Someone At The Heritage Foundation has His Head Up His Ass, Or: Business as Usual

A surprisingly wrong headed op-ed from the New York Times was the hot subject of the Comics scholars listserv today. I thought I’d share it and my commentary, with the class:

New York Times October 11, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
No Undergrad Left Behind
Richmond, Va.
LIKE it or not, the No Child Left Behind Act passed under President Bush has transformed the conversation about American public education.

Already, we’re off to a roaring start. Suck it you liberal whiners! It’s the law!

The law has its flaws, but the nation has benefited from its focus on results and its willingness to confront gaps in educational achievement.

Not that he’s going to give us any statistics or hard evidence for this but hey it’s an op ed, so he’s free to just throw his opinions into the ether. It’s a sweet gig, paid for by the NYT, no less. Wonder how I could get my biased and completely obtuse opinions on the internet…

Now the administration has extended the discussion into what has long been considered sacred ground in Washington politics: higher education. Recent studies have highlighted higher education’s skyrocketing costs, uneven quality and poor graduation rates. Even more disturbing are reports that reading competency and comprehension are declining among college graduates — as if there should be any question about the reading skills of people with college degrees. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has addressed these and other concerns by embracing reforms that could strengthen higher education and improve access and opportunities for America’s students. Among her commission’s recommendations are heightening fiscal and academic accountability, improving access to financial aid and assembling accurate data on the performance of students and institutions. While no one seems to be saying that No Child Left Behind policies should be applied to the country’s colleges and universities…

Until now.

… it does make sense to consider how some of the program’s underlying principles might help to ensure that higher education in America remains higher education. A college degree provides Americans with a competitive edge on the job market. But what is coming under increasing scrutiny is whether a college degree is truly proof of a college education. It is time for colleges to develop accurate measures of student achievement, and of the value institutions of higher education provide. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released a report from the National Civics Literacy Board, on which I serve, showing what sort of information the public needs and why it is so important that it be available. The study tracked student knowledge of American history and civics at select colleges and universities, with the goal of determining how much students learn in these subjects over four years of college. They measured the change in knowledge by evaluating freshmen and seniors. And the results were appalling: college seniors failed the civic literacy assessment with an average score of 53.2 percent.

How this is the fault of colleges is beyond me. Basic literacy (civic or otherwise) is taught in grade school, you know, where NCLB and its glorious effects are in full swing.

This sort of information is important for tuition payers, policy makers and institutional leaders to have when trying to determine the difference a college education can make. Institutions of higher education need to report an academic bottom line. While they’re at it, colleges and universities must make it a priority that their students graduate. While most tuition payers assume a baccalaureate degree takes four years to complete, the truth is it takes typically more than six years. In 2003, only 34 percent of graduating students had completed their degree in four years or less. There are reasons for this, some of them understandable. But in far too many institutions, the emphasis is on enrolling students, not on graduating them. And far too often, that includes enrolling students who are not adequately prepared for higher education, and who therefore drop out after one or two semesters of struggling, or else spend most of their time in remedial or developmental courses that are not really college-level. Behind the impressive numbers of low-income and minority students enrolled in higher education are grim statistics regarding completion for a degree.

Nice. You college kids these days can’t read and if you can’t read good, you won’t graduate! So let me attach that idea to, ” the impressive numbers of low-income and minority students enrolled in higher education” and see if I can’t subliminally point to what we here at the Heritage Foundation thinks is the real problem, all you minority kids dragging the poor white kids down. It takes years of higher education, fed through the GOP spin machine to be able to throw a nice conservative curve ball like that out there.

Americans should have more information about higher education curriculum and teaching. Higher education in this country differs substantially from elementary and high school education, most obviously in what is offered and how it is offered. The academy responds to the demands of disciplines and faculty. It is a culture that cherishes independence and freedom. And it is a culture seriously out of touch with much of America.

Faculty members decide what they want to teach and when they want to teach, if, indeed, they teach at all. This is particularly true regarding undergraduate instruction, which is something of an afterthought on many campuses. Faculty members typically spend fewer than 200 hours a year in the classroom. That amounts to just five 40-hour weeks.

Right there in the emphasized line is where Eugene leaves planet Earth entirely. He was in a low degraded orbit before, but now he’s headed for the Moon. Faculty members don’t just scribble ideas for a curriculum on the back of some strip club napkin as Eugene dreams they do. All courses have requirements based on accreditation and all courses have to be approved by the board of trustees, at least at colleges here on planet Earth. Maybe things work differently at Mars U, which is obviously where Mr. Hickok went to school.

Take a look at what passes for subjects of scholarly and instructional focus on campuses. Should taxpayer dollars really go to underwrite courses in such things as the history of comic book art? Policy makers and tuition payers need to be made aware of what sorts of courses institutions consider appropriate to fulfill core academic requirements, if anything resembling an academic core even exists. And there needs to be a greater emphasis on teaching students what they need to know, rather than what faculty want to talk about.

Ah, now he’s hitting me at home. I have a four year, accredited degree in Sequential Art. That’s right, my undergrad was in Comic Books, both the history of them and how to make them. And cultural studies apparently have no place in Mr. Hickok’s dream University. All the students at Mars U read Sophocles in the original Latin and they like it that way! Never mind that I went on to get a MLS and now catalog comics as a librarian for one of the largest art schools in the Southeast. Good to know my professors wasted their time and education and that my career is an aberration in the eyes of… the Heritage Foundation. Speaking of wasted educations…

One of No Child Left Behind’s hallmarks is transparency. Today parents know more about the performance of their children’s schools than ever before.

Transparency and performance, like a hamster wheel.

This same principle needs to be applied to higher education. Colleges and universities need to be able to explain why they charge the tuition they charge, what their graduation rates are, what they feel constitutes an educated person and how they propose to get first year students from here to there. The various college rating systems and publications are entertaining and interesting to read, but they don’t provide the sort of objective data tuition payers need to make informed decisions.

For generations, a college education has been a big part of the American dream. Much of the world has come to America to get a higher education. But nothing guarantees that this will be the case in the future. Indeed, for more and more American citizens, that dream is coming into question. It is time for serious reflection and reform in higher education — before it is too late.

Perhaps if the ever-present fear of having our jobs shipped overseas where some Indian or Chinese Grad student will do it for a quarter of the wages were taken out of the equation, that four year degree might mean a hell of a lot more.

Eugene Hickok, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, was a deputy secretary of education during President Bush’s first term.

Emphasis added, which explains everything.

Something Comic Book Geeks and Historians Can All Agree On…

…is that the trailor for 300 looks frickin’ amazing.

For those who don’t know, the story is a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans faught to the death the entire army of the Persian Empire. OK, they had a little help from some other Greek city states but most historians agree that the battle was decidely uneaven, roughly 7000 Greeks up against anywhere between 800,000 and 4 million Persians (accounts differ wildly, and by wildly, I mean they range into numbers that are mythic in dimension, if not outright silly). By the final battle, it was just the Spartans vs Xerxes and his entire army. Thing is, the Spartans didn’t give in. They faught and kept fighting, even after a hail of arrows (remeber that scene in Hero when the sky is black with arrows? That’s how Herodotus described it). By the end of the battle, the Spartans were dead but so were 50,000 Persians.

Like Shakespeare But With Lots More Punching

I’ve been reading a lot of comics lately (shut up! It’s part of my job!) and I have to say, my favorite comic out there right now is Nextwave. Following up in a close second is Neil Gaiman’s take on the Eternals. And while the Eternals has a much better story (for those who are interested in such anachronisms of the 20th century) it follows the Gaiman formula pretty closely.* Nextwave wins out though, even if there is no story to speek of. I’ll let Warren Ellis explain it:

“I took The Authority and I stripped out all the plots, logic, character and sanity. It’s an absolute distillation of the superhero genre. No plot lines, characters, emotions, nothing whatsoever. It’s people posing in the street for no good reason. It is people getting kicked, and then exploding. It is a pure comic book, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. And afterwards, they will explode.”

Seriously, there’s no real story: Five C-list Marvel characters are recruited by an anti-terrorist organization that turns out to really be a front for terrorists. So they blow shit up. But, as is with most simplistic concepts, it’s all in the execution. And Nextwave is executed brilliantly. There are funny asides, like in the Family Guy; absurd reoccurring villains, like in Monty Python (or James Bond); and monsters, like in Godzilla. There’s absolutely nothing redeeming socially, morally or spiritually, which means it is almost perfect. If it only had some sex, it would be three bucks of Nirvana on a monthly basis.

* I mean no disrespect to Mr. Gaiman. He’s probably one of the best fantasy writers alive. But all of his stories follow the same basic formula: Normal, Boring Person is either chosen or accidentally stumbles out of his every day world into the mythic world that exists just below the mundane surface reality and is guided by a not altogether reliable native of the mythic world along a quest in order to set right a wrong/restore balance or do something mythic. As formulas go, it’s solid Joseph Campbell stuff and there are plenty of variations on the theme of self discovery. But it is a formula.

Fun Fact for Today

Today I learned that Billy Ray Cyrus had a comic book, in which he fought the Black Knight in the thirteenth century. This was part of a short-lived imprint of Marvel Comics published in the mid-1990’s called Marvel Music. These comics featured biographical or fantasy/ adventure tales starring then-famous musicians and bands, similar in style to the Kiss comic book published by Marvel in the 1970’s.

Superman Is Just All Right With Me

As is probably to be expected, some Freepers are claiming Superman as their own, and all us Liberals can keep our dirty, sex having hands off. But is Superman a conservative crusader? Well, not likely. For one thing, his creators, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster were two good Jewish Kids from New York City. And as we all know, nothing Conservative comes out of New york City. For another, Superman stared out fighting Evil Capitalists. Crooked mine owners. Slum lords. Anyone who was trying to pull one over on the common working man. He was a Depression-era hero for the people, and a bit of a malcontent as well. he didn’t become a boyscout or start fighting super-villains until well after WWII started.

As for the claims that Superman is just a thinly veiled Christ-figure, well, yes and no. While there may be a few similar details to the myth of Jesus, Superman’s story shares quite a few of the basic Savior Myth Archetypes:

A culture hero is a mythological hero specific to some group (cultural, ethnic, racial, religious, etc.) who changes the world through invention or discovery. A typical culture hero might be credited as the discoverer of fire, or agriculture, songs, tradition and religion, and is usually the most important legendary figure of a people, sometimes as the founder of its ruling dynasty. The hero is sometimes said to be still living, but is often instead a star, constellation or purely spiritual in nature

In fact, Superman actually has more in common with Herakles than any other Hero. The comparison to Jesus gets even thinner with the new movie, flirting dangerously close to Da Vinnci Code territory, if you try and follow that train of thought out literally (we can talk more about this in comments, you spoil sports).

So, I’m not buying Superman as ass whoopin Jesus, fighting for the rights of unborn fetuses, one Nation, Under Oil Companies, for just the rich and no one else. If you Freepers want to write that story, you’ll have to steal some lesser-know hero to do it.

Lost Winsor McCay Art Found

In early January 2006, a stranger called The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library to say that she had found some old cartoons tucked in a stack of boxes that had been sitting in her family’s business for decades. The caller wanted to bring her find to the library, and soon she arrived with a battered cardboard folio. When it was opened, a treasure appeared. Inside were original, hand-colored drawings from Winsor McCay’s first comic strip, A Tale of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle. Up to that moment, no original drawings of the strip were known to exist. The finder has asked to remain anonymous.

Until January 2006 none of the original drawings created by Winsor McCay had been seen for more than a century. The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library acquired five of the original hand-colored drawings which comprise this exhibit. Unlike other extant examples of McCay’s original comic strips, A Tale of the Jungle Imps by Felix Fidldle are hand-colored. Although the reason McCay painted them is unknown, it may be that since this was his first effort at a comic strip, he was unsure how engravers might follow his color instructions and wanted to be sure that his preferences were clear.

Link via Drawn! (Who have a bigger, hi res version of the picture)

Moore’s Vendetta

There have been a number of movies adapted from comics in the past few years. Spiderman and the X-Men films have shown that at least some of the time, Marvel knows what they’re doing (the rest of the time, they’re making Punisher, Daredevil and a TV movie of Manthing). But ever since DC handed Batman over to Joel Shomaker, it’s as if the Men in Suits at Time Warner have lost their collective minds. Such horrors as Constantine and League of Extraordinary Gentleman (and From Hell, which works as a movie but pales in comparison to the source material) are not so much a failure to adapt Alan Moore’s source material as a colossal failure to know when you have a good story on your hands and instead, deciding to hollow out it’s soul and dance around the theater in its skin. It’s grotesque.

Moore, for his part, has attempted to keep these mockeries of his work at arms length, but after some shady deals with DC, he’s come out swinging:

Moore felt that enough was enough and decided that if something was worth reacting to, “it was worth overreacting to.” He stated “I’d have nothing to do with films anymore. If I owned the sole copyright, like with ‘Voice Of The Fire,’ there would not be a film. Anything else, where others owned copyrights, I’d insist on taking my name off future films. All of the money due to me would go to the artists involved. I’d divorce myself from the film process, the film industry and any adaptations. And I felt a sense of moral satisfaction.”

…Earlier in the year, Moore received a call from “V For Vendetta” writer/producer and “Matrix” director Larry Wachowski, but told him politely, “I didn’t want anything to do with films and had no time this year, being in the middle of work, my day job, writing, I wasn’t interested in Hollywood.”

Shortly afterwards, Alan Moore was made aware of a press release sent out covering a press conference producer Joel Silver and the cast had held.

In this press release, Joel Silver, as well as announcing that the release date November the 5th 2005 was the 100th anniversary of Guy Fawkes attempt on Parliament, instead of the 400th anniversary, also said of Alan, “he was very excited about what Larry had to say and Larry sent the script, so we hope to see him sometime before we’re in the UK. We’d just like him to know what we’re doing and to be involved in what we’re trying to do together”

Alan felt, basically, that his name was being used in vain. Not only had he expressed the opposite to Larry, but his endorsement was being used as a selling point for a movie – the reason he’d requested his credit and association be dropped from all of these movies.

The Comic Book Resource article has a sidebar, detailing some of the heinous details either omitted or added to V for Vendetta. It’s a shame no one seems capable of adapting Alan Moore to the screen without feeling compelled to meddle with the details. But at least we still can read and enjoy some of the greatest graphic novels, ever.