June 17, 2013, 12:58 pm
The FBI assistant director described the man as “demagogic” and “the most dangerous … to the nation … from the standpoint … of national security.” Subsequently, the U.S. Attorney General had signed off on intrusive surveillance of the subject’s living quarters, offices, phones, and hotel rooms, and those of his associates.
That immense threat to national security was not Anwar al-Awlaki, Bradley Manning, or Edward Snowden.
The demagogue was Martin Luther King Jr., and the attorney general who OK’d the surveillance was Robert F. Kennedy. It was 1963, and King had just given a powerful speech at the March on Washington where he talked about how America had given black people “a bad check” and they had come to demand “the security of justice.” FBI surveillance of King expanded after the march and under the Johnson administration, particularly after King…
June 14, 2013, 4:05 pm
In a 2002 book the anthropologist David D. Gilmore explored our culture’s fascination with monsters. He noted that most monsters are a sort of hybrid. They defy simple explanation because they tend to straddle categories. They might be part human and part animal (like a werewolf) or part living and part dead (like a vampire). The monster is thus a mutated version of something we are already familiar with; it is both familiar and strange. It’s the monster’s amorphous nature that we find upsetting—it blurs categories, so it upsets the natural order of things, causing chaos.
I think that’s why we fear MOOCs. As hybrids, they defy easy categorization and threaten to upset the tidy categories we have for judging who is and is not college-educated. Like monsters, MOOCs threaten to disrupt our social world and bring chaos in their wake.
Our most basic understanding of the college…
June 13, 2013, 12:42 pm
A number of questions have been raised in the last few days about the civil-liberties implications of the National Security Agency’s seven-year-old programs to gather data on telephone and e-mail conversations—the programs characterized by President Obama on Friday as “modest encroachments” on privacy. Three questions ought to be given more thorough examination.
1. Why were the programs secret?
It is difficult to see how earlier exposure of the programs’ existence would have aided terrorists, who have known at least since the 1990s that U.S. intelligence was searching communications worldwide to track them down. It is possible, however, that the secrecy of the programs stems from the Obama administration’s fear that public awareness of “modest encroachments” on privacy would make further efforts to encroach more difficult.
A former Air Force secretary told Reuters…
June 12, 2013, 1:51 pm
On July 1, E. Gordon Gee will no longer be my putative boss.
As has been widely reported, Gee was rushed into a retirement by Ohio State University’s Board of Trustees after yet another embarrassing set of off-the-cuff comments came to public attention. Gee made the remarks last December; the trustees quietly chastised him for them in March; but only after the story broke via the AP and ESPN did they decide that the clock had run out on President Gee’s time at OSU.
Personally, I thought the comments he made—about Notre Dame’s sports-crazed priests and about the Southeastern Conference’s reading abilities—were pretty funny, but the trustees—not a humorous bunch—weren’t giggling. The jokes were part of a larger pattern, and OSU grew tired of doing damage control. Gee clearly suffers from a chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease, and in truth, he left the trustees…
June 10, 2013, 1:31 pm
With a recently released report, Harvard University has weighed in on the crisis of the humanities, offering some surprising diagnoses. Mapping the Future is a thoughtful statement, crafted diplomatically in the hope of reassuring the often-fractious humanities community, while laying the groundwork for a potentially significant reconstruction of humanities education.
Declining humanities majors worry the Harvard faculty. In 1954, 36 percent of undergraduates at Harvard and Radcliffe College majored in the humanities. By 2012, that figure had fallen to 20 percent. Yet Harvard does fairly well when compared to national figures, which show a decline from 14 percent humanities B.A.’s awarded in 1966 to a mere 7 percent in 2010.
Clearly majoring in the humanities has long been an anomaly for American undergraduates, even at Harvard, which means that the protestations we hear today…
June 6, 2013, 12:57 pm
Different students learn in different ways—we know that. Students know that too.
A precalculus student I talked to on a recent afternoon failed the class last fall and was on her way to failing it again this spring. Sadly, she will probably fail the class in the fall, too. Despite all the class aids (and there were many), she had not reacted to her consistently low exam scores until I spoke to her after class.
Her science major requires that she complete Calculus 1 and possibly Calculus 2. Her mathematics SAT score was 380.
We talked a little bit about the class, her performance, and where she should go next. The student explained that my class is not compatible with her “learning method.” She said that she prefers “that multiplying method, you know, where there are letters, A, B, C.”
I said, “You mean, multiple choice?”
“Yes, that’s the one,” she said. “That’s the…
June 4, 2013, 1:36 pm
Graduate students today fall squarely in the millennial generation, which means we’re steeped in hipster culture. Readers of a certain age may still associate hipsters with aficionados of 1940s bebop. But today’s version is a different postmodern animal, demonstrating coolness by cultivating tastes and habits that run counter to prevailing consumer-culture norms.
By those standards, an ugly Christmas sweater, a mustache, and $1.99 neon-plastic sunglasses aren’t kitschy, they’re cool, because they reject the mass-media notion that we should look like Calvin Klein models. Watery beer, white bread, and processed cheese singles make for a romantic first date. The more you show the world you don’t care about its expectations, the higher you’ve climbed on the hipster ladder.
It’s easy to see how that can create cultural misunderstandings between generations. Which brings us…
May 31, 2013, 1:22 pm
What happened to English?
According to the Modern Language Association, in the late 1960s and early 70s, English accounted for about 7.5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees granted in the United States, but the portion plummeted to around 3.5 percent in the early 80s, climbed a bit to nearly 5 percent in the early 90s, then dropped steadily to 3.47 percent in 2004. English has gone from a major unit in the university to a minor one, its standing propped up largely by freshman writing requirements and creative-writing courses. At Emory University, where I teach English, when I arrived in 1989 and soon became director of undergraduate studies, the number of majors reached 350. Today, our majors linger at around 150.
Many professors blame the decline on external forces, including the rise of undergraduate business majors, a general emphasis among students on careerism and among…
May 28, 2013, 2:09 pm
Philosophers are stirred up again about the John Templeton Foundation, which according to its mission statement, supports “research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will.” Its programs “encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.” Philosophers cannot help but wonder: Should we take their money? Full disclosure: I have never taken Templeton money. Fuller disclosure: They have never offered.
Among philosophers, the main concern about Templeton money seems to be that it could lead the discipline to take religion more seriously than it now does. As Jason Stanley, the soon-to-be Yale philosopher whose Facebook post touched off the recent discussion, explains, we…
May 23, 2013, 11:45 am
It’s commencement season. Yet amid conservative complaints about liberal dominance of the commencement industry, some speeches have reverberated with conservative ideas. That was no more evident than when Michelle Obama took the opportunity to reiterate more of her husband’s politics of black respectability at Bowie State University.
She told the audience at the historically black college’s graduation last week that the focus on education had been lost by a community with a history in which slaves had risked their lives to learn to read. She spoke of the struggles to integrate America’s schools. But those words were a mere setup to yet again demonizing and pathologizing today’s black youth. “Instead of walking miles every day to school,” she said, “they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or…