Monday, October 14, 2019

Cancelling Classes for Minor Holidays: A Matter of Academic Standards

Higher education is not valued equally in the various American states. Where academia is not particularly valued, other things can intercede as priorities even at the universities themselves at the expense of academics. In such places, even the universities themselves may value academia insufficiently. That is, the value hierarchy in a locality or even state can infect universities whose academic administrators are not strong or academically-minded enough to thwart the interlarded non-academic values.
The value that a university places on its academic classes as a priority can be gauged by whether classes meet on minor holidays. Even if the length of the semester is not shorted as a result, breaking up contiguous class days may have negative academic effects. My point here, however, is that cancelling classes for minor reasons demonstrates a lack of respect for the academic functioning of universities as regards teaching and learning course material.
In 2019 at Yale, classes met on Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Presidents Day even if administrative offices were closed. Harvard’s academic calendar explicitly stated that classes would meet on Veterans Day and President’s Day (Columbus Day being the exception among the minor holidays for the academic year). Classes are different; they are too important to be interrupted for every minor holiday.
Out in the provinces, Arizona’s major universities cancelled classes for Veteran’s Day, perhaps out of deference to the military-industrial presence in the state. The privileging of that holiday is all the more conspicuous because Columbus Day was practically ignored, perhaps owing to the salience of American Indians in the state. In fact, no mention was made of that holiday in the 2019-2020 academic calendars of the University of Arizona and Arizona State University—the latter having Fall Break instead on the Monday and Tuesday. At Yale, the Fall Break began two days after Columbus Day, as if to be particularly clear, we don’t cancel classes for such holidays.
The cultural differentials between New England and Arizona cannot be ignored. In 2017, Arizona teachers came in last in the U.S., and, moreover, K-12 (pre-college education) had consistently came in at 48th or 49th out of the 50 States for years. In an analysis by WalletHub, Arizona’s pre-college education came in at 49th out of the 50 States, whereas Massachusetts and Connecticut came in at first and third, respectively.[1] Including standardized tests such as the SAT gave the interstate comparison particular credence. Besides having a high drop-out rate at the high-school level, Arizona had a high drop-out rate at ASU and likely at the University of Arizona too given the low standardized entrance exam scores. We can conclude that education was valued much more in New England than in Arizona.
The low value placed on education in Arizona was exacerbated by the predominant politically conservative bent there. Even if the state was becoming competitive for both of the major parties, the extreme nature of the conservatism has been well documented. Enough of Arizona’s tax-payers have referred to taxes as theft (by the government) that the lack of K-12 funding per pupil and the high pupil-teacher ratio relative to the other States can be understood. Beyond the conservative politics, the sheer aggressive prejudice on the streets (i.e., low and perhaps middle-income residents) against ASU students and even highly educated people belies any suggestion that the locals respect higher education. The attitude obviously excluded respect for the academic functions of universities. Accordingly, the few major universities (ASU and AU) there strove for legitimacy in financial rather than academic terms. Students at ASU regularly referred to their university as being primarily about money. As a business, the university would follow the banks and close for the minor federal holidays. In effect, the University of Arizona and Arizona State University morphed into something more familiar to, and valued by the typical Arizona citizen. It’s a good think that Phoenix does not have snow; ASU would doubtless take advantage of a few inches of accumulation to cancel classes.

1, Adam McCann, “States with the Best & Worst School Systems,”, July 29, 2019.