Alexandra Logue: Pathways to Reform

Change is notoriously difficult in any large organization, and institutions of higher education are no exception. From 2010 to 2013, Alexandra Logue, then chief academic officer of The City University of New York, led a controversial reform initiative known as Pathways. The program aimed to facilitate the transfer of credits among the university’s nineteen constituent colleges in order to improve graduation rates—a long-recognized problem for public universities such as CUNY. In Pathways to Reform, Logue blends vivid personal narrative with an objective perspective to tell how this hard-fought plan was successfully implemented at the third-largest university in the United States. Shedding light on the inner workings of one of the most important public institutions in the nation, Pathways to Reform provides the first full account of how, despite opposition, a complex higher education initiative was realized. Read on to learn more about Pathways, the motivation behind it, and the challenges that had to be overcome.

What is Pathways and what motivated you to develop it?

For 40 years the worst academic problem facing CUNY students was difficulty in transferring their credits from one of the 19 CUNY undergraduate colleges to another.  CUNY students, similar to other current college students in the United States, transfer a great deal, and when students lose credits upon transfer, or credits taken to satisfy general education or major requirements are changed into elective credits, it can make it more difficult for students to graduate and their financial aid may run out.  These problems were hitting CUNY students particularly hard because their median family income is quite low, almost half are the first in their families to attend college, and almost half have a first language other than English.  Therefore, even without credit transfer difficulties, many CUNY students have an inordinate number of challenges to overcome in obtaining a college degree, in a society in which a college degree is increasingly necessary for employment and advancement.  In addition, New York State Education Law treats CUNY as a single university, and instructs CUNY to function as “an integrated system and to facilitate articulation between units,” too often the opposite of what was happening with undergraduate curriculum pre-Pathways.

What were the big goals for Pathways?

The immediate specific goal was, after students transferred, to have them lose fewer credits and to have fewer of their general education and major credits changed into elective credits.  We expected that result to lead to other important outcomes, particularly increased retention and graduation rates, fewer excess credits (students taking credits in excess of the number needed for their degrees), and a lower percentage of students having used up all of their financial aid prior to graduation.  However, we knew that it would take many years before we would be able to determine whether these other results had been obtained. To fully assess Pathways, we would need to assess students who started at one college and then transferred to another, with the total amount of time at the two colleges sufficient to obtain a bachelor’s degree (a total period of up to 6 years). Therefore, our immediate, most important, goal was simply to have credits transfer more effectively.  In the effecting of this goal, we also aimed to increase the quality of CUNY students’ education by clarifying and expanding the faculty-specified learning goals that courses were to accomplish, and by adding an additional layer of faculty review to all Pathways general education courses.

Was there a template for the program? Were there other institutions to which you looked for a model?

In the book I discuss how we examined the policies of other systems that had tried to solve credit transfer problems.  In particular, we examined what our sibling system, SUNY (the State University of New York), as well as the University System of Georgia had done.  However, we examined what these other institutions had done not simply to model them, but to learn from their not-so-perfect aspects.  Our goal was to construct transfer policies that were the best in the country.

What did you expect the challenges to be going into the process?

First, the CUNY system is huge (approximately 240,000 undergraduate students in 19 colleges) and complex, which makes any policy change difficult; communicating and effecting changes can be quite challenging.  Second, changes to curriculum, as occurred in Pathways, can take years (due to the time needed for multiple levels of approval as well as the time needed for the work on the curriculum itself), so we knew we would have to sustain our efforts over a long period of time. Third, we knew that everyone would not agree that the new policies were an improvement, or even needed, that some faculty would be particularly opposed, and that those faculty would try to stop Pathways.  As it turned out, the opposition was even larger than we expected.

Why was the program opposed by faculty?

I spend many pages in the book trying to explain the many different reasons that faculty opposed Pathways.  Much of it boils down to the fact that many faculty feel that they should have 100% control over the curriculum—that they are the experts and should make all curricular decisions.  However, the difficulty with this view is that faculty’s work lives are significantly affected by curricular decisions, so there is a built-in conflict of interest, and sometimes what faculty want can conflict with what is best for, or helps, students.  Therefore, in some cases, someone, in this case the CUNY Board of Trustees, may need to intervene and put some constraints on faculty choice in order to ensure that students’ rights to a high-quality, efficient, education are not violated.  We constructed Pathways under the overall principle that faculty and colleges could do whatever they wanted as long as it did not impede students’ progress towards a high-quality degree—the principle that all CUNY students are students of one university, and transferring from one college to another should not cause any harm to a student. In contrast, many faculty wanted no constraints whatsoever on their control over the curriculum.

How can we see, a few years in, that Pathways is making school easier to complete?

Each semester, many thousands more CUNY students are now transferring without losing any  credits.  In addition, transfer rates from community (associate’s-degree) to senior (bachelor’s-degree) colleges have significantly increased, and the percentage of these students transferring with an associate’s degree has increased 31% (very helpful to students in case a student for any reason doesn’t finish the bachelor’s degree).  Under Pathways, community college students know that their credits will transfer to the senior colleges, and therefore they do not have to transfer before finishing their associate’s degrees.  Thus even though it is only a few years since Pathways was first established, students are showing better degree progress than prior to Pathways.  CUNY Admissions offices are also now using the existence of Pathways in their marketing of CUNY, pointing out to potential applicants that if they come to CUNY, they will be able to switch to different colleges as their needs change, without losing credits.

This is not just a NYC story, how is the issue of credit transfers being handled nationwide? Are these other schools doing it really well?

Credit transfer is a national issue.  Over half of the nation’s bachelor’s-degree recipients now graduate with credits obtained from a college other than the one from which they are graduating.  Many states, national organizations, and researchers are now working on how to improve credit transfer.  Over half of the states already have statewide transfer policies for all of the public institutions of higher education in that state, and some states are even working together to facilitate credit transfer across state lines.  However, there is a paucity of data indicating how well any of these policies are working.  Many of the policies have large loopholes.  I am hopeful that CUNY will lead the way in obtaining excellent evidence as to whether or not its transfer policies are working, and in using that evidence to help future transfer students.

What do you hope administrators, students, and faculty can learn from your book about improving credit transfer systems here and nationwide?

There is much to be learned from my book.  First, the book has a great deal of information about why credit transfer can be difficult and about policies that can help.  However, more generally, the book contains a great deal of information about how higher education functions and why change in higher education can be so slow, tortured, and sometimes nonexistent.  The book also discusses lessons learned as a result of establishing Pathways, many of which can be generalized so as to help facilitate other aspects of change in higher education.

Why did you decide to write a book about what happened in establishing Pathways?

W.E.B. Du Bois said in 1949 that “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” I believe in that right deeply, and I particularly believe in making excellent higher education available to everyone who can benefit from it. Unfortunately, there were many points during the establishment of Pathways at which I felt that the rights of CUNY students to an excellent higher education, the students’ voices, and the facts about what the students needed and how we were trying to address those needs, were all being lost in an overwhelming tide of college and faculty actions, misinformation, and rhetoric.  As a result, making the changes that we felt would ensure the rights of CUNY students to an excellent higher education was extremely difficult.  I wrote this book to show why the changes needed to effect Pathways were necessary and why they were hard–why change in general is hard in higher education.  My hope is that the book will facilitate future change that will help to preserve and enhance higher education for everyone.

What was it like writing about the events that you had lived through while establishing Pathways?

On the one hand, it was wonderful to have the space and the time to explain, in what I believe is a comprehensible, comprehensive, and accurate way, what Pathways is, why it is important, and why it is formulated the way that it is.  This is information that should be helpful for establishing good transfer policies everywhere.  On the other hand, some of what happened during establishing Pathways was quite painful, and living through those events again was difficult.  However, there were moments of pure joy that I also got to relive, moments that are described in the book.  For those of us working on establishing Pathways, we could be totally up one day and totally down the next, and this happened over and over for three years.  We truly despaired that the process would ever end and that we would accomplish our goal, to the point that we hardly noticed when Pathways was finally effected.  I felt all of that again while writing the book.  Now that the book is done, I can finally reflect on the benefits that Pathways is bringing to many thousands of CUNY students.


LogueAlexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY. From 2008 to 2014, she served as executive vice chancellor and university provost of the CUNY system. She is the author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking and Self-Control: Waiting Until Tomorrow for What You Want Today.

All net royalties received by the author from sales of Pathways to Reform will be donated to The City University of New York to support undergraduate student financial aid.

Alexandra Logue: Not All Excess Credits Are The Students’ Fault

This post was originally published on Alexandra Logue’s blog

A recent article in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis reported on an investigation of policies punishing students for graduating with excess credits.  Excess credit hours are the credits that a student obtains in excess of what is required for a degree, and many students graduate having taken several courses more than what was needed.

To the extent that tuition does not cover the cost of instruction, and/or that financial aid is paying for these excess credits, someone other than the student—the college or the government—is paying for these excess credits.  Graduating with excess credits also means that a student is occupying possibly scarce classroom seats longer than s/he needs to and is not entering the work force with a degree and paying more taxes as soon as s/he could.  Thus there are many reasons why colleges and/or governments might seek to decrease excess credits.  The article considers cases in which states have imposed sanctions on students who graduate with excess credits, charging more for credits taken significantly above the number required for a degree.  The article shows that such policies, instead of resulting in students graduating sooner, have instead resulted in greater student debt.  But the article does not identify the reasons why this may be the case.  Perhaps one reason is because students do not have control over those excess credits.

For example, as described in my forthcoming book, Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York, students may accumulate excess credits because of difficulties they have transferring their credits.  When students transfer, there can be significant delays in having the credits that they obtained at their old institution evaluated by their new institution.  At least at CUNY colleges, the evaluation process can take many months.  During that period, a student either has to stop out of college or take a risk and enroll in courses that may or may not be needed for the student’s degree.  Even when appropriate courses are taken, all too often credits that a student took at the old college as satisfying general education (core) requirements or major requirements become elective credits, or do not transfer at all. A student then has to repeat courses or take extra courses in order to satisfy all of the requirements at the new college.  Given that a huge proportion of students now transfer, or try to transfer, their credits (49% of bachelor’s degree recipients have some credits from a community college, and over one-third of students in the US? transfer within six years of starting college), a great number of credits are being lost.

Nevertheless, a 2010 study at CUNY found that a small proportion of the excess credits of its bachelor’s degree recipients was due to transfer—students who never transferred graduated with only one or two fewer excess credits, on average, than did students who did transfer.  Some transfer students may have taken fewer electives at their new colleges in order to have room in their programs to make up nontransferring credits from their old colleges, without adding many excess credits.

But does this mean that we should blame students for those excess credits and make them pay more for them?  Certainly some of the excess credits are due to students changing their majors late and/or to not paying attention to requirements and so taking courses that don’t allow them to finish their degrees, and there may even be some students who would rather keep taking courses than graduate.

But there are still other reasons that students may accumulate extra credits, reasons for which the locus of control is not the student.  Especially in financially strapped institutions, students may have been given bad or no guidance by an advisor.  In addition, students may have been required to take traditional remedial courses, which can result in a student acquiring many of what CUNY calls equated credits, on top of the required college-level credits (despite the fact that there are more effective ways to deliver remediation without the extra credits). Or a student may have taken extra courses that s/he didn’t need to graduate in order to continue to enroll full-time, so that the student could continue to be eligible for some types of financial aid and/or (in the past) health insurance. Students may also have made course-choice errors early in their college careers, when they were unaware of excess-credit tuition policies that would only have an effect years later.

The fact that the imposition of excess-credit tuition policies did not affect the number of excess credits accumulated but instead increased student debt by itself suggests that, to at least some degree, the excess credits are not something that students can easily avoid, and/or that there are counter-incentives operating that are even stronger than the excess tuition.

Before punishing students, or trying to control their behavior, we need to have a good deal of information about all of the different contingencies to which students are subject.  Students should complete their college’s requirements as efficiently as possible.  However, just because some students demonstrate delayed graduation behavior does not mean that they are the ones who are controlling that behavior.  Decreasing excess credits needs to be a more nuanced process, with contingencies and consequences tailored appropriately to those students who are abusing the system, and those who are not.

LogueAlexandra W. Logue is a research professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY. From 2008 to 2014, she served as executive vice chancellor and university provost of the CUNY system. She is the author of Pathways to Reform: Credits and Conflict at The City University of New York.

Nancy Malkiel: Coeducation at university was – and is – no triumph of feminism

The 1960s witnessed a major shift in higher education in the Anglo-American world, which saw university life upended and reshaped in profoundly important ways: in the composition of student bodies and faculties; structures of governance; ways of doing institutional business; and relationships to the public issues of the day. Coeducation was one of those changes. But neither its causes nor its consequences were what one might expect.

Beginning in 1969, and mostly ending in 1974, there was a flood of decisions in favour of coeducation in the United States and the United Kingdom. Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the US; Churchill, Clare and King’s at Cambridge; Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus, St Catherine’s and Wadham at Oxford – many of the most traditional, elite and prestigious men’s colleges and universities suddenly welcomed women to their undergraduate student bodies.

However, as I argue in ‘Keep the Damned Women Out’: The Struggle for Coeducation (2016), this was not the result of women banding together to demand opportunity, press for access or win rights and privileges previously reserved for men. As appealing as it might be to imagine the coming of coeducation as one element in the full flowering of mid- to late-20th-century feminism, such a narrative would be at odds with the historical record. Coeducation resulted not from organised efforts by women activists, but from strategic decisions made by powerful men. Their purpose, in the main, was not to benefit college women, but to improve the opportunities and educational experiences of college men.

For one thing, coeducation was not on the feminist agenda in the 1960s and ’70s. The emerging women’s movement had other priorities. Some of these had to do with the rights and privileges of women in the public sphere: equal access to jobs; equal pay for equal work; legal prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sex – the agenda, for example, of Betty Friedan and other founders of the National Organisation of Women in 1966. Other priorities concerned the status of women in the private realm, striking at societal expectations about sex roles and conventional relationships between women and men. One of the movement’s earliest proponents, Gloria Steinem, spoke out about such feminist issues as abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment; and in 1971, upon commencement at her alma mater, Smith College, she said that Smith needed to remain a college for women. Steinem argued that remaining single-sex was a feminist act. Like Wellesley College, Smith was at the time considering a high-level report recommending coeducation. And like Wellesley, Smith – influenced in part by Steinem and the women’s movement – backed away from taking such a step.

Just as the drive for coeducation had nothing to do with the triumph of feminism, so it had little to do with a high-minded commitment to opening opportunities to women. The men who brought coeducation to previously all-male institutions were acting not on any moral imperative, but were acting in their own institutional self-interest. Particularly in the US, elite institutions embarked on coeducation to shore up their applicant pools at a time when male students were making it plain that they wanted to go to school with women. Presidents such as Kingman Brewster Jr of Yale (1963-77) and Robert F Goheen of Princeton (1957-72) were forthright about their overriding interest: to enrol women students in order to recapture their hold on ‘the best boys’.

That the educational needs and interests of women were not uppermost on these men’s minds doubtless bears on the ways in which coeducation fell short of contributing to real equality between the sexes. That was true in the universities, where coeducation did not mean revolution. Contemporaries called the pioneering women students ‘honorary men’; they were included and assimilated, but they were expected to accept or embrace longstanding institutional traditions, not to upend them.

Nor did coeducation lead to a levelling of the playing field for men and women, during their college years or beyond. Coeducation did not resolve the perplexingly gendered behaviours and aspirations of female students. While women present credentials on entrance that match or exceed those of men, they still tend to shy away from studies in fields such as mathematics, physics, computer science and economics, where men dominate. Moreover, even in fields where women are well-represented, men, rather than women, achieve at the highest academic levels.

Women also make gendered choices about extracurricular pursuits: they typically undersell themselves, choosing to focus on the arts and community service, while declining to put themselves forward for major leadership positions in mainstream campus activities.

Just as importantly, sexual harassment and sexual assault are no more under control after more than four decades of coeducation than they were when men and women first started going to college together.

And women continue to face significant challenges in finding professional leadership opportunities and realising professional advancement. The handful of women CEOs in major corporations continue to be the exception, not the rule. Despite the fact that a second woman has now become prime minister of the UK and that a woman has for the first time won a major party nomination for president of the US, women are significantly underrepresented in the US Senate, the US House of Representatives, and the British Parliament. There continues to be a significant gender gap in salaries, from entry-level jobs to much higher-level positions. Achieving a manageable work-family balance is a persistent problem for women, with even the most highly educated female professionals facing pressure to step out of the labour force to raise children.

In short, coeducation has fallen well short of righting the fundamental gender-driven challenges that still bedevil our society. It has not succeeded (perhaps it could not have been expected to succeed) in accomplishing real equality for young women in colleges and universities, or in the worlds of work and family that follow.Aeon counter – do not remove

MalkielNancy Weiss Malkiel is professor emeritus of history at Princeton University, where she was the longest-serving dean of the college, overseeing the university’s undergraduate academic program for twenty-four years. Her books include Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights and Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (both Princeton).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Princeton University Press to Name Its Higher Education List in Honor of William G. Bowen

William G. Bowen, President Emeritus, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Photo credit: David Lubarsky

Princeton University Press has lost one of its greatest authors and closest friends and supporters. William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, died last Thursday night at age eighty-three. While President Bowen will be best remembered, and appropriately so, as a university leader, he raised the study of higher education and its institutions to a new level as an author, coauthor, and editor of books. In addition to the many Princeton University Press titles that bear his name, Bill recruited a score of authors to PUP and, through the impact of our list on the scholarship of higher education, attracted even more. To mark this singular contribution to our publishing endeavor, the Press has chosen to make the unprecedented gesture of naming our higher education list in his honor: henceforth, The William G. Bowen Memorial Series in Higher Education.

William Bowen began his decades-long association with Princeton University Press as an author in 1969 with the publication of his monograph (with T. Aldrich Finegan), The Economics of Labor Force Participation. Then, beginning in 1972, as president of Princeton, he served on the Press’s board of trustees. He resumed his role as a PUP author in 1988—the final year of his presidency—with the publication of Ever the Teacher, a collection of his official writings and remarks. Yet it was as president of the Mellon Foundation, rather than of the University, that Bill made his most lasting, significant mark on the Press, beginning with the 1989 publication (with Julie Ann Sosa) of Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences. Though, nearly thirty years on, he is more closely identified with other, later works, it was this book that initiated the parade of publications that defines not only our publishing in the field of higher education, but, indeed, the scholarly arc of analysis of higher education in America and in the world.

Bill’s engagement with PUP expressed itself in two ways. He was, first and foremost, author, coauthor, or coeditor of twelve books on higher education under the Princeton University Press imprint, the subject matter of which spanned the gamut of issues from admissions to diversity, sports, the market for scholars, digital technology, cost containment, degree completion, governance, leadership, and more.

Bowen_Shape of RiverHis greatest achievement as an author, indisputably, was his 1998 collaboration with Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, which—in a research study unprecedented in scale and comprehensiveness—made the evidence-based case for affirmative action and influenced higher education policy nationwide. Beyond the extensive acclaim it gathered across the political spectrum, and the awards it garnered, The Shape of the River enjoyed the rare distinction of being cited by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the 2003 US Supreme Court case upholding affirmative action, Grutter v. Bollinger.

In addition to his prodigious work as an author, Bill was an informal PUP advisory editor, attracting to the Princeton list authors from his network of fellow researchers, thereby bringing a chorus of informed voices to the higher education conversation under the PUP imprint. Largely through Bill’s tireless work and enthusiastic editorial recruitment efforts, PUP can now boast as authors such distinguished scholars and higher education leaders as Harold T. Shapiro, Bill’s successor in the Princeton presidency; Derek Bok and Neil L. Rudenstine, presidents emeritus of Harvard University; Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College; Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University; and Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Princeton’s former dean of the college—to name just a few.

Seen from a wider perspective, Bill was in effect the architect of a scholarly agenda that, translated into a publishing program, has raised and addressed many of the most relevant, urgent questions besetting higher education. The books he brought to the Princeton list constitute a whole far greater than the sum of its parts: emanating from Bill’s own field of economics outward through the work of historians, legal scholars, scholars of religion, sociologists, and others, the list both encompasses and defines the intellectual terrain of modern higher education while framing the big issues for future scholars to explore.

Lesson PlanBill Bowen’s last book, published by us earlier this year, eloquently embodies his PUP publishing legacy. Cowritten with his close colleague and frequent collaborator Michael McPherson, Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education offers a blueprint for addressing the central issues now facing colleges and universities, and touches upon all the relevant areas on which Bill and his co-researchers have shed light: educational attainment, completion rates, socioeconomic and racial disparities, affordability, student aid, efficiency, sports, teaching, technology, and leadership. In outlining their “agenda for change,” Bowen and McPherson display a characteristic purposefulness mixed with optimism:

There is much that can be accomplished. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous Democracy in America (1835), observed: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” However true this may have been in the early part of the nineteenth century, we fervently hope that it is true today.

William G. Bowen—author, editor, collaborator, adviser, supporter of the Press, and true friend—brought this combination of purpose and optimism to the Press as he worked with us to publish books, define our ongoing editorial agenda, and repair not a few of our faults as we strove to be better. In formally dedicating our higher education list in his name, his grateful associates at Princeton University Press hereby make a partial payment on the Bowen legacy, which will live on in the books he has inspired.

Peter J. Dougherty, Director
October 24, 2016

An interview with Nancy Malkiel on the struggle for coeducation

MalkielAt the end of the 1960s, a change swept elite institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom: In a remarkably brief span of time, a large number of traditional, conservative, highly prestigious colleges and universities began admitting women. In her new book, Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, Princeton University professor Nancy Weiss Malkiel examines the historic shift, revealing that contrary to popular belief, the decision was less a moral response to female activists than a strategic one made largely by powerful men. Recently, Malkiel took the time to answer questions about her new book.

What led you to write a book about coeducation?

NM: It’s partly autobiographical. I had been a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-/late 1960s, when the relationship between Harvard and Radcliffe was beginning to be addressed. I joined the Princeton faculty in 1969 as one of the first three women in the professorial ranks; 1969 also happened to be the year when the first women undergraduates arrived. I served as dean of the college, with responsibility for undergraduate education at Princeton, for 24 years. At the same time, I graduated from and served as a trustee of Smith, a women’s college that decided not to go coed. I was very interested in how coeducation came to be embraced at Princeton and so many other elite men’s schools, in why Smith decided against coeducation, and in how women’s education worked in the institutions I knew best.

I was also very interested in processes of institutional change. How did very old, very traditional, very elite institutions decide to go coed? What factors influenced their decision-making? Who provided leadership? Who supported change? Who resisted change? How were competing interests adjudicated?

What made coeducation such a struggle?

NM: There was intense opposition to coeducation, mainly on the part of alumni who treasured their undergraduate experience and thought that admitting women would ruin the camaraderie, the special ambiance that had made all-male institutions so successful. The title of this book comes from a letter from one Ivy League alumnus who wrote, in opposing coeducation, “For God’s sake, for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.” Very often, coeducation was instituted over the very strong objections of these alumni. Many of these men later came to change their views when their daughters and granddaughters sought admission to their now-coeducational alma maters.

Your book focuses on decisions for coeducation in a very brief period of time – essentially, 1969-74. Why?

NM: There was a flood of decisions for coeducation in these years, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. That’s when coeducation came to be instantiated at most of the very traditional, very conservative, very elite single-sex institutions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The decade of the 1960s bore on the timing: with the civil rights movement, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s movement, it was no wonder that colleges and universities began reconsidering many aspects of the educational arrangements that had served them for centuries.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research?

NM: Coeducation was not the product of organized efforts by women activists. Decisions for coeducation were made by powerful men (Mary Ingraham Bunting, the president of Radcliffe, is the sole exception here). And they were acting not on some moral imperative, not on a high-minded commitment to the education of women, but on straightforward self-interest: Coeducation was embraced as a means of shoring up applicant pools that were declining because many students no longer wanted to go to single-sex institutions.

How did you decide which colleges and universities to write about?

NM: In the United States, I focused on the men’s schools that were generally regarded as the influencers, the agenda-setters, the institutions that others looked to, modeled themselves on, and emulated – in other words, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth. As for women’s colleges, Vassar was clearly the most prestigious women’s college that chose to admit men; I included Smith and Wellesley for comparative purposes because both of them had high-level reports in this same period that recommended coeducation, and both of them backed away from admitting men. In the United Kingdom, I wrote about the first three men’s colleges at Cambridge to admit women (in 1972) – Churchill, Clare, and King’s – and the first five at Oxford (in 1974) – Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus, St. Catherine’s, and Wadham.

It’s important to note that lots of other American institutions went coed in this period – men’s schools as well as women’s schools, colleges as well as universities. But the others were less influential, less precedent-making, than the elite institutions I focused on.

What were the biggest differences between coeducation in men’s colleges and coeducation in women’s colleges?

NM: When a men’s college coeducated, there was no question that it would attract a large number of highly qualified women applicants. When a women’s college coeducated, it was much less clear that there would be a sufficient pool of highly qualified male applicants.

Why did you want to compare American and British universities and colleges?

NM: A very similar phenomenon – the advent of coeducation at very old, very traditional, very elite institutions – was occurring on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The movements of the 1960s affected colleges and universities in both countries. Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were fully aware of what was happening in the United States, and there were some explicit connections between some of them and institutions like Princeton and Yale. There were also similarities in alumni resistance to coeducation. Heads of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge sought to assuage the concerns of their alumni by reminding them of the decision taken many decades earlier to remove the requirement of celibacy for fellows (faculty members) of the colleges – suggesting that coeducation, like married fellows, would soon come to be seen as perfectly normal.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel is a professor of history at Princeton University. From 1987 to 2011, she served as Dean of the College, overseeing the University’s undergraduate academic program, making her the longest serving dean. Malkiel’s current research centers on the decisions for coeducation at elite colleges and universities in the Unites States, as well as the United Kingdom, from 1969 to the mid 1970s. She is the author of  Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights and Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (both Princeton). Her most recent book is “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation.

Amy Binder: Conservative organizations and the suspicion of higher education

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By Amy J. Binder

Perhaps no one in America better personifies the political attacks on higher education than the governor of Wisconsin and would-be Republican presidential candidate, Scott Walker. In the years since he took office, Walker has managed to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in spending from public universities in his state and diminished job protections for professors, among other actions.

Walker may have a personal ax to grind with higher education, but it would be a mistake to think that he — or other politicians who attack public higher education — simply harbors individual grudges. Rather, for many years now “dark money” has paved the way for politicians’ symbolic, political, and material attacks on higher education. There are many familiar individuals’ and organizational names funding these attacks — John Olin, David and Charles Koch, the Heritage Foundation — all of whom have had a hand in crafting the talking points that Republican governors and legislatures use in the battle plans they employ.

Now that “dark money” has become a better known story, it’s an opportune moment to think about the ways this agenda has potentially influenced the wider public’s regard for higher education. For decades, a handful of organizations has been working in the trenches with conservative college students. With their emphasis on liberal indoctrination and conservative victimhood on college campuses, these organizations have fostered student activism and suspicion about higher education, which have created fertile soil in which larger-scale political attacks on higher education can germinate and grow. I would venture that they have contributed to undermining confidence in the higher education enterprise, even among those who are reaping its benefits—college grads.

The Young America’s Foundation (YAF), a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization founded in the late 1960s, now boasted more than $59 million in assets in 2014, and had expenditures of approximately $20 million that same year. Annual expenditures at YAF include organizing campus speaking tours for conservative luminaries such as Ann Coulter, Ted Nugent, Dinesh D’Souza, David Horowitz, and many, many others. When not sending speakers to the nation’s campuses, the YAF brings conservative students to it, at regional and national conferences every year. But whether speakers come to campus, or students go to conferences, the Foundation fuels a provocative style. Enticed with such slogans depicting faculty as tree-hugging, gun-taking, wealth-hating, and leftist-loving, students are taught in “boot camps” to fight “persecution” on campus with an “activist mentality confronting their liberal peers and professors head-to-head with “aggressive” tactics. Students take up the charge by staging showy events like “Affirmative Action Bake Sales” and “Catch an Illegal Alien Day.” This provocative style of right-wing activism is designed to poke fun at liberals, get them angry, and attract the media spotlight, and it is based on, and fosters, mistrust of faculty, classmates, and administrators. A staff member at Young America’s Foundation specifically said his organization went after Average Joe students — or, not the ones who attend Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

Another organization, called the Leadership Institute, had $30 million in assets in 2015, and spent nearly $14 million last year supporting conservative students online, on campus, and in their training facilities in Arlington, Virginia. The organization claims to keep a database of “leftist faculty” and “biased textbooks” on some 2,000 campuses, and it has trained tens of thousands of college students over the past four decades to enter politics and use advanced technology to get the conservative message out. One former employee of the Leadership Institute is James O’Keefe, the videographer who produced heavily edited, undercover audio and video recordings with workers at ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood, all of which went viral on the alt-right While at the Leadership Institute, and like the organization’s other field representatives, O’Keefe traveled to campuses across the nation consulting with students on starting clubs and conservative newspapers.

Like the Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute also gets better traction at public universities, where it delivers a coordinated message to students: You are under siege on your liberal campus, you should not trust your professors, your educational institutions do not favor students like you, and you must use aggressive tactics to counteract the discrimination. They spread mistrust about higher education not only to the conservative activists with whom they work closely, but to other students on campus who may pick up the newspapers they sponsor or events they fund.

Right-leaning students who do not fit the “Joe Average” profile of these two organizations find support elsewhere. The best-known national organization nurturing this disposition is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, or ISI, founded in the 1950s by William F. Buckley. ISI advertises itself as the premiere organization for the “best and the brightest” among conservative students. It offers seminars on moral and political philosophy (which ISI’s leaders say are lacking on campus), while also providing networking and internship opportunities at the National Review, the Weekly Standard, and other such media. Ross Douthat, the op-ed writer for the New York Times, was a member of the 2002 class at ISI while he attended Harvard, and is now a speaker for the organization. ISI’s 2015 assets totaled “only” $11 million, according to its website.

It’s important to think about how the conservative styles students are learning now on their campuses and national organizations may have an impact on their ideas about higher education and politics later. At YAF and the Leadership Institute, staff encourage students to turn against higher education: to regard college campuses with suspicion about political correctness, multiculturalism, wastefulness, and elitism. This may help explain why even college-educated conservatives can have such a dim view of higher education—alongside voters with lower education levels—and will support cutting funding to it.

What can be done about this situation—is it possible to minimize provocation and misgivings about higher education today to salvage politics about public higher education tomorrow? I think so, but short of a gigantic political watershed, it will be important for faculty and administrators on individual campuses to figure out what they can do to help.

I would not advise university leaders to bar outside speakers and organizations from campus. It’s unconstitutional and it backfires: One need only read about the martyred David Horowitz or Milo Yiannopoulos to see what happens when administrators try to keep incendiary provocateurs away from colleges and universities. Futhermore, there are some speakers associated with the Young America’s Foundation, and even more so in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, who offer students greater diversity in discourse, which can deepen their connections to higher education.

Rather, university administrators and faculty — the most immediate targets of the conservative organizations’ attacks — need to be clear-eyed that higher education skepticism is being fomented on their campuses, and they must think about ways to create and strengthen organizational structures that can help all students, including those who identify as conservatives, feel connected to their university and part of a larger community. Helping students who now feel alienated from campus to feel more integrated helps give the lie to the discourse about “elitist, persecuting, alienating, wasteful” colleges.

I am not talking about university leaders creating cultures of “school spirit”—which can actually have negative effects and add to the sense of “fun” students being confrontational, often at black and Latino students’ expense. What I am talking about is bolstering mundane, but very important, organizational arrangements on university campuses, like a lower student-to-faculty ratio. And if this isn’t possible because of funding cuts, making sure that there are more staff on campus whether in residential life, admissions, or administration, who are responsible for getting to know students and who can serve as mentors and advisors to them. Such relationships bind students to campus and build rapport.

It also means challenging students to think of themselves more as members of an intellectual, or smart, community of peers, where they can try out and refine their political ideas with others. This means more emphasis on engaged teaching, more office hours, more faculty connection to students, more efforts at role modeling what it looks like to appreciate, but also constructively critique, one’s campus.

It means building more on-campus housing at public universities, which anchors students in more heterogeneous living situations than when they are allowed to pick their own housemates off-campus and live farther away in more atomized living arrangements.

It means that faculty and graduate student TAs should be highly circumspect about slipping into raw political partisanship in their classes, which alienates conservative and also moderate students.

If university faculty, administrators, and staff are intentional in using the funding they do have to strengthening a sense of community for undergraduates on their campuses, then this is one means for shaping experiences that run counter to public attacks on higher education. Universities play a large role in shaping student identities, and in this case, the types of organizational commitments I have mentioned can counteract the identities sponsored by conservative organizations. With some of these campus-level fixes, at the very least we would have a greater number of conservative alumni who cognitively cannot recognize the caricature of public higher education that conservative politicians and their allies make about their university.

BinderAmy J. Binder is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Contentious Curricula: Afrocentrism and Creationism in American Public Schools (Princeton) and Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.

An interview with John Stillwell on Elements of Mathematics

elements of mathematics jacketNot all topics that are part of today’s elementary mathematics were always considered as such, and great mathematical advances and discoveries had to occur in order for certain subjects to become “elementary.” Elements of Mathematics: From Euclid to Gödel, by John Stillwell gives readers, from high school students to professional mathematicians, the highlights of elementary mathematics and glimpses of the parts of math beyond its boundaries.

You’ve been writing math books for a long time now. What do you think is special about this one?

JS: In some ways it is a synthesis of ideas that occur fleetingly in some of my previous books: the interplay between numbers, geometry, algebra, infinity, and logic. In all my books I try to show the interaction between different fields of mathematics, but this is one more unified than any of the others. It covers some fields I have not covered before, such as probability, but also makes many connections I have not made before. I would say that it is also more reflective and philosophical—it really sums up all my experience in mathematics.

Who do you expect will enjoy reading this book?

JS: Well I hope my previous readers will still be interested! But for anyone who has not read my previous work, this might be the best place to start. It should suit anyone who is broadly interested in math, from high school to professional level. For the high school students, the book is a guide to the math they will meet in the future—they may understand only parts of it, but I think it will plant seeds for their future mathematical development. For the professors—I believe there will be many parts that are new and enlightening, judging from the number of times I have often heard “I never knew that!” when speaking on parts of the book to academic audiences.

Does the “Elements” in the title indicate that this book is elementary?

JS: I have tried to make it as simple as possible but, as Einstein is supposed to have said, “not simpler”. So, even though it is mainly about elementary mathematics it is not entirely elementary. It can’t be, because I also want to describe the limits of elementary mathematics—where and why mathematics becomes difficult. To get a realistic appreciation of math, it helps to know that some difficulties are unavoidable. Of course, for mathematicians, the difficulty of math is a big attraction.

What is novel about your approach?

JS: It tries to say something precise and rigorous about the boundaries of elementary math. There is now a field called “reverse mathematics” which aims to find exactly the right axioms to prove important theorems. For example, it has been known for a long time—possibly since Euclid—that the parallel axiom is the “right” axiom to prove the Pythagorean theorem. Much more recently, reverse mathematics has found that certain assumptions about infinity are the right axioms to prove basic theorems of analysis. This research, which has only appeared in specialist publications until now, helps explain why infinity appears so often at the boundaries of elementary math.

Does your book have real world applications?

JS: Someone always asks that question. I would say that if even one person understands mathematics better because of my book, then that is a net benefit to the world. The modern world runs on mathematics, so understanding math is necessary for anyone who wants to understand the world.

John Stillwell is professor of mathematics at the University of San Francisco. His many books include Mathematics and Its History and Roads to Infinity. His most recent book is Elements of Mathematics: From Euclid to Gödel.

James Axtell on writing a “genealogy” of the modern American research university

wisdom's workshop axtellPope Gregory IX described universities of the middle ages as “wisdom’s special workshop”, but today’s American universities bear only a passing resemblance to the European institutions that founded their most basic principles. In In his newest book, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern UniversityJames Axtell writes an 800-year evolution of the modern research university, outlining the trials and successes that occurred while these universities were taking root in America. He recently took time to explain why this examination of higher education is so necessary.

You’re probably best known as the author of eight books on colonial Indian-white relations or “ethnohistory.” How and why did you make the transition to the history of higher education?

JA: I didn’t shift to higher education but back to it. I began my scholarly career in the history of education with a study of one-time Oxford don John Locke’s educational writings, followed by a book on education at all levels in colonial New England, including Harvard and Yale. Then, partly as a result of the “Red Power” protests of the late ‘60s, I was drawn to the ethnohistory of Indian-white relations in colonial North America. After 20-plus years probing the ins and outs of those relations, I was drawn back to the history of higher education. After finishing most of a book of essays on The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education (1998), I spent a dozen years researching and writing Princeton’s history from Woodrow Wilson’s transformative presidency (1902-10) to 2005. Retirement from William & Mary in 2008 took me to Princeton for a semester of teaching and the organization of a conference on “The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” which resulted in an edited book in 2012. When Peter Dougherty, the director of Princeton University Press, suggested the genealogy of the modern American research university as a much-needed book, I immediately saw it as a perfect fit for my longtime experience and love of universities.

Do you see that shift in interests as a sharp break?

JA: Not as much as it must seem to others, because I chose to write the history of Princeton as the first ethnohistory of a collegiate university. From my study of Indians and colonists I brought a focus on cultures and en- and ac-culturation as the best way to understand the transition of an educational institution from a relatively small, hidebound college to a world-class research university. So I devoted substantial chapters to the century-long development of the faculty, admissions, curriculum, student life and extracurriculum, library, art museum, graduate school, and university press–all the participants in and agencies of education.

Wisdom’s Workshop similarly focuses on the educational process (teachers, students, courses, and books), but with slightly more attention to institutional foundings, leadership, and architecture. It also covers a much longer time-span in tracing a clear and specific genetic lineage from medieval foundings and Tudor-early-Stuart Oxbridge, to 9 colonial American colleges, innumerable academies and c. 250 colleges before postbellum university developments and, in the 20th c., what Clark Kerr called “multiversities.”

Are the sources for university history much different from those for colonial ethnohistory? Are the questions?

JA: While some of the questions were framed similarly, the sources were of course quite different. I didn’t use archaeology, linguistics, or oral memory as much, but I did pay close attention to material culture, student jargons and dress, and faculty, administrator, and student memoirs. As centers of manuscript and then print culture, colleges and universities were founded on and sustained by the intellectual activities and written products of learned classes, who have left myriad clues to their pasts in libraries and archives around the world. The 19th-century invention and spread of photography has given university history an important additional source, which I have used in numerous illustrations in the Princeton and present histories.

You have written an 800-year “genealogy” of the modern American research university. What surprised you about what you found?

JA: A whole lot of things, some major, some interestingly “factoidal.” First, three persistent myths. I found no evidence to support the notion that Harvard was modeled after Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The second myth was that antebellum student mayhem was caused largely by a static college curriculum and a dull “recitation” system of teaching: the curriculum was prescribed but not static, and recitations were used almost exclusively in introductory courses to ground students in the basics. The third myth posited that American higher education was transformed after the Civil War by the wholesale importation of German academic features by returning American graduate students and scholars: instead, borrowings were carefully selected and adapted to American needs and conditions.

I was happily surprised to find that some medieval matriculants could not write; hazing of freshmen (“yellow-beaks” or “goats”) began in the Middle Ages; student spies (lupi or “wolves”) reported classmates who didn’t speak Latin outside of class as required; undergraduates were prohibited from using medieval libraries because they were places and “occasions for [presumably coeducational] sin;” four Tudor university chancellors were beheaded by King Henry VIII for not toeing the party line; 17th-c. Oxbridge students were forbidden (rather than recruited) to play football; parchment pages declared “heretical” were used as toilet paper, book bindings, and soap wraps; 17th-c. Harvard graduated an average of only 8 B.A.s a year; Yale College moved location five times in its first 18 years; campus was coined by Princeton’s president in the 1770s and spread quickly; antebellum academies enrolled far more students (including women) than did colleges and offered curricula that often earned advanced college placement; in copying older eastern college architecture, newer western colleges often built dorms with long hallways, perfect for student conspiracies (or rebellious “sprees”) and cannon-ball bowling games; the libraries of student literary societies were often larger (and more up-to-date) than college libraries; the only 19th-c. German university degree was the Ph.D. and only a quarter of students bothered to take it: the majority studied for state professional exams; 19th-c. German (and postbellum American) Ph.D. dissertations were article- rather than book-length; American college rankings began as early as 1910; Harvard wisely rebuffed a philanthropist’s offer to build a Harvard dorm in the “Turkish style;” diplomas (as opposed to degrees) were not given regularly until the late 19th c.; older veterans admitted to American colleges on the G.I. Bill after WW II (many with wives and children) performed so well that younger students cursed them as DARs (“Damned Average Raisers”); research conducted on government contracts at U.S. universities during the war contributed mightily to Allied victories, as did the influx of Jewish scientists and scholars exiled from Axis countries (the “Rad Labs” at Harvard and MIT and the atomic HQ at Los Alamos, NM were key); the loss of a Class of 1907 son on the Titanic led eventually to the building of the world’s largest university library system at Harvard (despite which, a New York Times article in 2014 declared Harvard “The Stanford of the East”).

The modern American university comes in for a lot of criticism. How do the consistently high global rankings of America’s research universities jibe with those criticisms?

JA: The global rankings are based primarily on research productivity, patents, and commercialization, faculty “star” power (especially Nobel Prizes), and other quantitative measures such as library holdings, endowments, and operating budgets. Most of the criticism is aimed at undergraduate education and the very diverse public and private American (non-)system below the 50 or 100 elite research universities. The two measures are not inconsistent or incompatible. In trying to serve more than 20 million students, America’s institutions of higher education perform very well for many, less well or poorly for many more, often because of inadequate secondary preparation, economic inequalities, or family circumstances. There is plenty of room for improvement in the “system” as a whole, but Wisdom’s Workshop, focused on America’s best universities, seeks to explain why they continue to earn a majority of the top global rankings.

The university is a medieval European creation. Has it maintained its essential identity and focus through eight centuries of social and intellectual change? If so, how?

JA: According to former University of California chancellor Clark Kerr in 1982, it had done so. “The eternal themes of teaching, scholarship, and service, in one combination or another, continue.” “Universities still turn out essentially the same products–members of the more ancient professions…and scholarship.” “The faculties are substantially in control….” “Looked at from within, universities have changed enormously in the emphases on their several functions and in their guiding spirits, but looked at from without and comparatively, they are among the least changed of institutions,” not unlike the Roman Catholic Church, several monarchies, and a few parliaments, all of which they outnumber by large margins.

Thirty-four years later, much the same could be said. For wherever they are founded or maintained, they serve society in familiar ways. Their participants may be more diverse, their purviews broader, their resources more extensive, their tools more sophisticated, their administrations larger and more involved in their operations. But they are today still recognizable for what they do, how they look, and who and what they produce because they are conservative as well as progressive institutions at the very crossroads of modern society.

You obviously enjoy writing: what do you like the most? Did or do you have any models?

JA: As a teenage sports reporter for two local papers and school publications, I was fond of adjectives and adverbs. Now, besides utter clarity and factual accuracy, I seek the richest nouns and verbs, internal rhythms, and unconscious (but once recognized, stet-ed) wordplay. I never consciously patterned my writing after that of any models, though I’ve admired and still do admire many historians and writers (Tony Grafton, Jim Turner, John Elliott, David Quinn, George Kennan, Edmund Morgan, Bill Bowen, John Fleming, Peter Brown, Erwin Panofsky, Natalie Davis, Rolena Adorno, John McPhee, and Inga Clendinnen to name just a few) Instead, I relish and applaud their lifelong professionalism, productivity, and stylistic brio.

James Axtell is the Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. His many books include The Pleasures of Academe, The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, and The Making of Princeton University (Princeton). Axtell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His most recent book is Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University.

James D. Stein: Putting Excitement Back in High-School Education

High school has been failing its students, according to James D. Stein, mostly by presenting to disinterested students an overwhelming mass of information that they aren’t likely to find interesting or useful. As the author of L. A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels, Stein is an expert at keeping subjects interesting for the most reluctant math students.

by James D. Stein

Let me start by repeating something I said in the last post. Where we’ve shortchanged students is at the secondary level. This is where I think we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education, which is to give students a broad general background in subjects deemed necessary but which they probably won’t use, and to prepare them for life as a productive citizen. So here’s what I’d recommend: revamp high school education to give students an enjoyable way to absorb a basic general background in subjects that they probably won’t use later on, and find out what they find interesting and give them a full dose of that.

In 1961, Richard Feynman delivered an introductory lecture at Caltech in which he made the following oft-quoted statement. “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

Let’s tweak what Feynman said a little.

If, in some cataclysm, all of the knowledge of humanity were to be destroyed, and only one book passed on to the next generation of creatures, what book would contain the most information about humanity in the fewest words? It would be a book summarizing the Top Ten most important achievements in the most important areas of natural science, social science, the humanities and history, ranked in order of importance by a panel of experts who have devoted their lives to the study of these subjects.

All of a sudden, acquiring a broad general background becomes both achievable and enjoyable – and in a reasonably short period of time. A basic education should tell you what’s important in the important subjects —AND NOBODY KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE!!! Oh, sure, in the sciences you could probably come up with a fairly good list (although the ORDER of the items would not be known, and that’s a key part of this idea) —but other than World Wars I and II, what are the important events in world history? How can we teach the important material in the important subjects, when we don’t even have a consensus as to what they are?

And let’s do it using the Top Ten format, because not only can we find out what are the most important achievements—which should form the basis for a broad general background—but because the Top Ten format is almost universally engaging. Publish a Top Ten list backed by experts, and you’ll know you’ve got a reasonable approximation of the biggies. Moreover, Top Ten lists invite further study and critical thinking.

Just think of the following assignment in a high-school history course: using the Top Ten list in American history as a guide, construct your own Top Ten list of the ten most important events in American history, and justify your choices. I’m guessing that you’d see raging debates in the classroom, with teachers serving as enlightened moderators rather than just ‘sages on the stage’. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but instead of arguing about Top Ten football teams or Top Ten TV shows, you just might find students suddenly arguing about the relative importance of the Civil War and the American Revolution in American history. You might find students actually doing research to support their points of view. You’d find students thinking about important ideas, rather than memorizing stuff to regurgitate on standardized exams.

Two decades ago, Carl Sagan wrote The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark, in which he decried the deplorable lack of scientific knowledge in the general public. I’ll bet if you simply had a list of the Top Ten achievements in physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, and if you taught that in a one-semester course, you’d have taken a giant step toward rectifying the problem that so concerned Sagan.

Almost every teacher in every subject feels the same way: students just don’t know what’s important. Let’s find out what is the important stuff in the important subjects, and give every high school student an opportunity to acquire that knowledge—relatively quickly and enjoyably. And then let’s get on with the business of enabling students to become productive members of society by enabling them to take courses at the high school level in what really interests them. It hurts me—a little—to say this, but if a student wants to become a video-game designer, I’d rather have them become a really good video-game designer than a barely passing algebra student. School should be a place where you go to help you fulfill your dreams. And I’m willing to bet you’d find a lot more students getting interested in science and history once they know what experts think is important—and once they’ve had an opportunity to think critically about it for themselves.

LA MathJames D. Stein is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His books include Cosmic Numbers (Basic) and How Math Explains the World (Smithsonian). His most recent work is L. A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels.

James D. Stein on teaching math in the liberal arts

Time and technology have changed the education system, but James D. Stein insists that we still have room for improvement, particularly in how the mathematics curriculum is handled in high school. In his latest book, L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels, Stein offers a unique approach that teaches mathematical techniques through liberal arts, making the subject more accessible to those who might otherwise avoid it. Today Stein discusses the challenge of providing students with a broad general background in subjects deemed necessary but which they probably won’t pursue professionally.

Abraham Lincoln and American High Schools

by James D. Stein

February 12th was Lincoln’s birthday.  Like almost everyone in my generation, I was given the official story of Abraham Lincoln and the value of education. You probably know it, how Honest Abe, realizing at an early age the value of education, would trudge miles through snow-covered forest from his log cabin in order to attend school.

I have no doubt that he did indeed so trudge, but over the years I’ve become skeptical of this ‘realizing at an early age the value of education’ explanation. I think Abe, like the vast majority of children (and adults), was basically a pleasure-seeker. Put yourself in his shoes – no TV, no video games, no Facebook. Which is better – a lonely log cabin in the middle of the woods, or a small school, with other children and the opportunity to hear stories far more interesting than anything he could find at home? I’m guessing he went to school in large part because it was a lot more interesting than what he found at home.

Today, however, schools face a problem – its students DO have TV, video games, and Facebook – and they’re stiff competition. Let’s be honest with ourselves; although there are a few students who will find factoring polynomials as interesting as Facebook, most won’t. And let’s continue to be honest with ourselves; although students who plan on entering a career in a STEM subject – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – need to be familiar with algebra, the only time anyone else will encounter an algebra problem during the rest of their life is when one of their children asks them for help with algebra.

And what do we want then? We don’t want both parents to tell their children that they had a really bad experience with math and don’t remember anything, This is not likely to encourage the next generation to pursue the STEM subjects on which our future well-being as a society depends.

So, having cursed the darkness, let me try to light a candle. Our education system does a reasonable job at the primary school level. It’s not perfect, but we do a pretty good job of teaching the three Rs in a highly diverse society. We also do a great job of education at the level of college and graduate school; after all, students come from all over the world to study at our institutions of higher learning, and generally the chief reason our college students go elsewhere is to participate in an exchange program.

Where we truly shortchange students is at the secondary level, where I think we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education – to give students a broad general background in subjects deemed necessary but which they probably won’t use, and to prepare them for life as a productive citizen.

My only expertise is in mathematics, but as I look at the California Framework for Mathematics, insofar as it deals with the high school level, I’m thinking – will anyone other than STEM students use algebra, geometry, or trigonometry in later life? Or even statistics? Probably not. It would be helpful if they understood how statistics functions and what it is used for, rather than knowing how to compute a standard deviation or a confidence interval – which they’ll almost certainly have forgotten within a year.

So here’s what I’d recommend – revamp high school education to give students an enjoyable way to absorb a basic general background in subjects that they probably won’t use later on, and find out what they find interesting and concentrate on doing a solid job of giving them a full dose of that. After all, that’s what we do in college – except for the enjoyable part.

Stay tuned for Jim Stein’s next post on how to give students an enjoyable way to absorb a general background.

LA MathJames D. Stein is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His books include Cosmic Numbers (Basic) and How Math Explains the World (Smithsonian). His most recent book is L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels.

Jonathan Zimmerman: How consensual is casual sex on campus?

zimmerman jacketIn a recent op ed in Washington Post on the question of consensual sex on college campuses, Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, writes, “… if we want to protect our students, not just their colleges, we will have to begin a deeper dialogue about the meaning of sex itself.” In an approach that departs from debates that have focused on what constitutes ‘legal’ sex, Zimmerman questions the ability of students to emotionally connect in such an intimate setting in extremely limited periods of time:

We might succeed in cajoling more students into some kind of verbal consent. But that’s a script, a bedroom contract between sexual vendors. Yes, it will make the whole transaction legal. But consensual? Really? If you met somebody an hour ago, how can you tell what they want? And since you know so little about them, aren’t you more likely to do something that they don’t want, no matter what kind of “consent” they have given?

According to Zimmerman, university online courses, workshops and informational resources about consensual sex on campus fail to emphasize the vital notions of emotional connection and communication. Due to this lack of communication, he suggests that although female students may verbally give consent, they are still pressured to do things they would normally avert.

Read Zimmerman’s full piece in the Washington Post here.

Jonathan Zimmerman is professor of Education and History at New York University. He has also authored Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American.

(Stanley) Fish Food for Thought, Part 2: Reflections on Liberal Arts Education

Welcome to Part 2 of PUP’s Stanley Fish series, Fish Food for Thought. All selections are excerpted from Fish’s new book, Think Again.


Fish Food for Thought

Part 2: Reflections on Liberal Arts Education

7.1 Why We Built the Ivory Tower

May 1, 2006

Fish on the difference between the academic and advocacy worlds.

In short, don’t cross the boundary between academic work and partisan advocacy, whether the advocacy is yours or someone else’s. Marx famously said that our job is not to interpret the world, but to change it. In the academy, however, it is exactly the reverse: our job is not to change the world, but to interpret it. (301)

7.4 Devoid of Content

May 31, 2005

Fish on teaching language structure, not content, in the classroom.

Students who take so-called courses in writing . . . are learning how to marshal arguments in ways that will improve their compositional skills. In fact, they will be learning nothing they couldn’t have learned better by sitting around in a dorm room. . . . They will certainly not be learning anything about how language works; and without a knowledge of how language works, they will be unable to either spot the formal breakdown of someone else’s language or to prevent the formal breakdown of their own. (313)

7.6 Will the Humanities Save Us?

January 6, 2008

Fish on the purpose of humanities courses.

To the question, ‘Of what use are the humanities?’, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said . . . diminishes the object of its supposed praise.(323)

7.7 The Uses of the Humanities

January 13, 2008

Fish on why he teaches humanities subjects.

Why do I do it? . . . I don’t do it because it inspires me to do other things, like change my religion or go out and work for the poor. If I had to say, I’d say that I do it because I get something like an athletic satisfaction from the experience of trying to figure out how a remarkable verbal feat has been achieved. . . . [I]t is like solving a puzzle—but the greater satisfaction is the opportunity to marvel at what a few people are able to do with the language we all use. (324325)

7.10 Deep in the Heart of TexasThink Again jacket

June 21, 2010

Fish on recognizing a quality education.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers. . . . And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades. (340)