Tuesday, June 30, 2009

University Presses

Thomas Bacher, director of the University of Akron Press, has a brief essay in Inside Higher Education, where he discusses some of the challenges facing university presses. He acknowledges that the Internet and “digital information networks” “have made the printed book less important. Bacher argues for expanding university press publishing into disciplines “driving the current educational and research enterprises” (such as “science, engineering, technology”) and to connecting university presses “with the strengths of their home institutions.” He wants university presses to “become part of the new information infrastructure of the university,” and while he does not see the end of the printed book he also does not believe that the traditional book can be the primary answer or service offered by the university press. Personally, I do not believe that we, the university and its academic units like professional schools, have ever exploited the value of the book (whether in printed form or digital venue). There is a vast literature, offered by many disciplines, about the relevance (usually concluded to be, at best, a mixed bag) of their research and scholarship for public policy and public knowledge. Bacher hints at this very issue when he writes: “I had a recent conversation with a prominent engineering dean. He wanted to know why I was visiting, since his faculty was intent on getting published in Elsevier journals. I wasn’t the least bit surprised, but did mention perhaps some of his faculty might write “little books” on very narrow subjects. Basically, these books would be an extension of an existing journal article or an adaptation of class notes with the purpose of covering a topic, but keeping in line with the way faculty communicate in those fields. He thought the idea might work, but reminded me that his faculty was immersed in teaching and research, so that finding spare time for an endeavor that had negligible tenure impact would be hard.” I wish he would have commented more on this. What about all those faculty who have tenure? What about the historic mission of the university to contribute knowledge to society? You can find his article, “Books Aren’t Everything,” at http://www.insidehighered.com/layout/set/print/views/2009/06/30/bacher

Monday, June 29, 2009

Online Education

The US Department of Education has released a new study on online learning, described by Scott Jaschlik, “The Evidence on Online Education, Inside Higher Education, available at
“The study found that students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction. Further, those who took ‘blended’ courses -- those that combine elements of online learning and face-to-face instruction -- appeared to do best of all. That finding could be significant as many colleges report that blended instruction is among the fastest-growing types of enrollment.” This “meta-analysis” draws on “more than 1,000 empirical studies of online learning that were published from 1996 through July 2008”, using “a small number (51) of independent studies that met strict criteria.”

Putting the Pieces Together

Posted on behalf of Bernadette Callery

Museum International, volume 61, nos. 1-2, 2009. Conference proceedings of the 2008 “Athens International Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin” held at the New Acropolis Museum.

Predictably, the opening of the New Acropolis Museum has fanned the fires of the repatriation debate over the return of the pieces of the Parthenon frieze to Athens – a fire that has been smoldering in the media since 1809 when Lord Byron published his “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.” Byron berates Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin, for purchasing and removing those sculptural elements for display in London, wasting
“useless thousands on the Phidian freaks,
Mis-shapen monuments, and maimed antiques;
And make their grand saloons a general mart
For all the mutilated blocks of art.”

This theme of the media’s involvement in the removal and restitution of cultural property continues in the postings of culture journalist Lee Rosenbaum and her CultureGrrl blog at http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/ - a useful source of breaking news in the world of art politics. Rosenbaum was also a contributor to the recently published issue of Museum International, vol. 61, nos. 1-2, 2009, the conference proceedings of the 2008 “Athens International Conference on the Return of Cultural Objects to their Countries of Origin” held at the New Acropolis Museum.

Readily available through the wonders of license agreements and full-text retrieval via Pittcat, many of the articles in this themed issue of Museum International are triumphant case studies of the return or reunification of cultural property. In her final synthesis of the conference, Elena Korka, Director for Documentation and Protection of Cultural Objects at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, notes that these cases “refer to objects, monuments or human remains removed from their countries of origin before 1970 – that is, before the UNESCO Convention – and whose return met with success as a result of a series of actions and long negotiations.” Social, legal, and archaeological issues are discussed by cultural ministers, tribal representatives, law professors, structural engineers, museum curators, archaeologists, and journalists, assuring that many voices are heard.

What particularly struck me were the legal maneuverings as claimants move through the dialectic dance, pausing to nod to the UNESCO Convention and its supporting legislation in the ratifying countries, the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, and the ICOM Code of Ethics. Mediation by interested scholars appears to have an impact in supporting national claims and they appear to be some of the most effective negotiators. One of these voluntary returns reunited the head and body of one of the stone birds of Great Zimbabwe, bringing together the upper part of the sculpture, which had remained in Zimbabwe, with the lower part, which was removed from the site by adventurers in the late nineteenth century. The much-traveled lower part of the figure came to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium for the 1998 “Legacies of Stone: Zimbabwe Past and Present” exhibition, by way of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, Leipzig and St. Petersburg, as yet another example of the cultural dislocations of World War II. The conditions of the unification of this spiritually significant object and its return to the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe were that there was to be no blood shed throughout the transfer, and that the transfer be recognized as a long-term loan from Germany to Zimbabwe. This nice distinction between possession and ownership is also one of the points of argument in the ongoing call for the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum to the New Acropolis Museum, in which Britain recently offered a three-month loan of the marbles to the Acropolis Museum on the condition that Greece recognizes Britain’s ownership of the sculptures.

All such acts of cultural removal have substantial political overtones, as can be seen in the discussion of the return of the Axum obelisk or stelae, removed in 1935 from Axum, Ethopia, by personal order of Benito Mussolini for re-erection in Rome. As noted in Tullio Scovazzi’s article on the legal aspects of the Axum Obelisk case, Mussolini’s removal of the obelisk consciously drew a “direct parallel with the Roman Empire, also known to have plundered booty from the cities it annexed.” The sheer engineering feat of the removal, return and reconstruction of this 150 ton, 24 meter tall structure underlines the ease with which developing countries, albeit ancient cultures, can be exploited by developed ones – as well as the lengths to which megalomaniacs will go to have their whims gratified.

The chief virtue of many of these returns was the re-establishment of the spiritual value of the objects and their reintegration into the cultural environment of their creators. Collaborative loans, the most plausible of the solutions currently posed for the “Parthenon Marbles,” was illustrated by the actual case study of the reciprocal loan for exhibition of a Sumerian statue, now with its head and body reunited, which will be shared between the Musée du Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Warning those of us who think that digitization is necessarily a Good Thing, especially as it allows us to virtually reassemble the pieces of culturally disassociated materials, George W. Anastassopoulos, Permanent Delegate of Greece to UNESCO, and President of the 34th session of the General Conference of UNESCO, reminds us in his foreword that it ain’t necessarily so. There he notes that “some of the more determined traditionalists, with the help of new information and communication technologies, are setting themselves up as proponents of digital repatriation – a convenient but pale excuse for old collections to stay where they are, offering cultures that have been plundered the meagre compensation of access to cultures without a soul. It was thus no accident at all that the 34th session of UNESCO's General Conference should assert in 2007 that virtual access to cultural property cannot supplant the enjoyment of such property in its original and authentic setting.”

I recommend this collection for its case study approach and excellent legal overviews of the negotiations to anyone dealing with the ethics as well as the practical mechanics of preserving cultural property. These strongly argued articles will certainly be required reading for next year’s Museum Archives course.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Secrecy and Disclosure

Ronald Goldfarb, In Confidence: When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

Ross Clark, The Road to Big Brother: One Man’s Struggle Against the Surveillance Society (New York: Encounter Books, 2009)

These two new books provide interesting perspectives on the issues of secrecy and privacy in society. Goldfarb, a lawyer and literary agent, provides a balanced analysis, advocating “that, as a matter of social policy, confidentiality should be encouraged and expanded and notions of privilege should be reconsidered and confined to clear and commanding situations” (p. 35). He provides excellent discussion about attorney-client privilege and the problems posed by the outsourcing of records, medical confidentiality and the need for access to patient records for effective treatment, psychotherapists and confidentiality, pastoral privilege, business confidentiality, journalists and the protection of sources, government secrecy and accountability in a democratic society, and the troubling impact of technology on secrecy and privacy. He reviews considerable case law, and he carefully weighs the pros and cons of when matters should be sealed and when they should be disclosed. “Confidentiality is a goal, not an absolute, and one that must be balanced against competing goals” (p. 231). Clark, an English journalist, has written a rant against all the various devices and approaches being used to watch us by government, business, and even private citizens. He discusses CCTV cameras, DNA fingerprints, Sex offenders’ registration, national ID cards, national databases, the use of satellite imagery, the collection and use of financial data, medical records, and so forth. Where Goldfarb seeks to consider the various issues associated with secrecy and privacy, Clark intends to present the most extreme of cases, rousing us to action. Clark ends his book in this fashion: “When the government calls me in to have a microchip implanted under my skin, I’m not going. If the time comes when we are treated like groceries in a supermarket distribution center, that’s it. I will be going underground, or rather taking to the hills and forests where I will hunt, scavenge – and officially cease to exist. I may even see you there” (p. 129). Goldfarb’s book is one to be used in one of my courses, while Clark’s provides a good personal account intended to provoke reflection (and, in a sense, is an extended footnote to the Goldfarb study).

Monday, June 22, 2009

The End of the Professor?

Lots of individuals writing about the economics of higher education and the notion of the corporate university have seemed to approach their topic as if the university is a victim of external, uncontrollable factors. Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2008) places the responsibility directly on decisions being made by university administrators. Bousquet tracks the shift from regular full-time faculty to part-time adjunct faculty, the growth of administrators, from a non-profit to profit-seeking agenda, and to virtual, faculty-less classrooms. Most importantly, perhaps, Bousquet contends we are “witnessing the disappearance of the professorate” (p. 71), and, if for no other reason than this, this is a book worth reading.

The Rights of the Reader

Pennac, Daniel. Comme un roman. éditions Galimard, 1992.
English Translation: The Rights of the Reader. Candlewick, 2008.

I have a poster in my office listing the “Rights of the Reader”. The source for these “rights” is Daniel Pennac’s book, Comme un roman (1992). The “Rights of the Reader” are well known in the library world but I hadn’t read the original text so this summer I ventured into French literature.

Pennac is a well-known French humourist who writes for children and adults. Several of his books have been adapted to film and theatre. Early in his career, he taught boys in a French Lycée (high school) where he formed strong ideas on the nature of reading. These ideas are expressed in Comme un roman, his cri de coeur for readers. Pennac begins his book with an appeal: “Please (I beg of you) do not use this book as an instrument of pedagogical torture” (I love this quote – I have to figure out a way to use it in a lecture…). Questioning why young children love reading so much and why adolescent boys seem to hate it, Pennac asks, where did we go wrong? The book was written as a reaction against the reading dogma prevalent in French schools of the time – forced reading, reading for grades or for a “correct” interpretation, reading for bits of information and fill-in-the-blank tests (we may see more similarities here than we’d like to admit). Forgotten in all the pedagogy was simple pleasure in reading. The chief pleasure of reading, according to Pennac, is sharing and talking about books with others – something parents cease doing once their child’s formal schooling has begun. Although Pennac’s book doesn’t deal with literacy issues that might have an impact on how adults share books with young people - in Pannac’s world, all adults are well-read; they’ve simply forgotten what its like to read Stendahl, Flaubert and Tolstoy for the first time - it still delivers the strong message that reading should be a guilt-free pleasure. Pannac has words for librarians. “Dear librarians, guardians of the temple”, he writes, “It is fortunate that all the titles of the world have found their place in your perfect organization …but it would also be good if you talked about your favourite books to visitors who are lost in the forest of reading possibilities…” Notwithstanding my poor translation, this is a poetic call to arms for librarians and a message our students need to hear.

The book ends with a list of the famous ten inalienable “Rights of the Reader”:
• The right not to read
• The right to skip pages
• The right to not finish a book
• The right to re-read
• The right to read anything
• The right to escapism
• The right to read anywhere
• The right to browse
• The right to read out loud
• The right not to defend your tastes

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ray Bradbury and Libraries

Interesting story about science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s efforts to raise money for public libraries in today’s New York Times. Here are some excerpts.

This is a lucky thing for the Ventura County Public Libraries — because among Mr. Bradbury’s passions, none burn quite as hot as his lifelong enthusiasm for halls of books. His most famous novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” which concerns book burning, was written on a pay typewriter in the basement of the University of California, Los Angeles, library; his novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes” contains a seminal library scene.


“Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury said. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”


The Internet? Don’t get him started. “The Internet is a big distraction,” Mr. Bradbury barked from his perch in his house in Los Angeles, which is jammed with enormous stuffed animals, videos, DVDs, wooden toys, photographs and books, with things like the National Medal of Arts sort of tossed on a table.

“Yahoo called me eight weeks ago,” he said, voice rising. “They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.’

“It’s distracting,” he continued. “It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.”

A Yahoo spokeswoman said it was impossible to verify Mr. Bradbury’s account without more details.

The story is Jennifer Steinhauer, “In His Own Words,” New York Times, 20 January 2009, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/20/us/20ventura.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Intellectual Property

James Boyle, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Mark Helprin, Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto (New York: Harper, 2009).

Intellectual property is a constantly shifting and changing area, and the literature on it runs the spectrum from the historical to the hysterical. Here are two books representing very different perspectives, one authored by a lawyer (Boyle) and the other by a writer (Helprin).

In 2007 novelist and essayist Mark Helprin wrote an op-ed in the New York Times defending copyright and found himself the target of angry letters and blog postings as far as the Internet could reach. Digital Barbarism is his response, with Helprin placing the copyright fracas in the middle of the digital era, the latter the target of his biting humor and witticisms. Helprin comments freely on how we have signed so much over to the machines, with comments on the decline of the quality of writing, the impoverishment of publishing, the abandonment of reading, misplaced enthusiasms about how ideas are formed and what creativity is really about, and so forth. Helprin is angry, of course, and some will find his assessments to fall wide of the mark or just plain hysterical, but he offers insights and notions that ought to elicit some careful thought and response. Consider this, for example: “We tend to look up rather than at ourselves when surrendering to such passions of righteousness. The assault on copyright is a species of this, based on the infantile presumption that a feeling of justice and indignation gives one a right to the work, property, and time (those are very often significantly equivalent) of others, and that this, whether harbored at the ready or expressed in action, is noble and fair” (p. 181).

Boyle’s book provides a variety of highly readable case studies (in music, the arts, science, and technology), presented to reflect his concern about we are closing more and more down. He argues that every time we reconsider intellectual property, we add more barriers. Boyle worries that much of twentieth-century culture is under wraps, “lost culture” (p. 9). “Copyright, intended to be the servant of creativity, a means of promoting access to information, is becoming an obstacle to both” (p. 15). Why worry about this? “Because the public domain is the basis for our art, our science, and our self-understanding. It is the raw material from which we make new inventions and create new cultural works” (p. 39).

These are two books that could be used in a course. Helprin’s work is an argumentative, highly personal, account. Boyle’s work is a scholarly study, and the target of some of Helprin’s sarcasm. Fun.

2.5 Million Homes Remain Without DTV After The Transition | Nielsen Wire

2.5 Million Homes Remain Without DTV After The Transition | Nielsen Wire

What is interesting here is that 4.4% of the "Under 35" households were not ready as of June 14, vs. 1.1% of "Over 55" households. Perhaps this indicates that the younger crowd may have spurned broadcast television, in which case the DTV transition is irrelevant.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I always set aside a little time to read new explorations about the nature of work, both to understand my own sense of work and to muse over just what my students are facing in their own future endeavors. I discovered two new interesting books on the nature of work.

The travel writer and social commentator Alain de Botton has written an engaging inquiry into work in his The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009). Some of this resonates with my own experience. In the last few years I have taken up landscape painting. In discussing little-known painter Stephen Taylor, de Botton writes: “Taylor found his teachers on museum walls. The great dead masters are generous instructors: it is not uncommon for one of them to impart a piece of technical wisdom to a pupil born five centuries after him. Works which ordinary gallery visitors might regard as inert entertainment are, for artists, living prescriptions” (p. 176). I understand this better myself, as now when I wander into a museum I find myself having a new appreciation of the work of long-dead artists, as I try to examine more closely how they achieved what they did (although I have found museum guards eyeing me more suspiciously as I peer more intently at the paintings).

De Botton also provides insights into the routines of work, encompassing even the mundane activities of the academic world. “To see ourselves as the centre of the universe and the present time as the summit of history,” de Botton muses, “to view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries, to read only sparingly, to neglect the pressures of deadlines, to snap at colleagues, to make our way through conference agendas marked ’11:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.: coffee break,’ to behave heedlessly and greedily and then to combust in battle – maybe all of this, in the end, is working wisdom” (pp. 124, 126). He later continues, “Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided a perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble” (p. 136). It all sounds like a typical academic’s day of faculty meetings, encounters with students, and the filling in of forms.

Another book gets closer to us because it is written by an academically trained individual who, in part, is reflecting on work as defined in our knowledge era. Matthew B. Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, prepared for an academic career, and gave it all up in order to run a motorcycle repair shop. I guess it is not altogether surprising that he has written a book on manual work and its value in our society -- Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Press, 2009). Crawford critiques the notion of knowledge work, in part because he finds “manual work more engaging intellectually,” and his book is his effort to “understand why this should be so” (p. 5). Crawford explores the notion of what a “good job” entails, and he puts some of this into a historical perspective (for example): “White-collar professions, too, are subject to routinization and degradation, proceeding by the same logic that hit manual fabrication a hundred years ago: the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process, and then handed back to a new class of workers – clerks – who replace the professionals” (p. 44).

So, as you might imagine, Crawford has a lot of uncomfortable things to say about our ideas of the information society, the knowledge era, and computer literacy. He wonders if it isn’t the case that “college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality” (p. 147). Crawford hasn’t inspired me to take up tools and build something – I am a total failure at this, but he has made me reflect a little more on the relationship between the theory and practice aspects of what we deal with in our classrooms.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Journal Publishing

Kate Maternowski, “Who Profits from For-Profit Journals?” Inside Higher Education, June 12, 2009, http://www.insidehighered.com/layout/set/print/news/2009/06/12/journals, reports on discussions at this week’s meeting of the American Association of University Professors about publishing in non-profit or for-profit venues. Issues of access, citation, and compensation. “A few alternatives to completely commercially managed journals the speakers mentioned included self-managed, non-profit, open-access models (like ACME, where Engel-DiMauro serves on the editorial board); self-managed, nonprofits with fee-restricted access (Human Geography: A New Radical Journal is one); pooled control, free access journals (SCOAP3); or even – though Engel-DiMauro admitted they can be too pricey for academics -- corporate-owned journals that provide free access but charge the author (Open Geography Journal).”

Sunday, June 07, 2009


Susan D. Blum, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009)

Susan Blum demonstrates that plagiarism is a confusing topic, far more complicated than it first seems, in her book on the subject. However, this is about far more than plagiarism, with its focus on the university college, especially relationship between students and faculty. I had expected to find a book mostly about student writing. What I discovered was a book exploring the nature of teaching and the expectations students bring with them into college (and by extension, graduate school). While Blum offers actions that can be taken, her acknowledgement of the complexity of plagiarism in this student culture lead to highly involved recommendations that I found less useful than her characterization of why problems such as plagiarism persist and may even be growing.

Blum gives us a vivid glimpse into the world of students, considering some matters with direct implications for what we do in an I-School. Here is her assessment about what students’ use of Wikipedia suggests about why plagiarism may be so prevalent: “If faculty are attempting to force students to individual authorship while a non-authorized work is at the top of most Google searches, this constitutes another mismatch between authentic and performance selves, between the generation of teachers and administrators and that of today’s college students. The prohibition on plagiarism – the unacknowledged use of material by a named author – makes no sense in a context in which unnamed series of people offer their work free of credit, free of charge, free of attribution” (p. 71). Hence, this is why plagiarism is so much more complicated than simply using without attribution another’s work.

What I found most useful is Blum’s exploration of student culture, and how it impacts on issues such as plagiarism. Drawing on extensive interviews with students, she notes, “Students even justify cheating, at least in the abstract, out of ‘need.’ If education is regarded by students at elite universities as putting in a certain effort to attain the desired end – a good grade, a degree, fun – then knowing how to achieve that goal is a measure of their competence” (p. 81). While I have not had direct experience with students plagiarizing, I have had considerable experience with students who seem to think that any aspect of required work (especially reading and class participation) as a burden. And Blum addresses these issues as well: “I have read hundreds of student evaluations of teachers when hiring new colleagues. Some questionnaires ask how much time the students spent on the class. The average seemed to be about four hours per week per class, even at first-rate universities. Sometimes students responding that they worked as little as three to four hours complained that the course had too intense a workload or had too much reading for them to finish” (p. 118). While this is an observation about undergraduate students, I think it applies just as much to many students at the graduate level, especially in professional schools where an emphasis on credentials seems more intense than in other university programs.

This study also suggests some of the reasons why faculty members have such a difficult time relating to their students. Blum notes, “The era when it was considered cool to sit up all night discussing Nietzsche and Marcuse is long gone. It is no wonder that faculty, who tend to be of that idealized earlier generation, lament the absence of ideas in student life” (p. 122). I admit that it is hard to understand why so many students seem uninterested in learning, even resistant to it. Blum offers this explanation: “Education specialists distinguish intrinsic motivations for learning (a love of knowledge for its own sake, or a need for knowledge in application) from extrinsic motivations (good grades, teachers’ or parents’ praise, a diploma, a job). Students who value the work of learning for its own sake are less likely to cut corners, to rush or cheat, because they savor the experience itself” (p .125). The nature of professional schools put such notions to the test because the students come there for particular credentials and exposure to practical knowledge, but my sense is that the university, in its rapidly evolving corporate mode, is becoming more like professional schools. Where once commentators on higher education often discussed professional schools as square pegs in round holes, now it seems unnecessary to characterize the relationship in this fashion.

Blum also has a lot to say about teaching and its evaluation. Here is her assessment of teaching evaluations: “Grades reward students; teaching evaluations reward teachers. Teachers who are known to give high grades are popular, while those who give a broader range of grades are avoided, or receive less positive course evaluations from students. Many who study teaching evaluations argue that there exists a clear correlation between average student grade and the evaluations student make of their professors” (p. 126). It might seem silly to worry about such issues in an environment where even the mechanics of teaching evaluations are problematic, but I think Blum’s observation clearly demonstrates why teaching evaluations have to include far more than students’ immediate reactions to their classroom experiences. She connects such matters to why plagiarism occurs: “In these circumstances plagiarism might strike many students as a logical option: for those who are focused entirely on external goals such as high grades, a degree, or admission to the next level of education; for those who are in college to have fun; for those who whose notion of education involves checking item off a list rather than reveling in a process of discovery; for those who are busy with other activities and obligations; for those who lack the ability to earn their rewards to which they feel they have a right” (p. 140). My sense is that such issues are going to get worse in our current problematic economic situation. Blum notes that students coming into the university have often been long accustomed to getting high grades, and they become averse to taking any risks in learning because they are under great pressure to find jobs down the road. This is getting even worse as we watch the economy tank and good jobs become scarcer.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Unjust Deserts

Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, Unjust Desserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance (New York: The New Press, 2008).

These authors, while acknowledging that generally now economic and other experts interested in economic issues understand that present knowledge derives from contemporary and historical sources, go one step farther and assert that “by far the most important element in all this is the knowledge that society contributes over time” (p. 15). They argue that “we (today) contribute relatively less and less as time goes on, but obtain more and more. Most of what we produce is generated – increasingly – by what we inherit, not by what we add to the inheritance” (p. 37). There is ample discussion about how we inherit this knowledge, through various means of creating repositories (such as journals and journals in libraries) and communicating (from oral to online means). For example, “The fundamental change occurred with the expansion of symbolic access across multiple external memory devices, beginning with written records and extending to today’s vast library holdings and electronic databases. The invention of books, journals, libraries, databases, and other systems of symbolic storage constitutes an essential (and still expanding) ‘hardware’ change in humanity’s cognitive architecture” (p. 47). They mention the importance of classification and cataloguing approaches, the role of universities and their faculty in creating canonical materials and conveying knowledge over time, and other issues of interest to a school such as ours. This leads them to believe that the “average high-tech millionaire today has essentially the same basic mental capacities as his predecessors. . . . The real difference is that he (and his colleagues and rivals) inherited much, much more knowledge, and much better-organized knowledge, with which to work” (p. 54). Building on this argument, Aperovitz and Daly conclude that “society as a whole . . . has a primary moral claim to that (very large) portion of wealth that the inherited knowledge it has contributed now creates” (p. 127). Obviously, they then use such notions to question how we approach the unequal distribution of wealth in our society.