say something to someone in an email that one would never be able to say to someone in person. Something that bears some consideration when writing that vehement response to your boss, underling, colleague.) Maybe this is what the advent of technology brings us — extortion. And we all willingly sit down at our computers, log in to our online banking accounts, and participate.

Tomorrow: health insurance.


Care, Dammit!

I don’t know why herds of wasted youths, much like I consider myself to be, continue to congregate around plastic digital-cable systems instead of with one another, organically. Like many of the people with whom I interact on a day-to-day basis, I’m growing apathetic about my apathy. We don’t care that we don’t care. . .But if we continue along the path we’re collectively treading, our children are going to care even less than we do, and our leaders will be even better at bending the rules.

We’re very comfortable. We owe the world an interest in ourselves. We’re the superpower. But if we continue to hardly bat an eye when our leaders lie and cheat us, we could very easily just be an ordinary country, like, I don’t know, France.

Just imagine. France.

Apathetic youth hinder global change

Cheap Education

From last Sunday’s New York Times (February 7, 2010)

To the Editor:

Many of us have dedicated nearly a decade of training toward the profession of college teaching, only to face permanent economic insecurity and deplorable working conditions.

Elimination of tenure-track positions began long before the recent economic downturn. Both aspiring and tenured professors are alarmed at how the ranks of unprotected, underpaid adjuncts have grown over the past two decades. That change has also been an effective way to consolidate power at universities within the administrative class, and to alter the fundamental nature of college education.

The American university has long positioned itself as a place where the twin goals of research and teaching are brought together to promote advancement of thought. This model has largely explained why the best students worldwide covet degrees, particularly graduate degrees, from American institutions. The question we should be asking is what the casualization of the academic labor market means for our ability to continue as a leader of ideas.

Alicia Gibson; Hiroshima, Japan, Jan. 31

I traveled last week to a very prestigious institution on the East Coast to co-present on a very important, and relatively new, topic in my field. The school is one founded on the principles of intensive, expansive, high-quality education, and the development of informed and inquiring minds. The building was constructed decades ago to pay tribute to these lofty ideals — grand entrances, windows and ceilings that soar, ornate woodwork, beautiful tile. The students were eager, friendly, engaged.

I searched the internet at length the other day, trying to find a picture of a high school I’ve seen from up in the hills of northern Michigan to post here. It looks like a penitentiary. I’ve never actually walked the halls — it is possible, I suppose that the “view” from inside is pastoral and pleasant. The view from the outside and the idea of driving daily up to its doors fills me with dread.

One of the things we seem to have lost sight of in this country is the importance of actual learning, the importance of thought. In our quest for “fixing” the educational system, we develop more and more tests which teachers then must “teach to,” add teaching hours to the load, take away benefits or administrative support. It often seems that the people in charge are more concerned about the body in the front of the room than they are about what that “body” knows, or what contribution that person might be able to make to the field at large if they weren’t being driven to exhaustion.

Meanwhile, public-school classes in logic, debate, music, art, are either moved to zero hour, subject to enormous fees, or cut altogether. Windows are bricked over so the students aren’t “distracted.” Is the message then, in our pursuit of enlightenment, to look inward?

As the economy limps along, and I sock away every dollar I can so that my children can get what may end up to be an entirely inadequate college education, I wonder if most of the people “in charge” are completely missing the point. We need to be teaching our children, children of ALL ages, enthusiasm, creativity, discipline, ambition; not facts, but ideas.

A curriculum of thought. Sign me up.

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