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Opposition: realist or moralist?

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Masha Gessen, in “Trump: The Choice We Face“, describes two responses to injustice. One compromises, does it’s best to move power toward justice while praying to minimize complicity in its violence — this would be the realist. The other refuses to compromise, insists that it will not participate at any level in sustaining the life of injustice — this would be the moralist. On level days, I’m a realist and I think most people are. There’s just no way to navigate the many competing moral demands of one’s communities. The realist owns hypocrisy and does their best with it. On darker days and in my more indignant moments, I’m a moralist. (I have a long line of moralists in my family tree — so, perhaps it’s genetic.) As a moralist, I’m insufferable. But as a moralist, I am motivated. The realist feels a bit passive at times. The moralist may be less practical, but (from my experience) is more likely to get things done — though in fits and spurts and in so far as the fire burns. As for now — let it burn, let it burn.

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Written by Jere

November 29, 2016 at 10:20 pm

Posted in Reading

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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/

Written by Jere

November 6, 2016 at 6:53 pm

Posted in Reading

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