Tag Archives: Neo-liberal

Punishment is “cool”; thinking is not

Twice a year our college has an Academic Affairs day before the quarter.  This day is set aside for a presentation to the faculty followed by breakout sessions for professional development.  Over the past five years I have struggled with all of the speakers we’ve had.  Part of the reason that I’ve struggled is that I find these sessions to be infantilizing and demeaning.  For example, the speaker today began the session by giving away copies of his books, explaining that everyone “likes free stuff.”  He gave away two books by calling out for the “first female who wanted it to stand up.”  Surely there could have been no deep meaning there at all.  Of course, a couple of hours earlier, I was speaking to my Labrador Retriever that way about a treat.  I don’t do it to humans though.  On other occasions we’ve been given highlighters and butcher paper to draw out our relations—I can’t remember it all.  I try to block it out.  But I go every year, after all, the poor academic associates have been made to sit there and check the faculty in as if they were children.  We used to all have premade nametags and the associates would be able to report on those faculty who weren’t there by gathering the ones that were left over.  As you might imagine, faculty started taking their friends’ and colleagues’ tags to cover for them.  Now we have a list.

Wow.  So today I’m sitting in a room full of teachers and deans who are being forced to listen to a purported expert on student engagement.  Of course, we might think it is ironic that he’s one of the most inexperienced teachers in the room.  So, obviously, he’s an expert in what it takes to make students successful.  We’re three minutes into the presentation and he’s talking about getting students into the career they want through an academic path.  Once again, we have the reduction of school and education to being merely about a career.  He brings this up over and over again throughout the first half of the presentation.  And he keeps talking about the way to get students engaged is to show them a point to their education and that point is that the student gets to have a career and make money.  He brought up salary a good deal.  Because, as we’ve been indoctrinated to believe again and again, it’s all about the money.

There’s an irony here.  Just before he launched into this tirade about being career focused, he explained our students to us.  He essentialized them as a generation, millennials to be exact.  He told us that they wanted purpose in their education, that they wanted their work to have meaning.  Well, never mind that I often have three generations of students in my class or that my students have multifaceted identities and personhoods which prevent such easy categorization, let’s go with his assumption for a minute.  He assumes that the purpose the students are seeking—that the meaning they are seeking—is a career and money.  He then goes on to say that the problem with college admissions is that we give the student the “sales pitch” that they will have to write papers, do home work, read text books that “aren’t exciting” on top of working, just to get to that career.  His method of engagement is to make that sound better by explicitly connecting a job to that path so that they “buy in” and are engaged.  The irony is that this is his exact misunderstanding of students and the purposes of education.  His neoliberal essentialist ideology, as unexamined as it is asks: “how can we fit students into the neo-liberal framework in a way that they will accept” and asks the faculty to be a party to the corporate and market-driven subjugation of everything and everyone.

And that, folks, is why it often fails and students resist.  Because, if we accept that students really want purpose, then we also have to accept that there are purposes and meaning beyond fitting into the economy. The speaker was setting it up even, but couldn’t see it.  He recounted that students, after seeing their parents work like slave just to survive, wanted something better.  Of course his better is a better job where they can have a different kind of less uncomfortable oppression, rather than taking that moment and developing it as a place for critical consciousness.  He isn’t liberating them and is only performing a kind of shell game.

Sadly it went further. The presentation had a racial migroagression, classist jokes, and was rife with anti-intellectualism.  He presented the standard Horatio Alger narrative where he was just a poor waif with a bad GPA who pulled himself up to eventually be Greek of the year at his university.  Yes, he said that; unironically I might add. The presentation seemed to be designed to demoralize the faculty—after all, here’s a guy who gets money to do this, who is lauded in our culture, who was taught by our colleagues somewhere and he is incredibly blind to how the world is constructed—and we’re sitting here, listening to it.  He showed no ability to demonstrate critical thinking about his position or his audience at all.  The joke is on us and it shows how powerless we are.  And it also reveals the multi-faceted and layered levels of privilege and oppression.    Of course, as one of my dear colleagues pointed out: apparently all we need to get an education and a jog and to overcome oppression is to speak enthusiastically and say “cool” more than one thought was humanly possible.

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Kids these days!

If you haven’t read Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed column, “Obama’s Homework Assignment” in the New York Times from the 18th of January, then take a minute and do so.  Then come back here because I think it’s something we should talk about.

As I read this I realized that not many readers would find much to quibble with here.  Friedman covers ground that is often traversed in our discussion of education in the United States.  We might sum it up as follows: kids don’t work hard these days; kids don’t care; the United States’ educational standards are low; we are falling behind other countries.  And because of all of this, we had better get it together or we’re doomed.  Moreover, he aims this at the President who has little power in education because education is largely controlled by states in our system.

And he’s right: my fourth grader probably doesn’t know as much math as fourth graders in a number of other countries.  What’s more I have students in my community college classroom every day who don’t do their work and who don’t seem to care or who seem so resistant to the kinds of writing and thinking tasks found in the college English classroom, that I have despaired about why they are there at all.  But this doesn’t really tell the whole story.  And what Friedman is leaving out is really worth our attention.

First, this business about low standards is pretty relative.  One of the most succinct accounts of this comes from Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary where he notes “statistics are often used to demonstrate educational decay” and that in “1890, 6.7 percent of America’s fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds were attending high school” rising to 94.1 percent by the end of the 1980s. He notes that the definition of functional literacy in the 1930s was “three or more years of schooling” in the 50s it was sixth grade and it was only “by the late 1970s [that] some authorities were suggesting that completion of high school should be the defining criterion of functional literacy” (6).  And now I can’t think of a week that goes by without hearing someone, especially the last two presidents, call for community college or some college as the benchmark of education.  And while this isn’t a comprehensive view of standards, it does show that, in general, we are asking more of students than ever before and we are educating more of our population than we ever have.  Joseph Harris in his great book A Teaching Subject: Composition Since 1966 tracks a similar trajectory in writing instruction.  And anecdotally, I’ve been doing pre-algebra with my nine-year-old son and I’m sure that I didn’t see this kind of math until at least the sixth grade.  Really, folks, standards are going up, not down, but it’s too easy to talk about education in terms of crisis.  And it’s easy to manipulate people because we want our children to be well-educated and able to navigate the world.  But as Rose points out, “it’s our cultural fears—of internal displacement, of loss of order, of diminishment—that weave into our assessments of literacy and scholastic achievement” (7).  This position isn’t to say that there aren’t dire problems in U.S. education, there are, but we need to have a complete picture rather than run from one Chicken Little argument to the next.

Second, why are all of these kids so darn de-motivated? Could it have to do with 13 years of No Child Left Behind? Could it have to do with students not seeing real opportunity out there?  After all, why work for it when structural oppression will prevent many students from getting to where they want to go anyway?

Not doing homework is a form of resistance; it is a form of disengagement and I would argue that it’s intentional.  When students’ knowledge and experience isn’t taken into account, then students disengage.  It isn’t that the students are bad, rather it’s that they don’t see themselves as vessels to be filled by the teacher.  We’ve known this too, for a long time.  But still, we insist on engaging in what Paulo Freire calls the banking model in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this model, education is seen as the depositing of knowledge into passive students.  Friedman’s choices for his two models seem to reinforce this.  The first teacher is giving them extra practice and trying to make education fun, but nowhere is there a move toward authentic engagement or negotiation of power in the classroom.  Go back and read what Friedman quotes the teacher as saying.  Isn’t the teacher really presenting her instruction as “a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. … The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence (58).

And then, when the teacher isn’t successful with the banking model, she is blamed for not filling up the students correctly.  Both the teacher and the principal misunderstand education on a fundamental level.  They are still predicating what composition scholars call the “current rhetorical tradition,” which concentrates on old forms that limit the role of the writer and real thinking, often reducing writing to mechanistic five-paragraph essays, which no one likes to write and no one likes to grade.  Is it any wonder then that Friedman’s second example of the teacher who laments that more and more students don’t turn in work is in that situation? It’s a bitter irony that Friedman has written so much about 21st century market realities but uses what are ostensibly teachers practicing 19th century methods as his example.

Finally, Friedman does not tell us what all of this education is for in our society.  I take it from his concentration on competition with other countries and his selection of work ethic and responsibility, that he is inferring that education is for workplace readiness.  Friedman is really predicating his neoliberal fantasy that everything is going to be fixed by the market—heck just look at The World is Flat for an explication of his ideas on the subject.  So it is this deep theoretical underpinning of his op-ed, finally, that I resist.  Education isn’t just to make us competitive in the world—it isn’t just to prepare us to succeed and survive in the marketplace.  There are other uses for education.  And perhaps it is this overemphasis that students unconsciously resist.  Perhaps they don’t want to be mere agents in the marketplace.  Perhaps they want a different world.  I know I certainly do.

I want to add that I do not want to set Friedman up as a straw man here.  He is certainly right to point out that increasing numbers of our students are apathetic and disengaged in the classroom.  But I think that the lack of engagement and apathy comes from a lack of hope in students, rather than a lack of responsibility.  I think that many of my students see how difficult the world is and cannot see a way forward, especially when much of school is so invested in the banking system of knowledge all the while using 19th century pedagogy.  It’s simply a bit disingenuous for Friedman to not tell the whole story with standards and to leave hidden the motivation for education in his and other neoliberal estimations.

I’ll end with this: I remember a colleague of mine who taught drama at high school.  She was called on the carpet one day for not taking attendance—the principal said that she was marking a student there who had been marked absent in the rest of his classes.  My colleague explained that he was, in fact, there.  The student was engaged in her class and her teaching methods. She didn’t use the banking system and the student responded.  She was training him to be a better person, rather than just a worker and he responded.  So perhaps the question isn’t what’s wrong with kids these days, but rather what are our motivations for educating students and are they the right ones?

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