Defending Faculty, Instructors & Historians

Dear WUU Members & Greater Wisconsin Community,

Senator Ron Johnson’s heart is in the right place. He wants to serve the state of Wisconsin. There seems to be a disconnect along the neurological pathways governing the relationships between his heart, brain, and mouth. Recent attacks on the state education system by Senator Ron Johnson have been deplorable. They are understandable, in the context that Senator Johnson as a degree in business, is a businessman and believes education is a business. Fortunately, this is not the position all business majors take. Unfortunately, one certain business major sees himself qualified to speak on what it takes to run public education systems.

By definition, “public education” cannot be treated as a business, even as improvements in the public education system are fundamentally a precursor to economic development. More than this, though, students should be contributors to an improved society, broadly construed. Perhaps we can get Senator Ron Johnson to agree on this later point. I wonder if the debate rests upon our definition of “improvement.” I see an improvement as the result of a designated action that makes a circumstance better than before. It is surely impossible, then, that slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from a state budget could do anything but maim public education. Nonetheless, let us grant the senator the respect to tackle his comments as they have been stated, and, for the time being, resist the urge to discount them as sheer idiocy.

  1. The senator blames a “higher ed cartel” for raising prices and making tuition not affordable.
  • This claim is very difficult to address. Senator Johnson actually opposes refinancing student loans, and, as it happens, student loans are one primary reason why costs have been driven up. Actually, that was pretty easy, wasn’t it? Let’s elaborate…
  • Student loans force students who are not wealthy to essentially bet on their careers. Here’s the catch. The federal reserve is literally betting against students and calling the system “financial aid.” The state claims that it is betting “for the students” on the premise that the individual student will not default on their loans. In reality, they are betting against the idea that students will be able to pay off the debt or get the debt forgiven before a significant amount of interest has accrued. 96% of students attending for-profit colleges take out student loans. Between 2008 and 2012 the number of students with loans at public institutions increased from 66% to 71%. Public institutions are beginning to follow a for-profit model. The rub is that colleges have been able to advertise “financial aid,” when in reality, they offer minimal or partial financial aid.
  • Loans and work-study are not true financial aid. A grant or a scholarship is true financial aid. The direct result of reliance on work-study and loans as “financial aid” is that far more than the majority of students, public and private, are forced into a contemporary form of indentured servitude at some point in their careers, allowing the federal government to profit billions of dollars off of accrued interest. The federal reserve has been correct about one thing for certain: Given the chance, a working class potential student would almost always bet that it is worth it to “go to college” on the chance that they may be able to become upper-middle class. In this scenario, which is what happened between the 1980s and the 2000s, the number of college students relative to the general population increases substantially.
  • Everybody wins right? Broader access to education, the students become richer and the federal government profits, right? Wrong. Students may or may not repay their loans. Most do eventually. That is not the problem. The problem is that institutions that began to follow the for-profit model began to raise tuition, which appears justifiable because they can argue that “the grand majority of students receive financial aid.” At the same time, the amount of true financial aid did not increase apace with the expanding size of college attendees relative to the general population and the rate of inflation.
  • What is happening here, now? Senator Ron Johnson readily accepts that “the tuition is too damn high!” as it were. But, he also refuses to accept reality: for-profit models for education are making the tuition “too damn high.” In other words, when he blames professors: he is scapegoating. He blames others for the negative results of his own financial model for education.
  • The solution: Refinance student loans with state subsidies. Ensure that greater state funding goes to students who will plan on taking out loans over the next four years. Ensure that financial aid expands apace with the expanding population of students.

2. The senator believes large class sizes, internet classrooms, and one solid lecturer are pedagogically sound.

  • Premise: we should not expect a senator with an expertise in business to understand the finer points of pedagogy. Fortunately, UW President Glenn Frank realized this in 1927, when he began plans for the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. The School of Education has since blossomed into the number one ranked public program focused on the theory and research of effective pedagogy in the country.
  • Almost all pedagogical studies agree that it is possible to have larger class sizes be productive learning environments. The same studies will also highlight that students learn well from peer-to-peer interaction in the classroom and one on one time with the instructor. Categorically, class sizes of more than 20 make this model difficult for instructors. Enter…Teaching Assistants. Thanks to the innovative, disciplined, driven work of graduate students, class sizes in the hundreds at UW-Madison are also frequently coupled with smaller discussions sections where students deepen their understanding of the pedagogical material.
  • Pedagogically it is impossible to run “one good lecturer” on video for thousands of students all the time. Being simply “receivers” will not allow students to become contributors in their chosen fields. To train students to become contributors, which we may aptly assume is a stated goal of Senator Ron Johnson, we need to ensure that lecturers have adequate time to complete research, as well as innovate pedagogically, while also mentoring. Students need time in smaller classes and discussion sections as well. Following Senator Johnson’s model would sink our programs, destroying public education in Wisconsin, and eventually, the state economy.
  • The senator’s model for education thinks of the university as comprised of single classrooms and woefully underestimates the need for academic staff to support student advising, the construction of majors and programs, research into the development of new academic programs, day to day support service, and even basic maintenance of our institutions. Following, and innovating upon the existing models that departments have already themselves developed will be the only way to ensure that our public university can improve upon already quite competitive rankings.

3. The senator believes Ken Burns documentaries can replace tens of thousands of history teachers.

  • Premise: Ken Burns has had an astounding career, producing twenty-seven documentaries, with additional three shorts, three more planned documentaries, and two as Executive Producer.
  • The senator loves the Civil War documentary. It is a great documentary, as long as you are not interested the role of women during the civil war. Historians near and far critiqued the Civil War documentary throughout the 1990s. In 1996 the criticisms culminated in an edited volume, where the reviewers were exceeding polite, and Burns was even invited to contribute toward his defense. Thousands of nuanced readings of Catherine Clinton’s essay “Noble Women as Well” from that volume are worth more than all of Burn’s works on the civil war combined. Professional historians will never be replaced by popular filmmakers. Filmmakers have the skills to speak to a broad popular audience. Some historians have these skills also. However, a highly educated filmmaker with the advanced research abilities of a professional research driven historian is indeed rare. Sadly, Ken Burns is not one of them.
  • Hypothetically, Ken Burns might be able to get his documentaries past a non-critical audience of high school students, making them great viewing material on nights and weekends for the American public, most of whom have not gone beyond a high school understanding of history as a discipline. For these individuals, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, it is an average level of understanding of historical knowledge. For individuals with a higher level of historical knowledge, they find his work to be something akin to popcorn. Don’t let us discount popcorn! Popcorn is delicious. Popcorn has the delicious appeal of butter and salt, but lacks robustness and is incredibly unhealthy when consumed in massive quantities.
  • The problem with Ken Burns is that most high school teachers are expected to have at least a college-level understanding of history, and many are required to have an MA in history as well. A student with an MA in history from a competitive public university, such as UW-Madison or UW-Stevens Point, is fully capable of educating high school students in the field. They can offer a full five-course intellectual meal with soup, salad, meat, potatoes and even your choice of profiterole for dessert, if that is your thing, five days a week, while Ken Burns can offer popcorn on the nights and weekends.
  • For historians and students, a major problem with Ken Burns’ documentaries is that they cover no history that is not American History. Even his approach to World War II is utterly rooted in Washington centered jingoism, with what could be labeled as “utter negligence” for much of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Say, hypothetically, in an average semester a department teaches 60 courses for undergraduates in history. Ken Burns has produced material that is directly relevant to less than one-third of these courses. I have full faith that the creative instructors in history departments and programs across the country could somehow make his material work in surprising cases. However, even in these cases, undergraduate students who are adept at critique and have refined skills as historians would be able to readily give “voice over” critiques of his documentaries while they play. In other cases, should students want to be informed about an understanding of, say, Asian History, African History, Latin American History, of History of the Islamic world, to give a few examples of topics that are introduced in World History curriculum, even at the high school level: Ken Burns offers nothing.
  • Finally, while instructors may use or recommend selected documentaries in their work at universities, they do so with the pedagogical understanding that documentary material may be used to prompt discussion, but is only apt for the study of history when combined with rigorous analysis of primary source materials, attempts to understand the diversity of source materials in a given field, foreign language study (used to provide richness to the historical record), and interdisciplinary collaboration, a staple of the public research university model of education.

Based on the evidence at hand, it is fully understandable that, professional historians, academics in general, and advanced students of history – including at the high school level – will want to critique the senator’s comments as ignorant, foolish, and short-sighted until he issues a public apology to the teachers, historians, university educators, students and families that he has insulted.

Senator Ron Johnson claims to have earned his chops on education working in the Oshkosh community. The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh saw a near 15% budget reduction in the last round of cuts. Larger classes are just one impact of these budget cuts, the only one the senator seems to understand. According to UW-Oshkosh’s body of faculty governance, they also reduced the diversity of classes offered, including in language training, reducing the competency of future students as global citizens. They impact academic advising, reducing the ability of future students to have successful careers. They cut student support programs that impact the health and wellness of the student body. They even cut sports programs as well as support for the basic needs of maintenance and new construction.

The senator has failed to speak out against the Governor Scott Walker on these issues. Essentially, he has failed the higher education system in his own community, a higher education system that began as a teachers’ college and continues to train primary and secondary school educators. This translates into a failure on the issue of education at large for the State of Wisconsin. Put simply: Senator Ron Johnson has failed all Wisconsin students.

His comments at large and inability to understand the significance of a well-funded public education system, furthermore, makes him unfit to continue to serve the State of Wisconsin as a senator.

It is time to make public education public again.

William B Noseworthy is a Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and Anthropology at UW-Oshkosh, and a Teaching Assistant in the Department of History at UW-Madison.

*The above statements were authored by Mr. Noseworthy in his capacity as a scholar of history and do not necessarily reflect the views of the majority members of WUU, the Executive Board, or the respective programs that he serves. Open discussion of them is encouraged.*