I’ve taken a summer hiatus but will be writing on the Mandi Gray rape trial soon. In the meantime, I’m posting two excellent sources of information. The first is a video by Diana Davison, where she covers some of the more troubling aspects of the case taken directly from court transcripts.
Second is an essay written by Karin Litzcke. She focuses on judicial independence, a problem in the Gray trial, and puts it into the larger context of presiding Judge Zuker’s work relationship with OISE and OISE’s agendas of progressivism and militant feminism. Litzcke’s essay is long, but is clearly written and makes a persuasive argument for genuine egalitarianism. She’s a refreshing voice.
The Ururyar decision issued July 21st by Ontario Justice Marvin Zuker happens to create a bit of a convergence for me. I don’t particularly want to write about individual decisions here, but there is a judicial independence issue involved that is peculiar to my field of expertise, public schooling.
First, I should say from the outset that Zuker is more than a name to me because he is an education law expert, and has written a book from which I’ve used a passage or two. I actually didn’t know he was a judge, but once I did, I was inclined to regard him positively.
This is a repost from June 2012. It seems timely given the return of student striking in Montreal.
Montreal Student Strike: Being Cool is Overrated: I’m surprised no one is making the connection between masked student strikers and the school shooters who have left their mark on Montreal.
Why isn’t this happening?
I think it’s because the strikers are way too cool. And their admirers are partaking of said coolness by heaping praise on their new BFFs. Despite the love-in, however, someone messed up and forgot to invite the truth.
So here’s my thought for the day: Being cool is overrated.
September 13, 2006, the day of the Dawson shooting, didn’t start well for me. I woke with a migraine and took my prescribed medication. Because of its potency, my usual strategy was to wait until after I taught, but on that day my condition was such that I didn’t think I would make it to work at all. So I went through my first school shooting accompanied by sickening waves of fatigue, side-effects of the drug that allowed me to show up in the first place.
For me, two moments from that day are frozen in time. The first happened while I was evacuating my students. They were walking toward me as they headed to an exit and it occurred to me that if the gunman came around the corner, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. There was nowhere to hide and the hallway was filled to capacity with students who were moving far too slowly.
The second occurred in the moments after I heard the gunshots that killed the gunman, Kimveer Gill. I was outside and had the experience of watching a huge crowd trying to disperse with very little success: no one knew precisely where the shots were coming from so where could they run? In the minutes after that, as I slowly made my way out of the vicinity, I noticed there were a number of students who appeared to be having seizures. The noise from the crying and wailing was deafening. It was pandemonium.
I’m bringing this up because I read Margaret Wente’s column in the Globe and Mail the other day. Her depiction of the disruption of classes at UQAM is notable:
On Wednesday, a masked enforcement squad swept through the campus at the Université du Québec à Montréal, hunting for students who had dared to show up for class. Wherever they found a class in session, they broke in and shouted “Scab!” in the students’ faces. The enforcement squad was defying a court injunction that ordered the university to open. They jumped on desks and tables and spray-painted slogans on the classroom walls. They grabbed two female students by the arm and told them to get out. The intimidated professors fled. Later, as law student Christina Macedo tried to explain to reporters what had happened, they drowned her out. “Scab! Scab! Scab!” they shrieked.
Montreal is a city that has seen three school shootings in the last three decades. In 1989, Marc Lepine shot 14 women studying engineering at the École Polytechnique. In 1992, Valery Fabrikant shot four of his colleagues, also in engineering, at Concordia. In 2006, Anastasia deSouza was shot to death at Dawson. There were, of course, many wounded survivors in each incident.
There is something unsettling about the confluence of events here: I’m referring to the violent disruption of classes at UQAM happening within the larger backdrop of these shootings. I’m wondering why it is so easy to minimize violence against students and teachers in Montreal. Why is it okay to terrorize us?
I mention the students and their seizures because, to my knowledge, this has never been written about. “Freaked-out people having seizures” does not make for a newsy headline, particularly when it’s competing with “Shots Fired.”
As events unfolded that day, myself and another teacher, along with some students, made our way up the steep inclines of Westmount. Some in our group were hysterical and needed help walking; none of us could get through to anyone on our cell phones. My feet were heavy from the medication and reality, memorably elastic that day, seemed to play out very slowly. We hailed a taxi-van and all of us piled in. The driver drove us down past the streets close to Dawson and again I saw the seizing students. I remember thinking that not all of them could be epileptic. What then, could be the cause?
I’m not a neurologist, but I think it’s fair to say that anxiety ratcheted up to intolerable levels is one explanation. In other words, I saw panic shifting from a state of mind to a state of body; people were literally “flipping out.”
And right now, like them, I’m feeling a bit flipped too, like a turtle stuck on its back. My legs are thrashing madly in the air and I’m hoping some kind soul will come along and turn me upright again. To translate: as a teacher who’s experienced the genuine trauma of workplace violence, I feel powerless over the media machinery that’s defining the students’ actions as “cool”. There is a story arc out there about what they are doing and it is misleading. There is nothing cool about masked people entering a classroom and terrorizing students and teachers.
But how is this skewed version of things delivered and supported?
Social media has been heralded as the new force of democracy in the world. And, indeed, it is changing the way we view things. But what are its limitations?
What a lot of us actually living in Montreal are discovering is that now, monopolizing the media and creating a fabricated narrative of events is not only the province of the powerful. iPhones and social networking sites are putting power into the hands of ordinary folk; however, in all the excitement, the idea that everything works better when people tell the truth seems to have gone AWOL.
To wit: a parade of people banging pots and pans might be the new global symbol of the fight against political oppression, but that symbol is being sorely abused here in Montreal. Canada is not a third world country, and the students’ equating their demands with the demands of those suffering genuine oppression is offensive. It’s just a different kind of lie.*
As someone who has bothered spending time in the third world, I can say this with some conviction: travelling to poorer and less liberated countries was an integral part of my education as a young person. I came away from that experience knowing what real suffering looks like.
I am tired of this label of “cool” being afforded a group of young people willing to do violence for a cause they don’t fully understand. I’m tired of pundits from other cities and other countries telling us Montrealers what we are experiencing. We already know. In case you haven’t noticed, I want to say to them, it’s our highways and our metro systems that are being shut down.
I also want to tell Mick Jagger and the cast of Saturday Night Live, who were wearing red squares in support of the students, to smarten up. There’s a limit to how cool anyone needs to be and we need to put this violence in the context it deserves: alongside other forms of school violence.
After the shooting and once classes had reconvened, I noticed that one of my students—from the class that had been interrupted—wasn’t bringing her books. She said she was too afraid to go to her locker. It meant she would have to go back to the atrium, the central hallway that defines Dawson, the hallway where the shooting took place. So I gave everyone a 10 minute break and walked down to her locker with her, holding her hand. Her body was humming with anxiety and she was struggling not to cry. She was 18 years-old and her best friend, one of the survivors, was in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound.
I hope that young woman wasn’t in one of the law classes described by Margaret Wente. As a student, she, like the rest of us, deserves much, much better.
* I’m referring here to the idea of a “Maple Spring.” I lived and traveled through the middle east in the early 1980s. The comparison to the Arab Spring is inappropriate.
I had the pleasure of hearing a Dutch journalist share an intriguing narrative, one that did not involve winners and losers, an us and a them. It was an open-ended observation of Dutch society, based on his experience taking care of a disabled partner.
The context of his talk was also intriguing. Gerbert van Loenen is gay and there were many Catholics in the room, including several priests. His story was compelling and after he finished, he was swarmed with well-wishers. The issue of left versus right, of gay versus straight, was notably absent: everyone’s focus was on this journalist’s love for his partner and the broader perspective of disability it gave him. Diversity, it seems, comes in many forms.
The concept of framing was popularized by linguist Deborah Tannen in the 1980s. Her study of conversational templates was intuitive and simple and focused on how power manifests itself (or not) in conversational styles. Her observations confirmed a lot of things I’d already suspected and left me with one very handy skill. I am very good at detecting language patterns that signal manipulation, very good at using (or smashing) predictable scripts. It’s turned me into that creature of terror, a difficult woman.
Kidding aside, something powerful and despairing happened to me when I started following the Canadian media’s neglect of the elderly and noting the support that neglect was lending the assisted suicide movement. Red flags sprung up everywhere. I saw the proverbial pot warming slowly, saw the incremental efforts supporters of assisted suicide had been making in Canada with the long view in mind.
They were using an old but reliable trick: if you repeat an idea often enough it will take on the appearance of truth. It’s a trick that relies on the same lazy thinking that leads us to use stereotypes, that allows us to dismiss others with a word or a look. It’s that kind of information — focus-group approved — that’s dominating discussions of assisted suicide right now; it’s how lobbyists are playing our emotions, frightening us into believing it’s a final solution we may all want.
It’s also a conversation happening in a broader context of global terror threats, fear-mongering about a grey tsunami, and, in the west at least, an ideological wave of hyper-rationality. Apart from an entreating attitude toward westernized Islam, religion is getting a bad rap right now. Those on the right see this as an attack on their fundamental beliefs, especially in terms of traditional families, while those on the left, typically the liberally educated, are riding the momentum created by religious extremism, encouraging those governing to reject religious values, particularly Christian ones.
The result? An emergent movement of ruthless individualism, one tolerant of soft Islam and disdainful of Christianity. By supporting this, adherents are ignoring the obvious: they are taking the path of least resistance. It’s safe to distance oneself from Christians who are not terrorists and safer still to defend less familiar, less predictable believers of Islam. The benefit is that one looks tolerant, worldly and intelligent for doing so. But being so choosy is naive too: Muslim moderates also support the preservation of family values; however, with all the flurry around their religion at the moment, it’s not surprising they are being less vocal about it.
So keeping Tannen’s paradigm in mind, what are some noxious socio-cultural frames? Here are three:
1) If you believe in the sanctity of human life, you must be a far-right Christian fundamentalist who opposes abortion.
With more of us becoming substitute decision-makers for ageing parents, the issue of preserving life is more likely to involve the elderly and not unborn children. In real terms, valuing the sanctity of life means being asked to weigh the quality of life against the quantity of it. In my mother’s case, the question posed was: do you want a machine to keep your mother alive?
Most of us would choose against keeping a sick and unconscious 77 year-old going mechanically, but there’s a problem. The real question should have been: would your mother be okay in a wheelchair? There’s a big difference between these two realities, particularly when it comes to consciousness, but if my experience (and the experience of many others) is anything to go by, the dire narrative is being used more liberally, especially with elderly patients. This is how hospital administrators create environments that legitimatise sweeping the elderly toward death and away from life with disability.
Cultural factors are weighty in this regard too. During the 2012 student strike here in Montreal, anger aimed at baby boomers became a familiar cry for young people complaining about economic oppression. While a discussion of that cry’s verity is beyond the scope of this article, it was the pervasiveness of its use that was startling. It was heard often enough, I believe, to prompt a backlash: middle-aged Montrealers of all political stripes became largely intransigent in response, prompting a national outpouring of sympathy for the students. That sympathy came from citizens in other cities, citizens whose daily commutes weren’t being enlivened with smoke bombs or trebled in duration by students crowding onto raised expressways.
And now the commercial world is stepping in. Companies peddling death-benefit insurance compete with those selling stairlifts, seated bathtubs and medications designed to improve circulation, preserve memory and alleviate pain. The insurance policies, I believe, are the most sinister of the lot. It’s a financial product being touted by graceful boomers who appear to be nowhere near death, but are already thinking about their final expenses and planning to leave something behind for their grandchildren. The word “burden” is used frequently and the implication that one shouldn’t become one is clear. The underlying message? The best grandparent is a dead one.
I’m loathe to give insurance companies more advertising time, but this is worth watching:
2. If you are leftist and socialist you believe in inclusion.
This idea is one that shaped my own leftist beliefs. I was born in a blue-collar, union town and grew up believing that collective action benefitted everyone.
However, in a pattern that mimics the “We are the 99%”, intellectual wealth and social agency have become the next currencies shifting upwards and creating new social tiers. Proponents of assisted suicide acknowledge this and imply that intelligence is a prerequisite for supporting their movement, the understanding being that only individuals misguided by religion or ignorance would disagree.
This ideological contradiction did not happen overnight — it has crept up slowly and grown in tandem with global income inequality. That’s because although leftists may eschew material wealth, they rarely turn down the intellectual variety.
A lack of insight into the power intellectual wealth confers on individuals — a perhaps understandable oversight coming from the left — has evolved into something ominous. In short, this oversight has blossomed into a full-blown meritocratic belief system. It’s a system that borrows heavily from a right-wing belief that one is responsible for one’s own success and that social circumstances do not help or hinder one’s potential.
In other words, replace the right’s focus on financial wealth with the left’s focus on intellectual wealth (and the social agency it provides) and the two ideologies, at least in the west, become interchangeable. That’s because instead of turning outward and sharing this agency, the left has turned inward and stockpiled it for themselves. The proof? The rise of populist political figures and parties, those that may be abhorrent but, like the rest of the world, reflect binaries of inclusion and exclusion.
And here’s an example: another sensitive issue, at least for Canadians opposed to assisted suicide, has been the human shield used by assisted suicide supporters. The LGBT community has, for the most part, thrown their weight behind its decriminalization and anyone who disagrees with them runs the risk of being labeled homophobic. I’ve had this accusation hurled at me, as have gay opponents of assisted suicide themselves.
And our media is on board with this: the CBC included a slide in their pro-assisted suicide documentary that depicted early human rights marches defending homosexuality. The fact is that the two issues are not related and implying that they are is dishonest and manipulative. Diversity does not begin and end with sexual orientation, but linguistically, the word “diversity” has shrunk to mean just that.
True diversity would entail listening to the fears of families with relatives in nursing homes and listening to disability leaders’ fears about dying prematurely. True diversity would speak the truth: that Steven Fletcher, the disabled poster-adult of the Canadian assisted suicide movement, is more concerned about his own future than he is about others.’ We should not be afraid to say this because he is in a wheelchair — supporters of the procedure are counting on it.
3. Individualism is progressive and future-oriented while families are regressive and get in the way of success.
There’s a physical fastidiousness underpinning this belief, one that asserts that cleaning up after children and sick or disabled adults is unpleasant. The wages paid to daycare workers and non-unionized nursing home staff make this clear. Moreover, tropes about children being inconvenient — on airplanes and in restaurants — are enormously popular in our culture and reflect a widespread lack of patience and rejection of domestic life.
An offshoot of these tropes is the assumption that every disabled or elderly person naturally wants to die. The belief that “I would rather die than live in a wheelchair, live without sight, hearing or mental clarity,” is standard fare in discussions about end-of-life choices and explains why unrequested DNRs show up on the hospital charts of the disabled. However, there is a wildcard in all these discussions: medical predictions are notoriously unreliable and hypotheticals are just that — hypothetical. People who think diminished mobility is a problem often adjust and adjust quite well once that loss actually occurs.
Gillian Bennett, the BC woman who committed suicide because of impending dementia, offers a snapshot of this kind of thinking.
I can live or vegetate for perhaps ten years in hospital at Canada’s expense, costing anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000 per year. That is only the beginning of the damage. Nurses, who thought they were embarked on a career that had great meaning, find themselves perpetually changing my diapers and reporting on the physical changes of an empty husk. It is ludicrous, wasteful and unfair.
The natural course of Alzheimer’s disease is five years, not ten, and what nurses want from their careers is not something Bennett could possibly know. Registered nurses do not do the job of intimate care, at any rate, and her belief that caring for patients like her is “ludicrous, wasteful and unfair,” raises the question: To whom exactly is Bennett’s self-loathing unfair?
The fact is that Canada’s healthcare system is a business, much like any other. It is a system that absorbs many immigrants, providing them with jobs and potential to be educated and re-educated into the kind of success stories that Canada is known for. Hospitals and nursing homes are also necessary to the economic growth of regions — there are many businesses serving healthcare institutions that depend on them.
But Bennett’s words, like the CIBC commercial and the left’s devolution into self-absorption, edge toward malice too: imagine the pressure that will be put on elderly parents to opt for assisted suicide instead of depleting their resources for care in their final years.
This is a real threat to the elderly and disabled. A friend’s family owns a private nursing home in England. Their middle-aged daughter runs the facility and has shared stories of shouting matches and threats of violence that break out in family conferences when the “waiters” (those waiting to inherit) discover their relative’s assets will likely be gone by the time the relative dies. The fear and indignation are real, she says, and should be making us rethink decriminalizing assisted suicide. The pressure to end life prematurely will happen and it’s quite likely that mercy will have very little to do with it.
* * *
The Dutch journalist whose talk initiated this article had an experience very similar to mine: he too received unsettling comments about the “worth” of the disabled person he was caring for. He too heard his partner being told to stop complaining since he’d “chosen to live” with physical limitations.
And in the end, this journalist felt prompted just like me: he wondered what was going on and decided to write about it.
Bill Gates and His Problems with Philanthropy: Bill Gates and his foundation are looking to make changes in higher education. In this article, I look at his leadership skills, particularly in the context of his attempts to make changes in various American public school systems. I also compare Gates to a Canadian CEO, Michael McCain, who has a very different way of doing business. Before I get to Gates, I give a brief account of education and philanthropy in the U.S. This article is a longread at 2,600 words.
Shakespeare’s Henry V
In June 2008, public health officials in Canada noticed an increase in listeriosis cases. Listeriosis is a food-borne bacteria that attacks the central nervous system. It poses risks for those who are vulnerable: newborns, the elderly and pregnant women. In healthy people, it causes gastroenteritis.
The source of the outbreak was traced to a meat-packing plant in Toronto. Maple Leaf Foods, a Canadian company owned by the McCain family, is one of Canada’s largest producers of luncheon meats. Two slicing machines at the Toronto site experienced a build-up of waste material. That waste created contamination and was confirmed as the cause of 23 deaths.
What transpired in the wake of the tragedy has become the stuff of lore in the Canadian business world. CEO Michael McCain went on the air, in a hastily produced commercial spot, apologizing and assuming complete responsibility. He’d been blindsided and his hollow-eyed apology reflected it. I remember seeing him address the country and experiencing a deep jolt of empathy. Who, I thought, can’t identify with the kind of pit-of-the-stomach dread McCain was clearly feeling?
His actions could have been plucked from Shakespeare and that’s because Shakespeare spent a great deal of time meditating on the vagaries of leadership. One of his most complex creations, Henry V, is a character he develops over three plays. As a prince, Henry starts the trilogy outwardly dissolute; as a king, he proves his mettle conquering France. In his famous Feast of St. Crispin speech he says:
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold, Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost; It yearns me not if men my garments wear; Such outward things dwell not in my desires: But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.
Henry’s ability to navigate all levels of society finds full expression in this rousing admonition to his troops. Their fight is not about gold, not about cost, but about honour. They are outnumbered and on foreign soil, yet they will fight side-by-side and share the glory. Henry is still their leader, however. When a friend later pillages a church, he acts decisively to keep the goodwill of his new French subjects. With a crowd looking on, he decrees his friend must hang. By the end of the trilogy, the demands of the throne oblige the new king to act with prudence and to put childish things away.
It’s the stature of characters like Henry V that challenges us to measure up. In education, conquering forces are emerging too, forces that have the money and technology to succeed. Many aspects of their leadership are troubling, however. Unlike the humbler Henrys and McCains, these forces are led by venture philanthropists who live “in a bubble,” as Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University argues. Despite charitable intentions, “They cannot imagine a student who has to decide between buying books and buying dinner.”
Gates Foundation and Education
Who are they? In her histories of American education, Diane Ravitch details many philanthropy-led education reforms. While earlier versions were successful because they addressed clear social inequities – one thinks of reforms linked with the civil rights movement — more recent ones have failed. Problems with education have become more complex, making it difficult to make changes even with large infusions of cash. However, as Peter Buffett, Warren’s son has noted, it doesn’t help that philanthropists’ attitudes haven’t altered much since the days of the robber barons.
In a New York Times op-ed, he describes current giving as “philanthropic colonialism.'” Poorly targeted donations are being made by magnates, he says, who try to solve problems by “transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another.” They also expect a return on investment. When it comes to education in the U.S., those expectations have mostly gone unmet since the 1960s. That hasn’t deterred the wealthiest Americans from trying, however; Bill and Melinda Gates are just the latest to do so.
When it comes to computing, Gates’ contributions have been substantial, particularly from an organizational perspective. Personally, I’ve always appreciated the concept of Windows, the operating system most browsers are based on. It makes it possible for me to multi-task, to have several screens open at the same time. As I write this, I’m logged into Facebook, the New York Times, Twitter, YouTube, an online dictionary and a site about philanthrocapitalism. Any connection I make among these screens, as I flit back and forth, forms a pattern of thought accessible only to me.
Individually, this process isn’t a problem. Collectively, however, consequences arise. As Nicholas Carr observes, we may open a lot of screens, but we are spending a lot less time on each of them:
There is nothing wrong with browsing and scanning…we’ve always skimmed newspapers more than we’ve read them, and we routinely run our eyes over books and magazines in order to get the gist of a piece of writing and decide whether it warrants more thorough reading…What is different, and troubling, is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading.
As a teacher, it seems to me that the combination of a shallow intake of information, and a lack of connectedness among its components, is creating thinking that’s occasionally harrowing: seeping into western culture is a cold-blooded impatience, a strain of post-modern utilitarianism that is, at least for the foreseeable future, gaining traction, particularly among the technocratic and monied young. At its clinical best, it’s the use of computing to expand a physician’s diagnostic capacities; at its mean-spirited worst, it’s uncensored vitriol on memorial sites devoted to the vulnerable among us. It’s all about speed, audacity and making the most efficient use of resources.
The profound neutrality of the internet, I suspect, contributes to this emerging culture of sangfroid. For example, if a 32 year-old woman can, within the span of an hour, check out a new article in Scientific American, watch a 4 minute porn flick, write an email to a lover, another to her husband and input students’ grades, what does her range of activity tell us? Most young people I know would conclude that she’s probably “smart and sexy.” But would they find her behaviour shocking? I’m not so sure.
Gates’ Problems with Philanthropy
It’s this kind of desensitization that can also be found in a video of Gates discussing health care. In it he poses the question, “Is it better to spend a million dollars for the last three months of life or would it be better to not lay off ten teachers?” Recorded at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Gates states that for all the money Americans spend on health care, they “get nothing,” and that unless they’re willing to be taxed more, other government institutions, like universities, will be squeezed out of budgets. Although health care costs are climbing, as are tuitions, some of the real culprits — health care providers and manufacturers of the equipment they use — get a free pass in Gates’ assessment.
Here’s the real story, told by Elizabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times. She wrote about Michael Shopenn, an American photographer who travelled to Belgium for a hip replacement:
Makers of artificial implants — the biggest single cost of most joint replacement surgeries — have proved particularly adept at commanding inflated prices, according to health economists. Multiple intermediaries then mark up the charges. While Mr. Shopenn was offered an implant in the United States for about $13,000, many privately insured patients are billed two to nearly three times that amount. An artificial hip, however, costs only about $350 to manufacture in the United States.
Implant list prices are so high, Rosenthal says, because of a “cartel” of five manufacturing companies that jealously guard the American market. Foreign-made joint implants have been shut out of that market by trade policies, patents and an arduous FDA approval process. The cost of Mr. Shopenn’s surgery would have been $78,000 in the U.S., not including the surgeon’s fee. However, using a hip joint made by a Polish company, he paid $13,660 for an operation that included medication, airfare and a week of rehab. Rather than pitting the dying against the unemployed, Gates should be questioning the business ethics that create these kind of distortions.
However, questioning big ideas isn’t something Gates is good at, as his foundation’s failures at school reform prove. His “small school” initiative was one such failure and it began with the creation of small high schools within large ones. The thinking was that in more intimate environments students would receive personalized attention and would be less likely to drop out. So urban high schools with thousands of students were broken down into smaller units, all of which shared the same building and resources. The problem was that Gates didn’t see the drawbacks: the smaller schools couldn’t provide extracurricular activities — there were no choirs, bands or sports teams — and advanced courses in math, science and technical education weren’t possible due to low enrolments. The schools also had high teacher turnover rates and administrators who routinely fought over resources. Despite this, Gates was still touting the program at the 2006 World Forum at Davos.
Within a year of his talk, two of the initiative’s flagship schools — Manual High in Denver and Mountlake Terrace in Seattle – were defunct. The initiative, which had cost billions of dollars, failed. Afterward, the foundation decided that poor teaching was the problem and it trained its sights on performance-based pay and independently run charter schools. According to Ravitch, the foundation’s new focus is equally misguided. Charter schools, or independent schools as they are called in the U.K., are dividing students into two groups: the more talented are being wooed into them while the less so are being wooed out. In some states, communities are divided over the charter school issue for reasons that have very little to do with quality. For example, when parents in California were offered vouchers and free transport to send their children to “better” schools further away, less than 1% did so. Overwhelmingly, parents wanted to use schools in their neighbourhoods. It was a school’s geographic location — at the heart of a community — that mattered most.
Gates is disregarding these preferences – a behaviour that dovetails with Carr’s ideas about shallow engagement. Not being able to sit still with a long text seems akin to not being able to sit still with a community while it communicates what it wants. One wonders what would happen if he had to please shareholders instead of parents and children with diminishing agency. How would shareholders respond to his ongoing failures? Would he be allowed to carry on? The lack of accountability is an issue frequently brought up in discussions of his foundation’s initiatives. Nevertheless, these mentions rarely get past the discussion stage because what keeps them at bay is money: no one wants to lose their school a Gates grant by complaining too much.
Shakespeare knew a lot about the dangers of patronage. Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that his successful kings, like Henry V, had the ability to mingle with all classes and to manage criticism. In the third play, the young king, wary of the effect his royalty will have on the truth, goes out in disguise the night before his victory at Agincourt. Around the campfire, he talks to his soldiers about their chances of success. He describes himself and his kingship in the third person:
I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his sense have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man…
Henry discovers that although he is admired, his soldiers are not convinced he will lead them to victory. He makes a wager with one of them, Michael Williams. They exchange gloves and agree to meet after the battle. Williams wagers they will not be alive; Henry disagrees. After leaving the men, and right before the sun rises, the young king finds a quiet place to pray. It’s Henry’s bond with his subjects that Shakespeare dramatizes in these scenes. His desire to know what is in his men’s hearts makes him heroic, but it’s his humility — his willingness to ask — that makes him a man.
Canada’s Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods
Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods has said he’s been blessed by the candid feedback he’s received throughout his career. That willingness to engage with criticism was apparent throughout the listeria crisis: he proved himself to be an admirable leader of the kind so artfully defined by Shakespeare. These are individuals who possess a combination of grace and strength, directness and vulnerability. Like Henry during his crisis, McCain spoke to all of us too. It’s why we trusted him.
By contrast, the leadership coming from technocratic quarters is worrisome: Gates’ attempt to impose business models onto American schools proves a larger movement of corporate narcissism is at work, a movement that with its characteristic of sangfroid bodes badly for all of us. He may be a generous philanthropist, but the control he insists on often has the effect of hijacking recipient institutions. And he gains too: his financial gifts double as tax shelters and the income inequality he says he doesn’t like is precisely what allows him to spend in ways that are undermining, his attempts at busting teachers’ unions being just one example. As Peter Buffett notes: “Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.” This circularity of power enables Gates to ignore others’ wishes, as many of us in education have recognized. This is why teachers don’t like him. This is why they leave in droves when he tries to fix their schools: when it comes to education, he’s simply not a good leader.
Michael McCain has recently gone through a very public divorce. His difficulties have been laid bare and some journalists have trotted out anecdotes that prove he is as human as the rest of us. The response has been staunchly supportive: his family’s right to privacy has been defended, many times over, by Canadians who saw him through his 2008 crisis. Unlike Gates, who talks about the “waste” of extending elderly lives, McCain did the opposite. Most of the listeriosis victims were living in nursing homes, and yet it was clear that this made no difference in how McCain judged the outcome and the response it required of him. Apologies were issued quickly as were compensatory payouts. That’s the kind of respect we all like to see and it’s the kind that Bill Gates, and other business leaders like him, can learn from.
If you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously.
Addicted to Success: this is a long-read at 3,000 words. I weave the story of Diederik Stapel though the narrative, which is about addiction, academic dishonesty and corporate interference in public education and the academic world. I’ve used sources from Chrystia Freeland, Bruce Alexander, Yudhijit Bhattacharee and Diane Ravitch.
In the summer of 2011, a Dutch social psychologist was in the process of losing his job. His name was Diederik Stapel and he’d committed an unimaginable fraud: over ten years he’d falsified data for over 55 experiments, some of which formed the basis of doctoral theses he’d supervised.
Stapel was a researcher who studied “priming,” the influence exerted on individuals by suggestive information. He was most interested in its effects on self-assessment: his doctoral thesis focused on how we assimilate or contrast when primed with information. He argued, for example, that subjects asked to meditate on the abstract idea of “intelligence” will assimilate and see that trait in oneself and others. Conversely, subjects asked to imagine something more concrete, like “Einstein,” will contrast with the man’s genius and see themselves and others as unintelligent. The impact this data-gathering has for the persuasive arts cannot be underestimated. All good persuaders – from carnival barkers to political scribes – succeed or fail on the basis of this knowledge, be it the product of native intelligence or data gathering from focus groups. The work of professors like Stapel has the power to influence those in power and, arguably, to influence the kind of beliefs they disseminate.
Stapel’s story fascinates because, as the Greeks recognized, there’s a rubber-necker in all of us. His is a cautionary tale of hubris, accentuated by the sheer size of his deception. Like Bernie Madoff before him, Stapel fooled many people for many years. His mea culpa, a 315-page book titled Ontsporing (Derailment), has done little to redeem his reputation.
The facts are this: for three years after receiving his Ph.D, Stapel did the grunt work of experimentation and played within the rules. However, he reached a turning point while experimenting with attractiveness. He wanted to prove that how individuals rate theirs is influenced by their proximity to beauty. Subjects were flashed – on a screen and in a tenth of a second – the faces of others. Stapel’s hypothesis was that those who were flashed a plain face would assimilate and rate themselves as more attractive; those who were flashed an attractive face would contrast and find themselves less so. He started tinkering with the numbers when his hypothesis failed — he’d invested time and effort in the study and didn’t want to abandon it. His tinkering went undetected and the results were published in the Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology in 2004. According to Yudhijit Bhattacharee, who wrote about the scandal in the New York Times, the article caused a sensation and “Stapel’s career took off.”
Was he addicted?
Stapel’s thoughts about his actions are naturally self-serving and suspect. However, his references to addiction, in Bhattacharee’s account, ring true:
He described his behaviour as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high…Some friends, he said, asked him what could have made him stop. “I am not sure,” he told me. “I don’t think there was going to be an end. There was no stop button. My brain was stuck. It had to explode. This was the only way.”
Even after he became a dean at Tilburg University, Stapel still had difficulty “resisting the allure” of more falsified experiments. The allure appears to have been the obvious rewards of success, but also, and perhaps more darkly, the risk-taking involved in his fraud. He experienced the “high” of achieving acclaim, but also of knowing he was fooling his colleagues and getting away with it. No wonder then that when Ontsporing was published, unofficial and free versions soon appeared online. In what seems to be a reasonable response to collateral damage, Stapel’s victims did not want him to profit from the chaos he’d created. As I write this, several of his doctoral students are still awaiting judgements: their Ph.Ds theses, based on data authorities assert they knew was fabricated, may be revoked.
Much has been made of the academic context of Stapel’s fraud. Questions about the honesty of social scientists have arisen and rounds of finger-pointing, within the discipline, are focusing on subtler forms of dishonesty. However, despite the spectacle of Stapel’s fall, his addiction to power is almost canonical in our winner-take-all world. Chrystia Freeland writes about this phenomenon in Plutocrats, pointing to one clear symptom of it: the emergence of a more broadly defined superstar culture. This new stratosphere is not just for rock stars: there are celebrity chefs, decorators and, yes, professors too. It’s a new paradigm of meta-recognition, built on twin pillars of meritocracy and technocracy. Thanks to the internet, its effects are being felt globally.
Bruce Alexander is interested in economics too. He’s a Canadian addiction specialist and professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. His ideas about addiction parallel trends noted by Freeland and provide further insights into them. He focuses on “dislocation,” a theory taken from the work of economist Karl Polyani:
“Dislocation” is the condition of great numbers of human beings who have been shorn of their cultures and individual identities by the globalization of a “free-market society” in which the needs of people are subordinated to the imperatives of markets and the economy. Dislocation affects both people who have been physically displaced, such as economic immigrants and refugees, and people who have remained in place while their cultures disintegrated around them. Dislocation occurs during boom times as well as recessions, among the rich as well as the poor, among capitalists as well as workers.
According to Alexander, the privileging of free-market systems, at the expense of cohesive communities, is at the heart of a global addiction problem that’s growing exponentially. A conspicuous addiction tells the story: obesity in the U.S. has risen steadily since the 1970s, a trend that correlates with the institution of free trade, a failed “war on drugs,” and various deregulation and anti-trade-union movements. The convergence of these policies started the U.S. on a path of income inequality that has, 30 years later, quite literally shot off the charts. This growth forward toward a pinpoint of privilege has been recognized, albeit belatedly. The problem is that leaders in a position to stop its momentum seem as helpless as the general public, and opportunities to redress its root causes are frequently foiled by partisan politics. That failure to strengthen communities and share prosperity, Alexander argues, has brought about widespread psychosocial disintegration and cultural diminishment. It’s a context that makes escape, chemical or otherwise, attractive.
How does Stapel’s fraud fit into the addiction landscape? Like Freeland’s superstars, Stapel sought recognition in his discipline and then meta-recognition beyond it. His needs, like an addict’s, come into sharper focus when we discover he initially studied acting and, later, once he finished his Ph.D, often appeared as a commentator on Dutch television. The search for acclaim is nothing new; big cities the world over are full of seekers and their stories. However, what sets Stapel apart is his level of success, which was quite laudable to begin with.
The Peacock Class and Income Inequality
This is where Freeland’s study of the peacock class — earners in the top 10% — comes in handy. Stapel’s excessive striving for recognition is hardly unusual when set against their behaviour. What is novel is that their environment seems to be changing and changing in ways that echo Alexander’s ideas about dislocation. For example, stratas within that elite group are appearing, stratas resembling divisions that used to exist in the lower 90%. Mirroring Stapel’s behaviour, these changes seem driven by individuals who are already rich, but want to be even richer. It’s a process of intensification addicts refer to as “the disease of more.” Freeland explains:
And even within tribes whose training collectively vaults them into the 1% — like bankers, lawyers or computer programmers — there’s a twist to the impact of skill-biased technological change that lessens the sense of group prosperity. This is what economists call the “superstar” effect — the tendency of both technological change and globalization to create a winner-take-all economic tournaments in many sectors and companies where being the most successful in your field delivers huge rewards, but coming in second place and certainly in fifth or tenth has lesser economic value.
The distribution of wealth in the top 10% reflects this obsession with earnings and perfection: it’s the top 1% within the 10 that are earning the most and earning the most by far. While on the surface this intensification seems inexplicable — we might wonder why these people aren’t satisfied — an explanation can be found in a phenomenon called the “paradox of unhappy growth.” What this refers to, loosely, is the anxiety associated with instability caused by growth, even when the growth itself may be positive. So while the rural poor move to urban centers and earn more, they are generally less happy. They are also, Freeland observes, more “frustrated with their income.” These feelings of frustration, anxiety and unhappiness are paradoxical for those at the prosperous end of their class’ wealth spectrum: it seems that to avert uneasy feelings, they spend or reach for more.
So why isn’t the American middle-class getting richer? The class that found its footing in the post-war years of the last century is slowly being hollowed out by technology, leaving two classes left: high earners who are well-educated and at ease with computing, and low earners, who are left with the barista jobs. The chart below illustrates these nascent stratas in the top 10%. The lowest earning households in that group take home an average of $161,139, while the highest earning, three levels up and comprising just one-tenth of 1%, take home an average of 24 million.
The superstar effect is the key to explaining these top layers of wealth. The elites have the power to make the people who provide services for them — their lawyers, chefs and hairdressers — into superstars of their own. As Freeland points out, these providers are undoubtedly talented, but that doesn’t make their less-recognized peers any less so. Madonna may feel she has to fly to France to visit her superstar dentist, Bernard Touati, but that doesn’t mean there are no good dentists closer to home. However, it’s the perception of scarcity and value combined that is driving this clustering of money and talent, with the elites creating their own class of super-rich servants.
Cheat for Success?
So what do things like income inequality, Diederik Stapel and obesity have in common? The feelings that led Stapel to his choices are worth reflecting upon. As Bhattacharee reports:
Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely lead to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth”…he [later] admitted to a lifelong obsession with…symmetry.
Embedded in Stapel’s words are the technocrat’s credo: order, symmetry, data. There’s also the desire to avoid a mess, which is another trope of the technocratic perspective, a perspective that breeds organizing principles intolerant of less logical details, details that by their abundance and diversity contribute to communities’ identities and make them unique. It’s this wish to conveniently bin the elaborate tapestries that are our identities — that messy mass of details, in other words — that lies at the heart of Stapel’s troubles. The problem is that he is not an outlier in this regard, as his comments about the business of academic life make clear. Talking about that crucial moment when he first decided to cheat, Stapel told Bhattacharee that journal editors actively discourage complexity: ‘They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler.'” After hearing it often enough, he said, he made the decision to write “elegant” rather than truthful articles.
Commercial Interests and Education
What are the larger implications of this sort of commercial interference? The global student body is currently being seduced by a technocrat class that would like to train it for their future. One of its latest propositions is this: we will teach you online and cheaply, and you will be taught by the world’s best professors. Yes, there will be 10,000 of you in the same class, but you will connect via the internet. Yes, you will be graded by computer, which will have a reductive effect on what you learn, but your education will be affordable.
The superstar effect — the perception of value and scarcity — is being used here to suggest that only a handful of professors, plucked off the global stage, are qualified to teach Calculus, American Literature or Anatomy. It’s a lie and a sales pitch, but combined with the prospect of inexpensive learning, it just might work. The real cost, of course, is that it’s a form of education that will relegate graduates to a lower class in a system designed by those in power. Their chances at upward mobility will depend, largely, on whether or not they please their betters.
It’s worth noting here that the wealthier classes will not be educating their children this way, and that there is more to this intersection of business and education than meets the eye. While most people are susceptible to the idea that if something is expensive it must be good, there is another rule that emerges when we apply this to private education, particularly education in the lower grades. It’s the less stated, albeit equally powerful idea that if one pays a private school a lot of money, one will get the grades one wants. That’s because intimidating non-unionized teachers in a private school is easier than intimidating unionized teachers in a public one. When it comes to universities, relegating masses of students to an online university (and away from a brick and mortar one) is a way of replicating, for the students who remain, the privileged environment of the private system — the balance of power, it’s likely, will be the same.
Diane Ravitch and Community Support
Diane Ravitch is an American historian of education. She and Bill Gates have crossed swords on many issues, but a recent one that stands out is this: Gates is demanding that school boards stop paying premiums to teachers who have advanced degrees in education. It’s the latest bid he’s made to “improve” education, one in a series of eccentric bids that has brought about no improvement to the (mostly chartered) schools he’s supported. His camp will report that some under his guidance have improved, but as Ravitch points out, these are schools whose populations have changed composition. What she really means is that the weakest students have been weeded out and sent to neighbouring schools in the public system. That’s a system in decline, she says, thanks to the interference of Gates and other business leaders like New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
One difference between charter and public schools can be found in how they each reward students. Charters, it’s clear, focus on merit almost exclusively. Rewarding students on that basis — which is another technocrat ideal — is not in itself a bad thing. However, Gates and others like him are missing something important: these rewards need to be contextualized. They need to be managed locally, by communities that intimately know the children they are educating. That means letting go of donations once they are made. Rewards and punishments should not, as is the current case in some of Gates’ schools, be applied to third graders who don’t do well at math.
These are the students being counselled out of some charter schools. It’s a Darwinian approach to education as imagined by technocrats unprepared for the complexities of inclusive and comprehensive school management. It is a problem, moreover, that can be solved without Draconian measures: a qualified teacher with a manageable class size, ideally, would have the time to help her weaker students. Community support for both teacher and student, of the kind advocated by Alexander, Polyani and Ravitch, would help too. Fostering that kind of support is a messy business, however, making it less attractive to philanthropists expecting a return on their dollar.
It’s easy to blame university administrators and professors for the rise in the cost of education. They are obvious targets since they are on the physical premises. But they did not create the many tent cities that sprang up in the aftermath of 2008 financial crisis. That was the direct cause of greed and unethical business practices. If we want answers about why this happened, we need to look at banks and business communities and the people leading them. We also need to look at the politicians, and their parties, who gave these entities the lax oversight and standards they wanted.
When it comes to Diederik Stapel and his addiction to power, he is right about one thing: it was up to him to resist the siren call of fame. However, it might be helpful to ask who played the role of playground pusher and led him to where he would hear it.
More importantly, we can ask if he had enough support, the kind that would have allowed him to acknowledge he was addicted to success.
If you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously.
Blood, MOOCs and Money: In the late 90s, a titillating story started making the rounds in Toronto. Its focus was a series of poison-pen letters authored by a pharmacology professor at U of T. They had been sent to research physicians at the Hospital for Sick Children and in them he skewered one of their colleagues, a hematologist under his administration. The professor’s perfidy had been discovered through DNA analysis: to stop suspecting one another, recipients of the letters had contributed to a pool and paid for the test themselves.
The hematologist in question was an attractive blonde and her competence and character were being questioned by the hospital and the university. Their doubts were fuelled by a troubling association they had with a large drug company. This drug company had promised the university an endowment of 25 million dollars, but as events unfolded it became clear the donation was contingent on how well they managed their rogue specialist. She was Dr. Nancy Olivieri and the drug company was Apotex. John LeCarre wrote a fictionalized account inspired by these events, an account that would go on to become the film The Constant Gardener.
I followed the story with interest. Apart from the operatic plot, the University of Toronto was my alma mater, I had done clerical work in many of their associated hospitals, and I felt some fealty, in particular, for the HSC. As a child I’d been sent there for a difficult-to-diagnose problem; I was curious about why the hospital was distancing itself from one of its own researchers.
I’ve been writing about MOOCs lately, those massive open online courses being touted as just-the-thing to save cash-strapped universities. From pedagogical and ethical perspectives, their value as for-credit courses is questionable. Nevertheless, MOOCs as such are being vigorously promoted by professors backed by venture capitalists — well-oiled consortiums that have a lot in common with drug companies, or “big pharma,” as it’s often called. Despite friendly advertorials, these are organizations that have little interest in the well-being of clients or students. And as Olivieri’s story makes clear, their ability to silence dissent is a matter for concern.
Her story starts like this: she is a specialist in blood disorders and in 1996 was testing a drug, Deferiprone, to judge its efficacy. The drug treats thalassemia major, a potentially fatal version of an inherited blood disease (much like anemia) that requires sufferers to have life-long blood transfusions. A side-effect of this treatment is iron overload, a problem that can lead to toxic levels forming in patients’ organs. Deferiprone is a chelator: when administered, iron binds with it, allowing the iron to be excreted from the body.
Questions about its efficacy were first raised in mid-1996. By February 1997, Olivieri and another researcher, Dr. Gary Brittenham (now of Columbia University), determined it was actually toxic to patients. The belief was it could cause liver and heart damage over time. However, legal problems ensued when Olivieri tried to notify patient-participants involved in the study. Apotex abruptly ended their agreement with her and the university and pulled all supplies of the drug from the HSC. They then threatened Olivieri with “all legal remedies” should she inform anyone, including participants, of her findings.
Olivieri had signed a confidentiality agreement that emboldened Apotex to make the threat. However, their legal position was untenable under Canadian law. Physicians in Dr. Olivieri’s position are legally bound to inform patients of the risks of clinical trials. In fact, ignoring their safety could have landed Olivieri in more serious legal difficulty and so she made her concerns known to those affected: patient-participants, the HSC and the University of Toronto, where she held an academic appointment. Commonsense and the law were clearly on her side.
So why did complications arise? Procedural protocols for joint corporate and university endeavours were weakly articulated; forays made by the corporate world into the academic one, up until that point, had been relatively uncharted and informal. In the case of Deferiprone testing, provisional protocols hadn’t been drafted because humanitarian conflicts had not been anticipated. Olivieri had in fact been an enthusiastic proponent of the drug until her testing changed her mind. Outside of this conflict, however, and in the academic world generally, a subtle disquiet was developing over this type of collaboration. Three academics who wrote in support of Olivieri suggested that political forces, south of the border, were key:
In the early 1970s several American foundations undertook a massive, sustained propaganda campaign to discredit the liberal social programs introduced in the 1960s and the political economy that gave rise to them…neo-conservative governments began reducing taxes (mainly for the wealthy) and in the USA especially, increasing military expenditures (mainly benefitting corporations). These actions helped drive up government deficits, which in turn led to cuts in government spending on public services, privatizing of state resources, weakening of government health and environmental regulatory agencies and deregulation in the private sector.
With declines in public funding, hospitals established in the 50s and 60s became increasingly difficult to support. In 1980 the Bayh-Doyle Act was passed by the American Congress and this allowed universities and hospitals to patent results of government-funded research, and “derive income from research.” Around that time, governments in both Canada and the USA began to offer financial incentives for university-industry partnerships. This meant “universities became more dependent on corporate donations for infrastructure, scholarships and even salaries for some prominent faculty.”
The authors of the report – Drs. Jon Thompson, Patricia A. Baird and Jocelyn Downie – rightfully note further troubling developments. The importation of business practices into health care gave birth to another industry: the promotion of treatments and drugs that resulted in the “human condition itself becom[ing] medicalized.” Their report was written in 2005 and I would argue that since then the medicalizing of the ordinary has fed into an ascendant paradigm of self-improvement, one which has crept into all corners of life. To use an analogy, the wish to become perfect has made it fashionable to make oneself, or one’s home or spouse, “over.” This has found its corollary in an entrepreneurial drive to reclaim and change the space inside existing market structures. This model can be seen in MOOC start-ups like Coursera and other businesses like Airbnb and TaskRabbit.
These are companies that specifically rely on existing structures to create parasitical business models. Like big pharma, which convinces us we need to change our biology, online educators like Coursera are also seeking to excavate from within. They propose using existing university brands and credentials – publicly and tax supported structures in other words — for their own business ends.
Airbnb is doing the same. Using hip terms like “the sharing economy” and “collaborative consumption,” they are also excavating the bed and breakfast business internally. They provide a platform where tenants can illegally re-rent space they don’t own and put their guests, neighbours and bank accounts at risk. Their marketing “logic” is that one is beating the system — the big hotel chains — by using them, but in fact they compete more directly with licensed B and B hosts, who are typically small business owners. TaskRabbit applies this same model to a disenfranchised labour force. For them, excavation means the cost of overhead, taxes and health insurance – what used to be the benefits of working for a company — are now passed down to piece-work labourers desperate for what the right euphemistically calls the “right to work.”
Nancy Olivieri’s experience with Apotex is informative in that it exposes monetary rewards used by pharamceutical companies to assert control over physicians. With MOOCs and educational technology, the rewards are different. Instead of opulent meals and free trips to pharma-sponsored conferences, academics are being wooed with more of the currency specific to academe: prestige in the form of fame and recognition. This movement towards a star-system of professors is obvious and deliberate. In her TED video, Daphne Koller extols the virtues of going up-market: “So we formed Coursera, whose goal is to take the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities and provide it to everyone around the world for free.” This brazen appeal to vanity has not been lost on critics: Susan Amussen of the University of California and Allyson Poska of the University of Mary Washington made the following observations after attending a panel on MOOCs. The panel was held at the Annual Meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies:
Now, it is true that the most “prominent” scholars tend to teach at the most “prominent” universities, but the skills of teaching are widely distributed – and the difficult job market of the last thirty years has ensured that there are outstanding scholars at many colleges and universities around the country. Indeed, those who teach students who arrive at college or university with less preparation have often spent more time honing their pedagogical skills in order to engage their students and address the challenges that their diverse backgrounds, socio-economic levels, and intellectual strengths present.
The divide-and-conquer message coming from commercial MOOC purveyors is clear: If you are asked to participate in one it’s because you are one of the winners, one of the best. It’s a clever strategy: a superlative need to excel is being used against the very people who embody excellence. Only the most narcissistic among us would miss that and miss that MOOCs aren’t good for the entirety of academe. These are blind spots the founders of Coursera, Udacity and edX are counting on.
The Olivieri case also brought to light the extent of the influence the corporate world had on medicine. In Canada, that crisis prompted those in the field to develop rules, laws and other strategies to maintain academic freedom. Gone are ghost-written journal articles and credit for experiments some professors may have only had a slight acquaintance with. The CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) commissioned a report by a task force of senior scientists from across Canada that looked into protecting their independence and freedom. As a result, they have helped clinical scientists to protect their rights in medical school and to organize effective faculty associations. They have also worked to strengthen the independence of regulatory agencies, many of which they believe had been captured by pharmaceutical companies and had come to see corporations, and not the public, as their clients. Lastly, they extended their focus internationally, with a view to preventing the abuse of those living in developing countries. The CAUT felt that with greater regulation in the developed world, pharmaceutical companies might take their experiments to places with minimal government oversight.
There is bit of dialogue from Shakespeare in Love that I’ve always liked. The character of Richard Burbage hands his theatre, The Curtain, over to Shakespeare and his Admiral’s Men when the Master of the Revels shuts down their theatre, The Rose. It’s a moment when the actors unite against the tyranny of the time in a show of courage and solidarity:
The Master of the
Revels despises us for vagrants,
tinkers, and peddlers of bombast. But
my father, James Burbage, had the
first licence to make a company of
players from Her Majesty, and he drew
from poets the literature of the age.
Their fame will be our fame. So let
them all know, we are men of parts.
Inside Higher Education reported last week that a group of professors at Harvard had joined forces and asked to have a committee formed to create “a set of ethical and educational principles” for edX. Their efforts went largely unheeded, with a spokesman from the university issuing a statement in response. The IHE article states that “while polite about the faculty letter [the spokesman] suggested that the administration does not intend to create the faculty committee the professors want.”
Perhaps we should take our cue from Nancy Olivieri, her supporters and the CAUT and insist that academic rights and freedoms be protected. Perhaps we could disrupt the disrupters by urging our institutions to stop paying huge licensing fees to companies like Microsoft, particularly when its founder, Bill Gates, seems determined to remake education in his own image, to turn the university experience into one long training session. Perhaps we can explain to companies like Microsoft, Apple and Adobe that by using their software we are creating future customers for them and so charging us a lot of money to do so doesn’t make sense: we should be getting their products for free. And if they don’t agree, perhaps we should consider moving entirely to open source software that won’t cost our institutions anything. If a free and effective software doesn’t exist, we can make space in our institutions to create it. After all, creating spaces for things to grow is something we in higher ed are good at.
Commercial versions of MOOCs are a threat because companies like Coursera, Udacity and edX are parasitical and are moving quickly to install themselves in our institutions. The response from the administration at Harvard, in light of that, is disappointing. At the very least, slowing the process of incorporating MOOCs will give us all a chance to carefully weigh the pros and cons of having them or of developing them into versions that make the best and not the worst use of our human resources. It’s too bad Harvard lost an opportunity to show leadership in that regard.
Even after she was vindicated, the controversy over Nancy Olivieri’s stand against Apotex raged on. As late as 2005 a book detailing the affair, The Drug Trial, vilified her and her role in the controversy. As critics were quick to point out, however, the book’s launch coincided with Novartis’ launch of a drug very similar to Deferiprone.
So what is important here? Taking Olivieri’s battle as an example, we are left with two choices when it comes to corporate interference. We can give up or we can follow her lead: her words about big pharma, in many respects, apply to us too.
How can this sorry situation be repaired? [H]ow can we put in place safeguards so this does not happen again? First universities must recognize that drug companies need them and the patients at the clinical institutions much more than the other way around. University administration must level the playing field [and] this present moment is the time to bring in regulations with bite. Drug companies must be told the simple facts of life…they, too, have to follow the rules.
We can also look to Marshall McLuhen for answers: If the medium is the message, then the package, when it comes to MOOCs, is imperfect. Perhaps it’s time for us to help our institutions find better ways to save money.
If you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously.