Higher Education and Education Reform: The Uncanny Stranglehold on Change

In order to reform education — code for altering and restructuring public education in socio-economically strapped urban settings without considering the will of the people affected, even if it means privatization and exclusion — we have to look at the entire picture, the continuum, K-16. The problem lies here.

In The Learning Connection: New Partnerships Between Schools and Colleges, Gene I. Maeroff, Patrick M. Callan and Michael D. Usdan, tell us, citing Roland Barth of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, that, “dual citizenship remains evanescent.” And that the “two sectors [K-12 and higher education] — at a time when both need reform, renewal, rethinking, and restructuring — have few connecting mechanisms to enable them to work cooperatively on issues of mutual concern.”

The challenges we face require that we re-think our complacency with current systems and arrangements. “With up to one-third of the children under age 6 growing up in poverty or economically marginal circumstances,” Maeroff, Callan and Usdan continue, “the K-12 system is confronting serious social as well as educational challenges.” The situation is grave and costly and if we don’t re-address these connections we will march into a bifurcated society — if we’re not there already.

But reform will not be enacted — and be done creatively — if we neglect the relationships between K-12 and colleges and universities. University culture hangs over K-12 education; it’s cloak of anxiety and fear overwhelms the young and their families, leading both to cower before the hallow ivy. Higher education, at its best, marginalizes and divides. It’s disconcerting because higher education is suppose to be about self-actualization.

Higher education is mired in a perspective that is inconsistent with self-actualization. Higher education is enthralled by data driven excellence and the pursuit of efficiency; it sacrifices individual talent, and effort, and privileges materialism. This is an antiquated — and destructive — way of being, commonly known as a “silo approach,” but perhaps Paulo Freire’s characterization, a “banking system,” fits best since all signs suggest that education is the new corporation, the new kid on the block comprised of powerful multinationals.

No one is happy. Everyone is confused. No one has any answers, it seems. “Without major changes in the reward system in higher education — affecting appointment, tenure, and promotion,” argue Maeroff, Callan and Usdan, “there is little chance for meaningful and sustained change and involvement in K-12 issues. We refer here to universitywide policies because collaboration efforts ought not to be limited to the faculties of schools of education.”

David Helfand, for instance, a Columbia University professor for 35 years, who chaired the astronomy department, is on leave to serve as President of tiny Quest University Canada, a liberal arts college. In the Tamar Lewin New York Times article, “David Helfand’s New Quest,” Helfand says, about Quest, that, “We have to make sure people’s inherent conservatism isn’t allowed to come through. We have to institutionalize revolution, or we’ll end up with departments and semester-long courses.” In other words, the silo or the banking system shuts down self-actualization, departmentalizes it and renders it helpless. The residue of institutionalized departmentalization, its power to place blinders on the scope of our vision, is overwhelming K-12 education; it comes in the form of high stakes testing and educational divisions separating children’s learning experiences along soci-economic and racial lines.

We thus have a society divided. Segregation is brought about by the discontinuity in K-16 education. The educational system, then, accepting inequalities, is willing to work towards small gains within “the limits inequality allows,” says Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.

Curriculum materials that are alleged to be aligned with governmentally established goals and standards and particularly suited to what are regarded as ‘the special needs and learning styles’ of low-income urban children have been introduced. Relentless emphasis on raising test scores, rigid policies of non-promotion and non-graduation, a new empiricism and the imposition of unusually detailed lists of named and numbered ‘outcomes’ for each isolated parcel of instruction, an oftentimes fanatical insistence upon uniformity of teachers in their management time, an openly conceded emulation of the rigorous approaches of the military, and a frequent use of terminology that comes out of the world of industry and commerce — these are just a few of the familiar aspects of these new adaptive strategies.

And these adaptive strategies so well described by Kozol have their origin in the new University that, according to the late Bill Readings in The University in Ruins, “no longer participates in the historical project for humanity that was the legacy of the Enlightenment: the historical project of culture. Such a claim also raises some significant questions of its own: Is this a new age dawning for the University project, or does it mark the twilight of the University’s critical and social function? And if it is the twilight, then what does that mean?”

The University is, in fact, in a new dawn, on the one side struggling with its antecedent — its role in humanity’s historical project; the other being the lure of materialism, “the reconception of the University as corporation,” says Readings, “one of whose functions (products?) is the granting of degrees with a cultural cache, but whose overall nature is corporate rather than cultural.”

Students in Professor Helfand’s Columbia class, he tell us, when he was asking them why they weren’t as inquisitive as 4th graders, inform him that, “Fourth graders are curious and university freshman by and large aren’t…There’s too much to learn, and it’s all on Google anyway.” And, says another, “This is a seminar. Asking questions could be a sign of weakness. You can only ask questions in big lectures where you’re anonymous.” So, says another student, “You have to understand, I’m paying for a degree, not an education.”

There you have it. Students — and their paying families — want a degree, not an education. Only education — and especially higher education — is responsible for this extraordinarily shortsighted view, which is costly in more way then one since it’s given us the society we now have.

We’re therefore left with the corporation. The corporation is the culture — and vice versa. The elite cannot sidestep this bind either. “The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive,” says Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service — economic, political, and social — come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and also with highly specialized vocabulary …a sign of the ‘specialist’ and, of course, the elitist, thwarts universal understanding.”

What emerges are managers of the dominant system, not change agents, not enlightened individuals that can question, imagine something different and transgress the means of blind production. Education K-12 is part of this system, weeding out those that can become the elite managers of the system, separating them from those that will service the system elsewhere — manual labor, the service industries and, more emphatically, in the prison industrial complex, as guards and inmates.

Education means to control and manage, not enlighten and enable actualization; it creates specialists, the elites, and a slave class through its apartheid system. The system is inverted — inverted totalitarianism.

In higher education, tenure is, of course, part of the problem. It’s a system of discipline and punishment that insists on embracing the larger framework as ideal. “It’s not exactly a system designed to attract the most entrepreneurial, risk-taking types,” Helfand tells Tamar Lewin . “Furthermore, tenure has little to do with teaching. Just look at the language: we talk about teaching ‘loads’ and research ‘opportunities,’ and you can be sure it is exploiting the latter that gets you tenure,” he says. Tenure is synonymous with advancing in a corporation; the language is interchangeable.

We can hear echoes of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish here: “The apparatus of punitive justice must now bite into their bodiless reality.” Indeed. Our education system, K-16, and our students, our teachers and professors, too, enter this “bodiless reality” where discipline and punishment are exercised. “Since its no longer the body,” says Foucault, “it must be the soul” that must be disciplined. Education serves this purpose in our society: it disciplines the soul into subservience and blind allegiance; it enables citizens to embrace the most dangerous thing of all, ideologies.

The result, says John Ralston Saul in The Unconscious Civilization, “will be the portrait of a society addicted to ideologies — a civilization tightly held at this moment in the embrace of a dominant ideology: corporatism. The acceptance of corporatism causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as citizen in a democracy. The result of such a denial is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”

Self-interest trumps self-actualization in Education. This can be turned around if we, in higher education, examine our purpose. And if our purpose is even remotely about self-actualization — ours and our students’– then we’re called to re-evaluate the conditions in the University that have lead us to the dire circumstances we’re in today. On this road we’ll realize a few things: we’re not sure who are students are and what they need and want; we’re not sure about our world because we reject the notion that we, in academia, had something to do with its creation; we are fearful of releasing ourselves from the binds of departmentalization and devising new and fresh approaches to learning that take into consideration how much we’ve come to know about learning and the brain; and we are definitely frightened of releasing our sense of ownership and control over our disciplines to give way to different and fresh, interdisciplinary approaches, though our life at hand is telling us that we must since nothing, nothing at all really ever exists confined as we make it out to be in our silos, our disciplines. K-16 education needs to be re-invented as a long journey towards self-actualization that pushes aside departmentalization, corporatism and racism, our current conditions.

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2 thoughts on “Higher Education and Education Reform: The Uncanny Stranglehold on Change

  1. Pingback: The Chicago Teacher’s Strike: Solutions for a New World in Education « The Uncanny

  2. Pingback: Higher Education and Education Reform: The Uncanny Stranglehold on Change | The Uncanny

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