Tuesday, November 23, 2010

(The Inability to See Beyond) Business as Usual

Receiving the newest CALS News (the magazine for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences here at Cornell University) made me wonder: will there be anything in here about the Department of Education? It seemed it might get some kind of mention, even if only in the the dean's comments. Rather, Dean Boor noted how good things are. She stated:
Under [Susan Henry's] leadership, the college took a strategic approach to planning for the future. Our books are balance, we are well on our way to "Reimagining CALS," and recent mergers among eight sister departments are encouraging even close collaborations across the Ithaca and Geneva campuses.
That would have been the place to say something about Education. But nothing. It gives the sense that everything is perfectly fine and on track. And, for many within the college, that's true. There's not even a decency to note that the "Reimagining" process has cut an entire department and altered the future study of education at Cornell. The article then goes on the praise the new Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and other wonderful things going on within CALS. The ranking of top programs is highlighted. And, as the dean says, CALS is "one of the best places in the world to conduct research in agricultural, environmental, and applied social sciences." The article concludes with this paragraph:
Many of the most important issues that we face today--climate change, food security, economic and environmental sustainability--are complex questions that require multidisciplinary solutions. By taking advantage of the amazing depth and breadth of academic resources we have here at CALS, we can form natural collaborations that make a big difference. By continuing to work closely with our outreach partners locally and around the globe, we can amplify that impact and truly become land grant university to the world.
These are big issues that we're attempting to deal with and address. We do have tremendous resources to do so, but there's something lacking in the way we're conceptualizing and putting into practice this work. Stay with me for a minute or two.

I continue to be baffled by the actions taken by CALS regarding the study of education here at Cornell. The Department of Education exists in the shadow of what once was the study of education here at Cornell. There is a long history of Cornell wanting to get rid of the study of education, moving the School of Education from the endowed side of the university over to CALS and creating a department that would eventually dwindle down to a size able to be dismantled. There have long been decisions made at this institution to ensure that education remained small and expendable. It's current manifestation, frankly, is trying to be too much and that's why it was able to be dismantled. Without institutional support this obviously had to be the case. Many argue that universities and colleges must play to the strengths of an institution while curtailing or cutting others. The concern for me is not simply the closure of the department, but rather the ways in which we go on thinking we've got the bases covered. Let me clarify what I mean.

Susan Riha leads an open meeting on Marcellus
Shale drilling. Notice the expected table with microphones
and the people in the audience nowhere to be seen.
The feature piece for the applied social sciences is "Concerns Ignite about Drilling Deep for Gas" and is about the possibility of hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale.

The article states that "Faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have mounted an unprecedented response to the issue. They have stepped up their research and extension efforts to help individuals and communities make decisions about the benefits and dangers of this new form of natural gas drilling and to think about broader energy development scenarios."

I have no doubt that Cornell is doing a great deal of research and engagement. I know, personally, some of these individuals engaging in this work. The article continues and notes, "Today, the team [of diverse faculty and extension educators] dispatch information to individuals considering leasing their land, community groups, and local governments. They have also briefed state and federal officials on the issue." But what kinds of research and engagement?

The problem with what's being done, as the picture above demonstrates, is that the university's role is to take information and give it to individuals and communities. The goal of this work is to, "communicate the evidence that's available and help people evaluate the risks involved....We are about providing accurate and, when possible, research-based information." Creating panels of experts to disseminate information to citizens not only privileges the type of knowledge coming from experts but it also makes the knowledge, experience, and feelings of citizens marginal to evidence-based research. What's missing from this story--and sadly much of the work within CALS--is a dimension that takes seriously the contribution and knowledge of citizens, especially around issues such as gas drilling. Rather than sharing our research with communities, what if CALS did research in and with communities? What if we had deliberative forums for citizens, experts, gas companies, and others to engage one another rather than maintaining a power dynamic that privileges the university--and science--over citizens?

There are many reasons why the university would prefer to do work as it has typically been done. The university has a status and role within society and there is a concern by many (but not all) that engaging citizens and communities as peers rather than clients would reduce the role and importance of science and research. What we do is research and then provide that information. The quotes above demonstrate that approach very well. But what happens is that that particular approach is understood as the approach. Rather than simply being one way for the university to engage communities about public problems, it becomes the only way. So when we talk about dealing with public problems as Dean Boor did in her message, we are saying that complex problems require more involvement and engagement among researchers. What we should be saying is that to deal with such important issues, we'll need to rethink the ways in which universities interact with those beyond campus.

What we're losing, with the closure of the Department of Education, is the program which I've called home since coming here to Cornell. Adult and Extension Education takes seriously the contribution and knowledge of citizens. I can't speak to how those in other programs within the department, but Adult and Extension Education folks would challenge the statements made about the type of research and engagement going on around the issue of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. I am deeply troubled that we speak about dealing with and addressing some of the most pressing social problems by telling folks what the science says. If we really want to address these public problems, we need to meaningfully engage the public. There is a role for research and information as part of such processes, but it can't be all that we do. We must form collaborative relationships that make a big difference, but that has to be citizens and experts, not simply university experts. We just don't get that we need to look beyond the university to deal with these problems. The closure of a program such as Adult and Extension Education quiets a community that challenges the dominant paradigm. CALS and Cornell just don't get it. We can't just do business as usual.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Shrinking Scope of Our Land-Grant Mission

Here is an article published in the Cornell Daily Sun

November 8, 2010
By Timothy Shaffer

The closure of the Department of Education and the subsequent response from many who are deeply concerned by this strategic move by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and by the University itself, is alarming. It is alarming because it calls attention to how differently this issue is thought about. I don’t want my words here to be anything more than a Ph.D. student deeply concerned about what’s going on.

The concern I have is different from much of the current conversation, including the reporting by The Sun and especially the editorial “Strategic or Predictable” and the subsequent response from Dean Kathryn Boor. I, with many others, have been involved in organizing other concerned individuals about what the closure of the Department of Education means. One of the common phrases mentioned is the loss of part of the “land-grant mission.” In the midst of many concerns and conversations, I want to stress why this is so important to me.

Cornell has, since its inception, struggled with being a land-grant institution as well as a premier university. By and large, however, the University has happily wedded its land-grant mission with its status as a research university. One conception of the land-grant mission has been focused on the dissemination of knowledge. We have tremendous researchers and laboratories in which we engage in important research for the public. Dean Boor notes that the land-grant mission is the guiding principle for everything that happens in CALS. I’d like to agree, and I think I can on some level, but I want to push back a bit about the mission. The list of examples provided in the dean’s letter to the editor includes biofuels research and the Community and Rural Development Institute, as well as 4-H workshops. All of these are part of the land-grant mission, but I would argue that it’s not all of it. There are competing — and conflicting — views of what it means to be a land-grant institution.

The problem with so much of the discussion about the land-grant mission simplifies that mission into a heroic metanarrative — to borrow a phrase from Professor Scott Peters, education — that limits the way we might think about the public mission of land-grant institutions. What’s not included in that list is the example of the educator embodying the democratic spirit of engaging citizens as equals rather than giving information to them to deter pests from destroying produce or to address something as far-reaching as sustainability. Liberty Hyde Bailey, a name that may only sound familiar because a hall bears his name, was one of these educators in our land-grant history who offered another approach to Cornell’s public mission. He wrote books such as What is Democracy? and The Holy Earth. In the latter he writes, “The college may be the guiding force, but it should not remove responsibility from the people of the localities, or offer them a kind of co-operation that is only the privilege of partaking in the college enterprises. I fear that some of our so-called co-operation in public work of many kinds is little more than to allow the co-operator to approve what the official administration has done.” What Bailey wrote about is more than translating research into usable information.

What I’m most concerned about with the loss of the department is the space in which conversations transcend the belief that issues are technical; that all we need to do is provide information or convene a workshop where experts let citizens know what they should do. Dean Boor notes, “we fully intend to provide the disciplinary knowledge (e.g. agricultural sciences, biology) upon which effective teaching must be based and to craft ways for students to obtain teacher certifications.” I want to challenge Dean Boor — and others — to not limit what “education” means here at Cornell. I am an Adult and Extension Education Ph.D. student. Most of my peers in other departments or colleges have no idea such a program exists. But what students in a course such as EDUC 6820: Community Education and Development would tell you is that education is not simply about getting certification or being in a classroom.

Education takes seriously that the most pressing issues our state, nation and world face are not simply technical. They are technical in some respect, but they are also political, cultural, ethical and even religious. Bailey wrote about this in 1915. Who will write about this in 2015?

This counter-narrative of the land-grant mission, albeit marginal throughout history, has been about engaging citizens and communities not as receptacles for information but as co-creators of knowledge. We have rich historical and contemporary examples of such work, but it was and will presumably continue to be on the periphery. The closure of the department signals a loss of space for complex questions to be thought about and engaged with. What I’m concerned about is the further narrowing of the land-grant mission as faculty and students are told by the institution that thinking about sustainability, for example, as something other than a purely technical and scientific issue isn’t valued. I’m glad that the only decision that has been made thus far is the closure of the department. I have great hope that we, the Cornell community, might engage one another constructively to ensure that we do indeed embody our mission as a land-grant university.

Timothy Shaffer is a Ph.D. student in Adult and Extension Education.  He may be contacted at tjs279@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Rhetoric and Reality: What is a University?

I write this with a sense of sadness and hope. In recent days, the decision has been made by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) to close the Department of Education. The decision was made based on the future prospects of the Department of Education being a preeminent faculty and program. In short, because of an institutional mission focused on technical, scientific research, the contribution of education is marginal to CALS desire to be the world's greatest college of agriculture. I do not argue that the Department of Education's existence within CALS in unique, but I do want to challenge the assumptions made about the scholarship and contribution of education to CALS, Cornell, and higher education. We find ourselves in this most difficult situation because of a lack of understanding -- or a devaluing -- of education's role in shaping how and what we know. We, as members of the education community, are complicit in this confusion and thus must speak out and engage others to do all that is possible to call attention to education's role in our institutions and world. 

We don't have to look very far to see the disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Here at Cornell, we are doing a phenomenally poor job at recognizing the disconnect. Some striking examples of this failure to recognize the role of education have emerged in the days following the announcement of the Department of Education closing. The first deals with the recent gift of $80 million to support sustainability research and what we claim we're doing with this tremendous gift and opportunity. The second deals with the need for investment and support of the humanities. 

I have noted the contradictions and omissions in this work previously, but I feel the need to stress that education has a central role as part of this initiative. The exclusion of educators and scholars of education isn't something new. It has been this way. But what I want to stress is that now is a time when the Cornell community should truly reflect on what it is we claim to be doing and what actually occurs. As Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said
"Achieving a sustainable world will require increased awareness, policy changes and an inclusive approach....And Cornell is ideally positioned to lead the current discussion and help shape the next generation of leaders."
Cornell is an ideal institution if we understand ourselves as such. There are academic silos that are so deeply entrenched in this institution that we can't even recognize that interdisciplinary means more than engineers speaking with chemists. Krupp continued,
"Great universities like Cornell need to speak up about global warming. There's an ethical dimension here....There's also the opportunity for Cornell to be involved in a way unique in American universities -- to create the examples and the constituents that make policy."
We do need to speak up about global warming, but as long as we try to deal with ethical issues as if they were technical issues, we'll continue to lament larger society for not "getting it" when we as a land grant institution have only done part of the work we are charged to do. We should be more than a factory creating information. However, what we're doing is feeding the "overapplication of scientific rationality to public policy making"(Frank Fischer, Citizens, Experts, and the Environment (Durham: Duke, 2000), p. ix). We don't take seriously that non-experts have something to say about an issue like sustainability. It doesn't show up in anything that we say, but Cornell continues to operate with the deficit model as a starting point. We have the knowledge and skills. We need to fix these problems. The way we do that is through scientific research. All of these statements are true, but I would amend them. I would say, 
"We have the knowledge and skills to contribute meaningfully to the work but not all. We need to fix these problems collaboratively with others, especially those who are impacted by decisions. The way we do that is through scientific research as part of a larger conception of scholarship that takes seriously local knowledge and the multiple forms of research within the Academy."
This is what I would like us to be saying and doing. This requires much more conversation and collaboration than we have seen or experienced. We may continually be building new science buildings for researchers to cross departmental boundaries, but if those scientists don't even know that there is a Department of Education, then we've failed as a community of scholars. We are a university, a "whole." But do we act like it. Gregory A. Petsko has captured this in an open letter to the president of SUNY Albany. To quote Petsko: 
I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I've just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I'm willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word 'university' derives from the Latin 'universitas', meaning 'the whole'. You can't be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.
This leads me to the second point that I found ironic in recent days. President Skorton, in his State of the University Address on October 29, has called for the hiring of new faculty members humanities. The article in the Cornell Chronicle notes that,
"Far from being irrelevant in the digital age, the arts and humanities not only teach the basic skills of critical and contextual thinking, communication and ethics but also have value as disciplines of research and critical analysis in their own right. And on a fundamental level, they teach us what it means to be human, he said." 
This comment is something I wholeheartedly agree with, and I would argue that much of what takes places within the field of education asks these deeply important questions about what it means to be a person in today's world. I would argue that the college and university administration have failed in understanding what it is that happens within the Department of Education. Yes, there are aspects of technical training with the department, but so much more than that takes place. Read through the description of the Adult and Extension Education program here at Cornell. Read it. This isn't technical training, and this is simply one program among others that will continue to lose support as the department moves toward closure. I believe that if others actually knew what we think about and do, they wouldn't be closing it down. Education is much more than simply teacher preparation (and by no means am I demeaning teacher education). What I mean to say is that education engages questions about what it means to be a citizen in communities, states, or the world. There is serious engagement with some of the most important questions about who we are and how we might live with one another in the future taking place within classes that will be cut from the curriculum without much concern.

To close, I want to paraphrase a new friend and colleague that I would never have met had it not been for an education course. In response to the frustration of the call for support for the humanities while killing education he wrote, 
"we need to redefine the scope of education to include the values and ideals that the president mentioned in defining liberal arts and humanities. it's the soul of the university --it's how we transform an elitist institution into something relevant to people across the state and the world. it's also how we connect every school, college and department in cornell." 
Exactly. Let us begin that work. We're meeting tonight with those who are wanting to be involved in the conversation about the future of education here at Cornell. We're meeting tonight at 5:00pm in 231 Warren Hall. Please come and invite others. You can find out more information at http://cornelleducation.info. If you're not able to make it tonight, we're going to begin a community conversation about the future of education at Cornell on Tuesday evening at 5:00pm in 360 Warren Hall. The image below is the flyer we're passing around with the hope that we might have a truly inclusive conservation about education. With this in mind, please encourage and invite those outside of the field of education to participate. We want and need many voices. For too long we've all stayed insular in our work. We can no longer afford to do so. 
Click to enlarge.
We are a truly great university. Let us enliven the spirit of collegiality and collaboration. Let us be a "whole" in a way that draws from our diverse strengths to contribute to the work addressing some of the most pressing problems facing humanity and our time. If we want to be one of the best universities in the world, let us prove it through the meaningful work that changes the world for the better by being contributors to that work rather than dominating it because we feel we have the answers and others simply need to listen to us. Problems such as sustainability are multifaceted. They aren't only technical. There are political, social, and ethical dimensions that must be considered. We all need to be part of this work, including those who study education.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Groundswell and a Desire for Something More

During the last number of days, the response to the closing of the Department of Education here at Cornell University has been something to behold. A groundswell is taking place, not simply emerging from those within the department, but also from outside of it. There is a growing community of students--both undergraduate and graduate--who recognize the tremendous loss that is occurring with the closure of the department and the loss of the institutional home for education here at Cornell.

Without a unified approach (although we're quickly trying to coalesce our energy), groups and individuals have been reaching out to the administration within CALS asking fundamental questions about what the loss of the Department of Education means for both the college as well as the university. There is, to quote one of the students from outside of the Department of Education, a need to recognize that the response to what's taking place deals with more than simply the department. He writes:
"it became clear that we were not grieving over the loss of the departmental edifice; we rather fear the loss of a forum; a free space in which to question the purpose of our education and coactively develop ourselves into the reflective practitioners we seek to be."
 With individuals and groups coming together, there is desire to try to engage a broader cross-section of the Cornell community as well as those beyond this campus who recognize and want to raise attention to what is taking place. For an institution such as Cornell to close the Department of Education speaks volumes to what is valued and what is expendable. There is no doubt that the precipice we face was brought on by the economic climate which has pushed many higher education institutions to question what they can and cannot support. This has been especially true for public higher education and land grant universities. So where do we go from here?

A number of graduate students who are concerned about the future of a space for educational discourse and questioning have recognized that we must be the ones who do something. We cannot, in good conscience, stand on the sidelines and let this issue simply become a forgotten headline.

A website, Cornell Education Matters, is serving as a hub for information and resources for those concerned with the future study of education here at Cornell. From the cornelleducation.info website, we also have a Google Group which enables individuals to sign up to receive emails about what's going on. Additionally, we have created a Facebook Page which will allow us to share information with one another as well as to gain broader support for what we are trying to do. We are doing all we can to connect people and share information about what's going on.

We have learned that the Department of Education will be able to meet with Associate Dean Max Pfeffer  on Thursday, November 4th at 5:00pm. Just to make this clear...

On Thursday, November 4th at 5:00pm, there will be a very important meeting with CALS administrators and we need as many people as possible to be there to show support for the study of education at Cornell University. 

The location is yet to be determined, we would want to let everyone know that we're encouraging as many people as possible to come to this meeting to show support for the study of education at Cornell. The physical presence of concerned individuals is a very powerful way to demonstrate the extent to which the Cornell community (as well as those beyond) cares about what's taking place.

President Skorton has called for the hiring of new faculty members humanities. The article in the Cornell Chronicle notes that,
"Far from being irrelevant in the digital age, the arts and humanities not only teach the basic skills of critical and contextual thinking, communication and ethics but also have value as disciplines of research and critical analysis in their own right. And on a fundamental level, they teach us what it means to be human, he said." 
This comment is something I wholeheartedly agree with, and I would argue that much of what takes places within the field of education asks these deeply important questions about what it means to be a person in today's world. I would argue that the college and university administration have failed in understanding what it is that happens within the Department of Education. If they knew, they wouldn't be closing it down. Education is much more than simply teacher preparation (and by no means am I demeaning teacher education). What I mean to say is that education engages questions about what it means to be a citizen in communities, states, or the world. There is serious engagement with some of the most important questions about who we are and how we might live with one another in the future.

Stay tuned and stay in touch. This is a tremendous opportunity for those of us at Cornell and those at other universities and colleges to ask deep, fundamental questions about what higher education means today in our democracy. This is an extraordinarily important question for public higher education. Education is more than the dissemination of information. The support for a forum in which faculty and students might engage in discussion about what education means only highlights the need to further engage one another about what it is that these institutions of higher education are doing and how.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A University's (Narrowing) Mission

Soon to be gone...
The last few days have been very frustrating, saddening, unclear interesting. On Tuesday evening, we received word that the Department of Education at Cornell would be closing. The Cornell Chronicle had a story and the university was so kind as to create talking points for senior administrators to try to explain what they've just done. Departments close, I get that. Yet, this feels different for a variety of reasons. This is my department, my home, my colleagues we're talking about no longer existing.

This is how we, graduate students, received news
about the department closing. Click to enlarge. 

Here are a few thoughts that I have related to this new reality.

First, this department has been, for the last two years, my academic home. When I have questions I know I need to talk to Rose or April. When I want to scan entire sections of books, I head to the copy room. As I'm now thinking about what happens to the physical spaces in which I experience my time here at Cornell, I'm struck by the sense of loss that's occurring, even though nothing has changed yet. It's simply the impending reality that scares me.

Second, I think about the fact that Cornell University will no longer have a department of education. Cornell University, the land grant university of New York, will not be training teachers or preparing professionals for careers in education. This is a serious blow to New York, but it also sends serious reverberations across the country when we're talking about the purpose of public higher education. The work of the department has been eclectic in the best sense of the word, engaging "education" in a very broad sense. While having a small faculty, the productivity of the department has been very high, but it also (and arguably more importantly) has been a space for Cornell students--both undergraduate and graduate--to think about knowledge and information as something more than simply facts that exist without questing the impacts of decisions.

I'm currently in an educational course, EDUC 6820: Community Education and Development, and it's a striking example of what we're losing when Cornell makes the decision that such courses are no longer important to our mission. We're a group of nearly 20 graduate students from a number of academic fields with a shared interest in working with communities to address issues of public concern. It's an amazing group of people coming together because a course like this exists. What happens in the future? I worry that for students who see their own graduate education as an experience and engagement with more than facts and information, there will be a void that further pushes the Cornell experience away from such experiences. As a land grant university, Cornell has a public mission. The interesting and sometimes troubling mix of "land grant" with "Ivy League" muddies the role of the university in our state, nation, and world. 

So what has been articulated by those in positions of authority on the closure of the department? The language used gave a sense of why this is happening. The Talking Points memo states that the closure of the department, "will result in savings, but also allows CALS to better focus its resources in the long run." In the Chronicle piece we see that according to Dean Boor, "CALS has come to the difficult conclusion that we do not have the additional resources that would need to be invested in the program to ensure its pre-eminence as we move into the future." Translated: we don't have the funding nor do we want to explore other ways that we might support education at Cornell University, especially within CALS.

I should take a moment to note the interesting situation the Department of Education has found itself in within CALS. Without a doubt, CALS here at Cornell is one of the preeminent colleges of agriculture in the United States. We've very good at much of what constitutes "work" within colleges of agriculture: we quantitatively measure, we have multi-million dollar buildings in which to do serious scientific research, and major research grants come from NSF and other sources. This is the core mission of CALS without a doubt and the means to supporting that core mission is obviously present. The way in which the mission is articulated by CALS is to, "discover, integrate, disseminate, and apply knowledge." This leaves little room for a course of community organizing, for example where the one-directional relationship between expert and citizens is seriously challenged and problematized. Education, especially adult and extension education, takes very seriously the issues of operating within a paradigm that only allows experts to have knowledge. Courses such as EDUC 6820 challenge the very mission of the college in which is resides.

The Department of Communication could be seen as being equally out of place in a college of agricultura and life science. They make as much sense as Education, but they're sticking around. What gives? Well, for one, they engage in research more so in the quantitative tradition. Nevertheless, many faculty within the Education Department do high level research that fits neatly within the real of quantitative work and measures. The difference in the two departments comes down to, sadly, money. The Communication program is considerably larger, has a robust undergraduate program, and thus is able to support numerous graduate students. At one point Cornell had a School of Education. It was downsized to a department and now will be disappearing. 

Third, we're Cornell University and we're not running on a shoestring budget (although we're definitely feeling the impact of the economic crisis). Today's news was that one of the areas of interest to researchers at Cornell, which is sustainability, just received 80 million dollars to support this work.
At least there are some things to celebrate. Streamers, singers
and the Big Red Marching Band celebrate the single largest
gift to the Ithaca campus from an individual.

It's a tremendous gift to the university in addressing this most important issue, but it makes me pause for a moment and think about how we articulate and frame sustainability. In the Chronicle article released today, David R. Atkinson '60 said this:
"Cornell is the best-positioned university in America, and arguably the world, to develop solutions," Atkinson said; in part due to its place as the most highly ranked American university with a college of agriculture.
"Agriculture has an enormous impact on the environment. In addition, a productive, efficient agricultural sector is a key ingredient for economic development," he said. "Any university addressing sustainability without a college of agricultural is operating at an enormous competitive disadvantage." 
Atkinson said he sees ACSF as "a source of unbiased information; a catalyst bringing knowledge from different disciplines together to address sustainability; and a partner with entrepreneurs, businesses, NGOs and governments to magnify the impact of the knowledge and ingenuity at Cornell in moving society toward a more sustainable future."
The center will also be a focal point for sustainability-related activity on campus, including education, operations, outreach and research. 

What's interesting about all of this is that

  1. The new center is based on the premise that we--universities--have unbiased information.
  2. We then give this information and knowledge to others outside of the university
  3. The article mentions education, but not a single education faculty member has been involved since 2007 when it was started. 
  4. The interdisciplinary work is limited in that it's not engaging citizens at all in the process of this work, but rather only with the appropriate handful of partners.
  5. That the premier college of agriculture which is going to be leading the way in regards to this new center is, right now, closing it's department of education. It makes me question the ways in which "education" is conceptualized and practiced by those involved. 

So back to the main point of this post, the demise of education at Cornell comes down to more than simply not having funding. It seems to me to be an issue of valuing the field rather than purely dollars. Thinking of education as a process that engages citizens and communities, for example, is quite different than a model where experts figure it out and then tell others what they know. It's one-directional rather than collaborative. These are serious and fundamental distinctions when it comes to the question of how knowledge is produced and shared.

Additionally, it is important to note that all faculty and staff within the Department of Education will retain positions, so one is left to ask where the cost savings with this move will come. Faculty will leave seeking out new homes that value their work and foster a sense of worth in this type of research, teaching, and engagement. But while Cornell is repositioning itself to be the unchallenged elite college of agriculture, so much of what it claims to be doing well into the future does make one pause when we acknowledge the closure of its own department of education.

We're at the beginning of the end for education at Cornell. There are many questions remaining unanswered, but there seems to be little to change course. It's a sad state of affairs for a place like Cornell when it sends out the message that a field like education, which isn't purely about numbers, is expendable. Maybe if we brought in more multi-million dollar grants we'd be in a different boat, but the work that is done by some within the department just doen't count to many within the academy. Especially here at Cornell.   

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sippin' Tea

The Tea Party is something completely new in American politics. It's a grassroots political movement that doesn't bend to the wishes of the establishment, regardless of whether we're talking about Democrats or Republicans. It's a movement of citizens committed to the Constitution and a limited role of government in our lives. There's no controlling what these freedom-loving citizens will do. That's the narrative we've been told over and over.

The Tea Party makes as much sense as this scene.
But as I think more about what's going on in America politics and continue to read article after article on all that is Tea Party, I solidify my belief that it's a load. A total load. It just makes no sense to me, not simply in that I disagree with the fundamental beliefs held by those of the political right, but more that I just don't think the Tea Party makes sense. Not much more than the image of the Alice's tea party with talking rabbits and such.

Everywhere I turn, I'm reading something about the Tea Party. Perennial candidates like Christine O'Donnell (who ran in 2006, 2008, and now in 2010) "emerge" as if she hasn't been on the ballot multiple times before. Sharron Angle, another darling of the Tea Party, has held public office for a number of years. She's not quite the new candidate emerging from life outside of politics. Palin, the former VP candidate and half-term governor, wears the mantle of the "government is the problem" position championed by Ronald himself. It's new yet old at the same time. It's an interesting world.

So what gives?

Matt Taibbi, over at Rolling Stone, offers his take on the Tea Party and what's going on behind the rhetoric of the movement that's sweeping America. While maybe lacking a certain degree of sensitivity (but it's Rolling Stone so he gets to write like this so he gets a pass), Taibbi gets to, what I think, is operating below the radar of what gets talked about. Of course it's great fodder for media outlets (I hesitate to use the phrase "news outlets"), but probing just a bit more than the superficial stories of anger folks all over the country reveals a layer of confused and paradoxical dynamics to make one wonder if there's any thought going into what so many are saying and doing these days.

I'd recommend you reading the entire article. It's quite good. You can access the Rolling Stone article here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Relationships and Time: Necessities of a Movement

The familiar scene of the
oratory powers of MLK. 
The civil rights movement can sometimes --often times-- be truncated and abbreviated. "One day, a nice old lady, Rosa Parks, sat down on a buss and got arrested. The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up, and the Montgomery bus boycott followed. And sometime later, King delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech and segregation was over" (p. xiv).

What we lose when we only look to the familiar characters is the commitment that thousands of individuals made to walking from house to house and talking with people about their rights as citizens of the United States. The organizing tradition within the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century is an important but oft forgotten piece of the long and rich history of the struggle for justice and rights for African-Americans. This aspect of the freedom struggle doesn't make it into textbooks, unless it's a brief mention on the way to highlighting the leaders of the movement. It is difficult to travel in this country without seeing MLK's name. The belief that the movement began in the 1960s misses the struggles and work done by many, taking place years earlier. 

A much less familiar photo of
Septima Clark and the Citizenship Schools.
Mention the "I Have a Dream" speech and we hear about children being judged on their character and not by the color of their skin. We know this story. We can hear King's voice and the crowd in D.C. when these words are uttered. But what happens when we mention SNCC or Citizenship Schools? The movement was composed of many individuals who were committed to the long road that needed to be traveled in order to transform the realities of African-Americans being marginalized, disrespected, and intimidated by Whites, as well as being brutally injured and killed. The struggle for freedom in the South, especially in Mississippi, brought together people who were committed to taking the time to establish relationships with African-Americans with the hopes that they would do their part in registering to vote as well as become members of the movement themselves. 
The difficult work of meeting with
citizens when no one seems to care.

The movement never would have been if it was only boycott and marches. Much of the work was unglamorous and quite dangerous. People walked door-to-door talking with people about how they might help realize the belief that we are all citizens and that we have rights because of that belief in what citizenship constitutes. 

Learning about this other story of the civil rights movement forces us to rethink what it was that took place half a century ago in the United States. Additionally, it forces us to rethink social movements today. It seems to me that if we acknowledge and learn from the freedom struggle as experienced by the many nameless individuals who shaped the movement long before Parks and King, we might address some of the pressing challenges we face today when it comes to discrimination and division in this country and in the world. Change didn't come overnight then and it surely won't now.

Below is a video that captures a sense of the struggle for respect and freedom in the South. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Obama and Othering

The many Obamas.

There is a high level of anger and frustration in the United States these days and many reasons to feel so. Employment still remains a high concern for many citizens and opportunities continue to disappear. The hope of many cities to return to glory days isn't little more that a wishful dream. With the continual departure of jobs to cheaper factories and cheaper labor costs, once jobs disappear it is unlikely they will return. When economic times get tough, the once stable and manageable relationships among citizens become a little bit less so.

One of the "Faces" of the Tea Party.
It almost seems like an afterthought, but there has been tremendous change during the last couple years: the election of Obama as president, a very large domestic policy shift with equally divisive laws enacted, and an undercurrent that things are changing. The ability of someone like Glenn Beck to become an overnight leader highlights the feeling that many Americans have about the changes taking place. The Tea Party Movement has become a force to be reckoned with, both for those on the left and right of politics. What we know about this movement is that it is composed of predominantly white, male, married, over 45, and Republican folks. What has emerged as an "angry" group of citizens wanting to reclaim and take back their  country highlights the sense of normalcy and identity for citizens who long for yesteryear. However, these fond memories are amnesic because we've been growing further and further apart for quite a while. MSNBC has done a really interesting photoblog of some of the faces of the Tea Party.

Some of the most striking examples of this distance and identification of the "other" has been growing considerably just in the last few years, especially as Obama emerged as a candidate and then when he was elected to office. Just today, there are stories about Obama being portrayed a a terrorist, gangster, Mexican bandit, and as a gay man. It has only recently been taken down. It had the title, "Vote DemocRAT." Nice. Billboards, the American way to advertise, have highlighted the feelings across the country by those who see Obama as something quite distinct from themselves. You know, black. 

So I'm left to wonder: what would make everything all right for those who oppose everything going on today with regards to Democratic control, legislation, and the highest office held by none other than Barack Obama? 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

We've been here before

We're always dealing with new issues and new ideas. Aren't we?

Maybe it's because I'm reading many articles, books, pamphlets, and speeches from 70 years ago for my research. Maybe it's because I'm coming across stories about anti-Catholic sentiment in New York in the 18th century. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that very little--if anything--we think and do (aside from the discovery of graphene and those kinds of things) is new and original. I know this may come as a surprise and a blow to your ego, but we're not quite as creative as we might think we are. I guess I've always appreciated reading and learning about history because there is so much that has happened years, decades, and centuries ago that we wrestle with today as if they are totally new issues. I'm not diminishing the importance of contextualization or time and space. What I do want to say is that we've got a great deal to learn from the stories of others, especially those who have come before us.

Historical events and happenings aren't quite as static as we might think. The stories (or more often story) we learn about is limited. It's partial. There is always more. There are many more actors. The United States in the 1770s didn't consist of only a handful of pretty smart guys. That holds true for any other time as well. It's just that we don't learn about all of those folks at the same time. History is done, something simply to be documented. It's alive. This is another reason history is so fascinating to me: it's continually unfolding. Some of the work I'm doing these days is digging deeper into a part of American history that has been uniformly categorized. People, in that time, acted this way. However, I'm finding out something so different that it's almost difficulty to situate it then, in that period. But that's where it belongs. It's part of the larger narrative. But getting to that larger narrative is so vitally important.

Just as we need to recognize the fears that have shaped American society for so long, we must put that knowledge--those stories--into conversation with what's going on in our world today. It's this ongoing, unfolding conversation and engagement with different times and people that we acknowledge our little spot in this amazing thing called human history.

Friday, September 10, 2010

By Some Miracle

It's easy to think we're all individuals doing our own things and making our own decisions. It's as if the interconnectedness we have one with one doesn't truly exist. This video for Philip Selway's new song (of Radiohead fame) makes me think of the impact(s) that our decisions have on others, either knowingly or not.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

King’s ‘Dream’ was a radical economic equality message

King’s ‘Dream’ was a radical economic equality message

It's a little after the fact, but I came across this blog post by Roland Martin and was reminded of how frustrated I get when we turn MLK into something he wasn't. In the secular sainthood we've given him, we've done a tremendous job of disarming the most challenging aspects of what he championed. It is easy to make him a leader of African-Americans seeking justice from white America, but it's sure uncomfortable to think of his challenging of the U.S. economic system and militarism.

Monday, September 6, 2010

How Can a Democracy Solve Tough Problems?

How Can a Democracy Solve Tough Problems?

Joe Klein, writing for Time, has an interesting article about how democracy can/should solve difficult problems. While he suggests using a model as championed by James Fishkin (among others), the central question about how should a democracy deal with difficult questions get to the heart of rethinking both democracy and governance.

I think one of the important take-aways from this article is that communities actually turn to citizens rather than limit themselves to expert panel and consultants about what should be done.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Is American Higher Education Like GM?

The Economist has an interesting article out, Declining by degree: Will America’s universities go the way of its car companies? The warn of the possibility that higher education in the United States is going the way of the auto industry: down and out. 

What do you think?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Parker Palmer and Politics of the Brokenhearted

Two great figures of contemporary thought: Bill Moyers and Parker Palmer. Palmer speaks to much of the recent work he's been doing, but it carries the thread from his earlier works. His notion of a politics of the brokenhearted is very important, especially in a world where we turn to violence and division when things are in discord rather than taking that moment to consider an alternative to division. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Populist movement, popular puppets, or a spiritual rebirth?

Frank Rich has echoed and articulated very clearly what others have been saying as of late: people are being duped. While the populist rhetoric is soaring, the reality on the ground is something quite different. Rich clearly captures this

ANOTHER weekend, another grass-roots demonstration starring Real Americans who are mad as hell and want to take back their country from you-know-who. Last Sunday the site was Lower Manhattan, where they jeered the “ground zero mosque.” This weekend, the scene shifted to Washington, where the avatars of oppressed white Tea Party America, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, were slated to “reclaim the civil rights movement” (Beck’s words) on the same spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had his dream exactly 47 years earlier.
Vive la révolution!
There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the “death panel” warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. But even those carrying the Kochs’ banner may not know who these brothers are.

Thanks Frank. 

Yesterday's gathering in Washington, D.C. of the loose band of tea partiers and the like led by the pseudo-prophetic Beck have expressed strong anger at the current administration and have cloaked their frustration in the "federal government is meddling in my life and is on my back" kind of phrases. I have many issues with folks who want to rid their lives of the evil government while simultaneously enjoying the aspects of a federal government (I, at least, enjoy using roads.) However, there's another issue that emerged yesterday unlike much of the rhetoric and language being used by those on the extreme right. 

Yesterday, for Beck at least (and seemingly many others numbering somewhere shy of 100,000), his take on all of this was quite religious. And not in a subtle way, either. Nearly everyone who spoke invoked religious language and expressed a sentiment that the United States needs a renewal, a rebirth of sorts, from the wayward ways. This is maybe where it gets confusing because it seems like it would be difficult to say a country need a spiritual rebirth only since the last presidential election. Other prominent figures have noted this is the end times. So what's going on here?

Interestingly absent from the show on the steps yesterday was mention of Beck's own religion: Mormonism. I guess it would have just been a little too difficult to work that in when the narrative being told is that of the faith of the founders of this country (although they were more of a ragtag group of deists and such). Beck said, "Something that is beyond man is happening" and "America today begins to turn back to God." While trying to become a figure for the civil rights movements in a radically altered and confused way, there are serious issues raised by what Beck and others say. Speaking as someone who spent six years formally studying theology, I not only get frustrated by what Glenn Beck says, but also what it means when one begins to unpack and problematize the theological issues at hand. For Beck, God incarnate is someone quite different from the Jesus in the New Testament writings of old as well as the writings of liberation theologians. 

James Martin, S.J., has a very good essay on this issue of liberation theology and the great discomfort the words of Jesus as expressed in the writings of the New Testament mean for those whole profess a Christian faith. Social justice hasn't sat well with Beck for quite a while (do a quick YouTube search and you'll see). There's something really difficult for those who want to espouse Christian faith while also saying that government doesn't have role to play and you sure as hell better not think about any type of redistribution. Making Jesus a free-market capitalist is quite a stretch when you read the New Testament. Critically reading such texts, for many Christians, would force an internal conflict that is often unwanted.  Folks like Francis of Assisi and others took seriously the life of Jesus and what that meant for them. I'm not saying everyone needs to become a mendicant, but there is an orientation in one's life that must challenge many of the destructive institutions in our lives. When I write "institutions," I'm not thinking about the evil government, but rather the ways in which our society is driven by capitalism. I just doesn't jive with much of what Jesus lived and died for. There is much that could be written about the distortion of Christianity from shortly after the earliest Christians to its acceptance and adoption by the Roman Empire and in every subsequent generation, but hat is not the point. The point is that making an anti-government and lower taxes rally fit with Christianity doesn't work. It really doesn't work when you're also claiming to be leading a new civil rights movement. Courtland Milloy of the  Washington Post raises the ever important but absent question in all of this: when do we want to return to in history? At what point was it "right"?

No matter; people weren't gathered to hear too many facts. Rather, they were there to be rallied, to reclaim America from some (straw man?) socialist federal government taking over peoples lives. If that's the case, why would Paul Krugman's piece a few weeks ago be so spot on? As he reminds us, the U.S. is failing desperately, not because of a lack of religion but because of a lack of understanding how a society actually functions as a society and not a collection of individual islands functioning autonomously. E. J. Dionne Jr. asks us to think about all of this, to move beyond a politics of stupidity. I'll close with a few paragraphs from Krugman:

How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.
The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud — to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed. And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.
So the end result of the long campaign against government is that we’ve taken a disastrously wrong turn. America is now on the unlit, unpaved road to nowhere.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Learning from the work of others, both good and bad

Just a couple days ago I came across what looked strikingly similar to Wikipedia. However, it's got something different going on. Participedia, the idea of Archon Fung at the Kennedy School at Harvard is one of the individuals behind this initiative. Participedia's website says, 

"Participedia is a tool for strengthening democracy. Based on a wiki platform, its main content consists of user-generated articles which describe and assess participatory governance throughout the world. For instance, there will be articles on the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly of 2004, consensus conferences in Denmark, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre and other cities, local school council governance in Chicago, municipal evaluation meetings in China, and the People’s Campaign for Democratic Decentralization (under the Panchayati Raj reforms) in Kerala, India. In addition, there will be articles on participatory methods, such as deliberative polling, citizens' assemblies, and participatory budgeting, as well as articles about the organizations that sponsor, implement, and study participatory governance. Over time, we hope Participedia will garner hundreds and perhaps thousands of such articles.

There are three main kinds of articles in Participedia:
  • Articles about cases, or experiences, of participatory or deliberative governance (e.g. British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly of 2004).
  • Articles about specific methods of public deliberation, participation, or collaborative governance (e.g. Participatory Budgeting).
  • Articles about organizations that design, execute, or support public participation, deliberation, or collaborative public action (e.g. Everyday Democracy).

So, log on, take a look around, and maybe even offer your own story as to how participatory and deliberative engagement is being used. The hope is to have both stories that demonstrated what worked while also including those accounts which show what doesn't work sometimes, given a particular contextual setting, etc. 

Regardless, it is another tool for those interested in these topics to learn from others. It remains to be seen to what degree something like this will be used to lager numbers of practitioners. Hopefully, it will be more than we're thinking.