American Arts Education

A winning case for beefing up the quality of arts education in the United States appears this week in OpinionJournal (WSJ). The article by Dana Gioia, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, is a condensation of his commencement address at Stanford earlier this year.

Some choice bits (emphases mine):

We need to create a new national consensus. The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.

. . .

If you don't believe me, you should read the studies that are now coming out about American civic participation. Our country is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups. One group spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Even family communication is breaking down as members increasingly spend their time alone, staring at their individual screens.

The other group also uses and enjoys the new technology, but these individuals balance it with a broader range of activities. They go out--to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do charity work at about three times the level of the first group. By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group.

What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn't income, geography or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility.

The complete article may be viewed in the July 19 edition of OpinionJournal.



Why Johnny and Janie don't finish their PhDs

Half the students who begin school do not finish.

If this statement described an American inner-city public school system, the story would already have made headlines. Outraged parents would be asking hard questions of the mayor at the next press conference. If it described undergrad athletes at your local collegiate sports factory, the NCAA would already be leaning on the program to change something.

But this statistic is not about those students. It describes students enrolled in American Ph.D programs.

This dirty secret, long known to officials at universities, is gradually becoming public. For decades, half the students who begin doctoral programs at American universities have been walking away.

But why call this secret 'dirty'? Doesn't it makes sense that high number of people would fail? Aren't doctoral programs supposed to be rigorous? demanding? elite?

The secret is dirty because the students who walk away are not failing. They are successful. The grades non-completers earn are as high as those of their colleagues who complete their degrees. Recent research shows the undergraduate GPAs of female students, in fact, to be higher among the walkoffs than among their colleagues who finish. The secret is dirty because these are adults who have already completed at least two college degrees just to get where they are. Their competence for academic work, and their willingess to follow through, is established. The secret is dirty because these are adults who have invested enormous amounts of time and personal resources into the very programs they decide to abandon.

Finally, the secret is dirty because it's a secret at all. Why aren't prospective students given information about attrition rates at schools where they may enroll? Why aren't attrition rates factored into US News and other magazine rankings? Isn't education about supplying people with knowledge? Why are students denied information, from educational institutions of all places, about a phenomenon that has a direct bearing on their chances of success at that school?

Yet a secret it has been. American university officials typically run from discussions of attrition rates. When pressed, many shift blame onto the students who leave. 'Some people are not cut out for academic work,' they say. Remember, these officials are speaking of degree-holding persons they screened and chose to admit into their own programs. When pressed, officials also reveal, very quickly, that they rarely have any contact with the walkoffs at all. They don't know why their students leave. They haven't asked.

The blame shift just doesn't hold up to examination. The truth is that an attrition rate of 50% represents an enormous vote of No Confidence in a system. As one pair of researchers observes: 'many students who depart are conducting a referendum on the departmental culture; they are voting with their feet.'

University officials suspect as much, of course. They simply prefer denial over action as a coping mechanism. How else to explain the widespread lack of curiosity, on the part of people who make their living conducting research, about a phenomenon happening right in front of them?

Fortunately, a number of people are getting curious. One result of that curiosity is the Council of Graduate Schools PhD Completion Project, a seven-year research program supported by Pfizer Inc and the Ford Foundation. Statististics released by the CGS on Monday are summarized this week in Inside Higher Education.

One pattern that emerges: humanities departments have a great deal to account for. Across the board the humanities doctorates take longer to finish, require more borrowing to fund, and are more likely to be abandoned than the same degrees in any other area of study.

Respondents to surveys report that the most important factors in their completion of degrees were (1) availability of funding, (2) a capable mentor, (3) advance knowledge of the environment. A high percentage of the walkoffs, though, also possess (1) funding and (3) advance knowledge. The greatest predictor of completion turns out to be (2) a capable mentor. Students invest in the schools where faculty invest in them.

Barbara Lovitts and Cary Nelson, veterans of research in this area, have noted candidly that 'the real problem is with the character of the graduate programs rather than with the character of their students. Yet most faculty assume that the best students finish their degrees and the less talented and qualified depart.' They go on to observe:

Everything about the way students depart reinforces this conviction. Most leave silently; they simply disappear, without communicating any reservations about the program to faculty or administrators. Exit interviews or follow-up contacts with departing students are rare. Moreover, students are effectively discouraged from voicing complaints while they are still actively enrolled. The 'successful' student is 'happy' and compliant; such a student is more likely to receive financial support, good teaching assignments, and strong letters of recommendation. A student who criticizes the program is a problem. Of course this reasoning is circular and self-fulfilling, since complaining students may well be turned into problem students by neglect or discrimination. Meanwhile, the accumulated silence of previous 'dropouts' reinforces the view faculty prefer to hold: the problem is with the student, not the program.

Many faculty thus conclude that the way to improve student success is to admit better students. Yet our evidence and that from other studies suggest that students who persist and students who leave are equally well qualified. The Lovitts survey found no meaningful difference between the undergraduate grade point averages of the students who did complete the Ph.D. and those who did not. The only notable difference in grade point averages surfaces when the students are separated by gender: female-completer, 3.57; noncompleter, 3.62; male-completer, 3.52; noncompleter, 3.49. In other words, women who abandoned graduate study had a somewhat higher undergraduate grade point average than those who stayed. What's more, women leave in higher numbers, thus suggesting once again that attrition is due to something other than ability.

Barbara E Lovitts and Cary Nelson. 'The Hidden Crisis in Graduate Education: Attrition from PhD Programs. AAUP.

Devising and implementing solutions to such systemic problems will take years. Inertia is a huge factor here: American universities are just now waking up to the fact that a problem exists. So what do you do if you are holding a degree or two and are considering enrolling in graduate school for another one?

A good first stop would be to read 'Straight Talk about Graduate School' by Dorothea Salo. She explodes a number of myths about graduate school. She offers a very smart series of questions prospective students should ask of schools where they apply. Salo notes that a number of good sources of 'grad school tips' may be found out there, but nearly all share the same optimistic, and flawed, assumption. They all talk as if completion of a graduate degree is something under your control. Such 'positive thinking' only gets you so far in graduate school. Most of the time it is a recipe for prompt disillusionment. Success in graduate school depends on much more than your ability to be a good student.

Half the good students, after all, walk away.

Council of Graduate Schools. Ph.D Completion Project.

Scott Jaschik. 'Why and When Ph.Ds Finish.'
Inside Higher Education. 2007 07 17.

Barbara E Lovitts and Cary Nelson. 'The Hidden Crisis in Graduate Education: Attrition from PhD Programs. AAUP.

Jolley Bruce Chistman. Book Review of Leaving the Ivory Tower
: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study by Barbara E Lovitts. (Lanham, Maryland USA. Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)

Dorothea Salo. 'Straight Talk about Graduate School.' Yarinareth.



Twenty Years, No Martial Law

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the lifting of martial law in Taiwan. That period--thirty-eight years--still represents the longest official imposition of military rule anywhere in the world.

First imposed by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, or Kuomingtang (KMT), in May 1949, martial law remained in effect in Taiwan until 15 July 1987 when it was officially lifted by the dictator's son, Chiang Ching-kuo.
Caroline Gluck describes the situation in a BBC report.

The media was tightly controlled, outspoken academics and others were blacklisted and even hundreds of songs were banned.

The secret police, called the Taiwan Garrison Command, had wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone deemed to be critical of government policy.

"It was obvious how militarised this place was," said Linda Arrigo, who was a teenager in Taipei in the 1960s. "There were military police all over the streets, signs saying 'Communist spies turn yourself in.' You would go to the post office and you would see them unravelling films, to look at every frame of the film. Even as a child, I met people who told me about students, people disappearing."

The restrictions began to erode after the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975.

But by the 1980s, increasingly emboldened opposition forces and citizen protest movements had begun to challenge the existence of martial law.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - today's governing party - was illegally established in September 1986, before martial law restrictions were revoked.

Antonio Chiang was the publisher of a weekly opposition magazine, The Journalist, which began publishing before the lifting of martial law and was regularly suspended, banned and confiscated.

When people get old, some get stubborn, some get wise; we were lucky Chiang [Ching-kuo] got wiser," he said. "He realised his time was numbered; he had no hope to go back to China. To survive, the party had to identify with this land, this people - so democracy was the only way for Taiwan to survive. If Taiwan didn't reform enough, there would be no difference between Taiwan and China - and then, why would the US, the western world, support Taiwan?"

Older people educated under Chiang Kai-shek still experience cognitive dissonance when it comes to 'identifying with this land' and accepting that the KMT, as a party, now enjoys no special privileges. For Taiwan's young people, of all political stripes, this is simply reality. They live in a free country.

Opening up to China had the ironic (and unintended, on both Kuomintang and Communist sides) effect of building Taiwanese identity. The seminal moment was the removal of Taiwan's ban on travel to China in months after lifting of martial law.

Initially, it was a measure applied only to those with close relatives there - many of them elderly former KMT soldiers desperate to see their homeland and sweep their ancestors' tombs.

"Coming to Taiwan was a painful experience," said 78-year-old He Wen-De, a former KMT soldier from a poor peasant family in China's Hubei province. "At that time, life was difficult. We missed our families and we had no opportunity to return," he said. "I didn't get a single letter from them after living in Taiwan for more than 20 years; the KMT withheld the letters. If I hadn't gone back to China, I wouldn't even have known about them."

But when they were finally allowed, these visits brought a range of emotions, and there were also social changes following the Chinese cultural revolution. Many came back to Taiwan disillusioned, with heartbreaking stories of giving all their money and possessions to poor relatives, yet happy to return to Taiwan - a place they now saw as home.

The effect was reinforced as young Taiwanese students and professionals travelled internationally. They increasingly encountered colleagues from China and were obliged to notice how their culture differed from China's and explain their nationality to foreigners. The experience reinforced a sense of distinct Taiwanese identity.

The BBC summarizes the situation today.

As a society today, Taiwan is still dealing with the legacy of its martial law period, and is grappling with how to right the wrongs many suffered during that time. Even so, analysts agree that democracy is fully-entrenched.

"It's 100% democracy. People are not happy, but they are not desperate to go back. They have no nostalgia for the bad, old past. They want a good future," said sociology professor Michael Hsiao.

"It's immature, lousy, chaotic... But we have a democracy," agreed Mr Chiang. "We have a vital media, a strong opposition, lively party politics and judicial independence is on the march. It may be chaotic, but there's no way to turn it back."

Here's to moving forward. Gambai.


Caroline Gluck. 'Remembering Taiwan's martial law.' BBC. 2007 07 13.

. 'Taiwan marks twentieth anniversary of lifting of martial law.' VOA News. 2007 07 16.

Associated Press. 'Taiwan marks twentieth anniversary of martial law lifting.' AsiaOne. 2007 07 14.

'Former president Lee Teng-hui credits public over Chiang'. Taipei Times. 2007 07 16.

'Photo expo commemorates lifting of martial law in 1987.' The China Post. 2007 07 16.

Photo ©2007 Alton Thompson. Presidential Palace on Twentieth Anniversary of Lifting of Martial Law.



Marc Chagall

When I assess my art, I take the painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.

- Marc Chagall

On this date in 1887 the world became a richer, more vibrant place. Here is how The Columbia Encylopedia (courtesy of Answers.com) summarizes the visionary career of Marc Chagall, born in Belarus on July 7:

In 1907, Chagall left his native Vitebsk for St. Petersburg, where he studied under L. N. Bakst. In Paris (1910) he began to assimilate cubist characteristics into his expressionistic style. He is considered a forerunner of surrealism. After some years in Russia, Chagall returned to France in 1922, where he spent most of his life. His frequently repeated subject matter was drawn from Jewish life and folklore; he was particularly fond of flower and animal symbols. His major early works included murals for the Jewish State Theater (now in the Tretyakov Museum, Moscow). Among his other well-known works are I and the Village (1911; Museum of Modern Art, New York City) and The Rabbi of Vitebsk (Art Institute of Chicago). He designed the sets and costumes for Stravinsky's ballet Firebird (1945). Chagall's twelve stained-glass windows, symbolizing the tribes of Israel, were exhibited in Paris and New York City before being installed (1962) in the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center synagogue in Jerusalem. His two vast murals for New York's Metropolitan Opera House, treating symbolically the sources and the triumph of music, were installed in 1966. Much of Chagall's work is rendered with an extraordinary formal inventiveness and a deceptive fairy-tale naïveté. Chagall illustrated numerous books, including Gogol's Dead Souls, La Fontaine's Fables, and Illustrations for the Bible (1956). A museum of his work opened in Nice in 1973.

We may lave the last word with the artist himself:
It is our duty to colour our own lives with shades of love and hope . . .
In art, as in life, all is possible when conceived in love.

- Marc Chagall



Unchained Melody

You can do a lot worse in life than collaborate on a song that is one of the most recorded of all time--a song that says what it has to say simply and directly and allows singers and listeners alike the room to make it their own.

A day after musicians the world over are feeling the loss of Beverly Sills, the Associated Press reports a departure from the world of commercial music: Hy Zaret, lyricist for 'Unchained Melody.' The song, with music by Alex North, has become one of the most recorded songs in the world since its launch in 1955. Renditions of 'Unchained Melody' have been made by Al Hibbler, Les Baxter, U2, Elvis Presley, Lena Horne, Joni Mitchell, Guy Lombardo, The Righteous Brothers, Il Divo, Vito & The Salutations, Gareth Gates, The Lettermen, Barry Manilow, Robson Green and Jerome Flynn, Cyndi Lauper, Roy Orbison, The Manhattan Transfer, and LeAnn Rimes.

Here in Taiwan 'KTV' outings--karaoke parties with friends--are hugely popular. KTV evenings feature a generous helping of songs in Mandarin, Taiwanese and Japanese. Yet even here, on the other side of the world from where Hy Zaret plied his trade, no evening of song is complete without a rendition, in the original English, of 'Unchained Melody.'
Oh, my love
my darling
I've hungered for your touch
a long lonely time
and time goes by so slowly
and time can do so much
are you still mine?


Ludivine Sagnier

Joyeux anniversaire to actress Ludivine Sagnier.




Remembering Beverly Sills

NPR reports today on the death at age 78 of soprano Beverly Sills. Affectionately known as 'Bubbles,' Ms Sills gave a silvery voice to Baby Doe and Cleopatra and a genial, smiling face to American opera, especially the New York City Opera. NPR offers links to audio and video files that document Ms Sills career and the story by Tom Huizenga. Comedienne Carol Burnett, a friend of Sills, offers a personal remembrance.