Theory Teacher's Blog

Ideology and the Politics of Graduation

I sometimes read the columns of John Feffer, one of the founders and co-directors of a think tank called Foreign Policy in Focus, whose informed analysis of world events I generally appreciate and respect. For the sake of full disclosure, I might also add that, about fourteen years ago, before this think tank existed and before I attended graduate school, both John and I lived next door to each other in Tokyo, Japan, when we both worked for Quaker organizations – I was teaching English at the Tokyo Friends School and he was working for the American Friends Service Committee. Since I usually agree with the stuff John writes, I was more than a little surprised when I read one of his recent blog posts entitled “Scram!” and found myself shouting angrily at the computer screen. In his blog, John pretends to give a college commencement speech, and following the conventions of that genre, he reflects upon the purpose of education and gives practical sage advice, and of course, in doing so, he makes several political statements about the state of education today. I have no problem with the main idea of the article, but in the process of articulating it, he makes some rather cynical and disparaging cracks at college culture. Of course, John is not the only one to use this seasonal moment as an opportunity to say something about the institution of higher education. The end of the school year has inspired both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to attack each other on various education policy issues in various speeches, including an actual commencement address Obama gave to Barnard College and Romney’s release of his education plan, which has been discussed and debated in the higher education newspapers [here] and [here]. Almost all conversations about college education today point out the rise of student debt at a time of economic insecurity and rising unemployment. This year, college graduation has become something of a political football, tossed and punted around by media pundits hoping to score political points.

In sorting through the various perspectives and statements on the state of higher education, and in coming to terms with my surprise and anger at some of John’s comments, I am reminded of the theoretical notion about ideology made by the influential cultural theorist Stuart Hall. In one essay [here], he argues that ideology is not such a simple correlation between a social class position and a way of thinking — e.g., the ideology of the proletariat vs. the bourgeois, Democrat vs. Republican, or college student vs. banker. Instead, he urges a theorization of difference in which we recognize “that there are different social contradictions with different social origins; that the contradictions that drive the historical process forward do not always appear in the same place, and will not always have the same historical effects.” In other words, even though John and I may basically agree on most things, we may come to our beliefs in different ways and occupy different social positions in relation to our ideology as well as in relation to the various contradictions in our ideology.

Let me try to explain what I mean about Hall’s complication of the concept of ideology by first acknowledging how John and I agree. His main idea and advice for college graduates is for them to go to a foreign country, get some experience, learn a foreign language, and come to a different understanding of the world. In light of the changing socio-economic conditions that many journalists and scholars (including myself) call “globalization” and in light of the recession that began in 2008, I have often given this same advice to my own students and have used almost the same language as John. “Get out of the country,” we both say. “Make some money to pay off your college loans and get some experience to help you figure out what you can do.” This doesn’t just mean teach English, as I did. It could mean some sort of service, as John did. This goes along with some advice I wrote to graduating students in this blog way back in 2009 [here], specifically for my English majors who were confused about their career options and graduate school. Of course, our viewpoint here is not so original. Colleges and universities themselves are increasingly promoting “global citizenship” and study-abroad programs, as such experiences and skills are increasingly seen as necessary in today’s competitive environment. So, there is really nothing especially controversial about this view, whether you are a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Marxist, or Green. There is, however, something troubling about this view if you are poor — since the version of “global citizenship” and the way such cultural experiences are credentialed is somewhat exclusive.

And here is where I get critical of how John arrives at his position, and my point here, relating to the theory of Stuart Hall, is that we may all agree about the value of international experience and skills, but we may arrive at this viewpoint differently and articulate the contradictions of our ideology differently. John makes some rather cynical statements about the value of college education which he compares to a social club for rich people. Curiously, this comparison is part of his argument that contrasts the uselessness of college education with the usefulness of international experience. Hence, John’s argument relies upon a somewhat common (and, in my view, false and misleading) binary opposition between an exclusive ivory tower of spoiled brats and the “real world.” Ironically, of course (and here is an instance of the ideological contradiction I mentioned earlier), international experience is perhaps even more an exclusive opportunity for the rich than a college degree is. Many of my own students who come from poor families have remarked that a lot of the international and service opportunities (e.g., Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, various non-governmental organizations, etc.) with which their wealthier classmates pad their résumé’s are unavailable to them. They need to make money right away, and often do so with the less glamorous sorts of jobs.

This is not just a minor point, since the entire thrust of John’s argument relies on the contrast between a somewhat useless and exclusive nature of college education (useless in terms of any real skills or knowledge, according to him) and the usefulness, openness, and inclusiveness of “real” international experience. He claims, “college is more about socialization than about education.” Here his argument relies upon a binary opposition between socialization and knowledge, as if the two aren’t intimately related (as I demonstrated in my last blog post about intercultural competency). In fact, the way one goes about gathering data and interpreting it is an ethical act that requires the student to be able to question their own assumptions. Later, making the assertion that the infamously exclusive Skull and Bones club is a microcosm of the whole college experience, John claims that “college is a lot like the club of advanced industrialized nations” where the elite cater to the elite and exclude others, and he makes this claim without any acknowledgement that international travel may be an even more elite activity than college.

Repeatedly in question in John’s blog is what college faculty and administrators do. For those of us who teach, interact with students each day, work hard to design curriculum, and work with administrators to address the problem of social inequalities among our students, we tend to think that we are making a genuine effort to accomplish exactly the opposite of what John claims the institution of higher education does. Most colleges aim for their campuses being a “microcosm” of the whole society, not a microcosm of an exclusive club, and colleges support this as best they can with need-based financial assistance and programs to recruit first-generation students, immigrants, etc. However, what is disturbing here is that John’s stereotype of college culture is not supported by any evidence but is instead cloaked in the authority of a rather simplistic Marxism (exactly the sort that Stuart Hall is critiquing.) His stereotypes sound plausible, as strereotypes so often do. However, they are not true. Students actually learn quite a lot. Speaking as someone who actually labors in the trenches of higher education, the examples are numerous. In their first semester, students learn how to do research, evaluate sources, and compose a long research paper. This is very difficult for most of them when they arrive, but by the end of their first year, they can do it, and this is a very valuable skill, as I’ve argued elsewhere [here]. It is one of the joys all teaching when we see students accomplish something that they weren’t able to do before.

In addition to such skills (and there are many such skills), there is also a lot of knowledge and ways of processing knowledge. One of the things education abroad offices and college professors have discussed at length is how students learn (or sometimes don’t learn) from their experiences in other countries. Contrary to John’s assumption, most of the real learning happens not when the students are in the foreign country, but after they return to college, when they read, write, discuss, and process their experience. And this is especially important because what a middle-class white person (such as John and myself) usually experiences in a foreign country is a rather small piece of it. These travelers may not be aware of the socio-economic forces that produced their experience, and they may not ever see other aspects of the society, as I have argued in my blog about my trip to Japan with students [here]. Even someone whose job is to understand the whole society in which they work might be exposed to only a part of that society and come away from their “experience” with a rather ideologically warped understanding of where they were, as I have argued in my blog about my trip to Kenya with several of my colleagues [here]. There are things that a cultural historian, sociologist, and economist may reveal about a country that no personal experience will ever get, and although John seems to think that the various courses that students take during their four years of college have no connection to each other, actually the point of the liberal arts education is that they learn different ways of understanding the realities of the world that are usually invisible to us. College professors labor very hard revising and revising and revising college curriculum so that it is more inclusive and more effective at leading to exactly the sort of global understanding that John’s blog promotes. It is one of the joys of teaching when we see a student’s face light up with a transformative new understanding of the world they live in and when they make connections between what they learn in one class and another.

So, coming back to Stuart Hall’s point about ideology, we can see that while John and I might both agree that an international understanding of the world is important (a view with which almost all college administrations today also agree — so much so that it would seem both John and I reflect the very hegemonic ideology that we think we are critiquing), we arrive at that view very differently. Moreover, I would argue that the way he makes his politically leftist argument ironically has a lot in common with the arguments that the politically far-right make about higher education. Many of their arguments assert that public universities are sites of liberal brainwashing and socialization, and not about real content. (I have written about this at length [here]). Their goal is clearly to discredit the scholarly work that professors do, and their goal is a financial one — to shift funding away from publicly funded, publicly managed education to privately funded, privately managed education. My own problem with this is that privately funded education is, of course, like privately-funded think tanks, subject to the whims and biases of private money (often the interests of corporations and bankers.) What worries me about John’s disparaging comments about higher education is how similar they are in effect to the beliefs of the very people John is most ideologically opposed to.

And of course, when it comes right down to it, the real issue is the money question. All of the hysterical assertions in the mainstream media about the quality of education, how little students are learning, the content of their curriculum, the usefulness of a college degree, and the effectiveness of the delivery mechanism (i.e., on-line education, lecture hall, group learning, etc.) is largely smoke and mirrors. The real issue is an economic one, and has to do with inflation, cost of education, competition, etc. The often-cited graph is this one in which the cost of education has gone up so much faster than the rate of inflation.

Although Romney and other Republicans argue that the cause of this rising tuition is the federal government giving loans to students (huh?) and that fostering competition between colleges will drive prices down, it is more likely that the heightened competition is exactly what has driven prices up, as colleges pour money into new facilities, special programs, etc. I can tell you that the increase in tuition dollars does not go into professor’s salaries or the classroom experience. Rather, it goes into all the special things that make a school attractive and competitive. We might laughingly speculate that one of the things that has driven up college tuition is their effort to become more “global” in exactly the way John prescribes. The real concern here is how we finance a broad-based, accessible liberal arts education in which students from all backgrounds are exposed to a lot of different ways of looking at the world and learn a lot of valuable skills. In my view, it is dangerous to fancifully imagine replacing the liberal arts college and public university with something else, as John seems to do, because what is most likely to replace it is a corporate-driven agenda that merely trains young people to do the things the stockholders and CEOs need them to do. This is not the road to real prosperity, and it is not the road to a just and equitable society. Given the obvious gaps and holes in our culture that will likely widen with such a corporate-driven agenda, we can anticipate what will fill those gaps — not the objective, hard scholarly work that happens at the research university but the biased and narrow agenda of sectarian groups that fight each other.

May 27, 2012 - Posted by | teaching

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