Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel (of Oppression)?

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*You can find most of this year’s Tunnel in the video above. However, due to a technical issue, the last scene of the Tunnel is not included.

There are few bonds on campus that run longer and deeper than my bond with the Tunnel of Oppression. Having proudly participated all three years that it’s been on campus, I think that I come as close to being a Tunneler Expert as any man on campus. As such, it is my duty- Nay! My solemn privilege- to provide, yet again, a brilliant and insightful commentary on this year’s Tunnel.

My greatest disappointment this year was a lack of a theme for the Tunnel. Personally, my favorite was last year’s Willy Wonka Theme, but this year there wasn’t one. Really disappointing. And there’s so much to pick from, Twilight, Hunger Games, Dr. Seuss… so sad.

First up was the “Privilege Walk” (take one step forward if you’re a privileged white, heterosexual male, take one step back if you’re not). This was more or less consistent with what they’ve done in the past, so I won’t comment too much on that. Though, they really could have gone wild with a Hunger Games theme here (“everyone with white, heterosexual, Christian parents, battle to death!).

However, they did modify the Disabilities Awareness Room. Last year, if you’ll recall, they had a student with Dyslexia sitting at a desk, taking a test, with a teacher screaming at her to hurry up. As several people pointed out, such a situation was highly improbable mostly because it was very illegal (kind of like the love between a vampire and a werewolf). This year, they had the same student, but instead of a teaching yelling at the student, they had another student complaining to the teacher about the special accommodations being provided to the Dyslexic student. While this is a slightly more plausible situation, I’m not sure that it’s all that plausible. Assuming we’re talking about college students and not 8-year olds, I’m not sure that your typical college student is going to go up to the professor and whine about how the girl with Dyslexia gets extra time to finish her test. Realistically, who wants to be known as the person who throws a bitch fit (pardon the French) about it because the girl who can’t read gets a few extra minutes on her test? I think it’s one of those situations where peer pressure can actually act as a reinforcement for more charitable action. Besides, it’s also my understanding that students with learning disabilities have the option of taking their tests at the Disabilities Center, where they would not have to worry about any negative, external pressures from their peers. So, again, a non-issue.

Illegal Love?

Next up was a body image scene. I think what was most interesting about this bit was some of the stats they had posted around the room, things like 8 in 10 children are afraid of become fat, etc. Of course, when you’ve got the First Lady of the United States running around telling everyone that they’re fat and need to lost weight, these resulting mentalities shouldn’t really be all that unexpected. Perhaps if the government wasn’t so keen on forcing everyone to live what they deem a “healthy lifestyle,” people wouldn’t be as obsessed with how they look. Of course, pop culture also plays a role (which I believe the Tunnel covered pretty well), but we mustn’t underestimate the effect of things like the Let’s Move! program.

The Religion scene was a bit better this year. It consisted largely of a group of students (each representing a different religion) discussing different religious stereotypes (e.g. Jews are rich, Christians are Bible Thumpers, etc.). Nothing terribly controversial here, though given the rather condescending attitude that often greets religion on campus, it’s definitely an area worth covering.

We finally got some fireworks in the Homophobia Room. Now, I’ve always thought that the word, “homophobia,” was always a bit of a misnomer. I have yet to meet a person who’s legitimately scared of homosexuals (unlike, say a tree’s Thneedophobia). Though, perhaps if more people were homophobic, it would make the homosexuals quest for “equality” a little easier. They could just hang out near polling places and scare all those bigoted homophobes away from the polls. You know, kind of like the Black Panthers are apt to do. Anyway… The scene starts out with a couple students studying. A few more students wander in, one of the male students kisses his boyfriend, and the other students then proceed to gossip about the apparently homosexual student on the other side of the room. The other students get up and knock a few books off the homosexual student’s desk on the way out. Finally, this student relates a couple stories about abuse gay students receive off campus, mostly notably being picked on in bars and the like (he relates how, in one instance, someone threw an orange at him in a  bar). Supposedly, these stories were based on actual events at UNC. But I kind of have a hard time believing that. Particularly with regard to homosexuality, UNC is one of the most tolerant places on the planet. While it’s conceivable that maybe (a very big maybe) something like the bullying evident in the scene occurred, in my four years here (a large time of which was spent hanging out in more conservative circles, where supposedly such obnoxious bullying would originate) I have yet to see anything that remotely approaches the malice presented in the Tunnel.

As far as the anecdotes regarding the bars go, I also have a hard time that a bouncer (or bar owner or other responsible party) would sit by while someone attempts to start a food fight in his bar. Aside from the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever even seen an orange in a bar (except for a small slice in my Blue Moon, which I highly recommend), bar fights aren’t exactly good for business. But let’s assume it did happen. It’s a little presumptive to think that just because someone throws an orange at you, it’s because he hates you because you’re gay (or a vampire). More likely it’s because he was drunk and wasn’t really thinking clearly. Or maybe he wasn’t even aiming for you (I myself tend to have rather terrible aim and have a tendency to hit everything except what I’m actually aiming for- part of the reason I don’t play baseball). But then that would ruin the story wouldn’t it? You can’t very well cast yourself as a down-trodden victim of oppression, if your supposed oppressor was just drunk. I also realize that this is all taking place with Amendment 1hanging out in the background, so I understand if some people want to push an agenda, but I don’t believe that the scene, as presented, is an accurate depiction of the environment at UNC.

Beware the Oranges!

Human Trafficking was next. I think the most interesting aspect of this scene was the bit where the illegal alien relayed some of the financial difficulties she was having with her boss (e.g. receiving less than the minimum wage, watching her entire paycheck disappear in a flurry of employer deductions, etc.). While her situation is certainly tragic, it’s not entirely unpredictable. When you enter this country (or any country really) illegally, you can’t really expect to have the full protection of the law. While you can certainly make appeals to human justice, etc., those don’t really have the same staying power as a cop with a gun and handcuffs. In my humble opinion, this is one of the largest problems with America’s current immigration policy, which doesn’t merely condone illegal immigration, but outright encourages it. The people who are here illegally are often not protected by any sort of law (because you can’t very well wander up to the Department of Labor and file a wage complaint if you’re not even supposed to be here in the first place), so they open themselves up to exploitation (from capitalist Thneeders). This, I think, is the greatest tragedy of illegal immigration, and one that often goes unappreciated by the open borders types.

We will definitely be having a conversation.

The Relationship Violence scene was fairly similar to previous years’ presentations, so in the interest of space (and holding your interest), I shall proceed to the final room, the Race Room. Unfortunately, this was the only room I was unable to record (my spy camera has limits apparently, I’ll be having a discussion with James Bond about that), so I’m having to go completely off memory on this one. From what I can recall, there were four (or maybe three) girls in the room, one black, one white, one Asian, and one Indian (I think). The Asian girl largely complained about how people look at her funny and make fun of the way her mother talks and what she eats for lunch. Personally, I found this kind of amusing. When I was in China, I got stares (literally) from the natives all the time. I don’t think they even realized they were doing it half the time, but it was kind of amusing to go walking down the street and have scores of Chinese people turn their heads to look at you. The toddlers were always the best, because they would point and then get these looks of utter bewilderment on their faces- kind of cute in a way. This happened nearly every time I went out (though it occurred more frequently in Anyang, where the white man rarely treads, than in Beijing). I was never really bothered by it. It was kind of amusing. That and I could always swap stories with the other foreigners in my program (the best one I heard was of a guy riding his bike, who turned to look at one of the American students, and then proceeded to ride right into a wall). I can’t even imagine what my Chinese sounds like to a native (though my teachers did make me do some rather interesting tone exercises in an effort to purge my accent).

A Cross Stitching of Mao? Weird

I don’t think whatever gawking (here intended more broadly than just physically looking at someone) goes on between Americans and Asians is due to racism, but due more to the large differences between the two cultures. We’re just very different from each other and have completely different cultural underpinnings (and they eat weird things that we would never dream of eating and vice-versa). I think the gawking results more from a genuine curiosity about the other culture more than anything else. And I think when someone goes up to you in the cafeteria and asks what that weird, noodlely concoction in your lunchbox is, it isn’t because they’re trying to make fun of you (though maybe they are), but because they want to learn more about what you’re eating. It’s an invitation to share cultures. If we all just pretend that nothing’s unique and are afraid to ask questions because we’re afraid of being labeled a racist, that doesn’t make for a very interesting world and does nothing to bridge cultural divides.

The other girl who stood out was the white girl, who apparently was the embodiment of white guilt. She talked about how she’s been pulled over three times and never given a ticket, easily got into college and found a job, etc. Well, as the stereotypical white male, I’d like to know her secret. Personally, I find the suggestion that everything I have I have simply because I’m white offensive. I’ve worked hard to get where I am and have had nothing handed to me on a silver platter. I haven’t the slightest guilt (racial or otherwise) because everything I have is the result of hard work and determination.

And I don’t think that is true simply for me. The idea that white people have some sort of advantage over other races is absurd. This actually came up in the post-Tunnel discussion group, specifically concerning Affirmative Action. Several members of my group brought up the point that racism, properly defined, is simply a situation where race factors into a person’s decision about how to act. Affirmative Action, which is solely based on race, is nothing more than reverse-discrimination. It offers preferential treatment to applicants who are non-white and non-Asian, racism in its purest form. Of course, when the group raised this point, the moderator quickly attempted to redefine what Affirmative Action “actually” is. Apparently isn’t a form of reverse discrimination (California begs to differ), but it’s merely an attempt by university administrators to put together the best possible class from a group of students. This is quite funny, because that’s still racism! In this case, administrators are simply making the determination that it is better for the university to admit certain racial classes than to admit the most qualified applicants. Needless to say, the moderator didn’t quite have a response, and the discussion wrapped up rather quickly after that.

That about does it for the Tunnel of Oppression. I’m sorry to say that this will be last commentary on this fine event. I’m sure that my wit and wisdom will be sorely missed, but alas, I must move on to bigger and better things, like chronic unemployment and a small mountain of student debt. But never fear, I hear a recovery is just around the corner.

Tuition, the BOG, and ASG

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One of the advantages of graduating in May is that I will no longer have to deal with the annual tuition hike circus. Consider the goings-on at the most recent UNC Board of Governors meeting. You have a bunch of adults sitting around a table considering increasing next year’s tuition by 13.5%. And why? Because UNC took a “massive” $80 million hit to its $2.4 billion budget (that’s a 3.3% cut in the budget). How such a relatively small cut to the budget requires such a large increase in tuition is beyond me. And it’s not as if the University has done much to mitigate the cuts either. Sure, the administration is perfectly willing to cut class offerings and increase class sizes. But are they willing to cut any actual fat from the budget? Of course not. To take an example, the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs currently employs over 19 people. Such an office does little to advance the educational mission of the University. Closing down this office and other dead-weight “centers” across the University would do a lot to alleviate the impact of the budget cuts without affecting the educational mission of the school and without creating undue financial burdens on students. Such centers and offices are luxuries. They may be nice to have around while the state is flush with cash and the economy is booming, but the current situation necessitates that the University focus on only what is most important to its academic mission. The failure of the UNC administration to implement any real budget cuts is a dereliction of duty and is causing undue hardship on UNC students.

But there’s also a story to be told on the student side of the debate. While the conduct of the administration has been shameful, storming into the BOG meeting like a bunch of whiny kids (and getting arrested) is no better. Of course, one can appreciate the feeling of desperation that motivates students to behave this way. After all, organizations like the Association of Student Governments (ASG) that supposedly exist to serve as the student voice to the BOG and the administration have been conspicuously silent throughout the debate. In any given news article, one can read of any number of student groups that have popped up to oppose the tuition increases, yet there is rarely any mention of ASG, the single organization that students actually pay to represent them. Why? Because, quite simply, the organization hasn’t done anything. Their top priority at the moment is a field trip to Washington, DC later this month. So, one can appreciate why students feel like they need to be so forthright in their dealings with the BOG. Having expected ASG to ensure that such ridiculous increases would not happen, these students have been forced to scramble at the last minute to have their voices heard. ASG’s silence is absolutely deafening.

Obama’s HUDdle on Campus

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If you aren’t aware, Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, graced our fair campus with his presence this afternoon. According to UNC’s Office of Federal Affairs (did anyone know we even had one of those?), the purpose of the visit was “to provide an opportunity for Carolina stakeholders to engage a member of the Obama Administration and to better understand some of their policies.” Sadly, the event resembled something closer to a campaign event (and a rather poor one at that).

In the Vicinity of Beijing's 4th Ring, or More Properly, What America Should be Shooting For

I think what was most disappointing was simply the quality of the questions students asked during the Q&A. The first one was “In your dealings with President Obama, what have you found to be his best quality?” And it was simply downhill from there. Now, if this man was addressing a group of third graders, that question might have been appropriate (maybe), but among a group of college students and academics it’s simply absurd. Consider the situation. Here you are, a college student (or professor, or whatever), with an opportunity to discuss anything, from the anemic job market, the depressed housing market, a rapidly nuclearizing Iran, a debt-to-GDP ratio north of 100%, or the impeding collapse of the post-World War II world order, and you essentially ask, “Why is the President soooooo awesome?” I think this little episode perfectly encapsulates what is wrong with American higher education today. Instead of thinking critically about events around it, the academy is so radically self-absorbed and out of touch and so obsessed with its own ideology, it’s simply laughable. Is this really all that the best and brightest of North Carolina is capable of? Maybe it was a fluke, or maybe some rogue from Duke snuck in, but it was kind of embarrassing.

Secretary Donovan, when he wasn’t answering inane questions from the audience, also did a fair amount of pontificating. Apparently, the administration is convinced that we can educate ourselves out of this recession. If only we spend (a lot) more on higher education and push as many people as we can through the system, we’ll all be happy again. Color me a skeptic, but the plan he described, where the federal government subsidizes education through new tax credits, etc., guarantees low-interest loans for all comers, and then requires those borrowers to make only bare minimum payments on those loans, seems awfully similar to American housing policy circa 2008 (which incidentally, HUD bears a lot of responsibility for). I suppose if the idea is to create a giant education bubble, such that when it pops, everyone forgets about the housing problem because the education bubble is so much bigger, then this is a great idea. But if the idea is to generate genuine economic growth, this is certainly not the way to go.

And what’s a State of the Union talk without some mention of trains? Aren’t those things amazing? If only we had more of them, those pesky Chinese wouldn’t even be able to touch us. Actually, the best part of the Secretary’s little speech was when he was talking about China’s impressive infrastructure and how the Chinese are just light-years ahead of us in this regard. He clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. If he did know what he was talking about, he would know that, even in the (very crowded and polluted) major cities (i.e. places like Beijing), you can’t drink the tap water or flush toilet paper because the sewer systems are so old and so out of date. He would also know that electricity is also a problem, and that you actually have to buy surge protectors to insulate your electronic goods from regular power surges. Indeed, even China’s much lauded trains aren’t much to write home about. When they’re not falling off bridges, many of China’s trains are (very) overcrowded, smelly, and generally a very hellish experience. And their highway system isn’t anywhere nearly as well developed as ours. Now, don’t get me wrong, China’s quite a charming place, but the U.S. is definitely winning the infrastructure game.

Shiny!

There was also a fair amount of green energy hype. The Secretary informed us that while there might be a few Solyndras along the way (who doesn’t mind a little government corruption after all), we can’t expect the government to make the right choice every time when it comes to deciding which business to support. This, of course, is the whole point! The government can’t make these decisions, because they are infinitely complicated and not something that some bureaucrat hiding in the basement of a federal building can make. Such choices are properly left to the market, which is a better evaluator  of risk and profit than the government will ever be. When the government tries to make these decisions, you end up with Solyndra. Solyndra isn’t merely a side effect of government intervention in the market, it is its natural conclusion.

All in all, this event was pretty disappointing. The questions were childish, and we got the same old, same old from the administration. It’s simply too bad that what could have been a really interesting event on the future direction of the country devolved into a Why Barack Obama is the Greatest Thing Since Baked Bread event.

The Gall!

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Another salvo in the public/home-school debate- “Orange County School Board rules home-schooled kids can’t participate in extracurriculars.”

Denise Morton, Chief Academic Officer of Orange County Public Schools:

“We looked at five different school districts and their policies,” Morton said. “We don’t generate money from these students, and we’re recommending that they be fully enrolled in the district.”

“We don’t generate money from these students.” Ever heard of property and sales taxes, Denise?

The day when there is actual student choice in the education system, and a free market is created between public, private, and charter schools is establish, is the day when Denise’s comment will have any validity.

Surrendering Foreign Language Education

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This past week, the University announced it was eliminating introductory Spanish classes and putting them entirely online. Although the university recognizes that students taking a foreign language online will not have an opportunity to speak the language and therefore will not learn it, they justify the move by pointing to the much lower cost of online courses. If the program is successful, they say that other Romance languages might follow.

UNC’s romance language courses have never been strong, and they exist primarily to allow students to fulfill their foreign language requirements. The university offers other, more rigorous language programs such as German or Arabic which contain motivated students who actually want to study the language. However, rather than increase the quality of its romance language programs in a time of severe  budget cuts, they are cutting their quality to the bare minimum needed for students to pass their general education requirements.

In America, students don’t learn a foreign language in the classroom. Instead, they learn how to take language tests. With this move towards online courses, the University is virtually conceding this point. Rather than try to improve the scope of the course with more emphasis on learning and less on testing, language courses are now focusing entirely on getting students to pass language tests.

What this really means is that the University is giving up on foreign language education. If that is the case, then the University should also drop the foreign language requirement from its general education curriculum rather than force students to take worthless subpar online courses that are a waste of everyone’s time. The foreign language requirement is already weak. No one will attain fluency by a level 3 language course, and fluency cannot be taught in a classroom, so students are being forced to learn half a language just to check off a box marked “FL level 3” on their academic worksheets. Now, they aren’t even going to be learning half a language or getting the opportunity to stumble through speaking that language regularly in the classroom.

Good language programs could continue to be maintained for majors and as electives for students who wish to learn a language, but requiring all students to take foreign language classes is quickly become a waste of everybody’s time and energy.

Rethinking Grade Inflation

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This past Friday, the University held a faculty council discussion on the issue of grade inflation. The Daily Tar Heel ran a front-page article showing grading trends which they argue show that good grades are becoming too easy to get.

The statistics show that UNC is giving more high grades than it used to. In 1966, the average GPA was 2.992. Last year, it was 3.213. Last year, 45% of all grades given out were A’s.

Some faculty and the DTH editorial page sounded the alarm, arguing that this reflects a devaluing of a UNC degree. They argue that the trends show that students are getting better grades than in the past for the same work. Therefore, something should be done to correct this.

But is this what is happening? The DTH published an interesting graph on grade inequality, showing gaps between departments. Honors classes award the most A’s, and education and English classes also score highly. Math and Chemistry award far lower grades.

This really shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it also shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Some subjects are just harder than other subjects. Some subjects are also more subjective than others, and are therefore harder to grade fairly. It’s harder to grade art than it is to grade a math test. Art is subjective, math is not. In math, you either have a right answer or you don’t. In art, there are no right answers.

But it’s the honors class grades that are the most telling. Does the high number of A’s in honors classes mean that they are easier? Or are honors classes filled with the best students, who are more likely to get good grades? I’m guessing the latter is just as likely.

Since 1960, the University of North Carolina has become much more selective. As a selective school, the students that are admitted are of a greater quality than before. At the same time, North Carolina’s population has expanded, meaning that the pool of available applicants is greater (and therefore, the pool has more individuals of great academic talent). As a result, one would expect a better class of students to get better grades than the class that came before them.

Also, during this time the University has attracted better and better faculty. A good professor will bring out the best in his students. If his students are learning the material and getting good grades because they know the material, this could mean that the professor is good at teaching, not that he assigns easy work.

In short, high grades are quite possibly a good thing. They indicate that the university is attracting top students and top faculty. They indicate that students are mastering the material in their courses, and that they are meeting the high standards expected of them.

After all, doesn’t this University want students to make good grades?