Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Response to Sherman Dorn

Note--since we don't have much up yet, I'm going to post this instead of comment.
Sherman Dorn said...

Aaron writes, Poor and working-class people are much less interested in expressing their individuality amidst collective action. This is a markedly different world from the one I live in, where I read the late Octavia Butler, where my undergraduate advisor urged my classmates and me to take the intellectual work of ordinary Americans seriously as intellectual history, and where Mike Rose has made his life's work convincing educators to open up children from working-class backgrounds to the life of the mind. It is also a bit of a figment to suppose that the maintenance of privilege is an individual thing. It is collective, if hidden by the social networks that pass social capital so easily—the better schools, how to handle principals, and so forth.

In many ways, my difference with Aaron is one of emphasis. I don't deny the existence of collective strategies, but I think it's wrong to assume that such strategies are incompatible with individuality. One of the hallmarks of responses to high-stakes testing is the use of test-prep to further bifurcate education: My strong impression is that schools with high poverty tend to focus on decontextualised, deskilled test-prep as the response to high-stakes testing, while schools with higher proportions of privileged kids do their best to maintain some individuality. The suppression of creativity and individuality these days doesn't strike me as wise or likely to reduce the real advantages of the already privileged. Nor does recognition of the collective always advance wisdom. If collective strategies means taking Princeton Review courses together, count me out!

Of course, I agree with Sherman. Standardization through crappy tests is a horrible problem. And I don't mean to diminish the tragedy of our high-poverty schools. But, as we know, part of the problem of these schools is that they are run almost entirely by middle-class people who have little or no understanding or respect for the culture of those they are working with. (At some other point I want to talk about the paradox of professionalism that ensures highly "qualified" teachers and at the same time systematically excludes teachers who retain core aspects of local marginalized communities).

More generally, I think your response is an indicator of how limited our (not yours in particular) collective conceptions of individuality and collectivity are in education. There are other quite sophisticated ways to conceptualize joint action beyond Dewey's, with its focus on enhancing the distinctiveness of individuals through participation. And I am not critiquing our focus on enhancing the expressiveness and critical capacity of individuals. I actually write and publish short stories in my non-academic life, and used to teach creative writing. But I think this is not enough. And there are quite subtle and rich forms of individuality resident in cultures beyond our upper-middle-class one that we generally don't think about--not just the Princeton Review approach. A discussion of some aspects of this can be found in Patricia Hill Collin's book _Black Feminist Thought_.


James Horn said...

Thanks, A. G., for the getting it going here. Let me make a couple of points, first in response to your rhetorical question: "Who then can blame many teachers for wanting only to know what to teach and for their students only what to master for a grade?"

If I thought for a moment that the current testing hysteria that has gripped America like, um, a New England village on a late 17th Century afternoon?, then I would cash in my TIAA-CREF account and return to my subaltern roots where I might help to formulate the next revolution. But I don't believe it, and I think educational history is on my side on this one. That is not to minimize the current battle for the survival of public education--that war is ever so real and ever so dangerous.

So in response to the question about who can blame whom, I continually blame anyone in education, teacher or prospective teacher, who has the audacity to admit that she might acquiesce to the re-emergence of traditional chain gang schools that Dewey railed about early in the last century.

I think that Dewey may be read as a middle-class collectivist, sure, but I always read him as, indeed, the instrumentalist, who knew that individual teachers are, indeed, instruments in creating the type of participatory democracy that acknowledges individuals no less than it acknowledges the moving force of the group. To focus on one or the other, for Dewey, was to lapse into the counterproductive either-or thinking that we now must contend with in the highest seats of political power.

So I say to teachers that real teaching requires Hem's grace under pressure, true caring, and not just a little bit of subversion in this day, if one is practice the art and science of teaching in an ethical manner.

The other point I want to raise has to do with Posner, who doesn't understand what Dewey was trying to do any more than did Walter Lippman in the 1920s. Posner would, indeed, like to turn the universities over to the corporations as r & d hothouses, an idea that has a great deal appeal to many others who are equally blaise about the building a future for American democracy.

In this age where even the book is struggling for survival, I would argue for less change in the university than I would for more change. If I were guessing, it may be left to the university to keep civilization alive, as it has done before during some other of the darker moments in our collective and individual histories.

A. G. Rud said...

Jim, how can we possibly think or pine for a static or conservative university, in the face of the sea changes in our society? I know, I know, I don't think we are disagreeing.

I just finished reading the first chapter of Slaughter and Leslie's 1997 JHUP book, _Academic Capitalism_, and I am chastened to think that what they deem such has been underway for many years.

Here's a blip, from page 9: "By using *academic capitalism* as our central concept, we define the reality of the nascent environment of public research universities, an environment full of contradictions, in which faculty and professional staff expend their human capital stocks increasingly in competitive situations. In these situations, university employees are employed simultaneously by the public sector and are increasingly autonomous from it. They are academics who act as capitalists from within the public sector; they are state-subsidized entrepreneurs."

And this was 1997. As I tell my class in higher ed in film and fiction, the entrepreneurial university is so entrenched now that we don't notice it, at least not at Purdue. It is almost natural to expect all faculty, even those in liberal arts, to be constantly searching for outside funding. Lionel Gift, the roving professor of Jane Smiley's satiric land grant novel, Moo, seems ho hum these days.