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The Privilege of ‘failure’ in the precarious economy

1 May

I sat tensely with the search committee in a conference room for the final interview for an academic tenure-track position.  I really needed the job, having been on the job market for three years and having only been able to find part-time, contract, or adjunct positions for the past two.  This was the first interview I had gotten as a finalist in all that time. One of the committee members turned to me and asked, “We noticed that ten years ago, you left your position [as executive at a non-profit] after less than one year.  Can you explain to us why you left that job after such a short time?”

I was prepared for the question so gave it my best spin.  I had had a conflict with the board president, I had made all these innovations and had measurable successes in that position, successes that were recognized within the larger community, but the board redefined the position, demoting it from executive to office manager, because they decided to retake control over the day-to-day operations of the organizations.  Any way I spun it, and without independent corroboration, left open the possibility I was difficult to work with, uncompromising, a poor communicator, or even incompetent.  And for all this to emerge in less than a year on the job indicates either a disastrously bad tenure, or an unforgiving board with no patience for disagreement.

Though one can never know if there is one definitive reason, needless to say I didn’t get the position for which I was interviewing.

I have never used this blog for trolling, settling scores, proving my political correctness, or sour grapes.  But I think it incumbent to point out that I’m willing to bet Johannes Haushofer has never faced such a question in any of his job interviews.

The reason I’m posting this entry is that no fewer than four people I greatly respect have re-posted Princeton University Assistant Professor Haushofer’s so-called “CV of Failures” or articles about it, on Facebook, which garners the predictable number of ‘likes’ in response by students and other academics. Even NPR, as it is wont to do, made a lighthearted report on the topic on Morning Edition.  One reporter wrote that the takeaway lesson from this is that “The real tragedy isn’t these failures — it’s when these failures convince people to stop trying.”

Even the professor who wrote the original article on which the idea was based, Melanie Stefan, drew two conclusions: this same one (“we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected”) and what I think is a more valuable conclusion that even the most successful scientists, and academics, face a ratio of about six failures to every major success. That latter point is a valuable, and encouraging, insight.

But from their lofty positions at Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, Cal Tech, and Edinburgh, both Haushofer and Stefan miss the economic context.  And that’s what makes, to me, this approach so infuriating.  Both are writing from positions that reflect an inevitability of ultimate success and security, the uppermost echelons of academic success, especially for such young, promising scholars who got top positions right out of grad school.  But the adjunctification of higher ed (not to mention global poverty and the precarious economy) guarantees no such narrative of success for most of the people taking part, even from top tier graduate programs.  If you fail six out of seven times, but still end up with a position at a university in the ranks of Harvard or Princeton, then yes, by all means, teach younger people not to give up or get discouraged.  But be careful to avoid an error in logic.  There’s a big difference between the lesson “you’ll never get a position (or anything you want) if you give up” – which is logically true – and the lesson that “if you never give up, eventually you will get a position (or whatever you seek).”  The latter is a logical fallacy.  There is no demonstrable guarantee that refusal to give up will lead to success. Or put another way:

Giving up —-> No success

but the inverse is not true:

Not giving up –/–> [does not lead to] Success.

The other moral and practical part of the lesson that they leave out is that it’s not enough not to give up, but that learning from one’s failures is a central ingredient in overcoming them.  Picture the analogy of the fly trying to get through the glass window pane, or better yet, the sperm trying to fertilize the egg, because in this day and age, there aren’t enough eggs to go around. You not only have to figure out a way through or around the glass you can’t fully comprehend, but you have to do so in competition with dozens if not hundreds of others.

The narrative of inevitable success is also based on a fallacy of logic. The 6:1 failure-to-success ratio of the most successful scientists may be true, but in an age of declining positions for full-time academics (not to mention other industries) and economic precariousness, that ratio is much, much higher even for those like myself who nonetheless have ended up with great tenure-track academic positions.  And for many, the ratio is infinity, since they may never get the full-time position they seek.  Two successful tenured faculty told me during my job search, “Oh, you’ll be just like [so-and-so], who did great academic work but never had a permanent position.”  I could take that to the bank as I was fighting to make a mortgage payment (and went three years in middle age without health insurance).  For those who are fighting to find such a position, competing against literally hundreds of other applicants, being able to release a “CV of Failures” is unrealistic – they’re too busy trying to conceal them from the search committees.  It may not be a rejected fellowship or grant proposal, but not having any successful ones, or having been fired, or having poor evaluations, or gaps in employment.

Having been on both sides of this, I can say it’s a lot easier to stomach rejected grant proposals when you have a reliable batting average such that you “know” you will get some.  Many people are not in a position to get any grants.  Or, for example, the last NEA proposal I ever wrote – and, in my opinion, the best – was never considered by the panel because I was fired from my job before I could send in the required artistic samples to complete the application.

In a market economy with a high level of precariousness and underemployment, in which at this point a small minority of qualified people will be getting the academic positions for which they have trained (unlike, say, the medical or legal professions), any real failure, any real negative mark on your CV, is going to be enough to disqualify you permanently – or you may at least have the very real fear that it is so, even if you never give up.  That’s why only those who have reached a certain level of the highest academic success will dare to display their so-called “failures,” because they are in reality failures without consequence. And being able to have failures without consequence is a great privilege.

Irony of ironies, one of Professor Haushofer’s research areas is the psychology of poverty. And it is here that he shows himself to be tone deaf.  In the abstract to one of his articles from 2013, Haushofer notes, “low incomes predict lower intrinsic motivation and trust, less prosocial attitudes, and more feelings of meaninglessness…Income inequality is an additional predictor of psychological outcomes across countries, and is associated with loneliness, short-sightedness, risk-taking, and low trust.” Presumably, adjunct professors would fall into this category of low-income workers. So wouldn’t people with that psychological profile be more vulnerable to failure and frustration? In another study co-authored with his thesis advisor, they demonstrate that poverty leads to stress, other negative psychological feelings and feedback loops that reinforce behaviors that maintain poverty. The causality is in fact well-established.  Interestingly, in one study they cite, farmers worried about their economic status have been shown to perform worse in cognitive tests when reminded of their financial woes, and if that finding holds true across professions, it could easily lead to the feedback loop that those in low-paying academic positions face greater stress about success and are more likely to be affected (i.e. underperform) throughout all stages of the job search process. So while not giving up would be good advice even for them, he should know from his own research that such a pep talk (let alone listing one’s failures publicly) is not going to be enough to overcome the psychological effects of years of low income in underpaid, overworked adjunct teaching positions in which one also fights against feelings of “meaninglessness” especially in terms of unsupported or self-supported research.

As for me, I can encourage my students and friends not to give up and to tell them privately that I faced many setbacks in my job searches, but that I always tried to learn from each setback.  As for listing my failures publicly, I’ll wait until I have earned the privilege of tenure, a level of protection and job security that also happens to be under threat from an ever more precarious economy.

Addendum (24 June 2016): Here is another example of the parade of failure as a status symbol by the highly successful and privileged.  The idea that “a stressful and potentially embarrassing experience [can be] spun it into an opportunity,” or that as “Any TED talker could tell you, failure is so hot right now,” refers only to the most securely successful and well-paid in our workforce. For most people who lose their jobs, in this precarious economy (jobs that pay considerably less than $300K a year, a sum that if he saved any money, he never really needs to work again), losing one’s job is a disaster– financial as well as economic and psychological (if you’re not so cocky to know someone else in that same social class will snap you up).  For most people, even most professionals, who lose their jobs, this is no laughing matter.

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The Decimation of democracy’s critical class

13 Mar

There are two social institutions whose independence and viability are essential for the functioning of a democracy, and which are vulnerable to structural dismantling in a way that take at least a generation to repair.  They are vital for a democracy precisely because they muster the ability to criticize, question, and push back against Power, against the walls behind which government, business, military, or religious institutions exercise control. These sectors are the press and higher education. They operate, outside the walls, not as isolated voices but as collaborations of research and revelation, networks of thousands of individual voices operating as a chorus with shared commitment to uncovering and approaching the truth and then disseminating their findings to readers, students, and other colleagues.  (And I’m under no illusions any kind of uniformly enlightened academia or journalism – there can always be reactionaries and hacks in any large tent.  But then again the complexity of those sectors make such a spectrum possible.)

It is kind of accepted worldwide that a free press is absolutely essential for that reason, though it is not as widely accepted about universities in that kind of constitutional sense because there are those who believe universities are just for the teaching and mastery of job skills, not for the independent voice of social critique.  After all, freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution, though academic freedom is not.

The press does not exist merely to record and transmit the official story.  Universities do not exist merely to provide job training for future workers who will serve government or business without being called on to make decisions.  The basis of living in a democracy is the right to participate in decisions about the community’s future, and the basis of being a moral and effective worker is the ability to have a say in decisions that affect the corporation as well as the surrounding environment (natural as well as human).  The essence of good decision-making is not just critical thinking but also having a well-developed body of knowledge about the issues before us, knowledge that can be complex but one that includes valid evidence and perspectives, rather than ignoring them.

In this context, it is frightening to read, in a very moving investigative article by Dale Maharidge, that the number of full-time reporters for daily print newspapers in the U.S. has dropped 40% in the past nine years, and that rate may accelerate. (This article is really worth reading, devastating, and was the inspiration for this post in the first place.)  As Maharidge makes clear, it’s not just a question that daily print newspapers are being replaced with Internet journalism, but that older reporters with long and local historical knowledge are being let go while inexperienced younger reporters are stepping in. Second, the web-based news is more likely to be national or global rather than local, and even worse, as Maharidge contends, more likely to be to be centered on celebrity and what is entertaining, rather than on what has implications in people’s lives.  But perhaps most devastating is that this new generation of freelance journalists is being asked to work or write for little or no pay, or at best are paid only for the stories they can sell.  Certainly only in the rarest cases are Internet reporters well-compensated and receiving benefits, although recent unionization at Gawker and other news websites is an encouraging start.  At the same time, the type of stories being covered are changing from local and hard news that require interviewing and digging, to the kind of pieces that are either unquestioning repeats of political declarations by our leaders, or that are entertaining (including fear-mongering as a form of horror-show entertainment).

A 40% cut in practicing, full-time personnel would be devastating to any industry.  Not just for the lives and families affected, but for the loss of output, historical knowledge and knowledge of the craft by the elders in the field, and for the inevitable rush to the center among the survivors.  Picture a fishing vessel facing waves crashing over the sides and sweeping the crew overboard.  Those who want to survive will run towards the safer center and cower, rather than ever risk standing near the edge or exposing themselves to risk of any kind.

That kind of sizable cut would also imply that even assuming the nature of news stories were to stay the same, there would be that many fewer stories exposed by the press because there were more topics than the remaining writers could accommodate.  Imagine a 40% cut in the number of stories about climate change, for example, or remaining reporters now having to cover, say, the environment as well as another beat.  They won’t be able to produce as much, investigate as deeply or broadly, and will also have to master multiple fields with professional sophistication in order to interpret what they are being told. (I gnash my teeth sometimes when I hear even NPR reporters who can’t get the details right in immigration law reporting. And we are all still waiting for just one reporter with evidence to confront Ted Cruz on his oft-repeated claim that Obamacare has cost thousands of jobs.)  Put another way, instead of 50 reporters on the ground covering a war, now there would be 30, or there might be 50 but they have to cover more countries and more conflicts, and obviously can’t be two places at once. Stringers are constrained by having to write what will sell, rather than having the financial support of a newspaper to pay for their livelihood while they dig.  In every case, depth as well as the inductive and experienced knowledge from being on the ground are all sacrificed, and can’t be easily recovered. 

Once the business plan of daily newspapers and the field of journalism in general shifts to such an extent that such a high percentage of practitioners are lost, it’s hard to imagine the equal and opposite reaction on the other end of this.  In other words, the proverbial pendulum may not in fact exist and there won’t be a time when suddenly there’s  40% growth in jobs in declining industries like print media.  Newspapers are shutting down much faster than they are starting up. After all, even if there is a massive rehiring, it will take at least a decade for all the new hires to begin to acquire the kind of experience that presumably makes specialists wiser and more able to develop a network of sources.  (Personal pet peeve: there is nothing I hate more than random “person-on-the-street” sound bites, to get the impressions of either totally uninformed or prejudiced people, and usually just one at that, on the air, especially in lieu of interviews with informed parties on multiple sides of an issue.  But I will return to this in another post.)

The same goes for universities, especially researchers and writers.  Much more has been written on the shift over the past twenty years from full-time faculty, engaged in research and writing as well as teaching, to adjuncts hired to teach only, and at such low wages that they are forced to take on extraordinary teaching loads to make ends meet.

Universities are famous worldwide as crucibles of dissent and of research and science (no contradiction there).  And while teaching the young – not just teaching material but teaching the right to question – can be an exercise in freedom, the time and resources to conduct research is at least equally important.  It’s the R&D division of democracies, if you will, and what company can innovate and respond without investment in R&D?  Wipe this sector out and you wipe out an entire intellectual class (like it or not, for millennia every complex society has had its scholar class).  If governments and church denominations can control universities, especially the time and liberty to conduct research, as well as what is taught and what is disseminated to the public, then the critical potential of universities can be circumscribed.  In its most extreme form, this state or military control can lead to the assassination of university leaders, faculty, and students (for example, the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuits at the Universidad Centroamericana in 1989).  But there are more subtle and systemic ways as well, for example by tying research funding to military and business ends, cutting government funding, and most recently, filling boards with figures from business, not academia. As many have pointed out, this leads to restructuring the faculty so that the majority of classes are taught by underpaid, contingent workers with neither job security nor research portfolios, rather than comfortably-paid professors with lifetime appointments, institutional memory, and the ability to work with students on social and political issues without fear of losing their jobs.  I’m not saying anything new here that hasn’t been said and documented in more detail by others, both the “adjunctification” of universities, as well as the retreat from enlightenment, if you will, described by Jane Jacobs as well as, most recently, Marilynne Robinson, among many others.

In about 25 years, the percent of college courses in America taught by full-timers has dropped from about two-thirds to 30%.   The number of full-time faculty has not expanded with the increase in the population attending college, meaning that student-faculty ratios have increased as have faculty teaching loads.  The emphasis is less on the productive work of professional intellectuals as scholars, and more on providing credits for students to obtain their degrees, and in fields in which they are more likely to be able to pay off their debts, because tuition has outpaced inflation and so college is actually harder to afford now.

As I said, others have written about this more than I, and even I have written here about some of this.  But here’s the significant point: in one generation, American universities have changed to a business model that favors training, employment and paying off debt (for alumni) and part-time, contingent work over lifetime investment in faculty to do work including research, writing, and occupying a critical role in our society. Adjuncts can be outstanding teachers but their job function does not permit them the time or resources to be researchers or voices of conscience. And then, will it even be possible for current graduate students and undergraduates to find full-time careers as scholars and professors?  Some will, but how many – and who – will be sacrificed in the name of competition?  (A little bit like the journalists who are getting laid off.)  My heart broke for the young poli. sci. major from Florida who told Hillary Clinton in the Miami debate that she wanted to go on to get a Ph.D.  Sure, we need people like that, but will there be enough chairs in the market for her?  Or will she invest 5-10 years of her life only to get jobs that pay, total, $25,000 a year with no health insurance?

As for the research itself, why wouldn’t you want to be creating positions for more medical researchers, more sociological researchers, more science researchers, to address the most pressing problems of our time?  After all, if you want to find a cure for, say, colon cancers or dementia, why wouldn’t you want to have more researchers working on this and involving more young people in the research and showing them the ropes?  It’s simple common sense that 200 scientists working on a problem or treatment are more likely to come up with useful results than just 120 could.

It’s going to take a lot more national imagination to figure out a way to restore that intellectual class, including a restructuring of education funding  so that tuition doesn’t become the main economic lifeblood of every college and university.  That not only makes students feel they are “consumers,” it also means there is less money to invest in projects that may or may not produce significant short-term results. Such a renaissance of what universities can achieve for democracy and humanity is years away.  Same thing with rebuilding the journalism industry.  It’s not just local print dailies, but the kinds of stories and reporting, and as a by-product, civic involvement they were able to support.  That means getting readers to be interested in learning what is going on around them, and not just parroting and reinforcing their prejudices or following their favorite celebrities (including news personalities) as news.  Yes, the next generation could take this on, with the help of current (tenured) academics and experienced reporters – if they can find the money to support such work.

Alarmingly, we’re at a historical period when we really don’t have time.  The press and universities cannot be absent at what all evidence suggests is a crossroads in our decisions about how to handle climate change and whether or not to continue extracting fossil fuels.  Unlike past generations, this generation has the unique timing to come along when the decisions we make will affect habitability for the next few centuries, if not the fate of humanity itself.  We don’t have twenty years for universities and the press to come up with a critical agenda of questions and answers to allow us to find solutions and grill our elected leaders to do the same.  The disappearance of universities and reporters as significant critical voices is coming at the worst possible time, and we haven’t even found a way – or the political will – to begin to reverse the trend.

 

bell hooks to the rescue

1 Feb

I know that doubt can be one of the hallmarks of good teaching.  We want students to feel encouraged to challenge and reconsider their beliefs, especially those prejudices they have adopted without much thought and certainly, by definition, without considering the evidence.  But there’s another kind of existential doubt, when we’re so hammered by all the problems facing us in the world that we end up questioning the centrality of aspects of human life that we enjoy.  Can we make art, let alone study it, at a time when it is becoming more clear that without concerted action, climate change could kill us all?  And, given that citizens (and voters) are making choices about future leadership at a time when they are woefully uninformed about politics, current events, and science, what is the importance of studying the arts?

I know.  I’m not so doctrinaire that I believe we can have a society without art or education without art. Actually the opposite: I have always had a knee-jerk sense that arts and music and literature education have benefits that go beyond critical thinking and the wonderful list devised by Elliot Eisner.  But one place where I have gotten stuck is on the politics of the arts and arts education.

Doing my class reading for this week, I came across the following in bell hooks’s book of essays, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics:

“There must be a revolution in the way we see, the way we look.  Such a revolution would necessarily begin with diverse programs of critical education that would stimulate collective awareness that the creation and public sharing of art is essential to any practice of freedom.  If black folks are collectively to affirm our subjectivity in resistance, as we struggle against forces of domination and move toward the invention of the decolonized self, we must set our imaginations free.  Acknowledging that we have been and are colonized both in our minds and in our imaginations, we begin to understand the need for promoting and celebrating creative expression.”  (p. 4)

And this:

“Recently, at the end of a lecture on art and aesthetics at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, I was asked whether I thought art mattered, if it really made a difference in our lives.  From my own experience, I could testify to the transformative power of art.  I asked my audience to consider why in so many instances of global imperialist conquest by the West, art has been other [sic?] appropriated or destroyed… It occurred to me then that if one could make a people lose touch with their capacity to create, lose sight of their will and their power to make art, then the work of subjugation, of colonization, is complete.” (p. xv)

I know with these words I am in the right course, I am following the right course, and that this conversation is vital, even/especially in the context of sociology.

Believe me, it is so easy not to practice, even when there is such urgency to practice, to create, to push ourselves to make work that transforms, or even just questions, the status quo. Every school district, every budget cut that reduces arts and music in schools is performing, in doing so, that work of subjugation.  And if you can’t imagine you can’t be free, you can’t envision anything better or different, or you are simply a prisoner of what the state wants and needs you to be for them.

A Brief note on Malala, her father, and the War on Education

23 Nov

One of the most striking moments for me in the new documentary film, He Named Me Malala, comes in the words of her father, Ziauddin Yusufzai, who is credited with having, at the very least, a strong intellectual influence on his daughter. He says at one point, “Education gives you the power to question things. Education gives you the power to challenge things. To be independent.” (Apologies if the syntax is not 100% accurate. I went reaching for my notebook in the dark theater at the DOC NYC Film Festival, but since then, I have seen this quote transcribed in various ways on different websites.) I kept thinking of my college students with whom I was seeing the film. Are they getting this message from their college careers? (I’m sure this group did not get that in their high schools, although some do.) For those who read my earlier post on Senator Rubio, who has since gone on to repeat the message I wrote about back in August into the most recent debate performance in November, that’s not what “education” is for – it’s for getting a job and increasing earnings. At least that’s the case for low-income and working-class students, not necessarily the elite who will go on to become the decisionmakers. Ziauddin’s ideas have come to be radical in the vacuum of education-for-the-economy mentality that pervades pretty much most of the world.

As for Malala herself, a friend posted a quotation of hers, which dates back at least as early as October 2013, in which she said, “The only thing that can fight terrorism is education.” While much has been made of the criticism that she is a media darling, and perhaps even a creation, of the West’s need for a “safe Muslim,” she has stood up to that by admonishing President Obama about the use of drones. And in the wake of this months bombings and shootings in Lebanon, Paris, and Bamako, she emerges as the sole voice for an approach to terrorism that calls for more education, less ignorance, and greater understanding as a way to bring people together. Have any of our Presidential candidates in the U.S. called for more education as a response to terrorism? Those who turn to terrorism do so out of the false belief that violence, especially against innocents, is the path to social change (a social change that makes claims to justice, that is). This, of course, has never worked in human history.

On my office door, I have put up a bumper sticker that reads, “In a war on education, no one wins.” The reaction worldwide against Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris and Lebanon attacks shows just that. Public opinion is whipped up against the millions of innocents fleeing the same violence and the same perpetrators who carried out the attacks in Paris and Lebanon. But the fallacy of public opinion polls is that they rest on the false assumption that all opinions are based on equivalent foundations of knowledge. Most people who are against allowing in refugees have no idea about refugee resettlement processes and screenings, about who refugees are and what they have been through, about the history of the region from which they are fleeing, and so on. Differences of opinion are fine, and welcome in a democracy. But they have to be based on some kind of empirical knowledge, evidence, or understanding of history, not just hot air and smoke. How can you have a valid opinion about something about which you know nothing? Otherwise you are susceptible to every prejudice and every hatemonger out there. Which, of course, is what we see, as war spreads.

Only education gives you the power to question things, to be independent, and to truly fight terrorism. It must be our first response to any crisis.

Rubio’s philosophy on higher education

21 Aug

I’ve written before (see 16 Feb 2014) on the new and dangerous trend in higher education policy in the U.S., which is to suggest that “college is not for everyone,” as if that general shaking out takes place meritocratically, independent of class and race.  Even the liberal wing of our mainstream political spectrum, in the form of President Obama, is comfortable going to high schools (but not affluent ones) and bringing this message.  The economist Robert Reich, to his credit, shows that a four-year college degree is currently the best predictor of higher income, and while he does argue that college shouldn’t be the only route to the middle class, he also says, significantly, “I don’t believe the main reason to go to college – or to choose one career over another – should be to make lots of money.  Hopefully, a college education gives young people tools for leading full and purposeful lives, and having meaningful careers.  Even if they don’t change the world for the better, I want my students to be responsible and engaged citizens.”  Let’s not forget the argument that more, and more critical, education is beneficial, if not necessary, to a functioning democracy, especially in countries that wield tremendous global power.

But this idea that expanded vocational training is the best way to reform higher education in the 21st century, and open up the middle class to more people, is much stronger on the right side of the spectrum, including leaders and presidential candidates who have gone after their state university systems, for example Governor Walker of Wisconsin.  This point of view bears examination.

Several days ago (18 Aug 2015), Senator Marco Rubio made a stump speech at the Iowa State Fair in which he reiterated several themes and policy suggestions about higher education that he had been making in previous speeches.  And yet, two nights of Google searches turn up no transcripts of his speech in any newspaper articles.  When I heard an excerpt on NPR, I wanted to stop in my tracks, because even the sound bite revealed so much about how conservatives see the need and potential for higher education.  But the speech itself warrants detailed, critical examination because it reveals not only what Republican conservatives (and economic neoliberals) think of the value of higher education, but how higher education can contribute to extending greater economic inequality, not ending it.

As a public service, I have transcribed several sections of the speech.  Early on, he says,

I want this to remain a country where parents can do for their children what my parents did for me. My parents were born on the island of Cuba, they came to the United States in 1956, they barely spoke the language at the time, had no money and very little education…. They were able to leave all four of their children better off than themselves…

This is a significant opening, because not only does he reveal that his parents came before the Cuban Revolution, but what his parents did for him – to his and their credit – was to enable him to graduate from a four-year college after transferring twice, first from a small college (just before it went bankrupt, by the way) where he went on a football scholarship, then from a community college before graduating from the University of Florida and then law school.  So in a way, even though the market failed him, he and his family had the means for him, with scholarship assistance, to go from community college through a post-graduate degree.  The question that lingers is whether he wants, as he claims, to be able to do this for young Americans as it had been possible for him.

But curiously, his speech takes a different turn:

We have to modernize higher education. We cannot continue stuck with a 20th century higher education system, that tells everyone you either get a four-year degree, or you get nothing at all… The first thing we have to do is more vocational training. We need more people trained to be welders, and airplane mechanics, and machinists. These are good-paying jobs… A welder makes more than a political science major, and we need to train more young Americans to do it…

Does he speak of more young people having access to a four-year political science degree (like the one he received) or more access to law school?  And when he says that “A welder makes more than a political science major” (which may, according to Reich, be factually untrue), I would ask, More what?  More money, or more decisions that affect other people’s lives?  There is the false dichotomy of the bachelor’s-or-nothing, which doesn’t even exist now, and then there is this fallacious promotion of the idea that most young people are better off with vocational training because their income will be higher.  Not only untrue in the aggregate, but also because it overlooks the value added of being in a position of social and political influence that a college degree makes more likely.

Then he continues,

For example, a single mother raising two kids, who works full-time for nine dollars an hour as a home health aide, the only way she’s ever going to get a raise is to become a dental hygienist or a paralegal, but to do that she has to go back to school. And she can’t, because she has to work full-time and raise a family. I believe we need to have alternative accredited programs that allow people to get the equivalent of a degree, from alternative institutions that allow them to package learning, no matter how they acquired it. Let people learn online for free. Give them credit for what they’ve learned on their own. And suddenly that receptionist, instead of making ten dollars an hour or twelve dollars an hour can be a paralegal making $65,000 a year. I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of four-year colleges, they’re going to remain part of our program – after all, how are we going to get college football without them? I am saying this: We can’t keep graduating people with degrees that don’t lead to jobs. That’s why I believe that before you take out a student loan, schools should tell you how much people make when they graduate from that school with that degree. So you can decide if it’s worth borrowing $50,000 to major in Greek philosophy, because after all, the market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for two thousand years.

Let’s just ignore the complete denigration of the use-value of basically all of the Western intellectual tradition at the end there, shall we?  More important, to our argument, is the disingenuous wiggling that at first suggests vocational training is not only the most cost-effective but the only available opportunity for working adult students, and then goes on to suggest that people should be able to get credit for watching online videos (or whatever “learning online for free” means) and what they’ve learned on their own – essentially no formal education whatsoever.

This is also incredibly insulting to the working four-year college undergraduates whom I teach, those who do manage to find the time to work towards a Bachelor’s degree (and sometimes a Master’s degree) while managing jobs, careers, children (sometimes grandchildren), spouses (or children without spouses), and loans because they want something more fulfilling to them than just a manual trade or unskilled labor.  I would never have the nerve to suggest that they settle for a career they don’t want, nor would I be so patronizing to assume they don’t want to know about Greek philosophy or film history because they don’t “need” it to discharge their work duties.  As Professor Reich says, I want them to have fulfilling lives, where dignity is worth a lot more than simply bringing home and spending a paycheck.

So there are clearly two tracks in Rubio’s educational vision for 21st century America.  Those who can afford to can attend college and support those college football games, preferably without loans unless the students have a guarantee their majors will get them good jobs, which as we know in fact is not the only thing majors are good for.  (And preferably not at colleges they have to leave because the schools go bankrupt or can’t afford to keep academic or even athletic programs funded.) Those who can’t afford school without costly loans can go to vocational schools, or even better, can “learn online for free,” and then go into the workforce in well-paying jobs, but jobs that, regrettably, have little social, economic, or political influence. It’s “the only way they’re going to get a raise,” as he says.  I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t become welders or dental hygienists or paralegals if they want or need to, only that if they want to enter a career where they will have more influence in the democratic process and the economy, or they want a career that they themselves find more fulfilling, they should be able to choose that path and have access to the funds to make that possible – rather than be ruled out because they come from a low-income background or went to an under-resourced high school.  Following Rubio’s logic, there will be less need for federal aid both to universities and colleges (whose enrollment base will provide the necessary revenue), and to students because there will be low-cost options available like vocational schools, training programs, and of course free Internet, so that they shouldn’t have to depend on the government to pay for degrees that won’t pay off financially.

This is not doing for America’s children what his parents did for him.  Maybe a little Greek philosophy would help him understand this.

From Athens: The Dangers of agoraphilia

23 Jun

Last night on the Athens metro I started a conversation with a young man because in this trip to Athens, I am more eager than ever to learn about the current mood of the people, how they feel about Syriza, the economy, and the E.U. It may just be me, or because I tend to talk mostly with immigrants, but Greece has a much more open feel to it, a markedly different atmosphere than when I was here in 2009 and 2012.

I was heading to the same place I stayed last time, with friends in a residential neighborhood, but in the last year a new metro station has opened up near their home so I no longer have to wait to transfer to a bus from the metro. I asked if they were still extending the subway even further, and how it had differed from ten years ago, but he said he only really started riding the metro seven years ago when he was at university. I asked him what he studied, and he said, almost apologetically, political science and history, with a special interest in music, even though these days there isn’t much he can do with that in terms of work. I asked him what his job was, and he said he hands out leaflets (although there was some humility here on his part, or literalism, since it came out later he is a guitarist in a band). He wanted to pursue his studies in post-graduate school, but there was only one program in Greece that dealt with these interests, and they take only 20 students a year, “and you need money.” I’ve learned that at least undergraduate education is free here at public universities, if you have the scores to get in. I asked him about studying in another country in Europe, since his English was quite good. He said, yes, with money anything is possible, but without money, well, no.

He didn’t know about political music in the U.S. of the rock era, and though he knew Pete Seeger he did not know Phil Ochs (and I later sent him websites about Phil Ochs, who I suspected would be a kindred spirit).

I told him in the U.S. it is possible to study for a master’s or doctorate, with money of course, but that even by us the possibility for finding work in a field related to this is difficult. (The default for us is law school, among the educated class, but I didn’t say this.) I did tell him the rough statistic – I think I saw it somewhere – that even among Ph.D.’s only one in eight is in a full-time teaching or university position. We came up the escalator and though it was nearly ten p.m., a man was handing out leaflets about working from home. My new friend took one, and said to me, “We are misleading the people, telling them they can make money from home.”

For some reason, this conversation and the issues it raises lodged deeply within me. No mystery there, as I was and am one who has wagered everything on pursuing the questions I am interested in. That is the life of the scholar, though it need not – and should not – be restricted to scholars. Still, therein are the catch and the contradiction. We have, anthropologically speaking, two worlds: the world of youth, in which questions of history, politics, science, philosophy, literature, the arts and music, matter, and the world the adults have made, which channels everyone into wage-based occupations.   The round and open-ended questions of the student do not fit into the square cubicle of the workplace. There is no place for so many students like the guitarist, like myself, unless one is extremely lucky, privileged to be connected, and tenacious, in some combination that borders on the magical. What future is there for anyone to ask questions, in places and ways that matter, in the constant slog for reliable wages?

There has to be more that we can do than shrug and say, “Too bad, brother. Now grow up and go hand out some leaflets.”

The so-called “free” market has created, and continues to re-create, a system that is anything but free. The market dictates what is considered a worthy use of time and intellect, and that most worthy use is, of course, profit. Within that system, where is the space for the most imaginative and curious minds, unless – again with luck, privilege, and connections – one can find a way to spin that yarn of curiosity into gold. The irony is not lost on me that here in Greece there is no use for philosophy, and almost no place for it either.

And what about “use” for that matter? Even within the scholarly community, use-value is not a primary criterion for good scholarship. In an ideal world it need not be, and in fact, we need scholars and teachers of every aspect of the world. But in terms of cultural studies and historical studies, where does the spiral of knowledge lead, if not often down a chute from which there is no connection with application?

The Market has not yet realized, and will not realize until it is too late, that we are in a global crisis, particularly generated by climate change but also by the over-consumption of natural resources. It is precisely at this time that we need political scientists and historians, social scientists and social workers, ethicists and philosophers, artists and musicians, in addition to natural scientists to avert the coming extinction of our species, and of many others along the path.

In the social sciences there may be no more compelling problem than the question of mass migration over the next 35-50 years. With an 8 million increase in the number of refugees and displaced people in the last year alone, that crisis is not only beginning, but shows little chance of abating on its own. It represents, among other things, a complete abdication of responsibility and humanitarianism and brotherhood (if I may use that term in a gender-neutral way) on the part of all of our national and state governments. We don’t need 10 universities where those problems are being studied and solved, we need hundreds. We don’t need a handful of scholars engaging in research and the rest teaching as adjuncts or teaching too many classes with too many students to provide individual feedback. We need thousands. We need grants and start-up funds not just for a few tech innovators and “geniuses” who have already established themselves, we need seed funding for thousands of young people and the mentors with whom they will work, not in lecture classes of fifty people, but small research seminars of four and six.

There is tragedy in the fact that we cannot support our most curious and imaginative young thinkers, and that the pool of people who will be tasked with coming up with the solutions to the crises facing us will be so small as to limit the amount of research and interaction that can take place (not to mention the vital task of educating the young and ignorant not to follow blindly and in mindless hatred). If we want to find a cure to a disease, for example, we do not limit the number of people working on the problem to just ten or a hundred; we want thousands of minds engaged. So why are social problems, cultural problems, economic and philosophical problems any different?

How many thousands of young people are saying, I studied this in university because this was what I was interested in, but now the market tells me this is of no value? How many more thousands are saying, I am going to university, but I can only afford to study and master the material that will land me a job? And how many still more thousands are saying, If only I could go to university, this is what I would like to learn about and think about?

If Allen Ginsberg wrote that he “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” then I am seeing the best minds of my and subsequent generations destroyed – consumed – by the market.

On Labor Day

1 Sep

Somehow the summer came and went, I got nothing written or revised (not on this blog, not in my professional life), and tomorrow I start a new full-time job, my first in over three years. I’ve written a little bit in informal comments on Facebook about my life as an adjunct, but I was inspired to say more after reading Robert Reich’s post this morning. I don’t know how to link to a Facebook post, but the operative quotations are these: “The official unemployment rate is 6.2 percent but if you include everyone working part-time who’d rather be in full-time jobs, and all those too discouraged even to look for work, the real rate is closer to 12.5 percent… A higher proportion of jobs are part-time, temporary, contract, or otherwise with unpredictable wages and hours than at any time on record.” I’ve been through all that personally the last three years. So I am setting this down in public as a kind of baseline post as I begin the next chapter in my career – an academic career at this point, having working in non-profits and museums for the first 16 or so years of my professional career, followed by five years of academic employment, with some consulting. Then three years of part-time research, adjunct positions, and summer school, while looking for something full-time in my field.

Here are my two operative facts and figures: In all that time, I tried to keep my employment record with no conspicuous holes or gaps, I applied for over one hundred positions, and I managed to only have 1-2 months on unemployment. The rest of the time I had some form of underemployment – not much money coming in, no health insurance (for 38 months), and no position that lasted longer than an academic year. I didn’t go on food stamps, qualified for the new Medicaid under Obamacare (though I ended up then making just too much money by the time I had to submit the application), and got to the point where if I hadn’t found something full-time in the last application cycle, I’d have had to have changed careers, or taught high school full-time. Over the last four years I applied for 131 full-time positions in universities, museums, and non-profits. I got rejected 130 times. And while I can’t say I have empirical proof that if you never give up you will eventually get something, I can say that had I given up at any point along the way, instead of coming back week in and week out, then I would have lost for sure. In the end it was not just persistence: I learned from my mistakes and shortcomings, I adjusted my search accordingly, re-worked my application materials and my interviewing skills. Though luck undoubtedly played a role, it was a combination of persistence and adaptability that set the stage. And in the end, I ended up with a wonderful position that offers all that I want, in a location where I want to be – I did not have to “settle” at all. It’s even a union position. And no, I did not know anyone on the hiring committee; it was a clean search. I am a statistic in so many groups: underemployed, overqualified academic, long-term without a position or health insurance, and this economy is not kind of any of these. There aren’t even enough positions for people in my situation, so we even can’t all be “lucky” (the worst I heard about was a job that attracted 450 applicants). I’m glad I ended up in the right column of the statistics, but I have many friends and colleagues who have not, and this Labor Day I hope they find subsistence and fulfillment in whatever field they end up in. These are bleak times. Not only are “good” jobs falling by the wayside (see Reich’s columns), but meaningful jobs that are tenable are becoming rarer still.

I heard a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman on NPR this afternoon. I find him naive in the extreme – nowhere does he attribute any of these changes to the structure of the job market to forces like global consumer capitalism, the calculated ruthlessness of the ‘free’ market and its protectors, or the pressure of widening economic inequality. He suggests that entrepreneurship is going to be a vital skill for building a career, which suggests an extreme survival-of-the-fittest-go-getters, but also that higher education itself may go the way of the newspaper because the investment is getting larger but the preparation for the job market is even less certain. (He says this, without any examination of the question whether the purpose of higher education should be employment training, what it means to have an uninformed populace voting (or not) in a democracy, or the fact that we can’t all start global industries on our laptops and be hugely successful; someone is going to have to have the funds to purchase all the goods and have the money to invest. At least Jaron Lanier points out that if we minimize the number of professional jobs that pay a living or middle-class wage, we won’t have enough consumers with the disposable income to buy all the products that consumer capitalism has to sell to stay afloat. All of these “thinkers” and “futurists” fall into the new unquestioned belief of the age which is that the purpose of higher education is job readiness, and learning “just enough” to get a job and compete in the global marketplace, or to be an “innovator” (for the sake of innovation, or making money, or making things), which is how MOOCs will replace humanistic teaching and learning, critical literacy skills. This fails to recognize the essential link in a democracy – which Jefferson realized – which is that the people are ignorant (not informed, and not knowing how to question the concepts that are fed to them). Otherwise they vote what they think is their short-term self-interest, and this perpetuates empires and global environmental destruction. Hell, I even heard a TED talk (again on NPR) yesterday in which the lecturer – a million-dollar TED awardee! – says we really need nothing more for our education than access to the Internet and a grandmother to encourage us. These people are trying to scuttle higher education, and retool education merely to be preparation for working in someone else’s factory, and the odd Jeff Bezos will come along here or there and ‘save’ us. Friedman doesn’t acknowledge the gutting of higher education is already taking place, with the shift over the last 20 years from 70% of college courses being taught by full-time profs, to two-thirds being taught by part-timers with no benefits and 1/6 to 1/4 of the salary.

But back to Labor Day itself. The other story that has slipped up on us is that Labor Day used to mark the end of the summer and back to school. My father, a tax accountant who never got more than two weeks vacation any year in his working life, used to take the last two weeks of August off religiously every year, and go back to work the day after Labor Day. School didn’t start until then, and the school year ran from September to June. But this year, even more than before, I noticed more and more school districts and universities are now beginning in August. The Ferguson, Missouri school district had to cancel the first days of classes in the middle of August, while on the East Coast, which starts later, it feels like New Jersey may be the last state in which the school year begins after Labor Day. Most colleges and universities start the week before now, too. Labor Day weekend used to be the end of summer vacation and was a big tourist weekend, but as one friend pointed out to me in New York this weekend, really everybody is back to school or work in August these days. So even the concept of ‘summer’ itself as time off has been taken away from the American worker and the American student. One of the most pernicious ways in which Americans have perpetuated their own oppression is in allowing themselves to have so little vacation time, less than any other country. And that’s for people with paid vacation. Many American workers don’t even get that anymore. So instead of Labor Day marking the psychological end of summer, even if it ever did honor the American worker, it now is just another Monday holiday. And many districts want to move to year-round school anyway, which would strip teaching – the last of the professions to over a reasonable annual leave policy in the U.S. – of its humane vacation policy. I am lucky my new job will be at a university that, for now, begins after Labor Day (which means that, in theory, I will still be able to attend the Montreal World Film Festival even though I could not afford to do so this year). But we’ll see how long that calendar survives the attempts to shorten summer and force the school year to bear more similarity to the working world, since that is all it is seen to be good for anymore, anyway.

On cynics and our educational system

16 Feb

All week I’ve been thinking of Oscar Wilde’s famous quotation, “a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” During my youth, I never really understood this as I do now, but it seems particularly apt in light of recent debates and discussions about the value of a higher education degree in the humanities (which readers of this blog know is an issue of great interest to me).

Starting with President Obama’s comment about vocational school preparing students for a higher income than majoring in art history at a university, there were subsequent reports on NPR that argued that humanities majors do fine economically (especially as compared to non-college grads), and a Pew study demonstrated that a college degree is still the best predictor of higher income, regardless of major.  The Pew study in particular equated “value” with “usefulness” in the job market and the workplace.

“Value” of education cannot be measured by income level or limited to usefulness in the ability to earn a salary.  Once we’ve become that cynical, then we have lost sight of what education is really good for – the eradication of ignorance, our ability to improve the quality and sustainability of life for all beings, learning about who we are from history, and understanding ways of looking at the world that enable us to live and get along with others without killing them, among other things.  Sometimes it’s just about the ability to ask deeper questions about our existence, or to appreciate more the artistic and ethical dimension of our lives.

But the point is that as long as the discussion focuses on future income as the measure of the value of an education, then we are accepting the line of thinking and terms of the debate promoted by the Reagan administration, which is that justification can be reduced to lower cost to taxpayers and a higher monetary return for the individual. In short, greater profits.  This is what the capitalist system has transformed into, and not one President since then has challenged this concept.  Is the profit motive, either on campus or in the larger world, a relevant guiding principle for our educational system?

This thinking displays the utter cynicism of Reagan and his followers, because they know the price of an education (and the price of its rewards), but they haven’t a clue about what the value of education really is – or if they do suspect, they are afraid of the challenges that educational system provides to the world order of corporate power.  This is why the Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, has argued that state aid for higher education should only go to those fields that produce graduates ready for jobs in the workforce.

President Obama’s remark about art history as a major is disappointing on a number of different levels.  As I posted on my Facebook page, there are three senses in which his comments are disturbing.  First, American higher education has been transformed into an industry that trains people to fill jobs and make profits, while the all-important qualities of ethics, conscience, questioning, imagination, innovation, and sustainability are seen as frills or luxuries for the very elite or privileged, but they don’t matter ultimately. Well, they do. The planet is at risk from the idea that profit generation has no consequences. This began with Reagan when he was Governor of California, taking on the University of California system, and four decades or so later, only the most elite of higher education students can have the opportunity to think about these issues and train to be leaders among the decision-making classes.

Second, maybe if more people in this current administration had studied the humanities, this administration wouldn’t show such a stunning lack of imagination in actually bringing about the progressive changes they promised.

And third, this increasingly common argument, which I’ve heard from liberals as well as conservatives, that college “may not be” for everybody, is disingenuous, especially in light of massive federal and state cuts to education over the past 30 years. It’s as if we’re saying, well, don’t feel there’s an injustice in the fact that your high school doesn’t prepare you to attend college (and study humanities), you can do even better with this consolation prize, and you’ll earn big money, too!  It’s so patronizing for anyone with an Ivy League graduate degree to tell high school kids they should be as satisfied with a trade when they haven’t had the real opportunity to get into fields where they become the creative leaders or, let’s face it, the CEOs or the policy-makers. If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself what would have happened if he had made this speech at a fancy private school.

Job-readiness and the profit motive will do nothing to prevent nuclear annihilation (from bombs or reactor disasters) or global warming that threatens to make Earth uninhabitable.   Studying scientific research and human values in the context of one another is of far more value in safeguarding our long-term future.  We study to grow rich at our peril.

Great teaching and the adjunct fallacy

10 Sep

I really didn’t have time to write anything today, but I just saw this article citing a new study that demonstrates college adjuncts and other non-tenure track faculty are more effective teachers than tenure-track professors, especially for students with weaker academic preparation. Let the misinterpretations of the data begin! Even from the title – “The Adjunct Advantage” – we can predict that the spin is going to be that adjuncts are a most cost-effective way to have better teaching in post-secondary education. But the causal attribution is all wrong, and that’s got to be cut off at the pass. Otherwise, cost-cutting colleges – and moreover, lawmakers looking for ways to justify cutting education budgets – are going to use this study as a rationale to link effective outcomes with job insecurity (not to mention union-busting).

The explanation is a simple case of occupational priorities determining effectiveness. Tenure-track professors, whether before or after tenure, are rewarded for research and publications, so their top priority is going to be succeeding in those areas. If they happen to be great teachers, it doesn’t hurt their portfolio, but their worth to the university – and their promotions – are going to be measured by their publications and research grants.

Non-tenure-track faculty are hired on temporary contracts and the primary measure of their effectiveness is teaching evaluation, followed by willingness to be a team player. I was non-tenure-track full-time faculty for five years, and my annual contract was contingent upon getting good evaluations from my students. So my top priority was going to be to make myself the best and most effective teacher I could. Finish an article for publication (and fall behind on my course prep and grading), or spend extra time helping a student understand the material better? Which one would be better for my job security? That’s an easy call.

If you tell people in Group B their continued employment depends upon good teacher evaluations, and you tell people in Group A their continued employment depends upon prestigious publications, books, and research grants, which group are going to become the “more effective” teachers? The fact that the former group are working with even less job security raises their stakes even more; teaching well becomes a matter of subsistence.

Where the real research needs to take place is how to turn the system of higher education into one that relies on positive reinforcement for good teaching and good research, since it is well-established that positive reinforcement is a more effective tool than the threat of negative reinforcement – and it makes for a better work and living environment for everyone. The idea that workers are more productive when living under the constant fear of termination is already a fallacy in itself, but it is especially untrue in the higher education industry, because the methods for active learning and experimentation there require the freedom to question, and the necessity to address shortcomings and failures without prejudice if students don’t get it perfect the first time.

I’m open to the idea of a two-track (not two-tiered) solution, if both tracks are well-compensated, have job security, and students are able to benefit equally from great teachers and great researchers. Why not let faculty decide what kinds of positions and job descriptions they would prefer, if the benefits and remuneration – and job security – were equal?

There is no IRS scandal

31 May

I was beginning to think I was the only person who was upset by the so-called IRS scandal that they supposedly discriminated against “conservative” groups seeking tax-exempt status. Why are all these people resigning for doing their jobs? Glad to read Robert Reich’s post on his Facebook page on May 28 in which he says that “The more I understand what actually occurred at the IRS, the more it appears IRS agents were doing their jobs. A close examination of the conservative groups allegedly targeted by the IRS — reported in yesterday’s New York Times — revealed a wide set of election activities that tax experts and former I.R.S. officials say provided a legitimate basis for flagging them for closer review.” He wrote a similar post on his blog, www.robertreich.org, on May 17. There is also an excellent article in The New York Times detailing what kind of organizations were targeted and the rationale behind this.

Several IRS officials have been driven to resignation because it came out they were directed to pay special scrutiny to the applications from Tea Party organizations and for tax-exempt status by virtue of the 501(c)(4) exemption for – and this is the actual statute –
(A) Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, or local associations of employees, the membership of which is limited to the employees of a designated person or persons in a particular municipality, and the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.
(B) Subparagraph (A) shall not apply to an entity unless no part of the net earnings of such entity inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve worked in nonprofits all my adult life. The way I interpret this, in ordinary English, is that these organizations must meet certain criteria:
– They must be organizations operating for social welfare (or be employees in one municipality)
– All their net earnings must go “exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes”
– No part of the net earnings should benefit any private individual.

How does any organization devoted to electoral politics, whether it’s the Tea Party or any offshoot of the Democratic Party or any other party, fit this definition? Apparently the legal loophole is that any activity devoted to telling the public about issues or candidates is now deemed to be “educational.” So, by this logic, we would say that any kind of advertising is now “educational” about the products being sold.

These organizations have become so powerful, and in some cases rich, that when their classification was challenged by the IRS, they went on the offensive, howling that they were somehow victims of partisan discrimination. But the onus is on them to show how their earnings are going to “charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.” In doing so, they have so cowed the Obama Administration that the IRS is backing down without a fight. Isn’t anybody in Congress going to say, as is their oversight responsibility, “Wait a minute, how are these organizations charitable or educational?”

In my most charitable moments, I might concede that information about any candidate – whether or not it leads to their election – is “educational” (especially if it is true), but even so, any policy or candidate whose work results in either economic redistribution from the poor to the rich, or the prevention of vulnerable populations to achieve their rights or overcome the ways they are socially disadvantaged (which is to say oppressed), is by definition working in a way that is the antithesis of “charitable.” An organization that lobbies to cut taxes resulting in the underfunding of schools, cuts to education and nutrition, health care, prenatal or neonatal care, women’s health, job training, and the arts, is acting in a way that is categorically the opposite of “charitable.” That’s the real scandal.

But then I read articles like this one in The Washington Post in which the Tea Party is actively involved in opposing educational standards. This should give the IRS pause. Not only is the Tea Party’s work not going to education, as required to maintain their non-profit status, but they are using the status to oppose stronger educational programs on a national level. So, “charitable” now means taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and “educational” now means blocking stronger school standards nationally. The IRS not only should have questioned these groups’ missions, they should have gone further and stripped them of non-profit status, for they are in violation of the code. They can still operate as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) but our tax law is quite explicit, and these NGOs are not entitled to tax exemption under the law.

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