Buying Off Academia


Papers show Koch money behind economic study (The Rachel Maddow Show)

My teaching styles and philosophies can be traced back to a number of intellectual leaders, including the American educator and philosopher John Dewey. His treatise Experience and Education is probably his most famous work; in it he proposes the radical idea (sadly, almost as radical now as it was seventy-five years ago) that instead of treating students like a bunch of empty vessels we should unthinkingly pour “knowledge” into, we teachers should treat our students like actual human beings, according them the same dignity and respect that we would like to receive ourselves. (Even if you don’t have much interest in education, Experience and Education is worth a read, particularly because it’s short enough to be easily completed in an afternoon.) His ideas spawned a number of reforms in schools across America, although some were not as successful as others, and Dewey himself was critical about many of those reforms. Still, Dewey did a lot of good, and his ideas were reformed by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire into the teaching pedagogy I use today to turn my classrooms into transformative spaces.

In 1957, a few years after Dewey’s death, American education began its slow, painful trek down a road of regression and repression. The occasion was the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite we humans put up in orbit. The Soviet Union had beat us to one key milestone of the space race, and a number of politicians were quick to take up arms and declare that this was emblematic of the “failures” of the American educational system.  Thus began a steady progression of uninformed political and corporate figureheads into the world of academia, making drastic changes not just to what got taught in schools, but how it was taught, despite the fact that they usually didn’t have, and didn’t even attempt to seek, knowledge about how young minds most easily learn things. Soon enough, classrooms were back to places where teachers were expected to just unthinkingly cram knowledge into students’ heads, and young people were expected to receive that knowledge like so much cattle.

Just in my lifetime, the rate of degradation of our educational system has accelerated beyond belief. In my school days they gutted arts programmes because “there’s no money in the arts” (tell that to J.K. Rowling) and started making sports “pay to play,” effectively cutting off many students who come from poor families from one possible way of getting scholarships to go to college and better themselves. Later they began cutting physical education entirely, and disciplinary reforms took many of the stupid, but harmless, things that teenagers do out of schools’ hands and into the hands of the police, setting up a huge school-to-prison pipeline where too many young Americans get the idea, before they’ve even had the chance to develop a real sense of self, that no one is ever going to trust them, and that they’re just one misstep — even an accidental one — away from being incarcerated with murderers and rapists.

As much as I hope to soon be able to make a living off of my writing alone, I still have a deep love for teaching. I knew it from the moment I taught my first safer sex class in 2002, and it’s only grown as I’ve taught English classes since 2005. Part of the difficulty I’ve faced this past year and a half has been doing all I can to promote The Prostitutes of Lake Wobegon, to create an audience for the book and everything I write in the future, while still giving enough time to develop my teaching career, and to keep my options open there in case the writing thing just doesn’t work out for me. Still, every time I start a new class and find out that, for far too many of my students, I am the first adult in their lives who actually listens to and cares about what they have to say (including even their parents), it’s hard not to do everything I can for them. I had far too many bad teachers growing up, and not only have my students faced their own share of bad teachers, but they’ve also had to deal with good teachers who were so constrained by the idiotic rules that politicians and corporations placed on their jobs that they came off as bad teachers.

In higher education we’re somewhat isolated from the curriculum constraints that plague our elementary and high schools, even though we’re still affected by them because we have to deal with so many students who have suffered through this system. They come to college expecting they’ve just got more years of memorizing facts and math formulas ahead of them, and often lack even the most basic critical thinking skills. (In a world where technologies like Apple’s Siri and Google Now put encyclopedias’ worth of information just one voice command away, even for the illiterate, we really need to be moving away from memorization-based models of learning and more towards helping young minds process that information to create new knowledge.) Students coming to college straight out of high school have dealt with over a decade’s worth of feeling like education is something that is done to them, not a process that they’re supposed to take part in, so they carry that idea through their college careers, even when they’re paying for their education themselves.

This isn’t to say that higher education hasn’t taken its lumps, and not just ideologically. Academia was not immune to the new corporate ruthlessness that began in the 1990s and persists to this day, because many corporate figureheads get appointed to the boards of directors of colleges and universities. Just as human resources departments fell in love with the logic of “we can fire half our workers at random out of nowhere, then the other half will be so scared that they’ll work twice as hard and we can pocket the savings for ourselves,” the people in charge of collegiate coffers began decimating the ranks of tenured faculty, replacing retiring tenured instructors with adjuncts who only get paid a fraction of what a tenured instructor gets (and don’t get any benefits since they don’t work full-time). Not only are we losing the important scholarship that full-time, tenured instructors produce, but college students aren’t getting the attention from their instructors that they might otherwise get, because some of those students make more in their part-time jobs than their instructors do. Part of the reason I haven’t given much consideration to getting my Ph.D. is the fact that there just aren’t that many tenure-track jobs left in English any longer, and there will likely be even fewer in five years, the soonest I’d be able to finish a Ph.D. By that point, I’m honestly expecting that some colleges won’t even hire adjuncts for some courses, but will instead have someone in East Asia webcam into the classroom to “teach” it for three dollars an hour. Anything to save a buck.

I was just starting high school when Dinesh D’Souza fired the first big volley against political correctness in higher education with his book Illiberal Education. Conservative attacks against colleges and universities have come in waves since then, and we’re probably due for another one here soon. Too often these attacks come down to conservatives being opposed to the challenging of any ideas they hold sacrosanct, from the infallibility of capitalism to the messianic qualities of Ronald Reagan, and demanding that professors not challenge these ideas to any degree. This notion is antithetical to the entire concept of education, because if you do not challenge the dominant ideas in any area of knowledge — whether those ideas are old or new, liberal or conservative — then you teach, by your silence, that those things cannot be changed, and when you teach that things cannot be changed then you create a stagnant population that is too easily led by the dominant business and political classes. Not surprisingly, these are the exact same classes who are working so hard right now to influence American education at all levels, to make sure that the young people of today, and future generations, don’t even develop the capabilities to understand how these forces work, let alone the tools for challenging them.

Now one of the conservative financiers of the Tea Party movement has essentially bought the economics department of a major public school. Public is the key word there, because while the conservative movement has privately financed a number of institutes of alleged higher education — notably religious-based places like Regent University and Bob Jones University (good ol’ BJU) — this is, as far as I can tell, the first time they’ve managed to tip the scales at a university that’s supposed to be funded by taxpayer dollars. It didn’t take long for this new economics department to produce a report saying that Wisconsin, one of those states that got jerked far to the right by far-right jerks after the 2010 elections, is becoming a wonderful place to do business in, even as nearly every other economic report on state business reports the exact opposite. (This isn’t even getting into the social legislation Wisconsin Republicans are pushing through, including, most recently, a proposal to make single parenthood tantamount to child abuse. Between that and the Michigan “rape insurance” legislation that got passed into law recently, it’s like midwestern Republican are engaged in a competition to see who can be the biggest assholes to their constituents.)

Anyone who does just a modicum of digging into the Florida State University report, especially when put up against all the contradictory reports, will realize what’s going on. Most people don’t have that time, though, and Wisconsin Republicans know that, so as they all run for re-election this coming year they’ll be able to bombard the airwaves with “Florida State study says Wisconsin is a great place to do business” commercials, and too many people who lack either the time or the skills (or both) to check that claim for themselves will swallow that line hook, line and sinker. If that doesn’t work for them, well, they can always pass new laws to stop all those damn poor people and minorities from voting. That’s nearly as big of a Republican pastime these days as Obamacare-bashing.

It’s bad enough that corporate interests, and the politicians in their back pockets, have already overhauled our educational system so much that we’re basically one step away from high school students signing up for “Diet Pepsi American History Sponsored by Walmart” classes this coming semester. If they get their filthy hands any further into colleges and universities, the entire American educational system may soon lose all purpose and meaning. If conservatives think they can pull stunts like this without us college instructors fighting back, they’d better think again. We’re not for sale.

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