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Dewey and the “Poorly Educated”

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Every few years in this last decade or so I have returned to a reading of Roderick S. French’s 1998 essay, “Dewey for administrators: Notes for an esthetic of administration in a democratic society” (free to read with registration at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23740049). In one season, it reads as a manifesto — a call to all that a university could be as a liberating engine for a true democratic society. In another season, such as this one, it reads as a lamentation for an idea that never quite took hold — one of a gutted liturgy, words without presence. When a presidential candidate can gain traction by declaring “I love the poorly educated,” John Dewey’s dream of liberal education as a liberating force, has failed. The dream is dead, not because it could not work, but dead because so few ever believed in it. If French did not know it was dead, he knew it was dying. If Dewey did not know it was dead, he knew it faced all but insurmountable odds.

French’s essay opens with a “meditation” on the work of academic administration. Having recently left his position as the Vice President for Academic Affairs at George Washington University, he prods the faculty reader to move beyond the knee-jerk distaste for the assumed drudgery of committees, meetings, bylaws, memos and budget reports and to pause before assuming the typical us-versus-them attitude toward administrators. French calls for faculty to pursue their administrative works with creativity and zeal. Leaning on Dewey, he emphasizes the work as both a personal and a social force for liberation:

The biggest single obstacle to all administrative innovations on our campuses is the rapid conversion of unreflective practices into untouchable “traditions.” Liberation (Dewey’s word) from “convention in practice and intellection procedure” is the daily goal of every true academic administrator. (p. 336)

Few have entered careers in higher education with a vocational longing for administrative work, so French is not preaching to the choir here. But it’s a good soul check — a reminder that administrative work may (with effort) be lifted above the habitual slog.

But French is not merely seeking a way to lift the spirits of a bored scholar, languishing in their appointment as department chair. He aims to ignite an administrative passion for Dewey’s vision of a liberal education — one that does not merely replicate class stratification; but, rather, one that enables its students for humane employment and full democratic participation. Succinctly put: “whether or not an education is ‘liberal’ is not defined by the subjects offered but by whether or not it is liberating for those who undergo it” (p. 347).

While one might argue that contemporary universities are facilitating the liberation of their students (perhaps by exposing them to new ideas and by opening the doors of the professions), Dewey had other liberations in mind. He saw a need for the “interfusion of knowledge … of vocational preparation with a deep sense of the social foundations and social consequences of industry and industrial challenges in contemporary society” (348). On this point, “higher education” has failed. Universities have given themselves to the marketplace–they sell any education a tuition dollar will buy. In the marketplace the university works less to educate and more to monitor the tollgates of opportunity. The rankings, admission rates, test scores, and average starting salaries of our graduates speak less of a liberating education and more to the (usually pre-existing) economic status of our students. It’s “deplorable” that too many of our graduates are fast-tracked into a couple of decades of educational debt; it’s “deplorable” that so many are merely credentialed for the professions without an “interfusion of knowledge” to the social consequences of those professions.

Sensing, perhaps, that rank-and-file faculty have, themselves, been mis-educated, French calls for administrators to work to put the public back in education and to put education back in the public. It’s a tall order. In my opinion, it’s just not possible without dramatic changes in the economic and social structure of the United States. Maybe the best of the best Dewey-esk administrators will manage to put a dent into the machine, but by and large our universities are outcomes of an economic system and are not positioned to be reformers of that system. In such a world, when white people with a college education support one candidate (+14 Clinton) and white people without a college education support another (+25 Trump), we are not witnesses to the liberating effects of an education. We are witnesses to the fact that we are all “the poorly educated.”

In my own house these realizations are leading to realignments. First as a consumer — I have one child in college and two on the way–and then as an educator. As a consumer I’m looking for colleges with racial and economic diversity at graduation, not merely at admission. I’m also looking for equitable outcomes for diverse students — and for schools that make social justice and civic action self-conscious features of the curriculum. As an educator, (not as an “administrator,” but as a lowly Scholarly Communications Librarian), I’m thinking about how my work does and does not contribute to the public “interfusion of knowledge.” While academic librarians are passionate about providing access to knowledge, the truth is that their piece of the university budget does much to reify the role of campuses as gatekeepers for the wealthy. The millions (that’s not an exaggeration) that we spend on subscription-only access to the scholarly literature that our own authors write is an easy case in point. Yes, we’re pushing an increase in open access dissemination and, true, some universities (like MIT) are starting to show signs that they might realign subscription budgets, but these efforts are too little and (largely) too late. We, the multi-degreed, but “poorly educated,” are slow to learn.

References

French, R. S. (1998). Dewey for administrators: Notes for an esthetic of administration in a democratic society. The Centennial Review, 42(2), 333–352. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23740049

Gambino, L. (2016, October 16). “I love the poorly educated”: why white college graduates are deserting Trump. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/16/white-college-graduates-donald-trump-support-falling

Special Collections Research Center, Gelman Library. (n.d.). Guide to the Roderick S. French papers, 1969-2013 MS2296.UA. George Washington University. https://library.gwu.edu/ead/ms2296.xml

Chozick, A. (2016, September 10). Hillary Clinton Calls Many Trump Backers “Deplorables,” and G.O.P. Pounces. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/us/politics/hillary-clinton-basket-of-deplorables.html

Suls, R. (2016, September 15). Educational divide in vote preferences on track to be wider than in recent elections. Fact Tank, Pew Research Center. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/15/educational-divide-in-vote-preferences-on-track-to-be-wider-than-in-recent-elections/

Finnie, E. (2016, April 11). Using library content licenses to shape the scholarly communications landscape. In the Open. http://intheopen.net/2016/04/using-library-content-licenses-to-shape-the-scholarly-communications-landscape/

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Written by Jere

November 6, 2016 at 6:53 pm

Posted in Reading

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Some Notes on the Loneliness of “Literacy”

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Keller-Cohen, Deborah. 1993. “Rethinking Literacy: Comparing Colonial and Contemporary America.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 24 (4) (December 1): 288–307. doi:10.2307/3195932.

Keller-Cohen wants to have her cake and eat it too. She observes that the concept of “literacy” is over applied, that the word has become merely metaphorical (if not cliche); but then, she would use the power of this metaphor to advocate for the role of reading, writing and speech (I believe this was once called “rhetoric”) in culture and education. Keller-Cohen ends with four things to think about, but I’m not entirely certain what she would have us do. Her “directions for refiguring literacy” include:

1) “Clarifying our conception of what people need to know and what role literacy plays in it.”

As I have said, here, she really wants to have her cake and eat it too. She does not like “sexual literacy” … but she does want us to think “in more heterogeneous ways about what people need to know.”

2) “Placing more emphasis on literacy as a collaborative practice.”

I think this is the most interesting and problematic part of the story that Keller-Cohen tells about literacy in America. On the one hand, posters from the American Library Association do not mark the birth of reading and writing as a solitary activity. For those of us who can read and write, the act will often be solitary … I think this has always been the case — St. Jerome had some rabbits, a squirrel, a bird, a lizard and a lion to keep him company — and often will be. I will share what I am writing (now) online, but I write this in a room, by myself.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Jerome Reading in the Countryside

On the other hand, this article from the early 90s includes one footnote about “electronic mail” — the “pressure” it brings upon one’s notions about the difference between written and spoken language. And, thus, one may read such an article with some nostalgia — which is fitting, given that it is a very nostalgic article — for the mere decades past in which the practice of reading mainly involved a paper medium. I don’t think this detracts from the argument of the article, but one might wonder what the author thinks about the social space the internet now provides for readers and writers. One seldom hears good news about the internet and its role in fostering “literacy” — rather, it’s typically that the youth are going to hell on a cell phone and tweeting all the way.

3) “Examining the relationship between the speaking and writing skills of students.”

Sure. Why not? I call this “rhetoric” and, when thinking about my kids, “language skills.” In graduate school I started reading my papers “aloud” prior to submitting them — the practice typically resulted in a few hours of revision. Does anyone teach dictation? Were I to dictate this post, how would the prose differ? Many of the great prose and verse stylists dictated much of their work: Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats.

4) “Broadening the sites for literacy acquisition.”

I note, here, every summer my daughter begs me to sign her up for the library’s reading program. So, it’s not just the schools that have been working to promote “literacy.” But, it’s a noble sentiment nonetheless and I think that Keller-Cohen is right — we do need more reading in America. (Would it be possible to have too much?) Even so, if we’re to extend literacy beyond the school setting — where else could we get as much bang for our buck? Truancy laws, more or less, make the school years one of the truly shared experiences of our culture. If one wanted to intervene on the behalf of “literacy” is there any better place?

Written by Jere

July 5, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Libraries, Reading

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