Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers (The Atlantic)

 
 
Once, when I told a guy on a plane that I taught philosophy at a community college, he responded, “So you teach Plato to plumbers?” Yes, indeed. But I also teach Plato to nurses’ aides, soldiers, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, and any number of other students who feel like they need a diploma as an entry ticket to our economic carnival. As a result of my work, I’m in a unique position to reflect on the current discussion about the value of the humanities, one that seems to me to have lost its way.
 
As usual, there’s plenty to be worried about: the steady evaporation of full-time teaching positions, the overuse and abuse of adjunct professors, the slashing of public funding, the shrinkage of course offerings and majors in humanities disciplines, the increase of student debt, the peddling of technologies as magic bullets, the ubiquitous description of students as consumers. Moreover, I fear in my bones that the supremacy of a certain kind of economic-bureaucratic logic—one of “outcomes,” “assessment,” and “the bottom-line”—is eroding the values that undergird not just our society’s commitment to the humanities, but to democracy itself.
 
The problem facing the humanities, in my view, isn’t just about the humanities. It’s about the liberal arts generally, including math, science, and economics. These form half of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, but if the goal of an education is simply economic advancement and technological power, those disciplines, just like the humanities, will be—and to some degree already are—subordinated to future employment and technological progress. Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”

Traditionally, the liberal arts have been the privilege of an upper class. There are three big reasons for this. First, it befits the leisure time of an upper class to explore the higher goods of human life: to play Beethoven, to study botany, to read Aristotle, to go on an imagination-expanding tour of Italy. Second, because their birthright is to occupy leadership positions in politics and the marketplace, members of the aristocratic class require the skills to think for themselves. Whereas those in the lower classes are assessed exclusively on how well they meet various prescribed outcomes, those in the upper class must know how to evaluate outcomes and consider them against a horizon of values. Finally (and this reason generally goes unspoken), the goods of the liberal arts get coded as markers of privilege and prestige, so that the upper class can demarcate themselves clearly from those who must work in order to make their leisure and wealth possible.

We don’t intellectually embrace a society where the privileged few get to enjoy the advantages of leisure and wealth while the masses toil on their behalf. Yet that’s what a sell-out of the liberal arts entails. For the most part, the wealthy in this country continue to pay increasingly exorbitant tuition to private prep schools, good liberal arts colleges, and elite universities, where their children get strong opportunities to develop their minds, dress themselves in cultural capital, and learn the skills necessary to become influential members of society. Meanwhile, the elite speak of an education’s value for the less privileged in terms of preparation for the global economy. Worse yet, they often support learning systems designed to produce “good employees”—i.e., compliant laborers.  Then, money for public education is slashed, and tuition soars. Those in the middle class, let alone the poor, have to fight an ever-steepening uphill battle to spend their time and money on the arts appropriate to free people.

As a professor with lots of experience giving Ds and Fs, I know full well that the value of the liberal arts will always be lost on some people, at least at certain points in their lives.  (Whenever I return from a conference, I worry that many on whom the value of philosophy is lost have found jobs teaching philosophy!) But I don’t think that this group of people is limited to any economic background or form of employment. My experience of having taught at relatively elite schools, like Emory University and Oglethorpe University, as well as at schools like Kennesaw State University and Kirkwood Community College, is that there are among future plumbers as many devotees of Plato as among the future wizards of Silicon Valley, and that there are among nurses’ aides and soldiers as many important voices for our democracy as among doctors and business moguls.I recently got a letter from a former student, a factory worker, thanking me for introducing him to Schopenhauer. I was surprised, because I hadn’t assigned the German pessimist. The letter explained that I’d quoted some lines from Schopenhauer in class, and they’d sparked my student’s imagination. When he didn’t find what I’d quoted after reading all of volumes one and two of The World as Will and Representation, he started in on Parerga and Paralipomena, where he was eventually successful. Enclosing a short story that he’d recently written on a Schopenhauerian theme, he wrote me a long letter of thanks for inadvertently turning him on to a kindred mind.

Once, during a lecture I gave about the Stoics, who argue that with the proper spiritual discipline one can be truly free and happy even while being tortured, I looked up to see one of the students in tears. I recalled that her sister in Sudan had been recently imprisoned for challenging the local authorities. Through her tears my student was processing that her sister was likely seeking out a hard Stoic freedom as I was lecturing.

I once had a janitor compare his mystical experiences with those of the medieval Sufi al-Ghazali’s. I once had a student of redneck parents—his way of describing them—who read both parts of Don Quixote because I used the word “quixotic.” A mother who’d authorized for her crippled son a risky surgery that led to his death once asked me with tears in her eyes, “Is Kant right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth?” A wayward veteran I once had in Basic Reasoning fell in love with formal logic and is now finishing law school at Berkeley.

The fire will always be sparked. Are we going to fan it, or try to extinguish it?

Keeping an Eye on Online Test-Takers (New York Times)

But when those students take the final exam in calculus or genetics, how will their professors know that the test-takers on their distant laptops are doing their own work, and not asking Mr. Google for help?

The issue of online cheating concerns many educators, particularly as more students take MOOCs for college credit, and not just for personal enrichment. Already, five classes from Coursera, a major MOOC provider, offer the possibility of credit, and many more are expected.

One option is for students to travel to regional testing centers at exam time. But reaching such centers is next to impossible for many students, whether working adults who can’t take time off to travel, or others in far-flung places who can’t afford the trip.

But now eavesdropping technologies worthy of the C.I.A. can remotely track every mouse click and keystroke of test-taking students. Squads of eagle-eyed humans at computers can monitor faraway students via webcams, screen sharing and high-speed Internet connections, checking out their photo IDs, signatures and even their typing styles to be sure the test-taker is the student who registered for the class.

The developing technology for remote proctoring may end up being as good — or even better — than the live proctoring at bricks-and-mortar universities, said Douglas H. Fisher, a computer science and computer engineering professor at Vanderbilt University who was co-chairman of a recent workshop that included MOOC-related topics. “Having a camera watch you, and software keep track of your mouse clicks, that does smack of Big Brother,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem any worse than an instructor at the front constantly looking at you, and it may even be more efficient.”

Employees at ProctorU, a company that offers remote proctoring, watch test-takers by using screen sharing and webcam feeds at offices in Alabama and California. ProctorU recently signed an agreement to proctor new credit-bearing MOOCs from Coursera, including one in genetics and evolution offered at Duke and one in single-variable calculus at the University of Pennsylvania.

MOOC students who want to obtain credit will be charged a remote-proctoring fee of $60 to $90, depending on the class, said Dr. Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, based in Mountain View, Calif.

Other remote proctoring services offer different solutions. At Software Secure in Newton, Mass., test-takers are recorded by camera and then, later, three proctors independently watch a faster-speed video of each student.

Compared with services where proctors are monitoring students in real time, this combination of recording first and viewing later “gives greater latitude for the institution to adjust the timing of exams to whenever they want,” said Allison Sands, Software Secure’s director of marketing. The cost is now $15 per exam.

Employees at ProctorU say they are well-versed in the sometimes ingenious tactics used to dodge testing rules. “We’ve seen it all,” said Matt Jaeh, vice president for operations. “After you’ve sat there a while watching people, the patterns of behavior for normal people versus the people trying to sneak in a cellphone to look up information are very clear.”

Each proctor can monitor up to six students at a time, watching three side-by-side camera feeds on each of two screens. If a student’s eyes start to wander, the proctor gives a warning via videoconferencing software, just as a classroom monitor might tell students to keep their eyes on their own papers. For an overwhelming majority of people, that warning suffices, said Jarrod Morgan, a co-founder.

With the system in place, “cheating usually isn’t a problem,” he said. But if it does occur, ProctorU follows the rules of the institution giving the exam. “Some schools ask us to cut off the exam on the spot if there’s a suspicious incident,” he said; others ask that the exam be continued and the incident reported.

Beyond the issue of proctoring, MOOCs are also addressing the problem of making sure that credit-seeking test-takers are the same students who enrolled in the course. In that effort, Coursera is offering a separate service, called Signature Track and costing $30 to $99, that confirms students’ identity by matching webcam photographs as well as pictures of acceptable photo IDs.

Students also type a short phrase, which is analyzed by a software program. It takes note of the typing rhythm and other characteristics, like how long the keys are pressed down. Then, when a student submits homework or takes a test, the algorithm compares a bit of new typing with the original sample. (And if you’ve broken your arm, there’s always your photo ID.)

Online classes are hardly new, but earlier courses typically didn’t have to handle exam proctoring on the scale required for vast MOOCs. The University of Florida in Gainesville, for example, has long offered many programs for students studying far from the campus, with some monitoring done by ProctorU, said W. Andrew McCollough, associate provost for teaching and technology.

Now the school has set up its first MOOC, on human nutrition (enrollment 47,000), and is working on four others, all through Coursera. The question of proctoring is being debated, he said, as faculty members worry about academic integrity amid the growth of open, online classes. “They don’t want any fooling around,” he said. “But as we get more experience and evidence, the faculty are getting familiar with ways technology can replicate a classroom experience.”

Defining Community Colleges Down – from The Chronicle for Higher Education

Defining Community Colleges Down

July 3, 2012, 2:25 pm

By Richard Kahlenberg

Reposted from http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/defining-community-colleges-down/33253

Elite columnists and reporters, highly attuned to their upper-middle-class readership, rarely cover community colleges. Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews once wrote, “My page view totals and e-mail traffic indicate readers move on quickly … whenever they see the words ‘community college.’”

So I was momentarily pleased to see that Joe Nocera devoted his New York Times column this morning to the role that two-year institutions can play “to help grease the wheels of social mobility.” The piece, “Filling the Skills Gap,” notes that community colleges, which educate a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students, are severely underfunded and overcrowded and deserve better. So far so good.

But where Nocera lost me was in his contention that today community colleges should be primarily about preparing students for “middle-skill jobs,” rather than providing “a passageway to a university degree,” a function they served in “their earlier incarnation” as “junior colleges.”

Community colleges have two big roles—to provide skills, certificates, and AA degrees that will improve employment prospects for students, and to provide a gateway for low-income and working-class students who wish to transfer and ultimately receive a bachelor’s degree. The downgrading of community colleges to a single function—skills training—would constitute a betrayal for the many working-class students who aspire to more.

While community colleges have a critical role to play in preparing some students with important vocational skills, federal education survey data show that 81.4 percent of students entering community college for the first time say they eventually want to transfer and earn at least a bachelor’s degree. That only 11.6 percent of entering community-college students do so within six years is a national tragedy. Some look at these numbers and suggest community colleges should downplay the idea of transfer, but it makes more sense to improve and strengthen transfer paths.

For many talented and diligent low-income students who must work to make ends meet, community college is a more affordable and flexible option than beginning at a four-year institution, even though they understandably prefer to ultimately earn a B.A. rather than a certificate or an AA degree. U.S. Census data show that the mean earnings of workers age 18 and over with a bachelor’s degree has increased relative to that of workers with some college/associate’s degree, from 47 percent more in 1975 to 68 percent more in 2010.

Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padron, who is featured in Nocera’s column, understands that many students aspire to a bachelor’s degree, which is why, as Nocera notes in passing, Miami Dade has begun offering baccalaureate degrees. Miami Dade and other leading community colleges are upgrading, teaching “high skills” as well as “middle skills.” Indeed, Padron is co-chair, along with New York Public Library president Anthony Marx, of a Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal—rejecting the second-class status of two-year institutions.

I’m pleased that the New York Times is devoting space to community colleges. But rather than seeing them as places where low-income students will settle for “middle skills,” community colleges should aim higher. Two-year institutions should always have an important and valuable vocational role—which, for low-income students may represent a significant step up. But the additional function of community colleges as a pathway to a four-year degree in the modern economy is more important than ever if we want education to continue to be about significant social mobility.