Monday, October 24, 2011

Sachs' "Mixed Economy"--A Middle Path

I am continuing to read Jeffrey Sachs’ The Price of Civilization.  It is like taking a crash course in modern economics.  Sachs’ discussion of the current political and cultural context of economics makes me think that the struggle is not between two opposing views of how to manage government within the context of our constitutional democracy.  Instead, I am beginning to think that the struggle is between democracy itself and a plutocracy in which a tiny minority of super-rich elites rule on the backs of an increasingly poor working class, buffered by a small professional class. 
To find a counterpart, I suspect we need to look back not to the Roaring Twenties or the Gilded Age of the Industrial period, but further to the landed aristocracy of the agrarian Middle Ages.  While that aristocracy was based on land—the proper form of wealth in an agrarian era—today’s aristocracy is based on market wealth, a wealth that manipulates markets rather than produce goods that improve the lives of people.   Just as the landed barons controlled the government of the Middle Ages, the corporate/finance barons are attempting to control democratic government today, rending it in the words of one presidential candidate, “inconsequential” and opening the door to direct corporate control.

Ultimately, I suspect, this is what the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are really rallying against.  And, I further suspect, it is what concerned the Tea Party before they were taken over by the plutocrats.   At its most absolute, the fight, is not just to determine which political party will control government.  The fight is for idea of democracy itself.  

That said, it is absolutely essential that people not drift to extremes.  Neither a corporate plutocracy, in which government is inconsequential, nor a socialist government, in which the market is controlled centrally, are likely to produce long-term health for society.  What has proven to be successful—and which made the United States the most successful country in the world for most of the 20th century—according to Sachs is a mixed economy, in which corporations are generally free to produce goods and service and the government serves to do those things that are necessary for a happy life but that do not produce profit:  build roads and train systems, create levees and dams to control rivers and avoid floods, fund basic research that often has no immediate profit value.  And, I would add, regulate the activities of corporations only so that they do not work against the best interests of the population as a whole.

Ultimately, we need to focus not on the extremes, but on the balance—the mix, if you will—between these two aspects of a healthy democratic society.  Government and business are the Yin and Yang of a successful economy.  Together—as we found in the half-century between the Great Depression and the Reagan Revolution—they can create a wonderful society.  As we have seen elsewhere in the world, without that balance one gets failure at either extreme, whether it be the socialism of the USSR or the plutocratic oil dictatorships of the Middle East that are now being dismantled by the Arab Spring. 

Moderation, rather than extreme idealogy, is the key.  We need to reward politicians who have a long view and who are able to see the value of a diverse American “us.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Globalizing Agricultural Extension?

Last night, I attended a meeting of the Torch Club—a group of people from a variety of professions and disciplines who meet monthly for dinner and a talk by one of the members.  Our speaker last night was Dr. Steve Smith, professor emeritus of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology at Penn State.  His topic:  “Traditional Agriculture in Latin America.”

Steve focused on how village farmers in Peru used centuries-old techniques, including terracing to raise a variety of crops year-around in a very arid climate.   It was, at one level, a very interesting travelogue, with wonderful photos of rural Peru and the farming families who produce 27 or more varieties of potatoes and other vegetables in this demanding climate.  However, at another level, it was a brilliant insight into how important these traditional farming techniques are becoming as the world changes. 

As Steve described traditional threshing process used in Peru, others in the group raised their hands to say, “That’s also done in Egypt” and “I’ve seen that in Turkey, too.”  Steve noted that there are more than a billion traditional farmers worldwide and that their work is critical to the economic health of many countries around the world.  He also reported that, in the next 30 years, the world’s demand for food will grow by 50%.  In the past, agriculturalists looked to the Green Revolution to meet this demand.  However, the impact of the Green Revolution has begun to level off.  Supporting traditional farmers—and helping them improve the output of traditional farming techniques—will be critical to meeting the world’s need for food in the next generation.  Steve emphasized that the goal should not be to replace traditional farming with something else.  These traditional techniques have proven to be effective in mountainous and arid areas where other approaches would fail.  The key is to help these farmers be more productive within the context of their traditional methods.

America’s research excellence in agriculture began as a response to the Industrial Revolution.  The societal worry then (in the late 1800s) was that we might not be able to support the immigration and urbanization that drove industrialization; we feared we could not produce enough food to feed the cities.  Land grant universities took responsibility for agricultural education and research and for extending that knowledge to farmers and rural communities through the Cooperative Extension Service.  It was, in reflection, a wonderful example of governments and social institutions working together in a sustained effort to meet an ongoing societal need.  American agricultural education became a model for the world.

Today we are living in a globalized Information Society.  The challenge will be to find productive ways in which our universities—in the United States and elsewhere—can help make traditional farming and other forms of farming around the world more productive in the decades ahead.  Do we need a global counterpart to the 19th century U.S. commitment to agricultural research and education?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Civic Virtue

Jeffrey Sachs begins his new book The Price of Civilization with this statement:

At the root of America’s economic crisis lies a moral crisis:  the decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite.  A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world.  America has developed the world’s most competitive market society but has squandered it civic virtue along the way.  Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.

It is a statement that sheds light on the ongoing debate about Social Security. 

            Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry has called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme”—a fraud by which the government cheats taxpayers—“investors” in Perry’s analogy—by not returning full value on their investment but instead using it to pay out funds to others.   Perry’s accusation is a good example of the civic blindness that has infected conservative thinking in the U.S. 

            Social Security is not the equivalent of an individual retirement account.  Instead, it is a kind of publicly funded insurance policy.  Behind it is a key assumption:  that those of us who have been able to make a good living will ensure that our neighbors who have not done as well will still be able to retire with a modicum of dignity.  The “return on investment” of Society Security is not what the well-off take out of it, but that our elderly neighbors in need don’t go hungry.

            In the early run-up to the 2012 presidential primaries, we have heard candidates for the highest office in the land suggest that those who cannot afford health care should simply die and that those who don’t have jobs should simply go out and get one.  The lack of compassion among these people—and, by extension, in the general population that keeps these folks thinking they have a chance at being our President—is appalling.  Moreover, as Sachs suggests, it bodes ill for our country’s long-term health.

            Sachs’ book suggests that civic virtue and prosperity go hand in hand.  I would love to hear a debate among the candidates about how they define these terms.  What constitutes “civic virtue” for a Presidential candidate who advocates a government that is inconsequential?   Is a society in which one percent of the population control 20 percent of the wealth a “prosperous society?”  Or is it a poor society with a handful of very rich plutocrats?

            I hope that we can get to a debate about these issues in the months ahead.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tribute to a Mentor: In Honor of Marlowe Froke

I thought of Marlowe Froke the other day, when I bought the latest Tony Bennett “Duets” CD.  A few months before he died, Marlowe and I had lunch together, and I gave him the first “Duets” CD.  He had told me earlier how much he liked Bennett and not newer music.  I thought this would be a neat way for him to bridge the generation gap.

            I first met Marlowe when he was 41 and General Manager of WPSX-TV, the public television station at Penn State University.  It was 1968, and I was a 20-year-old undergraduate student lucky to have gotten a part-time job as a Production Assistant in the TV studio.   A year and a half later, in spring 1970, I became a full-time staff member, first in production and, later in programming and public information.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but over the 19 years that I worked in public broadcasting, Marlowe would become the only person who I could rightly say was a mentor to me.

            WPSX had been on the air only three years when I first signed on as a part-time camera operator.  There was a palpable sense of family among the staff, who were all young and excited about being in at the beginning of an exciting new, creative venture.    We knew we were innovating and, within the university, operating a bit on the radical edge.  It was a great time to be starting out.

            In those days, “public” television was “educational” television.  Throughout his career, Marlowe emphasized the educational nature of our work.  In our programming logs, general audience programs were “general education” (series like Pennsylvania Magazine and Second Chair, for which I produced interviews with visiting authors like Jorge Amado and Anthony Burgess).  We produced programs for the K-12 classroom on science (example: Science for the Seventies, which in the 1980s became ISEE: Investigative Science for Elementary Education), art, and current affairs (What’s in the News, which eventually went national), working under the guidance of top Penn State education faculty.  And, led initially by Executive Producer Lou Florimonte and later by Diana Dean and George Thurman,  we produced adult education programs like Parenting, Food$en$e, and a series of interdisciplinary courses on Science, Technology, and Society with titles like The Behavioral Revolution and The Finite Earth.   At the other end of the educational spectrum, we produced how-to shows on everything from wood carving to playing bluegrass music.  A Public Affairs unit, led by the late P.J. O’Connell, documented the institutions of small town Pennsylvania life—“The Spirit” of Punxsutawney (about a small town newspaper) and documentaries on life in a hospital, a volunteer fire department, and a local smelting company, as examples.  James DeVinney headed a unit that produced programs on the arts, often featuring Penn State music groups—the Thalia Trio and the Alard String Quartet.  And, of course, there were daily informational programs like Farm, Home, and Garden from the Cooperative Extension Service and The State of the Weather/The Shape of the World from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

            All of this was in the spirit of using technology to extend access to education.  That was Marlowe’s personal vision, and it became, during his tenure, the hallmark of WPSX-TV, which declared on its station ID’s that it operated as a “continuing education and public service.”  In fact, one of Marlowe’s first accomplishments in 1965 was to create a consortium of school districts in our 29-county service area and to dedicate the daytime schedule to programs broadcast for use in school classrooms.

            Marlowe had been a journalism professor.  When I moved into the Public Information position at WPSX-TV, one of my jobs was to write three press releases per week promoting new programs.  I had been an English major and knew how to write, but I didn’t know how to write press releases.  For the first few weeks, Marlowe would send every press release back with detailed edits.  Eventually, I learned how to write and how to embody his idea that even a press release was an attempt to create a more educated viewer.

            Over time, my role at WPSX-TV evolved from simply public information to what we called “Viewer Services.”  The unit covered several different ways in which we could engage viewers in broadcasts, from creating informed viewers (from press releases to feature stories in our program guide to sending Penn State faculty members out to libraries to talk about the context of programs (for instance, sending a historian out to talk about “I, Claudius” on Masterpiece Theatre) to organizing viewers groups in communities to discuss programs to formal credit and noncredit courses.   During this time,  I was able to participate in two of Marlowe’s experiments in using technology to extend access to education.   One, in the late 1970s, was to help create Pennarama, a statewide educational cable TV channel, one of the first networked cable channels.   Around that same time, he affiliated WPSX with the Appalachian Educational Satellite Program, which used an experimental ATS-6 communications satellite to deliver teacher education and nursing education programs to schools and hospitals in the Appalachian Region.  Using technology to extend access to education.

            In 1981, WPSX-TV and the on-campus media service unit—the University Division of Instructional Services—were merged under Marlowe’s leadership into a group called Media and Learning Resources.  I became Director of Instructional Media in this new unit, responsible for developing instructional video materials for both on-campus and external delivery.  Now, my main job was to use technology to extend access to education across multiple delivery formats:  broadcast, cable, satellite, and new technologies like videodisc.  Marlowe’s vision had become my career.   Together, we got involved in several national and international initiatives, including the National University Teleconference Network, the International University Consortium for Telecommunications in Teaching (IUC), and Glenn Jones’ Mind Extension University.  Just as it had been in the 1960s, it was wonderful to be actively involved in the distance education innovations of the 1980s.  Suddenly, without really planning on it, I had become a distance education leader in this new environment, thanks to Marlowe’s mentorship and his vision:  using technology to increase access to education.

            I left Penn State in 1987.  Marlowe had passed me over for one of the few promotions that I thought I would be able to get at Penn State: Station Manager.  Later, he told me that the decision had been one of his hardest and that he felt I could make a better contribution in the instructional area.  Turns out he was right.  I moved to Maryland and became Executive Director of the IUC and Associate Vice President for Program Development at the University of Maryland University College.  

            Seven years later, Marlowe called me.  Penn State had decided to hire an Assistant Vice President for Distance Education, and he encouraged me to apply.  He also worked with his new Vice President to arrange for us to meet at a conference.   Marlowe retired before I was hired and returned to Penn State.  His vision, which he honored for four decades at Penn State, had prepared the way for the World Campus, the university’s online campus.  Using technology to extend access to education.   

            Many of today’s leaders in online learning do not have a long history of using other technologies before the Internet.  The field has been informed by a lot of new thinking, as a result.  Some of us, though, have been through the other changes and understand that, one of these days, a new technology will come along that will revolutionize distance education, just as television and cable and satellite and the Internet did.   Marlowe’s message for this new generation might well be:  Don’t identify yourself with a particular technology itself, but with how you use whatever technology is available to extend education for those who otherwise would not have access. 

            Thanks, again, Marlowe.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Revisiting General Education

 The general education curriculum, as it evolved through most of the 20th century, is a product of higher education’s adaptation to the Industrial Revolution.   The question today is whether that curriculum will meet the needs of individuals and society a generation into the Information Revolution.  Does the changing societal context demand that we re-perceive General Education for what various writers have dubbed the Information Society, the Knowledge Society, the Skills Society, or Conversation Society?
The Industrial Revolution required a higher level of education for professionals who would create industrial innovations.  At the same time, America was becoming urbanized and, due to waves of new immigrants, much more diverse.  Recognizing that higher education increasingly was serving a spectrum of students much broader demographically and vocationally than were served by the classical curriculum, innovators like Dewey, Meiklejohn, and Hutchins determined that General Education was not just about liberating the individual, but about preparing individual students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds to function effectively in society as professionals and citizens. 
            By the 1950s, the idea of General Education as a purposeful and comprehensive curriculum intimately involved in the needs of a democratic society were firmly rooted.  The Truman Commission on Higher Education listed eleven principles or goals for General Education that summed up the function of General Education at mid-century:
·      An ethical code of behavior
·      Informed and responsible citizen solving problems
·      Global interdependence
·      Habits of scientific thought in personal and civic problems
·      Understanding others and expressing one’s self
·      Enjoyment and understanding of literature and the arts
·      The ability to create a satisfying family life
·      The ability to choose a useful and satisfying vocation
·      Developing critical and constructive thinking habits

Still, by the 1980s—when the first impact of the Information Revolution on daily life was beginning to be felt—several national reports decried the disarray in the undergraduate curriculum.  One, sponsored by the National Institutes on Education argued that excessive vocationalism had weakened the ability of a baccalaureate degree to “foster the shared values and knowledge that bind us together as a society” (Malcolm Scully, "U.S. Colleges Not Realizing Their Full Potential," Chronicle of Higher Education, October 24,1984). 
A quarter of a century later, the concerns are just as real, but we have a better sense of how the revolution in information and communications technology is affecting the problem.   We are now a generation into the Information Revolution.  And, just as educators a generation into the Information Revolution grappled with the rise of the “utilitarian university,” we are struggling to understand just what it takes to prepare individuals to thrive as citizens and professionals in a globalized knowledge society.
Drivers of Pedagogical Change
            Several societal factors are driving the need for changes in our approach to General Education.  Prime among these is how the Information Revolution has changed the way we think about knowledge and information.  Today, information is ubiquitously available on the web.   In this environment, education is less about the transfer of already organized knowledge than about how to find and evaluate information and turn it into useable knowledge that can be used to solve problems and provide meaningful insights.  Active inquiry, as a result, becomes both a means and an end of General Education--a core skill of the new curriculum.
The rapidity of change in a global economy is also changing how we work.  Increasingly, work tends to get done by teams—often virtual—teams with members at multiple locations.   This work environment puts greater emphasis on collaboration rather than individual competition.  Similarly, rapid changes in knowledge require an environment of continual, bottom-up innovation.   Collaboration and innovation are both professional and civic skills that need to be taught.   Even on the most informal level—as evidenced by Facebook and Twitter today—students need to develop a social ethos to guide how they interact with social networks so that they can develop and sustain professional, civic, and personal relationships through both face-to-face and virtual networks.
An underlying feature of the Information Society is that technology has removed geography as a delimiting factor in how we live and work in communities.   Members of an Information Society live and work in “distributed communities” (we may need a better term to describe this phenomenon) that accomplish much of their work through technology.  This includes virtual working teams, professional associations, and a wide variety of social networks.   The boundaries of these communities tend to blur, as people include both social and professional contacts in the same network.  Inter-cultural understanding takes on a new immediacy: every culture is potentially present in our virtual communities.  General Education, with its emphasis on educating the student for success within the context of his/her society, can help individuals define how to conduct themselves in these new communities.
            Knowledge creation, collaboration, innovation, and community building are workplace and civic skills that should be incorporated into General Education for the Information Society.   The challenge of General Education in this new environment is:
·      To create lifelong learners who can create knowledge
·      To instill problem-solving and innovation as both workplace and civic skills
·      To develop the skills of collaboration across cultures and across geography
·      To help students understand the nature of the communities in which they live and work so that they can become effective members of these communities.
This suggests that the next generation of General Education should not just be a new collection of courses, but courses guided by a common pedagogy designed to engage the students in the above goals, regardless of the discipline being studies.  This new General Education pedagogy should be resource-centered, inquiry-based, and problem-oriented and, perhaps, one that is better integrated with the professional studies part of the undergraduate curriculum.   It should also encourage students to use online technology to  collaborate to find information, evaluate it and turn it into useful knowledge, and apply that knowledge to solve problems.  These are key elements in preparing students for life in an Information Society.
One new pedagogy that is gaining attention in the online learning community is the Community of Inquiry  ( pedagogy.  This approach maintains that the educational experience is the intersection of three factors:  social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.  Social Presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (Garrison, 2009).  Teaching Presence is the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001).  Cognitive Presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece ( ), Kathleen Parker noted a new study, “Academically Adrift:  Limited Learning on College Campuses” by Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa that reports that “Gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills are either ‘exceeding small or nonexistent for a larger proportion of students” and that “Thirty-six percent of students experience no significant improvement in learning (as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) over four years of higher education.”  Part of the problem, she notes, is the erosion of the core curriculum.   I would argue that the problem is not simply that the core subjects are no longer being taught, but that, when they are taught, they are taught out of context—as simply introductions to the disciplines—rather than as skills one needs to be successful as an individual and as a citizen.
The quality of American undergraduate education has been lamented for a generation now.   The key to improving it is not simply to focus more on the major areas of study, but to examine the total experience and to develop a unique General Education curriculum that prepares students to be socially responsible professionals and citizens.   A new approach to pedagogy is part of the solution.  A new approach to the economics of undergraduate education that will allow for a more integrated general education curriculum to be organized of the traditional disciplines may also be needed.   It is well-past time for the re-envisioning of General Education to be treated as an institution-wide issue.
 NOTE:  This is an expansion of an item that I originally posted in 2010.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

NYT: Forests dying off as world's climate warms - Technology & science - The New York Times -

Here is a detailed report on how global warming is resulting in a not-so-gradual killing off of forests around the world, as insects that used to be controlled by cold weather are living to become invasive.

The article notes that richer nations will need to fund the work that is needed to stop this trend. Given today's political climate, it is hard to imagine that we can come together as a community to fight global warming at this level. It is sad to think what we stand to lose because of wrong-headed politics and radical ideologies.

We can make progress--and save countless lives--only by working together. It is time for a little humility in our politics.

NYT: Forests dying off as world's climate warms - Technology & science - The New York Times -