Category Archives: Education

Should Colleges Teach Religion?

Marshall Poe makes an interesting argument for colleges to use religion to teach their students how to live:

Upon reflection, it occurred to me that all religions, if seriously practiced, do precisely what this “religion” had done for me: They teach you how to live. It is true, of course, that clerics often tell their flocks to believe things that are frankly unbelievable. And some even tell the faithful that if they don’t believe these incredible things they will suffer some harsh penalty, like going to hell. But most clerics of my acquaintance are not very interested in fire and brimstone. Rather, they are interested in making sure those in their care are spiritually fit. The way they do this—and, so far as I know, always have—is to give people a higher purpose and a set of guidelines necessary to pursue that purpose. They bring order to the thoughts and actions of people whose thoughts and actions are naturally disordered. They give people a way of life.

It was in this way that I became convinced that college classes in religious practice might help suffering undergraduates learn to live successfully. The classes would at the very least introduce undergraduates to the idea that there were practical ways to alleviate their suffering. They would plant the seed. Even if the students chose not to follow the practice they had learned, their recollection of it would remain in store for the day they would need it. The day would inevitably come and when it did, they would have someplace to turn for help.

This promise—that teaching religious practice might help students now and in the future—is, I think, reason enough try it. Before it can be tried, however, we have to address several objections to putting religious practice into the curriculum…

American higher education has, however, one glaring deficiency: it does not teach its undergraduates how to live. It teaches them when the French Revolution was, what the carbon cycle is, and how to solve for X. It does not teach them what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared. When they break down after a break-up. When they are so depressed they cannot get out of bed. When they drink themselves into unconsciousness every night. When find themselves living on someone’s couch. When they decide to go off their meds. When they flunk a class or even flunk out of school. When they get fired. When a sibling dies. When they don’t make the team. When they get pregnant. When their divorced parents just won’t stop fighting. When they are too sick to get to the hospital. When they lose their scholarship. When they’ve been arrested for vandalism. When they hate themselves so much that they begin self-mutilating. When they’re thinking about suicide. When they force themselves to throw up after every meal. When they turn to drugs for relief from their pain. When they’ve been assaulted or raped. When their mind is racing and cannot stop. When they wonder about the meaning of it all. When they are terrified by the question “What do I do next?”


I love college basketball and really like pretty much all college sports. It's fun watching these kids compete and, especially with the "big" sports like basketball and football, it's great seeing the excitement the teams produce for the students, alumni and the rest of the school's community. All that said the current state of college sports is absurd and hopefully something is soon to be done about it. First let's highlight the absurdity of the NCAA:

Exhibit 1: Walk-ons, aka non-scholarship players, are allowed to participate in team meals but they have to pay for them. "Walk-ons, by NCAA rules, are free to eat team dinners, but they have to pay. It comes out to roughly $15 per meal, which Auslander figured wasn’t fruitful, because that could buy two meals at Chipotle."

Exhibit 2: Everyone but the players is making an absurb amount of money. Sure the kids get a "free" education, but is that really a fair trade when you consider what everyone else is getting out of the deal? Hell, the men's basketball tournament alone brings has a 14 year, $10.8 billion TV deal attached to it. How is it then that a walk on, who isn't even getting a free education, has to pay for his own team dinner?

The absurdity that is the NCAA is obvious, and has been for years, but until now there hasn't been a whole lot done about it. Thanks to a potential class-action lawsuit that might soon change:

Sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler has filed suit against the NCAA and five power conferences, alleging that capping player compensation at the cost of a scholarship is an antitrust violation. Unlike previous suits, this one does not seek damages. It wants to tear down the NCAA. "We're looking to change the system," Kessler said. "That's the main goal."

The suit names as defendants the NCAA, the ACC, the Big 12, the Big Ten, The Pac-12, and the SEC. The plaintiffs are Rutgers forward J.J. Moore, Clemson DB Martin Jenkins, UTEP TE Kevin Perry, and Cal tight end William Tyndall, though as a class action claim, it hopes to represent all FBS football players and D-I basketball players.

Don't get me wrong, I would love to see college sports stick around, but not in their current form. Hopefully the reform that is most definitely coming will change the system for the better and we'll end up with a something that is fair to all concerned, especially the players, and can be a continuing source of pride for the schools they represent.


Owning Up

The University of North Carolina is a proud institution, but how its administration has handled the "Fake Classes Scandal" has brought shame on the institution. If nothing else they've provided a case study in how not to do governance and public relations. From the article about the treatment of Mary Willingham, the tutor who blew the whistle on this thing:

In January, CNN broadcast a national investigation entitled “Some College Athletes Play Like Adults, Read Like 5th-Graders.” Among its findings, CNN featured Willingham and her 183-athlete study. In the glare of the media spotlight, she got carried away, saying at one point: “I mean, we may as well just go over to Glenwood Elementary up the street and just let all the fourth graders in here.” Stephen Colbert amplified the furor when he satirized athlete education in a segment on his Comedy Central show. After playing a clip of Willingham’s quip about admitting fourth graders, the comedian asked: “Why? How fast can they run the 40? Can they really take a hit?”

Many in Chapel Hill took offense. Tar Heel basketball coach Roy Williams suggested at a press conference that Willingham had impugned the moral character of his players. “Every one of the kids that we’ve recruited in 10 years you’d take home and let guard your grandchildren,” he said. Smith, the French history scholar, observes that “getting criticized by the basketball coach in Chapel Hill is a scary thing.” The wave of hostile e-mail Willingham has received included several death threats.

In this volatile atmosphere, Folt convened her faculty on Jan. 17 to hear what amounted to an indictment of Willingham led by Dean. The defendant was tried in absentia for defaming the university. Pointing to slides projected on a large screen, Dean, a scholar of organizational behavior, accused Willingham of making slanderous statements about the academic abilities of Carolina football and basketball players. Her assessments “are virtually meaningless and grossly unfair to our students and the university that admitted them,” he said. “Using this data set to say that our students can’t read is a travesty and unworthy of this university.” The verdict, recorded on videotape, was swift: The assembled scholars erupted in applause.

“In 25 years of faculty meetings, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Smith said later. “It was a public conviction and an intellectual execution.”

At Dean’s order, Willingham turned over her data on the 183 athletes to him. He declared that the diagnostic test she used, the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults (SATA), assesses vocabulary and isn’t recommended for judging literacy levels. She further muddled her results, he added, by miscalculating grade-equivalent levels.

After Dean’s presentation elicited applause, Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor, got to his feet. He mused aloud about the university’s focusing on Willingham as a form of coverup. “President Nixon went down for denial,” he told his colleagues. In an interview later, he elaborated: “What I heard was stonewalling,” he said. “The university is trying to distract us by going after Mary Willingham when there are much bigger issues here about sports and academics, and they’re not unique to North Carolina.”

There's much more in the article you should read for the proper context, and towards the end of it there is mention that it does appear the university administration is finally taking appropriate steps to address the situation, but this account seems to make it clear that the University's powers-that-be finally woke up and decided that shooting the messenger wasn't the best idea. Of course they'd still like to see the messenger dead on the field, but that's just the cost of doing battle in the intercollegiate athletics war isn't it?

Why Teach

After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature Albert Camus wrote the following letter to his teacher, a letter that I think any teacher would find as validation for their day-to-day struggles.

19 November 1957

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

I don't make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus 

Yet another reason to love Letters of Note. You should definitely visit the site to get the backstory on the letter.

Poorly Educated Poor White Women Dying Young

From a story in The American Prospect:

Everything about Crystal’s life was ordinary, except for her death. She is one of a demographic—white women who don’t graduate from high school—whose life expectancy has declined dramatically over the past 18 years. These women can now expect to die five years earlier than the generation before them. It is an unheard-of drop for a wealthy country in the age of modern medicine. Throughout history, technological and scientific innovation have put death off longer and longer, but the benefits of those advances have not been shared equally, especially across the race and class divides that characterize 21st–century America. Lack of access to education, medical care, good wages, and healthy food isn’t just leaving the worst-off Americans behind. It’s killing them.

The journal Health Affairs reported the five-year drop in August. The article’s lead author, Jay Olshansky, who studies human longevity at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a team of researchers looked at death rates for different groups from 1990 to 2008. White men without high-school diplomas had lost three years of life expectancy, but it was the decline for women like Crystal that made the study news. Previous studies had shown that the least-educated whites began dying younger in the 2000s, but only by about a year. Olshansky and his colleagues did something the other studies hadn’t: They isolated high-school dropouts and measured their outcomes instead of lumping them in with high-school graduates who did not go to college.

The last time researchers found a change of this magnitude, Russian men had lost seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they began drinking more and taking on other risky behaviors. Although women generally outlive men in the U.S., such a large decline in the average age of death, from almost 79 to a little more than 73, suggests that an increasing number of women are dying in their twenties, thirties, and forties. “We actually don’t know the exact reasons why it’s happened,” Olshansky says. “I wish we did.”…

Researchers have long known that high-school dropouts like Crystal are unlikely to live as long as people who have gone to college. But why would they be slipping behind the generation before them? James Jackson, a public-health researcher at the University of Michigan, believes it’s because life became more difficult for the least-educated in the 1990s and 2000s. Broad-scale shifts in society increasingly isolate those who don’t finish high school from good jobs, marriageable partners, and healthier communities. “Hope is lowered. If you drop out of school, say, in the last 20 years or so, you just had less hope for ever making it and being anything,” Jackson says. “The opportunities available to you are very different than what they were 20 or 30 years ago. What kind of job are you going to get if you drop out at 16? No job.”

If you were to poll folks here in the Piedmont of North Carolina you would find a lot of people who agree with this premise. We're in the midst of a tectonic shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based economy and there are a lot of people who once made a good living with their high school (or less) education who are now struggling to keep their heads above water. Scary, scary stuff.


Library of the Future? 3D Printing, Books on Demand, Oh My!

The Washington Post has an article about DC's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library that shows a glimpse of many public libraries' future:

…D.C. Public Library system, which today is opening theDigital Commons at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The new facility, in a renovated 11,000-square foot section of the library's ground floor, contains a 3-D printer, an Espresso Book Machine that churns out tomes on-demand, an array of tablet devices, rows of computer terminals, and several meeting spaces outfitted with some of the newest productivity technology…

Next to the 3-D printer is a countertop full of tablet computers and ebook readers, devices on which DCPL finds an increasing percentage of its membership. Every major brand is represented—Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Microsoft—in what Cooper bills as something of a test counter. More and more, library members are loaning volumes on their devices rather using software like Overdrive for books or Zinio for periodicals. (Cooper says over 5,000 library members are using Zinio for public magazine subscriptions; the most popular title is The Economist.)…

Then there is the Espresso Book Machine. Printing books or magazines is not an inexpensive venture, but for the hopeful self-publisher, or someone desperate to obtain a tactile version of an out-of-print volume (sorry,Dream City won't enter the public domain for many more decades), this small press is an affordable solution. Cooper envisions school classes printing books of essays, people compiling family recipe books, or just aspiring authors yearning to see themselves in print…

The Digital Commons' other major component is what DCPL calls the "Dream Lab." About one-third of the space is carved up into meeting spaces and cubicles outfitted with various devices for collaborative work. Cooper is expecting to attract a long list of startup companies and community organizations that might not have permanent offices of their own, but still need resources like wireless Internet access, DVD players, visual projectors, and Smart Boards, interactive whiteboards that feature speakers, projectors, and, niftiest of all, styluses that leave trails of digital ink the way one would use a dry-erase marker on an analog board.

It's this kind of service that will help libraries continue to fulfill their vital role in the community. We may not see this level of service in our smaller branches any time soon, but I could definitely see something like this at the central libraries of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point.


Today’s Essential Skills

The three Rs – reading, (w)riting, (a)rithmetic – will always be important but what else should our kids be taught to prepare them for the modern American working world? Sasha Dichter has a list of what he thinks are essential skills for today's working world:

Basically, the list boils down to:

  • Coding
  • Design
  • Writing good copy
  • Coming up with ideas
  • Selling stuff
  • Managing projects
  • Hustle

Not a bad list, though, sadly, it compares terribly to what we’re teaching in our schools (including business schools).

Those Bright Lonely People

An interesting observation about really smart people:

One downfall of being particularly bright is that you are often lonely.  You see and think of stuff that most other people don’t see or understand, so it can be hard to feel a genuine connection with most others.  What is really exciting to you goes right over the heads of most others.  As you get older this gets to be easier to solve by finding your flock, but I think loneliness in the formative years always sticks to you.  

Another downfall is that exceptionally bright people have a high drop-out rate from school, particularly high school. It seems counterintuitive until you spend a day in our public school system.  Bright kids see school as not providing any useful information and find it creates a lot of boring busy work.  On that note, a really great topic for you to explore is the economic impact of the teacher’s union’s stronghold on the American public education system. 

As the parent of children much brighter than myself I'm inclined to agree that it's often hard to understand them, but luckily I haven't seen them exhibit much loneliness. As for the teacher's union, that would be a question worth exploring.

The Higher Education Gravy Train

If you're the parent of a child currently attending a state university the opening paragraph to this story in The Atlantic will get your blood boiling:

Neat fact: If the federal government were to take all of the money it pours into various forms of financial aid each year, it could go ahead and make tuition free, or close to it, for every student at every public college in the country. 

The rest of the article will move you from boiling blood to sever heartburn:

…see the demoralizing report released this week by Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation on the state of financial aid in higher ed. It documents the obscene prices some of the poorest undergraduates are asked to pay at hundreds of educational institutions across the country, even as these same schools lavish discounts on the children of wealthier families in order to lure them onto campus…

Sometimes, colleges (and states) really are just competing to outbid each other on star students. But there are also economic incentives at play, particularly for small, endowment-poor institutions. "After all," Burd writes, "it's more profitable for schools to provide four scholarships of $5,000 each to induce affluent students who will be able to pay the balance than it is to provide a single $20,000 grant to one low-income student." The study notes that, according to the Department of Education's most recent study, 19 percent of undergrads at four-year colleges received merit aid despite scoring under 700 on the SAT. Their only merit, in some cases, might well have been mom and dad's bank account.

That's the kind of math and logic even a lowly English major from a state university can comprehend.