“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
The professor argued that beyond the shocking lengths parents will go to get their children into top schools, the influx of unskilled and entitled students is ruining the college experience itself: monopolizing faculty time and creating a palpable strain on the system. “The presence of unqualified students admitted through corrupt practices is an unmitigated disaster for education and research,” they wrote. “Students who can’t get into elite schools through the front door based on academic merit don’t change once they’re in class. They can’t do the work, and are generally uninterested in gaining the skills they need in order to do well.”
The piece sparked a wave of responses from readers, many of them professors in the US and around the world. With permission we have published a selection, which have been edited for clarity and brevity.
University professor, San Francisco
I have never taught at an elite university, but I have taught at several state schools. Many, perhaps most, of these students are also unprepared for college. They lack the academic skills that students should learn in high school, and in some cases, middle school. This is because our public schools are no longer doing the job they are supposed to do.
Additionally, we are trying to cram more students through college despite our lack of financial support for the K12 and public higher-ed system. We simply are not educating a huge number of Americans. This has been going on for generations. It’s nothing new and probably started in the late 80s or early 90s. It has become worse over time, though there are large variations from state to state. That is the real untold story. Focusing on the elite schools seems more like a distraction.
Education administrator, United Kingdom
I studied at undergraduate and postgraduate level at a UK institution and subsequently joined the university as an administrator over a decade ago.
The experiences of the academic writing are representative of issues across the sector and are not solely limited to unqualified students. Despite having increased the academic requirements for places on courses, a faculty within our university has recently restructured their first year of teaching to focus on helping students develop skills to enable them to study at undergraduate level, as new students seem woefully underprepared to pursue independent study. The academic blames the target-setting at secondary-level education, suggesting that students are taught to “parrot and regurgitate” the set syllabus in order to pass exams rather than receiving an education that values critical discussion and independent thought.
This is exacerbated by a growing feeling amongst students that they are entitled to a 2:1 degree as they have paid fees, rather than as a result of their academic performance. In the end, standards drop, educational quality declines and all parties involved feel incredibly frustrated.
You’re talking about The Matrix at a dinner party, and that’s fine. As the founding document of our present hypermodern unreality, it’ll always be, 20 years after its release or 200, fair game for chat. Over medium-rare steaks that may or may not be 1s and 0s, guests happily quote the Oracle (“Take a cookie”), defend Keanu’s acting, quote Agent Smith (“It’s the smell!”), rehash Baudrillardian basics, and convince each other that there is no soup spoon (but pass the soup).
Then the inevitable moment comes, and it is not fine. Some dweeby gasbag in attendance—picture him now; he may very well be you—gathers up the requisite oxygen to declare, with huffing sense of purpose and in sweaty anticipation of back slaps and applause: “Those sequels sure did suck, though!” Dammit, there goes the buzz. If only someone could unplug this phony soul, this over-baked noodle, this robotic amalgamation of parts—spare him the shame of looking the undignified fool.
The fact is, the Matrix sequels do not—forgive his barbarism—suck, and to claim that they do, to side with the dweeb and the cultural majority he somehow represents, is simply to lend further credence to the Wachowskis’ vision of a world where thought is all but pre-scripted, emotion manufactured by machine. So uh, do you take your blue pills in the morning or before bed?
Fine, maybe that’s unfair. Maybe the dinner guest—the dinner guest who might also be you—isn’t entirely to blame. Now that science fiction has been, as they say, mainstreamed, there’s social pressure to prove nerd cred. Cute, I suppose, but what this looks like in practice is a bunch of fakers bashing the acceptable properties. The Star Wars prequels stink so hard! You know what embarrasses me is Big Bang Theory! The Matrix sequels suck!
Pathetic. Then there’s the idea that there might be merit to the whole anti-sequel stance. The first Matrix changed our perception of reality, so the second should have done likewise, and the third again. Inarguably, they did no such thing. Yeah, well, as Morpheus might as well have said: The mind cannot be blown the same way twice.
No, there really are no excuses, just kids who felt mind-unblown by the second and third Matrices, validated in turn by the selfsame judgments of fellow unthinkers, and content to swill blue pills until today, when one of them ends up at a dinner party and proceeds to spoil the mood. The worst part is, other people at the table will probably nod. Yep, computer gobbledygook and white ghost things with dreads and didn’t they have to replace the Oracle? Haha, so dumb. People are expert at enabling this type of weakness.
Here’s the truth: The Matrix is nothing without its sequels, and you’d know that if you watched them. Actually watched them. Not judged them because the first one made you cream yourself and then the second one had worse CGI and more fights (which it did) so boo to all that. Have you even seen them recently? They’re on Amazonnow. Free your mind of expectations and boot them up. Consider the story the Wachowskis are telling, not the potential for intro-to-philosophy mindfuckery. Then you’ll see that The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are inversions, complexifications, mystifications of the original—a breaking out (of the Matrix) undone by a breaking in (to Zion) that finally leads to a breaking through (to a hard-won peace).
If you’re not careful, federal funding can backfire.
Loren Elliott/AFP/Getty Images
For Americans eager to see more investment in the nation’s infrastructure, 2019 started strong. With public support from President Donald Trump, congressional committee chairs and Democratic leadership, infrastructure has bubbled to the top of the relatively short list of bipartisan issues that can be achieved this year, despite a divided Congress and an accelerating presidential campaign. This is encouraging as the time is more than ripe to address the deteriorating nature of America’s essential infrastructure.
However, the pending debate in Congress seems to assume that more federal funding is the answer without asking the foundational question: What is the problem we are trying to solve?
When Americans think of infrastructure projects, they often have the 1956 Highway Act in mind, the law that created the interstate highway system through a national gas tax – arguably the best infrastructure project in world history. But the infrastructure challenges of 2019 are vastly different than those of 1956; we should move on.
I spent the past two decades focused on how to deliver infrastructure projects more efficiently in terms of time and money. My career spanned from Wall Street to the White House and involved projects from Puerto Rico to Hawaii. At every step, I was trying to find ways to make highways, water systems, natural gas systems, transit operations, airports, ports, railroads and pipelines more efficient and provide better value to their users. Across all these systems, in virtually every corner of America, the largest obstacle to building and maintaining infrastructure is insufficient funding. As a result, it’s easy to assume that the basic problem is finding funding and that providing more federal money is the answer. Yet when dealing with infrastructure, that is not always the case.
In physics, Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In policy, too, every action creates a reaction, albeit rarely equal or opposite. In fact, the challenge of policy is that reactions, while inevitable, are difficult to predict. When weighing federal expenditures on infrastructure, policymakers need to keep in mind that allocating more federal funds to infrastructure might backfire. Here are three ways that could happen:
The “coupon effect”
The prospect of federal funding can dampen state and local funding. While voters overwhelmingly support increased infrastructure spending, their strong preference is that someone else pay for it. This dynamic makes it difficult for state and local leaders (who own 90 percent of governmental infrastructure) to turn to their electorate and ask for a tax or fee increase if the federal government is offering “free” funding.
SHAMIL ZHUMATOV / REUTERS During a rally to protest against tightening state control over the Internet in Moscow, Russia March 2019.
On the morning of Sunday March 10, thousands of people gathered in the center of Moscow to protest proposed new legislation cracking down on Internet freedom. They waved placards saying “Save the Internet, Save Russia,” “Isolation—It’s Death,” and “NO to Digital Enslaving.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who was watching the protests on his TV, was unpleasantly surprised. “One of the speakers at the rally claimed that the Kremlin wanted to press a button and switch the Internet off,” he told the Russian wire agency Interfax. “It is absolutely wrong! Why aren’t they concerned that somebody on the other side of the Atlantic will press this button?”
Peskov was echoing official propaganda, which claims that the new legislation is essential to stop the United States from cutting Russia off from the Internet. But the protesters have good reason to believe that it is the Kremlin, not some Western conspiracy, that is endangering their Internet access.
In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law making it a crime to publish “fake news” or “disrespect of the authorities” on social media. Another proposed bill on “digital sovereignty” aims to provide the Kremlin with the ability to cut off Russia, or a particular Russian region, from the global Internet. The two bills deal with different things—content and infrastructure—but they both have the same goal, one that Putin has wanted to achieve for two decades: depriving the people of the means to start a revolution.
In 1991, Putin and his comrades from the KGB were traumatized by the unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union. They didn’t want any more surprises. As early as 1999, Putin proclaimed that his goal was political stability—the preservation of the regime. Putin’s advisers suggested a simple solution to the threat of revolution: controlling the means by which they thought people organized. During Putin’s first term, the government brought trade unions, opposition parties, and independent TV channels to heel. But when, in the early 2000s, a series of popular protests, known as color revolutions, started in several of Russia’s neighbors—Georgia, Serbia, and Ukraine—it became clear that the Russian government had targeted the wrong things. The Kremlin came to believe the color revolutions were the product of youth movements started from scratch, following—so Moscow thought—a political toolkit designed by the U.S. State Department to deal specifically with countries like Russia.
Ever since, the Kremlin has been locked in an imaginary arms race with the State Department. Every unexpected political change in a neighboring country—and in Russia itself—has been seen as a manifestation of the constantly evolving tactics of the Americans. In 2011, when Muscovites took to the streets to protest Putin’s return to presidency, the Kremlin saw the prominent role of Facebook and Twitter in organizing the gatherings as another cunning move by Washington, which had apparently found a way to use the Internet against autocracies. Social media’s role in the protests offered a stark warning: the security services could easily fail to prevent a revolution, as protests organized on Facebook have no leaders and no offline organizations that government agents could infiltrate and disrupt.
Three cheers for this guy. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Why do I find the summary of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr to be something of a relief?
Firstly, I’m relieved as an American that a serious and dogged prosecutor deemed it impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the president of the United States had knowingly conspired with a foreign government to undermine the integrity of the 2016 presidential election. It’s not exactly a high bar, I know, but we have been failing to reach the lowest bars lately, so count me a happy person. I’m glad, simply, that the worst doesn’t appear to be true. I prefer my presidents not to be traitors.
Second, we were able to hold an independent inquiry into a serious question of electoral malfeasance and see it to a conclusion, without Mueller being fired, or the inquiry blocked, or stymied. When push came to shove, the Congress protected Mueller, despite an avalanche of abuse and propaganda directed toward him. And the president didn’t fire him, which, let’s be honest, we were all fearing he would. We ducked that particular constitutional crisis.
More to the point, in what was an inevitably fraught political moment, Robert Mueller conducted himself impeccably. How thrilling to hear absolutely nothing from him. I don’t even know what his voice sounds like. The lack of leaks or grandstanding; the efficiency and obvious rigor of the process; the resistance to becoming the Resistance: Mueller single-handedly showed that the norms of liberal democracy and the rule of law can be upheld even as most of the political actors, especially the president, have been behaving like bit players in a banana republic.
Give it up for old-school WASP Republican values! And in this, Mueller is someone we should study if we want to see how to oppose this president effectively. You can’t out-tweet or out-insult the clinically narcissistic and characterologically disgusting. You cannot beat him at his own game. But you can consistently refuse to take his boorish bait and maintain your own standards of conduct. You can calmly stare down a bully, and you can let your actions speak louder than your words.
In a world of endless distraction, Mueller kept his focus. It is hard not to see the inquiry as an epic cultural and moral clash between the honorable American and the irredeemably ugly one; between the war-hero public servant and a draft-dodging liar and thug; between elegant, understated class and fathomless, bullhorn vulgarity. In a liberal society, it really does matter more that the rules are fair than that any side wins. Mueller walked that line — and did not fall off it, as, for example, James Comey did.
Above all, I’m grateful Mueller did not find a clear-cut case of provable treasonous criminality either on the president’s part or his family’s. The reason I’m relieved is that, however grave the crime, Trump would almost certainly have gotten away with it. In our current politics, there is simply no way for this Senate to convict Trump of an impeachable offense. And so there was always a real danger that this entire ordeal would end with an obviously proven high crime and misdemeanor, a thereby unavoidable impeachment process, and then an inevitable failure to convict in the Senate. And so Trump would become an openly criminal president, a walking inversion of the rule of law, leverage impeachment into his reelection, and our slide into strongman politics would have accelerated still further.
“I think it’s time to act,” says Cancino, 27, at a park in the Colombian border town of Villa del Rosario. “It’s time to organize ourselves, the soldiers that know how to fight.”
He is with three fellow Venezuelans who deserted the security forces of the crisis-stricken country and turned over their guns to the Colombian authorities.
He says he has no weapons, no money and no organized rebellion, but he shares a growing frustration with many of the millions of Venezuelans now taking refuge abroad.
Pent-up anger and despair are leading some of those who fled to Colombia’s border zone to see violence as the way to break the political stalemate and humanitarian crisis back home.
Many of them pledge support for U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó in his quest to replace Maduro.
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On Wednesday, Guaidó announced the launch of “Operation Freedom,” calling for supporters to mobilize in the streets on Saturday and to take “tactical action” on April 6. He did not specify what the action would entail. Analysts say it could mean another large demonstration — or even some form of violence.
Officials across Latin America fear the prospect of armed conflict in Venezuela. It is a country with deep oil reserves where world powers have staked out rival sides in the tense standoff: The United States joins more than 50 other nations that recognize Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader; Maduro has support from countries including Russia, China and Iran.
“Venezuela can become sort of a Syria,” Francisco Santos, the Colombian ambassador to the U.S., recently told NPR’s All Things Considered.
He insisted there’s still time for international pressure and sanctions to force out Maduro. But if that plan fails, “a Plan B would involve violence,” he said. “I don’t want the continent to have a Plan B option. I’m very scared of what might happen.”
In an NPR interview on Thursday in Bogotá, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker said “strategic patience” is needed. “Even as frustrated as we are at the lack of immediate change on this, change will come.”
But in the Colombian border area, Venezuelan emigres’ patience is wearing thin.
Cancino says he and more than 200 other former Venezuelan forces are cooped up in a hotel in Villa del Rosario.
They are some of the 1,000 Venezuelan forces who, since February, have fled Maduro’s rule, crossed into Colombia and turned over their weapons and uniforms to the authorities, according to Colombia’s Foreign Ministry.
Inside Venezuela, most military leaders and pro-government armed gangs continue to pledge loyalty to Maduro.
Emigres who want to return and fight tell NPR their only hope is if they receive help from the U.S. military.
While the Trump administration has made threats, U.S. officials have not said publicly they want an invasion. The administration says it is using political, diplomatic and economic pressure to squeeze out the Maduro government, but “all options are on the table.”
Venezuela’s opposition has so far called for its followers to remain peaceful in demanding Maduro’s resignation.
Last month, the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition leaders staged an operation to carry humanitarian aid into Venezuela. They promised it would land a major blow against Maduro. But the move failed, with Venezuelan armed forces and pro-government gangs violently blocking the convoy and some anti-Maduro activiststhrowing homemade bombs at the security forces.
The launch this week of “Operation Freedom” is seen as the opposition’s first call to action since that mission’s failure.
“If all options are exhausted, we will start to see increasing interest in armed insurrection against the Maduro government,” says Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The U.S. arming dissident forces within Venezuelan would be, I think, a complete nightmare.”
Luis Vargas, a 58-year-old construction worker from just over the Venezuelan border, says people in his home state of Táchira are organizing to confront the government.
“There are arms, but the government doesn’t know that the people are armed,” he says over lunch at a charity kitchen that feeds thousands of Venezuelans in the Colombian border zone. “We wouldn’t want blood in the country, but at times we think that those things would be necessary to get out the government.”
He says people have no other choice. The Maduro government refuses to abdicate, despite presiding over years of spiraling crisis that has left millions of people like Vargas unable to feed themselves or their families at home.
At a nearby table, 72-year-old Ligia Blanco sits holding a cane. She begins to cry when she imagines what lies in store for her native Venezuela.
Blanco says she, too, wants Maduro out. She still lives in Venezuela but walks across the border to this Colombian charity kitchen for meals.
She fears that Venezuela’s problems would get much worse before they get better, especially if foreign powers invade.
“I don’t even know what to think about it,” she says through tears. “People say they’re going to come launching bombs and it will go like when they killed Gadhafi and the Arabs.”
“It’s the people who will suffer,” she says.
Venezuela’s population is suffering from deep hunger and disease amid hyperinflation and shortages of food, medicine and other supplies.
The United Nations Refugee Agency says 3.4 million people have fled Venezuela, overwhelming Colombia and other countries of the region. The agency estimated that last year 5,000 Venezuelans were moving into Colombia each day.
Colombian towns have struggled to cope.
Pepe Ruíz Paredes, the mayor of Villa del Rosario, says local authorities have tried to swiftly suppress outbreaks of violence at protests along the border. He vows not to allow Venezuelan security force deserters to stir up more trouble in his region.
“If they want to present some kind of military pressure, they’ll have to do it in Caracas. We are very far away,” he says.
The Colombian Foreign Ministry said the former security forces are in the custodyof Colombian authorities.