The Documentary that Ben Stein Could Have Made about Higher Education
More and more I am convinced that the distraction that is intelligent design has given self-styled gadflies something to talk, primarily (and self-righteously) to themselves about - and a means of leaving themselves out of the real conversations that are beginning to take place, and which should take place. Given their religious-political agenda, perhaps that's a good thing; but the unfortunate thing is that they're wasting time and money (not Jerry Falwell's money, but Ahmanson, Jr.'s money) on worthless "debates" and unethical pursuits. And that's tragic.
It's all the more tragic because there are a lot of problems with higher education, scholarly publishing, and scientific/historical/humanities peer review. Below is a list of my concerns, which are more than worthy of a documentary featuring a high-brow celebrity. Think of the honorable, gadfly reputation that Ben Stein could have received - a reputation that he, a mediocre actor, faux economist, and would-be religious leader, apparently now craves with all the zeal of a former-calypso-performer-turned-evangelist.
(I'm sorry, I can't resist another dig at the late Jerry Falwell - mostly for the "former" label, and also because Ben Stein in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed deliberately asked about funding of the Discovery Institute from Falwell in order to avoid asking about the funding of the Discovery Institute by Christian Reconstructionists. Clever feint, that.)
-Scholarly publication is the main vehicle for disseminating research results outside of specialized conferences, but the publishers have consolidated into a powerful few holding sway over a captive audience.
-Scientists and researchers, far from being the domineering bloc that Stein portrayed in Expelled, in order to publish (which builds reputations and is a requirement for tenure) are forced to sell one-time rights to their writings to scholarly journal publishers, and then purchase their own writings from these increasingly expensive journals.
-Almost every scientist and researcher has a horror story to tell about peer review - almost every single one. Legitimate scientists and researchers just don't whine and go drama-queen about it the way that the poseurs in Expelled did. (What a bunch of theatrics!) There is much to be fixed in peer review, although Stein's Final Solution would be (paradoxically, or appropriately) to commit genocide against the entire process. It would seem that the only person who should not complain is Richard Sternberg, who after all did get published because his article was rammed through to publication without any peer review!
-The price of scholarly journals have grown faster than the rate of inflation, imposing a heavy burden on libraries, colleges, and universities. (This is called the "crisis" in scholarly publishing.)
-If libraries, with straining budgets, turn to electronic subscriptions instead of print journals via databases, the publisher has at any time the right to bundle this expensive subscription with unwanted, irrelevant journals/databases (think of the bundling of toxic subprime mortgages with legitimate stocks), or to discontinue a journal subscription, in which case, whoops! all of the library's past journal copies go away. So if the library, college, or university has also gotten rid of its own print copies for the sake of freeing up space, as is increasingly being done, the readers of that journal are truly screwed.
-The textbook racket is truly a scam. It is in publishers' interest to issue a "revision" every year or every few years. When I worked on collection development at Books for Africa, I could not believe my eyes: truckloads of "old" textbooks taken out of the public schools, who are forced to purchase "new" ones, are dumped at the dock. What is really changed from edition to edition? A word here, a phrase there - and parents and teachers bear the brunt of it.
-The textbook industry has responded to the crisis in textbook prices, which have also grown in price faster than the rate of inflation (and also enjoys a captive audience) with scam "added value" nonsense such as printing fees, eBooks with a limited shelf-life (in other words, your book that you think you bought expires like rotten pears on a shelf - isn't that nice?), session time-outs (you have to log in and log out of a session to print your book, probably ten pages at a time, etc.), "supplementary" crap like included CDs (a big fat help, aren't they?), etc., etc.
-Publishers have howled at the prospect of open access journals and etextbooks, despite the fact that most of the research is done by and many of the students are attending land-grant institutions and that the public deserves to see this research and access this information.
-In other words, the publishing industry is pushing the wrong e-model with e-textbooks that, while discounted compared to the print version, have some or all of the dubious features above, and, unlike print, cannot be resold as used. (What are you buying when you buy an e-textbook? Do you even own the thing? I love my Kindle, but I almost always have the wireless off, and I don't use it for ebooks.)
Students like me, who are first-generation college graduates, who did not go to Cancun during our Spring Breaks, who maybe even worked during our Spring Breaks (because we were working our way through school or supplementing student loans with our earned incomes), do not appreciate being screwed like this.
That is why, if you're a first-generation, rural student suddenly in over your head, you go to the library to talk to other students about how to save money on textbooks. That is why publishers are increasingly scared about the fact that books are now being traded via torrent - and while I don't advocate that, I'm not surprised that it's happening.
-Tuition has become prohibitively expensive, even as state colleges and universities, who are less and less likely to be financed through state taxes. I don't hear Ben Stein talking about this; I hear him making excuses for (and bragging about?) his spoilt son and hanging out at Liberty University, acting like a big child himself.
-The publishing industry reaps the benefits of ridiculously draconian copyright laws, which now protect corporations rather than the creator of the work (because the creator of the work likely sold it to a corporation in order to get it published, from which he or she now earns a token royalty, if any), stifling new creations via online mashups and electronic collages.
Who do you think holds the rights to "Happy Birthday to You?" that now must be purchased any time some character in a movie sings even a line of it? Hint: it's not the deceased writer of the song, nor his estate. Why couldn't you watch the excellent documentary about the Civil Rights Movement Eyes on the Prize for nearly a decade? Hint: it's was not "Darwinists" who censored that series. (That's why I, despite myself, cheered when Yoko Ono lost her lawsuit against Expelled.)
-So we're all stampeding to online education. Well and good: a lot of my own education has had an online component. But there is no cause to think that writing an online curriculum takes any less work than writing a traditional curriculum, or that teaching an online class takes any less effort than teaching classes in person, or that or that, in fact, preparing and administering an online college or university is any "easier" than preparing and administering a traditional university! But that is the message that we're being given.
It's a lie. Behind every online resource is at least one person, and probably teams of people, who had to create that online resource. Computers do not program themselves; web-based tutorials do not write themselves; and for the most part, student do not teach themselves. The way that "online learning" is being crammed down the throats of the working-class poor particularly is setting them up for failure.
Ben Stein in his piece of crap defamed the world's scientists and educators as racist, Holocaust-enabling, selfish, and evil conspirators out to brainwash the world's young. What I see are professional scientists, professors, librarians, high school teachers, and college/university administrators deeply concerned about their students' education, and frustrated by the Kafkaesque red tape, greed, and entrenchment of the power-seeking, feudalistic corporations that we allowed to take over our schools, in the same way (and perhaps for the same purpose?) that we allowed them to take over our health care and our prisons.
We have a creativity death panel: it's called corporate socialism. It consists of corporate cartels, insurance company entrenchment, a monolithic news/entertainment media, and the bureaucratic, ridiculous laws that protect the three. Is that really news?
Below is a video of the foremost advocate for open access and the culture of user-generated content (or "read-write" culture), Lawrence Lessig. (There is an amusing allusion to evolution in this lecture from a quote by John Phillip Sousa. Of course in my opinion it is evolution that is the "read-write" alternative to creationism, being that it is the "trespasser" upon species or biblical kinds, and upon authoritarian religious beliefs.)
And lest anyone come here and make the same old tired claim that creationism/intelligent design represents the "youth culture" taking on the old farts of evolution, let me remind you that creationism and ID are nothing more than a repackaging of the Dr. Pepper version of phony rebellion: "Be an original! Drink Dr. Pepper! [Like everyone else.]" The homeschooled children of controlling parents who don't let their captives watch "The Simpsons" are not going to be prolific creators of electronic content themselves. Repeating those deceptive "10 Questions to ask your biology teacher" at your child's biology teacher when it's clear that you have no clue what the questions even mean is not "youthful rebellion" but lock-step conformism.
To drive this point home, I would love to see the "open-minded, youthful, rebellious" response of Mark Mathis and Ben Stein et al to a remixed, mashed-up version of Expelled. (How about restoring the lost footage, correcting that expurgated "quote by Charles Darwin," placing subtitles in the film to denote that those "students of Pepperdine University" are really movie extras, and calling this project Crossroads? Hmmmm?)