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For-Profit Higher Ed and the Occupy Movement

Dana Goldstein, The Nation

The Occupy movement is planning a March 1 national action around educational inequality, and if protestors are looking for inspirational reading, they should head over to Harper’s and devour Christopher Beha’s gonzo account of enrolling at the Jersey City campus of the University of Phoenix.

The for-profit college serves half a million students online and at 200 real-world campuses across the country. It earned $4.5 billion last year, the majority of it from federal student loans. Supporters of Phoenix’s business model argue that if the United States is to live up to President Obama’s ambitious goal of every American completing at least one year of post-high school education or training by 2020, massive, private companies like Phoenix will have to be involved. But as Beha demonstrates in his devastating piece, the “education” Phoenix provides does little to improve the life outcomes or professional options of its students, about three-fifths of whom drop out within a year of enrolling, saddled with student debt and with no degree to show for it. Introductory Phoenix courses, with names like “Foundations of University Studies,” are stultifyingly content-free—except for the fact that they seek to further inoculate students with the ideology of “college for all.”

I am going to quote Beha’s piece at length, because this section is stunningly on-point:

Four straight hours in any classroom will get tedious, but four hours in a classroom engaged in the recursive process of discussing motivation, goal-setting, and the other skills needed to survive four hours in the classroom is particularly numbing. The students in GEN 195 could have been forgiven for coming to believe about college what they had likely already felt about high school, which is that it was a thing to be endured, not incidentally but essentially, that endurance was the quality being tested and cultivated. And to some extent, they would be right. Even more than critical thinking or time management, what the white-collar economy requires from most workers is the ability to spend the bulk of their waking hours completing tasks of no inherent importance or interest to them, to show up every day, and to not complain overmuch about it. Most of my classmates were working full-time, tending to families at home, doing their coursework where they could, and once a week going to class from six to ten at night. Entirely absent from those classes was any sense that learning could be exciting, or even valuable for its own sake, and absent this sense only the strongest-willed could stick with such a schedule for four years.

The strain became clear in our third week, when we went over the midterm exam. The test was multiple choice, open-book, untimed, and fair. Dr. Price had gone to great lengths to emphasize this last point. “I get student evaluations after each class, and the one thing everyone says is that the tests may be tough, but they’re fair.” She went so far as to print out these student evaluations and pass them around the room while we reviewed. It was an oddly defensive gesture, especially since she’d had nothing to do with the design of the exam, which would be taken that year by tens of thousands of GEN 195 students taught by thousands of facilitators in forty states.

The test was made available on the course’s website after the end of our second class and was due before the beginning of our third. Beforehand, we were given a study guide that listed the exact pages in the reading from which the questions would be taken. Typical questions included: “College is important today because: a) New technologies are changing the workplace; b) It provides earning power; c) It prepares citizens for leadership roles; d) All of the above.” As soon as we submitted the exam it was graded and the score was posted back to us.

The results were demoralizing.

Indeed, most of Beha’s classmates lacked the basic reading comprehension skills to pass the exam. What these adults need is less an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and more a crash course in basic literacy. Alternatively, they could learn a skilled trade. As I noted in my 2011 Nation feature on the future of vocational education, about two-thirds of the jobs that will be created in the American economy between now and 2018 will require some education beyond high school, such as an occupational certificate, but will not require a college degree. Many of these “mid-skill” jobs provide a good, middle-class income: think aircract mechanics, dental hygenists, and electricians. Yet most Phoenix programs provide no hands-on technical training….
(16 February 2012)

Neo-Nazis cloak themselves in eco-rhetoric

Sonya Angelica Diehn, Deutchs Welle
They’re into organic farming, oppose GMOs and worry about endangered species protection. Right-wing extremists are increasingly active in typically left-wing movements. Experts say the trend is troublesome.

“Environmental protection should be inherent to cultural progress.” That’s a statement that could easily be attributed to any environmentalist group. Instead it comes from the National Democratic Party (NPD), a far-right but still legal German party, and it’s another sign of how right-wing groups are increasingly latching on to environmental topics.

The connection between right-wing extremism and environmentalism is not new, but experts believe the growing trend represents a real threat, because it helps push extremist views into the mainstream.

Two recent publications have responded, seeking to educate the public by explaining what’s behind such efforts, and debunking certain lines of reasoning within them.

This past January, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is connected to Germany’s Green party, released a book examining right-wing environmental thinking. It focused on the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where so-called nationalistic colonies have been established….

…The first Germany-wide environmental protection law was passed under Hitler’s government in 1935, Franke explained. The idea of protecting national, natural lands “resonated with the people, and had a propagandistic effect,” Franke said.

He said the current right-wing extremist use of environmental topics is similarly propagandistic.

“They say one thing but mean another. It’s like a Trojan horse, actually,” Franke said.

The tendency appears to be on an upswing, Franke added, saying that’s why the environmental ministry of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate hired him to produce an informational pamphlet debunking many of the extremists’ lines of reasoning….
(8 March 2012)

Getting Real About It: Meeting The Psychological And Social Demands Of A World In Distress

Dr. Suzanne Moser, Social Science for Climate Change via Speaking Truth to Power

Unedited, unformatted chapter forthcoming in Gallagher et al. Sage Reference Handbook of Environmental Leadership, Sage, accepted for publication, made available at with permission from Sage.


With our lives we make our answers all the time,

to this ravenous, beautiful, mutilated, gorgeous world.

Victoria Safford (2005)

This is not the time for illusion or evasion; it is time for transformation.

David Orr (2011)

“With our lives we make our answers all the time, to this ravenous, beautiful, mutilated, gorgeous world.” Nothing could ring more true to someone who chooses to commit to environmental leadership in these times. I frame this chapter by the words of a religious leader, Unitarian minister Victoria Safford, and those of a passionate educator, visionary engineer, and activist scientist, David Orr, to name the enormous task before us – active and conscious transformation in the face of a mutilated and yet gorgeous world. A world in a degree of crisis that many are not fully aware of, and those that are, would rather deny or avoid.

Environmental leadership in such a world is a whole-life, whole-person commitment, not simply a matter of professional expertise, political savvy, or even passionate martyrdom for some time before burning out. Environmental leadership now and increasingly so in the future poses tremendous personal – psychological, interpersonal, and political – demands on us that deserve to be exposed clearly and explored consciously. It is the purpose of this chapter to focus on what is asked of environmental leaders in this respect.

Based on my own background and expertise, I will cast this chapter in light of the specter of climate change, but other global crises could serve as equally valid contexts. After all, climate change will not unfold in isolation of staggering losses of biodiversity and the unraveling of the ecosystems on which we humans depend; it will not occur in a vacuum apart from abysmal poverty and deep-seated human insecurity; it is deeply interwoven at the level of causes, impacts, and responses with other forms of resource depletion, environmental degradation, and social injustice. So, this chapter does not depend on climate change per se. Rather, this chapter depends on your imagination: to turn established and less-certain scientific projections into a picture of every-day life, some day in the future, and to place yourself as an environmental leader in that time. It depends on your willingness to sit with those possibilities.

As such, this chapter may be quite different from other entries in this handbook – at least in these two ways: first, it does not just synthesize a multi-disciplinary body of established knowledge and fact; it does not describe or critically assess existing leadership models; nor does it show tried-and-true leadership strategies and techniques. Instead it is a thought piece ahead of scientific study and empirical evidence. While grounded in science, it is an exploration of challenges rarely talked about, and a provocation to those who want to be environmental leaders in the face of them. Second, the chapter draws on a wildly diverse set of sources – ranging from climate science to eco- and depth psychology, from conflict resolution studies to communication science, from ethical writings to work in business and organizational leadership, from sermons to mainstream news reports, from scenario studies to poetry. As such, even just reading these pages demands leadership of you: to be versatile and flexible in the face of new information, to consider ideas from many, maybe unfamiliar, maybe even uncomfortable sources, and to form but hold lightly your own opinions about the points being made…

A choice between two kinds of transitions

Of course, we could do better, we could decide to retire our existing fossil-fuel dependent infrastructure early, invest at unprecedented rates in renewable energy and forbid any further forest clearing (to name but the most benign options). We could – by some miracle – come together as a global community, agree on a course of action, and implement it successfully. But the cost would rise steeply. The IEA put it in plain dollars and cents: “Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions” (IEA 2011). And even that level of investment, and that degree of economic restructuring, is not unprecedented (the history of mobilization for World War II in the US is but one costly and all-encompassing example, see Bartels 2001; Brown 2008). In short, we could agree it is worth spending a lot of money in the near term to preserve the life support system of the planet, if for no other reason than to save our own skin. Rational economic analysis shows that over the long run even a great expense now is far cheaper than the no-action alternative (see review in Hamilton 2010: 32-65). We may well do so.

That then leaves us with two – or maybe only one-and-a-half – different scenarios for the future: one, in which we have done too little too late, resulting in our communities, economies, and the ecosystems we depend on being overwhelmed by the pace and magnitude of climate change, and all attendant losses and disruptions. In the transition to that future, we will experience a range of essential systems degrading over time, or collapsing outright, but in either case shifting into completely altered states. In the other scenario we will act – very soon and very fast – and thus experience radical changes in our energy, transportation, industrial and food systems, with deep implications for everything else we do – how and where we live, how and what we eat, how we get around, how we interact, how we work, and how we take care of our health and illnesses. In a span of merely a few decades we will decarbonize our lives completely. And while this happens, we will still experience significant impacts of climate change already set in motion from past emissions, and which we are committed to (lags in the system make the second scenario really just a modification of the first). Numerous research projects have explored how these different transition scenarios could play out (e.g., NRC 1999, Raskin et al. 2002; Meadows et al. 2004; Costanza et al. 2007).

In both cases, we all will experience enormous and rapid changes, and in both instances losses of what we once had and loved, were familiar with, and dependent on. In the second scenario we may even see improvements in some aspects of our lives – cleaner air, maybe a saner pace of work and life. But change it will involve regardless, and losses without a doubt.

And what is more: the vast majority of the public, i.e., all but the most engaged on climate change at present, will come to the realization of what is happening to them from a place of tangential awareness of and distracted attention to the topic, with opinions often based on misinformation, maybe apathy, and in any case a serious lack of a science-based understanding of the causes and magnitude of the problem, the functioning of the Earth system, the increasing and persistent consequences yet to unfold, and how they can contribute meaningfully and effectively to the solutions. While majorities of people in many countries now accept the reality of climate change, many even consider it a serious problem, a deep gulf remains between those expressed opinions and concerns and the public demand for serious action that one would expect from facing the facts described above. Twenty or more years of public opinion polls and survey’s of people’s understanding of climate change in the US (e.g., Leiserowitz et al. 2011, 2010; Moser 2008; Nisbet & Meyers 2007) and less so elsewhere (e.g., European Commission 2011; Ipsos Mori 2011; Reser et al. 2011; Moser 2010) along with countless anecdotal experiences of conversations with “regular folk”, i.e., neighbors, family members, cab drivers, students and parents leave no doubt that the general public and our elected leaders simply do not yet grasp the seriousness and urgency of the situation or – in the absence of knowing what to do – choose to focus on more pleasant topics. It is in this world and one of these two futures you have chosen to be an environmental leader.


What, then, is asked of someone who chooses or is asked to be an environmental leader in this time? Be a steward, shepherd, arbiter, crisis manager, grief counselor, future builder? What is the right metaphor describing the work and skills of the environmental leader of tomorrow? Maybe there is no one such metaphor, but rather, future leaders will be a bit of all of these. What seems assured is that the leaders of the future will face not just new, more difficult, and more pervasive environmental challenges than past and present leaders do, but will need to be adept in a range of psychological, social, and political skills to navigate the inevitable human crises that will precede, trigger, and follow environmental ones. Future leaders will need to be not just experts in climate change, or a particular environmental field, but be capable of holding that which is happening to and in our world. They will need to mentor, guide, and assist people in processing enormous losses, human distress, constant crises, and the seemingly endless need to remain engaged in the task of maintaining, restoring, and rebuilding – despite all setbacks – a viable planet, the only place the human species can call its home.

In this section, I describe what I see as those demands, and explore how we might face them – limited as our ability to do so – from here, this seemingly safe place – may be. The seven challenges described below track, in some sense, a chronological or logical order. It is important to realize, however, that this is not a step-by-step recipe that one may follow through once and thereby succeed or complete it once and for all. Rather, it is in the nature of the challenges ahead and in the nature of the human psyche that people will need to iterate through each of them, again and again. Leaders of the future will face, meet, fail, and face again the demands put upon them.

The Bravest Thing: Getting Real

The first demand on a leader of the future is, according to American writer and climate movement builder Bill McKibben, to “do something braver than try to save the world we have known. We must accept the fact that the world we have known is going to change in hideous and damaging ways” (McKibben, 2010: 176, emphasis added). The bravest thing is to take this first step: get real. Facing the truth, and letting it sink in. A friend of mine, a coral researcher, once told the story how when the truth about a future without corals finally sank in, she had to run to the bathroom and vomit, it was so devastating. It took her years to accept it. So, this won’t happen quickly and it is not to be rushed, though the temptation to jump into mad action to fight for solutions that may still – against all better knowledge – avert the worst is indeed immense. In fact, taking action may well be the right response for many. But coming to grips with the reality we now are in takes time, and is critical that we give it a quiet space inside ourselves, and that we ground ourselves in the face of it with any practices of balance we may already have or could adopt…
(8 March 2012)