2017 – The Year in Higher Education

Steve Volk, January 22, 2018

It is stock-taking time; time to think about where  higher education stands one year after “45’s” inauguration, time to figure out how we as educators at liberal arts colleges have weathered what all agree was a very stormy year. Attempting to draw meaningful conclusions as to how our sector has been impacted by events in Washington, and how current developments will play out in the long run, or even next year, is challenging. But with this in mind, let’s look at the past year in higher ed, at where we stand on January 20, 2018 compared with January 20, 2017.

Attacking the Foundations: Alternative Facts and Fake News

When beginning to think about the year past, I recalled Antonio Gramsci’s often repeated remark about  “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”  The essence, the very heart, of what we do demands to some degree that we never abandon an optimism of the will. But it is fair to say that the year heaped yet more challenges on to higher ed’s already over-loaded plate. Perhaps the most serious challenge faced by educators came with the Administration’s on-going attack on facts, evidence, and truth. Two telling moments book-ended the year. The Trumpian year began, in case we’ve forgotten, when senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway defended on NBC’s Meet the Press, Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inauguration two days earlier had drawn record numbers. This, despite all evidence, photographic included, to the contrary. What could have been ignored or laughed away instead became a cornerstone of the the new Administration’s approach to information when Conway defended Spicer’s assertion as “alternative facts.” (Within 4 days of her linguistic rebranding, sales of Orwell’s 1984 had jumped 9,500%.)

The year ended with Trump’s “highly anticipated” (ahem!) “Fake News Awards,” which were intended to blast the media by pointing to some of its miscues and factual errors, mistakes which are typically corrected and updated. As everyone knows, the “awards” were fundamentally about branding as “fake” any news that challenged Trump’s view of himself or the world and casting the media as an “enemy of the people.” Continue reading

Republicans to Mrs. Nelson: Drop Dead

Steve Volk, December 4, 2017

“What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade”

by Brad Aaron Modlin
(reprinted from Krista Tippett’s “On Being”) 

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.

Continue reading

Why Studying Sexually Dystopian Themes in 14th-century Epic Poetry Matters… and other thoughts on an education in the liberal arts

Steve Volk, January 16, 2017

Konrad von Altstetten embracing his lover. (Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 249v)

In Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities, a film about higher education that came out late last summer, Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, commented, “If somebody wants to write about sexually dystopian themes in 14th-century epic poetry, I think that’s fine.” But, he continued, “I have no earthly idea why taxpayers are supposed to subsidize this or subsidize students to learn it.”

Hess’s comments echoes the sentiment emerging from a considerable number of state houses lately, particularly as governors and state legislators feel emboldened to dictate what should and should not be studied at public universities and colleges in their states. Examples are not hard to find: Continue reading