Monday, April 8, 2013

Education or Indoctrination?

"Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day-shift."   - Bob Dylan 

A 2011 article by the CBS financial report, “Money Watch” compiled a list of the top-25 college majors with the highest unemployment rates. Though rather predictable, the list warrants some consideration in this era of “rethinking” education.

Clinical psychology ranked the highest, with an unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent, followed by “Miscellaneous fine arts” at 16.2 percent. The list can basically be summarized as such: Don’t major in anything related to psychology, the humanities or fine-arts.

A similar article by Terence Loose on Yahoo! enumerates the “Degrees employers hate and love.”

Again, applicants with B.A.s in philosophy, architecture and fine arts will likely be passed over for those with degrees in engineering, computer science, communications and anything related to health care. Of the “impracticality” of a philosophy degree, Loose patronizingly lists some of the hypothetical questions the field encourages students to ask: “What is consciousness? Why should we be ethical? Why can’t I find a job? Oh sorry, that last one is not usually asked in school…”

College students must do their best to avoid these “dead-end degrees” another Yahoo! article—also by Loose—states. “[I]f you’re thinking of going back to school but are unsure about what to study,” he writes, “read on for some degrees that are a dark alley to nowhere and a few more that look like a well-lighted expressway to the career world.” Given his rank anti-intellectualism toward “dead end” (i.e. non-lucrative) humanities studies, I would counter it is Loose who is stuck in the Dark Ages—never mind a “dark alley.”

Look, I am not naïve. I understand the importance of securing employment after graduating—particularly given the unfathomable loads of college debt young graduates are now incurring. The weak economy only makes the imperative to pursue a “practical” major all the more urgent. Indeed, this likely accounts for the increased popularity of trade-oriented community colleges in recent years.

But educational self-help lists such as these raise a troubling question about what society considers the purpose of a college education.

Based on these lists—which are ubiquitous on the Internet and business publications—the sole aim of higher education is to make students proficient in a marketable set of skills so they can obtain a high-paying job. Period. Traditional educational ideals like expanding one’s base of knowledge, learning to think critically, becoming civically and politically engaged—these skills will not make anyone rich. Therefore, this logic goes, they are a waste of time.

Colleges, in other words, have become glorified job-training mills. And, rather than fighting this market-oriented shift and standing up for education’s higher ideals, professors, deans and college administrators have sheepishly accepted this utilitarian, college-as-job-placement attitude. Educators who dare to object—professors like Noam Chomsky, Elizabeth Warren and the late Howard Zinn—are branded “political,” and risk being denied tenure. Those already tenured simply become pariahs within their own profession, summarily dismissed because they do not work exclusively in academic “theory.”

University presidents—most of whom come from the financial sector—typically have no firsthand experience in education. They are essentially glorified CEOs for the college. Their job is to market and “brand” the school, no differently than Ford does its trucks. This business mindset leads to college administrators increasingly viewing students as “customers” who are merely purchasing a degree. And nakedly for-profit colleges—like Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix—now routinely appear on the NASDAQ and New York Stock Exchange.
Consider this slick, expensive looking advertisement for the University of Maine:

As Communications professor Neil Postman noted: “At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living.”

As a Socratic scholar, Postman understood the distinction between teaching a skill and teaching one how to think independently. He realized that education is inherently political—even, at times, subversive. Socrates, himself, called education, “the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

I had the fortune of attending Colby-Sawyer College in New London, NH where I received my B.A. in Communication and Writing. My liberal-arts courses offered a mix of practical, hands-on learning in the video lab, radio station and college newspaper, along with robust theoretical discussions, with a strong emphasis on critical thinking. My professors not only taught me how to write a news story, but prompted me to contemplate the role of a journalist in a democratic society. Or to ponder the obligation a filmmaker has to use his craft for social good.
In other words, we asked not only the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when,” but also the “how,” and “why.”

My courses and professors at Colby-Sawyer left a lasting impression on me. They awoke within me a deep urge to constantly question, challenge and rebel. They changed my life. And that, I believe, should be the ultimate goal of higher education—to enrich students with the life-altering gift of knowledge.

Most graduates of my major went into marketing or public relations. A few of them landed six-figure jobs at Wall Street. And an alarming number have military husbands deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq.
My former classmates seem to have few, if any, moral qualms about what they do. The fact that they make their living perpetuating the consumer culture industry, making corporations rich or selling fraudulent refinance loans to low-income homeowners, perfectly aware they cannot afford them, does not bother them one bit. For these “systems managers” as writer Chris Hedges calls them, the ends—and the massive paychecks—justify the means. These young people are what Hedges calls, “products of a moral void.”

“It is better to be at odds with the whole world,” Socrates said, “than, being one, to be at odds with myself.”

The irony, of course, is there are no jobs out there. Contrary to what you may have heard on television news, the Great Recession is not over. Market-oriented colleges are basically training students for jobs that do not exist.
Case in point, The Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald reported yesterday (04/07/13) that many young people have simply given up looking for work entirely. Indeed, many of my friends—all college graduates—are on food-stamps. Those that do work have part-time, menial jobs that pay little more than minimum wage and do not utilize their college education at all.

Given the economic reality, what better time to cast off the practical vocational course of study and truly follow your intellectual, spiritual or artistic passion. If you are going to remain poor, you may as well be poor doing something you love, right?

“As a teacher, I am not interested in just reproducing class after class of graduates who will get out, become successful, and take their obedient places in the slots that society has prepared for them,” Howard Zinn once said. “What we must do—whether we teach, or write, or make films—is educate a new generation to do this very modest thing: change the world.”
Guerrilla Press is a radical, non-commercial blog. Look for a new post every week (usually on Monday; sometimes Sunday night). If you like what you read here, feel free to share it with friends. Adam Marletta is the Secretary and former chairman of the Portland Green Independent Party. He is a freelance reporter for The Weekly Sentinel in Kennebunk, Maine.


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