Dumbing Down

I just finished my first semester as a teaching assistant. It’s what I do in exchange for a fee remission and a small salary at the university. Now that final grades are turned in, there’s a little something I need to get off my chest.

Apologies to all those who have heard me rant about this already. Yep, it’s THAT topic.

During a discussion about War and Empire by Paul Atwood, I mentioned to students that I was surprised that the United States’ involvement in the Kosovo conflict was omitted from this book. This course was about research methods and I wanted them to think about how to evaluate books which make very strong arguments but leave out points that could introduce counterfactuals or undermine the author’s position. Atwood, starting with Columbus, goes through the history of what eventually became the United States, and argues that all wars in which it has been involved have been fought over expansion of empire – first territorial expansion, and then market power. He goes up to the invasion of Iraq, so I was surprised there was no mention of Kosovo whatsoever, even though the United States’ involvement was through NATO and not on its own.

Well, in both my classes, I had students who did not know what Kosovo was. Not just that there was a war, but that this was a place on the map.

This terrifies me.

Let me be clear, I am not blaming the students. If they could get into the top public university in their state and never encounter this, then there is something seriously wrong with the education system. These kids are smart, so something has gone wrong. The system has failed them, and inside every system are The Powers That Be, and The Powers That Be are people. A large group of educated, powerful adults has demanded so little out of public school students, that some of the best and brightest are unaware that Kosovo is a place. And obviously this is OK with them, or otherwise something would have been done about it.

We cannot blame all our shortcomings on budget cuts. It is a problem for all of us if American youth can reach 20 years of age and not find out, either through the classroom or newspapers or the simple independent thumbing-through of books that defined my childhood, where their country was involved in war during their lifetime. If this is happening, it is because of long-time, widespread failure of the people who are supposed to be upholding standards – who are supposed to be imparting knowledge to students.

What frightens me most of all are the excuses I hear people making for things like this. My colleagues in sociology say that it’s not a big deal. I think it is a VERY BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL INDEED if the people we are training to be tomorrow’s public leaders do not know these basic facts. “They were very young when it happened,” people tell me. I’m not buying it. Yes, they were young. But they’re not anymore. They should know the history of their own country. By way of comparison – I was in kindergarten when Desert Storm happened. I couldn’t have given you the history of Kuwait or the life story of Saddam Hussein, but I definitely knew at the time that Kuwait was a country, Hussein was a ruler, and a war was happening. And when I was school-age, I knew what it was. You don’t have to know every detail, but to not even know of the war’s existence? That’s inexcusable.

Another person admonished me with, “Julia, you can’t expect everyone to have had the same experiences as you.” Think about that for a second. I’m not supposed to expect students to know about a war their country participated in that happened during their lifetime. To me, this seems like a pretty basic thing. If I can’t expect this, then what CAN I expect them to know?

Then, even worse, I hear people say that we have to be aware that students from working-class backgrounds, of whom there are many in this university, do not read as much as their better-off counterparts and thus are less aware of current events. WHAT? Have a little respect for the fact that these students have brains – brains that got them into this prestigious institution in the first place. Respect their current abilities and their future abilities, and set standards high so that they can achieve. The school system has screwed them over their entire lives, so take a step toward fixing that and demand proficiencies. They can do it, and they’ll feel great about doing it, because they’ve been waiting their entire lives to be challenged. We can acknowledge that not all students are born with silver spoons, that many have had to struggle with difficult personal circumstances, unfair inequalities, and underfunded schools, without insulting them by lowering standards. When students are five or six years old, we believe all of them can achieve the highest success with the right support, encouragement, and challenges. We should not change our opinion when they become undergraduates assigned to our classes.

And don’t make blanket statements about what working-class students are like – they are a huge and diverse group. And there are things called public libraries. Lots of kids find their way into them at a young age, and yes, that includes kids from poorer families. I grew up solidly middle-class, but I was always at the public library devouring books because school didn’t challenge me. Your parent doesn’t have to have a lot of money to bring newspapers into the house or switch on the radio. To assume working-class students, at age 18+, don’t have the capabilities of wealthier students is downright insulting. If they’ve been swimming against the tide all their lives, then by college it’s time to give them some assistance, not accept this inequality as inevitable. Yes, there are structural inequalities that burden America’s poor and make it more difficult for kids to reach academic benchmarks, but that is entirely separate from the personal habits and cognitive skills students can cultivate WITH THE RIGHT TEACHING AND GUIDANCE. They won’t get anywhere if people say it’s OK for them to achieve lower standards. By the college level, the excuses need to end and the concentrated teaching needs to progress. Imagine how insulting it must feel for a college professor to assume you can’t do what the kid sitting next to you from Sherman Oaks or Redwood City can do, even though you both worked your way into one of the nation’s best universities. How insulting. How stigmatizing. How utterly ridiculous.

I read papers from students who are about to be handed their diplomas, and they don’t know the difference between “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” Are we really doing them a favor by letting them graduate without basic competencies? It’s NOT OK to shrug this off. We should feel ashamed of ourselves if a graduating student with English as a first language cannot coherently write an analytic paragraph. Making excuses – and I have heard plenty of them – will not land them the jobs they need to compete on a global scale. For every student with dyslexia, there are dozens who have simply been allowed to coast through their classes, believing that “good enough” writing is, indeed, good enough. No credible university’s teachers should accept “good enough” unless they are willing to state, hand on heart, that they are content with being part of a race to the bottom. If we are to be taken seriously as scientists, then sociologists must demand high standards from both themselves and the next generation of scholars. It may seem like just a small, nit-picky detail that I’m beating half to death, but it’s indicative of a culture that accepts mediocrity as just fine and dandy, and instead of making the effort to help students improve so that they can enter adulthood with the necessary skills, excuses them away and perpetuates the problem. These kids are obviously bright, so why don’t we demand more of them? If we say it’s OK that students don’t know about the war in Kosovo, then what next? It’s OK for them to not know the difference between Iraq and Iran? Or North and South Korea? See where this is going?

I feel like I’m from another planet sometimes. When I was a kid (which wasn’t terribly long ago), I learned lots of things outside the classroom. Truth be told, a lot of my teachers were incompetent dinosaurs who made no secret of the fact that they were unhappy with their careers. I had to do a lot of learning on my own. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten remotely near where I am today. Yes, I was lucky in that my parents had resources. They had money to buy books, but they also took me to the library when I was too young to go there alone. They subscribed to a newspaper. All these things seem pretty basic. Do young people no longer even look at the front page of a newspaper whenever they pass a street-corner box? That costs nothing. Do they not watch the news? That pops up in public everywhere you go. Do they never get curious about the rest of the world and pick up books to learn more? I admit it, I was a weird kid, but I lived on books. I wanted to know everything about everything, and books were the way I could do that. The world outside my immediate surroundings fascinated me and I couldn’t wait to grow up and be part of it. Don’t people just a decade younger than me feel the same way, or was I really that odd?

And regardless of class, every teenager is exposed to loads of media – do news headlines never flicker by? How is it that they can know what Kim Kardashian is wearing, but not know about current events? I don’t understand. I do not understand this at all.

I’m just perplexed. Utterly baffled that I seem to be the only one out of my colleagues who is shocked and disturbed by the dumbing-down of education. And that’s what it is, dumbing down. There’s no better way to describe it. Low standards, low expectations, low demands. It was happening when I was a student (we were reading books that were marked fourth grade level when we were in eighth grade – and this was in what was considered to be a good public school), it’s still happening now, and if nobody gets really, really pissed off about it, then it’s only going to continue. If other PhD students aren’t bothered and I am, then clearly we have different values – and I honestly thought that at this point, all my peers would be as shocked by dumbing-down as I am. I see this process perpetuating itself throughout the next generation. It’s absolutely terrifying. I can’t repeat this enough – what I’ve just described should horrify everybody with the slightest interest in the future of the country. I honestly thought things would be different at the doctoral level. It seems they’re not.

I’m also at the point where I think social scientists are the number one reason why people don’t take social sciences seriously – it’s because we don’t demand enough of ourselves and our students. We’re too busy worrying about hurting people’s feelings to suggest that something might need improvement. We are the problem and we’re largely in denial. Every time we as educators make excuses for mediocrity in the students we are grooming to be tomorrow’s civic leaders, visionary entrepreneurs, and groundbreaking intellectuals, we degrade ourselves. How can sociologists lecture about community if we shirk our responsibility to those we are welcoming to it as independent adults?

And why is it that my colleagues admonished me for stating that addressing a mixed-sex group of students as “you guys” is not a big deal, but none of them agreed with my statement that it’s inexcusable for students to not know what Kosovo is? I seriously can’t be the only person who thinks priorities are a bit skewed. Is this what academia is coming to? How on earth do we expect to be taken seriously? We are the gatekeepers now – don’t we remember what it’s like to be bored and unchallenged and aching to learn more?

Look, nobody rises to low expectations. We have to demand more out of students regardless of their background. If we excuse and shrug off basic deficits of knowledge, then WE IN ACADEMIA ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. If we have double standards applying to poorer kids, then we are perpetuating the exact things we so self-righteously claim to be working toward eliminating.

Stop making excuses. Start teaching. Get angry. Stop telling people like me that we need to be “more understanding” of mediocrity, and start raising the bar.


The new UC logo is all kinds of horrible

The University of California’s funding woes are well-known. Not a month goes by when there’s not a rumor of yet another tuition increase for undergraduates, and if you want to see an example of austerity in action, I’ll show you the bathrooms in the huge social science building at Berkeley which are cleaned maybe once a week. They are foul. But once a week is still better than what I get in the office I share with five other PhD students (which doesn’t have enough desks for all of us) – that room has never been cleaned since I moved into it over the summer.

Yet despite all the real problems, the UC system decided to throw away a good chunk of money on designing a new logo, needlessly rebranding what is arguably the best group of state universities in the world in an embarrassing attempt to look hip and down-with-the-kids.

You may be wondering what was wrong with the original logo. The answer is, nothing. It looked like the standard, formal logo of any United States university established earlier than the 20th Century. A book, a star, the motto “Let There Be Light,” the year of its establishment…perfectly good logo that immediately communicates that the schools which make up the UC system are serious places for learning and research:

Here’s the slightly more elaborate version (which appears on my business cards!):

Because there are multiple UC campuses across the state, sometimes the logo is altered slightly to give the name of the individual institution:


(FYI: While there are many campuses of the University of California, only one of them is abbreviated “Cal,” and that’s UC Berkeley.)

So, what do you do when you have a perfectly good logo that communicates everything it needs to communicate? You ruin it in the name of trying to look contemporary and cool. The new logo is really, truly horrible. “Let there be light?” Nah, let there be the symbol you get when your YouTube video is buffering:

I…I can’t even. It’s like the design team deliberately did its worst. It looks like a flushing toilet viewed from above – and in light of the continuing state funding fiasco, plenty of people would say that is a propos. This logo plays right into the hands of everybody saying that the UC system isn’t what it used to be.

Dumbed down. Style over substance. Unsophisticated. Vague. Commercial. That’s what I think when I see this logo. NOTHING about it says “university” or “California.” It could be a logo for anything – but the last thing I would expect it to be associated with is a prestigious university. It’s not fresh, it’s not exciting, and the gradient looks like it was made in a primitive computer paint program. Not a good look.

I’m not convinced this isn’t an elaborate prank. I mean, a team of designers didn’t think, “Hmmm, this looks a little bit like a flushing toilet, and somebody might connect that to the current problems with UC system funding”? Nobody realized that it looks vague and basic and doesn’t have any kind of symbolism that would tell people what it’s for? It seems like most of us viewing the new logo thought something along those lines after about five seconds. Reactions from students and alumni have been universally negative, often including comments like, “I can’t believe we paid money for this,” and, “If only you’d consulted us first, this would have been immediately scrapped.”

But wait! It gets hilariously better/worse! The designers created a video to introduce the new logo, and it (probably unintentionally) reinforces those negative messages. The video has the unfortunate symbolism of a book being shoved aside THREE TIMES in the first 46 seconds in favor of items like a tote bag and a mug, which isn’t exactly the best move for a university that needs to communicate, in the face of a funding crisis, that high academic standards are being maintained. Watch it here: http://vimeo.com/53530934

They…actually…thought…it was a good idea to show people pushing away books…in a branding exercise for a university.

Admittedly, it’s a nice video. I like the hand-crank/light switch parts. Those are quite cool. Too bad it’s advertising a horrible image. If this new logo is all about branding, then the video makes it look like serious academics are being pushed aside for the sake of slick marketing and commercialization. Professional designers (who are supposed to look for this kind of thing for a living) didn’t notice that and think it might not be the best message? I noticed this after viewing it ONCE! Plus, if you have to explain what a shape is meant to be – e.g. the top of the new logo is meant to look like a book, as outlined in the video – then that means the symbol can’t stand on its own and it fails at doing its job. You shouldn’t have to explain something as simple as a logo – the logo itself is supposed to communicate that kind of thing automatically. I understand that designing an image that pleases everybody is really difficult, and I don’t want this to be taken as a personal attack on the creators, because they have a tough job. I’m certainly not perfect – for example, in calling out some Internet Racists (TM) today, I accidentally wrote “Asian-American” instead of “Asian” and made myself look pretty dumb. That was embarrassing. Mistakes happen. But this is some serious public money and it should have gone through several layers of testing before it got approved. How do you possibly make something that communicates the total opposite of what it is meant to represent?

This appeared on MemeGenerator. Perfect.

I’ve never taken one marketing class in my life. I’ve never worked in advertising or brand identity. Neither have most of the people commenting on the logo. Yet nearly ALL OF US agree this is amateurish and ineffective for communicating the mission or the features of the University of California. Didn’t they hold a focus group or at least ask for comments? Test the logo on students or alumni before making it public? This is honestly the best that paid professionals could do? The problems with it are so, so obvious (Kind of like in the UC system! ZING!) that it is kind of embarrassing that this got the green light. It means that UC decision makers thought this logo was a good idea, and that students and alumni would like it. If none of us looking at the image are professional designers and we immediately see what’s wrong with this, I find it really hard to believe that the people being paid to make the logo and who presumably have experience designing this kind of thing didn’t anticipate that this *might* not go over well…

When you’re making a logo, you do need to imagine what your lay audience will think of it. You may be the pro designer, but you are trying to convince other people of something with your marketing technique, and if the audience hates it, then it doesn’t work.

Argh. UC paid good money for this. And my shared office still never gets cleaned, and we have to bring our own sugar for coffee and tea…

Oh well, at least some creative people at the Boston Review have already altered it to add in a reference to last year’s UC Davis pepper spray incident:

In other news, today is my 28th birthday. I can’t believe it, either. My oldest friend is getting married – I got the save-the-date card a few days ago – and I am still a student. Yes.

UPDATE: Over 43,000 people have signed a petition to ask the University of California to please not use the new logo. For once, I think the term “epic fail” is truly appropriate. http://www.change.org/petitions/university-of-california-stop-the-new-uc-logo

ANOTHER UPDATE: It has been suspended! After reaching 50,000+ signatures, UC decided to axe the new logo. SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE WORK TOGETHER? *high-five*