Sunday, July 13, 2008

"The Beauty of our Weapons." One of Our Chief Correspondents Waxes on Consumerism, Online Courses, and Leonard Cohen.

I clearly remember the first time a student suggested to me that he was my employer, that he “paid my salary” with his tuition. I responded by noting that in all likelihood his mommy and daddy were my employers, not him, but that even if he was paying his own tuition, he had the relationship wrong. “You may think of yourself as the CEO if it makes you feel better,” I said, “but I’m not one of your employees because you can’t fire me – at least not directly. Better to think of me as a consultant hired to tell you why your company is tanking.”

What’s the big problem that fills me with anxiety even during the summer? I’m pretty much in tune with the correspondent who wrote the “old saw” post, though my take is more abstract: American higher education reflects the values of American society and those values are largely consumerist. Which is to say, anti-intellectual. On the other hand, most professors in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences value intellectual effort, if not always for its own sake, for reasons that go beyond the consumerist model of education. We think ideas and knowledge are important, not just because one can turn a profit with them, but because one can use ideas and knowledge to think about the world and understand it. But the whole purpose of consumer culture is to anesthetize one to ideas.

Many American students have little interest in understanding the world if that understanding does not involve a larger plasma television in the den. And it goes without saying that you will have a room in your house – a den – to house the television set. Teachers might find it useful to think of their mission as merely helping students imagine that there are people in the world without TVs and rooms to put them in. That would be a good start, though by the time they arrive in the college classroom, most students have had the imagination beaten out of them by standardized tests and a K-12 system that not only encourages conformity, but insists upon it.

Different kinds of students are affected in different ways by the consumer culture they swim in like little tiny fish. The sons and daughters of the ruling class at Harvard and Yale are perhaps more sophisticated socially and they are affected by consumerism in a way different from various “struggling” and “disadvantaged” constituencies; both groups are equally drunk on the consumerist hooch. In the 1960s we called this “false consciousness,” though I think that term is currently out of fashion. This is pretty clearly a problem with American society, not just a random student attitude, and consequently there is not a whole lot we can do about the student as consumer except practice a little consumer education.

The problem is exacerbated by online courses, but only by degree. (This is on my mind because I’m teaching one this summer.) Essentially, all college courses are now “online” in the sense that students expect the same sort of experience from one consumer encounter as from another. Students are so comfortable purchasing consumer goods online that the material in such courses seems like just one more download from iTunes or a book from Amazon. (Students still do read books, don’t they?) Worse, students often don’t even see course materials and faculty interaction as a purchase, but as just another bit of entertainment from You Tube or the like. There is a weird paradox here is that students are dedicated, even frantic, consumers of “education,” but they are not very good consumers. They think they know what they want, but they have been duped by a lifetime of advertising. It’s hard, given the quantity of bullshit they produce, to think of them as victims, but that’s what most of them are.

Look, I have it easy. I’m a full prof with a reasonable teaching load. I know that the majority of my colleagues out there labor under far less favorable conditions than I do. I also work in a department in which we have no part-time faculty despite the fact that we are responsible for the first-year writing program. (We do have non-tenure track faculty, but they are full-time, with benefits.) I know that contingent faculty are, more directly, their students’ employees under the prevailing system of academic labor. So I work in Valhalla whereas most people reading this work in one of the circles of hell, or at least in purgatory. The descriptions of that inferno drove our late lamented moderator Craig from the RYS compound. I wish him well as he recovers his balance.

The college classroom is, though, one of the last free spaces available. True, it is under attack from every direction, but when we close the door we can create a charged space because there is the potential for real conversation. We need to use it to foster imagination and critical thought. Most students will blank out, a few might take their vague dissatisfaction with their world and apply it to the work at hand, and a precious few will catch the spark and carry it on. The question is: What sort of a relationship can a college teacher have with a room filled with (not very good) consumers? The first thing to note, I think, is that a teacher must always be alert to the lone student groping past the limits of consumerism, however weakly. That student is our best hope. The other thing that we can do as college teachers – as intellectuals – is to critique our own consumerism and bring the results of that critique into the classroom. We need to rigorously put students on the spot and hammer at them to think for themselves.

I didn’t mean to adopt such a hortatory tone. Sorry. Perhaps we can roll the final credits to this little sermon over a Leonard Cohen song containing the lovely phrase “the beauty of our weapons.” Our weapons are beautiful and we must use them even in a lost cause:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
I'm guided by a signal in the heavens
I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin
I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I'd really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those