History without vision: A struggle over art at the City Museum of New York

Mike Alewitz's "The City at the Crossroads of History" mural was commissioned for the City Museum of New York, which has declined to display it.

Mike Alewitz’s “The City at the Crossroads of History” mural was commissioned for the City Museum of New York, which has declined to display it. Photo credit: Mike Alewitz

Muralist and activist Mike Alewitz has finished his tribute to the labor and social justice movements, an imposing four-panel painting titled The City at the Crossroads of History–but the museum it was commissioned for doesn’t want it.

The Puffin Foundation, a grant maker that frequently supports politically left artists, engaged Alewitz to create the mural for a new gallery at the Museum of the City of New York. The gallery is now open with an inaugural exhibit about social activism without the mural, while the artist has launched a petition drive to try to have it displayed as originally planned. Continue reading

Never let a (humanities) crisis go to waste

Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Last August, fans of the Colbert Report saw Duke University President Richard Brodhead encourage study in the humanities as essential to a balanced education. The interview segment can be seen here. Brodhead’s appearance was part of a marketing campaign engineered by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) that was designed to advance support for the humanities in much the same way that the National Academy of Sciences had promoted Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) with its 2007 report Rising above the Gathering Storm. Brodhead’s appearance may have been unusual for taking the case for humanities education to such a popular audience, but it reflected the AAAS’s conviction that a national dialogue on the importance of the humanities was necessary to its future. Continue reading

Rethinking the refrigerator: The surprisingly sustainable past

old refrigeratorI teach a course in material culture studies, so I am in the habit of using historic artifacts to think about our changing relationship with the environment.  But nothing made this lesson clearer to me than a 1950s Hotpoint refrigerator.

When I acquired the refrigerator it was over 50 years old and looked it–there were dents, scratches, and rust decorating its exterior. Inside was a layer of grime, somehow impossible to remove. I had bought it in an act of desperation, having just purchased a foreclosed house without any appliances. The refrigerator was only $85 and came with a stove of the same vintage. I lived with those appliances for many years while my husband and I waited to rebuild the kitchen.

Over time, I came to love the old stove. It had built-in storage areas and well-designed gas burners. But my relationship with the refrigerator was much more strained. Continue reading

Questioning the “Tuning” project

The Connecticut Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (CCCPH) has followed the AHA’s announcement of the “Tuning” project to establish core competencies in history with great interest.  We believe this project will provide faculty with the time and resources to reflect on the essential skills of history and applaud the AHA’s attention to education.

However, as hopeful as we are about the project’s benefits, we also recognize that global capitalism and the current recession are restructuring higher education, especially in public institutions which face increased government scrutiny at the same moment that public funding is declining.  Given this volatile context, it is important to look beyond the immediate pedagogical goals and raise questions about possible consequences of the Tuning project, be they intentional or not.  In that spirit, we pose the following questions:

1)  What do we know about the Tuning project’s sponsor the Lumina Foundation for Education and its goals for higher education?  Tuning is not an AHA initiated program, but is instead an established process directed by the Lumina Foundation, an important player in the education field which spends tens of millions of dollars a year to influence higher education policy.  In the July 10, 2010 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Kelderman reports that Lumina works with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization dedicated to limited government, free markets, and federalism. Historians might know ALEC best from William Cronon’s blog post last year linking ALEC to legislation ending collective bargaining rights for public employees—this was the blog post that led to the Wisconsin State Republican Party’s request for Cronon’s e-mail under the open records law.  (Cronon’s “Study Guide” in that post remains a useful place to learn more about ALEC.)

We raise this connection between Lumina and ALEC not to discredit the Tuning process  out of hand, but to recognize that pedagogical initiatives like Tuning are not politically neutral and do not take place outside a political context.  The Lumina report Four Steps to Finishing First in Higher Education (PDF) is important for understanding the foundation’s larger goals.  This report outlines a policy agenda that includes tying state funding to degree completion rates, increasing the “efficiency” of education by employing new academic delivery models such as large online classes, and using tuition and financial aid incentives to discourage experimentation and limit student enrollment to classes necessary for graduation.

2)  What effect will Tuning have on educational equity and class disparities?  Lumina’s goal is to make the United States more competitive in the global capitalist market by increasing the number of Americans with degrees.  We understand that to do this they are focusing on the population that has started a degree, but has not finished.  Tuning’s role in this process is to determine core competencies which will, at least to some extent, standardize programs and make it easier for students to transfer between schools or to restart at a new school if they drop out.

The ethic here centers on degree production and sees education as an assortment of classes, undermining the idea of the traditional college experience with its extended relationships between professors and students, as well as its enriching campus life. Lumina’s work in degree attainment will likely focus on institutions with low six-year graduation rates, largely community colleges and second-tier state schools.  While Lumina’s policy changes would create a very different kind of college experience for students in those systems, traditional degrees will most certainly remain for those who can afford private schools. In that sense, Lumina’s proposal will only further entrench social disparities. (A parallel can be drawn to K-12 education where public schools have embraced the educational reforms of high-stakes test taking, while private independent schools show little interest in adopting common standards or test-based accountability). While Lumina argues that increasing the number of Americans with degrees will elevate incomes and strengthen the middle class, focusing on education attainment as a method of addressing social problems is troubling in itself – namely in the way that it places an undue responsibility on education to solve social problems and dangerously ignores the role of economic systems and power relations in producing class disparities.

3)  What effect will Tuning and Lumina’s education policies have on working conditions for historians in the academy?  A key idea behind the Tuning project is that core competencies must be measureable and assessable. Secondary education teachers have found state standards to be helpful pedagogical tools, but are now faced with student test scores being used to undermine tenure, discredit teacher unions, and terminate individual instructors. It is impossible to predict how the outcomes of Tuning will be used, but the possibility of university faculty facing similar pressures should be a concern.  Lumina’s larger commitment to increasing productivity while reducing costs suggests a kind of academic Taylorism.  Reductions in full-time, tenure track positions, expanded use of adjunct and contingent faculty, shrinking support for research, and increases in faculty-student ratios all seem likely components of Lumina reforms.

The changes that are coming in higher education will not affect all schools equally.  Student and faculty in public schools, particularly those in community colleges and second tier universities will feel the effects of education reforms most profoundly.  But as the professional organization to all historians working in the academy, the AHA has a responsibly to  explore fully the potential consequences of the Tuning project and its funder’s policy agenda.  We ask that AHA examine the larger policy and labor implications of the Tuning project and explain how it will empower faculty and students.

~ Briann Greenfield,  greenfieldb@ccsu.edu
Associate Professor, History Department, Central CT State University
For the Connecticut Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History