Credentialism and its discontents

McMillan Cottom, T. (2017). Lower ed: The troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy. New York, NY: The New Press.

The Lower Ed project

In Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom explains how the recent boom and bust of for-profit higher education has been a direct result of economic dislocation. Public policy has responded to economic anxieties with one clear message: the primary and often only solution to your potential unemployment is to borrow money to go to college. For millions since 2000, that has meant enrollment in for-profit colleges and universities, and Lower Ed has a unique, persuasive portrait of the phenomenon.

As a sociologist, McMillan Cottom approaches for-profit higher education with broader questions: why would Americans take on thousands of dollars of loans to attend programs that others see primarily as disreputable and debt-inducing?

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Boundaries and presence

This morning, Inside Higher Ed reported on the resignation of Terrell Strayhorn from his faculty position at Ohio State University, after he was dismissed from a center director position. Strayhorn is well-known in higher-ed research,1 and his administrative dismissal and then faculty resignation is a startling end to what had been a rocketlike career trajectory.

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  1. i.e., the research community that focuses on higher education []

Bill Sanders, evangelizing expert

About a month ago, Kevin Carey wrote a eulogy for the late Bill Sanders in a New York Times’ Upshot column. Sanders was a statistician at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, someone who among other things had contributed to a mixed linear model procedure in the SAS statistical system1. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he worked to persuade the state of Tennessee that they could use a statistical approach to measuring teacher effectiveness, one flavor of what we now know as value-added modeling.

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  1. PROC MIXED []

Erwin V. Johanningmeier

I was sorry to hear earlier this spring that my former colleague Erv Johanningmeier had died. As the chair of a search committee in 1996, he was responsible for Barbara Shircliffe, Chris Ogren, and my coming to the University of South Florida.1 In my job interview I found a gruff, intellectually curious future colleague who took me out for dinner with a colleague and was pleased that I could share a bottle of wine and still keep talking coherently about the history of education. I suspect that (and the reference by Michael Katz) was most of the reason why I was hired.

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  1. In a span of about five years, he directly or indirectly was responsible for the hiring of six historians of education at USF. []

Adulting from nowhere

For some years, I have been somewhat irritated by the rhetoric of some in education that posits that there are adult interests and children’s interests, and that opponents of their preferred policies (whatever they are) are somehow privileging adult over children’s interests. It’s a slick rhetorical move that’s about as close to ad hominem as you can get without crashing over the line explicitly, but I’ve struggled with explaining to others why I find it unproductive. So, the various not-very-satisfactory explanations:

  • There is a long record of privileged (generally white) education and social reformers who claim to speak on behalf of poor and otherwise disadvantaged children, and the policies and practices they pushed often worked directly against the interests of those children’s communities or parents. In many cities in the late 19th century, for example, the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Children was often termed just The Cruelty by working-class parents for their arbitrary and capricious power to remove children from households. I know that when John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy” (in School and Society), he was speaking as a good Progressive… and from a position of privilege, assuming that there was a very specific “best and wisest parent” who could dictate children’s interests. So call me skeptical based on the history.
  • We are always talking about adult values when we debate things like education reform. Even if we think we are a proxy for children’s welfare, they are our adult values about what childhood should be and the type of society we are preparing children for. Calling some of our positions privileged because they assert children’s interests obscures the fundamental adult nature of the conversation.
  • Schools are about the least adult-friendly white-collar work environments you could imagine. As I wrote almost a decade ago, where else can adults be vulnerable to being hit by children, be told when they can go to the bathroom, and be told that their own intellectual development does not serve the organization’s interests? Colleges are better unless you’re talking about contingent faculty and then, not so much, and they’re the majority of those teaching undergraduates.
  • Speakers using adult vs. child/student interest language often have their own material interests, which are neatly erased in the rhetoric. This inconsistency is obvious to those who are the targets of the rhetoric. That’s more than a wee barrier to conversation about the specific issues.

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