Are education-school graduates politicizing American colleges?

The Chronicle of Higher Education, a rather sober venue not given to polemics (I think they edit essays pretty thoroughly), nevertheless published a strong-minded article on how graduates of American schools of education are taking over the student-life administration of many schools, converting them into propaganda mills. Click on the screenshot to read the piece. The author, Lyell Asher, is an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, which means he’s in for trouble (Portland is Antifa and Authoritarian Left Central; Asher is also an Old White Man). If you can’t see the article, judicious inquiry might yield you a copy:

Asher’s thesis is threefold. First, American schools of education are dire: he sees them as more ideologically-infused factories designed to produce “social justice warriors” than schools devoted to objective investigation of the truth, wherever that investigation goes. I can’t speak about that, but in the article’s comments you’ll see ed-school people who both agree and vehemently disagree.

Second, Asher argues that graduates who took jobs at colleges as administrators and bureaucrats (instead of professors) found that they could justify their existence by acting as professors—by propagandizing students with the views they’d acquired in ed school. He gives several examples; here is one:

How did college administrators become so involved in “training” undergraduates in subjects that are properly the domain of academic departments? It’s a complex story, and a long one. There are chapters in this story, however, and one of the most significant opened around 2004, when two administrators at the University of Delaware — both of whom have doctorates in “educational leadership” — determined that resident advisers should be thought of as residence-hall “educators.” And as educators, they needed a curriculum. Kathleen Kerr and James Tweedy said they felt “invited” to develop such a curriculum by the views of their professional organizations, the American College Personnel Association and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, which have more than 20,000 members between them. Delaware faculty members were not consulted.

The program Kerr and Tweedy developed, the “curricular model” (CM) for learning beyond the classroom, has had enormous influence on college administrators across the nation. Kerr and Tweedy celebrated that influence in an essay published last spring in About Campus, a professional journal for college administrators.

. . . For what’s striking about Kerr and Tweedy’s 10-year retrospective essay, besides the moving sidewalk of bureaucratic jargon, is how little content there actually is, ideological or otherwise, until one gets to the issue of status — the status of administrators themselves as “educators.” That’s when things get concrete, and personal. Above all, the authors argue, their curricular model changed “how we view ourselves as educators,” “how we think about … our own roles as educators,” and “the spaces and places on campus” administrators now “occupy.” The model is “energizing and reinvigorating to professional staff,” they report, quoting new administrators in the thralls of relevance: “I finally get to use my master’s degree.” In the penultimate paragraph they declare: “The first change for everyone involved in this transformation is deciding unequivocally that we are educators.”

Such undisguised anxiety about their status as educators might provoke sympathy were it not for the authors’ lack of anxiety about the things that actually matter — the substance of education itself and the intellectual welfare of students; their right, for example, not to be coerced into facile, unreflective orthodoxy. Judging from the essay, those aren’t even peripheral considerations.

Finally, Asher argues that this proselytizing and curriculum-changing by those trained in ed schools is turning American colleges into places where you must parrot received ideological views rather than examine them. Here I agree, at least from my experience reading about universities and seeing things like members of my own faculty, and students at my own school, urging the deplatforming and banning of “impure” speakers like Steve Bannon. Asher:

There might be nothing wrong with training students in equity and social justice were it not for the inconvenient fact that a college campus is where these ideals and others like them are to be rigorously examined rather than piously assumed. It’s the difference between a curriculum and a catechism. Do ed schools recognize that difference? Perhaps some do. But it’s significant that their largest national accrediting agency, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, for many years included “social justice” in its glossary of so-called “dispositions” that ed schools could consider when evaluating a candidate’s fitness for the K-12 classroom. It dropped the criteria only in 2006, after complaints from both the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Association of Scholars.

One example of the influence ed-school people have had on college curricula involves microaggressions, a concept first outlined in 2007 by Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues in the paper below (American Psychologist 62:271-286), which has been cited thousands of times and launched the bandwagon of microaggression policy in many colleges (click on screenshot to access the paper for free). I haven’t yet read it, but will today:

The authors of this paper are associated with Teachers College of Columbia University, and the article has been widely criticized for its lack of rigor by several of my recent readings, including The Rise of Victimhood Culture, the book I discussed the other day. Readers who have time should read it and weigh in below (the article is 16 pages long). Here’s Asher’s take:

The weak foundations on which this vision often rests are evident in ed-school scholarship. Take the essay generally regarded as the founding text of the recent microaggression movement, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” whose lead author, Derald Wing Sue, is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College. His six co-authors were also associated with Teachers College when the article was published, in American Psychologist in 2007. Among administrators especially, their essay has achieved canonical status.

Reading the article for the first time last year, I was dumbfounded — not just that it had gained such currency, but that it had ever been published in a journal with pretensions to intellectual rigor. I don’t doubt that microaggressions exist or that they can do harm, but the confidence with which Sue and his co-authors reduce complex interactions to Manichaean encounters between villains and victims is astonishing.

It goes on, but you can read Asher’s criticism of Sue et al.’s Manichaean tactics in the original article.

The paper of Sue et al., as I said, has been enormously influential in shaping American college policy towards students, how those students are treated, how they are given orientation, and how “transgressions” are punished. That’s why those of us interested in this area should read it. You’ll recognize its thesis and many of the “microaggressions” that it lists. The article has been criticized for lack of definitional specificity, absence of research to see if these microaggressions are actually seen as such by their “targets”, whether they are “aggressive” in intending to demean people, and whether they have the negative psychological effects claimed. My own view is that it’s simple civility to think out your words in advance to try to avoid statements that might be interpreted as bigoted, whether meant that way or not, also that it’s not the business of colleges to beat that lesson into students or, more important, to outline what kinds of statements are unacceptable (one, of course is that “America is a melting pot,” but see the list in Sue et al.)

h/t: Jody



  1. Jody Hey
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Its a fascinating piece, lightly sourced, but well written.

    Regarding the Chronicle, I differ a bit and think that they rather indulge in polemics, especially recently, and from a wide array of perspectives. These are mostly in their ‘Review’ section, and it seems to be their way of being inclusive and fair.

    See e.g. this odd piece on whitesplaining history

  2. glen1davidson
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if Asher got the history right, but, having taken a short look at “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” it’s amazing what simple-minded thinking is behind that.

    There’s the story of the white flight attendant who told a couple of non-white people to sit anywhere they wanted in a plane cabin, so they sit near the front, no problem. Three white men come in, same thing, and they sit slightly in front of them. Later, the flight attendant asks the two non-whites to sit in the back of the cabin to balance out the weight. They do it, but decide it was because of their race, and resent it.

    Now, how presumptuous was it to conclude that it was because of their race? I will say that they’re presumably right that, as first to sit, they should have been the ones left where they chose. But the reasons for moving them could have been class, who seemed less intimidating, or just that it was only two in their case (easier to persuade, but also less trouble for everyone overall), that they were already slightly closer to the back, or other reasons that had nothing to do with race. Or, it could have been race, but how would anyone know?

    I mean, we all are subject to what seems unfair treatment at times, and it’s clear that there are myriad factors, class being one of the most obvious reasons. Like too many colleges today, though, a host of existing disparities are ignored, while race and gender become everything, and with little more reason than the mindless assumptions seen in the anecdote with the flight attendant.

    So colleges and universities are being led to and unexamined ideological conformity that hasn’t existed in such an authoritarian form since the days when colleges and universities existed as frankly religious institutions. If only “social justice” were an actual religion, it would be illegal to impose it as it is being forced onto education, and why it would be illegal to do so would also be obvious. But since it’s a quasi-religious belief that, while simplistic and not based in evidence, it passes because there’s some plausibility (racial and gender microaggressions do exist) and it pays the salaries of a lot of fairly ignorant officials to go ahead and impose this version of righteousness.

    Glen Davidson

    • TJR
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      The attendant probably experienced their complaint as a status-based microaggression.

      • Dave
        Posted April 12, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        It also assumes that everyone is steeped in the history and assumptions underlying US racial politics. To a European, or probably anyone else outside the USA, asking a “person of colour” to move to the back of the plane to redistribute weight might seem a perfectly innocent request, as indeed it was meant to be in this case. Most of us don’t go around burdened with the hair-trigger sensitivity that seems to be normal in the US these days. Where I live, no-one would use elaborate circumlocutions like “person of colour” or “African-American” where the simple word “black” will do.

        • TJR
          Posted April 12, 2018 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          I certainly experience that assumption, that we all understand US racial politics, as a microaggression.

        • Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          Thanks, Dave. I am at a loss to keep up with whatever description is currently acceptable for people whom I was brought up to call “black”. I always seem to be at least one stage behind, so I’ve given up now, and reverted to “black”. So sue me for microaggression.

          • Posted April 12, 2018 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            Right! The bullies will prevail until normal people say “no”.

    • phoffman56
      Posted April 13, 2018 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      Was it beyond the common-sense and social intelligence of that airplane employee to have said to the five: ‘I need two of you to go further back so the plane has a safe weight distribution?’ If no cooperation ensues, she commands one each from the two groups, but slowly so that a volunteer from the other three might jump up to possibly improve the situation.

      Demote her to toilet cleaner.

  3. Posted April 12, 2018 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    This content is available exclusively to Chronicle subscribers.

    • Posted April 12, 2018 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      I put it in a Word document, so judicious inquiry will yield you a copy. I don’t have a subscription, so I don’t know why I can see it.

  4. Posted April 12, 2018 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    So the whole thing was triggered by a few college administrators and bureaucrats seeking relevance in their jobs? Gah! Talk about butterfly wings!

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    So if this is the cause, it should then lead responsible people to the cure.

  6. BJ
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I have to say, I’m not terribly impressed with this article. It’s a very light collection of the author’s thoughts with scant factual material. Considering the plethora of evidence I’ve read about over the years of administrators demanding (a certain kind of) ideological conformity at colleges, I thought this article would refer to some of the most troubling cases. I can’t imagine that anyone who doesn’t know much about this issue will be persuaded by the article, nor that anyone who does will learn much from it.

  7. William Stewart
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Psychologist Scott Lilienfeld has written an article which is highly critical of the concept of racial microaggresions. I believe it is available online.

  8. Posted April 12, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    From the Sue article: “numerous personal narratives and brief life stories on race… provide experiential evidence.” That’s not what “experiment” and “evidence” are usually understood to mean.

  9. glen1davidson
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Another anti-free speech incident. It’s a private college, so not legally a First Amendment issue, but clearly contrary to the ideals of democracy and higher ed.

    Glen Davidson

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    “lack of definitional specificity,”

    I take it as axiomatic that redefining words in the service of an ideology is always a surefire sign of lack of intellectual integrity. It is in the broad sense “Newspeak”- though not in precisely the same sense that Orwell meant it.

    This I think says it all.

    “I don’t doubt that microaggressions exist or that they can do harm, but the confidence with which Sue and his co-authors reduce complex interactions to Manichaean encounters between villains and victims is astonishing.”

  11. Jon Gallant
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    The role of schools of education in the diffusion of current pop-Left fundamentalism is transparent. There have been many cases of “scholars” spouting that abstract thinking (in mathematics), standards of rigor (in anything), or correct grammar (in writing) are all “colonialist privileged discourses” etc. etc. These emissions almost invariably come from departments of education, or programs of “Teaching in X”. An example: .

    Asher contributes to the sociology of this epidemic by noting its connection with the burning concern of bureaucrats with school of ed degrees for their STATUS. I trust nobody is utterly amazed by this revelation. It nicely explains how and why the diversicrats have multiplied like rabbits, and expanded their authority like priests.

    • Posted April 12, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Great phrase: “expanded their authority like priests”.

  12. Pliny the in Between
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Hey now – don’t be dissing my home. I can of course (and often do) because I live there ;).

  13. Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    You need a subscription to read the Chron article. I used to subscribe but not for a long time now.

    • Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I noted above and in a comment that I’ll send a copy to those who inquire.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Were I feelin’ snarky, I might go the old saw that “those who can’t do, teach” one better by saying that those who can’t teach, administrate.

    And I am, so I did.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 12, 2018 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      Totally agree. As far as I’m concerned, administrators are just glorified clerks and janitors, they have no academic credibility and should be kept firmly in their place. It is not their job or their prerogative to make policy.

      (Disclaimer: I’m an engineer and a reluctant (fake-it-till-you-make-it) project manager. Was, now retired.)


  15. Christopher
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    “…you must parrot received ideological views…”

    Damn right you must! In one of my education courses, back when I was dumb enough to think I should teach, I was dressed down for having the temerity to suggest that a Russian-born Russian speaker had an advantage over myself in the Russian history course I was also taking, as they had grown up in the culture, had heard about their history and culture repeatedly while growing up, and of course, they spoke Russian. Well, how wrong (and naive) was I! No, I was informed, I could NEVER be at a disadvantage because I was white and male. Only women and non-white people could be disadvantaged! I argued that no, being. Russian speaker, with the ability to pronounce and remember the names was by itself a major advantage that I lacked, but of course, I was wrong wrong wrong. So, the real lesson for me was not about culture and diversity, but that because of my skin color and my private parts, the only way to survive, much less succeed, was to shut up and keep my head down. What a pointless class (and degree) it was.or perhaps I should say what a CRITICALLY pointless class, as everything was CRITICAL, especially the cherished pedagogy.

  16. eric
    Posted April 12, 2018 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    “The first change for everyone involved in this transformation is deciding unequivocally that we are educators.”

    Something tells me that if the Uni President decided that – like professors – they had to publish a bunch of research papers and get a bunch of grants in order to qualify for a permanent job, they would suddenly rediscover that their job description is not ‘educator’ but ‘administrator’.

    Having said that, I’m not opposed at all to a Uni mixing and/or combining the roles. AFAIK there’s always been some of that going on, with professors sitting on administrative committees etc. And if you’re hiring Masters and PhDs in Education to be part of your administrative staff, yes why not use their expertise to the benefit of your students. There’s nothing at all wrong with a mixed job description IMO. The problem here seems to be that the job description they took on does not match the job description the Uni hired them to do and wanted them to do.

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