The day after Thanksgiving, in the wee hours of the morning, lighting a wood stove, I turn to The New York Times and find this incredible contrast that certainly defines our harrowing age:
What can we say?
The day after Thanksgiving, in the wee hours of the morning, lighting a wood stove, I turn to The New York Times and find this incredible contrast that certainly defines our harrowing age:
What can we say?
Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity.
A new Gallup-Purdue study that looks at links among college, work, and well-being has generated a lot of conversation – in and out of the academy. Much of the chatter is about some of the study’s top findings: 63% of the students said that they “had at least one professor at [College] who [excited them ] about learning”; 27% found that their professors cared about them as a person; 22% found a mentor that encouraged them about pursuing goals and dreams.
Most notably, “The study found that the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being. Just as many graduates of public colleges as graduates of not-for-profit private colleges are engaged at work — meaning they are deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. And just as many graduates of public as not-for-profit private institutions are thriving — which Gallup defines as strong, consistent, and progressing — in all areas of their well-being.”
“The report,” says Charles M. Blow of The New York Times, “has a strong message for students who are asking about which school to attend, for employers who are deciding which people to hire and for colleges that are negotiating their curriculums.”
Google agrees. “Google’s head of people operations Laszlo Bock told the New York Times that top graduates can lack “intellectual humility,” and that schools frequently don’t deliver on what they promise”:
A new Gallup survey finds that in hiring decisions, only 9% of business leaders say that the school on a candidate’s diploma is “very important,” compared to 84% assessing knowledge in the field and 79% looking at applied skills.+
The challenge, of course, is that higher education mirrors our socio-economic system. And we embrace that, instead, and shy away from whatever Google and Gallup are suggesting. This is because, as reported in Quartz, “School rankings have been found to matter when it comes to pay, an effect which rises over time. Graduates of elite private schools in particular get paid more according to a report from the Century Foundation (pdf). Elite industries like professional services and finance put more weight on top schools in hiring decisions.”
We need not go far to prove this. Let’s look at the distribution of faculty salaries. Reporting for the Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade, writes that,
The average pay for all types of professors, instructors and lecturers is $84,303 for the academic year 2012-13, but the report noted a big difference between public and private colleges. At public institutions, the average is $80,578, while at private schools, it’s $99,771.For a full professor, the average salary at a private university this year is $139,620, a notable hike over the average $110,143 at public colleges, and that difference has been growing. This public-private gap has increased from 18 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
These disparities help create a provocative narrative: it does matter where you go to school – even though you may not get a single soul to pay attention to you at the most elite institutions.
The Gallup-Purdue study calls into question our ruling narrative about the value we place on an institution’s brand versus the care an institution may give individual students, their dreams and their needs.
It’s what goes on inside, behind the hallowed ivy, that counts and not how significant – and marketable – the brand is.
It’s not difficult to see how celebrity culture has a hand in this, too. The narrative concerning the significance of one school over another is manipulated by the tools of advertising and management rather than by what data – and reality – tend to show. We have celebrity schools to go along with our celebrity mindset. It’s not surprising, then, to see how much the University has been totally transformed into yet another corporation that comes with its own story – and is never to be questioned.
“The corporation has the power to determine identity,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us [italics Hedges]. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and the structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.'”
We see this model stretching from government to the private sector to education. Don’t be counterproductive. Go along.
In another view of academia, a survey done at U.C.L.A. that looks at shifts in our culture over time, according to David Brooks of The New York Times, says that values have changed. “In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”
It’s not surprising that professional admissions coaches and special tutors have become critical for gaining entrance to top schools – and we know who can afford this luxury. We’ve created a race – an anxiety filled race, says Brooks:
As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.
Epicurus’s necessity is now synonymous with affluence – we can’t seem to break from it. If we are creating a world that is less empathetic – and doing so by introducing a mindless competitive model that makes commodities (read slaves) of us all – then we’re definitely creating a world where Evil has found its niche. I’m moved by Epicurus these days – and here’s something else that fits our age: No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.
Isn’t this where where we find ourselves today?
As of 2012, the last year we have of available data pertaining to the College where I teach, Middlebury, the most popular major (10%) was Economics – it still remains so. Students I see in this major have one goal: Wall Street and gold. According to the Princeton Review, of the top 10 majors, the top three are Business Administration and Management/Commerce, Psychology and Nursing. Economics ranks a surprising 7, after English Language and Literature, Education and Biology/Biological Science. Accordingly, English is one of the two top majors for gaining entrance into law school; the other is Political Science. And Catherine Rampnell, of The New York Times, in “The College Majors That Do Best in the Job Market,” says that the major that “produced the most graduates in jobs that required degrees was education and teaching; 71.1 percent of this discipline’s alumni had jobs for which a bachelor’s was a prerequisite.:” Yes, many graduates go on to teach – but education is under attack and not hiring as it once did; however, many do not enter teaching, suggesting that education studies makes for great job training – students are organized, can work within tight time parameters, and communicate effectively.
Being an efficient undergraduate that develops a picture of “success” is therefore key; demonstrating that nothing has been “wasted” while in college is important. Not much else matters; the competition is fierce.
“I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives,” writes Brooks, “but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.
I’m not so sure that Brooks’ use of Darwin is correct, particularly following Edward O. Wilson’s quite cogent argument, in The Social Conquest of the Earth, that societies evolve in direct relationship to their capacity to embrace altruism, the unselfish concern for or a devotion to the welfare of others:
…human groups are formed of highly flexible alliances, not just among family members but between families, genders, classes, and tribes. The bonding is based on cooperation among individuals or groups who know one another and are capable of distributing ownership and status on a personal basis. The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusociality in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects. The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups. The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit.
Empathy is key. But we’ve turned away from the characteristics of meaningful evolution and focused our attention solely on domination and competition – not altruism, cooperation and reciprocity. Eusociality is a balance, a dance we don’t now enjoy.
Presenting yourself as “utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented” (here meaning: profitable), leads to the commodification of the self, but of experience too. Which is to say that we are headed totally in the opposite direction – a straight line to damnation.
What matters for me is that Education, which I’ve been a part of for nearly 30 years, has had a very strong hand in ensuring that this model goes unquestioned. The utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented model says that we have bought hook, line and sinker into the idea that education is about training and monetary success. Learning to think critically and to question – given plenty of lip service – are nowhere to be found in our actions.
What matters to us most?
In Part 2 of What Matters in Education? I will describe an education model for a renewed commonwealth.
Detachment and Education go hand-in-hand. Education breeds detachment and detachment is what students feel. And teachers, we increase the feeling of separation and disengagement, of being disunited.
In the Symposium, Plato argues that “you cannot harmonize that which disagrees.” If we look closely at education’s physical plant, from the most downtrodden of examples to the most luxurious – the top of the heap – a kind of disinterestedness,aloofness, permeates the environment, as does loneliness. We can of course see this in the architecture, from the most modern and advanced along the romantic Charles to the very old and decrepit alongside industrial sites; we see this is in the efficient militarism of classrooms – the neat rows that force innocent eyes to look up at intimidating images of poets and scientists, famous quotes that dictate accepted understandings of knowledge and culture, and discredit others. These settings that on the surface inspire accord and pleasing arrangements are in fact focused on the law of competition which is, in short, the law of war.
The environmental oversimplification of an extremely complex and subtle experience – teaching and learning – requiring safer, more open spaces, is determined by economic determinism, a harsh, modern version of oligarchy.
“One does not do the work that one chooses to do because one is called to it by Heaven or by one’s natural abilities,” Wendell Berry tells us in What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth,”but does instead the work that is determined and imposed by the economy…Among the many costs of the total economy, the loss of the principle of vocation is probably the most symptomatic and, from a cultural standpoint, the most critical. It is by the replacement of vocation with economic determinism that the exterior workings of a total economy destroy human characters and culture from the inside.”
A vocation is a calling, a strong inclination, which is very difficult to find in an environment that inspires competition and detachment through discipline. Learning requires a soft touch because the learner is always vulnerable. Vulnerability can be a strength but it is, in the educational architecture of detachment, taught as weakness.
The most recent, horrific incidents involving hazing in our schools are examples of how our culture promotes the violent extraction of vulnerability from anyone that is perceived as different. Thus Detachment and Education have effectively eradicated Love from teaching and learning, which is, ironically, the foundation for collaboration and cooperation.
Let’s listen to Plato’s wisdom, again …
Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, in as much as he is not even stable, because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable, and therefore when the bloom of youth which he was desiring over, he takes wing and flies away, in spite of all his words and promises; whereas the love of the noble disposition is lifelong, for it becomes one with the everlasting things.
Economic determinism requires that we concentrate solely on the short term, not the “noble disposition” that is “lifelong”; we don’t want to imagine “everlasting things,” waging that immediate profit is more beneficial, though in Western Culture, since Plato, we’ve known that “being overcome with the love of money, or of wealth, or of political power, whether a man is frightened into surrender by the loss of them, or, having experienced the benefits of money and political corruption, is unable to rise above the seductions of them,” and a rejection of the soul’s calling for permanence.
In essence, the exclusion of Love from the educational endeavor ensures that we’re not teaching for everlasting things; rather, we are teaching for the short term. And in the short term, there is only “love of money, or of wealth, or of political power.”
How’s that working out for us?
Wendell Berry calls this “limitless selfishness.” He says that, “In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom,’ for example, as an escape from all restraint. But … ‘free’ is etymologically related to ‘friend.’ These words come from the same Germanic and Sanskrit roots, which carry the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved.’ We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. This suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.”
No, not Facebook – though students tell me that We know what we mean by friend. We don’t need to know a word’s roots. Words are not that important – not like that.
Love, in this world, has gone by way of the Internet, though, and has metamorphosed into an “illusion,” as Chris Hedges notes in Empire of Illusion. In Hedges’ hands the illusion of love is best expressed in porn, which “reflects,” he says, “the endemic cruelty of our society. This is a society that does not blink when the industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States and its allies kills hundreds of civilians in Gaza or hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan…The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.”
Empathy, community, cooperation and collaboration are the hallmarks of a healthy society; these are likewise the essential qualities that must be at the heart of any educational endeavor. If Education is not healthy, society can’t be either. But in order to get at empathy, we have to get at vulnerability; in order to get at vulnerability we have to connect our brains to our hearts and souls – an endeavor antithetical to education that privileges only Reason, not sense, not sensibility, not, essentially, Love.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman‘s 1985 book, he concludes that,
Today we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot high card-board picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, our religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.
In this world, Detachment is the consequence of an Education guided by economic determinism; in turn, lust, not love, sits center stage so that a work of art, say, such as one makes of one’s life, has no purpose but to itself. It should be of no surprise, then, that what we are experiencing today is a gross example of the violence that competition breeds since, by definition, we are laying out the conditions of war; unfortunately, this war now exists among ourselves, between us.
Overpopulation is Not The Problem, by associate professor of geography and environmental systems, at the University of Maryland, Erle C. Ellis, is definitely an important piece to read – and not just because of the argument – “The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistoric, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.”
In the argument, we thus must also ask about how we’re educating ourselves – and those to come – so as to follow data, science, principles and ethics and humanisms wide reach, thus ensuring that we’re moving towards a more pronounced technological future with empathy and care. The challenge, according to Ellis, is here:
The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.
Since we are “niche” creators, the danger, of course, is in creating a “niche of terror and devastation,” a niche, for instance, the excludes others, that, as Chris Hedges argues, creates “sacrifice zones.”
I told you so.
It’s not a hospitable way to begin this piece and draw your attention, but I just had to say it . I told you so.
In “Nothing Will Change: the 2012 Presidential Election,” written June 23, 2011, I said that, “the state and the corporation are the main sponsors and coordinators of an ‘unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalitarian tendencies, powers that not only challenge established boundaries — political, moral, intellectual, and economic — but whose nature it is to challenge those boundaries continually, even to challenge the limits of the earth itself,’ says Sheldon S. Wolin in Democracy Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.”
Here we are again, debating tax reform, taxation of the rich and entitlements. Mitch McConnell is still obstructing by any means necessary. Paul Ryan is still showing his colors, suggesting that they lost the election because “too many Blacks voted.” Too many? And Mitt Romney, acutely blind to what happened, before, during and now after the election, insists, speaking to the LA Times, that Obama won the election because he gave Big Gifts to Latinos and Blacks.
The rest of us, meanwhile, exhausted, are looking optimistically for a compromise. Sound familiar? Have we been here before?
In Obama we’ve chosen a kind of struggle that will work only be degrees, slowly, gradually — yet not alter the state of affairs at all. Romney wanted to drastically change everything and place a perverse oligarchy at the helm. With Obama, we’ll fix a tire here, a spark plug there, a belt, a carburetor — but the fact that the system is fundamentally flawed is not going to be addressed. Remember: I told you so. And I’m telling you now.
On January 28, 2012, looking at this system keen on manufacturing illusion as its primary feature, I wrote “Vero Beach, Florida and the Manufacturing of Consciousness: How the GOP Will Give Obama a Victory in 2012“, and said :
Vero Beach is the American Paradox: the extraordinary cost of creating and maintaining such lavishness and the economic drain of a lifestyle that is characterized by total mechanization, as the pudgy elderly try to stave off the inevitable by walking and biking, their lives well kept by Latinos and some, very few, African Americans usually found behind counters at Publix markets, gas stations and sanitation trucks. The divide is the evolution of manifest destiny that has assumed a contemporary look and feel.
We can hear Karl Rove’s grandiosity; we can also see the denial of the changing face of the American electorate: younger, bolder, Latino, women, the LGBT community, and African Americans that are now looking for Obama, their president, to address their ills in more concrete ways then he did his first go ’round. Privilege is indeed blinding. The GOP never saw it coming.
But things have changed. And we have to help things change even further.
Robert Wolf, Obama’s top Wall Street ally, says that the rich can tolerate tax hikes. As reported by Andrew Rosenthal, in The New York Times, Bill Kristol, the stalwart conservative of the Weekly Standard, has endorsed raising taxes.
So immediately following the election — and the devastation from Sandy that brought so many together in a dramatic tableau of self-reliance — we have reason to, well, hope for change. But don’t get carried away. As Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion, our best and the brightest are educated, by our elite instutions, to be mechanics, not change agents — fix this or that, never changing the system; the status quo is accepted. It’s how we roll in America — and why we’re fat, too.
What do we have wrong? What do we have to change?
For me, this can only be done through education, a creative struggle with ideas, difficult ideas, challenging ideas that are, if they’re to be effective, questioning the status quo and offering alternatives. We need to work to transgress. We have to re-examine what we mean by “progress” and, likewise, we have to conflate our sense of it with what we “value”; in the journey, we have to look back and try to also define “virtue” and “virtuous action,” the keys to any foundation that is looking to move to new and better ways of living. These are the road to happiness.
So let’s turn to our socioeconomic challenges, first, since these are on everyone’s mind. Please run to your local bookstore and, whether you’re on the right or the left or somewhere in-between, pick up a copy of Bill Ivey’s Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy. Read it. Then let’s have an educated discussion about who we want to be.
But if we’re going to do this, as Ivey says, we have to first accept that our values have been corrupted by consumption; this is why the constant affirmation of growth has lead us to a precipice — the so called fiscal cliff. (I can already hear the claims of “socialist”! from folks I know.) Here, listen:
Americans have been converted; we’ve internalized market values. We experience consuming as a liberating activity, strong enough to at times present the illusion of social rebellion. ‘Freedom’ is no longer a condition defined by the absence of debt and envy. Instead, modern-day advertising has transformed freedom into a central tenet of consumerist ideology.
This is called “Freedomism,” says Ivey: “the sentiment that allows buyers to somehow believe that the purchase of a new SUV is a ticket to the great outdoors, when the real effect is a hefty installment loan and the inevitable truth that to service the debt, one must work more hours, inside, at a desk.” Thus, “the transformation of every facet of human activity into marketable product in the end conflates money and meaning.”
We got to this place because we’ve been blind to the idiocy of growth, the notion that if we just expand, buy more, create more stuff, we’ll somehow buy our way out of our socioeconomic woes. In this world the Corporation is viewed as a positive “fixture of America’s democracy,” says Ivey. It happened gradually, but we accept the Corporate Ideological Apparatus and its insistence on the illusion of growth.
Grow where, though? How?
Look around: the earth’s resources are dwindling; we are being lead to believe that because we’ll be drilling our own fossil fuels, becoming less reliant on the Middle East for production, we’ll be better off. But here’s another I told you so: if you think that somehow this is going to change anything — price at the pump, price of heating oil, nurse the environment — you’re dreaming because, in the end, whether we drill, baby, here or there, this fossil resource is dwindling, too. It’s scarce any way we cut it. The costs, I tell you, will be higher. Watch.
The way to turn this around is in yet another source: Bill McKibben, my colleague and
friend, in his Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future argues that More does not necessarily mean better. There are three fundamental challenges to the notion of growth, says Bill (it’s worth citing all):
One is political: growth, at least as we now create it, is producing more inequality than prosperity, more insecurity than progress. This is both the most common and the least fundamental objection to our present economy … By contrast, the second argument draws on physics and chemistry as much as on economics; it is the basic projection that we do not have the energy needed to keep the magic going, and can we deal with the pollution it creates? The third argument is both less obvious and even more basic: growth is no longer making us happy. These three objections mesh with each other in important ways; taken together, they suggest that we’ll no longer be able to act wisely, either in our individual lives or in public life, simply by asking which choice will produce More.
I dare say that this is, in fact, true, particularly if we go back and look at what I said, above, and examine the relationships between “progress,””value,” and “virtuous action” and Happiness. In this exercise, it’s incumbent upon us, as civilized humans, to examine Happiness for all, not just for the few. How can we work to create environments of Happiness, which could, in turn, be very different for different people?
To answer this question, we have to turn to another source, Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. In Nixon’s words,
…we can recognize that the structural violence embodied by a neoliberal order of austerity measures, structural adjustment, rampant deregulation, corporate megamergers, and a widening gulf between rich and poor is a form of covert violence in its own right that is often a catalyst for more recognizably overt violence…[an] insistence that the systematic burdens of national debt to the IMF and World Bank borne by many so-called developing nations constitute a major impediment to environmental sustainability…To talk about violence, then, is to engage directly with our contemporary politics of speed.
If we then conflate our “contemporary politics of speed” with the illusion of growth, we have our perfect storm, our current state of affairs that, following Ivey, McKibben, and now Nixon, create vast disparities between us, exciting an air of negative competition that seeks to outdo someone else — the Other — for my selfish benefit only.
But, finally, there is an answer — missed by the GOP during the election, noticed by the Obama campaign, but, yet, it’s still living in a kind of fog, just out there at our fingertips, waiting to be noticed and appreciated for its, yes, mathematical accuracy: DIVERSITY. Not growth, but diversity will give us the future.
We thus turn to Scott E. Page’s The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. (Here is Page speaking on leveraging diversity.) Page tells us that, “Progress depends as much on our collective differences as it does on our individual IQ scores.” This is a challenge for a society that “prizes individual talent and achievement”:
Diversity is a property of a collection of people — a basket with many kinds of fruit. Diversity and ability to complement one another: the better the individual fruits, the better the fruit basket, and the better the other fruit, the better the apple … We should encourage people to think differently. Markets create incentives to be different as well as to be able, but perhaps not to the appropriate level. We have to do more.
Page goes on to prove his thesis mathematically and logically; it’s undeniable — except to the GOP that lead Romney to defeat and continues to deny the very real diversity evident in our election results. Notice, too, that critical interdisciplinary work is an essential component that will excite market-driven diversity, since we’ll need people who are not necessarily smarter then you and me, but rather, people who actually can address a problem by thinking differently. Mathematically, Page shows us that a group of diverse thinkers in a room can actually solve problems more efficiently, faster and more creatively.
What does this mean?
The challenge for politics, for instance, is that the same people are always in the room: corporate spokespersons parading as senators and congress people; we impose, on the poor, for instance, how they should live, rather then asking them, at the seminar table, what solutions they see; we impose on teachers standardization, across the board, without asking teachers to contribute to their profession; and, likewise, we impose, then, structural imperatives on students without asking students how they learn, how they go to school, what challenges they face in this community or that community.
In other words, the challenge today is far more complex — and subtle; it’s about understanding our diversity, acknowledging that what we may be doing in the name of growth isn’t better — and it hurts many, many people.
In this long piece (sorry), I am compelled to leave you with a shocking, 1991 confidential World Bank memo, written by the esteemed Lawrence Summers, and found in Nixon’s Slow Violence, that actually demonstrates all I’ve said; it’s the ultimate I told you so :
I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country impeccable and we should face up to that … I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles … Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?
Don’t be shocked by this, not if you’ve read Empire of Illusion. Summers served as the 71st US Secretary of the Treasury, from 1999-2001, under Bill Clinton; he was Director of the White House US National Economic Council for President Barack Obama; he is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; and, he’s the recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal for his work in several fields of economics. Summers also served as the 27th President of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006 (he resigned after a vote of “no-confidence.”) And he received his S.B. from MIT in 1975 and his PhD, from Harvard, in 1982.
I mention all this, even though I link to it, because, if you’re reading this and got this this point, you have to ask yourself: What are we breeding in our institutions? And, how is it that thinking like Summers’ lands a man a job at the right had of the President of the USA, in this case, two Democratic Presidents?
See, I told you so. How do you want to live? How well are we doing in our pursuit of Happiness?
Is anybody scared?
I am. I’m very scared. Very.
Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his VP running mate is a throwing down of the gauntlet: America is going to abide by a stringent hierarchy that will impose a highly structured system that won’t bend – for you or anyone; each class will be identifiable — and verifiable. We will have different Americas. Some Americans will be on the inside, others will forever remain on the outside. It’s all we can afford, so pick yourself up by your bootstraps — and if you can’t, oh well.
This is the election: do we continue to struggle on the demanding, bumpy road towards freedom(s) for each and everyone of us, working really hard, in difficult times, to re-adjust social mobility and tolerance, or do we give that up for a sure place on a ladder’s rung without being able to control (a) which rung we land on and (b) without being able to move the ladder this way and that, this angle and that, re-adjusting it in concordance with great suffering — and there will be plenty of suffering.
Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his VP running mate is a window into who the Republic Presidential candidate actually is and how he works. Romney’s selection is a window into his soul, a dark, foreboding place. It’s obvious now.
Romney is the second coming of “W.” Romney, like W, is willing to be used. With W came Cheney, a very powerful, intelligent and articulate conservative, with hands in some of the most powerful pockets in the world — oil, defense, Wall Street, fundamentalist capitalists. He changed the course of history — and W went along. Cheney’s and W’s tack caused deaths, depravation and a furthering of the American decline: the 2008 economy, Iraq and Afghanistan, Bin Laden running around like a lunatic planning his next destruction, education nearly collapsing, the greatest economic separation among Americans in history. The evidence is indisputable. This was the world handed to Obama and Biden.
Those same forces that gave us W and Cheney are now stronger; they’ve learned from their loss to Obama. Now they’ve forced Ryan onto Romney. Ryan’s economic plan will float money upwards, much like Cheney loved to have power and influence float upward only to him, then he could push the punk, W, around. Romney’s been pushed, for sure; Ryan has the upper hand. Ayn Rand is winning, an early influence on Ryan, he admits. (I read Rand as teenager, too, but had the instinct to turn away.)
If I’m not telling the truth, saying it like it is, watch the 60 Minutes Interview that aired last night, Sunday, August 12th.
Romney is cautiously in love. And Ryan can hardly sit still, so enthralled is he to describe his vision. He’s so excited with his new stage that he had to hold back from jumping in with data and projections, deferring to Romney’s jingoistic responses to rather soft questions. When Ryan speaks, Romney looks like a puppy that’s having his belly scratched, grinning from ear to ear. But his eyes, they tell a different story: watch it, this guy is really ambitious — and he can talk better then I can.
What’s he saying? For starters, we’re learning that Romney will have less control. We’re also learning that Ryan’s plan controls from the top.
The Romney-Ryan plan wants less social welfare drag, more struggle in the under classes, more riches at the top of the income ladder. It’s not a solution to our problems, it’s merely a re-distribution of a dwindling pie. Re-distribution, according to Ryan, can only happen by guaranteeing denial of benefits to Americans that are in trouble and struggling, hurting, maybe even confused and vulnerable. Ryan’s plan never looks at the reasons for our state being the way it is. The market place will then run free and produce growth; however, what kind of growth this is, we don’t know. What we do know is that growth depends on how rules and regulations are erased — particularly when these rules pertain to the environment and the extraction of natural resources by international corporations.
The gamble is that Ryan’s plan will provoke the upper-middle class and the socially unconscious. It goes something like this: People are always willing pay for the good life. Let’s take it. Make it. Sell it. Let’s take it now. Screw it. Climate change. Dwindling resources. Hell, there may not be a tomorrow. Let’s take it before it’s too late. Down the road, after much wealth is acquired and it all works out, maybe we’ll have the technologies in place that will allow us to tack back a bit. But for now, let’s take it. What do we have to lose?
Ryan’s plan is medieval. We’ve seen it before — the lord, his serfs and the anonymous living in abject poverty reliant on hand-outs from the serfs. Free market enterprise is the moat — free meaning that to profit one must be socially mobile to access open, competitive enterprise where there are rules that guarantee a kind of success, provided that monopolizing capital is something you’re willing to go along with. It’s a wonderful life.
But no one has a crystal ball. Obama and Biden could win. Romney and Ryan could win and end up paralyzed by a congress that opposes them, having to redefine their harsh perspective on the American future. In the meantime, as each party lobs insults to the other — and at the American people — we can feel safe in knowing that there are dark, harsh forces out there — we can see them and identify them; it’s not a conspiracy at all — throwing tons of money into the Romney – Ryan coffers, perhaps because they see the ticket as being Ryan – Romney.
I’m scared. Very scared of that!
In a recent article in the Middlebury Campus, Parton Sees Rise in Erectile Dysfunction, Saadiah Schmidt tells us that, “The last three years have witnessed an upsurge in the number of male students reporting erectile dysfunction and other sex-related problems at Parton Health Center…” The Director and College Physician, Dr. Mark Peluso, told Schmidt that, “in the majority of cases, the patients were habitual viewers of pornography, and had no difficulty with sexual performance when they were with themselves.” Peluso — and others who study the affects of pornography on habitual viewers — suggest that there is “an inverse relationship between porn and potency — as porn use increases, so do sexual insufficiencies,” Schmidt tells us. (There are plenty of studies looking at the effects of pornography, some debatable and challenging; linked in the previous sentence is only an overview for those unfamiliar. Another interesting article is Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships.)
Schmidt’s article set off conversations — and consternation — around campus.
“I don’t believe it,” said some students.
“No way. Guys are confessing to having trouble performing? No way, man,” was another comment.
“I don’t think it’s just porn,” though, became the most common.
The sex and love lives of 18-21 year olds on a college campus are complex, to say the least. Trying to nurture intimate relationships during this transitional stage in life is very difficult, fraught with challenges that students, more often then not, are ill prepared to handle — but that we, faculty and staff may help confuse. Students are thinking about what their educations mean, where their educations will take them; they’re worried about a jobless future — perhaps no future at all; they’re struggling with tremendous amounts of work, stressful demands on their time and energy, and in-between all this they’re trying to carry on relationships.
For some, the minority that is mature enough to communicate meaningfully about vulnerabilities, it can work. For others, however, love is synonymous with “just sex,” which in college means “additives,” such as alcohol and (some) drugs. Love and sex are thus reduced to “grinding” in dark corners of clubs or “rooms” where faces are unseen, music pounds and in the end, there’s the “hook up.” (Film on hook up culture)
Most colleges and universities don’t recognize that life on campuses takes place in three educational-social spheres: the day-to-day going to classes across elysian quads, students smiling, nodding to each other — everything is cool; the other campus comes alive in the dark, and is totally different — usually between Thursday and Sunday, involving pre-gaming (drinking hard in someone’s room, though sometimes alone), before going to a party where the hope is to grind into the hook up among inebriated individuals too bleary eyed to see the other. The goal, apparently, is not even the raw sex, rather it’s the story to tell the next day. The last college sphere is the place of technology, which is 24-7 — cell phones, iPads, computers — where cyber-socializing, gaming, porn, course work that’s online, and the everyday construction of lives — ordering airline tickets, reading news and sports, facebook and twitter, and so on, takes place.
College life is confusing and pressure-filled, so how can meaningful, intimate relationships evolve when what a relationship needs most is time and consideration, understanding and humility, and patience? College life is an impatient one.
We have two competing narratives, at least, always ongoing on a college campus: there’s the life in the classroom — predictable, somewhat staid, the “work,” as students call it; then there’s the less predictable, anxious life in the dark or alone in cyber-connections with cyber-realities, images one projects into the ether, performances of a nebulous and insecure self, a kind of stepping out, slowly, of embodiments of something or other yet to be defined eased out carefully, timidly. And all of this anxiousness gets expressed in the after hours culture of the college night.
Life in college is thus always defined by disconnections, though everything is connected by the ubiquitous presence of manufactured time — usually not enough time. Not enough time to complete assignments. Not enough time to get to the gym. Not enough time to eat. Not enough time to sleep. Not enough. Not enough is the trademark of college life, though countering this — and confusing things and adding tension — is the ongoing narrative of higher education: the future will is full of hope, which translates into wealth and leisure for most students.
The college is therefore the microcosm of the world outside its pleasure dome, outside Xanadu, Coleridges image of Kubla Khan. It privileges a patriarchy that, if we look at our society, as Chris Hedges does in Empire of Illusion, particularly in his chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” we see a “society that has lost the capacity for empathy.” The “not enough time,” disconnected existence of rushing about pre-gaming, grinding, hooking up cyber – culture of college life lends towards a distancing from one’s sense of self, one’s intimacy with one’s sensuality and sensitivity. So we turn to the additives — the drugs and alcohol, and cyber porn where “the woman is stripped of her human attributes,” says Hedges, “and made to be for abuse. She has no identity distinct as a human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll … She becomes a slave.” The dominant heteronormative culture on college campuses across America privilege these vile descriptions Hedges gives us where the viewer of porn is “aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women.” So it’s no wonder that erectile dysfunction, once the drinking accompanies the journey from grinding to the hook up, is increasing since the actual level of intimacy required in a sexual relationship is always being pushed aside by the pressure of college life that exist in its three dominant spheres — the academic, the night, and the cyberworld.
But here’s the tragic problem: students are reacting to what we, the adults, show them; we’re indoctrinating them into society like this. By not addressing that students’ behavior as somehow connected to our institutionalized rhetoric, we give it approbation.
“The most successful Internet porn sites and films are those that discover new ways to humiliate and inflict cruelty on women,” says Hedges. The idea, here, is to privilege domination, cruelty and exploitation, subjects that are kept at arms length in sociology courses and political science course, even in literature, but never are these subjects dealt with as sitting at the center of a confused maturation process that is made even more challenging by the false design of our educational environments that would rather build climbing walls and swimming pools and not confront the entire student. We like to only see the student from the head up, an empty vessel that needs to have our wisdom poured into them — climb a wall, exercise, and here’s what you need to know, only. The tragedy in all this is that, by not working with the entire student, we are slowly and carefully, systematically by design, moving our students away from any real understanding of themselves, the “stuff” of life needed for love and empathy. Anyone can have sex — but what is its meaning, its place in our lives?
Maybe we, the adults, have lost our connections to ourselves.
Hedges pessimistically ends his chapter on the illusion of love suggesting that “porn is the glittering facade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.” It makes sense to me. Are we, in removing students from close relationships with themselves, their internal selves, killing off their potential, their desire to be creative and to evolve? Is this, then, not a culture fixated on death? Is hook up culture — and erectile dysfunction, usually relegated, at the other end of the culture, to Viagra commercials during PGA tour TV coverage where old men golf, drink and can’t get it up — a sign of a culture moving towards death?
Are we witnessing the death rattle of dogmatic institutions unable to sustain themselves any longer and our students, in despair, sensing something is wrong, are merely acting out in a haze of confusion?
1. Finding the Artes Liberales
What is the place of a Liberal Arts education in American culture? This is coming up quite a lot these days, and usually accompanied by at least two other critical questions symptomatic of the state of affairs:
Originally, the liberal arts referred to subjects which in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study. The artes liberales have always been considered necessary for an informed citizenry — Democracy writ large. The liberal arts nurture the proper citizen, the reasoning goes, because the work of the artes liberales is critical thinking, dialog, cooperation and collaboration, and clear, insightful writing — communication on a grand but subtle scale.
In classical antiquity, this meant the study of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; in medieval times, these subjects (called the Trivium) were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy, including astrology. The curriculum was called the Quadrivium that, along with the Trivium, constituted the seven liberal arts of the medieval university curriculum.
Modernism — industrialization and globalization — changed all this and extended it to include literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology and sciences. What the liberal arts do not relate to is the professional, vocational, or technical curricula. Also confusing or blurring this negation of the professional and technical, are courses (and majors) in the liberal arts college on computer science; we have pre-law, pre-engineering and, of course, pre-med further blurring the lines. One of the most popular majors in many of these schools is Economics, for instance, students keeping a keen eye on Wall Street. (Business Administration is the most popular major across American higher education.)
So I’m just going to put this out there, a comment I made to my education class the other day when discussing these questions and the confusion about how we feel about the liberal arts:
The Liberal Arts in American culture is synonymous with elitism; the Liberal Arts equals privilege — it’s how we see it; and the Liberal Arts is code language for expensive, small colleges, mostly in New England, that are fed by equally as expensive — and elite — prep schools. Attending these has the potential of leading a student to ‘the good life’, which is synonymous with wealth.
And in this calculus of elitism, there exist policies concerning diversity and affirmative action that ensure that students that do not come from socioeconomically privileged geographies attend these schools, have a way in, a keyhole to squeeze through, a door held slightly ajar for those that can demonstrate that they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and can assimilate into the dominant culture.
Yes, that’s exactly it, said my students, unanimously, at least a third of which do not come from geographies of privilege. It’s true, they said. This is how we “read” the Liberal Arts, they said. Thus is the baggage held by Liberal Arts institutions in the popular consciousness.
2. Finding the Work Inside the Liberal Arts
This raises other questions, of course:
These questions are some of the ammunition used to attack the artes liberales. There may be good reason.
Martha C. Nussbaum is on the forefront of this national conversation. In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (2000), Nussbaum asserts that, “…the unexamined life threatens the health of democratic freedoms, and the examined life produces vigor in the nation and freedom in the mind.” This is the kind of citizen we want — and need; the future of Democracy depends on this intellect. But, says Nussbaum, “We live, as did Socrates, in a violent society that sometimes turns its rage against intellectuals.”
Anti-intellectualism, then, is an assault on the liberal arts, an irony for Nussbaum — and others, like me, for instance — because it’s exactly what we need to have, “freedom of the mind.” But how free is the mind in these schools?
Nussbaum says that, “No curricular formula will take the place of provocative and perceptive teaching that arouses the mind.” Is this what’s going on?
My students report the following: mind-numbing, endless PowerPoints where teachers routinely read from screens; the book or two a week pace that compels students to skim and rely on Sparknotes; rigid writing assignments that ask students to repeat class notes that follow the professor’s ideas rather then asking students for their own insights, feelings and ideas; writing assignments that are always given at the end of a sequence, which students see as assignments trying to prove whether or not the student is paying attention, or busy work writing assignments, nightly or two per week reactions and summaries of the reading to see if the student is reading and following along; research papers and projects, routinely 12 – 20 pages, and assigned at the end of the semester when all classes are asking for the same thing, yet adding final exams as well, leaving no room for dialog, debate and revision. No creativity.
“Provocative and perceptive teaching,” in order to arouse the mind, cannot follow PowerPoints, nor can it ask students to engage in tasks to prove they’re listening; rather, mind arousal takes time and patience. A student — and the teacher — have to sit with ideas, let these ferment, come to the surface, so that learners can come to grips with the complexity that abounds in the human experience. This is how critical thinking is built, how inquiry is conducted. There is little evidence that this is what’s happening, according to students.
But in the pace of a semester, which ranges, depending on the school, from 12 weeks to 15, in a class that, say, meets for 2 seventy-five minute periods, I wonder how much time is afforded to Socratic activity that, says Nussbaum, again, “can enliven the thinking”? If we’re rushing through PowerPoints, and students are frantically trying to copy what’s on the screen (because faculty are frightened of simply giving the PowerPoints to students, this while MIT has put ALL their courses online!), and we’re pushing one text after another, where is the contemplation that the Socratic methods demands? Where are the writing assignments that ask students to grapple with complexity, slowly and carefully? And, since we are Americans and, for the most part, Ralph Waldo Emerson is our philosophical father, where is the time and space to revise, to think differently?
A good instructor must know a great deal about a subject; s/he must be able to draw out students to make complex connections so that the learner can begin to understand his and her capacity to reason. This takes time. If a 20 page research paper is a requirement to be delivered to the instructor at the end of the term, say during the last week or during the exam period, how is the capacity to reason determined and shown to the student? The research paper or the research project is a vital reflection on a subject; it requires time, creativity, insight. How does this happen with the pressure of the end of the term? Students say that what they do is to work through short cuts that simply enable them to produce a 20 page piece, they hand it in, and then forget about it. The goal is to be done.
The way schooling takes place, in many liberal arts institutions, what we’re in fact doing, is working against the promises of the artes liberales and, instead, we’re creating a production system that privileges the end product rather then the process; that privileges being done, rather then an examination of the insights that have gone into creating a piece in the first place. We’re product oriented. The process, where the actual teaching and learning takes place, where insights can happen and where space has to be given for ambiguity is repressed in the name of speed and efficiency. Getting through a packed syllabus and reaching the end of the term are the major course management principles; the number of pages a student writes, by the end of the term, is more important than the quality of insight, the creativity used to approach complexity. A student’s reading on an author, subject or idea is less important then her ability to mimic the teacher’s thoughts, reproduce the teacher’s lecture. Ironically, a passionate, insightful reading of a writer’s passage is more engaging, more useful in producing enlivened thinking.
In the modern curriculum, as we taut the relationship between the artes liberales and the informed citizen, we remove the most vital aspect, which is the time and the space — the safe space — essential for provoking and challenging pre-conceived perceptions about the order of things. We exist in systems based on time and efficiency models, rather then on how we learn. We’ve decided to go along with what we deem to be finished products, rather then trying to understand, in one another, how we come to be creative, how we imagine. In fact, an argument can be made that we’ve taken away the capacity to imagine on a grand scale.
3. Finding Empathy — or can we create a Citizen of the World?
In another, more recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), Nussbaum says that the abilities associated with the humanities and the arts, which are critical for our survival as a Democracy are : “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.”
The number one complaint of students I know is that they don’t have time to think; that everything is rushed; that course material is “rammed,” they say, and that how much one reads and does is more important than how deeply one thinks.
“As long as you give the prof what he wants, and you know what that is, then you’re fine,” said a student, echoing what many students say.
“We don’t have time to think about what we’re told we’re learning,” said another.
“We can’t even talk over a meal because we’re always rushing to the next class,” yet another.
What are we doing? Do we even know?
We indoctrinate students into a kind of institutional loyalty that rejects — and punishes — critiques of “local loyalties”. Adding to the problem — and the challenges facing the Liberal Arts — the economic system privileges hyperindividualism, leaving no room for empathy, the ability “to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” In this system, it’s hard to actually think sympathetically about another since that Other is a sign of competition, someone or something we need to overcome and outdo. Getting ahead is the primary concern.
The humanities — the artes liberales — should inspire searching; instead, we’ve conditioned ourselves to push students to quickly seek majors, line up behind stringent requirements, though we expect them to take a course here and a course there about Other places in the world — Asia, Africa, Latin America; we inspire them to take foreign languages and to visit other countries, an approach that’s more like looking for the right restaurant, the right vacation spot without really thinking about our impact on others. We have forgotten what Paul Bowles told us in The Sheltering Sky: there is a difference between the tourist and the visitor.
We thus move about without imagining sympathetically the predicament of another person, as Nussbaum suggests. And so the challenge of the Liberal Arts is to (a) justify this conveyor belt approach that could, perhaps, enable some to enter into higher socioeconomic classes and (b) to justify, in doing so, the expense, which is rising. But there is a third consideration: how has this system added to our problems, not least of which is the systematic creation of a society divided along class lines that, in turn, emerge from our stringent parameters that determine access to (elite) higher education.
Chris Hedges, in Empire of Illusion, says that we can lay all of the worlds problems on the doorsteps of the best colleges and universities. I agree. We’re creating assembly line workers, parading as thinkers, eager to keep things as they are, fixing a nut here and a bolt there, but lacking in an imaginative perspective that can embrace, with empathy, the problems and challenges of the world. Privilege has been effectively eroticized. How expensive is that?
In Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (2007), former Dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis tells us that, “Unquestionably, the rewards of being part of top-tier university have caused competition for both student and faculty slots that has made both groups better in certain important ways. Yet while the competition has drawn better faculty and students to top universities, it has driven the two groups apart.”
There is a disconnect in the liberal arts academy, not least of which is the notion that we’re not really sure who are students are.
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.
It’s truly uncanny how popular, mainstream media willingly refuses to investigate what is really behind the accepted story, usually promoted by the likes of The New York Times, chronicler of the official story.
Here I’m talking about the NBA Lockout, which began last night. A student of mine that took my Media, Sports and Identity class (students are now always on the lookout for what’s behind the accepted version of stories), sent me an exclusive from Deadspin: How (And Why) An NBA Team Makes $7 Million Profit Look Like a $28 Million Loss. Deadspin has obtained the financial records of the New Jersey Nets. These records show how major corporations work:
The hustle: The first thing to do is toss out that $25 million loss, says Rodney Fort, a sports economist at the University of Michigan. That’s not a real loss. That’s house money. The Nets didn’t have to write any checks for $25 million. What that $25 million represents is the amount by which Nets owners reduced their tax obligation under something called a roster depreciation allowance, or RDA.
As my students learn in our course, mediated sports nurture today’s culture of spectacle; it is a culture more comfortable with illusion then reality. In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry tells us that “People whose governing habit is the relinquishing of power, competence, and responsibility, and whose characteristic suffering is the anxiety of futility, make excellent spenders.” Thus, says Berry, “They are ideal consumers. By inducing in them little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia, they can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything that is ‘attractively packaged.'”
Media is the tool that attractively packages the boredom, paranoia, powerlessness and sexual failure, as every commercial during any sporting event suggests, from Viagra to fast cars and blonds with beers tell us. It’s also, following Berry, how and why media — and mediated sports — engage in the attractive packaging that ensures we have blind faith in illusions.
The grand illusion is that NBA franchises are loosing money. This parallels the grand illusion orchestrated in Congress, namely that if tax breaks for “fat cats” are closed, this somehow won’t alleviate the debt and make us all, particularly those of us that are middle class and can read and write and fully understanding are dwindling presence in society feel a bit better.
Mitch McConnel (R-KY), for instance, who will not go along with the President and is opposed to any revamping of the health care system, has, of his 5 top contributors to his campaign, 2 health care companies, 2 energy companies (also opposed to alternative energy sources and ways to reduce dependencies on fossil fuels), a bank, of course, Citibank that cleaned money of Mexican drug cartels, and a marketing firm. The top 5 corporate supporters for McConnell are securities and investments, lawyers, health professionals, retirees and real estate. Who is he protecting?
These deceits are best mirrored in our professional sports where players are routinely viewed as chattel or cattle, machines that can be depreciated and are expendable, as we are. How many men do any of you know, between 50 and 60 that are today either unemployed or under employed? “The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power,” Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (a text I will continue to cite over and over), “means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.”
Of course we fear being “instantly disappeared.” So it’s a lot better to go along with the coverage of the NBA lockout that suggests that somehow the poor owners are at a loss, the players greedy bastards making way too much money for shooting a ball. Some of this is true: there are far too many players making millions and warming the bench. There aren’t marque players on every team; every team is not in New York, L.A., or Miami and Houston. Fans understand that. But as we study the lockout and begin to see a long history where the player is merely a cog, a body, we begin to wonder, as David Shields does in his wonderful book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, “Who owns this body, this body of work?”
We no longer own the United States; we no longer own or direct the narrative — it is a singular narrative — we see on TV and in the press, the pop media; we no longer own our schools, our government, businesses; we no longer own the direction of the country; we don’t even own the direction of our lives. What’s left but illusion?
It’s best to let Hedges end this post:
Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again. These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down before the cult of the self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate.
We are indeed apostates; we have been well thought out; we are simply witnesses to our apathy, to our allegiance to deceit. But in doing so, we are also holding hands with the destructors and deceivers. We are accomplices. We may never recover.