How Does Occupy Wall Street Speak To A Broken Education System? A Manifesto

October 24, 2011, 10:48 am

Today’s lesson is: thanks to the absence of leadership from the political class; the failure to nurture an empowering dialogue between high school and college teachers that might have a broad impact on education policy; the domination of university Boards of Trustees by the 1%; and Wall Street’s destructive attempts to transform education into a tradable commodity, educators are increasingly drawn to the Occupy Wall Street movement.   There could not be more chaos in the education world than there is now. It is a world in which school reform = a takeover of public schools by profit seekers, or by philanthropies that funnel tax-free corporate profits into shaping the world that corporations want. Hence, contemporary activism creates an unprecedented opportunity for progressive change in education.  Let us observe the impact that Occupy Wall Street is having on national political culture and put some substance behind the belief, articulated by the American Studies Association Board on October 20 2011, that faculty and students are the 99%.

Current views on higher education are so contradictory they defy synthesis.  Recently, there has been stunning news from the research world that replacing teachers with machines and educational software may be a Very Bad Thing for all children, a story being reported chez Historiann. (Go here and here.) Such research  exists alongside manifestos by elite university intellectuals like Mark Taylor (can we create a useful new category called the 10% for elite tenured faculty who delink their own fate from the future they prescribe for everyone else?)  Taylor argues in the final third of Crisis on Campus:  A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf, 2010) that the only way to save higher ed from financial ruin and irrelevance is to abandon the failed world of bricks and mortar, liberating students to go online and educate themselves.   Today we have news from The Grey Lady that 1% private school parents in Manhattan are once again in rebellion over the homework regime that keeps their children in the 1%. In the very same edition we learn that the children of the 99%, apparently unliberated by the internet, require significant remedial work to make the transition to community college.  Simultaneously, over at the HuffPo, a friend of mine argues that despite the gaps between rich and poor that Occupy Wall Street highlights, the distinction between the 1% and the 99% dissolves once students hit a private, liberal arts campus. Since I don’t use this space to argue with colleagues, I just want to say politely that I could not be more sympathetic to the utopian stance behind this statement, or a history (now over) that could argue for the liberal arts college as a crucible for democracy.  I also could not disagree more that the liberal arts college is currently a democratic space. What Richard Sennett has called “the hidden injuries of class” — or, for that matter, the practical class differences attendant to accessing college — does not dissolve in private educational arenas. At college, cultural and financial capital matters even more than it does out there in the mean public sphere:  99% students must always sacrifice proportionately more to survive and thrive in the current educational system than do 1% students.

I can’t help but believe that if someone were actually in charge at the Department of Education (what does Arne Duncan actually do besides protect the President from critics in the education world? enquiring minds want to know) education might actually be a national priority. Absent any leadership but that which emerges from a 1% bending education to a neoliberal agenda, the conversation across political differences bears strong similarities to those Republican primary debates that are now weirder than watching people abase themselves on TV shows like The Biggest Loser. Numerous people are vying for leadership of the conversation about higher ed.  Each of them is speaking to a far narrower constituency than each appears to understand, universalizing what they know from their own tiny little fishbowl of ideas as if they were actually inventing the idea of education from scratch.

If you take all of the stories above and put them together, what you have got is something I would call the Education Carousel, ideas that go round and round to more or less the same music.  All you have to do is buy a ticket to get on.  These ideas include the following:

  • 1% kids should do less homework and be less stressed out by their economic and cultural privileges, as well as by the need to compete against ambitious students with Tiger Moms who are drawn from the 99%. 1% students are becoming more fragile every day because of the excessive demands placed on them to get into universities like Zenith. They need the persistent attention of caring adults to realize their full potential as human beings in a world where they will be in charge.
  • 99% kids need to do much more homework than they do, and be tested constantly to make sure they are doing it.  Since there are so very many of them (how did that happen?) we cannot possibly support an educational system that does not ask them, and their parents, to sacrifice constantly. The best way to help them realize their potential as workers students is to arm them with tools computers, not teachers; keep them in factories school for longer hours; and force them to value work education more than they do by asking them to pay for the privilege in inverse proportion to their family resources.
  • Given all of the above, 99% students should be encouraged to be autodidacts after high school and avoid a college education that will burden them financially.  This will prepare them for a world where no one will take responsibility for workers’ or citizens’ well-being the free and flexible neoliberal global economy. The interwebz also permits students to become free agents in an equally free marketplace of ideas where winners and losers ought not to be predetermined by President Obama fuddy-duddy 20th century educators.  The unprecedented creativity of today’s young, and their technological superiority over their elders, could conceivably free society from paying teachers at all except as specialists available for the needs of 1% students.
  • Traditional liberal arts campuses are important to nurturing a democratic future because of their almost unique capacity to create a level playing field where the 1% and the 99% dissolve into one another.  There, a few members of the 99% can be elevated into the 1%, demonstrating that we continue to live in a free and open society here in the US of A.

Dizzy yet?  And this is only part of what is out there.  I haven’t even mentioned the flip-flopping Diane Ravitch, the Thernstroms, No Child Left Behind, our national obsession with falling SAT scores, privatization, race and gender.

So without further ado, and following a stimulating roundtable session at the American Studies Association Meeting with four fine young scholars, I would like to propose that we in the blogosphere find a way to Occupy Education.  Our topics of conversation would include:

  • Acknowledging that what college and university presidents think does matter. However, each of them has an institutional vision to defend that might be in conflict with a truly democratic educational system that serves the 99%.  There has to be some clarity about the context within which the “big ideas” that we surely need about education occur, and what such ideas actually have to do with reversing the calamity that education has become.  Too often these ideas are simply reactive to the demands of the 1% that currently dominate Boards of Trustees and/or the vilification of the liberal arts by the political sphere.
  • Caring what teachers, at all levels, think about the work they do.  For example, one of the things I would tell those private schools for the 1% is that part of what they have produced are students who have competed so hard to get into 1% elite colleges that they often refuse to work once they arrive there.  I don’t know a single faculty member at an elite school, private  or public, who is assigning the same amount of reading or writing that they assigned ten years ago; or expecting that students will do the work they are assigned, much less hand it in on time.  I have never met a private school student who has any doubts that the name attached to his or her degree is more important than the work actually done in college.
  • Putting college and high school teachers in conversation about what the role of education is in a democracy. This is a precondition for reform and change.
  • Being honest about the financial resources that are going into testing; the horrible return on investment that testing has produced for education; the inadequacy of outcome-based assessment for understanding how and why people learn; the extent to which testing is driving the move to technology-based education; and the level to which the profit motive is driving all of the above are crucial to understanding how we have arrived at this point.  For those making education policy on behalf of the 1% , students are “consumers,” and are not burdened with test-driven curricula. Where the 99% live and work, however, students are “products” and must be tested continually. We can see this class distinction clearly because you don’t test consumers — you test products.
  • Understanding what virtual education and computer-driven pedagogy does and does not accomplish, and for whom. This is a conversation that must occur and has not — even as we build the future of education on technology and eagerly accept leadership and funding from corporate philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Being honest about the fact that most four-year public universities, and especially the flagships, are supported by private money; and that the move to privatize community colleges, high schools and grade schools is part of a larger neoliberal scheme that has trickled down from the top.
  • Being honest about the fact that it is only fancy bookkeeping that allows elite private colleges and universities to keep their non-profit status.  A critical look at universities with endowments in the millions and billions argues that 1% institutions are for-profit entities instituting the same labor practices as other for-profit entities, including capping payrolls, limiting access to benefits, cultivating casual labor and passing as many expenses on to workers as they can.  In fact, the increasingly agitated search for revenue in the form of corporate funding, naming privileges, large donations from alumni/ae in the corporate world for pet projects, and the hoarding of money in the form of endowments, has given corporate interests and university administrators almost complete control over what ideas do — and do not — succeed in the world of higher ed.  And you know what idea is not succeeding? The idea that 99% students at 1% institutions should have access to a good education that is de-linked from forms of labor other than studying. As Roy Perez put it in our ASA session, labor performed by a student might be invisible as labor.  It might be participation in athletics; it might be becoming one of the racialized bodies on the campus who produces a “diverse” college experience for white students; it might be joining a cheaply paid workforce that monitors and serves other students on behalf of Residential and Student Life; it might be recruiting other students to the college as cheaply paid staff for Admissions; or it might be the long-term corporate servitude that will become necessary to pay off all of those student loans.
  • Committing to a full-time, stable, and well-paid faculty workforce at all levels of education. This is essential to any claim a campus or school has to nurturing education-as-democracy. Education leaders who support education-as-democracy (as opposed to education-as-commodity) will speak out against attempts to disinvest in faculty by manufacturing an ongoing fiscal crisis for education; austerity policies that suppress salaries and expand the contingent faculty and staff labor force; and the simultaneous, and apparently paradoxical, “necessity” for investing in actual space (vast buildings devoted mostly to student recreation and selling the university as a luxury environment), an expanded managerial force and a virtual (teaching through technology) future.
  • Acknowledging, evaluating, and building on the ways in which the university has already become porous, and responds, to values and conditions that lie outside the tradition of liberal education and are most vital to the future of the 99%.

Most of all, we have to get off the Education Carousel and get to work Occupying Education.  Faculty, in particular, are becoming more like each other than not, regardless of where they work.  While some of us will age out under the old system of tenure and stratified privilege, increasingly we too must come to terms with the effects of the neoliberal education agenda (shrinking salaries, reduced and more expensive medical benefits, the destruction of entire fields of study to eliminate tenured positions, political attacks on unionized faculty and staff, higher workloads) in the here and now.

We, the educators of the 99%,  must recognize that we are the 99% too. Our only hope is to create a cross-class, cross-generational, cross-institutional social movement that speaks to the national stakes for higher education, the role of state and community in shaping that, and the future of a democracy that school will — or will not — have a role in shaping.   It won’t be easy.  But, as Priscilla Wald argued in her ASA presidential address,  we need to recognize that there has never been a time in the recent past when there has been more possibility of hope.  I leave you with a Tweet I just received from #OWS this morning:  ”First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

We are the 99%.


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