Archive | December, 2012

More on the death of critical higher education

31 Dec

This article from the AP yesterday confirms a great deal of what Jane Jacobs was writing about in Dark Age Ahead as I discussed the other day. The education story of my lifetime is not the development of the Internet, or the rise of literacy, but the major transition in higher education – at first in the U.S. but spreading – away from the classical liberal arts and towards the study of business in particular, followed by other subjects that train for the primary purpose of finding a job.

Centuries from now (or perhaps only decades), the survivors of our species will look back on our times, and try to understand this. Faced as we are with impending environmental catastrophe, depletion and unequal sharing of natural resources, overpopulation, and violence of a scale that could annihilate every living being, the wealthiest nations on earth discourage their most creative young people from learning the processes they need to come up with the innovative solutions to our planet-threatening problems.

This happens thanks to a “free market” that forces post-secondary institutions to change their curricula from courses that emphasize critical, creative, and ethical thinking, to tracks that train people to follow their leaders and employers (aka “job creators”) without having the breadth or depth of knowledge to challenge dominant, even self-destructive, ideologies. And the labor force that made up these post-secondary institutions, what once largely consisted of free, creative, and critical thinkers themselves, is replaced by those who are forced to teach skills, with less job security, higher workloads, lower pay, and less opportunity to conduct research that speaks to the wider public about the major ethical issues of our time. What this article shows – unwittingly – is that it’s cyclical: colleges make decisions because of market forces, decisions that reinforce the market notion that higher education is not about critical questioning, research, and ethical and aesthetic thinking, but that it is the commodifiable (and branding) bridge between the basic skills learned in primary and secondary schools and the workplace.

Make no mistake, it is market forces that have accomplished this. Major cuts in unrestricted government aid to education – especially under Reagan – force colleges and universities to turn to private funding from corporations or other wealthy donors, or to government aid that is attached to specific research projects, such as Department of Defense initiatives. Higher tuition costs force students (and university deans) to think about cost-benefit analyses of their education, and the lack of economic security in this country understandably pushes people into choosing job safety and security over education that prepares them to live a moral and ethical (not to mention artistic) life.

The quote from Paulo Freire that frames this blog in the About page could not be more apt here: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Despite his writing, we are going in the opposite direction.

Jane Jacobs was right. We are in deep trouble.

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Every (reservoir) dog has its day

28 Dec

Just for the record, I decided not to dignify Tarantino movies with my time even before it was cool. When I saw his first film, Reservoir Dogs, in 1992, I found loathsome his depiction of torture as something that could be entertaining and titillating. At the time, the U.S. was funding wars in El Salvador and Angola, among other places, and providing training in counterinsurgency and bankrolling torturers and human rights abusers. I went on to work at an NGO in New Jersey that had a psychological center for survivors of torture (which, by the way, could not sustain funding to keep its doors open). The role of creators of popular culture as apologists for torture is always troubling, and Tarantino’s concept of fun softened up an audience that would be apathetic in the face of torture, extraordinary rendition, disappearances, cluster bombs, phosphorus bombing, all sanctioned after 9/11 as long as we were dealing with “bad guys.” I decided then and there never to spend precious hours of my short life indulging Tarantino’s fantasies or lining his wallet. It is no surprise that he has gone on to see dollar signs in slavery. His whole shtick has always been to make a profit off of the trivialization of human suffering and making killing a fetishistic amusement. Torture and slavery are neither excuses for fun nor backdrops for dramas whose purpose is to sugar-coat violence to make money.

There are so many valuable and thoughtful films to be seen in the world, and we rarely get the chance because of the saturation of our local cinemas with American commercial films made or distributed by major corporations. Some bold independent films we have access to, like the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, that depict the realities of how torture degrades the torturers even as it degrades the tortured. Others come from directors and countries we seldom hear of and have little access to, despite the greater availability of film through the Internet, whether through streaming, downloading, or the international marketplace in DVDs.

This is also not to say I am against genre films, or even “spaghetti westerns.” Once upon a Time in the West is one classic, disturbing film of depth moral complexity, and there are others.

Life is short. If you want to see how great filmmakers portray the human condition in all its ugliness as well as its beauty, avoid cheap titillation and violence porn, don’t be seduced by flashy technique, and look for works by serious filmmakers with something insightful to say and unforgettable images to depict.

Cost-effective higher education and Jane Jacobs’ “Dark Age Ahead”

27 Dec

A colleague posted this article from the Globe and Mail of Toronto on Facebook today, which discusses a new trend in Canadian universities of cutting departments with low numbers of majors and students. Instead of across-the-board cuts during tough economic times and reduced government support, it seems that Canadian universities are learning from their U.S. counterparts that the way to go is to evaluate which departments are most “successful” as measured by a variety of criteria and then eliminating those that don’t fit within the guidelines for how the university administration and governing board views “success.” Given the massive transition from the liberal arts education of fifty years ago to education-for-the-workplace that exists today, with its emphasis on business education and STEM disciplines, this can only be bad news for the humanities, social sciences, and those fields and courses that emphasize writing and critical reading (“critical” in the very basic sense of not believing everything you read, and in a slightly more complicated sense of being able to identify an argument and respond to that argument based on evidence).

This is the logic that led (to choose an example very close to my heart) the University of Pennsylvania to eliminate its department of Folklore and Folklife, one of the top programs in the nation, because it wasn’t considered a priority discipline the way that English, history, the sciences (especially those that can attract corporate or government funding), the health fields, and business are priorities for that institution. Of course the metrics vary from school to school, and have everything to do with alumni donations and which departments produce the most fiscally loyal alumni, and which departments pay for themselves rather than depend on subsidies from the university itself or other schools within a university, like business, that tend to run profitably and are in a position to subsidize other departments whose success can’t be measured in how much of a profit they return. The reason we have a non-profit sector in this country (the U.S.) for example is that there is work to be done where success cannot be measured in terms of monetary profit, but rather in terms of impact on issues of importance to the community. Universities are non-profit institutions, and there’s a reason why “charitable” and “educational” and “cultural” are reasons under the law why a corporation can operate not-for-profit. They are supposed to do some public “good,” and it used to be widely recognized – and still is by every religious creed – that there is more to be done to improve the conditions of our existence than to generate wealth.

Universities are not businesses, they are educational institutions. It doesn’t seem that it should be necessary to keep writing that, but it is. And while certainly I am a huge proponent of the need to apply research, a lot of research and dedicated teaching pays off in ways that can’t be measured by their instant instrumentality or profit. This is the only country in which the arts have to justify their value by their commercial success, not by what they give to humanity.

All this ties back to Jane Jacobs’ remarkable book, Dark Age Ahead, which I just finished reading for my upcoming course at Goucher College. She argues that historically and sociologically, a pending Dark Age arrives after several catastrophic breakdowns of the hallmarks of a healthy, cooperative society, but not necessarily only in the form of the catastrophic changes we might expect. Her list astutely contains the following: “community and family,” “higher education,” effective science practice and use of technology, transparent taxation and responsive government, and “self-policing by the learned professions” (p. 24). The five catastrophic situations she classifies as more manifest and apparent to everybody are “racism, …environmental destruction, crime,” voter apathy, and the ever-widening disparity between rich and poor and disappearance of a middle class (pp. 24-5). But these, she argues, are the symptoms of the former, the first by-products, if you will, of the breakdown of the five pillars of healthy societies she first mentions.

I’m still reeling from her inclusion of higher education – not primary or secondary education – on that list. While I don’t think in this, her last work, she fully works out her argument about this in the chapter that follows (at least not with the same bite that I still remember in Paul Goodman’s critique, but it’s been many years since I read him), the breakdown of our society will come not as a result of poorly serving the basic educational needs of children under 18, including literacy, but in the failings at the level of critical education, intellectual questioning, and moral and ethical development that take place in the post-secondary years.

Given that context, the new trend outlined in the Globe and Mail article, coming from her adopted Canada, is all the more alarming. It’s been happening in this country (the U.S.) for years, and the professional intellectual class has been outmaneuvered by the corporate class. This is why students have such an important role to play, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, in making demands for how their education and their universities will serve them. Of course, once they are threatened with economic instability they quickly grab onto whatever educational lifeline will promise them the best financial return on their investment (of money and time). So they get sucked into learning to perform for The Job (which used to be The Man), rather than daring to dream about how their education can serve them and their desire to shape the society around them.

It is a visionary leap to predict that the breakdown of an effective critical post-secondary education – what used to be called “liberal arts,” for a reason, perhaps – is going to be a harbinger of societal calamity and collapse. Is the shepherding of students, like an army of zombies, into business courses the precursor to calamitous times? It certainly does not lead to a Renaissance of any kind, does it?

Museum exhibits and the beginnings of reconciliation

24 Dec

In October of this year a student asked me about an exhibit we had produced on the Civil Rights movement at a local history museum in the U.S. where I used to be the director. I wrote back in November after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for five days.  Since I seem to do much of my best writing for an audience of one – something I am trying to overcome through this blog – I decided to go back and revise my response to this student.

I was not the curator of the exhibit, but I had oversight and the managerial role of deciding how the museum was going to handle, publicize, promote, and treat the exhibit in relation to the local community. The exhibit itself left implicit the issues of racial harmony and reconciliation that the student was asking me about. The texts of the exhibit consisted only of interview excerpts with the narrators of the oral history interviews, and stunning black-and-white photo portraits by a professional photographer. I recall we had one introductory text panel, but the intention was to led the speakers speak for themselves.

At the same time, we planned and budgeted for an anthology of oral histories, historic texts, and other essays to be distributed at public history/education workshops to be held around town, to be led by scholars, as a way of opening up a discussion of civil rights some 35 years after open conflict in the town that led to riots and tanks rolling down the main street. Not only would school students be invited to participate in our education programs, but we felt it was an opportunity to open up discussion to adults in the community as well, especially those who had been present 35 years before and who were eyewitnesses to the tanks. The board of the historical society did not permit us to go forward with the public education programs. So that was a lost opportunity, to say the least.

The student asked about racial harmony and whether it was one of the goals of the exhibit. Every museum and every cultural institution has its own context. The town at the time was about 2/3 African American, maybe 1/4 Latino (which may have increased since then) and the remainder white, along with the neighboring towns which are white but with a growing Latino population. I wouldn’t presume to lecture any audience about the need for racial harmony, but being in the position of museum director at the time I would say I saw our role in the museum as creating a forum in which those issues could be addressed, issues that had been skirted or even suppressed for 35 years since the riots. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a stand. Taking up these issues, and for a museum or historical society to say they are important and have not been given their due, is taking a stand. We were hearing, through the interviews, that there was still a need for reconciliation. So opening up that discussion was an important step – and who but a museum is better suited to do this? Of course I believe in reconciliation, and the idea of harmony, of people of different backgrounds and histories being able to live together peacefully and cooperatively is very important in the development of livable cities.

I also wrote to the student that reconciliation and harmony are different. More than just creating the space for the discussion though, our purpose was to include voices and texts and images that would encourage a discussion that went beyond the superficial, including voices that had been silenced in one way or another The problem is, if such an exhibit is not in some way deeply interactive, it can be at best top-down in its lessons, and may miss an opportunity to energize an audience. I don’t want museum audiences (or students) to be passive. Also, being white myself, it’s important for me to remember and to emphasize that white not a neutral category, in the sense that a white American perspective is a “norm” in museums or historical societies (which is how whiteness is treated, I think, invisibly). In fact our exhibit was a collaboration between white and African American staff and artists, and the interviewees consisted of both African American and white residents. For the dialogue to be effective, and not just window dressing, we have to take the hard step of being aware of our own inherent and sometimes unexamined biases (neither white nor American being neutral categories, ever), at the very least our own perspectives based on our own individual histories, and recognize that there is no neutral center – which is not to say that the pursuit of historical truth is not a worthwhile and important exercise.

I do think, as the student implied, that it’s a good idea for museums and historians to provide interpretation and an argument, or even multiple arguments, especially if they acknowledge or address competing interpretations or arguments and make a case as to why they believe their interpretation to be more truthful. Good arguments depend upon the soundness of the evidence. One role of museums is to provide (and preserve) evidence, through artifacts, through texts, or through the generation of previously unheard voices and texts through oral histories. Good teachers have faith in their students to draw their own conclusions, especially if they are well-equipped to find and evaluate the veracity of evidence. Museums have a greater depth and variety of evidentiary materials within their reach than does the general public and so they can do interpretation from primary sources and artifacts. There are different curatorial and directorial choices to be made about when to allow the artifacts to speak for themselves, the subjects to speak for themselves, and when and where is the right time and place for the museum to speak with its own authoritative voice(s). There’s a difference between being insightful and being definitive, not open to differing views, but an insightful interpretation is always welcome. Museums can both create a space for dialogue and also be one of the informed voices in that dialogue. There’s no contradiction and it doesn’t cut off the possibility of competing views. If anything, the museums may air views – their own, their subjects’ – that otherwise are not parts of processes of reconciliation.

What this is about

24 Dec

This blog will include thoughts, notes, analyses, and informal writings of a cultural worker, folklorist, and activist who is trying to expand and improve the quality of international conversations on the role of the arts in our societies, our future, and our work to build a better world.

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