Monday, January 19, 2015

January 19 is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

"The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society."

--Martin Luther King, Jr., The Purpose of Education

But the function of most educational institutions today is not to give students experience thinking intensively or critically, but to instead (pretend) to focus on efficiency. Standardized tests are an efficient way of showing educational progress (which stands in for thought and knowledge). Public schools are turned into charter schools to eliminate inefficiencies like rules, regulations, school boards, accountability, etc. (and to eliminate job security/benefits/pay/retirement/support/etc. for teachers, to eliminate accountability and regulations that ensure students are getting what they need, to reduce support staff like counselors and nurses in schools, to reduce resources like extra-curricular activities or academic support for students…). People who want to be administrators in K-12 and higher ed. often now have graduate degrees in administration but may not have ever taught in a classroom, thereby streamlining the business model and reducing the role of educational philosophy, theory, research, and hands-on knowledge about effective teaching and learning. Colleges and universities are cutting programs (via the business model) based on “real-world” logics about profit and use-value; that is, programs that are of little “value” in the business world are seen as antiquated and irrelevant to students who simply need to be prepared to work and not to think, for example: foreign languages, philosophy, various humanities programs, and others. Also, of note, English departments seem to be shrinking non-real world programs like literature and focusing instead on writing programs—like composition, which is a money-maker for universities because all incoming students need first-year writing credit; and within composition programs there is more and more focus on technical and business writing, which again focus on skill vs. learning/thinking/engaging. Creative writing programs also seem to be growing, for probably various reasons, but especially at the graduate level, creative writing is a boon for colleges that attract lots of graduate student applicants who will then supply free labor in the teaching of undergraduate writing classes while working on their degrees. The over-supply of people coming out of graduate programs (MFA and PHD) then have to compete for a decreasing number of full-time higher ed. teaching positions; the teaching positions changing from tenure lines to part-time positions with little pay, no benefits, etc. etc.; this is supposed to be a model of efficiency though it only works because the inefficiencies are taken up by workers in departments who have to do the extra labor to perpetuate the system (the administrators or full time faculty and staff who do the ridiculous jobs of scheduling and hiring part-time people to fill all of the positions, and the messiness that all of that might entail, for example).

MLK, Jr. was also pro-labor/pro-union. He recognized the relationships between critical education (engaged thinking and intellectual activity beyond basic reading and writing literacy), respected and paid labor, and real-world “success.” Success, in these terms, means being able to act and participate as an equal member of society, and to have opportunities for education and professional work regardless of race, gender, or class status. Success does not actually mean making millions or billions of dollars each year at the expense of the basic rights of others. It does not mean giving corporate and business tax cuts so great that other institutions are threatened (public education, social welfare and resources for people struggling to find their way to better jobs) and so that business see historically record profits while middle-class wages remain stagnant and poverty increases.

President Obama recently talked about his plan to make community colleges free for students who want to work hard and succeed, which is in fact called, “Building American Skills Through Community Colleges.” This is an excellent idea in many ways; people working minimum wage jobs and who can’t afford college tuition would have access to programs that would help them get better jobs, which would pull more people out of the cycle of poverty. It falls short though in many ways including emphasizing the importance of education (not just skills), the value of four-year colleges (in terms of education) and the sky-rocketing costs that make them less accessible than ever to poor and even many middle-class families, and it lacks any mention of teachers who are already underpaid at community colleges and four-year institutions. If community colleges expand by opening up to more students, the colleges will most likely compensate by hiring more part-time faculty at lower pay-rates. Without investment in the colleges’ infrastructure to support this potential influx of new students, and specific investment in the teaching faculty of these colleges, this is a doomed and failed plan before it even begins.

This is a lack of critical thinking on Obama’s part. And a perpetuation of a thought-less system whose only goal is efficiency, when even that falls short; to be efficient means to get something done in order to more quickly arrive at an end goal. But in the case of the business-model of education, the end goal is never reached. We don’t really get more and better skilled workers, but while we are under the illusion that that is what’s happening, the bottom is falling out. We won’t realize how engaged, critical education is a key component to the development of technical skills, and the importance of these in relation to social and economic progress, until it is too late. Or is it already too late?

To find out more about this mini-essay project see the Introduction:The (Contingent)(Academic)(Teacher) in 2015

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