Writing about the newly released investigation of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina, Barry Petchesky opens with:
We knew that UNC’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies offered sham classes. After the release of today’s independent investigation we now know it went on for nearly two decades, and involved thousands of students—nearly half of them athletes.
Let’s get the moralizing out of the way up top before we dive in: just remember, as you read this and are tempted to point out (accurately) that every program has joke classes, that the entire basis for amateurism relies on the idea that these athletes are paid with an education.
I want, as Petchesky requests, to reject using this report to bash specifically UNC athletics or academics, but I also want to note two claims here: “every program has joke classes” and “athletes are paid with an education.”
First, however, I must stress that I have made the case before that there simply is no credible connection between academics and athletics; thus, the obsession with scholastic sport in the U.S. is itself the problem. Every time we persist in using sport participation to entice and/or blackmail young people into committing to academics, we are corrupting both sport and academics.
In literature (see Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example) and research in behavioral science and economics (see Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity, for example), we have ample evidence that individual and collective behavior is often profoundly impacted by larger (and often interrelated) norms.
Not to overstate, but historical human scars on history such as the Holocaust or U.S. slavery are powerful narratives of how otherwise good people tolerated and even participated in barbarism—significantly because those actions appeared “right” in the context of an inexcusable set of cultural norms (eradicating Jews as the “Others,” enslaving blacks as the “Others”).
On a much smaller scale, then, if “every program has joke classes,” as Petchesky claims, then we must see UNC’s academic fraud as reflective of the utter failure of all scholastic sport.
By any credible measures, UNC is an elite academic institution and athletic program; thus, UNC has everything to gain from not stooping to academic fraud, and far more than most to lose by sinking into the norm of “every program has joke classes.”
And this, I think, leads to “athletes are paid with an education.”
While “paid” is a foundational concept in the U.S., it certainly is problematic. Once the payment gains more value to a person that the act itself, whatever leads to the payment becomes tarnished; this is the essential problem with external rewards.
Humans, again perfectly decent people in most all circumstances, are often apt to bend the rules of ethics as long as the payment keeps flowing—or the payment increases. As long as an education is merely “payment” for most college athletes, academics and athletics will both be corrupted. (My point here is that education and athletics should remain their own rewards—neither reduced as a means to the other.)
And this is particularly true because this claim—”athletes are paid with an education”—has another serious problem: For both athletes and non-athletes in the U.S., education is in fact not a terminal payment, but a means to terminal payment (while this claim is mostly misleading, we also bribe all students to commit to education by showing them charts correlating higher educational attainment with greater life-long salaries, despite evidence that race and class are greater indicators of attaining work and level of salary).
The ugly truth is that some or even many athletes see no value in formal education; an even uglier truth is that some athletes and non-athletes are correct when they do not value formal education because their lives and avocations will be just fine—or even exemplary—without formal education.
Athletes—like artists, musicians, or actors—may have gifts that are not traditionally academic and thus bribing them to participate in academics in order to play sport is creating the exact environment in which “every program has joke classes” becomes inevitable.
Those involved in academic fraud at UNC, or anywhere, in pursuit of athletic success should not be ignored, but if we once again punish and then ratchet up accountability and oversight because of this scandal, we are ultimately to blame for the next scandal because this UNC academic fraud case is an indictment of the entire scholastic sport machine, a machine that ultimately chews up and spits out the exact young people it claims to support.
The U.S. has a powerful addiction to a false myth, the myth of meritocracy—that success comes from hard work and that failure comes from laziness. Against that myth consider the following:
- Matt O’Brien reports: “Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves.”
- Matt Bruenig concludes, based on data from the Pew’s Economic Mobility Project: “So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated….Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”
- Drawing on the report Young Invincibles, Susan Adams explains: “African-Americans college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school.”
- Bruenig also notes: “Black families with college degrees have a mean wealth of $162.8k, which is effectively the same as the mean wealth of white families with less than a high school education.”
The evidence refutes the myth, then, since race and the economic status of any child’s home are far more powerful influences on success than effort. As long as we cling to the false myth and fail to dismantle privilege, however, meritocracy will never become a reality.
In Why important education research often gets ignored, Dennis Hayes notes that “[t]eachers’ professional development is ‘fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research'” in the UK, concluding (with some snark), “It will come as no surprise then that this report is likely to be ignored, like much of the research available to teachers.”
“A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods,” wrote Lou LaBrant, although her point was made about education in the U.S.—and in 1947.
Little appears to have changed, then, since LaBrant’s recognition of the “considerable gap” also examined by Hayes, but complicating the failure of research to reach the classroom is how research is distorted by the media, which disproportionately covers think-tank reports (often not peer-reviewed) compared to more rigorous university-based research (see Molnar and Yettick).
One enduring failure of research and reporting on research is the persistent claims about the language deficit among the poor. However, even when that claim is challenged in the mainstream press, the source of that misconception continues to be embraced as credible.
For example, Douglas Quenqua reports in The New York Times:
It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children.
Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.
That “landmark study” is by Hart and Risley from 1995, but despite the newer research highlighted by Quenqua, this article remains uncritical of Hart and Risley’s claim that children in poverty can be distinguished from the wealthier peers by the quantity of language they are exposed to in their homes.
Two significant problems are revealed in Quenqua’s article: Hart and Risley’s research maintains its credibility and the new research remains within a deficit perspective, one that marginalizes people in poverty while keeping the gaze of judgment on the impoverished.
Absent in Quenqua (or any media consideration of language acquisition by the poor) is that Dudley-Marling and Lucas have discredited Hart and Risley for perpetuating stereotypes and overgeneralizing claims from a skewed perspective.
Inevitably, when the media and educators address language acquisition and children in poverty (and often minority students), Hart and Risley is cited directly, and a deficit view of language and poverty is presented as fact—despite those claims being baseless stereotyping and debunked mischaracterizations of language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:
[Hart and Risley] are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)
This brings us to the second problem with Quenqua’s piece on shifting from quantity to quality of language when teaching children in poverty. While this newer study seems to refute Hart and Risley, the broader assumptions remain trapped in the same deficit gaze that places all the focus and blame on impoverished children’s parents.
We, then, are faced with a shift from “quantity” to “quality” as no real change at all because the message persists that impoverished parents lack something that is thus passed on to their children, who must have that lack filled (once it was more words, now it is higher quality words).
In other words, we are not willing to turn our deficit gaze away from the victims of poverty and toward the systemic conditions creating that poverty—and consequences such as differences in language among social classes that reflect not failed people but a failed society.
Yes, education seems too often implementing practices in the classroom without proper attention to research, but we also must admit that our education system is just as prone to falling for research claims as long as they conform to our stereotypes, those “common-sense renderings” exposed by Dudley-Marling and Lucas—a much more damning concern we must confront if research is ever to matter in the schooling and lives of children.
I was disappointed with Ron Prinz’s incomplete and misleading guest column on corporal punishment (“The truth about spanking,” Sept. 26). Prinz claimed he was “getting past myths,” but there is in fact no debate about the correct use of corporal punishment.
Elizabeth T. Gershoff of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, in analysis for the American Psychological Association, has concluded: “Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use.”
Few, if any, parents are qualified to know the line between mild and harmful corporal punishment, and the research is clear that all corporal punishment is ineffective. Just as we do not justify any man hitting any woman, we should reject any adult hitting a child.
Readers often find the concluding section of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tales, titled “Historical Notes,” somewhat disjointed—if readers continue to the section at all.
While these final pages are important to helping readers understand many of the nuances of the narrative constituting most of the novel, “Historical Notes” is also a brutal satire on academia, spurred by Atwood’s own troubling experiences with graduate school that exposed to her a stunning level of patriarchy and misogyny common in universities in the early 1960s.
Nearly five decades later, Roxane Gay, novelist and author of Bad Feminist, details her own experiences of being marginalized, of feeling as the Other in higher education, first as a graduate student, like Atwood:
At both my master’s and doctoral institutions, I was the only black student. Any success I achieved only spurred me to work harder and harder so I might outrun whispers of affirmative action and the arrogant assumptions that I could not possibly belong in those institutions of supposedly higher learning.
Like many students of color, I spent a frustrating amount of time educating white people, my professors included, about their ignorance, or gritting my teeth when I did not have the energy. When race entered class discussions, all eyes turned to me as the expert on blackness or the designated spokesperson for my people. When racist “jokes” were made, I was supposed to either grin and bear it or turn the awkward incident into a teachable moment about difference, tolerance, and humor. When a doctoral classmate, who didn’t realize I was in hearing range, told a group of our peers I was clearly the affirmative-action student, I had to pretend I felt nothing when no one contradicted her. Unfortunately, these anecdotes are dreadfully common, banal even, for people of color. Lest you think this is ancient history, I graduated with my Ph.D. in December 2010.
And then as faculty:
Today, I teach at Purdue University, where in the semester I write this, I have no students in either of my classes who look like me. I have yet to see another black faculty member in the halls of my building, though I know some exist. I previously taught at Eastern Illinois University, where, in my department, I was one of two black faculty members, one of only five faculty of color in all. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the price of exceptionalism—you will always be the only one or one of a few. There are no safe harbors. There are no reflections of your experience.
While Gay highlights racial inequity and Atwood has confronted gender inequity, these experiences reflect systemic failures in higher education—ones that impact those of us who come from working class backgrounds as well.
So when I read Curt Rice’s Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried, I had multiple response to his opening claim:
Young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men for three reasons. During their time as PhD candidates, large numbers of women conclude that (i) the characteristics of academic careers are unappealing, (ii) the impediments they will encounter are disproportionate, and (iii) the sacrifices they will have to make are great.
First, since my own university is currently conducting a gender equity study spurred in part because a disproportionate number of women faculty have left over the last few years, I strongly agree with the premise that women faculty are justifiably rejecting higher education, notably for the three points identified by Rice
Further, however, the recognition of the gender problem and then the likely responses to that problem both remind me of the recent thirty-year cycle of public school reform.
In both contexts, the problem is misidentified and then the solutions remain trapped within marginal policy tinkering.
Education reform, for example, has focused mostly on the achievement gap (occasionally acknowledging the relationship between poverty and measurable academic achievement, but primarily in order to note poverty is not an excuse) and then has addressed that problem by a recurring cycle of the same types of reform—accountability based on new standards and new high-stakes tests.
That process fails because the core problem, poverty, is marginalized by both how the problem is defined and what steps are taken as solutions; the process ultimately fails because we refuse to identify systemic problems and refuse to offer systemic solutions directly confronting those weaknesses.
This, of course, is the same critique I have of now (belatedly) recognizing the gender problem (or race problem, or class problem) in academia and the likely response: how do we hire more women, how do we insure equitable pay and promotion for women, etc.
Now to be clear, those policy issues must be addressed, but I suspect when and if they are, the consequence will be that systemic problems in academia will be left untouched.
As a tenured white and male faculty member now submitting my dossier for full professorship, I recognize that academia is too often a glorified fraternity, steeped in secrecy and academic hazing.
The structures remain hierarchical, the policies continue to be cryptic, and the entire process for hiring, evaluation, tenure, and promotion appear capricious—and often are capricious—despite there being very formalized steps, mountains of paperwork (literally paper), and arcane systems of titles, committees, and traditional norms of scholarship.
As just one example, high education functions under an unwritten (although often expressed in veiled ways) “know your place” policy aimed at junior faculty. For people who already live in marginalized situations due to gender, race, or class, this dynamic is especially corrosive.
It is not surprising that women are rejecting the Social Darwinism and hierarchical silencing in academia; what is surprising is that not everyone is rejecting these norms.
Just as education reform is committed to a flawed hope that reforming schools will eradicate crippling inequity, poverty, racism, and sexism in the U.S., addressing gender inequity in academia will too fail if we see the solutions as only policy reform—if we point to more women hired, higher salaries and more promotions for female faculty without taking any real steps to dismantle and then rebuild an enlightened and equitable academy.
Again, as with education reform, let’s address inequity at the policy level in academia—inequity related to gender, race, class, and any marginalized status—but let’s also not allow those reforms to replace the greater need to confront the systemic failures of academia that manifest themselves as gender, race, and class inequities.
Atwood’s novel ends with a keynote speech by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto of Cambridge University. His final words are grand, and empty in the way scholars often are: “As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes,” for example.
But the most powerful aspect of this talk is possibly the most subtle—Pieixoto ends his talk with a question, one that rings as mere rhetoric as no one responds, no one is likely allowed to respond: “Are there any questions?”
If we are serious about gender equity, for example, in academia, we must ask women academics and scholars what the academia should look like, not simply give them raises and promotions in hopes that we have solved the problem.
We must ask, we must listen, and then we must act. Otherwise, we are saying that we really do not take gender inequity seriously (again).