Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Chapter 4 of Class Dismissed: Left psychology, right psychology, and reformer psychology

Marsh proposes in the last few pages of Chapter 4 that a nearly-exclusive focus on education as the answer to poverty and inequality arises largely because Americans want to believe that we have or can have a system where people get what they deserve.  Teaching a man to fish satisfies the liberal impulse to do something to help people, but also satisfies the conservative impulse to make the poor responsible for themselves.  (I hasten to add that that conservative impulse to favor personal responsibility is certainly not a bad one, if acted on in concert with other considerations as part of a balanced approach.)

What I find most illuminating about this simple and reasonable framing is that it sheds light on one of the stranger aspects of academic culture:  When I go to a presentation on educational reforms and improvements, the presenters usually bear fundamentally conservative tokens of establishment figures (funding, titles, the imprimatur of elite organization) yet they speak a language of social justice, equity, benevolence, transformation, and "shaking things up." These are not stereotypical lefty fringe figures lecturing in sandals or whatever; they would be completely inoffensive in the eyes of a conservative donor. Analyzed against the ruler of the political left-right axis, they exemplify the bipartisan nature of the consensus that Marsh identifies.  Left and right both agree that we can and should fix all social problems via educational reforms, so you get the weird situation of a STEM education reformer talking about social justice and equity and diversity but also saying that we need more Americans and fewer foreigners in STEM for the sake of our national defense.

I always marvel at the weird situation of sitting in a presentation by a person with countless accolades from stodgy professional organizations and a title like "Associate Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives" (or even, at one conference, "College President") speaking animatedly about completely overhauling the entire academic landscape because everything that we've ever done needs to be swept away.  I am admittedly a boring person who was born seven years after the end of the sixties, and I have attended precious few protests, but everything I've heard about shaking up establishments, rejecting the old ways, and agitating for equity tells me that you shouldn't go looking for bold, anti-establishment thinking in a hotel conference space with frigid air conditioning*, especially if the alleged reformer is wearing a suit and commanding a speaking fee.

Despite that, a great many academics come out of these events speaking in a language that at time comes close to that of a religious convert.  Many academics profess no religious faith but nonetheless offer narratives that sound tantalizingly close to conversion experiences or born-again faith when discussing their experiences with pedagogical reform efforts.  The whole thing is bizarre to me, and not just because I'm a product of Catholic grade school and a practicing** Catholic to this day, i.e. a person for whom born-again narratives are alien.  Even if I were irreligious, I think I would be suspicious that these establishment-seeming figures will actually make the world a more equitable place.

I still don't know why so many college professors eat those presentations up like they're pita chips with Trader Joe's humus***, but at least I have some context for understanding why these workshop presenters are so bizarre:  They are embodying the left-right consensus nature of educational reform, hence you get the equity and justice language of the left from somebody bearing markers that could open the doors of the most conservative establishments.  Everyone else in the room might be eating it up, but I feel like I'm staring at a bizarre alien monster that just stepped out of a flying saucer.

*Seriously, why are conference rooms and event spaces always air-conditioned to the point that there's at least one condensed matter physicist doing a superconductivity experiment in the corner?
**Well, as practicing as a typical American Catholic, which is to say that I'm not batting 1.000 on mass attendance.
***The snack food of choice for academics everywhere.

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