Education Policy This Week: Edu-Traitors, Preventing Child Abuse Through Censorship, And Combat Soldiers In Class

August 6, 2011, 11:41 am

Today we are taking note of smart people saying smart things that open a can of worms or two about education policy and its consequences.

At HASTAC, Duke’s Cathy Davidson confesses that she is an edu-traitor. “I argue that, right now, we are deforming the entire enterprise of education,” Davidson writes, “from preschool onward, by insisting it be measured implicitly by the standard of ‘will this help you get into college’? The result is the devaluation of myriad important ways of learning that are not, strictly speaking, ‘college material.’”

To put Davidson’s concept in practical terms, even before budgets are cut, aspects of the school day that used to be a valued part of the educational mission — art, music, recess, clubs, athletics — become “extras.” In politician-speak, these activities are “fat” or “pork,” which can and should be cut:  those words are also a not-so-indirect way of stigmatizing these activities in a society that perceives being thin as virtuous and being not-thin as despicable.  Valuable ways of learning, developing the intellect and imagining an adult life have disappeared entirely from the poorest and even moderate income school districts (as the teachers are simply laid off); when they remain, students can participate by paying a fee, or because private philanthropies have stepped in (which also marks these areas of knowledge as activities that are not in the public interest.)

How are after school activities, that used to be fun, re-framed as training for college that is fake fun?  Grab a kid on the street and ask.  I know one young person who attends school in a district that is considered one of the best in its metropolitan area.  He has no art class but was given the opportunity to join an after school activity called — wait for it — Homework Club.

What child in his or her right mind would voluntarily join something called Homework Club?

Moving right along.  A return to HASTAC will also reveal that my sister, who is a musician and teaches Spanish on line, is blogging there (she has been blogging pseudonymously here for over a year, which I can tell you because she has said so on her HASTAC site.)  She has posted a really interesting piece on a new Missouri law that makes it illegal for a teacher to contact a current or former student through a social networking site, for any reason.  Why? Because it might lead to sex! As Dorothy Potter Snyder argues, the Internet is, of course, as abusable as any other public space. “But we also must come to grips with the general scapegoating of social networking that is rising among those in power,” Snyder writes. “Tipper Gore scapegoated popular music back in mid-80s in the same way, and caused a ruckus that left us with an insane system of coding that few can understand or appreciate. Scapegoating media always leads to censorship. And social ills of every sort have existed long before a silicon chip ever dreamed of becoming a Facebook page.” I think this is exactly right, and not just because she is my sister.

Part of what I like about both these pieces is that they point to how logic that seems irrefutable can have unexpected consequences when you put it in the hands of agenda-driven policymakers who turn it to ideological ends.  In the case of Davidson, the idea that secondary schools ought to support a college preparatory curriculum has meant the production of rigid curricula that narrows what we mean by learning. what kinds of intellectual life matter, or whether any schooling that doesn’t lead directly to paid labor matters.  In Snyder’s case, the notion that young people ought to be protected from sexual predators (duh) has produced the odd logic that child sexual abuse can be prevented by cutting off all unmonitored communication with adults outside the family. This version of “stranger danger” also stigmatizes educators as an inherently suspect group, when (despite sensational cases in the press) they are no more likely to abuse a child than any other adult. Finally, since most sexual abuse occurs in the home, and the perp is almost always a family member, or family friend, trusted by the child and parents, do we think Twitter and Facebook are facilitating these interactions?  Seriously?  Is Daddy Tweeting a seductive message from the next room? (Of course,  in Missouri he could do so legally, but the kid’s math teacher could not post an assignment to Facebook.)

Another worthwhile question is:  although sexual violence rightly inspires outrage, fewer than 10% of incidents in which authorities are called to protect a child are sexual in nature.  The most recent figures from the International Child Abuse Network show that neglect and physical violence combine to make up almost 85% of the reports in which violence or harm is done to a child.

OK so let’s get to today’s final item, which is the new study out of the University of Utah this week that military veterans returning to college are dramatically more likely to contemplate, or commit, suicide than is the average college student.  M. David Rudd, who presented the research at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, revealed a finding that “Nearly half the veterans in the study said they had had suicidal thoughts at some point, and one-fifth said they had planned to kill themselves. The percentage of student veterans who said they had attempted suicide was six times higher than that of the general college student population.”

Rudd maintains that universities are simply not prepared to support this population of students. They will have to plan how to integrate veterans into a population made up of traditional students (who are completely detached from the war as far as I can tell), as well as develop new student services and staff trainings to cope with what amounts to an epidemic of depression and other trauma-related illnesses.

How this will happen given budget cuts to higher ed that range from 10 to 20 percent across the nation (here are a few here) is anybody’s guess: California, where we can imagine large numbers of vets matriculating because they have deployed from and will return there, is cutting between $1.3 and 1.4 billion dollars from a system that took massive cuts in the last fiscal year.  North Carolina, a state that should see similar pressure because of its military bases, is cutting 15% from its state system alone. Private schools have also cut, and cut and cut.  Texas? South Carolina? It’s the same story everywhere.  Furthermore, as military budgets are reduced over the next several years, do we think that veterans benefits or weapons systems will be eliminated?

While the news about cuts to higher ed always turns quickly to the increased burdens placed on students by higher tuition, what nobody talks about is the strain that fiscal austerity has placed on psychological and medical services that were never adequate to begin with.  I don’t know anyone who teaches at a university that provides adequate psychiatric services for its students:  it’s my impression that putting students on medical leave is the go-to protocol, in the absence of staff who can give troubled young people the help they need. It’s also my impression that students know they are likely to be kicked out if they admit to suicidal ideation or other self-destructive habits, and it often causes them to rely on networks of friends rather than going to a counselor.  Medical leave protects the college or university from liability in the event of, well, an event; seen in its best light,  these policies tacitly acknowledge the inadequacy of the school’s services to meet the students’ health care needs and assume that adequate support and counseling can be provided by the family.

So what I’m saying here is:  I’m glad for the alert to institutions of higher ed who will want those G.I. Bill dollars very much, and who aren’t thinking about the costs and planning attendant to helping combat veterans return to civilian life.  But if the APA thinks that traditional college students are getting the help they need right now, then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn…..

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