On Shooting Oneself in the Foot

American educational institutions are in the process of shooting themselves in the foot. Not only are we often abusing students financially (see my earlier post referring to Suzanne Mettler’s work), but we are allowing corporate ideas (ones that are demolishing the stability of the American economy by squeezing the American workforce–as Barbara Garson, among others, argues) to replace educational ones.

Recent comments by Noam Chomsky are now available, ” How America’s Great University System Is Getting Destroyed.” They are worth reading, though most of us working in higher education already know most everything he is saying.

Almost as though he is drawing from Garson, Chomsky says about the growing reliance on adjuncts and other contingent hires:

It’s the same as hiring temps in industry or what they call “associates” at Wal-Mart, employees that aren’t owed benefits. It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility. When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line.

On what a university ought to be, he references my own hero, John Dewey, writing that Dewey:

says that as long as the crucial institutions of the society (like production, commerce, transportation, media) are not under democratic control, then “politics [will be] the shadow cast on society by big business” (John Dewey, “The Need for a New Party”[1931]). This idea is almost elementary, it has deep roots in American history and in classical liberalism, it should be second nature to working people, and it should apply the same way to universities.

On the purpose of education, he says:

there were basically two models discussed in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were discussed with pretty evocative imagery. One image of education was that it should be like a vessel that is filled with, say, water. That’s what we call these days “teaching to test”: you pour water into the vessel and then the vessel returns the water. But it’s a pretty leaky vessel, as all of us who went through school experienced, since you could memorize something for an exam that you had no interest in to pass an exam and a week later you forgot what the course was about. The vessel model these days is called “no child left behind,” “teaching to test,” “race to top,” whatever the name may be, and similar things in universities. Enlightenment thinkers opposed that model.

The other model was described as laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure. So an educational program, whatever it may be, a course on physics or something, isn’t going to be just anything goes; it has a certain structure. But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge.

Read the whole thing!

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