Tag Archives: Education

March 21, 1925 (a Saturday)

On this date, Tennessee Governor Peay signed into law the Butler Act, “prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory” in all public schools and universities and making it unlawful in public schools “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This set the stage for the Scopes’ “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee during the subsequent summer.

The author of the law, a Tennessee farmer named John Washington Butler, had introduced the bill into the state House of Representatives on January 25, 1925. Ironically, he later was reported to have said, “No, I didn’t know anything about evolution when I introduced it. I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.” After reading copies of William Jennings Bryan’s lecture “Is the Bible True?” as well as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Butler decided evolution was dangerous. During the trial, Butler told reporters, “I never had any idea my bill would make a fuss. I just thought it would become a law, and that everybody would abide by it and that we wouldn’t hear any more of evolution in Tennessee.”

March 3, 1952 (a Monday)



On this date, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485 (1952) (Douglas, J., dissenting).  This case is notable because it is the first Supreme Court case to mention, in the dissent by Justice William O. Douglas, the concept of academic freedom.

Background. This case involved a New York state statute that essentially banned state employees from belonging to “subversive groups” – groups that advocated the use of violence in order to change the government. Under the statute, public employees were forced to take loyalty oaths stating that they did not belong to subversive groups in order to maintain their employment.

Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice

Decision. The majority, laboring in the shadow of the Cold War and McCarthyism, upheld the state statute. However, referring to the process by which organizations were found “subversive,” Douglas said that because the law excluded an entire viewpoint without a showing that the invasion was needed for some state purpose, it impermissibly invaded academic freedom. He wrote:

[t]he very threat of such a procedure is certain to raise havoc with academic freedom….A teacher caught in that mesh is almost certain to stand condemned. Fearing condemnation, she will tend to shrink from any association that stirs controversy. In that manner freedom of expression will be stifled.

Fortunately, the premise of Adler has now been rejected – today, public employees, including teachers, have at least the same rights of expression as others (see Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967)).

January 24, 1850 (a Thursday)

Hermann Ebbinghaus

On this date, the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was born.

The scientific study of memory started with the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus, published in 1885 in the book Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. He was a careful, cautious researcher who followed simple but logical procedures.

Ebbinghaus devised a set of items to be committed to memory that would have no previous associations, the so-called nonsense syllables. These each consist of two consonants separated by a vowel (C-V-C) that does not spell anything in one’s language — in English, BAF would be an example. Ebbinghaus constructed 2,300 of these items and then proceeded to memorize them in lists of about 20. He learned each list of these syllables until he had reached a pre-established criterion (perfect recall), and then recorded how many he was able to retain after specific time intervals. He also noted how many trials were necessary for relearning after the syllables had been forgotten. His first set of trials took place over the course of one year (1879-1880) and he replicated the experiments three years later.

The curved brown and dotted lines represent forgetting curves; the green line represents the learning curve. Relearning at periodic intervals produces forgetting curves that are progressively flatter.

Ebbinghaus made several findings that are still relevant and supported to this day. First, arguably his most famous finding, the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve refers to the exponential curve that describes how fast we tend to forget information after we have learned it. The sharpest decline is in the first twenty minutes, then in the first hour, and then the curve evens off after about one day.

The learning curve, which was described by Ebbinghaus, refers to the curve that describes how fast we relearn information. The sharpest increase occurs after the first relearning (“repetition”), and gradually evens out, meaning that less and less new information is retained with each successive relearning. Like the forgetting curve, the learning curve is also exponential.

The Ebbinghaus Illusion. Note that the orange circles appear of different sizes, even though equal.

Interestingly, Ebbinghaus is also credited with discovering an optical illusion now known after its discoverer — the Ebbinghaus illusion, which is an illusion of relative size perception. In the best-known version of this illusion, two circles of identical size are placed near to each other and one is surrounded by large circles while the other is surrounded by small circles; the first central circle then appears smaller than the second central circle. This illusion is now used extensively in research in cognitive psychology, to find out more about the various perception pathways in our brain.


  • Plucker, J. A. (Ed.). (2003). “Human intelligence: Historical influences, current controversies, teaching resources”. Retrieved 24 Jan 2012 from http://www.indiana.edu/~intell

January 23, 1967 (a Monday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, the U.S. Supreme Court in Keyishian v. Board of Regents of University of State of New York ruled that faculty members’ First Amendment rights were violated by a state requirement that they sign a certificate stating that they were not and never had been Communists and by vague and overly broad restrictions on verbal and written expression. Specifically, political “loyalty oaths” required of New York State employees (including educators) under state civil service laws were declared void, and New York education laws against “treasonable or seditious speech” were found to violate the First Amendment right to free speech. Thus, the Court finally awarded to teachers and professors the full complement of free speech and political privacy rights afforded other citizens.

The Supreme Court famously emphasized the importance of academic freedom in higher education:

Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. . . The classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas.’ The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.’ 

January 5, 1982 (a Tuesday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education was decided. An ACLU lawyer for the plaintiff dubbed it “Scopes II”, although the nickname didn’t quite fit this particular case. For one thing, Arkansas had already had its version of the Scopes trial in 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on teaching evolution (Epperson v. Arkansas). In the 1980s, instead of banning the teaching of evolution, anti-evolutionists were using a different tactic. They were trying to force the schools to teach creationism alongside evolution. Creationism, or creation-science as it was referred to in Arkansas’ “balanced treatment” law, is the belief that each species was independently created de novo a few thousand years ago in its modern form, and consequently living things do not evolve.

The Biblical creation had allegedly taken seven days, but its trial, which began on December 7, 1981, took nine.

Federal Judge William R. Overton found that Arkansas’ law (Act 590) mandating equal treatment of creation science with evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. In a decision that gave a detailed definition of the term “science”, the court declared that “creation science” is not in fact a science. Interestingly, to support his conclusion, Overton noted that the Arkansas law was a “model” bill drafted and promoted nationwide by Paul Ellwanger, a respiratory therapist from South Carolina. In explaining his model bill in a letter to Pastor Robert E. Hays, Ellwanger made it clear that he did not believe that creationism was a science:

While neither evolution nor creation can qualify as a scientific theory, and since it is virtually impossible at this point to educate the whole world that evolution is not a true scientific theory, we have freely used these terms – the evolution theory and the theory of scientific creationism – in the bill’s text.

Overton said that Ellwanger’s other correspondence on the subject showed “an awareness that Act 590 is a religious crusade, coupled with a desire to conceal this fact.” For example, in a letter to Senator Joseph Carlucci of Florida, Ellwanger wrote:

It would be very wise, if not actually essential, that all of us who are engaged in this legislative effort be careful not to present our position and our work in a religious framework. For example, in written communications that might somehow be shared with those other persons whom we may be trying to convince, it would be well to exclude our own personal testimony or witness for Christ….

Overton showed that creationism was not science by first listing the essential characteristics of science: (1) it is guided by natural law; (2) it has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) it is testable against the empirical world; (4) its conclusions are tentative, that is, are not necessarily the final word; and (5) it is falsifiable. He then argued that creation science failed to meet these characteristics because it required a supernatural intervention which is not guided by natural law and which “is not explanatory by reference to natural law, is not testable, and is not falsifiable.” In support of this he pointed out that creationist methods “do not take data, weigh it against the opposing scientific data,” and then reach conclusions. Instead, creationists “take the literal wording of the Book of Genesis and attempt to find scientific support for it.” This argument made it clear that “since creation science is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of Act 590 is the advancement of religion.”

The court also found that the statute did not have a secular purpose, noting that the statute used language peculiar to creationist literature in emphasizing origins of life as an aspect of the theory of evolution. While the subject of life’s origins is within the province of biology, the scientific community does not consider the subject as part of evolutionary theory, which assumes the existence of life and is directed to an explanation of how life evolved after it originated. The theory of evolution does not presuppose either the absence or the presence of a creator.

Judge Overton’s most devastating critique of creation science was probably the following observation:

The proof in support of creation science consisted almost entirely of efforts to discredit the theory of evolution through a rehash of data and theories which have been before the scientific community for decades. The arguments asserted by creationists are not based upon new scientific evidence or laboratory data which has been ignored by the scientific community.

December 20, 2005 (a Tuesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Districtwas decided.

First, some background information. In October 2004, the Dover [PA] Area School District Board of Directors had decided that “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” In November 2004, they had announced that Dover High School’s ninth-grade biology teachers would read a statement informing students that “Darwin’s Theory . . . is not a fact” and that “intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” The statement referred students to the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People to learn “what intelligent design actually involves.” On December 14, 2004, eleven parents had filed suit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania against the District’s Board of Directors. [Interestingly, in January 2005, science teachers refused to read the ID statement; administrators read it themselves.] The trial had begun on September 26, 2005.

Judge John Jones

The presiding judge, John E. Jones III, was not fooled by the defendants’ denials that they are creationists: “[Intelligent Design] cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.” He was especially displeased that board members Buckingham and Bonsell had lied under oath during their depositions:

[T]he inescapable truth is that both Bonsell and Buckingham lied at their January 3, 2005 depositions about their knowledge of the source of the donation for Pandas. . . . This mendacity was a clear and deliberate attempt to hide the source of the donations . . . to further ensure that Dover students received a creationist alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution [emphasis added].

Presented with the truth about the board’s policy and the ID creationism it promoted, Jones ruled accordingly:

A declaratory judgment is hereby issued in favor of Plaintiffs . . . such that Defendants’ ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and . . . the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The victory was not just legal; the pro-ID school board was replaced by the voters on November 8, 2005.

Assaulting Science

I have just discovered another incarnation of pseudo-science on the internet, this one promoted by a Libb Thims:

In short, Thims’ research efforts, beginning in 1995 as a curious hobby, and in 2001 as a more intense research project, have been to understand how the inequality ΔG < 0, where ΔG = ΔH – TΔS, applies to the governance and regulation of human existence, impersonally (in relationships) and socially (within a society), viewed purely in terms of a super-observer perspective, time-accelerated human reactions (surface-attached chemical reactions) point of view—in other words, in variational speak, how differentials (time variations) of Gibbs free energy change dG (available energy release or absorption) apply to the prediction and spontaneities of interactions and reactions between people, particularly in regards to the formation and dissolution of bonds, the intimate relationship marriage bond and reproduction in particular, over the course of decades of time (changes in states of experience). In categorization terms, this defines Thims as a human free energy theorist, a rare group of about forty thinkers. [emphasis added]

The amount of disinformation on the internet is truly horrendous.

The Causes of Anti-Intellectualism

Historian Richard Hofstadter gave us the best definition of the term:

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

Author Susan Jacoby maintains that, due to a re-invigoration of anti-intellectualism in this country, Americans have been getting dumber over the last several decades. She argues that Americans have grown increasingly passive and uninformed amid a video-driven culture that prizes “infotainment,” celebrates ignorance, and devalues critical thinking. The net result, she says, is a “crisis of memory and knowledge” that poses a serious threat to the two pillars of American intellectual life, reading and conversation, and carries very real consequences, such as the war in Iraq.

First and foremost among the forces behind the new anti-intellectualism is electronic media. The major casualties of our current media-saturated life are three things essential to the vocation of an intellectual:  silence, solitary thinking, and social conversation.  For example, the decline of book, newspaper, and magazine reading is by now an old story.

  • Reading has declined not only among the poorly educated, according to a report in 2004 by the National Endowment for the Arts, but among Americans of all ages and education levels.  In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did.  And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book — fiction or nonfiction — over the course of a year.  The proportion of 17-year-olds who read nothing (unless required to do so for school) more than doubled between 1984 and 2004.  And what do Americans read when they do read?   Here’s a hint:  you can find multiple magazine racks like this at almost any supermarket.
  • Grocery store magazines at checkout aisle.

  • The time period between 1984 and 2004, of course, encompasses the rise of personal computers, Web surfing, and video games.  In a study released last August, University of Washington researchers found that babies between 8 and 16 months recognized an average of six to eight fewer words for every hour spent watching videos.
  • The inability to concentrate for long periods of time and the impatience with the process of acquiring information through written language may be a consequence of the rise of video. After all, it is difficult to spend more than a few moments before being distracted while reading hits for information on the Web.  In support of this assertion, Harvard University’s Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate — featuring the candidate’s own voice — dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds.  By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.

The shrinking public attention span fostered by video is closely tied to an important symptom of anti-intellectualism in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge.

  • According to a national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and conducted by Harris Interactive, only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun; only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time; and only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water. Furthermore, only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.
  • According to a survey by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government, a minimal requirement for understanding America’s constitutional system, and almost 40% of Americans falsely believe the president has the power to declare war.   Only 24% of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States and only 54% can correctly identify a basic description of the free enterprise system, in which all Americans participate.
  • In addition, the ISI survey reveals that elected officials typically have less civic knowledge than the general public — for example, 30% do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Interestingly, ISI examined whether other factors add to or subtract from civic literacy and how they compare with the impact of college. The survey revealed that in today’s technological age, all else remaining equal, a person’s test score drops in proportion to the time he or she spends using certain types of passive electronic media. Talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminish a respondent’s civic literacy.  In contrast to these negative influences, the civic knowledge gained from the inexpensive combination of engaging in frequent conversations about public affairs, reading about current events and history, and participating in more involved civic activities is greater than the gain from an expensive bachelor’s degree alone.

That leads us to another force behind the new anti-intellectualism: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know — it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.  Americans go to websites and attend lectures only when they want to hear information that reinforces what they already (think they) know.  Only a small minority of people are any longer willing to learn from people with whom they disagree.   There is little motivation to learn.  Call this anti-rationalism, often exhibited by certain religious groups that reject Reason and embrace Faith as the only way to knowledge.  This current of anti-intellectualism is actually not new — for example, it was famously expressed in The Pouring Out of the Seven Vials (1642) by the Puritan John Cotton, who wrote:

The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee.

Another source of anti-rationalism is a narrow, utilitarian focus on jobs and career as the ultimate goal of learning – for example, this was famously expressed by Henry Ford in 1916, who said:

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.

According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made.  More than a third consider it “not at all important” to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it “very important.”   So, why is it important to know about humans living in different places and in different ways?  Because we are part of a massive global economy where our local actions, in the aggregate, have massive global consequences.


    You Can’t Educate Kids Out Of Poverty

    The truth is our public schools have been asked not only to educate children but also to solve many of the ills that the larger society either cannot or will not fix. I am speaking of issues directly related to poverty.

    — Arlene Ackerman, in a letter to The Washington Post after she withdrew her name from the “Rhee-Klein manifesto”.

    Zen stones
    Socioeconomic status — not the value-added assessment of the teacher or the principal’s evaluation of the teacher — is what correlates with student achievement as shown in the research.

    Here’s some data to back this up from Stephen Krashen:

    Protecting Students

    If it walks like a tax and quacks like a tax…

    mortarboard_Written in 1960, the Master Plan for Higher Education in California designed specific regulations for all California institutions of higher education in order to promote student success.

    The plan initiated “enrollment fees” instead of tuition to keep costs down and encourage commitment to higher education. In Chapter IX, it noted that:

    Tuition is defined generally as student charges for teaching expenses, whereas fees are charges to students, either collectively or individually, for services not directly related to instruction, such as health, special clinical services, job placement, housing, recreation.

    In other words, student fees were to be for “auxiliary costs”.

    The rules of the plan are especially stringent for junior [community] colleges, which must maintain quality standards because they have to accept everyone. Community colleges offer education through grade fourteen, two years after high school graduation. The standard collegiate courses offered are transferable to higher institutions, including vocational and technical offerings and liberal arts courses.

    Although intended originally to be nominal, “enrollment fees” have steadily risen to the point of being a euphemism for tuition. This is evident because the cost of attending community colleges in California is routinely compared with the tuition charged by community colleges in other states.

    Furthermore, in practice, fees tend to rise or fall based on whether the state budget is in the red or black, not on whether “auxiliary costs” are going up or down. Thus, you can have the ludicrous situation in which fees are being raised at the same time that state financial support for the community college system is being cut. In effect, the “fees” that are being imposed on students are really taxes – they are being used to balance the state budget. The time to stop this Orwellian “double-speak” is NOW.

    The AAUP’s Cary Nelson Goes to War

    The president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has written a new book, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, due to be published in January, 2010 by New York University Press. In it, he argues that academic freedom verges on being a lost cause, shared governance is in retreat, and the professoriate is in danger of losing any semblance of job security (that is, tenure) in a work force dominated by underpaid adjunct faculty members.  [Faculty who ignore these concerns do so at their own peril. -ed.]  His response is to call for an all-out effort to win not just battles but the hearts and minds of other college employees — even students.  The book  should be required reading for all college and university professors, including contingent faculty, lecturers, and instructors. An interview with Cary Nelson about his book can be read here.

    The New Academic Labor System is Getting Old


    An ongoing theme at this site has been the corporatization of higher education. Commercial influence is nothing new in American higher education and has been with us at least since the Morill Land Grant Act of the 1860s brought agriculture and engineering to the university. As David Noble has demonstrated, the industrial revolution of the early twentieth century was an outcome of partnerships between campus and industry. However, one could argue that corporatization began to take off in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the onset of increased research spending — in an emerging climate President Eisenhower should have called “the military-industrial-educational complex.” Since then corporatization in higher education has increasingly gained the attention of scholars.

    So, exactly what are we talking about? What is corporatization?

    AAUP banner

    Richard Moser, a professional historian and a member of the national staff of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), wrote in an article entitled “Corporatization, Its Discontents and the Renewal of Academic Citizenship“:

    [Corporatization] is the term now being used to describe a number of historical developments. For higher education it refers to the retreat of service to the common good as the purpose of our colleges and universities. In general it describes the decline of a social contract that prevailed in America during the mid-[twentieth] century and the reorganization of our great national resources, including higher education, for the purpose of maximizing profits

    Corporatization is far from a perfect term, as there are many different approaches possible even in a corporate economy. Corporatization may well be viewed as the misapplication of a regressive corporate ideology to a non-market activity (education). As such, corporatization is as much an ideological project as it is a political or economic one. The Canadians call this process “commercialization” and the British “privatization,” and those concepts capture important aspects of the changes we are experiencing…

    [T]he years between W.W.II and 1975 were characterized primarily by powerful government interventions in higher education that were a central component in what may be called the mid-century social contract [emphasis added].

    This notion of a social contract, or compact, has also been described by Neil W. Hamilton, in his 2002 book, Academic Ethics: Problems and Materials on Professional Conduct and Shared Governance. It refers to the unwritten agreement between faculty members at colleges and universities and the society these institutions serve. Mr. Moser characterizes the social contract in the post-war period as a bargain between government, higher education, and business:

    Government promoted and sustained economic growth through investment in higher education. The GI bill, the shift toward service industries, and demographic trends dramatically increased student enrollment. Higher education underwrote the scientific, technical, and theoretical knowledge necessary for post-war economic activity. Business and administrative leaders upheld their end of the bargain by permitting a rising standard of living for most working people…This period was also characterized by a high degree of respect for the AAUP’s 1940 Statement. Tenure, due process, and shared governance became the almost universally accepted ethical foundation for higher education…

    In this so-called “golden era” the university was part of and dedicated to the public good [emphasis added].

    So what ended the “golden era” of higher education? The demise of the social contract had begun by the late 1960s, according to Mr. Moser:

    Slower economic growth and heightened competition were evoked to change popular expectations concerning living standards and public expenditures. In higher education the changing times were characterized by decreased public funding. That occurred simultaneously with the ascendancy of a corporate style of management and the subsequent shifting of costs and risks to those who teach, research and study…

    The cutting edge of the corporatization of higher education was the restructuring of the workforce around a multi-tiered structure into what I call the “New Academic Labor System.” In the typical multi-tiered system new or younger employees are not offered the same level of compensation and job security as existing staff. A report on faculty appointments by the AAUP’s Ernst Benjamin revealed:

    • The change since 1975 is striking. Part-time faculty have grown four-times (103%) more than full-time (27%).
    • The number of non-tenure-track faculty has increased by 92%, while the number of probationary (tenure-track) faculty has actually declined by 12%.
    • Adjunct appointments went from 22% in 1970 to 32% in 1982, to 42% in 1993, to a current level of about 46 percent of all faculty [emphasis added].

    In fact, the situation in higher education has become even worse than when Mr. Benjamin compiled his statistics in 2002. Today, about two-thirds of the faculty nationwide is contingent, and at community colleges, which enroll about 50 percent of all college students, the professoriate is about 70 to 80 percent contingent. How did this happen? Mr. Moser continues:

    This multi-tiered approach succeeded, because it blunted opposition by implicitly promising not to affect existing constituencies. Tenured faculty were enticed with short-term benefits. The faculty did cooperate in their own demise, but not by formal decree. No faculty senate, AAUP chapter, or union ever explicitly agreed to abolish tenure for the majority of future faculty in exchange for cheap replacements for introductory courses or sabbaticals, but such complicity is rarely formalized…

    The over-use and exploitation of contingent faculty is the linchpin of this process of corporatization, because it has fragmented the faculty and weakened our ability to act as a constituency.

    The fact is that, even without this fragmentation, most academics tend to be “loners” — highly independent and concerned mostly with their own professional cliques. They shy away from political activism, and in general are oblivious to the plight of other academics outside their inner circle. The individualistic nature of intellectuals makes organized resistance against corporatization difficult. This was clearly explained in an article published on 29 November 2006 in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “An Adjunct Bill of Rights“:

    Tenured professors may well be in the best position to champion academic freedom for both full-timers and part-timers. After all, they are far less likely to lose their jobs for speaking out.

    However, Judith Wagner DeCew, a professor of philosophy at Clark University, has pointed out that most full-time faculty members have not seen fit to concern themselves with the increased hiring and exploitation of part-time faculty members. In Unionization in the Academy: Visions and Realities (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), she writes: “While some full-time faculty members speak out for and support part-timers, there is a sense that most full-time appointees are concerned about their own salaries and working conditions, whether unionized or not. . . . Numerous studies have shown that the difficulties that part-time faculty confront can often be attributed to the fact that full-time faculty in academia are primarily concerned with protecting their own professional positions and privileges, not employment equity.”

    Ken Jacobsen, a Democratic state senator from Seattle and a frequent advocate for part-time faculty members, has said that the reason the Teamsters struck United Parcel Service back in 1997 was because the full-timers felt the increasing use of part-timers would mean less work for them, since UPS could always choose to call in the lower-paid temporary workers. But since tenured professors are guaranteed a full-time workload year after year, Jacobsen says, they have not felt threatened by academe’s increased hiring of part-timers, and thus have looked the other way, feeling that the adjuncts’ plight does not affect them. Full-timers, Jacobsen said, have their piece of the pie, and their primary goal is to hang on to it, and to make sure that no one else takes it away.

    How does corporatization affect the average faculty member? As Mr. Moser points out:

    For faculty, corporatization means more authoritarian governance practices, not simply as reflected in handbooks but changes in the culture, as administrators get used to bossing around the majority of the faculty who have no hope of tenure or job security.

    So, how can we, the faculty, oppose corporatization? A work action like that conducted by the Teamsters against UPS in 1997 would be unpopular and ineffective since there are so many unemployed adjuncts now who no doubt would ignore it. James G. Andrews, an emeritus professor at the University of Iowa who held an adjunct appointment in medicine, a secondary appointment in liberal arts and sciences, a primary appointment in engineering, and is active in the AAUP at the local, state, and national levels, cites a suggestion by Neil Hamilton in his book mentioned above, namely, that the academic profession “renew the social compact through continuing education”.  Andrews writes:

    Under the social compact Hamilton describes, society ensures the environment and resources needed for professors to fulfill their responsibilities in exchange for the high-quality educational opportunities that faculty provide. That is, society agrees to subsidize an educational environment in which faculty can pursue teaching, scholarship or creative work, and service free from pressure to raise funds. Traditionally, this environment has been characterized by academic freedom, tenured appointments, shared governance, and due process protections. This explicit identification of society’s fundamental responsibility to support higher education may eventually lead to a resolution of the corporatization problem…

    We need a better understanding, on the part of the public and the professoriate, of the mutual responsibilities of each.

    As Hamilton notes, “If, in a market economy, a profession does not renew the social compact through continuing education, [then] money and economic efficiency will eventually sweep the field to define all professional relationships as simply economic transactions between consumers and service providers for profit.”  Practitioners must remind society, generation after generation, of the agreement’s purpose and demonstrate how the profession serves the common good.

    The Priority Must Be on Learning…



    Many people, even some faculty and most administrators, do not realize that the ability to assign grades to students based on academic performance is the exclusive right of the instructor. Barring any error or bias on the part of the instructor, administrators and supervisors of the instructor may not ethically interfere in this process. This right stems from the principle of academic freedom, which has long been championed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

    AAUP banner

    AAUP banner

    An example involves two faculty members at Benedict College in South Carolina, who a few years ago challenged a new grading policy imposed by the college president and were dismissed for “insubordination.” They dared to question a mandate forcing faculty to assign grades to first-year students based on the formula of 60 percent for effort (attendance) and 40 percent for actual performance. One of the dismissed faculty members wrote that the president’s grading policy “will undermine the academic integrity of my classes and my professional standards as an instructor.” Both faculty members turned to the AAUP for financial assistance and advice. The AAUP pursued this case through its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, whose report follows:

    A Supplementary Report on a Censured Administration [1]

    This report concerns actions in summer 2004 by President David H. Swinton of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, to dismiss Professors Milwood Motley and Larry Williams for having refused to grade students in their courses in accordance with a grading policy promulgated by the president.

    The Benedict College administration was placed on censure by the Association’s 1994 annual meeting after an investigating committee found that it had acted inappropriately in terminating the services of three professors. Litigation initiated by the professors resulted in an out-of-court settlement in each case, but the censure has remained in effect because deficiencies in the college’s official policies on academic freedom and tenure have not been corrected. President Swinton, formerly dean of the School of Business at Jackson State University, took office as president of the college in summer 1994, shortly after the censure was imposed.

    At the beginning of the spring 2002 semester, President Swinton distributed a new policy on student grading, entitled the Success Equals Effort (SEE) Project, effective as of that semester. The Benedict faculty had not approved the policy, and indeed had not been afforded an opportunity to review it. The SEE document’s introductory statements refer to a large number of newly admitted students with poor high school preparation and poor study habits, to an “excessive number” of D’s, F’s, and withdrawals in the grading of first-year and sophomore students during the eight years of President Swinton’s tenure, and to losses during each of those years of 33 to 51 percent of the first-year class and another 15 to 25 percent of sophomores. Requisite steps for remedying the situation, according to the SEE policy, include an increase in student efforts, an increase in the connection between efforts and grades, improvement in student grades, and a resulting increase in learning and retention among first-year and sophomore students.

    Under the SEE policy, first-year and sophomore students thus were to be graded according to a combination of their knowledge (as demonstrated by test scores and written assignments) and their effort (as shown by attending class, handing in homework, and participating in study and tutoring sessions). The grades for first-year courses were to allot 60 percent to effort and 40 percent to knowledge acquired. Sophomore grades were to be based 50 percent on effort and 50 percent on knowledge. Junior and senior grading was to be determined by the respective schools and departments.

    Professors Milwood Motley and Larry Williams, members of Benedict College’s Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental Health Science Department, spoke out against the SEE policy and resisted instructions to assign grades in compliance with the policy. Professor Motley, who taught biology, did his undergraduate work at Hampton University and received his PhD in microbiology from the University of Louisville. He taught for fourteen years at the Morehouse School of Medicine before beginning in 1999 at Benedict College, where for his first three years he served as department chair. Professor Williams, who taught environmental health, is an alumnus of Benedict College who received a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina and a PhD in environmental science from the University of Alabama. He began on the Benedict College faculty, in his first teaching position, in 1996.

    Professor Motley, despite strong misgivings, implemented the SEE policy in grading his “Principles of Biology” class for the spring 2002 semester. He has described having to give a “C” final grade to a student whose highest grade on any test was less than 40 percent but who regularly attended class and participated in laboratory exercises. His experience that semester with the SEE policy led him to disregard it in subsequent semesters, and he made no secret about his doing so. Professor Williams, who declined from the outset to adhere to the policy, also made his position known.

    Moves to Compel Compliance

    By the end of the fall 2003 semester, it had apparently become clear to Benedict administrative officers that the SEE policy was not being universally applied. Dean Stacy Franklin Jones of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics sent communications early in 2004 to faculty members in the school, calling on those who were not adhering to the policy to identify themselves and explain why. Professor Motley replied on March 5, expressing his belief

    “…that the policy will undermine the academic integrity of my classes and my professional standards as an instructor. A student has to learn. He can’t simply try to learn, he has to learn period. Otherwise, we will have Benedict graduates who lack sufficient knowledge and skills to hold jobs in their majors and who will be at severe disadvantages in graduate and professional school. . . . I cannot obey the request to implement the SEE grading policy in my classes.”

    Replying to Professor Motley, Dean Jones instructed him to change his fall 2003 grades in accordance with the SEE policy lest he face the consequences of insubordination. In a March 29 letter to the dean, Professor Motley expanded on his reasons for not complying. He wrote that although he fully supported the mission of Benedict College, he had

    “…become increasingly concerned about the manner in which the college has performed its mission, particularly its willingness to sacrifice academic quality to maintain enrollment. . . . I, like you, want our students to succeed in achieving their professional goals. In order to succeed, our students need a strong educational foundation that is provided by our faculty. By placing a heavier emphasis on helping students to pass a course rather than to learn the course material, the SEE policy threatens to erode that foundation. The priority must be on learning. . . . You will probably consider my refusal to implement the SEE policy as an act of insubordination. Needless to say, I disagree with that assessment. As I said earlier, I believe that the SEE policy undermines the academic reputation of Benedict College. I therefore will not be involved in any policy that may prove detrimental to this college.”

    Professor Williams did not at first respond to Dean Jones’s memorandum about adherence to the SEE policy. Another memorandum from her, stating that “nonresponse by March 26, 2004, will be construed as insubordination,” led to his reply on that date. He characterized the SEE policy as a choice “to continue a form of social promotion” for students with poor high school preparation. He questioned the premise “that lower standards for freshmen and for sophomores will miraculously produce students who are prepared for junior and for senior level courses.”

    “To clarify my intentions,” Professor Williams concluded in his March 26 letter, “I will not make any changes in grades assigned during the fall of 2003. The students who received passing grades earned them. Those who decided that they were not going to do the work earned theirs also.” Dean Jones’s reply, dated March 29, was relatively terse:

    “Once again, the SEE grading policy has been officially adopted by the college. Consequently, the implementation or lack thereof is not subject to the opinion of individual faculty. Please submit to my office either your letter of resignation or [compliance] with the request to revisit your fall 2003 and spring 2004 semester grades. . . . Should I not receive either of the requested responses by 5 p.m. on April 2, 2004, you will be recommended for termination, effective immediately.”

    Dismissal Proceedings

    Professor Motley neither resigned nor changed his grades, whereupon a committee appointed by Richard C. Miller, senior vice president for academic affairs, recommended that he be dismissed. By letter of June 8, 2004, President Swinton notified Professor Motley of his dismissal on grounds of insubordination. (An administration spokesperson has stated that, after a similar recommendation from Vice President Miller’s committee, notification of dismissal was also sent to Professor Williams on that date. Professor Williams, however, had left town after his last class in the spring in order to teach a summer course at a college near Charleston, and he was not aware of his dismissal until the press reported it much later.)

    Professor Motley appealed his dismissal, which led to a hearing by the college’s Faculty and Staff Grievance and Appeals Committee that was convened on June 28 for that purpose by Vice President Miller. Four members of the seven-person committee appointed by President Swinton came from the faculty. Vice President Miller began the proceedings by summarizing the reasons for the hearing. He described the committee’s charge as not passing on the merits of the SEE policy but only on whether Professor Motley was insubordinate in refusing to follow the policy. The vice president then left the proceeding, whereupon Professor Motley arrived, provided amplification of his opposition to the SEE policy, and answered questions. After his departure, the committee adopted a motion that the Motley dismissal be rescinded, by vote of 4 to 3, with all four faculty members voting in the affirmative. The committee also determined, before adjourning, that the following reasons would be provided to President Swinton for recommending rescission of the dismissal:

    1. The termination is an extreme violation of academic freedom.
    2. This termination is selective in terms of one policy being singled out, whereas violations of other policies by other faculty members have not resulted in termination.
    3. The SEE policy is a recent policy and constitutes insufficient grounds for termination.
    4. The termination did not take into account the complete picture of the person.
    5. There is further selectivity in that only one dean initiated grounds for termination based on violation of the policy.
    6. The termination is unfair to one faculty member when there may be others who are not following the policy.
    7. The termination is overlooking the excellence of the faculty member in other areas.

    President Swinton responded to the Grievance and Appeals Committee on July 13, rejecting its recommendation and finding no merit in any of the seven reasons that the committee had provided. Regarding violation of academic freedom, he asserted that the concept does not permit faculty members to set academic policies and the college cannot “allow its policies to be insubordinately flouted under the guise of academic freedom.”

    As to the committee’s second point, singling out the SEE policy from other policies as warranting dismissal in the event of violation, he asserted that “Dr. Motley’s persistent refusal to follow policy constitutes willful insubordination which rises above more inadvertent policy violations.”

    With respect to the third point, that the SEE policy is a recent one whose violation should not be a basis for dismissal, the president asserted that the “faculty may not selectively implement those policies they favor or consider important.”

    Regarding the committee’s fourth point, that “the complete picture of the person” was not taken into account, he asserted that “merit in other areas cannot justify persistent insubordination.”

    As for the fifth point, that only one of the college’s deans had initiated grounds for dismissal, the president invited committee members, if they knew of similar refusals elsewhere in the college, to inform the administration immediately “so that corrective action can be taken.”

    Commenting on the sixth point, that the dismissal of one faculty member is unfair when others may also be ignoring the policy, he rejected the point as irrelevant and stated that others will also be subject to dismissal if and when a violation is detected and is not corrected.

    With regard to the seventh and final point, “the excellence of the faculty member in other areas,” President Swinton called it redundant after the fourth point and reiterated that the dismissal “is based solely on the persistent violation of college policy cited.”

    There was reference during the Motley hearing to similar dismissal action against Professor Williams. Whether a June letter of dismissal was also sent to Professor Williams, who was then away from his home address, is a matter of some dispute, but he was doubtless not surprised when, after his return to Columbia, a feature story on the two dismissals appeared in the press on August 20, and certified notification of his dismissal was sent to him.

    He filed an appeal, which led to a hearing on his case by the Faculty and Staff Grievance and Appeals Committee on September 9. The issues presented at the hearing were essentially the same as those at the Motley hearing. As has been stated, four of the seven members of the hearing body appointed by President Swinton in the Motley case were faculty, and the committee recommended rescission of the dismissal. For the Williams case, the president appointed a larger number of administrative staff members, and the committee recommended sustaining the dismissal by vote of 5 to 2.

    The Association’s Involvement

    One result of the administration’s moves to enforce the SEE policy was a newly active Benedict College AAUP chapter. On July 20, the chapter called on the national Association for assistance in the wake of the Motley dismissal, and shortly thereafter the Association’s staff heard directly from Professor Motley. After receiving and examining applicable documentation, the staff, on August 10, wrote to President Swinton to convey the Association’s concerns.

    Referring to the issue of academic freedom as central to those concerns, the staff’s letter disputed the president’s assertion to the hearing body that academic freedom does not provide a right to set academic policy. On the contrary, the letter argued, Professor Motley’s opposition to the SEE policy “falls well within the ambit of protected conduct under principles of academic freedom.” Referring to the president’s charge of insubordination, the letter emphasized the provision in the Association’s Statement on Professional Ethics that professors are to observe stated institutional regulations “provided the regulations do not contravene academic freedom.”

    Noting the continued presence of Benedict College on the Association’s censure list, the staff’s letter observed that the cases involving academic freedom that led to the censure had been satisfactorily resolved. Stating that the Association certainly did not want to have to report on new academic freedom cases at Benedict under the current administration, the staff expressed its strong hope that the president would give further consideration to noncompliance with the SEE policy as a matter warranting dismissal and would take corrective action.

    In a brief reply dated August 19, President Swinton commented, “We thank you for your opinion and input. However, we are confident that our policies are appropriate and do not seek your support to deal with our internal personnel matters.”

    Shortly thereafter, the Association’s staff heard directly from Professor Williams and received documentation bearing on his situation. The AAUP’s general secretary then authorized the preparation of this report, and by letter of September 8, President Swinton was so informed. On October 1, 2004, Professor Williams initiated litigation in South Carolina’s Richland County Circuit Court; Professor Motley did so on October 4.


    The Association’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities assigns primary responsibility to the faculty “for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction.” The grading of student performance is certainly one of these areas. Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has reiterated that the responsibility for grading students rests with the faculty. The faculty collectively has the prerogative of setting policy on grading, and individual faculty instructors have the prerogative of determining the grades that their students receive. The freedom to grade one’s students is an essential part of the “freedom in the classroom” that the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure ensures college and university teachers.

    This report has dealt with the Benedict College administration’s actions, in disregard of the foregoing principles, to dismiss two professors for insubordination. The professors had graded students, and had insisted on continuing to grade them, without adhering to an administration-imposed policy requiring first-year and sophomore students to be graded at least as much for effort as for academic performance. The administration allowed the dismissals to stand despite subsequent hearings in which all of the faculty members on the hearing bodies recommended that the dismissals be rescinded.

    The dismissals on grounds of insubordination were threatened in March and were effected, with cessation of salary payment, that summer. The 1940 Statement of Principles and the Association’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure call in such dismissal cases for a year of severance salary if moral turpitude is not involved. An interpretive comment on the 1940 Statement sets the standard for determining moral turpitude as “not that the moral sensibilities of persons in the particular community may have been offended. The standard is behavior that would evoke condemnation by the academic community generally.” Those in the general academic community who are concerned with grade inflation, far from condemning professors who insist on grading according to academic merit, would doubtless find the position of Professors Motley and Williams admirable. The Association’s Statement on Professional Ethics calls upon professors “to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit.” It would seem that Professors Motley and Williams tried to do precisely that. [2]

    Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has by vote authorized publication of this report in Academe: Bulletin of the AAUP.

    JOAN WALLACH SCOTT (History), Institute for Advanced Study, chair

    Members: JEFFREY HALPERN (Anthropology), Rider University; MARY L. HEEN (Law), University of Richmond; EVELYN BROOKS HIGGINBOTHAM (Afro-American Studies and Divinity), Harvard University; DAVID A. HOLLINGER (History), University of California, Berkeley; STEPHEN LEBERSTEIN (History), City College, City University of New York; ROBERT C. POST (Law), Yale University; ADOLPH L. REED (Political Science), University of Pennsylvania; CHRISTOPHER M. STORER (Philosophy), DeAnza College; DONALD R. WAGNER (Political Science), State University of West Georgia; MARTHA S. WEST (Law), University of California, Davis; JANE L. BUCK (Psychology), Delaware State University, ex officio; ROGER W. BOWEN (Political Science), AAUP Washington Office, ex officio; DAVID M. RABBAN (Law), University of Texas, ex officio; ERNST BENJAMIN (Political Science), Washington, D.C., consultant; JOAN E. BERTIN (Public Health), Columbia University, consultant; MATTHEW W. FINKIN (Law), University of Illinois, consultant; ROBERT A. GORMAN (Law), University of Pennsylvania, consultant; LAWRENCE S. POSTON (English), University of Illinois, Chicago, consultant;GREGORY SCHOLTZ (English), Wartburg College, liaison from Assembly of State Conferences.


    [1] The text of this report was written in the first instance by the Association’s staff on the basis of available documentation. In accordance with Association practice, the text was submitted to the Association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. With the approval of Committee A, it was then sent to the professors whose cases are reported, to the Benedict College administration, to the president of the Association’s local chapter, and to other persons concerned in the report. In light of the responses received, this final report has been prepared for publication. (This report was originally published in the January-February 2005 issue of Academe: the Bulletin of the AAUP [Vol. 91, Issue 1: 51-54].)

    [2] After a draft text of this report was sent to the concerned parties at Benedict College, President Swinton wrote to the president of the AAUP chapter, William F. Gunn, and the chapter’s vice president, Larry D. Watson, each of whom chaired a department. He notified them that they would be removed from their chairs (and thus would suffer substantial reduction in salary) at the end of the current academic year.

    Admittedly, this example of the abrogation of the right of faculty to grade freely and fairly was egregious. Unfortunately, it is more often subtle and indirect, for example, when a supervisor suggests that an instructor needs to “improve student performance” after noting a paucity of students receiving “A”s in her class. For an instructor without tenure, also known as contingent faculty, this can be all the intimidation that is necessary to essentially force her to give students higher grades that, in her professional judgment, they do not deserve.  The instructor is well aware that her supervisor can easily justify dismissing her based on the poor evaluations she is, no doubt, receiving from disgruntled students – who are not getting the grades they want, but the grades they deserve.

    Should Everyone go to College? (No. 1)

    MortarboardThis is the first of a series of occasional posts that will deal with this question.

    Open admissions, the policy of permitting students to enroll in a college or university without regard to academic qualifications, grew largely out of the turmoil of the period 1965-75 that coincided with America’s intense involvement in the Vietnam War. A college degree, it had long been known, was the major pathway to upward economic and social mobility, and anyone who wanted one, said the activists, should have access to the institution of his or her choice.

    Only a handful of the nation’s 4,064 degree-granting institutions of higher education, perhaps no more than 150, have admission standards that are highly competitive. Most colleges and universities, state and private, have open admissions or nearly open admissions.

    “Professor X” works part-time in the evenings as an adjunct instructor of English. He teaches two courses, Introduction to College Writing (English 101) and Introduction to College Literature (English 102), at a small private college and at a community college in the northeastern United States. He believes that the idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. In an article entitled, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” that appeared in the June 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Professor X explains:

    Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home…

    My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses…

    I wonder, sometimes, at the conclusion of a course, when I fail nine out of 15 students, whether the college will send me a note either (1) informing me of a serious bottleneck in the march toward commencement and demanding that I pass more students, or (2) commending me on my fiscal ingenuity—my high failure rate forces students to pay for classes two or three times over. What actually happens is that nothing happens…

    There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass…No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment…

    Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish…[But] I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

    You can read Professor X’s entire essay here.

    Student Learning Outcomes: Another Silver Bullet?


    Everything that can be
    counted does not necessarily
    count; everything that counts
    cannot necessarily be counted.

    -Albert Einstein

    When I was in the tenth grade in high school, during the Cold War era, my civics class was having a teacher-moderated discussion about the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. The question, from what I can remember, was whether the U.S. should increase its number of nuclear warheads. I was silent during the discussion, as is customary for an introvert like me, so when the teacher called on me to express my opinion, I said what was on my mind at that moment – I said the issue was moot since once either side began a nuclear war, so many nuclear explosions would occur that life as we know it on this planet would be over. Well, that comment sank faster than a proverbial lead balloon. No one wanted to contemplate the real consequences of what they were talking about, and I had just burst their bubble. So, the teacher ruled my comment irrelevant and continued the discussion as if I had never said a word.

    You would think I would have learned the real lesson from that class period – that one should never point out to others that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. But I am also stubborn by nature, and so I will say in the remainder of this essay what many people in the education industry probably don’t want to hear, much less agree with.


    It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.

    -Albert Einstein


    The latest buzzword in academia, at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, is “Student Learning Outcomes”, or SLOs for short. Proponents claim that they improve student performance, but like most “reforms” that come and go in the education industry, there is no evidence to support this assertion. As Thomas C. Hunt has written in an essay entitled “Education Reforms: Lessons from History” and published in Phi Delta Kappan (September, 2005):

    The history of American education is replete with examples of supposed panaceas. Taking the shape of “reforms,” these well-meaning efforts — often worthy in themselves — have dotted the educational landscape since the time of Horace Mann in the 1830s and 1840s. For example, the common school itself would remove all crime and poverty from American society. Mann described it as the “greatest invention ever made by man.” The devotional reading of the Bible in schools would result in a virtuous America. Texts such as the McGuffey readers would unfailingly instill the “right character” in the students. The public school of the early 20th century would make good, loyal Americans out of the children of the immigrants who were then arriving in large numbers. In the mid-20th century, the “Life Adjustment” curriculum would prepare all American youths for satisfying lives as individuals, family members, and citizens. The infusion of funds into the science and math curricula by the National Defense Education Act would help the U.S. “catch up” with the Soviets in the post-Sputnik era, instill needed academic rigor in the secondary school curriculum, and fittingly challenge our “gifted” students.

    Potential panaceas grew in number as the 20th century progressed. We were greeted with open education, which would educate the young “naturally.” Schools would play a central role in the War on Poverty. Accountability, especially in the guise of performance contracting, would make the schools accountable to their constituents. Behavioral objectives would serve as an infallible means of achieving the goals of effective teaching and learning. Such pedagogical movements as modular scheduling would provide the proper organizational pattern for the curriculum. Site-based management would remove the educational problems created by large size.

    Mr. Hunt cautions that “only when we see history as a ceaseless, uninterrupted flow that influences the present and are willing to learn from it will we avoid being victimized by the latest ‘silver bullet.'” For example, in terms of secondary schools in the United States, the public education profession has been guided for nearly a century by the belief that the difficult task of teaching a wide range of students to use their minds well isn’t really necessary; this implies that most students are better served by being taught to use their hands rather than their heads. This long-standing and deeply seated anti-intellectualism in public education, from its turn-of-the-century origins to the “life-adjustment” movement of the 1940s and 1950s and the neo-progressivism of the 1960s and early 1970s, has been well documented by David Cohen in The Shopping Mall High School (1985), by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Lawrence Cremin in The Transformation of the School (1964) and Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), and by Diane Ravitch in The Troubled Crusade (1983) and Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000). Such history brings today’s “standards movement” into much sharper focus. It’s one thing for state and federal policymakers to impose demanding new academic standards on public schools; it’s another to realize that public school systems were never organized to deliver a serious academic education to more than a fraction of their students. Most school leaders didn’t think they should teach serious academics universally, nor did they have enough highly-trained teachers to do the job. I will come back to anti-intellectualism in a few moments.

    Another impetus for SLOs could be the additional revenue for the publishing industry that sells stuff about it (the training handbooks alone run 50-70 pages) and for the testing agencies that sell the standardized exit exams. And even if the assessments are flawed and meaningless, at least they produce what the government likes best: numbers.

    Politicians and administrators often make another claim about SLOs, namely, that they are driven by issues of cost and affordability – “the public will be asking more critically than in the past, ‘What are we getting for our money?'” However, in my years of teaching at the college level, I cannot remember one time that any student or parent asked, “Can you demonstrate learning outcomes?” or “What am I getting for my money?” Exactly who is the “public” in all these discussions about the “public” wants to know?  Furthermore, proponents of SLOs don’t realize that higher education does not merely equate to acquiring new information. It involves growth, critical thinking, values definition, and applying what you learn, among other things. By saying that what we provide in higher education is equal to reading a stack of books is insulting. Higher education is just as much, if not more, about the experience as it is about earning a degree.

    But there are important negative consequences of SLOs. Let me quote David Clemens, professor of English at Monterey Peninsula Community College here in California:

    That SLOs are about “student learning” is the first, and biggest, lie. There is no objective evidence that SLOs have any positive effect on learning at all, although there is evidence that they negatively affect learning because they encourage dumbing down and teaching to the test….

    A few years ago, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, (WASC), adopted SLOs as a totalizing basis for accreditation and in a single stroke made fundamental changes in the definition of what we do and the way we do it.

    For years we had been assured that “Assessment rubrics and student learning outcomes are just data collection and will never be used for teacher evaluation.” In fact, expected outcomes and assessment schemes are perfectly suited for use on teacher evaluation forms and already have been. But anyone who actually teaches knows that the most important factor in education is the student. The greatest effects on student learning are the individual student’s knowledge of subject, self motivation, language proficiency, disposition, parental support, social skills, talent, physical and mental health, preparation, cultural background, religious beliefs, political persuasion, commitment, desire, determination, level of cognitive growth, age, and work ethic. Student learning outcomes are silent on all these factors.

    Yet as of last year [2007], SLOs are already a component of teacher evaluation. WASC Accreditation Standard III: Resources [part 1c] reads:

    “Faculty and others directly responsible for student progress toward achieving stated student learning outcomes have, as a component of their evaluation, effectiveness in producing those learning outcomes.”

    …Because student attainment of stated SLOs will affect teacher evaluation, SLOs actually create downward pressure on curricular standards. If I am to be judged by my students’ achievement on outcomes tests and SLO guarantees, I will spend my class time on the most testable and achievable SLOs so as to insure “student success” on the exit test. The next step involves the current buzzword: “alignment.” Certainly, if the English 1A SLOs at one college are producing a higher metric of “student success” than other schools, the logic of SLOs is to identify such “best practices” and create statewide alignment of them. Voila! One hundred nine schools, one curriculum, one set of outcomes, one exit test, and one set of textbooks.

    Another common but egregious lie is that learning outcomes do not compromise academic freedom. On the contrary, SLOs are the greatest danger to academic freedom in my professional lifetime. The fact that WASC’s definition of SLOs mentions “attitudes” I find chilling. The heart of academic freedom is the conviction that both education and community suffer when teachers are forced to embrace a single viewpoint. To the contrary, our highest courts have held that society benefits when students are exposed to various academically legitimate yet contradictory ideas.

    One of the key strategies of coercion employed by SLO zealots is that it’s all one big conversation and in the end we all agree. This is another lie intended to produce the appearance of consensus. I believe that it is vital to dispel this illusion. The word from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to WASC is “SLOs or we will kill you and replace you with a federal bureaucracy.” [emphasis added]

    The last paragraph is most provocative. Could the real reason politicians are pushing SLOs is because they want to just look like they’re doing something to improve student performance? From their point of view, it’s better to hold the teachers accountable (read: blame the teachers) than the students and their families, since there are more voters among the latter and the latter don’t want responsibility for student performance, anyway. Of course, there are also other forces at work here, including the ever-present financial motive for anyone who has something to gain from a new education fad. Obviously, the accreditors have families to support, so they have got to get with the program if they want to keep their jobs.


    The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education.

    -Ralph Waldo Emerson


    So, if incompetent teachers are not to blame, why is student performance so poor in high schools and colleges?  Paul Trout, who taught English at Montana State University at Bozeman, suggested in 1997 – over ten years ago – that student anti-intellectualism and the consequent corporatization of education is to blame:

    Increasingly, career-minded students see college – or at least required courses – as an imposition between high school and the good life, an obstacle to be gotten over as soon as possible, just like high school was….

    To attract and reassure such students, colleges and universities are wont to talk about them as being consumers of higher education. This notion implies, of course, that the desires of the customer reign supreme (“consumer sovereignty”), that the customer should be easily and completely satisfied, and that the customer should try to get as much as possible while paying as little as possible. When this consumer model is applied to higher education, it has disastrous effects on academic standards and student motivation.

    The consumer model implies, for instance, that university “services” – among them, courses – should be shaped to satisfy student tastes, and that students can use or waste these services as they see fit. When students think of themselves as consumers, they study only when it is convenient (like shopping), expect satisfaction with little effort, want knowledge served up in “easily digestible, bite-sized chunks,” and assume that academic success, including graduation, is guaranteed. After all, failure – or consumer dissatisfaction – is “ruled out upon payment of one’s tuition”.

    When taken to its logical conclusion, as many students do, the consumer model implies that students buy grades by paying for them through learning. Students who subscribe to this notion try to be consumers by paying – that is learning – as little as possible. A few carry it even further, and believe that whenever they learn something they have actually lost in the exchange.

    Needless to say, instructors who try to teach students more than the students have bargained for are going to run into trouble…

    The situation has only gotten worse in the last twelve years. Much worse.

    [If you happen to be one of my students, and you’re offended by what Trout wrote, then chances are you aren’t one of the students he’s complaining about. Besides, I doubt an anti-intellectual student would bother reading my blog – after all, it won’t be on the test.]

    The Corporatization of Higher Education

    MortarboardYou think the corporatization (a.k.a. business model or consumer model) of education is a myth cooked up by “elite” intellectuals in order to justify the resurrection of tenure in academia?  Well, something can’t end that hasn’t started.  Daniel J. Ennis, professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, opines that the end of the business model is at hand. In fact, he misses it! He writes, in part:

    It has been months since somebody told me that “a university must run like a business.”

    I’m alarmed to think that the era of the Business Simile is over.

    I think I speak for many liberal arts types when I say how scary it is to lose that surety, that hard mooring in the results-oriented world, that comforting discipline of being told from across the conference-room table that the market imperatives must be paid heed, that we in the academy merely deliver a product to our clients, and that the efficiencies of the private sector can and must be brought to bear on the out-of-touch ivory tower. See, I liked that. There was a bracing firmness in such announcements. On the one hand, it fed my craving for intellectual loftiness — to be on the receiving end of such pronouncements allowed me to position myself as a defender of the faith, as true educator unsullied by a preoccupation with filthy lucre. On the other hand, I was secretly reassured when I heard that the important decisions — how to find the money, how to spend the money — were in the hands of realistic, highly-qualified, private-sector types who knew how the world worked. I wanted them on that wall. I needed them on that wall….

    So I confess that I liked being told that the university must be run like a business. After all, it left me time to think abstractly about big ideas (and picturesquely, I might add, leather-bound books at hand, maybe wearing a scarf). It allowed me to scoff at the bean counters even as I consumed the revenue they wrung from the institution. I came to depend on the kindness of those strangers who understood accounting and statistics, core competencies and market niches. Who better to protect me from the real world than the agents of the real world?

    Dennis muses that the current economic meltdown has undercut the business model (or business simile, as he refers to it) in education:

    But now the “university like a business” simile has been undercut by, well, the real world. Some of the most prominent companies in the United States are starting to resemble universities. They receive massive government aid, suffer from significant new government oversight, cling to inefficient fiscal models, and are buffeted by a howling public who sees tax dollars being thrown down the hole without concomitant results…

    As long as “business” represented competence and “university” represented inefficiency, then the Business Simile was able to win many an argument. But similes die, and they die when their referents stop making sense. Hardly anybody says “in like Flynn” anymore because very few people remember who Errol Flynn was, much less that he was associated with skillful swordplay and copulation. Who says “like clockwork” anymore? Only those who remember what clockwork was, or those who use the simile as a nostalgic gesture.

    I hope Professor Ennis is right. His essay is well worth reading at Inside Higher Ed.

    Did you know…

    (For the benefit of my students – past, present, and future – and all administrators)

    • MortarboardThat instructors in higher (post-secondary) education have something called “academic freedom“?  That this applies to full-time, part-time, temporary, contingent, tenured, and non-tenured faculty? The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, jointly written by the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, recognized that “teachers,” whether tenured or not, “are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.” More recently, judges and juries have recognized that right, too.
    • That academic freedom in higher education includes the right (and responsibility) of an instructor to challenge students – meaning, to expect more of students than they expect of themselves?
    • That academic freedom in higher education includes the right (and responsibility) of an instructor to grade according to professional standards – meaning, to give students the grades they deserve, not the grades they want?
    • That in higher education the students’ grades are a measure of their performance, and not a measure of the instructor’s ability to teach – meaning, that if the student gets an “A”, the student gets the credit and if the student gets an “F”, the instructor does not get the blame?
    • That attending an institution of higher learning is a privilege, and not a right?

    Think about it…

    Tenure and Honest Grading – a Connection?

    Scales of Justice

    Finally.  A judge ruled last week in Colorado that not only is tenure a good thing for the professors who enjoy it, it is valuable to the public! Further, the court ruled that the value (to the public) of tenure outweighed the value of giving colleges flexibility in hiring and dismissing. That is a principle that faculty members say is very important and makes this case about much more than the specific issues at play.

    The ruling came in a long legal battle over rules changes imposed by the board of Metropolitan State College of Denver on its faculty members in 2003. While noting “countervailing public interests” in the case, Judge Norman D. Haglund wrote that “the public interest is advanced more by tenure systems that favor academic freedom over tenure systems that favor flexibility in hiring or firing.” The ruling added that “by its very nature, tenure promotes a system in which academic freedom is protected” and that “a tenure system that allows flexibility in firing is oxymoronic.”

    AAUP banner

    In a related development, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)  voted on June 13 to censure Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, because it had terminated Maureen Watson after 12 years of work as a non-tenure track faculty member, with one day of notice — even though she had earned consistently good reviews. The AAUP faulted Nicholls State for not providing due process appropriate for someone with that much of a work history at the university, and for not even acknowledging Watson’s right to know why her teaching career was being ended. The association also noted plausible evidence — not refuted by the university — that Watson lost her job because her rigorous grading was resulting in too many students receiving low or failing grades in her mathematics courses.

    The AAUP report stated:

    The Nicholls administration’s efforts to reduce failing grades seem to have been detrimental to the climate for academic freedom by causing faculty members in affected departments to believe that they did not have the right to assign grades based on their own knowledge and judgment. Ms. Watson exercised her own academic freedom by grading as she saw fit, despite the administration’s pressure for a reduction in failing grades. Her dismissal, if the investigating committee’s conclusion on the matter stands unrebutted by the administration, was therefore in violation of her academic freedom. The investigating committee commends her determination to grade according to her best professional assessment of the merits of student performance…

    No plausible reason for the administration’s dismissal of Ms. Watson can be ascertained other than its displeasure with her having assigned a large percentage of failing grades to her students in college algebra. Dismissing her for that reason, assuming the reason remains unrebutted, violated her academic freedom. Her insistence on grading in accordance with her best professional judgment of a student’s academic performance warranted not dismissal but commendation.

    Ernst Benjamin, former interim general secretary of the AAUP, said that the case was important both because of Watson’s adjunct status and because of what the issues say about academic freedom. While people associate academic freedom with controversial research or teaching topics, Benjamin noted that for “most faculty, the ability to maintain professional standards” through honest grades is of great importance to their academic freedom.

    Contingent Faculty and Grade Inflation

    mortarboard_Here’s an interesting article on this subject by Phil Ray Jack, originally posted on January 4, 2008. An excerpt follows:

    ……At most colleges, the work we [contingent faculty] do is judged primarily, if not exclusively, on our student evaluations. As public perceptions concerning higher education have changed, so have student reactions to what we do. Several years ago, we were seen as the experts who had valuable knowledge to impart to our students; now we are seen as clerks who dispense grades, certificates and diplomas to customers who are constantly encouraged to express their displeasure……[emphasis added]

    The result of the corporatization of the academy has been that contingent faculty are increasingly evaluated on the basis of customer (student) satisfaction.  Given the fact that administrators and supervisors rely heavily on ratings by students of contingent faculty in personnel decisions, here’s an article that concludes that such data are not methodologically sound, and that such data ought not be treated as admissible evidence in any legal or quasi-legal hearing related to decisions on the reappointment, pay, merit pay, tenure, or promotion of an individual instructor.  This article quotes Mary Beth Ruskai (1996), an associate editor of Notices of The American Mathematical Society:

    …Many experienced faculty question the reliability of student evaluations as a measure of teaching effectiveness and worry that they may have counter-productive effects, such as contributing to grade inflation, discouraging innovation, and deterring instructors from challenging students. [emphasis added]

    The same article also quotes J.V. Adams (1997):

    Teaching, as with art, remains largely a matter of individual judgment. Concerning teaching quality, whose judgment counts? In the case of student judgments, the critical question, of course, is whether students are equipped to judge teaching quality. Are students in their first or second semester of college competent to grade their instructors, especially when college teaching is so different from high school? Are students who are doing poorly in their courses able to objectively judge their instructors? And are students, who are almost universally considered as lacking in critical thinking skills, often by the administrators who rely on student evaluations of faculty, able to critically evaluate their instructors? There is substantial evidence that they are not.  [emphasis added]

    And here’s another article that not only echos the above, but also cites research that has debunked the reliability and usefulness of student evaluations of teachers.  For example, in a major study by Ohio State University in 2007, student reviews were linked to actual learning by examining grades in subsequent classes that would have relied on the learning in the class in which the students’ evaluations were studied. It found absolutely no correlation between student evaluations and actual learning. What the Ohio State researchers did find, as many other studies have found, was clear correlation between the grades the students receive and those they give their professors, providing evidence for the more cynical/realistic interpretation – namely, that professors who are easy graders (and aren’t necessarily the best teachers) earn good ratings. In another finding of concern, the study found evidence that students, controlling for other factors, tend to give lesser evaluations to instructors who are women or who were born outside the United States. And they found this despite not finding any correlation between instructor identity and the level of learning that took place.

    The Deceitful Ben Stein

    As noted at the Free Exchange on Campus website, it’s tempting to ignore Ben Stein’s so-called documentary entitled Expelled!, an anti-science film that is based on smears and innuendos rather than actual, real science. However, the film is helping to drive “academic freedom” bills in Florida, Louisiana, and Missouri that grant K-12 science teachers the “freedom” to teach “alternatives” to evolutionary theory (missing out on the fact that there is nothing “academic” about these alternatives). No doubt, Ben Stein feels the same way Martin Luther (1483-1546) did about telling falsehoods for God:

    What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them.

    (Cited by Luther’s secretary, in a letter in Max Lenz, ed., Briefwechsel Landgraf Phillips des Grossmüthigen von Hessen mit Bucer, vol. I.) To find out more about Expelled!, check out this blog and this webpage about the film.  Also, the magazine Scientific American has extensive commentary here.

    Common Nonsense

    I was doing some Internet surfing recently when I came upon a post entitled “Evolutionist Fundamentalism.” Normally, I ignore these rants, as they are usually written by people who are so sure they are correct that it is pointless to try to reason with them. (Of course, I am also convinced I am correct, but I have logic and, more importantly, empirical evidence on my side. But more on this later.) However, this time the misconceptions were ones I am sure are on the minds of many non-scientists and are therefore worth addressing.

    The post was written by a woman named Nonni. She begins:

    I went back to college as an “older woman”. I started taking biology courses, thinking I would like to be a health educator or writer. I immediately ran up against what I saw as absolute dogma regarding the theory of evolution. As a much younger person I had learned evolution was one theory to explain the origin of biological complexity. However when I learned a single cell has over 300 different chemical reactions needed for its metabolism, not to mention its reproduction, I thought to myself–”what a marvelous design”. Design made sense.

    This is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. First of all, nothing in science is “received doctrine” or “absolute dogma.” Anyone the least bit familiar with the history of science will realize that scientists can make conclusions only by using the best empirical (meaning observable and/or measurable) evidence available to them – and as new observations are made and new experiments done, it often becomes necessary to revisit previous conclusions and change them. It may take awhile, but nevertheless, it happens. (Furthermore, scientific knowledge is determined by consensus and informally within the scientific community. There is no referendum, plebiscite, or authority that rules on the veracity of a scientific claim.)

    As a result, we say that scientific knowledge is “provisional.” Of course, then opponents go to the opposite extreme and say that since nothing in science is certain, scientific knowledge must be “worthless.” Let me point out that, philosophically speaking, nothing in life is certain. (And if you think otherwise, you are fooling yourself.) For example, the verdict of a jury in a criminal trial about a defendant’s guilt is provisional in the same way that a conclusion in science about the truth of a claim is provisional. In both cases, the standard of justification is “empirical evidence that convinces beyond a reasonable doubt.” Just as with conclusions in science, verdicts of juries sometimes have to be revisited when new evidence comes to light, sometimes years later. An 36974131-20120414.jpgexample of this occurred recently when the murder conviction of a 56-year-old man was overturned and he was freed after spending 25 years in prison. Willie Earl Green was convicted in the 1983 execution-style murder of a 25-year-old single mother in South Los Angeles. A judge ordered him released last Thursday, March 20, because the witness whose trial testimony had sent Green away for 33 years to life had recanted, and prosecutors decided not to retry Green. The witness, Willie Finley, explained that he was high on cocaine during the killing and had been “helped” by police to identify Green as a suspect. Likewise, the development of “DNA fingerprinting” has made possible the release of many innocent men who were falsely convicted of rape years ago, before this technology was available. Conclusions have to be made, and can only be made, by using the best evidence available at the time.

    Back to Nonni. She continues:

    There has been quite a lot of writing lately about evolution, and the possibility of intelligent design co-existing with it. Intelligent design answers questions regarding the unlikelihood that random selection could ever result in the vast complexity we see in biology. For the average person, it meets the standard of common sense. This is not creation science, biblical faith, or anything similar. However Intelligent Design theory is too uncomfortable for the belief system of the majority of evolutionists. Evolutionists resemble fundamentalists, in several ways.

    So she says. First of all, the “random selection” she slips in introduces a “straw-man” argument. Natural selection is not “random selection,” but by saying it is, creationists can appeal to the “common sense” of the “average person” to make natural selection seem illogical. Instead, this line of reasoning illustrates the fact that Nonni really didn’t learn anything about evolution in her biology classes. Natural selection is the result of two things: individual variation and competition among members of a population. Individual variation is the result, ultimately, of mutation – and mutation is a random process. However, excess reproduction and limited environmental resources make competition among members of a population inevitable, and only those individuals with advantageous heritable traits (called adaptations) are likely to survive and produce healthy offspring. This is natural selection. Since more and more offspring inherit these advantageous heritable traits in each generation, these traits become more common – but there is nothing random about selection. Only certain, specific traits are preserved because, in the given environment, individuals with them have greater reproductive success.

    Secondly, things happen in nature the way they do – whether or not they agree with our notion of “common sense.” For example, does Nonni know about quantum mechanics? It is a set of rules, the most successful of any in the history of science, that describes things that happen at the level of atoms and particles such as electrons, protons, and neutrons. Do a certain experiment with electrons and they behave like particles, but do a different experiment and they behave like waves. In the macroscopic world we live in, we know of nothing that behaves this way – in fact, we can’t even imagine something that behaves this way. The most unnerving idea in quantum mechanics may be the notion that certain particles can affect one another almost instantly across vast reaches of space. In 1935, sil14-e1-07a.jpgAlbert Einstein pointed out that synchronized atoms – “spooky action at a distance,” as he called it – are not only permitted by quantum mechanics but are an example of its absurdity. “No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this,” he, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen confidently wrote in a paper in 1935. However, far from demolishing quantum theory, that paper wound up as the cornerstone for the new field of quantum information – in fact, it is the most cited of Einstein’s papers. Long after Einstein’s death, experiments were finally performed in 1982 by Alain Aspect and his colleagues at the University of Orsay in France, the results of which confirmed quantum mechanics and not reality as Einstein had always presumed it should be. Paradoxically, Einstein had once written to a friend, “The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it seems.”

    Next, Nonni writes:

    1. Scientific authority is deemed absolute in that the scientific community has determined what is and what is not to be included in the realm of scientific inquiry. If something is deemed to be outside the realm of scientific inquiry, it is to be denied existence entirely. Evolutionists will never say that the theory of Evolution also falls outside the realm of scientific inquiry. As an explanation for the origin of all biological forms, it technically does. The origin of all biological life simply cannot be observed, measured or reproduced. Intelligent Design, however, has been deemed to be outside the realm of scientific inquiry, although as a theory, it fits the facts of complexity better than random selection, which has mathematically impossible odds.

    So many misconceptions, so little space. First, Nonni repeats her argument of natural selection as “random,” which, as I have pointed out, is a non-starter.

    Secondly, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the modern synthetic theory of evolution, have nothing to do with the origin of life on Earth. The theory does not deal with how life came to be on this planet – it only deals with how living things have changed over time since their first appearance. The evolution of living things has been observed, measured, and reproduced. Even if human beings were not present to see some of these events happen before their very eyes, I would point out that many things are accepted as true even when there are no eyewitnesses. Defendants have been convicted of murder (and executed) even when there were no eyewitnesses, as long as there was circumstantial evidence that convinced a jury of their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, if I really didn’t want to believe that, say, George Washington ever existed, I would only have to argue that all the evidence – documents and artifacts alike – could have been forged and concocted by conspirators to make it look like he was a real person. But then, that would be “unreasonable doubt.”

    Thirdly, the origin of “all biological life” can be investigated by science because hypotheses can be proposed that can be tested. Scientists can do experiments in the lab that simulate conditions as they may have existed on Earth some four billion years ago. These experiments confirm that life could have chemically evolved from inanimate matter under those conditions without the aid of any “intelligence.” There is no hypothesis that Intelligent Design can propose that can be tested because advocates have no idea (at least, when they are not at Church) who or what this Intelligence might be. This Intelligence, unless it can be empirically verified, is as good an explanation for the origin of “all biological life” as is Santa Claus. [However, this is not the same thing as claiming that an Intelligence (or Santa Claus) does not exist.] In short, an explanation must be testable to be scientific.

    Now, Nonni gets nasty:

    2. Scientists are the new prophets. They hold the keys of knowledge to which the rest of the world has limited access. One simply can’t argue with a scientist since everyone who is not a scientist is discounted as inferior and ignorant.

    Somehow, here I think the pot is calling the kettle black. First, science is not a body of knowledge that has been revealed only to the “chosen” or the “elect” few. It is a basic assumption of science that anyone, in principle, can repeat observations and experiments to confirm the facts of science. Secondly, for someone who claims not to be able to “argue with a scientist,” she seems to be doing quite well. And I don’t think it is fair to say that all scientists consider anyone who argues with them to be “inferior and ignorant” – anymore than it is fair to say that all creationists who argue with scientists consider them to be “inferior and ignorant.” Although, on the issue of science and evolution, I think Nonni is misinformed and has much to learn.

    But Nonni has more to say:

    3. Evolutionary theory is now taught everywhere as fact, when it is in reality unproven theory. Since it is the only theory allowed under the criteria of scientific inquiry, it is the only theory available, and therefore is a fact.

    Boy. I wish evolutionary theory was now taught everywhere as fact. It often is not taught at all in the public schools.

    First, evolution is one of the most well-supported theories in science today. Her statement, again, illustrates her lack of knowledge about evolutionary biology. Maybe she is thinking of the “evolution is only a theory” canard promoted by creationists. In everyday usage, “theory” is often used in the sense of a guess or speculation. A hypothesis is an educated guess, but a theory is the goal of science – a set of related hypotheses about some natural phenomenon that has been tested repeatedly and extensively without being disproved. A theory is as close to the truth as science can get.

    Secondly, the theory of evolution is not the only possible scientific explanation for the change we see in living things. However, the theory of evolution is the best explanation because the evidence overwhelmingly supports it better than any other. Creationists like to think that there are only two possible explanations for the diversity of the biological world, Intelligent Design or the theory of evolution, because then they mistakenly think it is an either/or situation. If they can show that evolution is false, they illogically think that that proves Intelligent Design is true. [In any case, Intelligent Design isn’t a scientific explanation since it can’t be tested.]

    But there’s more from Nonni:

    4. Where the theory of Evolution has gaps, inconsistencies or defies the knowledge of another discipline (i.e., mathematics), the truth of the theory must be taken on faith.

    5. Universities are the new churches of Evolution. No one is admitted to the priesthood (faculty) unless they subscribe to the statement of faith. Evolution by random selection is an article of faith.

    Now Nonni is really getting off the wall. I have heard this criticism from students. Evolution has “gaps.” Well, scientific knowledge has “gaps.” If this were not so, then there would be nothing left for scientists to investigate. We do research because there ARE things left to learn. But none of the so-called gaps in our knowledge of evolutionary biology in any way threatens or undermines the theory of evolution. Once again, Nonni refers to natural selection as “random selection,” preferring to defy the knowledge of biology. Finally, scientists do not rely on “faith” in evaluating the truth of a hypothesis or theory, because they don’t have to – they look at the empirical evidence. Her statement that “universities are the new churches of Evolution” is strident hyperbole, not worth responding to.

    6. Whomever questions the doctrine of Evolution is an ignorant outsider, certainly unworthy of a teaching position, and probably also unworthy of a biological science degree.

    This is how I see it. I went back to college as an “older woman”. Its very difficult for older people to go back to college. We have to overcome the common sense we’ve acquired through years of experience in living. But thats the subject of a whole new post–or maybe more.

    Here, I detect a bit of sour grapes.

    In conclusion, if you want to study science, or just become an educated person, you have to learn to critically evaluate what you think as rigorously as you critically evaluate what others think. This is how I see it.


    • A. Einstein, B. Podolsky, and N. Rosen, “Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?” Physical Review 41: 777 (15 May 1935).
    • A. Aspect, Dalibard, and G. Roger, “Experimental test of Bell’s inequalities using time-varying analyzers,” Physical Review Letters 49(25): 1804 (20 Dec 1982).