The Socratic Seminar without Socrates

Weekly Read

December 12, 2016

By Janet Farrell Leontiou, Ph.D.

Recently, I attended a film screening at our local public school.  The film, “Most Likely to Succeed,” (produced by Ted Dintersmith and One Potato Productions, 2015, and directed by Greg Whiteley.)  This is a new entry into a growing genre of films offering critique of American public education.  The film establishes, like most, that school is failing our kids.  The film is well done and shows that public school, how it is structured now, now longer works.  The film demonstrates that public school in America was invented in response to supplying workers to industry.  The filmmakers make clear that we are living in the post-industrial age and therefore, our thinking of school needs to evolve into a more relevant institution.  Instead of school preparing people for the assembly line, the film argues that school should now serve a high-tech workplace.  What if we could best prepare our children for being in the world without looking to business to define education?

We keep getting school wrong because we look to business for a definition instead of defining education on its own terms for its own sake.  The film critiques a version of public school but then ends up replacing the model with a newer version of the same model.  The film features High Tech High in California.  The narrative is shaped around two very engaging students: Samantha and Brian.  Throughout the film, we see their transformation and we celebrate their successes.  The classroom, in High Tech High, can best be described as modeled after a Google lab and the teachers are more like managers than teachers.  The structure of the school is loose.  There are no designated subjects or class periods.  The teachers do not have tenure and their contracts are renewed annually. Although the film suggests that this arrangement is mutually preferred by both teachers and school administrators, it models a corporate strategy of hiring contract workers.   All of the teachers in the film are extremely likable; there is tremendous good will toward their students.

In one of the first scenes at the school, the teacher instructs the students to assemble the tables and chairs.  He then leaves them to figure out how to accomplish the task. Student autonomy does not necessarily translate to hands-on learning. In the film, students are expected to find out what they need when they need it.  The Socratic method is called Socratic not only because there is an emphasis on questions but also because it was modeled after Socrates who led the conversation. The film makes clear that we do not know what the workplace will look like in the future and this is the motive behind the creation of a school that emphasizes: collaboration, independent research, creativity, and risk taking. The school year culminates in a showcase of collaborative student work.  The work is beautiful and impressive.  I am left asking the question:  why can’t we create an environment like this but keep a traditional curriculum and see the teacher as the authority–as the one who is the author of the educational encounter.  Why can’t we have the socratic seminar with Socrates?

I have taught at a community college for the last twenty years.  In the classroom, I have worked to create my version of education as many educators have done. The word “education” means to lead out from darkness.  I see it as separate from training.  Training means to drag; it means we are always following something or someone.  On the locomotive train, school is the caboose.  I invite my students to engage with the educational process at any point that interests them.  I teach to their interests and drop in the pedagogy as I go along.  I ask that we all let go of the end product and make a commitment to learning for its own sake.  I ask my students to wonder about what kind of work they envision for themselves.  I do ask them about jobs.  Work comes from the Latin word opus, meaning something grand we produce with our lives.  I tell them that they need not have the answer, only to ask the question.  Getting them to ask questions is extremely difficult because they have little practice.  What they most need to learn is to learn how to learn.

The film makes clear what I think we all know by now but we are stuck with a system that is very difficult to change.  The test driven, meaningless culture of school is replicating a rat race mentality to school.  We are all running on the gerbil wheel and in some cases, arguing that we cannot step off the wheel.  Parents at the screening of the film in my community were anxious.  We have been trained to think that school is the ticket to our kids’ financial success.  Now, this genre of films suggests that the deal we have struck may not pan out as we imagined.  I would like to see school disengage from business and define itself on its own terms. We have stripped meaning out of school.

“Most Likely To Succeed” does a good job of inserting meaning back into school.  The meaning, however, grows out of the project based learning approach.  I ask my students to create meaning by crafting a meaningful life.  My students have been brainwashed into thinking that a diploma will get them money.  A diploma is meaningless if you not received an education.   No one becomes wealthy  from wishing to be rich.  Those people who become wealthy do so because they discover something that they love doing and if you love something, you tend to do it well.   Our teacher in constructing meaning is Viktor Frankl and the text is Man’s Search for Meaning.  He not only constructed meaning in his life but he did so under the seemingly impossible conditions as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.  He writes on the topic of success and I wish his words could spawn a revision of school:

Don’t aim at success–the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.  For success like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success; you have to let it happen by not caring about it.[1] 

In other words, teach to the test and the students forget what they crammed after the test is over or teach by emphasizing meaning, students will be able to perform on a test.The test score is the by-product of having learned well and not the meaningless hurdle to jump over at the end of the race.  It broke my heart to hear that my son’s fourth grade teacher gave a practice test every day to prepare them for the standardized test to come at the end of the school year.  If it were me, that would have turned me away from school and away from learning.  The teacher told the class that her reputation was on the line and her reputation was tied to the test scores.  Needless to say, fourth grade became something to get through and get beyond.

We seem to think that because we live in a high-tech world, that our schools need to be high-tech as well.  I think the opposite.  The technology is there; it is not going away.  Young people will be drawn to the new technology. In school, we need to stress conversation because our children have little exposure to unmediated communication.  The spoken word is becoming a foreign language. Socrates recognized the power of the dialogue and saw it as the instrument for transformation.  Socrates was wary of the use of new technology in his day.  In our world, we tend to be uncritical of technology and think that more is better.  He was speaking about the technology of the written word but his comments pertain to all technology.  Of course without the existence of the technology he is arguing against, and his student, Plato, we would not have learned:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who earn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.  Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.[2]

Socrates was most concerned with the learners’ soul.  Just last week I met with two grammar school teachers to talk about a little girl who is like a daughter to me.  The teachers explained that within the current environment of school, the children are encouraged to merely scan nonfictional texts to seek out relevant information.  As I listened, I thought: how (and why) do we teach her how to engage in such a soulless, meaningless task so that she can perform well on the standardized test?

I received an education in a subject that most would now call antiquated–rhetoric.  We no longer teach rhetoric even though it was once the foundation for all study. Before I returned to graduate school for a Ph.D., I was an assistant vice president at Chase.  I had no preparation for business.  I had a foundation in learning how to learn. If we do not know what the marketplace is to look like in the future, it seems that the most responsible thing to do for our kids is to engage them in the education process, model what it means to think, and learn how to learn.  Then, no matter what the future holds, they will be able to adapt and move forward. Instead, we choose to constantly be in reaction to what the workplace demands school to be.  This mentality will always put us behind because by the time we have answered those demands, the demands will change.  This film is just another example of an educational system rushing to catch up.  The film creates the argument that the old, post-industrial school model is out-of-date and needs to be replaced with a high-tech model of school. Same wine, different bottle.

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959) 16-17.

[2] Plato, Phaedrus (New York: Penguin Classics, 2005) 274c-275b.

A Petition to Support DACA Dreamers

NCC/AAUP invites you to consider supporting a petition, brought to our attention by Professor Miguel Alonso, calling on President Obama to issue a presidential pardon to individuals covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA, a program begun by the Obama Administration in June 2012 after the failure of the Dream Act, allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to apply for a two-year deferment from possible deportation proceedings, subject to renewal, if they meet certain criteria. The applications of close to 750,000 individuals were approved. The recent election of Donald Trump leaves the future of DACA and the undocumented individuals who have benefited from it in doubt. Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as his senior advisor and Kris Kobach (Kansas Secretary of State) as a member of his transition team brings determined anti-immigrant fervor and expertise to the emerging administration. For an excellent overview of what Trump means for Dreamers, please consider reading this  summary from The New Yorker.

As Professor Alonso noted in his email to the College, many of our students are covered by DACA. Professor Alonso writes about the possibility of Trump’s undoing Obama’s program: “While nobody knows for certain if this will indeed be the case, the fear created through his rhetoric is very real for one of the most vulnerable groups of students we currently serve.  It has been heart breaking having to look these students in the eye and explain that the only country most of them have ever known may soon turn its collective back on our fellow Americans threatening them with possible arrest, deportation and having to witness the tearing apart of their families.”

In April of this year, the NCC/AAUP’s Annual Symposium featured extraordinary stories narrated by a panel of Dreamer activists—they were community college students like our own Angel Reyes who found his life transformed by professors at NCC. The American Dream was unfolding for Angel under the tutelage of his mentors at our College. Support for Dreamers like Angel is also a central goal in the platform of the NCC/AAUP’s Let Us Learn/Let Them Learn campaign.

To sign the DACA petition, please follow this link: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/call-president-obama-issue-presidential-pardon-all-daca-enrollees

Donald Trump and Higher Education

Weekly Read

November 15, 2016

For those of us in higher education who may be wondering what a Trump presidency entails for higher education, this week’s Weekly Read offers a survey of recent reflections on exactly this question.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of Higher Education Policy at Temple University provides a short-list of higher education policies she expects to see emerge from the Trump administration. Noting her extensive experience, as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, with the Scott Walker governorship in that state (a politician whom she describes as Trump’s nearest peer), Goldrick-Rab highlights three policy changes she expects to see: 1. Promotion of for-profit colleges and universities and a continuing defunding of public education. Trump has experience in for-profit education: Trump University. 2. College loan origination will return to private banks and underwriting will be introduced, meaning only worthy applicants will get loans. Enrollment will drop because fewer people will qualify for loans for tuition that won’t decline. 3. The Department of Education will be downsized (because big government is bad), and vulnerable populations will have fewer protections.

Writing in the Washington Post, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel adds some detail to Goldrick-Rab’s points, putting them in the context of President Obama’s higher education reforms. One reform the Obama administration and the Department of Education put in place was the gainful employment rule that placed regulations on for-profit colleges. These rules made for-profit colleges more accountable for earnings and loan debt of their graduates. A Trump administration might kill this law. Debt burdened students would be hurt the most by this roll-back. Since Trump’s campaign was policy-light, it’s hard to know what he will enact. If he aligns with Republican priorities, we can expect to see student loans turned over to private institutions.

Think-Progress takes a look at Trump’s deregulation and loan plans. In an October speech in Ohio, Trump proposed an income-driven repayment plan that would “cap loan repayments at 12.5 percent of a borrower’s income and then forgive the loans after 15 years.” This sounds good, until you consider another Trump campaign promise, to sharply reduce the size and authority of the Department of Education and the Republican Party’s goal to get the federal government out of the loan business. If both were to come true, the government would be responsible for paying banks hundreds of billions of dollars of unpaid debts after the 15-year loan forgiveness kicked in—a boon for Wall Street. Moreover, if privatized, student loan rates on the private market would rise from the current 4.75% rate to something more like 9.5 to 19%. Low-credit score borrowers could see lifetime repayments rising $7,340 to $24,470. Low-income students, meanwhile, would be considered bad-credit risks: they simply won’t go to college.

An issue raised by Inside Higher Ed was Trump’s call for “extreme vetting,” a process that would put in place an ideological test for anyone wishing to enter the United States, while suspending visas for anyone coming from countries “that have a history of exporting terrorism.” People in international higher education have said such policies would make it extremely difficult for students from Muslim countries to attend American colleges and universities and that they might go to friendlier nations like Canada or Australia for their education.

Finally, the name Ben Carson, has been floated as Trump’s possible selection for Secretary of Education. This is from the New Republic: “Brace yourselves for Education Secretary Ben Carson. Carson, who believes God created the world in seven days and that the Egyptians built the pyramids to store grain, is reportedly Trump’s top pick for the job.” Carson denies the scientific validity of evolution and climate change.

That’s the summary. Make of it what you will.

Tim Strode, PhD  NCC/AAUP

The End of Academic Freedom?

Weekly Read

November 7, 2016

The End of Academic Freedom?

Inside Higher Ed reports on the case of an untenured NYU assistant professor of liberal studies, Michael Rectenwald, who has taken paid leave after he posted strongly worded complaints on Twitter (under the handle “Deplorable NYU Prof”) about safe spaces and trigger warnings. A trigger warning is a statement included on a professor’s syllabus indicating that some material presented in a course might cause discomfort or distress. In an  interview with NYU’s student newspaper, Washington Square News, Rectenwald describes the danger identity politics poses to academic freedom:

“What happens is that the left presents its needs to the administration in universities, and the administration seizes on these opportunities to produce power and control to actually discipline the subjects under them. They don’t care what ideologies — whether it’s right, left, center. My dean two years ago — I mentioned the words trigger warning, and he snickered out loud, as if it was some foreign concept. Then last year, towards the end of the semester when we had a colloquium, he was floating the idea that they would be required on the syllabi. This is what happens. Once the administration gets it, it becomes a tool — an instrument — for them. Then they are able to compute to have more leverage and control over the curriculum, which should be faculty controlled in every university.”

Two days after this interview was published, a letter to the editor written by members of NYU’s Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group was published in the same paper. The letter condemns Professor Rectenwald’s “incendiary rhetoric,” his efforts to “gaslight those who would disagree with him,” his “straw man fallacies,” “circular arguments,” and “hasty generalizations.” The letter closes with this indictment: “But as long as [Rectenwald] airs his views with so little appeal to evidence and civility, we must find him guilty of illogic and incivility in a community that predicates its work in great part on rational thought and the civil exchange of ideas.” On the day of the letter’s publication, Rectenwald was asked to meet with a dean and a representative from human relations, and concern was expressed about his mental health. Soon after, he contends, it was “strongly suggested” that he take a medical leave of absence. An NYU spokesperson later claimed that Rectenwald’s leave had “absolutely zero to do with his Twitter account or his opinions on issues of the day.”

NYU’s contention that Rectenwald’s tweets had nothing to do with his having to leave the classroom seems disingenuous. The narrative appears to suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, the hectoring op-ed that directly preceded his leave bases much of its condemnation on the “illogic” of Rectenwald’s public statements–their circular arguments and straw-man fallacies. But logic is hardly a sound criterion for judging hyperbole—the rhetorical mode Rectenwald brandishes on social media and interviews. That Rectenwald’s classes were cancelled and his students deprived of the opportunity to learn from him and he from them, and perhaps engage in conversations about free speech, diversity, and academic freedom validates Rectenwald’s contentions about identity politics and academic freedom. “I’m afraid my academic career is over,” Rectenwald told the New York Post. “Academic freedom: It’s great as long as you don’t use it.”

Rectenwald’s fate—whether he is out of a job or just temporarily on leave while his “mental health” issues are resolved—is uncertain. What is certain is the fragile state of academic freedom itself. Let’s recall what academic freedom means. Briefly put, academic freedom is “the freedom of scholars to pursue the truth in a manner consistent with professional standards of inquiry.” The pursuit of truth, a bedrock value of academic freedom, is generally taken to be hugely beneficial to a democracy and a necessary condition for a full expression of human nature. For scholars in public institutions, academic freedom is also a First Amendment right. A crucial condition of academic freedom is tenure: tenure ensures a scholar may pursue truth—if pursued with academic integrity–without fear of losing a job.

Different forces seem to be rendering academic freedom obsolete—or, at the very least, diminishing its presence and undermining its integrity. One force, the conversion of most colleges to a business model of governance, means casual labor does most academic work: for scholars hired on a contingent basis, academic freedom is a dream and pursuing the truth or “following the argument where it leads” (as Socrates puts it) is perhaps not worth the risk of losing a job. With the bulk of academic work being plied by academics who can be fired almost at will, truth is a victim of institutional or administrative priorities—whether these be compliance with Title IX or the need to cater to local business interests by hijacking curricula and turning colleges into training sites. Whether you agree or not with Professor Michael Rectenwald’s views, you should wonder whether his untenured status at NYU made him vulnerable to being taken out of the classroom.

We should note, one esteemed university, the University of Chicago, has done away with trigger warnings and safe spaces altogether.  In a letter to all incoming students sent out this past August, the following was announced: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

The end (i.e. the goal) of academic freedom: the right to pursue the truth, without fear of reprisal, without fear of giving offense, without fear of causing discomfort. In this election cycle, where lying is a form of political currency and a sign of authenticity, nothing is more vital.

Tim Strode, PhD, AAUP/NCC Executive Commmittee

On a Wing and a Prayer

Just as we hoped that Nassau Community College was firmly on the path to restoration and renewal, our Board of Trustees has proposed new Policies 1200 and 1300, which we believe violate the NYS statutes and regulations governing the Board’s duties and responsibilities. It also contravenes its “historically accepted” role as enunciated in 1966 in the joint “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities” issued by the American Association of University Professor (AAUP), American Council on Education (ACE), and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB). In fact, these standards appear to have guided the formulation of the pertinent NYS statutes and regulations.

Policies 1200 and 1300, if implemented, will upend what President Keen refers to as the recognized “realms of responsibility” among the Board, president, administration and faculty. We are concerned that these new policies will jeopardize our Middle States accreditation. In the April 16, 2016 “Report to the Trustees, Administration, Faculty, and Students of NCC by An Evaluating Team Representing the Middles States Commission on Higher Education” (hereinafter: “MSCHE Statement”) the Commission found the college out of compliance with Standard 4. That standard requires that all constituents’ responsibilities and duties be clearly delineated. As noted in the MSCHE Statement, “There is no evidence that the Board of Trustees has an organized way of ensuring the effective interaction of the governing bodies in a manner consistent with the principles of shared governance.” The report further noted that, “The institution must create a system of shared governance in which each major constituency carries out its role in a complementary manner consistent with the principles of shared governance and New York State Regulations.” (MSCHE Statement, p.10) Policies 1200 and 1300 fail to meet this standard.

Problematic too is Standard 6, “Integrity,” which the Board has failed to meet by not ensuring the integrity of the college’s hiring practices or by working to“…prevent political intrusion into the business of the college.” (MSCHE, p.15)

The message is clear: it is not only the faculty and the administration that must work to address the Middle States deficiencies but also the Board of Trustees. If these policies are adopted, we believe that the Board will continue to place our accreditation in jeopardy. We urge the Nassau Community College Board of Trustees to modify Policies 1200 and 1300 so that these policies are consistent with NYS statutes and regulations and Middle States standards.

Submitted by: Faren Siminoff, JD, PhD

Chair of NCC Accreditation Review Team is President of College Sanctioned by AAUP for Governance Violations

We learned recently that the chair of the Middle States team that will visit Nassau Community College following the submission of our Middle States monitoring report on November 1st is Margaret McMenamin, who has been president of Union County College (“UCC”) in New Jersey since 2010. At its annual meeting in June, the AAUP voted unanimously to sanction Union County College for governance violations. UCC joins a group of only seven colleges in the United States that have earned a sanction. To earn a spot on the list of sanctioned institutions, a college (following an investigation by the AAUP) must have been found to have significantly breached accepted standards of college and university government endorsed by the AAUP.

UCC’s journey to an AAUP sanction began in 2010 when President McMenamin took over leadership of UCC. The parallels to NCC are striking: our leadership and challenges to shared governance also changed in 2010. Here, in brief, are the reasons why the AAUP sanctioned Union County College, as enumerated in the November 15th AAUP investigation:

  1. The McMenamin administration abolished UCC’s faculty governance structure in 2014. According to the AAUP report, UCC’s administration “ended, or severely restricted, the faculty’s role in choosing its own representatives to committees; eliminated most faculty committees, including the key Faculty Executive Committee (equivalent to NCC’s Faculty Senate); and replaced departments headed by faculty-chosen chairs with new academic divisions headed by deans selected with little or no faculty involvement.”
  2. The McMenamin administration abolished the faculty’s role in determining the status of faculty. As noted in the AAUP investigation, it is common practice in higher education, and it was the historic practice at UCC, that decisions related to reappointment, promotion, and tenure are determined by faculty who apply academic (as opposed to business) standards in such decisions. At UCC all such decisions are now made “unilaterally by the administration.” According to the AAUP report, “[early] experience with this practice shows what some faculty members have legitimately characterized as inappropriate political questions being put to faculty members under review, or inappropriate questions about their grading practices, followed by an unelaborated adverse personnel decision.”
  3. UCC’s administration foreclosed all discussions of academic governance.  The particular action deemed reprehensible here by the AAUP was the presentation in 2012 by the UCC administration to UCC’s AAUP bargaining chapter with a “binder identifying over one hundred specific provisions of the current CBA that the administration claimed to be nonnegotiable—that is, no longer subjects for collective bargaining.” Primary among these one hundred provisions were those related to the governance structure of the college that had been in effect for decades. (Note: The provisions characterized as non-negotiable were among those deemed “non-mandatory” subjects for collective bargaining, which according to a perverse New Jersey law, are forbidden from being a subject of collective bargaining). So, instead of allowing faculty governance to be a key provision of UCC’s CBA, faculty participation was limited to “the narrowly confined zone of mattes that deal squarely with ‘wages and working conditions’ and that do not remotely touch upon educational policy.”4.
  4. Threats to academic freedom by the McMenamin administration. Faculty at UCC, according to the AAUP report face, “a growing sense of fear, intimidation, and retaliation.” The report notes that faculty members have been told by the UCC administration that criticizing aspects of the management of the college could result in “adverse personnel actions.” One notable example of a possible “adverse personnel action” involved the chair of the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) who was threatened with charges of “gross insubordination” after she spoke at a joint meeting of the board of governors and board of trustees in March 2015 in which she supported a resolution passed by the FEC repudiating the administration’s dissolution of the FEC, its elimination of the FEC chair and vice chair, its cancellation of FEC elections, and its “substitution of new regulations for the future of governance at the college.” The FEC chair was also instructed by a letter from the administration that she and the FEC “must immediately pass another resolution rescinding this [earlier] resolution in its entirety and specifically recognize that Union County College possesses a managerial prerogative to implement its governance structure.” This letter and its accompanying directive were determined by the AAUP to be “in violation of the professor’s academic freedom and certainly placed her in fear of retaliation in the event she refused to speak the words dictated by the administration.”

The AAUP report concludes with an example of particularly demeaning treatment by the UCC administration toward its faculty: “Perhaps the most startlingly disdainful treatment of the faculty was the denial by a college administrator, near the end of the 2014-15 academic year, of a room on campus in which the FEC wished to hold its final meeting, including the discussion of its own dissolution.” The AAUP report, we should note, was prepared by Robert A. Gorman, the Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor, Emeritus, of Labor Law at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former president of the AAUP.

Executive Committee, NCC/AAUP

Politics and the Liberal Arts, Part II: How the Humanities Became the Liberal Arts

A funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century: the century’s old tradition of the seven liberal arts–the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy)—collapsed.  Under the weight of politics and ideology, the classical wedding of the arts and sciences divorced. The public face of this divorce became the liberal arts and STEM. Last week’s Weekly Read contained a headline from the New York Times, dated February 21, 2016: “A Rising Call to Promote STEM Education and Cut Liberal Arts Funding. The Times headline captures well the terms of the divorce between the arts and sciences: the “liberal arts” has been conflated to the humanities and the sciences now enjoy the sobriquet “STEM.”

Noticeably absent from the Times article is any acknowledgement of the grand historical mystification playing out in the media and politics: what had formerly been a harmonious interdisciplinary union has been re-imagined as a binary opposition, a classic X versus Y dichotomy. This severance of the sciences (now STEM) from the liberal arts seems to have crept upon us since the severe economic downturn of 2008, and despite the profound and troubling nature of this interdisciplinary split, it seems to enjoy widespread, unexamined acceptance. Here is David Skorton, who began his career as a professor of medicine and engineering and later became Cornell’s president, writing in Scientific American  in 2014 (under the title “Why Scientists Should Embrace the Liberal Arts”): “What we really need is a much broader humanistic education for scientists (and nonscientists), beginning in K–12 education and continuing through the undergraduate/graduate and professional years. It is through the study of art, music, literature, history and other humanities and social sciences that we gain a greater understanding of the human condition than biological or physical science alone can provide.”

Skorton’s view is now the norm. In other words, a calculated mystification, this grand severance of the disciplines, has become normalized. A couple of issues arise here. How did this normalization of a false dichotomy between the liberal arts and STEM arise? And what are the consequences of this split?

An answer to the first question begins with the creation of a crisis, in this case the hue and cry sounded by America’s high-tech corporations that there is a STEM shortage: America’s colleges and universities are not producing enough highly skilled graduates to meet the demands of global technological competition. American is losing its competitive edge. It’s Sputnik, Version 2016. The alarm sounded, business-friendly policy makers, state legislators, governors, and even President Obama, take up the call. And here is where the mystification begins. To address the supposed STEM shortage, a classic ideological maneuver is deployed: create a binary opposition, an essentializing dichotomy that (a) has the appearance of the truth and (b) is produced in the fierce urgency of a crisis. Such crisis-inspired binary oppositions have always worked in the past: race, class, and gender have been fertile breeding grounds of useful dichotomies at times of supposed national crisis. Why not apply the same tactic to education? Pit the liberal arts (the “soft,” impractical, competitively obsolete humanities disciplines) against STEM (the “hard,” economically necessary disciplines) and frame this opposition as a necessary strategy to solve a crisis that has global economic consequences.

But what if there is no crisis? Consider another headline, that appeared in the Los Angeles Times five days after the Times article cited above: “A Phony STEM Shortage and the Scandal of Engineering Visas: How American Jobs Get Outsourced.” Michael Hitzik’s piece details how the H-1B visa program, designed to attract foreign workers with advanced degrees and specialized skill-sets to fill niches in the high-tech economy, has been exploited by US high-tech corporations to import low-skilled, poorly paid foreign workers to replace highly paid Americans workers. The jobs being filled by imported workers aren’t in the upper echelons of the high-tech industry (for which the H-1B is designed), but for mid-level jobs that would normally be filled by recent American college graduates. Hitzik addresses the STEM shortage, citing Hal Salzman of Rutgers University: “Evidence is ample that the very claim of a STEM shortage in the U.S. is phony. Salzman noted that ‘overall, our colleges and universities graduate twice the number of STEM graduates as find a job each year.’ The mismatch is especially stark in the biomedical field. There, according to a 2014 paper by experts from UC San Francisco, Harvard and Princeton, ‘the training pipeline produces more scientists than relevant positions in academia, government, and the private sector are capable of absorbing.’”

The exploitation of the H-1B visa program help us understand what has happened to the liberal arts. The motivation for inventing a crisis—the STEM crisis—is simple: cut labor costs to increase corporate profits. By reimagining the liberal arts as essentially the humanities and, hence, useless to America in the face of a global competitive crisis, while promoting the immediate economic value of STEM, corporations and policy makers hope to re-design higher education to create an over-supply of job applicants that will keep wages low. The fake narrative of the STEM crisis demonstrates a powerful nexus between the private sector and the public sector: (a) politicians enable an exploitation of an immigration law and (b) more alarmingly, calls are made to connect funding to economically useful disciplines within the broader context of corporatizing higher education.

All of this comes home to roost locally. The private sector/political nexus has meant a decades long defunding of public education accompanied by the progressive incorporation of corporate values in the administration and governance of colleges. The perilous condition of shared governance, a touchstone of NCC’s reputation for generations, is a direct consequence of the corporatizing trend: wresting control of curriculum from faculty is the best way to make the process of re-designing higher education in a corporate image efficient. Performance-based funding is similar: it sets up a private sector competitive model for judging the “performance” of departments and colleges. Corporate values seem designed to produce measurable “outcomes” and a degree of certainty tied to economic value: a well-designed product (an “educated” student) to meet an economic demand (which may in fact be a based on a false narrative.) An important recent study by Thijs Van Rens should quell any doubt that reforming a curriculum in a corporate-friendly fashion will work: “The implication [of this study] is that an increased emphasis on scarce skills in schools, colleges and universities will not help to reduce the skills gap. Students have a choice about what skills they acquire, and whether they use these skills on the labour market. As long as wages do not reward certain skills, they will either choose not to acquire these skills, or even if they do, they will find employment in other occupations.”

Short-termism, aka, corporate profits, has inspired a myth (a skills shortage) that threatens our mission. Yes, we’re here to help students find gainful employment. But much more fundamentally we’re here to cultivate habits useful to a democracy that happens to be linked to a capitalist economic system. What are those habits? Certainly critical thinking is important. The habit of questioning, the cultivation of doubt is essential to an educated citizenry. You hear an assertion, you doubt its veracity, and you ask for evidence. Think Trump here, and all the clamoring uncritical madness he has inspired. Equally necessary is the habit of empathy: the capacity to imagine and value the validity of other viewpoints and lifestyles. Criticism creates distance, and empathy connection. Finally, there is the habit of inquiry, be it humanistic or scientific (or both at once), the training of curiosity as a habit of discovery. Together, criticism, empathy, and inquiry create the possibility of dialogue and a language of assent and shared norms in a historical moment—as witnessed in perhaps the most divisive presidential in our history—that shows us deeply, deeply divided. Just as important, criticism, empathy, and inquiry—these fruits of the liberal arts—when rigorously cultivated, are necessary to solve problems. And isn’t that really why we’re here: not to raise the profits of a tiny minority of Americans, but to solve problems that will benefit everyone? And isn’t this the mission that should unite us?

In light of these reflections, we urge everyone to end the Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday October 18th where matters relevant to this essay will be on the agenda.

-Timothy Strode, PhD, NCC AAUP Executive Committee