The All Too Visible Hand of the Market

The technological transformation of education has wide-ranging political implications. Blended learning may not eliminate the need for classroom instructors, but it will reduce the numbers required. Over time, the reduction will significantly reduce the amount of dues raised by teachers unions—and therefore the influence of one of the most liberal constituencies within the Democrat Party. It will also reduce the manpower available at election time to canvass neighborhoods, cover phone banks and drive people to the voting booth in support of left-leaning candidates.

The Hidden Revolution in Online Learning,” Lewis M. Andrews

We talk about the economy as if it were a force of nature, without any intention or direction or purpose. Jobs are “outsourced” or moved overseas and so on. In fact, the industries most impacted by these processes are by no coincidence the same industries– steel, automobiles particularly– that were most unionized. The Reagan revolution fought unions at the root: it dismantled entire industries sending everything to places where labor is cheaper.

This had horrific effects ranging from driving down wages and productivity and quality of life in the U.S. to weakening national security to the growing deficit. That was simply the price to be paid for increasing profits; capital has no morality or ethics. You can see the same sort of dynamic in the current debate over austerity: if it has any impact on the wealth of their masters the Republican right is willing to risk everything. Power is all.

The last bastion of the unionized economy is the public sector, especially the schools, which have long been under attack by the charter movement. Here, too, if the entire sector has to be dismantled to maximize profits and destroy unions, so be it. The crude economic motivations of these folks are rarely discussed as openly as Mr. Andrews does in this piece. Here we see the outlines of how online education will serve the right’s cause.

Arguably, the process is well under way in higher education, on both ideological and more practical fronts. The right is perhaps best served by a kind of ideological naiveté which believes that the liberatory potentials of online education outweigh its political import. The dismantling of higher education is well underway, too, with about 70% of the faculty now part-time adjuncts. As Andrews hints, the industry is ripe for the picking.


As income and wealth become ever more concentrated in America, the nation’s billionaire political investors will invest even more.

A record $6 billion was spent on the 2012 campaign, and outside groups poured $1.3 billion into political races, according to data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s why Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission has to be reversed – either by a Supreme Court that becomes aware of the poison it’s unleashed into our democracy, or by constitutional amendment.

It’s also why we need full disclosure of who contributes what to whom.

And public financing that matches public money to contributions from small donors.

Most fundamentally, it’s why America’s widening inequality must be reversed.

Why Billionaire Political Investors Will Keep Pouring Money Into Politics — Until They’re Stopped,” Robert Reich

Last night, with the help of more of these billionaires (in this case, the Koch brothers) Michigan’s legislature passed a right to work law, almost in full secrecy, and the governor signed it within hours, as if there was some danger that the ink would fade before he got his pen on it. The sneakiness is the point; these folks are afraid of their own constituencies. As always with the right, if the problem is democracy, dump the democratic process.

Or, perhaps, they are afraid of people more powerful than their citizens: those billionaires again. The right has been working on this for decades now, starting with the election of Reagan and the destruction of PATCO. The billionaires seed the state legislatures with right-wing legislation, written through ALEC, and they push astroturf Tea Party candidates to make sure they have the votes to get their laws passed. It’s a nearly ideal system.

We managed to stop one of them from becoming president, but that single presidential election, and even the gains in the Senate, or even in the Michigan legislature, can’t overcome the billionaires’ political machine, which rolls on, seemingly unaffected. As Riech says, they won’t stop until something makes them stop. He puts his faith in the Supreme Court, or a constitutional amendment. I think the only real hope lies in well-organized people.

How to Write for our Robot Masters

I just read a piece in the New York Times called “Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously.” According to a recent study, automated software can grades essays with “virtually identical levels of accuracy,” as human graders but at a rate of 16,000 essays in 20 seconds. It sounds scary, and you can imagine the evil administrative imagination dreaming of a college system run by a handful of professors and a legion of robots. Robots don’t want health care and won’t demand freedom of speech protections.

This is also good news to Conservatives who suspect that English professors are not doing anything very difficult. Only it’s not, really, unless you are really cynical about how far we might go in denaturing education. The robots, it turns out, are a little limited right now. Les Perelman (from MIT) sums up the robot’s problems: “[T]he automated reader can be easily gamed, is vulnerable to test prep, sets a very limited and rigid standard for what good writing is, and will pressure teachers to dumb down writing instruction.” That sounds familiar.

None of these things would necessarily be a problem for our hypothetical evil administrator dreaming of electric sheep; in fact, the automated grader seems to be ideally suited for our commercial age. It also sounds like a Republican: “The e-Rater’s biggest problem, [Perelman] says, is that it can’t identify truth. He tells students not to waste time worrying about whether their facts are accurate, since pretty much any fact will do as long as it is incorporated into a well-structured sentence. ” Maybe well-structured sentence is pushing it.

The software is vulnerable to strategies that A students have long used to seduce their harried teachers. It prefers long over short words, sentences, paragraphs,and essays, for example, if for no other reason than counting is one of its strong suits.  It asks that writers stick to the college essay clichés. There can be no sentences that begin with “or” or “and” and no sentence fragments. It’s an awful tool but (call me cynical) I predict that, given our really awful political climate, it’ll be openly used to replace English teachers in 5 years.

That Sort of World

In reality, instructors off the tenure track account for more than four-fifths of the faculties of two-year public colleges, more than two-thirds of the faculties at private four-year colleges, and more than half of the faculties at public four-year colleges.

Accreditation Is Eyed as a Means to Aid Adjuncts,” Peter Schmidt

This ought to be a shocking statistic for anyone who works for a living. Academia used to be the cutting edge of employment standards in many ways; it didn’t always pay well to be a teacher but you did have some job security and benefits.  One problem is that the language is so obtuse; “off the tenure track,” means, by and large, part-time workers who can be fired at will. Imagine we could say this of doctors: “Part time and temporarily employed doctors and nurses now account for more than four-fifths of medical personal in clinics, and more that two-thirds in hospitals…”  Would anyone say that their lack of full-time salaries and job security has no impact on the quality of care?

It has to have an impact on the quality of care, just as it has an impact on the quality of teaching now. Teaching is self-selective.  In most cases, if you are want to be a teacher– even more than a doctor– it’s because you like helping people. That’s not to be sentimental about teaching; there are plenty of ego-maniacs and lots of greed in academia and I doubt there’s any more or less incompetence than in any other field. As the numbers show, though, teachers will pursue their  vocations even knowing that their work won’t be well compensated and even when conditions are bad. As a profession, teaching serves goals larger than the person. That’s what’s satisfying.

I think, then, that the real question is why we seem to have to resort to this argument about the quality of education when we ought to be able to simply talk about the quality of work.  We should be able to say that, in any profession, the majority of people ought to be employed full-time, have some say in their working lives, health care, and the tools they need to do the work they need to do. We believe these things because we want that sort of world. We don’t need to pursue silly, obvious arguments that suggest that people can, if pressed, do almost any sort of work well even when they have no health benefits, or job security, or say in their jobs. That should be our assumption.