On the Frontier of the Dismal Swamp

When we think of corruption, we usually think of someone like former Governor Ed Edwards of Louisiana, who was once being interviewed on 60 Minutes by Mike Wallace:

WALLACE: They say you can be bought for $100,000.

EDWARDS: That’s an outrage! It would take at least half a million.

In the world of education such people can also be found, but their corruption, though bad, is not the most worrisome to me—not yet, anyway. More troubling is the intellectual corruption one finds in the tendency to tolerate or even encourage a vitiation of what we expect a course of study to do, and then to use that degraded expectation as a new standard. In fact, this kind of intellectual corruption, not the greased-palm kind, is what Donald Campbell was originally referring to in the paper in which he pronounced Campbell’s Law. In that 1975 paper, a school district came in for sharp criticism because it permitted a profit-making company to turn part of its education into a course of test preparation. The extent of subsequent corruption can be gauged by recognizing that what seemed egregious in 1975 is becoming normative now, and that the schools of whole districts, whole states, are becoming test-preparation factories producing pink slime education.

It is no accident that this “education” tends to be the kind that can be administered and graded by machine, rather than the kind typified by I.I. Rabi and his chalk talks in Pupin Hall. At the level of high school it turns into the kind of education deplored in a recent “open letter” from an uncorrupted (and retired) teacher to colleges and universities. Often deplored, but not always rejected: Georgia Tech will soon offer an entire master’s degree on line through MOOCs.

The article reporting Georgia Tech’s new degree shows a third kind of corruption. I mean a corruption of reportorial perspective whereby the plan is headlined as a “New Frontier”—a most loaded metaphor—followed by the claim that it “could signal a change to the landscape of higher education,” whose breathlessness is qualified by the weasel-word “could.” Strangely qualified: the next sentence celebrates the power of MOOCs to tap into unsuspected reserves of Mongolian scholarship, as revealed by a perfect multiple-choice test score in Ulan Bataar–or was it the Gobi Desert?

The article admits—in the fourteenth paragraph—that in San Jose if not in Mongolia, and in three on-line classes rather than a unique case, on-line “learning” is in trouble. The admission is expressed thus: the classes are “now paused because of underwhelming student performance.” Paused? Underwhelming? Why did the reporter not say, “The classes have been suspended because the students in them were doing poorly”?

My guess is that CSUSJ, which had been trying to develop a hybrid course comprising some on-line instruction and some classroom instruction, had pushed too far in the on-line direction, curtailed the live instruction, and discovered that its students foundered—a result that could have been predicted. A more straightforward, less tendentious report would include such information if it was available, but if the angle is “new frontiers” instead of “what really works?” that will not happen.

New frontiers!  Spare me the corruption of the purpose of language and reporting, as well as the other kinds.

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