Thursday, January 18, 2024

Interesting Happenings in the Ivy League

When I was unconscionably young, I was named headmaster of a small school for gifted children. The school was founded by an order of Hungarian priests, who'd gotten out just as Sputnik was launching a national defense motivated push for better education of intellectual elites. Scientists mostly. The school thrived for a while, as American hegemony continued to grow.

The school had been running lazily on the inadequately thought-out presumption that IQ testing was valid, and that such testing could cut through social prejudice against racial, gender, and religious demarcations. Fair enough, as far as it went.

There was also, at the same time, the fair observation that the tester, who was the founder of the school, would tip the scale according to his personal preferences, and even the need of the school for money. That tended to undermine credibility among our private school compatriots. 

I, personally, had a kind of ingrown skepticism about both intelligence testing and, especially, about the testing industry which was then in command of university and college admissions. I didn't think it was healthy for children to think of themselves according to some stigmatizing scale. I was reasonably well-read on the topic, and handed to myself the effort to reform our own admissions policies and procedures. Wasn't there something, after all, which distinguished students appropriate to our school which was not quite measurable by psychometric testing? Aren't there many types of intelligence, even when restricted to academic settings? History seems to prove that so.

Along with my maneuvers to become less alienated from the private school community in Buffalo and in New York state, we developed a more rounded admissions process based on committee review of both affinity for our rigorous curriculum, indications of chafing in the available public schools, and, of course, reserving psychometric testing as a check on our own observations, though using an outside certified tester. 

Alas, I had no real chance to see the changes flourish, since the school was in too much accumulated financial trouble. And, also unconscionably, I arrogated to myself two summer trips during critical moments in the school's evolution. That was pure selfishness, possibly combined with exhaustion and a need to get away.

The first was a previously planned trip to China, organized while I was still a teacher of Chinese. Oh how I did enjoy printing out a pile of name cards in Beijing, using my title as headmaster. In China, this title was incomprehensible when considering my youth. Vanity vanity.

The next summer I accepted an invitation to Buffalo's sister city in Russia, as the delegate of hizzoner the mayor, Jimmy Six-Pack, who I later sued on constitutional grounds for the right to use a public park to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre. That was also facilitated by political friends of the school and of free speech, and the fact that I had offered the school as dressing rooms for the nearby Shakespeare in Delaware Park season whose traditional dressing space had been removed by repurposing. I had friends in the right places, and got electricity access for the commemoration with the police and Shakespeare on my side. The police weren't so fond of the anti-union mayor themselves.

It was my goal to make the school both more relevant and more visible to the community. The very public lawsuit caused the event to be extremely well-attended, and the school's name to become better known. But, in addition to a recent history of flubbed management was the evident fact that gifted education had become vaguely incorrect, politically. 

Of course, all children are gifted. But not all in the same way. The kids we taught were disabled by disposition from taking instruction from disrespectful or authoritarian teachers whose own understanding of whatever field they taught seemed less than reliable. Our teachers were required to discuss a challenging written article each week alongside Upper School students, where the field for discussion was levelled outside what each teacher taught. This was our weekly "colloquium."

I did also endure, on my way toward approximate adulthood as a young headmaster, the required transition of the Ivy Leagues from wealth as the criterion for the chance at enlightened leadership, to the far more vague criterion of "merit." 

Now finally, after dumping some ways for using SAT-type testing as a heavyweight in admissions, in part because of complications of access to testing during Covid, there may be some change afoot. Covid may also have been a convenient excuse to dump the inherently anti-diversity results of such testing,  

Once test-prep companies successfully sued the College Board, which had kept a veil of proprietary secrecy over their tests, upon the claim that their "objectivity" would be compromised by test-prep regimes, the whole regime of testing itself became yet another proxy for wealth. I mean WTF (Who, not What) can afford to prep their gifted kids for admission to the Ivies, whose criteria ought properly to be a plain lottery, once basic competency for the curriculum has been established. God knows that the current de-facto lottery destroys character and self-confidence among would-be students.

I learn from the New York Times that at least a few professors at Yale would like to see Yale "return" to its proper mission to develop new knowledge. Imagine that! All universities declare that their mission, in one way or another, and yet students attend them mostly to get ahead. I'm guessing the profs are plain sick of that, and want to teach real students.

For a place like Yale, it must be a hard stretch to go from wealth as the qualification for elite learning through merit (a purely mystical concept, relating only to our peculiar and particular economic arrangements) to something more like affinity for an academic, intellectual, scientific, philosophical, musical, artistic life.

OK so sure, the ivies have the great professors because they can afford them. But those profs also come for good students and colleagues. Many of the rest of the universities have to be some variant on what my professor of comparative education used to call, and probably still does, the "service university." Meaning, really and broadly, that the knowledge has to be applicable to the economy and/or to the powers that be. 

I do remember my dismay - I was in graduate school - when Yale announced that it would open a school of management. Would this newly reinvigorated old mission of knowledge creation entail the dismantling of the business school? What about Engineering, where I got my start? Forestry? Law?

I'd say, not necessarily. Even a business school could be engaged in something like an historical comparative study of business. Heck, Yale still doesn't have a school of education, which it seems to regard as vaguely beneath them. This while almost all other schools of education have dropped Comparative Education (which has no practical application to getting ahead in the field of education, unless as a professor at a university which still offers a course or two). 

Anyhow, turning the ivies and their ilk into more genuine universities would put to good use their fine endowments. Who knows, maybe even the post-industrial titans of digital whatever would see fit to further the endowments for the sake of humanity. Hey, it could happen!

I'm guessing that this actually will happen, along the way of our back-to-the-future dismantling of so much of what had barely gotten started. We never did get very far with our experiment in democracy. As the Trumpers know, we've taken away the dignity of working life, replacing it with get-rich quick soulless digi-life. So many of the unskilled jobs are so regimented that the worker has become the robot even beyond Charlie Chaplin's parodies. 

There is true intelligence to be cultivated in the devolution of ownership back to the local and away from the hedgemonsters. There are better things to do with a life than shill yourself as an influencer. Not everyone needs a university to lead a meaningful and exciting life. I thank goodness on a daily basis for all those talented and experienced Trumper tradespeople and contractors who keep my life going. Sad to say that they are harder and harder to find, though that also means that their pay is getting better and better. Things will change.

Back to reading Hanna Arendt, for goodness sake. It is her wisdom to point out that capitalism and Marxism are united in the denigration of man as social and political actor. Marx confuses labor with politics and opens the way for Stalin (and Mussolini and Hitler) to use man as raw material, just as capitalists do. Robbed of labor, we have never been liberated for [creative and individuating] work.

Trumpers, but hardly Trump, know that something is wrong and they want the dignity of labor back, so that they can get to actual work. All of us should celebrate that. In this regard, Clinton(s), for instance, are as misguided as Trump is. Both live in a world where it's the economy, stupid, and where winners are celebrated beyond the democratic reach. The dynamic duo of Marxism and capitalism both exploit labor to end history, by ending work, and denying politics as collective action. 

As I have said time and time again, technology is mostly a pump for money, away from workers and to the top. No self-respecting university should be a party to this. Technology should be a tool to get work done. The result of work might be entertainment, but technology is replacing people in that work. Art has become posture, and the tech is internalized as robotic behaviors. Blech.

I'd say it's no wonder that Arendt doesn't get credit as a political theorist. I suspect it's because, first, she's a free thinking woman, and second and most because she disrupts the false dichotomy of capitalism vs. Marxism. Each of them is the mirror of the other in the reduction of man to labor without margin. When labor is all that you do, man becomes the raw material for the work of tyrants who use man as their raw material; their palette. 

As mom used to say before she reformed my father, 'I'm nothing but a slave.' Arendt points out that labor derives from the organic and collective need to survive. More individualistic work is the cream on top of being human. And language introduces the possibility for collective, which means political, action. Our neoliberal rules-based order encodes a work-free life, where politics is reduced to whatever keeps the growth economy humming. 

Trump embodies the inchoate complaints of living humans who don't wish to be cogs in that machine. We should listen to him and how he speaks, not because he knows an f-ing thing - he doesn't - but because he is a channel into a collective angst which is important. You don't have to know all the details to know you're being screwed. All the fast talk of the digi-titans boils down to anti-humanism against the whole.

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