Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Book Review of Holfstadter, R. & Metzger, W. P. (1955). The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. New York, NY: Columbia University.

Copyright © 2007 by José Cossa

The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States is an analytical history of the concept of freedom and a chronological narrative of the development of the concept academic freedom.  Holfstadter and Metger engage in a conceptual analysis of freedom in the circles of America academics by asking:  (a) what it meant to successive generations of academic men; (b) to what extent they have achieved it; and (c) what factors in academics itself, as well as in American culture at large, have created and sustained it.  In a nutshell, the authors inquire as to why freedom exists and why it has been limited (p. x).
According to Holfstadter and Metger The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States is the first part of Columbia University’s The American Academic Freedom Project, directed by Robert M. MacIver, a project that consists of two parts:  (1) a historical survey of the rise, development, and vicissitudes of academic freedom; and, (2) an analysis of the contemporary situation and a study of the problems it presents, against a background designed to bring out the significance of academic freedom and its relation to the society in which we live.
As a reflection of good scholarship and awareness of broadness of topic, Holfstadter and Metger make their delimitations known by defining what it is that they are studying.  They are concerned with the concept and construct freedom within college and university education, primarily with the academic freedom of faculty members and students’ freedom is integrated only when it converges with faculty freedom; however, they opt to provide the reader with pointers to some important resources that cover aspects that they did not cover in this work.
Structurally, the book is divided in two parts:  (a) the age of the college, an age marked by religious and theological questions; and, (b) the age of the university, an age marked by a high preoccupation with science and social problems.  Stylistically, the authors advance their analysis in a chronological fashion from pre-reformation to post-reformation intellectual history.  The use of the Reformation as the reference point from which the history of academic freedom is to be seen constitutes a good indication of how the authors view Christianity as a major player in understanding academic freedom.  The book is a history of the development of academic freedom within a theoretical framework of Christian history, theology, and dogma.  As an indication of the central role of Christianity in understanding academic freedom since the medieval times, Holfstadter and Metger (p. 12) argue that “the intellectual freedom of the medieval scholar existed within the framework of an authoritative system of faith upheld by vigilant positive authority” and they argue that an understanding of academic freedom must take into account the contextual frameworks of its time.  They rally for an exegetical study of history and posit the following:
Since it is our purpose to enter sympathetically into the spirit of the medieval academic experience and understand the function of the medieval university from the point of view of its period, it is necessary to take from the moment a relative view, accepting as given the medieval frameworks of ideas.  (p. 12)
The authors invite the reader to recognize the difference between historical periods since they set the platform for the development of the concept academic freedom, to recognize the difference between the various constructs of freedom as used in each phase of the development of the idea of academic freedom, and to take into account the forces at work in the intellectual sphere as history unfolded.  The chronology of intellectual or academic freedom advances with a background of Christian dogmatisms (in which heresy was defined as departure from the Catholic Christian worldview) of the pre-reformation era, a background of humanism during the renaissance and reformation era, and later a background of religious freedom and consequent denominationalism in the United States.
I agree with the authors’ choice to start with the early developments of academic freedom in order to establish a foundation for a better and thorough understanding of the “nature of the beast.”  The plight for Academic freedom in America can be better appreciated when the complex developmental history is seen in perspective.  When denominationalism and sectarianism are seen as major players to both promote and discourage academic freedom, one can only begin to wonder whether freedom is desired because it is a right of all citizens or if it is desirable because it serves selfish or group interests.  This is a paradox surrounding academic freedom, whether one studies it within the religious framework of sectarianism and denominationalism or the political framework of democracy.  Michael Perko, discussing about red-hunts and the communist saga in the United States, asserts the following:
In times when academic freedom is not challenged, academic leadership is in support of it; however, in times when it is challenged leadership rolls over it.  During the times of the red-hunts, membership in the communist party constituted a ground for expulsion from, exclusion, or non-acceptance into a faculty position.  (Lecture on American Higher Education, Loyola University of Chicago, 2003)
One aspect that deserves negative criticism in Holfstadter and Metger that caught my attention is their discussion of Thomas Clap (pp. 163-177).  The authors depart from their methodology and ethics as historians to subjective critiques of a historical man.  Clap is characterized by negative attributes in an obviously subjective manner rather than placed in the book as an actor meriting attention for his position as a leader who reflected a particular sectarian dogmatism and influenced academic freedom in his time.  The authors’ passionate yet negative discussion of Clap tinted, unnecessarily, what would otherwise be a near-perfect piece of work.  Despite the authors’ initial refrain from polemics, they end up raising a polemic in this section, particularly for those who would see Clap’s contribution and behavior in a different way.
Holfstadter and Metger close the book in a mixed tone of both encouragement and despair.  ‘Encouragement’ because the understanding of academic freedom has evolved to reach more sophisticated infrastructures and support systems and ‘despair’ because unless one is assertive enough the infrastructures and support systems are of no avail.  The authors posit,
In the present climate of opinion, these factors are not sufficient to give courage to the circumspect or timid, but they provide a considerable measure of security for professors who have the hardihood to assert themselves.  (p. 506)
No one can follow the history of academic freedom in this country without wondering at the fact that any society … should possess the vision to subsidize free criticism and inquiry, and … one cannot but be appalled at the slender thread by which it hangs … one cannot but be disheartened by the cowardice and self-deception that frail men use who want to be both safe and free.  With such conflicting evidence, perhaps individual temperament alone tips the balance toward confidence or despair.  (p. 506)
An understanding of this complexity and conflict is important even today.  This book is relevant to the current society and provides a framework from which to understand today’s struggles with the paradox found in the relationship between democracy and academic freedom in higher education in the United States and abroad.  To what extent is academic freedom truly freedom and if there is any state of nirvana in the issue of academic freedom is a question that can be asked under any system of government.  This is indeed a must-read for those who are interested in higher education history, academics, and educational politics in general.

A Book Review of Ravitch, D. (1983). The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Copyright © 2007 by José Cossa

The Troubled Crusade is a descriptive, and to a small degree evaluative, history of American higher education from the period immediately after World War II until 1980.  Although this is not an exhaustive treatment of the forces at work that characterize the crusade against ignorance or campaigns for equal educational opportunity, Ravitch explores a selection of forces at work that constitute the core for understanding the times of the crusade, and this she does intentionally in order to fulfill her purpose for writing the book, “This book is a report on the state of the crusade against ignorance during a particularly tumultuous time in American history.”
The prologue to The Troubled Crusade is launched from the contextual framework of Jefferson’s letter to his friend and advisor George Wythe, then the American minister to the French government, regarding the bill on religious freedom.  Jefferson’s exhortation to Wythe sheds light as to the fundamental agenda and the speculated outcome of the crusade against ignorance,
Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.  (p. xi)
Ravitch’s introduction of Jefferson’s rationale displays the spirit of the crusade against ignorance and, indirectly, introduces the themes that Ravitch would engage in the text as auxiliary in placing the reforms in their context.  Like the Christian crusades, the movement was to convert the ignorant (i.e., those who were victims of an evil crippling society) into the world of the knowledgeable; and, like any social movement, the crusade was destined to face opposition.  In Jefferson’s ethic, inequality was to generate greater expenses than equality; therefore, the crusade to equality of educational opportunity was not a matter of choice but a necessity.  Ravitch looks into the crusade with this pre-understanding and reports on the events without engaging in judgments – this is not to say that she refrains completely from judgments. 
The theme of equal educational opportunity, in Ravitch, presents the dichotomy of change and resistance.  Evidence of this dichotomy is seen in the constant struggle faced by movements that crusaded against social issues such as (a) racial segregation and discrimination, which were at the heart of the crusade for equal educational opportunity; (b) the Vietnam War and the Cold War; (c) sex discrimination; (d) government and educational control; (e) religious freedom and educational control; (f) student activism and educational control; (g) the education for the handicapped; and (h) urban versus rural schools.  It would be unthinkable to discuss the crusade without this conceptual framework because, “what other than race, gender, politics, religion, power, and physical ability can constitute a greater source of conflict in any given society?”
Considering that the American republic was established with a hierarchical view of race and that arguing for equality of educational opportunity would challenge that initial characteristic of the republic and its segregated structure, it is no wonder that Ravitch dedicates two chapters to race and education, and even incorporates discussions on race-related movements within other chapters, e.g., Chapter seven.  Race is a core issue in debates on equal educational opportunity and to this date Ravitch’s research is essential in understanding why we still have race at the center of the discussions on equal education opportunity.  Again, my critique is that this is not the only issue but the core.
Ravitch describes the spirit of the crusade as a drive for change at any cost and at a high speed, “Whoever the claimant, whether representing blacks, women, the handicapped, or non-English-speaking minority groups, the avenue of political remedy was the same: To bypass educational authorities by working directly with sympathetic congressional committees and by gaining judicial supervision”  (p. 311).  One constant thesis in the book is the perception that the school is a means through which the goal of equity was to be achieved and the awareness by crusader groups that a dominant culture was being transferred through the school system.  What is not explicitly evident in the book is whether Ravitch’s thesis, in some way, is the result of her judgment of the role of schools in society or simply an objective description of the perception of those engaged in reforms during the crusade.  In other words, “did the reformers truly believe that the school is a transformer of society? Or did they perceive society to be the reason educational reforms were necessary?”  This is a distinction not made in Ravitch, which a critical historian would have engaged.  Forces at work are essential to understand social phenomena, but a deeper understanding of social phenomena requires a deeper understanding of forces at work and not a mere report on what such forces were. 
Although Ravitch lacks a thorough critical analysis of the issues outlined in the book, one cannot judge her book on such basis, as some critiques have, because she makes clear that her intention is to present “a report on the state of the crusade against ignorance during a particularly tumultuous time in America.” – This is a wise indication that Ravitch does not intend to delve exhaustively in the history of the crusades but rather open a platform for a better understanding of the times and some whys of the crusade.
Like most historians, Ravitch recognizes the complexity of the crusade in the following statement:
In the crusade against ignorance, there have been no easy victories, but no lasting defeats. Those who have labored on behalf of American education have seen so many barriers scaled, so much hatred dispelled, so many possibilities remaining to provide the basis for future reconciliation. To believe in education is to believe in the future, to believe in what may be accomplished through the disciplined use of intelligence, allied with cooperation and good will. If it seems naively American to put so much stock in schools, colleges, and universities, and the endless prospect of self-improvement and social improvement, it is an admirable, and perhaps even a noble, flaw.  (p. 330)
The book opens with the somehow simplistic-optimistic tone evident in Jefferson’s letter, the book’s content is filled with a mix of several isms, such as optimism, pessimism, and skepticism, and it closes in an optimistic tone.  To close the book in this fashion is indeed opening up a challenge to one’s interpretation of historical events, particularly because I am skeptical as to whether the complexity of the issues prompting the crusade and the current issues presented in today’s discussions on reforms, for instance equal educational opportunity, will find their solution in the belief on education and not in the belief of something outside education.  In my view, equal educational opportunity includes aspects that go beyond the curriculum and educational endeavors because such constructs as equality, education, and opportunity are socially construed and remain conflicting due to the multiplicity of perspectives on the interpretation of what indeed constitutes equality, intelligence, and opportunity. 
Ravitch’s book is a must-read for all historians and those concerned with social transformation related to education.  In spite of the issues I raise regarding its closing, I have deep respect for such an insightful reading, and there is no perfect history ever written, yet this is “close to perfect” because it does justice to its intention and promise.

A Book Review of Solomon, B. M. (1985). In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women And Higher Education in America. New Haven, USA: Yale University.

Copyright © 2007 by José Cossa

In the company of educated women is both a descriptive and critical history of women’s struggles in the educational arena.  Solomon paints a picture of a dialectic, somehow in a Hegelian fashion, comprised of three forces, namely, (1) women’s demands for education, (2) the opposition women faced due the characteristics of the social fabric of the time, and (3) the consequent emergence of social consciousness on women’s issues.  According to critics, this is the best history of educated women in America written thus far.
Solomon advances her thesis of educated women’s struggle for equality by engaging the reader in the socio-political context of the time when certain milestone events happened in the lives of educated women.  Through this historical milieu, Solomon highlights the brave and persistent nature of her heroines in a somewhat-dramatic fashion that makes the reader grasp the situation as if in the actual company of these educated women.  Her scope is purely to tell the story of these women and not of institutions they represented, or were a part of; however, an earnest reader will also grasp the characteristics of institutions and draw inferences that might be useful to understand today’s educational institutions.  For Solomon, apart from being a story of heroism, the battle of the educated women in America is an unfinished revolution with paradoxes that deserve exploration.
The book is divided into four themes:  (a) women’s struggles for access to institutions, (b) the dimensions of collegiate experience, (c) the effects of education upon women’s life choices, and (d) the uneasy connection between feminism and women’s educational advancement.  These themes embody Solomon’s claimed dialectic because on the one hand they present the rational for women’s demands for education and on the other hand the opposition faced by women who recognized education as a vehicle for equality with men.  This opposition, according to Solomon, is still evident today despite the continual struggle for equality.  Solomon posits:
The expanding company of educated women must still contend with the fear and ambivalence implicit in public attitudes and policies toward women’s changing roles.  To maintain and propel a momentum for equality, it is vital to understand the enduring complexities facing women, educated or not.  In the company of educated women aims to illuminate some of those complexities in the belief that the knowledge will strengthen future generations in taking the next steps toward true equality.
The facts presented in the book are supported by a valuable list of primary sources.  I was personally impressed by the presentation of extracts from the primary source materials that Solomon places as an introduction to each chapter.  These extracts are a good summary of the historical context serving as a landmark from which the reader-traveler ought to embark in the journey in time.  This combined literary style enables Solomon to both justify the historicity of her work as well as engage the reader in the emotional life of the time as interpreted by those who lived the experiences first-hand.  The extracts add a personal touch to her research report.
Her discussion sheds light to many issues all of which were linked to the rationales in favor of women such as the fact that women are advantageous to society, play a special role as mothers of male citizens, and have individual rights too.  Some of the articulations by pioneers of women’s higher education reflect these values and enlighten one to understand the challenges and journey faced by women and their institutions.  For example, the following quote of Sophia Smith:
It is my opinion that by the higher and more thoroughly Christian education of women, what are called their ‘wrongs’ will be redressed, their wages will be adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming evils of society will be greatly increased as teachers, as writers, as members of society, their power for good will be incalculably enlarged.
Following this quote Solomon recalls her theme of women’s continual struggle by indicating that Smith College only appointed male presidents for almost a century and it was only in 1975 that a woman president, Jill Ker Conway, was inaugurated.  Also worth noting is the fact that Smith was amongst the prominent schools in promoting women’s freedom and professionalism and has persisted as a symbol of women’s education today. 
As promised in her preface, Solomon sticks to the aim of presenting women as students and graduates rather than on institutional history.  In this history she presents women in institutions as transparent as she can afford by describing their activities, reaching the pick of this revelation in chapter seven, Dimensions of the Collegiate Experience.  The contrast of the three generations is rich in informing the reader about the social dynamics and emotions characteristic of college life in three different eras, an aspect often omitted in literature about women.  Activism of women took various shapes such as academic expression, feminism, socialism, and even sexual preferences such as lesbianism and celibacy.  I was personally informed by Solomon’s findings regarding the rationale for college girls’ engagement in lesbian practices – this, in my opinion, could not be less important since some men’s eyebrows raise when the idea of a women’s college is brought to discussion, unless it is within a religious order.
The chapters in Solomon advance her themes chronologically.  Starting from the colonial period until recent times (even more precisely, today), Solomon describes the nature of the struggle and the reason for labeling the revolution an unfinished task. I concur with Solomon that women still struggle with some of the issues they fought against in the past and one does not have to go far to realize the truthfulness of such struggle.  A book like this raises questions not only to educational inclusion or recognition but also to the total integration and recognition of women in the wider society.  Women in today’s society are still not equal to men.  There is still prejudice as to what professions and offices belong to women and to men.  Women haven’t reached the office of president in democratic America and one may venture to say that it is still early to think of a possibility of a woman US president. 
Solomon’s book is implicitly about the paradoxes of American democracy, and that of other societies.  After a long struggle, Women have received and made use of a great deal of civil rights through the court system, i.e., individual freedom, freedom of speech, equality before the law, freedom of thought, individual right, etc..  Women have also attained a considerable degree of social rights, but they still have a long way to go in order to enjoy fully their political rights.  Without political rights the other rights become a part of an unfinished revolution and such revolution will only be more meaningfully achieved when women attain political rights which are the guarantor of both civil and social rights – although not phrased in these terms, these are the tears poured forth by Solomon as she engages the reader of her historical dissertation.  Solomon’s is a historical and scholarly book that reads like a novel with chronological accuracy and style – one of the best of its kind and recommendable to any student of history.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Book Review of Osuagwu, N. (1955). The Life & Times of Social Networking Addicts. Ice Cream Melts Publishing

Copyright © 2009 by José Cossa

The book is a timely piece and a very easy read fashioned as a confessional session. Nnamdi presents the phenomena of Facebook addiction as an issue that must be acknowledged and confronted by a generation whose social skills are challenged by advances in technology and its new innovation, social networking. Prior to delving into the book, I suspected that the creation of a social network forum to cure an addiction created by social networking was a paradox; it was as having an Alcoholics Anonymous group meeting in a bar. However, it was not long before I came across this same claim made by one of the personages’ confession and I realized that part of the problem is that this group could be made of individuals living many miles apart and a physical meeting impossible or rather extremely difficult to coordinate and afford; thus, it only makes sense to create a social network anonymous group in an online forum.
In recognition of the seriousness of the issue, Osuagwu claims that Facebook is the heroin of social networking and an epidemic. One of the personages equated Facebook addiction to nicotine addiction. I concur in that, like any gadget and computing fad, Facebook seems to contain that addictive ingredient that makes Pavlov’s dogs look like a joke. Through the narratives of its personages, the book covers a wide variety of subjects ranging from friendship, dating, obsession, deception, love, hate, stalking, withdrawal, dependency, and many others. Some of the symptoms include disconnection from the real world, loss of perspective on real life responsibilities, neglect of personal life, and obsession and compulsive behavior.
Although one cannot generalize that all Facebook users are addicts and that using Facebook leads to addiction (and Osuagwu does make it a point to remove himself from such a generalization), the highest merit of the book is in bringing to surface a phenomena that places a challenge to real life social relationships that is comparable to a drug addiction. Its limitations lie on the fact that no contextual framework is provided for readers who are not Facebook users—there is either an assumption that all readers are knowledgeable of Facebook (perhaps the target population envisioned by Osuagwu does have such a knowledge, thus the lack of such a framework) or a critical oversight that excludes those who are not in the Facebook culture. Interestingly, when I met Nnamdi at a spoken word and hip hop night at Bus Boys and Poets in Washington, DC—where he presented some of his well-thought spoken word pieces based on his work “Ice Cream Melts” and promoted two of his books—one of the first questions he asked me was whether I had a Facebook account and then went on to suggest that I create one so I can access and with some optimism, I could only imagine that this was, at best, a reflection that the virtual group that every addict confesses to have saved their life is not an attempt to ban Facebook or to discourage social networking. I recommend reading this book. To learn more about this work visit